By Sinful [
Warrior, Bard and Healer
For Disclaimers: See Part One.
I promised you once ... forever,
And that came from my very soul.
But how can I keep my promise,
If you were the first to go.
I would move a mountain,
I would even drain the sea.
For one last chance to tell you.
You mean the world to me.
"Mom, are you sure you want to do this?" Xena said as she held her mother's arm and helped her out of the healer's hut.
"Yes Xena, I've lived through worse ... besides I want to see what, if anything, is left of my inn." Xena knew there was going to be no stopping her, stubbornness definitely ran in her family. The tall warrior placed a strong arm around her mother's waist. Cyrene tried not to notice she was helping her limping daughter more than Xena was helping her.
It had been two long days in the healing hut for both of them. Normally, the warrior would have argued about staying in bed, but her heart wasn't in it. She and her mother had talked a lot over the last few days, about things they had never discussed before. Some of it had been quite hard on Xena's heart and she knew she hadn't fooled her own mother. But it didn't seem to matter, without her light, all she wanted to do was crawl away into the darkness.
She had spent agonizing hours over a piece of parchment, trying to explain to Gabrielle's family who the woman they thought was their daughter really was. Unable to explain the whole story, she had kept her words to a minimum. In all reality, she no longer cared how they felt, but she knew Lila and Hecuba deserved to know. Every time she looked at the words and saw Gabrielle's name written, her desire was just to get up and leave.
Cyrene watched the mental struggle as long as she could, then finally offered to write the note herself. Xena didn't hesitate and handed the parchment and the ink to her mother, and then turned over in her bed.
Cyrene was all too aware every time she mentioned Gabrielle's name, her daughter would grow silent and solemn. Xena didn't want to discuss the emptiness she felt in her life, or the void she felt in her soul.
Janios had OK'd Cyrene to leave but when Xena had tried to get off her own bed, the healer warned the warrior against it.
"There is still infection in that wound. You need to rest it." Xena had said nothing as she glared at Janios. Placing both feet on the floor, Xena stood over the small healer and had hobbled to the door. She could feel the burning heat in her thigh, but the ache in her heart had made her restless. She knew she couldn't stand to be in bed one more moment.
Cyrene didn't even bother to argue with her daughter. She knew once the warrior had made up her mind on something, nothing was going to stop her. The two walked slowly away from the healer's hut.
Mother and daughter moved slowly through the entrance of town. A hushed silence fell over the marketplace as the remorseful villagers looked away in guilt. Cyrene didn't seem to notice the lack of greetings, her mind was on her tavern ... and her daughter.
It may have been two days since the fire, but the air was still filled with particles of ashes, accented with the heavy smell of smoke. Cyrene looked up from the corner of her eye to the tight muscles in her daughter's features. She knew without asking the pain was not from her leg, but from deep within.
Xena had been at her mother's side until Janios had said it was ok for them to be up. Cyrene was worried about Xena, not the cuts and bruises littering her body, nor the infection she was still battling in her leg. No, it had been the lack of life in her normally vibrant eyes. Only the people who knew the warrior princess well enough could read the mirrors into her daughter's darkened soul. To a stranger, Xena never showed emotion, but if you knew her, you could read a lot in her eyes. Cyrene didn't like the loss and emptiness she saw. Her heart was breaking for her daughter. She had tried to get her to speak, but her words had been very limited since the fire. No one had to tell Cyrene the reason, she was well aware of the why.
Cyrene felt Xena's muscles tense and the old woman looked up. She couldn't silence the small moan of regret coming from deep within. Her home and tavern were all but destroyed, a mountain of charred debris was all that was left. Large blackened timbers poked out to the sky like fingers of a dying hand. Two tall chimneys rose above remains the river rock stained with soot and ash.
Cyrene's eyes misted as she scanned the rubble where her bar had once been. With the optimism of age, she smiled through her tears at the skeletal remains the inn. The backside of it had survived the flames, and that gave her something to hold on too. Her tavern may be gone, but she knew she could salvage something from the rooms that had survived. She pulled away from her daughter's helping hand and then began to pick her way through the remains.
Friends and neighbors could only watch with broken hearts as Cyrene mourned the lost of her home. Her small figure wobbled as she made her way through the rubble.
"Xena, look!" Cyrene held up a mug that had survived the blaze. Xena smiled to her mother, as she limped her way around to the backside of the ruins. The warrior began lifting and tossing burnt lumber to the side, searching for any buried treasures. Her eyes fell to her unbandaged hands as she felt another wave of despair tear at her heart.
Xena pushed her mind back to the task at hand. Moments later she lifted up the remains of a chair.
"Hey Mom!" Cyrene's smudged face broke into a smile.
"If we keep looking, do you think we might find the bar?"
"I don't think so Mom."
It didn't take long for the villagers to join in the search. Soon everyone was looking for anything that could be salvaged. Thoas, the blacksmith, brought over some boxes that began to fill with odds and ends. Mugs, plates, some cooking utensils. It didn't matter what it was, every little piece was something, and every helping hand was appreciated. Cyrene was a trooper, and soon she had a smile on her face as friends and neighbors began to talk about helping her rebuild. By the afternoon, it had turned into a village work party. People were bringing food and supplies to help the workers and anything they thought Cyrene might need. When everyone stopped for the noon meal, Cyrene looked through the crowd of munching villagers for her daughter.
"What is it Cyrene?" Nemi asked. The gentlewoman had seen the concern on the mother's face.
"I don't see Xena anywhere."
"The last time I saw her, she was cleaning out one of the rooms in the inn." Cyrene thanked her neighbor and went looking for her absent daughter.
At first, she didn't see her amongst the remains. But when she came around the backside of the inn, she saw the tall body of her daughter standing knee deep in the rubble that had once been her bedroom. Cyrene began to move towards her, watching the still form of her daughter as she carefully made her way to her side.
"Xena?" Cyrene questioned gently, but her daughter showed no signs of hearing her. As she got closer, she could see Xena had her eyes closed and was holding something to her chest. Cyrene scrambled over the ruins and placed a gentle hand onto Xena's arm.
"Honey ... What is it?"
The warrior opened her red eyes to her mother and then looked down at what she was holding.
Cyrene followed her daughter's eyes to the leather bag she held tight to her chest.
"They're Gabrielle's scrolls." Xena choked out the pain-filled words, ignoring the tears falling down her soot-smudged face. Cyrene looked closely at the leather bag.
"Xena ... There's not a mark on them."
"I know." She closed her eyes and swallowed down the sob threatening to bring the sullen warrior her to her knees. Cyrene put her arms around the trembling waist of her daughter. It had been twice in one week that she had done that, but she still couldn't get used to the idea of her strong child sobbing in her arms.
Cyrene looked around the burnt remains of the bedroom. Hunks of charred wood and ash laid everywhere. Xena's childhood bed was reduced to four black posts barely being supported upright. She looked over to the corner where she knew she had placed her daughter's belongings. As if protected by the hand of the Gods, part of the wall remained ... completely untouched by the uncaring fingers of the fire. Cyrene released her embrace and reached for a chair sitting beside Xena's saddlebags.
"Sit down ... Come on Xena, if you fall over I can't pack you anymore." The motherly command was reluctantly followed and Xena disintegrated into the chair.
Cyrene soothed her for a while, rubbing her back until the sobs subsided. Xena remained silent as her mother shooed away the concerned villagers. Not knowing, but understanding, the friends and neighbors gave the two women as much privacy as they could in the burnt out shell of the room.
The older woman looked up with a grateful smile when Nemi brought her over a stool. The caring friend nodded in silence and left the mother and daughter alone.
Cyrene leaned forward on her stool and lifted her daughter's chin. She knew how much Xena cared for Gabrielle and she knew there wasn't anything she could do that would ease her daughter's suffering. In a motherly gesture, she reached to wipe away some of Xena's tears, but the warrior pulled her face out of her mother's hand. Cyrene said nothing as Xena's head dropped back to her chest. She rubbed her daughter's back and neck, her hand feathering the long, raven black hair. Xena was no longer crying, but she had refused to lift her head.
"Honey ... talk to me. You can't keep tearing yourself apart like this." The warrior remained silent, so Cyrene dug a little deeper into her daughter's soul.
"She wouldn't like what you are doing to yourself?" Cyrene felt Xena's body lurch and she knew she had struck the nerve.
"Xena ... Gabrielle wouldn't want you to remember her like this." An agonizing sob broke from the warrior and she struggled to stand. Xena looked down at her mother, her tormented features knotted in misery. Cyrene could only watch as her daughter opened and then closed her mouth. In a desperate need to escape the pain, Xena turned and hobbled away.
Cyrene could feel her heart darken, as she watched her tortured daughter limp her way out of the village.
Without knowing where she was going, Xena stumbled her way to the cliffs of Amphipolis. Her blue eyes looked out into the endless waters, searching for something she knew no longer existed. The crash of the surf on the rocks far below tugged at the desire in her soul. She looked down at the leather bag still held tightly in her grasp. Part of her wanted to fling the painful memories into the sea, but as her arm came back, she stopped. She couldn't do it. She couldn't bring herself to destroy her last link to Gabrielle. Xena released her hold on the leather bag, dropping the scrolls to the ground at her feet.
Her insides tossed and rolled like the angry seas as Xena looked down at her hands. The cry of anguish broke forth from her aching chest and the pain of despair drove her to her knees. She couldn't give up and she couldn't let go, Gabrielle had been too much a part of her life, too much a part of her soul. The warrior closed her fingers over her unscarred palms and wailed out the name of the woman she had loved ... and lost.
With the help of the villagers, Cyrene now had the use of two rooms in what was left of her inn. She had left a lantern burning brightly illuminating the path through the rubble. She kept her eyes open hoping to spot her returning child. There was nothing else she could do until Xena made the decision on where her life would go from here.
Cyrene and half the valley had heard the warrior cry out her friend's name. She had dropped what she was doing and was going to go and comfort her daughter, but Janios stopped her.
"Cyrene, she has to do it on her own. She has to want to carry on. Xena needs to decide for herself if her life is worth living. If you go to her now, it may only be guilt of leaving you that keeps her going. And we both know that will eventually destroy her."
Cyrene looked a Janios, as much as she didn't want to agree she knew the old healer was right. She kept herself busy most of the afternoon, trying to make a home out of the few remaining rooms. But it didn't stop her eyes from searching the cliffs over looking the sea, her heart aching for her daughter's pain.
The afternoon passed into evening, the sun long gone from the skies. Cyrene had sent all of her friends home, but only after assuring them she would be ok. Now alone in the eerie silent remains of her home, the nervous mother nibbled on a piece of bread. Her eyes scanned the darkness for any sign of her distraught daughter.
Cyrene watched the lights in the homes of Amphipolis go out one by one as the villagers went to bed, much to her concern there was still no sign of Xena. She paced the wooden floor in front of the river rock fireplace. Her confidence in her daughter's inner strength was beginning to waiver. This afternoon she had been certain Xena would never take her own life, but as the moon lifted higher into the night sky, she wasn't so sure. Unable to wait any longer she snatched up a shawl to throw around her shoulders and headed for the door. She had to go and find her lost child, she had to know Xena was all right. Cyrene reached for another lantern to take with her when she saw a limping form emerge from the shadows. There was no mistaking who had finally returned home. With a sigh of relief, she quickly replaced the shawl on her bed, sat down, and waited.
Xena said nothing as she hobbled across the room and tucked the leather bag containing Gabrielle's scrolls into her saddlebag. She turned and looked at her mother but neither of them said a word. She pulled her blue eyes away from her mother and lowered herself slowly on the large bed. Cyrene said nothing as she observed her emotionally and physically exhausted daughter reach for her boots. The moment the warrior tried to lift her injured leg Cyrene saw the flash of pain cross her dark features. Leaving her chair quickly, she was there to help her daughter untie her boots as Xena unhooked her armor and tossed it into the corner near her saddlebags.
"Xena?" Cyrene questioned softly.
The warrior held up her hand as she closed her tired eyes. "I'm here mother ... Let's just leave it at that."
Cyrene watched the pain filled expression on her daughter's face as she lifted her injured leg onto the bed. She rolled onto her side, leaving her mother the other half of the bed.
Xena's mother closed her eyes and thanked the Gods for the return of her daughter, now she wonder how to help her find her lost soul.
Cyrene would often see Xena staring into the palms of her hands, she knew what the lack of scars meant to her daughter's heart, and to her soul. The warrior said nothing, but kept herself busy helping to repair the inn.
Janios had stopped by this morning and was happy to see the infection had finally let go of its hold on the warrior's thigh. But she was saddened to see the lifeless gaze in the blue eyes.
"Have you decided what you are going to do with your life?" Xena's head snapped around to look the healer in the eye.
"You have a real gift for healing Xena, you could always come back and help me."
"I appreciate the offer ... but I'm not interested." Janios could only watch as the warrior limped back to work. She knew there was a stubbornness in Xena that no one could reach, no one except a small blond woman from Poteidaia.
It had been a week since the fire had all but destroyed the tavern. Finally, with many helping hands, they had a skeletal structure up in place of the tavern. Cyrene hoped to have enough of her kitchen back by tonight so she could cook her own meals. Suddenly out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement as she turned to see Xena walked out of the room they had been living in, the warrior's belongings in her arms. Cyrene felt fear creep into her body. Was Xena leaving? She knew her daughter was not happy, but she also knew she wasn't stable enough to be traveling alone. Then with a slight sigh of relief she saw the tall warrior enter the room she had been working on.
Cyrene walked over to the doorway and silently watched her daughter put away her few meager belongings. Just as she was about to speak, Xena pulled out the leather bag containing Gabrielle's scrolls and sat down on her bed. The leather bag lay cradled in her lap, her blue eyes on her hands.
Cyrene felt her heart break for daughter, but she knew there was nothing she could do. Slowly and quietly, she backed away from the doorway, leaving Xena alone. A mother can only stand to watch her child's pain for so long. She feared now that Xena would never recover from the loss of her dear friend.
Suddenly a tormented scream filled the air, causing Cyrene to gasp in fright. Before she could react, she heard Xena sob out Gabrielle's name. She raced back to her daughter and froze when she entered the room.
Gabrielle..." Xena cried at the name on her lips as she turned to her mother. Holding her palms out in front of her, Cyrene stared in astonishment at Xena's hands. The wounds had reappeared on her palms and the dark blood was running down her arms and dripping on the floor.
"It's Gabrielle ... she's alive." The words sounded so unreal in her ears as she stared down at the wounds that had come back to her hands. The warrior princess never noticed the pain and she never felt the blood, all Xena knew was Gabrielle had somehow returned. If there were wounds, then there was a future, and that future only existed if Gabrielle was alive.
Now over the shock of what she had seen, Cyrene sat next to Xena. The warrior hadn't taken her eyes off her hands.
"Should I get Janios?" Cyrene asked as she looked at the open flesh of her daughter's palms.
"No." Xena tried to clear her spinning mind for a moment. "My medicine bag is over there on the table."
Cyrene removed the cotton bandages and handed them to Xena. The warrior wrapped her hands once more as her eyes filled with tears of happiness.
"She's alive mother." Cyrene smiled as she felt her child's arms wrap around her in a loving embrace.
Pushing Xena out of her arms, she looked up into the red rimmed blue eyes. She smiled sweetly and Xena attempted to smile back. Cyrene reached over slowly and placed a loving hand on Xena's wet face.
"You need to go and find her, Xena." The warrior bowed her head to her mother. She closed her eyes and reluctantly shook her head no.
"I can't leave now. What will you do, you have no money, you have no tavern?"
"I have a couple of rooms and I have friends, lots of them. You need her Xena ... and she needs you." Xena tried to smile, but the best she could do was swallow the lump in her throat.
"I don't know where to look, I don't even know where to start." Cyrene saw the anguish returning to her daughter's face.
"Follow your heart child and you will find her." Xena wiped her face with the back of her hand. She didn't want to leave, but she knew her mother was right. She had to go and find Gabrielle. Xena looked down at the fresh bandages on her hands. She knew as long as she bore the marks that meant her little bard was alive. She looked up from her hands and into her mother's smiling face.
She took in a big breath, and gave her mother the best smile she could muster.
"I'll leave tomorrow."
"That's my girl." The two sat for a while longer, not speaking, but just enjoying a happy moment for a change.
"Cyrene?" The woman's head came up as someone called her from outside.
"It's ok Mom, you go. Maybe you finally have a kitchen." Cyrene stood up and kissed her daughter's cheek. She stopped when she reached the doorway and turned back.
"Xena?" The warrior's eyes looked up at her mother.
"Just do me one favor." Xena raised her eyebrows in question.
"When you find Gabrielle ... and I know you will ... tell the poor girl you love her." Cyrene winked at the shocked look on Xena's face, and left the room.
With a borrowed horse and her saddlebags full, Xena left Amphipolis at the break of dawn. Her spirits higher than they had been in a long time. The warrior touched her hand to her face, she could still feel the warmth of her mother's kiss on her cheek. She had promised to return, she had to know her mother was doing ok. It didn't matter how much Cyrene and the villagers promised she would be, Xena had to return to see for herself.
She rode away, but where she was riding to, she still had no idea. All she did know, was Gabrielle was alive, and she was going to find her.
Xena rode all day, stopping in towns they had traveled through together. But no one had seen her little blond friend. She questioned everyone she met but the answers were all the same, no one had seen Gabrielle. Every hut, every hill, every farm made Xena's heart ache with loneliness. The silence on the roads and trails made the feelings even the worse. She crisscrossed the countryside but could find nothing. Reluctantly, she even returned to the last place she had seen Gabrielle alive.
The temple was dark and empty, the stillness rose the hairs on the back of her neck. The silence was only broken by the sound of her soft leather boots as the warrior princess proceeding into the core of her nightmares. She stood over the hole, looking down into the bowls of Hell. The ominous entrance to evil and the last place she had seen Gabrielle. Xena closed her eyes, trying to block out the memories that still tore at her heart.
This was not helping her, and she knew it, so Xena quickly left the temple. She refused to give up and she refused to give in. With the stubborn pride of a warrior, Xena steeled her emotions, pushing onward in search of her friend.
How she longed to hear Gabrielle's voice, to feel the gentle touch of her fingers, to feel her warm body next to her at night. To hear her easy laughter, the look in her bright green eyes as the bard would weave one of her tales. Xena knew there was nothing she didn't miss about Gabrielle.
It had been a long and lonely week since she had left Amphipolis and she was no closer to finding Gabrielle than when she had started. Depressed and dejected, Xena stopped early to make camp. It was hard to push yourself, when you had no direction to push. She pulled the saddle off the horse she had borrowed and staked the mare for the night. She made her way over to the fire she already had started and sat down on her furs. The familiar sounds of the nearby forest did nothing to brighten her spirits. Her eyes looked into the luscious dark of the forest canopy and she sighed deeply. Xena could feel the stiffness in her leg and hands. The ugly wound on her thigh had started to heal, a couple more days and she could take the sutures out. Her eyes automatically went to her hands as the warrior flexed her fingers. Holding the reins had been difficult at times, but she had stopped to rest often, remembering the last time she had pushed herself on a borrowed horse.
She caught a couple of fish for dinner and ate her meal in silence. She kept waiting to hear Gabrielle telling a story or laughing as she prepared their bedrolls. It was like the bard had just gone down to the river and Xena was waiting for her to return. The warrior's mind was constantly reminding her ... she was alone. Xena searched her memories, kept trying to come up with some idea of where Gabrielle may have gone. There was only one place close enough that she could think of that her friend would go without her.
Poteidaia, but Xena knew she wasn't there, nor had she been. Her mind flashed with an image of Hope. She was not Gabrielle, but the likeness was enough to stir up the warrior's buried emotions. Feeling the rush of pain against her chest, Xena brought her hand up and covered her mouth with her palm. It didn't stop the sound anguish as the warrior moaned for her lost friend. Feeling the rough fibers of cotton on her lips, she brought her hand away and stared at it. Anger and frustration suddenly exploded through the warrior.
"Where are you?" she screamed as she stared desperately into her hand. The dam had been opened and all of her feelings poured out at once. Xena climbed to her feet and looked up at the night sky searching for answers that would still the ache in her heart.
"Tell me where to go! I have to find you, I need to find you! ... Gabrielle! I don't know where to look." Xena's anguish was heard in her words as she yelled her pain at the stars. There was no one there to hear her screams of desperation, and she dropped to her knees with a sob. She had no idea where to look for her friend. The sheer magnitude of hopelessness filled her heart with desperation. Xena hung her head and for the first time felt like giving up.
By the light of the moon and the flicker of the fire, the warrior princess rose up on her knees. She turned her eyes to Mount Olympus and pleaded for the return of her soul.
"We know I am not a praying person and I know we've had our differences. But I'm asking you ... I'm begging you ... I need ... your help." Xena closed her eyes to the request she had never uttered before. "I don't know where to look ... and I don't know what to do." Desperation was not something she was used to, but she knew she had to find Gabrielle. She had lost the meaning to her life, without her companion, she could not find the reasons to carry on.
"I am lost without her ... I just want to bring her home." Xena collapsed to the ground holding her injured hands to her chest. All she could hope for was that the Gods had heard her.
A long and lonely silence later Xena crawled back to the fire, too unsure of her shaking legs to walk. She pulled her furs tightly around her shoulders and cried herself to sleep.
Out of sheer exhaustion, Xena slept through the rise of the morning sun. Her body's demand for rest kept her asleep for almost the entire morning. When she finally awoke, she lay quietly in her furs. She couldn't even find the desire to get out of her bedding. Xena laid looking up at the trees, their branches intertwined like the fingers of a close friend.
Then it had come to her. Xena had the answer to the question that had been plaguing her for over a moon cycle.
She blinked at the brightness of the sun, and at the simplicity of the answer. Xena sat up quickly, stunned it hadn't come to her earlier.
She packed up camp quickly, her hands shaking with the revelation that had finally come to her. The warrior princess now had a purpose and she had a definite direction. She climbed onto the back of her borrowed horse and headed out on a dead run. Straight west, over three mountain ranges and two large rivers ... right into the heart of the Amazon territories. It was the only place left for the warrior to look, she didn't know what she would do if Gabrielle wasn't there. But something in her heart told her she was.
Xena rode hard and fast, a little more cautious this time, her eyes never left the trail in front of her. She didn't think her body could take another throw from a horse. Looking down at the wound on her leg, she held tighter to the reins.
Xena stopped here and there to give the horse and herself a chance to breathe and to get a drink. Her blues eyes always seemed to fall to the west.
'Is she there? Are you there waiting for me? Why in Tartarus didn't I think of it earlier.' Xena cursed herself as she rode towards the Amazons. She couldn't understand why she hadn't thought of it earlier. Pushing the frustration away, she let her heart hope for the first time in a week. If Gabrielle was there, she was going to tell her exactly how she felt, after she scolded the bard for risking her own life.
She stopped before dusk to water and feed the horse and to chew on some jerked meat. It was still a couple of days ride to the Amazon nation ... if she stopped to camp for the night. The world around her was silent, but only of the voice she so badly wanted to hear.
A small creek offered the horse and rider its gift of cool water. Standing in the middle of the creek, the horse loudly sucked up its fill. Xena leaned down and splashed her face before taking a long drink. She filled her waters skins and stood up to wait for the horse to finish. The outstretched branches of the nearby thick forest waved their dancing fingers to the skies. The rolling rocky terrain was moist with the heavy dew already falling. Xena collected the reins from the horse and led her back to the road she had been following.
The warrior princess suddenly stopped and lifted her head to the gust of wind as it went through the evergreens. She held her breath as the scent of the forest filled her mind with memories. Xena's heart slowed as she listened, frozen in place by the desire of what she heard. She lifted her face to the night sky as she closed her eyes. She was certain it was Gabrielle's voice, a desperate plea for her warrior princess.
"I'm coming Gabrielle ... by the Gods, nothing is going to stop me!"
It was the first time since she left the northern Amazon's that Xena thought she heard Gabrielle call out her name. The warrior grabbed the reins and threw her body onto the back of the horse. She knew she could make it by tomorrow night ... if she didn't stop. With a war cry of anxious desire, she slapped at the horse and the two galloped off into the night. She only slowed her pace when her vision wasn't good enough for the speed she was riding. But the warrior never stopped. Her need and desire to be by Gabrielle's side drove her onward. The desperate ache in her heart kept her going.
Xena had slowed her mount to a quick walk, allowing the horse to pick her way through the forest. She had left the road a while back and had pulled the mare into the trees. The dark line in the glistening green on the forest floor guided the horse and rider through the tall stands of timbers.
With the steady sway and the rhythmic roll of the horse beneath her, the warrior drifted into a light sleep. Her mind played the images that never seemed to leave her. Xena mumbled Gabrielle's name as she entered the realm of dreams.
Gabrielle smiling and laughing, her blond hair reflecting the bright glow of the sun. The comfortable closeness of playing games with each other, of talking, of sharing their dreams and their life together. Xena's features smiled in the darkness, as her subconscious state recalled their many water fights and light hearted rough housing. It was the happier times that played in her mind and when she woke, she knew she had never wanted someone more than she wanted Gabrielle right then.
The warrior rode throughout the night, nodding off now and then. Her dreams began to mix with dark, agonizing nightmares. She shook her head, tossing her long dark mane in the shadows of the night. Xena struggled to stay awake, she couldn't afford the physical risk of falling from another horse, nor the emotional torment her mind continued to play. She thought a couple of times of stopping, she knew she needed to rest, but she knew she needed Gabrielle even more.
The next afternoon the sun was high in the sky when Xena saw her first glimpse of the far mountains. The rugged green peaks rose from the dense forest and overlooked the valley beyond. With a breath of relief, Xena's eyes took in the beauty of the majestic mountains ... the outer edge of the Amazon's land. She reined her horse in as a chilling reality went through her. Xena was suddenly all too aware of the last time she had been there, and everything that she had done.
Pain and regret slumped the warrior's shoulders as the images filled her mind.
The warrior princess had been filled with rage and revenge when she had entered the Amazon village, and everyone there had paid the price of Xena's anger.
A shudder of regret closed Xena's eyes as she recalled the sound of Ephiny's arm breaking by the blow of her own hand. The warrior princess had not returned to explain and apologize as Gabrielle had done. Only Gabrielle knew the full extent of her embarrassment and how ashamed of her actions she truly was. Instead of facing her friends, Xena had sent a note of an apology with Gabrielle. It had been addressed to Ephiny and all of the Amazons of the village. When the bard had returned from her visit, she told Xena all had been forgiven. But the warrior wasn't sure if it had been, the bard's own words, or that of the Amazon Queen and her people.
Xena opened her eyes to the valley that lay out before her. She studied the rolling terrain until she spotted the break in the thick forest, identifying the river on the eastern border of the Amazon nation. The warrior urged her horse forward as she wondered what kind of reception she was going to get. Not really giving it much thought, she clicked her teeth with her tongue, and the exhausted mare broke into a trot.
The closer she got to Amazon territory, the more she questioned her decision to arrive in the dead of the night. As much as she wanted to find Gabrielle, she realized she might be better off camping for the night ... off the Amazon's land. She began to look for a spot to spend the night, and a long night she knew it was going to be.
When she heard the distant sounds of the rolling river, Xena reined in her horse and dropped to the ground. Tiny pricks of needles exploded through her tired legs as she twisted and turned the stiffness from her back.
The silence of the thick forest did nothing to sooth the warrior's nerves. She was certain Gabrielle was close and she almost climbed back on her horse. After a moment of question, Xena lead the horse over to a small patch of long grass. The slight break in the trees was the best she could get this deep in the forest.
Xena rubbed down the horse, then fed and watered her, before staking her for the night. Picking up her saddle and bags, she placed them on the ground next to where she was going to light a fire. Xena gathered up enough wood to last her for the night and as she threw the fuel to the ground, she questioned herself on building a fire. She knew the Amazon's would smell the burning wood, even this far away.
Reluctantly she spread her furs out and dug through her saddlebags. Without a fire to cook with she would have to settle with what she had. Cheese, bread, and some more jerked meat, she had had worse, but it didn't matter, she couldn't really taste the food anyway. Xena's stomach churned with emotions as she tired to enjoy her dried cold meal. Dinner finished, she leaned back against her saddle and took a good look at the wound on her leg. Xena pulled her breast dagger out from its home in her cleavage, and began to remove the sutures from her thigh. Spots of blood began to form where the silk had been removed, but the blue eyes weren't paying attention. They kept drifting to the bandages on her hands. The wound on her leg taken care of, Xena slowly began to unwind the cotton covering her hands. She closed her eyes when the last of the bandage had been removed. With a rapid pulse and a nervous breath, she opened her eyes. She blew out the air in her lungs as she saw the thick scabs clearly, where she hoped they would be. She rewrapped them, and with nothing else to do, Xena began to clean and sharpen her sword.
As she fell into the pattern of the whetstone, her mind went to all the nights she had done this very thing with Gabrielle next to her.
The ache and agonizing loneliness filled the void left behind by Gabrielle's absence.
'If I find her ... No, when I find her. I am going to hold her so tight and I'm never going to let her go.' It was a promise, a promise from her heart. Xena knew the next time she looked into those green eyes, she would tell Gabrielle the truth about how she felt. About how many times she had wanted to hold her ... To kiss her and tell her just how much she really loved her. Xena wasn't certain how Gabrielle would take it, but the warrior knew the days of keeping secrets were over. The secrets and lies had caused enough pain between them, when she found her little bard she planned on telling her everything. Xena could only hope the love they shared for one another would be allowed to grow ... and finally blossom.
Xena had been right, it was a long and fitful night. She knew if she didn't find Gabrielle soon, she was going to drop from physical and mental exhaustion. She sat up with her sleeping furs still wrapped around her shoulders, her blue eyes drifted over to the empty spot next to her. She sat like that for a long moment and then rose quickly to her feet.
The gray skies above her threw an eerie shadow over the flowing mist of the early morning ground fog. The songs of the chickadees had yet to replace the chirp of the nighttime crickets. A light breeze fluttered the ends of her raven hair as the warrior packed up her camp.
None of it mattered to Xena, she knew the sun would be up by the time she reached the Amazon village. The warrior princess had to get started, she couldn't handle waiting any longer. Moments later, Xena climbed onto the horse's back and set off towards the Amazons ... and hopefully her bard was waiting.
Xena pulled back on the reins and brought her horse to a halt. The Kaltokka River was directly in front of her. The wide, steady waters cut a path right through the dense forest. Though the crystal clear waters were shallow, Xena knew them to be ice cold and very dangerous. Its steep muddy banks would be a challenge to climb for an inexperienced rider. Not many people chose to cross the Kaltokka, not because of the river, but of what was on the other side.
The icy blue eyes searched into the dark cover of the distant bank. She couldn't see anything in the depth of the old growth forest, but she was sure they would be there ... somewhere. Xena turned her head and listened carefully, but could only hear the steady flow of the waters in front of her. Urging the horse forward, they entered the river, the eastern border of the Amazon nation. The territories no one dared travel, unless by invitation.
Once on the other side, Xena knew it wouldn't be long before she had company. Xena gave her horse full rein, letting her pick her own way up the bank of the river. She wanted all of her senses to be totally focused on her surroundings. Xena's eyes never stopped moving as they entered the thick, moss-laden evergreens. The warrior princess searched for any sign of the Amazon border scouts.
She stopped her horse and turned her head to the ceiling of green trees, she was sure she had just heard a bird call. Slowly she began to descend off the horse's back, looking all around for the source of the call. She scanned the thick forest but could not see any signs of the Amazons, even with her warrior's senses on high alert, she doubted she would. Xena began to walk ahead of her horse, the reins held tightly in her left hand. Her blue eyes darted to the left, certain she had heard another bird call. She dropped the reins and held her hands over her head, the Amazon sign of peace. And Xena waited ... and waited.
The small hairs on the back of her neck began to stand on end. She didn't like it as her eyes searched the treetops. No, she didn't like it one bit. Xena knew the Amazon's were out there, so why weren't they responding to her.
Her pulsed quickened when she heard another bird call off in the distance. Xena recognized it for what it was ... a call to arms! Something was wrong ... very wrong. As her eyes shifted from tree to tree, Xena had to fight down her instincts to draw her sword.
Then without warning, without moving, her eyes began to spot them in the trees. They were warriors, not scouts, and none of them had shown any sign of approach or recognition ... or of welcome.
Xena began to turn in small circles, her hands still high above her head. She watched the mask-covered figures perched in the trees. The warrior princess did not intend to fight them, but she wanted to know where, and more importantly, who they were. Xena could sense, more than hear something was going on.
Suddenly the silence of the forest was broken with what seemed like thousands of birdcalls. The shrill noise was everywhere as it bounced off the green ceiling of branches and the forest floor. There seemed to be movement all around her as the warriors took their places closer to where Xena stood. She knew the Amazon's were almost on top of her, but still they hadn't shown themselves.
Abruptly the forest grew still ... and very silent. Xena could hear her own heart beat, as her eyes darted back and forth. The eerie silence bothered her more than the presence of the warrior's. Xena was ready for whatever was about to happen, but there was no way she could have been prepared when a voice spoke out ... loud and very clear.
"You're no longer welcome here, Warrior Princess ... Go back the way you came." Xena didn't recognize the voice, but it didn't matter. The effect on her was still the same. They were treating her like the enemy, and she didn't want to think of the why. Xena turned her body until she was sure she was facing the speaker.
"I mean no one harm..." Xena started to say, but was immediately cut off.
"Turn and leave now, or we will shoot you where you stand!" Xena spun around to the other voice that had spoken. She was keenly aware they meant it, but she did not intend to leave ... not until she knew whether or not Gabrielle was with them.
Her hands still above her head as she lifted her face to the trees.
"I'm not leaving, I need to..." As she took a step forward, an arrow shot into the ground inches from her feet.
"Xena, we have orders. Leave now."
Xena's hands and heart began to drop, she knew that voice.
"Eponin? ... Eponin! What's going on? I just want to see..." Two more arrows came out of the treetops, both quivered in the ground at her feet. Before the warrior princess could ask another word, a voice spoke from above.
"Xena ... please just turn around and leave. We will shoot you if we have to." She could hear the desperation in her friend's voice and Xena could almost see her high over her head. Eponin had an arrow and it was lined up on her bow. Xena looked pleadingly at her, but the warrior only shook her head sadly.
"Leave ... please." Xena read her lips as she felt the despair growing inside her.
'Why are they doing this? Why won't they even talk to me?' The thoughts clouded her mind and she refused to give up.
"I can't Ep." Xena took a daring step towards her friend. The first arrow hit her in the shoulder, the second dug deep into her already wounded leg. Her blue eyes squinted with pain, but they never left Eponin's face as the Amazon warrior lowered herself to the ground. Xena tried not to notice the distance she had put between them.
"Xena, don't make us do this. We don't want to hurt you, but you are no longer welcome on Amazon land." Eponin's eyes surveyed the damage her fellow Amazons had caused the warrior princess. Painful, but nothing too serious ... yet. Eponin's eyes traveled up the body of the warrior, she didn't like the condition Xena was in, nor the desperate look carved into her face. Eponin's heart went out to the warrior princess, but she was an Amazon and she had her orders.
"Xena, just leave."
"I can't Eponin. I have to know. Is Gabrielle here?" Eponin looked confused and puzzled at Xena's question.
When the warrior princess saw the look, she felt her last hope of finding Gabrielle come crashing down on her. She wasn't here! Xena felt the wail of despair starting to grow in the pit of her stomach. It was over.
Eponin saw the look of hopelessness come across her tall warrior friend, she had never seen her look so lost. Eponin would never say if what happened next was done with or without thought, but she watched Xena's determined face as the warrior princess took one defining step towards her.
"NO!" Eponin screamed as the arrows rained down from the treetops ... all of them aimed at the warrior princess.
******* Break ... big break. *******
In the heart of the rainforest, deep in the sacred
lands, protected for centuries by a tribe of powerful women warriors, was a
large open clearing, the hub of the Amazon village. Though they moved their
home every few years, some of the women had never left the soil that protected
and nurtured them. Amazon land. Most people would never step a foot over the
borders much less challenge them on their own birthplace.
Though their lives were lived in treetops, they made their homes on the ground. The forest gave way to a large basin of flat fertile ground, it was a perfect spot to build their new village.
Ephiny, now Queen by Gabrielle's decision, leaving the bard the title of princess, was happy with her choice of locations. The choice to move the village had been unanimous, after it had been destroyed by the powers of an irate Goddess named Velsaca. They had been here almost a year now, and the Amazon's were thriving in their new home. They had a whole field of vegetables that would get them through the winter, and a forest that always provided the meat and furs they required. It was now a structured, flourishing village, home to 54 fiercely loyal Amazons. The older huts had been built with thatch roofs, the newer ones now had shingles, something Ephiny was very proud of. Just last spring they had finished building the new two story lookouts at each corner of the village. Tightly strung ladders were positioned for easy access to the view from the platforms.
A multitude of fires, burning for various reasons, took away part of the morning chill. Many of the Amazons had noticed a change in the air as a breeze blew off the distant ocean. Ephiny breathed in the smell of salt air and evergreens, to her it would always be the smell of home. Her mind went back to the conversation she was having with some of the Amazons.
"Yes, but if we start another field now, it should be ready for spring planting..." The regent's words stopped when she heard the distant call. Her blond curls tossed as her head came up, her eyes began to scan the forest. She was certain the call had been an 'all alert'. All the regent could do was wait for another signal to tell her what the alert was for. Her narrowed eyes spotted one of the scouts racing through the treetops. Without a word, Ephiny headed in her direction.
"What is it, Agina."
The small forest scout gasped for air, she had never raced so fast through the trees. With broken words broken, she related to her Queen what she knew of what had happened.
Ephiny's features pulled into a tight look of anger and despair as she looked back to the forest, looking for any sign of the Amazons heading to the village. She didn't want to think about the reason that had caused her to come to the Amazon's. Or more importantly, why she was alone.
"Go tell Clio to be expecting some company." Agina nodded at the regent's command and headed to inform the healer she had a patient coming in. Ephiny walked to the edge of the village, all she could do was wait. But it didn't stop her mind from racing with questions, her heart beating with anxiety and concern.
What seemed like days was only a fraction of a candle mark, and then Ephiny spotted the group of women coming in. They were carrying the body on a makeshift litter, surrounded by concerned Amazon's. Ephiny's heart went to her throat as she hurried to her friend's side. She looked down at the form of the unconscious woman and instantly Ephiny was frightened by what she saw.
"Take her to Clio. I will be there in a moment." Ephiny directed, then turned to look at the leader of the warrior's. Eponin's face looked as concerned as she own did.
"What happened?" The blond regent tried not to make it sound like a demand, but in the desperation of the moment, the stern words were lost on the Amazon warrior. Eponin watched the Amazon's packing away litter, then turned back to her Queen, and answered the questions the best she could. Ephiny made no attempt to hide the emotions going through her body. She never spoke, she only nodded when needed, in response to Eponin's story.
Ephiny put a hand to her aching forehead, there was times she wished she hadn't taken the throne when Gabrielle had offered it to her. Times like these, when all she wanted was to be a regular Amazon, and not their leader. She wanted nothing more at this time, then to be at her friend's side.
Once the Queen had the whole story, Eponin waited in silence for Ephiny to speak.
"Take some more of your warriors and head back to where you first saw her. Search for anything you can find. There has to be some answers out there, so look hard." Eponin nodded, bowing slightly to her Queen, then they parted. One went looking for help, the other went looking for answers.
Amazons had begun to gather outside of the healer's hut, as word of what had happened went through the village. The women parted for their Queen, as Ephiny made her way to the door. She turned to face them.
"I think it would be better if you all waited somewhere else. When there is something to tell you ... you will be told. For now we know nothing, so let Clio work in silence." Reluctantly the Amazons began to leave. They broke into small groups to discuss what they knew, and to speculate on what they didn't.
Ephiny paused with her hand on the door, she raised her head in silent prayer to the skies, and then entered the hut.
There were four beds in the large open room, though now only one of them was occupied. The large windows brightened the table and shelves of supplies. Ephiny got a strong whiff of dried herbs, she knew the smells well, Clio had used them on her a few times.
The regent was surprised that only the healer and her patient were inside. Clio saw the look on Ephiny's face.
"I told everyone to leave. We didn't need an audience of angry Amazons." Ephiny nodded and walked up next to the bed. There was no sign of life in the still body lying there. The regent felt her heart lurch at the thoughts running in her mind.
"How is she?" Ephiny asked. Clio said nothing as she tended to her patient. The regent remained quiet, realizing leader or not, Clio did not intend to answer anyone's questions until she was finished. The silence in the hut only made Ephiny's wait more agonizing. She couldn't keep the thoughts and explanations from creeping into her mind.
'What in the name of Artemis had happened? Why is she alone? And what made her come here?' The thoughts swirled around in Ephiny's head. She tried not to come to any conclusions, but it wasn't working. The regent felt her fear and anger begin to churn in the pit of her stomach.
Her eyes followed the capable hands of the healer as Clio checked every inch of her unconscious patient. Finally she leaned back and looked at her Queen.
Ephiny's heart began to pound at the look of discouragement on Clio's face. Before the healer spoke a word, the regent leaned forward and brushed away the blond bangs off her friend's forehead.
Artemis watched the healer and the leader of the Amazons ... She released the breath she had been holding and then disappeared. There was one more thing she knew she had to do, and then somehow she had to keep the warrior princess from finding her chosen one.
Clio looked from Gabrielle to Ephiny.
"There's not a scratch on her. Nothing, not a cut, not a bump, not even a bruise."
"Then what's wrong with her, why is she not awake," Ephiny asked as her eyes traveled down Gabrielle's perfectly intact body.
"What would cause her to be unconscious if there was nothing wrong with her?" The regent looked up into Clio's eyes.
"I don't know. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her. We are just going to have to wait ... wait for her to wake up and tell us." Ephiny looked down at Gabrielle's emotionless face.
'Where was Xena?' The painful question kept racing through her mind. Ephiny tried not to think about the last time she had seen the warrior princess and the reason she had been here.
Ephiny absently rubbed the arm Xena had broken. She tried to think of a reason the two friends might have been separated, and a reason Gabrielle was laying here ... unconscious. No matter what she thought of, no matter how she looked at it, she couldn't get the ill feeling out of her stomach. Ephiny knew what it was ... and she knew she couldn't ignore it.
'If Xena has anything to do with this again...' Ephiny didn't even want to finish the thought.
Clio watched the emotional struggle happening on the regent's face. She had a very good idea what the struggle was about. She had been there herself and had to doctor and mend some of the damage Xena had done on her last visit. Clio was one of many Amazons that had not accepted the warrior princess' written apology. There were more than a few Amazons that still wanted a piece of Xena. Regardless of who she was, or of who her friends were.
The healer looked down at the unconscious Princess. Clio knew if Xena were to blame, there would be no apologizing this time ... The Amazons would want blood!
It was hours later before Eponin returned to the village. She talked to no one but headed straight for the healer's hut. The quiet warrior knew where the Amazon royalty would be.
Ephiny looked up from Gabrielle's bedside as the warrior entered the hut.
"How is she, Eph?" Eponin walked over and knelt down on the other side of the bed.
"There's been no change," The regent's eyes stared down at Gabrielle's peaceful face.
"Did Clio say what was wrong with her, I couldn't find any injuries?"
"There doesn't appear to be any." Ephiny looked across at Eponin and their eyes held in a questioning stare.
"Let's go outside to talk." Eponin nodded and rose to join the regent.
Ephiny took a big breath of fresh air into her lungs as she walked out of the hut. She couldn't shake the feeling of deja vu, as she glanced back at the still form of Gabrielle.
"What did you find?"
"Nothing? What do you mean, nothing?" Ephiny's eyebrows knitted with question.
"I mean nothing, Ephiny. No pack, no supplies, no staff ... no footprints."
"And no Xena," added Ephiny. Eponin watched as her friend and Queen began to chew on the inside of her cheek.
"I don't like this Eponin. I know Xena loves her, but we both know what she is capable of doing, if her dark past rears its ugly head again. I swear ... if she is to blame."
"I don't think that is fair, Eph. We can't just blame Xena ... until we know."
"Until we know what? We know something happened to Gabrielle. And we know Xena is no where to be found. We both know what happened last time! ... And friend or not ... it's not going to happen again."
"What are you going to do, Eph?"
The regent stopped and looked at her warrior. Ephiny knew she was too close to the situation to make a clear judgement, but then again, weren't they all.
"I don't think it should be just my decision. I think it should go to the council."
Ephiny started to turn, but Eponin reached out and stopped her.
"You can't do that. You and I both know what will happen if this goes to council. Half the women here still hold a grudge from before. They don't know Xena the way we do. They'll kill her on sight ... if given half the chance," Eponin pleaded with her oldest friend.
"So will I if I find out she is to blame for this."
"And what if she's not, Ephiny. What if something has happened to her and we are standing here arguing about it. Blaming her instead of going to find and help her."
"But what if she is cause, Eponin? Are we going to let her just ride into camp again? I don't think so!"
Their voices began to rise as the heat of passion dug the two old friends deeper into the argument.
"So then what ... Kill Xena!"
"I didn't say that!"
"Well, you might as well have!"
"I have a responsibility to this village and to our Princess."
"And what about your feelings for your friends Ephiny."
"As leader ... I'm not allowed to have feelings." The brutality of Ephiny's statement ceased the harsh words they had spoken, but it did nothing to the emotions they both were feeling.
The two Amazons stood nose to nose, and eye to eye. They had made their point, and both knew deep inside the other one ... was also right. The heat had gone out of the argument, all that was left were the rational thoughts of two concerned friends.
"Please Ephiny, don't take this decision to the council. Give me a chance to go and find Xena, or at least try to find out what happened. We owe her that. I asked you once before ... and I'll ask you again. Did you ... or did you not accept Xena's apology?"
Ephiny hung her head. In her mind, she thought she had, but in the light of what was going on, she wondered if she too still held a grudge against the warrior princess.
"I have to think what is best for all of us. Gabrielle included. If Xena is responsible for Gabrielle's condition, and she is on the war path again, it is my duty as Queen to protect us ... all of us."
The regent lifted her head, she watched the changing colors of the sky as the light began to fade.
"I will make 'my' decision in the morning ... ON one condition!" Eponin looked solemnly at Ephiny. "I want your word as an Amazon ... You will abide by what I decide." Eponin closed her eyes and nodded slowly. When she opened her eyes, she uttered a silent thank you, but Ephiny held up her hand.
"But ... for tonight. I want the village guarded, especially Gabrielle. If there is any sign of Xena...
Ephiny didn't finish, she knew she didn't have to. Eponin nodded reluctantly and walked away to bid her leader's request. She hoped for tonight for her own sake, that Xena was no where near the Amazon's land.
Ephiny watched Eponin go, then turned and entered back into the hut. As her gaze fell on Gabrielle, she wondered if she could make a fair and proper decision.
When the guards showed up at the healing hut, Ephiny leaned down and placed a kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. As much as she didn't want to, she knew she had to leave the care of Gabrielle to the guards and to Clio. She needed to be in her own room to make the decision that could cost them all dearly. If she was to stay at Gabrielle's side, she knew her decision might be swayed in a direction she didn't want to think of.
The regent nodded in greeting to the guards outside the hut and then made her way to her regal home.
It was not a palace in size or splendor, though most of the women called it as such. It was larger than the other huts, raised above the ground on solid stilts. The five wooden steps leading to the wrap around deck gave the regent the view of the entire village. Ephiny pushed open the solid wood door and then dropped the latch into place behind her. The main room was filled with the masks of past Queens', giving the room a vibrancy of dancing colors. Ephiny's home was one of the few that had its own fireplace, it was one of the few extras she had allowed herself. Above the mantle of the fireplace were two of Ephiny's most prized possessions.
A pair of crossed chobos, marked from heavy use, hanging above a single scroll ... a gift from a little blond bard.
When Ephiny's eyes fell on the gift she had received from Gabrielle, she recalled the words of wisdom written down by the Amazon Princess from Poteidaia.
Many a night she had stared at Gabrielle's prolific
words, but never had they spoken such a painful truth as tonight. She wanted
to believe Xena had nothing to do with Gabrielle's condition, but she couldn't
get the image of Xena riding out of the village with Gabrielle dragging behind
her, out of her mind. Ephiny still felt the guilt of not protecting her Amazon
Princess and no matter how it had turned out, she had failed the number one
law of the Amazon's. Protect the Queen, and by all the rights of cast, Gabrielle
was the true Queen.
Try as she might to give Xena the benefit of doubt, Ephiny knew she didn't have much choice. She climbed into her bed and felt very much alone. Her decision had been made, now she wondered if she would be able to live with it.
Eponin was waiting for Ephiny in the morning, and by the looks of the tired regent, she hadn't gotten much sleep either. Try as they might, both had been up most the night trying to forget the past.
Ephiny looked into the quiet warrior's eyes.
"I want every available armed warrior and scout, watching for Xena. If she even steps on Amazon land, I want to know about it ... before she takes her second step."
Eponin's mouth opened slightly, but she had given her word. She closed her eyes and sadly nodded.
"You have four days to try and find out what happened."
Eponin opened her eyes in surprise, she looked at her friend and regent.
"That's the deal, Ep. Four days, if I am wrong, may the Gods and Gabrielle forgive me. But if Xena shows up before we know what happened ... she will not be welcomed."
Eponin nodded and started to turn to the stables. Ephiny reached out a hand.
"That was my decision as the Amazon leader, but as a friend ... find her, and if you need help ... I will be there. She's my friend too and I care about her."
"I know you do Eph, I'll do my best."
The two Amazons parted in silence. Eponin immediately set out to try and find Xena. Ephiny's job was to try and find Gabrielle.
The lone regent watched Eponin ride out of the village, Ephiny prayed to Artemis for a safe and speedy journey. Ephiny stood and waited a moment longer, then turned slowly to the healing hut to check on Gabrielle.
After a hushed conversation with Clio, Ephiny was frustrated and concerned. There still had been no change in Gabrielle's condition. The regent sat on the bed with her for a while, talking softly and holding her friend's hand. It broke her heart to see Gabrielle this way. As hard as she tried, she couldn't seem to forget the last time she had seen her like this.
With the painful memories of the past eating away at the heart of the regent, Ephiny knew she had to get out of the hut. She couldn't stop her mind from taking her places she didn't want to go. The regent left Gabrielle's side and headed out of the hut.
The change in scenery did nothing to calm her growing concerns. With a glance to the dining hall, she wondered if maybe breakfast was what she needed. Ephiny made her way through the village with long, powerful, confident strides. She gave no outward appearance to the questioning turmoil going on in her mind.
The dining hut was the largest structure in the village. It had to be in order to fit all 54 women who resided here. Though not always used as an eating area, it was also good for meetings, official Amazon business, but most importantly ... it was large enough for any party the Amazons could come up with. The rows of tables could be moved to seat one and all for meetings or removed entirely to make way for a dance floor.
The moment Ephiny opened one of the double doors, all the Amazon's turned to look at their leader. The regent realized too late, this had been even a bigger mistake.
The stern looking, sullen women sat silently observing their Queen. There could be no mistake about it, these were Amazon's, strong in body and mind ... and fiercely loyal ... to both their Queen and the Amazon Princess. Ephiny could tell by the tension in the room, everyone had been informed of what was, and had been, going on. Secrets weren't something that lasted long in an Amazon village.
No one said a word to Ephiny as she filled her plate and headed to her empty table. No one made eye connect as she slide into her chair. It was more than just the sense of sight that told Ephiny the decision she had made had effected everyone. With a quick glance around the room, she knew which side each of them was on. There were angry features on the ones that blamed the warrior princess for the Amazon Princess's condition, they hadn't forgotten nor forgiven the past. The rest of the Amazon's looked sadly to the ground or elsewhere, unable to believe Xena could have harmed Gabrielle ... again.
The regent picked at the food on her plate as she watched the warriors and scouts eating their last meal in camp. They would be heading out to their assigned posts after they filled their bags with food, but not before discussing in low voices whether they were watching for a friend, or waiting for the enemy.
Never before had Ephiny felt so alone in her decisions as leader of the Amazons. She closed her eyes and drew her strength from the words written above her mantle. She opened her eyes to the movement of her table, she said nothing as Solari, and Solana sat down at her table.
The two warriors nodded slightly to their Queen and friend.
"How is she?" Solari didn't have to say who she was talking about.
"No change," Ephiny glanced around the hut as she spoke.
They didn't have to make eye contact with their Queen to know the pain and concern she held in her eyes.
"I think you need to say something, Eph. Tempers are getting high already."
The regent looked from Solari's face back to the tables of Amazons around her. She knew Solari was right and she reluctantly put down her fork and pushed back her chair. The room fell silent before she was even standing. All eyes were on the regent as Ephiny looked around the room.
Most of these woman she had known all her life and there wasn't one of them she wasn't proud to call friend. The painful decision she had made had effected all of them, but she knew it would. She hesitated a brief moment.
'So many emotions ... ,' she thought as her eyes fell to the wooden floor. Ephiny took in a large breath and then spoke...
"Before you leave ... I would like to make a few things clear. First, ... As I'm sure you all know Princess Gabrielle is lying in Clio's hut unconscious. Why or how ... we DO NOT KNOW! Second, ... We don't know WHO is to blame! And third ... Xena is our friend. The past is the past and it's time to get over it. IF ... and I'll repeat ... If Xena is to blame for Gabrielle's condition, this time she will be held accountable. You have my word as an Amazon and as a friend. But as your leader ... I don't want you going out there and digging up the past with each other, trying to settle an old score. There isn't one among you who hasn't seen the love they have for one another, and I want you to remember that ... If one of you takes it on herself, you will have more than me to deal with."
Ephiny looked around to see if her point had been made.
"Just remember ... your main responsibility is to let us know in advance if the warrior princess is looking, or hunting, Gabrielle. Then, and only then, will the decision be made if Xena is a friend ... or an enemy."
Ephiny scanned the room one more time before she sat slowly back into her seat. The room stayed very quiet as the Amazons started to leave, murmurs of good-byes between friends and partners was all that could be heard.
Ephiny's eyes scanned the table in front of her. They followed the grain of the soft cedar as she tried to calm her shaking nerves. The two warriors sat in silence, waiting for Ephiny to speak, the perplexity of the situation was clearly written on her face.
"May I assume Eponin left you in charge of the warriors and scouts, Solari?"
"Yes, my Queen."
"Then I expect my orders to be followed ... but," Ephiny's eyes came up from the table and she looked sternly into Solari's face.
"If she is ... if Xena has lost it ... I don't want her getting near Gabrielle."
"Yes, my Queen," Solari said softly. The warrior could see the glimmer of tears threatening to break through the regent's tough front. Solari was aware of the feelings Ephiny had for the warrior princess and how hard it must have been to make that last command. Solari reached a gentle hand across the table and touch the hand of Ephiny. The regent looked up as a tear slipped down her solemn face.
"Xena is our friend, too, my Queen ... But you have to do what you have to do ... It's for the protection of the village ... and for Gabrielle. We all know what happened last time we were unprepared. I will do my best, but I will protect our Amazon Princess." Ephiny nodded as she looked over at the other strong warrior.
"Solana, I would like you to look after the guards at Clio's hut. No one goes in or out except me and Clio ... Is that understood?"
"Yes, my Queen."
No other words were spoken as Ephiny stood once again and made her way out of the hall.
She held her head high as she crossed the compound and climbed the steps into her hut. She didn't stop to look down at her village, and she tried not to notice the arrival of her royal guards, obviously Solari's doing. With an air of confidence she pulled open her door and closed it firmly behind her. Racked with self-doubt and agonizing question, she looked to her mantle for strength. Only then, behind closed doors, away from the women she was to lead, did she break down. Her blond curls hung down as she bowed to the memories of her mentors, the masks of the great women who had come before her. The chobos of Melosa and the wisdom of Gabrielle, as the rivers of tears went unchecked down her face. Ephiny wondered if any of them ever had made such a painful, devastating decision.
Ephiny had no idea that everything that had, and was about to happen, was the direct result of Gabrielle's sacrificial decision to save her best friend's life ... by taking her own. A decision that would forever change the direction ... of Gabrielle's soul!
For the next few days, the atmosphere in the village remained subdued as an eerie silence hung thickly around the remaining Amazons. Everyone was waiting with baited breath, but they had no idea what they were waiting for. The tension and stress of her village showed clearly on the regents tired face. The pressure of waiting ticked loudly through the minds of one and all. But it was Ephiny how held the burden on her shoulders, the guilt and question in her mind.
Gabrielle still laid unconscious in the healer's hut, showing no signs of waking. There were no signs of Xena anywhere close to Amazon land, and still no word from Eponin.
Ephiny had stopped in on Gabrielle, as often as she could, but there wasn't much she could do. She would sit and hold her hand, but her emotions would begin to get the best of her, and she would have to leave.
This afternoon had been no different. She had been sitting with Gabrielle when her temper got the best of her. Ephiny jumped to her feet and marched to the door. She swung it open in frustration, in her highly emotional state, she didn't see Clio standing in the doorway, and she ran right into her.
The healer looked from her Queen to the still form of Gabrielle. Clio could see the steady rise and fall of the bard's chest and released a sigh of relief. She was unprepared for Ephiny's explosion.
"How long can she stay like this? Why doesn't she wake up?" Ephiny's voice clearly showed her anger and frustration at the situation.
Clio gently guided Ephiny back into the hut, she knew letting the whole village witness their Queen's doubt, wound only cause more of a problem. Putting both hands on the regent's shoulders, the healer did her best to calm the red-faced woman.
"I don't know, my Queen. I don't have any of the answer to your questions. It's in the hands of the Gods, only they know how long she will be like this. We can only hope and pray, Gabrielle will find her way home."
Ephiny hung her head in dejection. She knew the words Clio spoke were the truth, but it didn't make her feel any better. She crossed the room and sat down next to Gabrielle, her eyes held sadly onto the innocent, peaceful face of her friend.
Ephiny reached over, brushed the blond bangs away, and then leaned over to kiss her forehead. Her heated emotions calmed by the serenity of the bard, the regent quietly left the healing hut.
Clio had said to pray and that's exactly what Ephiny was going to do.
There was only one hut in an Amazon village that held a higher place than the royal palace ... The temple of Artemis. Goddess of the Moon and of the Hunt. The proclaimed protector of the Amazons.
Situated next to Ephiny's residence, the care and craftsmanship of the structure was evident. The regent had over seen every aspect of its' building, including the carved totems on either side of the doorway. The door itself was made of hardwood from a cherry tree. A large full moon was cut deeply into the center, with rays of light shafting outwards.
Ephiny didn't notice the workmanship as she entered the hut, she also didn't seem to notice everyone leaving.
She walked to the end of the dimly lit room, she reached for a new candle laid out on the marble table of offerings. The regent tilted the candle and lit it off the flame of its twin. Still holding the flickering flame, Ephiny looked up into the granite carving of Artemis and lowered her head.
Only one person knew what the regent was thinking, only one person was listening.
A long and lonely while later, Ephiny placed the candle into one of the holes carved into the marble. She walked to the outer edges of the hut and sat down on one of the benches that circled the room.
The Queen sat alone in the temple for most of the afternoon. No one disturbed her, not even the Goddess she was begging to see. Ephiny hoped Artemis would grant her an audience. She hoped, since Gabrielle was her chosen one, Artemis might have some answers. Ephiny had no way of knowing how right, and wrong, she was.
High above the mortal world, they sit like spirits on a cloud. The powerful mythological kingdom known as Mount Olympus, home to the Gods and Goddesses that ruled the known world.
In her simple, but solidly defined palace, the Goddess of the Moon paced angrily. Her black leather boots struck the marble floor with such force, it echoed off the weapon filled walls. For the first time ever, the Goddess of the Amazons wanted to throttle one of her own.
Artemis heard the regent's request loud and clear. Part of her wanted to desperately go and shut the curly haired Amazon Queen up! But a larger part of her wanted to just keep hiding. She knew all too well, what was going on, but she was trying to keep it a secret, especially from her father. If Zeus found out what she had done, well, she knew he wouldn't be happy. The leather clad warrior could only continue to pace her palace ... she didn't know what else to do.
Artemis had been there, watching. She had let Gabrielle down in the past and she wasn't going to let it happen again. No, there was no way Dahak was going to get anywhere near her precious Gabrielle, not after the last time.
But then things started to get out of hand. The daughter of the one God turned out to be Gabrielle's twin. Suddenly Artemis knew she was way out of her league.
'That's no twin ... That's HOPE!' The Goddess herself felt a chill from the demon child's icy stare. Artemis knew it was time to get her father, he could deal with Dahak.
Then she spotted Ares. A snarl started to form on her lips, she was not overly fond of her brother right now. Then her resentment turned to fear ... Artemis realized Ares was with Dahak and Hope! The Goddess didn't know what to do, for a brief moment she thought about taking Gabrielle ... and the warrior princess out of here. But she knew she couldn't. It went against every rule of dealing with mortals. She watched with panic as Xena began to walk towards Hope with a dagger of Hind's blood. Then all of a sudden she got an idea and with one last look at her chosen one, Artemis vanished.
Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos never even looked at the Goddess, but the Fates knew all too well she was there. They continued their spinning and weaving of a lifeline
"I need a favor!" Artemis quickly stated to the old crone.
"I'm sorry my dear..." She never looked up as each of the Fates strung their words together to form the impending sentence.
"But there is nothing ...
"We can do."
"What do you mean there is nothing you can do? I haven't even asked you what the favor was?" Artemis looked from the Crone to the woman and then to the maiden.
"It does not matter ..."
"Artemis. What will be ..."
"Will be. Ares has ...."
"Already seen ...."
"To that ...."
Artemis slowly reached out and gently fingered the lifeline spun in wool. Only then did she realize the full aspect of what was about to happen. The Goddess knew by her simple touch that Ares had called in his marker with Gabrielle. This was Xena's lifeline, not Gabrielle's. It was clear in her mind now what Ares had done, if the warrior princess was to take Hope's life, and then Xena's life would be taken in exchange. Artemis realized with great apprehension ... Gabrielle would never let Xena kill Hope. Artemis was no fool ... she knew Gabrielle loved Xena too much to ever let that happen.
The Goddess looked at the Fates in horror as a new lifeline appeared suddenly in front of them. Without touching the line of life, Artemis knew whose fate it was. She watched in horror as the large scissors began to fall on her chosen one. The Fates had said there was nothing they could do, but Artemis knew there was something she could do.
She flashed back into the room of doom just as Gabrielle launched herself at Hope. Gabrielle's determined cry for Xena filled the air as the two figures twisted and turned as time and gravity pulled them into the abyss. Artemis panicked as she heard Xena scream out Gabrielle's name as the Goddess watched the two disappear from sight into the burning molten lava below. In an instance, Artemis was there for Gabrielle, holding her tightly against the forces of evil. Hope wasn't there when Artemis reached her bard, she knew Dahak had already saved his own child.
Holding her chosen in her arms Artemis flashed them out of the pit and away from the lava. All she was going to do was leave Gabrielle outside the temple. The Goddess was confident Xena would handle the situation and then find her friend after the battle with Dahak was done. She smiled down at the unconscious blond, but her smile quickly turned to a concerned frown when she knew something was wrong.
Artemis jiggled the still form she was holding, just as her heart began to sink. Her mouth dropped in horror when she became aware of the problem. Not knowing what else to do, Artemis took the bard to her palace on Mt. Olympus. She was aware of the rules she had broken, but she was at a loss of what to do. It wasn't the fact that Gabrielle was unconscious that frightened Artemis. It was the fact her chosen's soul was no longer there. Someone had reached Gabrielle before her ... and taken her soul!
Artemis fought down the panic rising inside her. She was not one to panic easily, but she knew she was in big trouble. Not only had she broken the law of the Gods by interfering with Gabrielle's fate, but she had brought a mortal to Mt. Olympus. A mortal she was responsible for ... a mortal that had the hearts of more than one Olympic God, ... a mortal without a soul! She looked at Gabrielle's still body and tried to figure out what had happened and what to do. She knew she couldn't go around asking who had Gabrielle's soul, because then everyone would know that she hadn't protected her chosen one ... again
'This isn't good, Calliope will have a cow, and then go running to Zeus to tell him I wasn't looking after the beloved Gabrielle.' Artemis' thoughts reflected the bone of contention between the Goddesses ... and the Gods! Everyone it seemed wanted to be the little blonde's protector, and that included the warrior princess herself.
Artemis began to pace back and forth, trying to come to a solution. She had one hand across her chest as the other rested on her mouth. Every time she turned while pacing, she looked over at the unconscious form of Gabrielle. She knew she had to do something and fast. It wouldn't take long for word to get out that someone was messing with the fates.
Then it came to her. Her Amazons! She could take Gabrielle to the Amazons, they would look after their true Queen. All she had to do was just leave Gabrielle in her temple. It was perfect.
Artemis made a fist and punched at the air. "Yes.
"No, wait," she said aloud to no one. She began to pace again. If she left Gabrielle in her temple in the Amazon's village, everyone would know it was her that had left the unconscious royal bard. She paced some more before she came up with the idea of leaving Gabrielle in the forest. Artemis had a plan. All she had to do was to find a scout, and then place Gabrielle's body right in her path. Then the scout would find Gabrielle and take her back to the village.
That was what Artemis had done. Only she had no idea she had started a chain of events that would effect so many people. From the northern Amazon's, past and present, to Cyrene and the people of Amphipolis, to the warrior princess herself. Without thinking of what had happened in the Amazon village a handful of moons ago, she had no idea leaving Gabrielle alone, and unconscious, on the Amazon territories was going to start a whole new mess of problems for Xena ... and lose her the guardianship of Gabrielle's soul.
It was something the Goddess wasn't even aware of, she was too busy defending herself to her father, while Calliope stood by smiling.
Sitting quietly in his white ivory throne, the most powerful God of the Gods, was still a menacing sight. There was no doubt as to who this white haired mountain of a man was. His strong chiseled jaw, and his intense black eyes, radiated the power he truly possessed. He was Zeus ... the father of creation ... the supreme ruler of man ... and he sat with judging annoyance as he listened to his children.
"She had her chance father ... and she blew it. Now it's my turn. I wouldn't let my chosen one down." The child of Zeus and Mnemosyne stood before her father in angry defiance of her sister. Calliope was the Muse of Epic Poetry and she had always thought Gabrielle should have been hers.
"She has a point my child. Gabrielle is your chosen one ... where were you?" Zeus said to Artemis, who in turn glared over at Calliope. The blond muse smiled and stuck out her tongue at her sister.
"Yes Artemis, what were you doing, and why is Gabrielle lying in a Amazon healing hut with no soul!" The two sisters sneered at each other.
"What do you mean no soul!" Zeus said as he leaned forward at this new information. His black eyes glared as his frown deepened with growing anger.
"Father let me explain," Artemis said quickly, trying to swallow up some courage to stand up to her father.
"Explain what Artemis? Why were you not there protecting Gabrielle?" Calliope crossed her arms in satisfaction. She was enjoying watching her sister squirm.
"I was there, I was there when she fell and I had her before she hit the lava, but her soul was ..."
Zeus' temper erupted as his eyes threw out lightning bolts. Both Artemis and Calliope ducked as their father vented his anger.
"What do you mean, you grabbed her? Did you interfere with her fate, young lady!" Zeus roared at the violation of the Gods sacred trust.
"Yes ... But only because Xena's fate had already been altered by Ares," Artemis stammered out quickly.
"WHAT!" Mt. Olympus shook with the explosion of Zeus' voice as the God of Gods rose from his throne.
Calliope looked at her sister in shock, she didn't know anything about what Ares had done. But she couldn't believe Artemis had just crossed the God of War.
"Where is my son?" Zeus demanded with a growl, but both of his daughters shrugged their shoulders in silence. They knew there was a time to speak and a time to remain silent. When their father got this angry, silence was their only option.
"What did you do with the warrior princess while all of this was going on?" Zeus spoke in a low tone of inquiry.
"Nothing," Artemis shrugged her shoulders, and added in a low voice, "really."
"Nothing really, Don't you think you're in enough trouble already. What did you do to Xena."
"I just ...," Zeus's eyes began to turn red. "Ok ... I took away her belief ...that Gabrielle was alive."
Zeus let go a roar of fury and he lifted his hands to his daughters. The enraged father of creation sent his daughters to their respective palaces ... without their powers to play with.
With just a mere thought, the God of Gods brought the warrior princess to her knees. He nodded to himself that he had done the right things, they were painful wounds, but he knew Xena ... and he knew the wounds would return the faith she needed.
Then Zeus turned his attention to Ares and his insubordination. Zeus intended to get to the bottom of this whole mess, and he knew somewhere behind it all was going to be his son.
Ephiny had been sitting at her table in her palace doing some work when she felt, more than heard, a presence. She raised her head slowly and stared into the sad eyes of Eponin. Ephiny dropped her head, she knew by the look on the returning warrior's tired face, the news was not good.
Eponin said nothing until she reached for a chair and sat down.
"Has Gabrielle spoken?"
Ephiny shook her head no.
The two old friends locked eyes of concern. One didn't want to ask, and the other didn't want to tell. Reluctantly the regent quietly asked what she didn't want to know.
"What did you find out?"
Eponin looked down at her hands, she couldn't look Ephiny in the eye.
"Xena's been looking for Gabrielle ... she thinks she dead." Ephiny watched Eponin struggle to contain her emotions, and she waited for the warrior to continue.
"Word is Gabrielle died trying to save her daughter, or save Xena. Most of the stories out there are not too clear."
"Trying to save her daughter ... Hope is dead, I saw that myself." Ephiny stood as a cold chill went through her. 'Had Xena lost her mind?'
"Well apparently, Xena was last seen riding hell bent for leather for the Amazon territories."
Ephiny turned around quickly and stared at Eponin.
"She's coming here?"
"No," Eponin sadly shook her head. "She was riding north."
"North?" Ephiny said in a concerning question. "There hasn't been Amazons north in years, not since Cyanne and her tribe were wiped out years ago. Why would she go north?"
"Ephiny, There's more ... She was in Amphipolis ... apparently she burned her mother's tavern to the ground!" Eponin saw the horrific look on Ephiny's face.
"She did what ... Why in the name of Artemis would Xena burn her mother's tavern?"
Eponin didn't answer right away ... The words seemed to stick in her throat. It was only the look on the regent's face that made Eponin say what she still couldn't believe.
"She was trying to kill Gabrielle."
Ephiny looked at Eponin and then slowly sat down in one of the chairs. She suddenly didn't feel so good as the disbelief wiped away any remaining guilt in the regent's conscience.
Eponin continued quietly, "If Xena lost it, would she hurt Gabrielle ... again?"
Ephiny stared above her mantelpiece, she knew she couldn't answer either of Eponin's questions, but they both knew it didn't matter. Not taking her tear filled eyes from the scroll, Ephiny spoke the words neither had wanted to say.
"Either way ... if she winds up coming here ... we've got a big problem."
Eponin stood up and walked over to the window. She looked down at the quiet village below. She waited for a moment, before she spoke again.
"I want to ride to Amphipolis ... I want to talk to Xena's mother myself."
"We'll send someone, I would prefer to have you here, Eponin. It's a good six, seven days ride there, and back. I don't want you gone that long.
The room grew quiet for a moment, both Amazons lost in their own thoughts.
"Ephiny, ... Can we be certain that Xena has lost it?"
"We can't, Ep. But we can't take a chance."
"So then what? We shoot her on sight? She's our friend Ephiny. If something has gone wrong, then she needs our help. Not us turning her away." Eponin felt like she was pleading for Xena's life.
"What ... You want us to welcome her into the village again, and then what ... wait to see if she flips out again. Eponin, she tried to kill half of us the last time she was here. I can't as Queen take that chance again. If what you say is true, she's already tried to kill Gabrielle by burning down her mother's tavern. What do you think she'll do to us? Don't you see, it's just like it was before and I'm not waiting around for Xena to do it again. I don't want to, Eponin. I have to. Do you think this is easy?"
"I didn't say it was easy Ephiny."
"I look at Xena as a sister ... and I care a great deal about her, but I have to think of what is best for my Amazons ... and for our true Queen."
Ephiny had joined Eponin at the window. The warrior turned and the two stood eye to eye. Ephiny's words were spoken very slowly and very carefully.
"Xena is not welcome on Amazon land! Not until we find out what happened or until Gabrielle can tell us. Is that understood?"
The two glared at one another. One was a Queen and one was a warrior, but that didn't stop the battle of wills between them.
"And what happens if she shows up. We kill her?"
"No ... I didn't say that."
"Well then ... what?"
"She will be told to leave."
"But what if she doesn't want to go, Ephiny. I have never known Xena to leave some place willingly, if she wanted to stay!"
"We have no other choice."
"There is always a choice ... I don't think I can do it!"
"Eponin ...You are an Amazon ... and you will follow orders."
"Yes I will, but I don't have to like it."
Eponin couldn't believe what she was hearing, but then again Ephiny couldn't believe what she was saying.
"It's a death sentence and we both know it."
"Yes ... I do. But like I said, I have to think of the safety of the village and of Gabrielle. If I thought of myself first, we would be out there looking for her. But I can't."
Ephiny turned to go just as Eponin placed a hand on her shoulder.
"I am here to follow your orders ... and I am here as your friend. I just don't want to admit you might be right. I wasn't here last time, and I know how guilty I feel." Ephiny felt the powerful arms of her childhood friend engulf her into a much-needed hug. "I'm glad I'm not you Ephiny ... I couldn't separate my feelings from my duties." The warrior whispered into the blond curls.
"I'm not sure if that makes me feel better or not Ep, but thank you."
They pulled out of the hug and Ephiny looked at her friend.
"I needed that."
"I know you did. I need to get going, I should find Solari and coordinate a plan. Who do you want to send to Amphipolis?"
"How about Agina ... She is fast and she has experience off of Amazon land." Eponin nodded an approval at Ephiny's suggestion as she made her way to the door.
From the window, Ephiny watched her go the Queen part of her knew she had made the only decision she could. But there was a part of her that was in as much despair as Eponin. Xena had saved her life and that of her friends and her son's on many occasions, but if she had lost her mind, she would be more dangerous than ever. Ephiny turned from the window as the tears fell silently down her face, all she could hope for was for Gabrielle to wake up and tell them what had happened. And with a little luck, it would be before Xena ever entered the Amazon territories.
The banging on the palace door woke Ephiny out of a sound sleep. She was awake instantly and fear immediately gripped her heart. Her first thoughts went to Xena. It had been a week since Eponin had returned, and much to her unhappiness, the Amazons had stayed on full alert. Their orders had been made very clear ... Xena was to be turned back. No further orders had been needed.
The hut door banged again.
"What is it?" Ephiny said as she crossed the room tying her top.
"Gabrielle is awake." Ephiny froze where she stood.
Zeus had returned from his little discussion with his son. It would be of no surprise that Ares wouldn't been seen around for awhile, his ego couldn't handle it when his father had to discipline him. The God of War always tried to be so nonchalant about his dealings with his father, but when Zeus had arrived at Ares temple, he knew he was in trouble. Zeus informed his son that he knew about his dealing with Dahak, and what he had done to both Xena and Gabrielle. Ares tried his fast talking charm, but it only angered his father more. The charismatic God had to promise his father he would have no more dealings with Dahak, or interfere with the Fates.
The all-powerful Zeus had not liked what he had heard from his son about this Dahak, or his daughter Hope, the child of the infamous Gabrielle, not to mention the arrival of this Destroyer. No Zeus was not pleased with his children, at all. He arrived back at Mt. Olympus, and summoned Artemis and Calliope to his side.
"I want to know all that has happened, and what parts the two of you played in what has happened to our Gabrielle."
Artemis and Calliope couldn't talk fast enough, and when they where done, Zeus stared at them in disgust.
"You two have been deplorable. These mortals are to look up to us, and between you two and my son ... I should let Xena loose on all of you. So where is Gabrielle now?"
"She is in the Amazon's village, unconscious and soulless." Artemis turned and glared at her sister.
"Calliope?" Zeus asked.
"What, I wasn't the one who put her there, Artemis was."
"Yes, but you're the one that tried to save her soul, now put it back."
Calliope looked shocked at her sister. "But I don't have her soul."
The two Goddesses looked at one another in disbelief.
"Father." Artemis pleaded.
Zeus sternly looked at Calliope.
"Father, I'm telling the truth. I don't have Gabrielle's soul."
The frustrated father looked at his two bickering children.
"Enough! So you're telling me neither of you has this poor child's soul." They both nodded.
"Then who in Tartarus has it!" he bellowed.
The Goddess of the Moon hated being banished to her palace, especially without her powers. She couldn't believe how angry her father had become. She didn't have Gabrielle's soul, she had assumed Calliope had it.
Suddenly Artemis sat up straight in her throne. She knew by the gold shimmer who was arriving.
Zeus looked down at his daughter with disappointment.
"I've been looking into some of your handy work. No, I haven't located Gabrielle's soul, but I have found out a few more interesting parts of the story you omitted. Would you care to explain to me what else you did to the warrior princess?"
Artemis' shoulders heaved with a sigh of regret.
"I took away any thoughts she might have of looking for Gabrielle at the Amazons."
Zeus shook in anger. "Un...do...it!"
He watched as his child nodded her head and then lifted her hand to the air. Zeus said nothing as his large muscular frame shimmered in gold and then disappeared
When Xena had woken up that morning, her first thought had been Gabrielle, her second thought was the Amazons.
Ephiny ran across the compound and raced into the healers hut. She smiled through tears as she looked down at Gabrielle's green eyes. The regent paused as she searched the little bard's face, and then looked back at her eyes. Something was still very wrong. Ephiny looked over at Clio who was sitting across from Gabrielle. She looked back at the little bard and then sat down on the bed next to her.
"Gabrielle ... Gabrielle can you hear me? It's Ephiny." Gabrielle's eyes may have been open, but she showed no other signs of life. Just a vacant green-eyed stare. Ephiny looked over at the healer.
"What's wrong with her?"
"I don't know?" Clio said as she sadly shook her head. "I was mixing some medicine and when I turned around her eyes were open, but there's nothing there. I don't know."
Ephiny turned back and began to run the back of her hand over the cheek of her motionless friend. She silently said a prayer, hoping someone was actually listening ... and they were.
They pondered their decision to hold onto the soul of Gabrielle, but they knew something had to be done. Maybe it was time to go and talk to Zeus.
"Do you understand now? I mean, why I did it." Zeus nodded at his solemn child, he never thought of them in such a serious formal manner.
"I also understand now, I've been giving you kids way too much leeway." He nodded and waved the lone figure to the side. Once they were out of sight, Zeus hollered for his daughters.
"Artemis! Calliope!" In an instant they stood in front of him, heads bowed out of respect and a little out of fear.
"I understand there is even more to this story than you two have said."
"What, no father I told you everything."
"Same with me, I spilled it all."
"Everything ... nothing more to add ... Artemis, you have been looking after Gabrielle for a long time, I think it's time for someone else to have a turn."
"What!" Artemis cried, but Calliope just beamed.
"You can wipe the grin off your face Calliope, she's not going to the muses either."
"What! ... but ... Then who is going to look after her."
"I am!" From behind a pillar, a solemn beauty emerged. Artemis and Calliope stared at Aphrodite, their mouths hanging open in shock.
"No way," they chimed in unison.
"Yes ... Apparently along with all the other things you have done, you two have been working overtime in keeping Gabrielle and Xena apart. Something both of you neglected to tell me about. So when Aphrodite approached me and pleaded her case to have Gabrielle as her chosen one, I said yes."
The Goddesses started to protest again, but Zeus said nothing but held up his hand, Artemis and Calliope went silent.
"It will only be temporary, for one year. Then you may all plead your cases again, but for now, Gabrielle belongs to Aphrodite in body ... and in soul."
Artemis and Calliope stared at their usually air headed sister in shock and dismay.
"It was YOU! ... You took her soul!" Artemis couldn't have been more surprised.
"Yes, it was Gabrielle's love for Xena that made her risk her own life. I thought they deserved another chance. They are soulmates, they just haven't figured that out yet. How was I suppose to know you were there, but at least you save her body. I just saved her soul." Aphrodite put her hands on her hips.
"It wouldn't have been the first time you left her unprotected." The Goddess of Love glared at her sister and Artemis took a step towards her. As Aphrodite squared her shoulders to her stronger, more powerful sister, Zeus cleared his throat. They turned to look at their father, then at each other when Aphrodite continued. "I figure the body was yours but the heart and soul are now mine."
"You have one year, my child. One year to try to show to Gabrielle that love is the answer. I wish you luck ... with Xena by her side, it should be a good challenge. Now, I believe you have a soul to return."
Aphrodite smiled at her father.
"Yes ... Yes, I do ... Later." Zeus rolled his eyes at the return of his flamboyant, hip daughter.
"Kids," he thought. The God of Gods turned his attentions to his remaining children.
Ephiny sat on the edge of Gabrielle's bed, one hand was rubbing her forehead, and the other was holding Gabrielle's. It was almost morning, and she had been at her side most of the night. Neither she nor Clio had any idea what was wrong with their Amazon Princess.
Ephiny sat up a little straighter and looked down at her hand as a frown creased her forehead. She was certain she felt her hand begin to tingle. Her mouth went dry and her eyes shot open, she had felt Gabrielle's fingers move. Ephiny's eyes darted to the bard's face, but the green eyes were still open with a vacant stare.
"Gabrielle?" The regent whispered softly as she studied the relaxed features of her friend's face.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny turned her words of concern to a command, Clio looked up from the table she was working at.
The curly haired regent watched in amazement as the color began to return to Gabrielle's face, the blank green eyes began to fill with light ... and life. A heartbeat or two later, Gabrielle blinked and look around the hut.
"Gabrielle." Ephiny gasped, her smile catching the tears of happiness rolling down her face.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle couldn't have been more surprised to see her Amazon friend.
"Where am I? What are you doing here?" Gabrielle was full of questions as she tried to remember what had happened.
"You're here, safe in the Amazon village. We found you about a week ago, unconscious, just inside our borders. You had us very scared there for awhile." Ephiny helped Gabrielle to sit up and the young bard looked around the hut with a concerning question on her face.
"Safe? ... What do you mean ... safe? Safe from who? ... Where's Xena?" Gabrielle looked puzzled at Ephiny's reaction and her heart began to flutter.
"Ephiny ... Where's Xena." The bard began to find some strength in her voice, but her concern turned to panic as she saw the color drain from the Amazon's face.
"Ephiny?" She tried to remember the last time she had seen Xena. Her heart filled with a mixture of sorrow, regret, and pain. If she could only remember why.
"Gabrielle, we don't know where Xena is."
"What ...?" She struggled to understand what was happening ... but her mind could only find emptiness in the train of thought to her memories.
"Where have you looked? We should try Amphipolis first ... Then ... Ephiny, what's wrong?" The blond bard watched with growing anxiety. "Ephiny you are looking for her ... Aren't you!" Gabrielle didn't like the feeling she was getting.
"Gabrielle we didn't know what happened to you. All we knew was you were found unconscious..." Ephiny's guilty conscience crept into her shoulders as she began to realize the grievous error she may have made. Now if Xena was anywhere near Amazon land ...
"Gabrielle, you need to remember as much as you can, and what lead you to be here." The little bard could see the apprehension in Ephiny's face and the fear in her eyes.
"Ephiny, what is going on, where is Xena? Why are you acting like this?"
"Are you looking for here or not!"
"No, we're not." Gabrielle felt the pit of her stomach fall into a churning abyss.
"Then I think we should. We'll start with Amphipolis, and if she's not there, then maybe Poteidaia."
The regent hesitated a moment, then decided Gabrielle needed to know what she did.
"Xena was in Amphipolis ... Cyrene's tavern was burned to the ground."
"I've sent Agina to check it out, but from what we know, Xena burned her own mother's tavern down ... in an attempt ... to kill you."
Gabrielle could only stare in disbelief, she searched her mind but could not come up with any memories of this ever happening. But that didn't stop a tremor of fear from going through her body.
"I take it this is news to you?"
The bard only nodded not trusting her voice at the moment. 'Why would Xena be trying to kill me?'.
"We thought ... No, I thought ... you were in danger again, and Xena was somehow to blame. I thought somehow you had come to us for protection ... Oh Gabrielle, if I am wrong ... I was only doing what I thought was best."
Gabrielle's eyes opened in horror. Surprised at her own strength, considering she hadn't been on her feet in weeks, Gabrielle threw back her covers and started to stand. Clio rushed from the shadows to stop her.
"You need to stay in bed Princess Gabrielle, you haven't been well."
Gabrielle looked up startled, she had thought she and Ephiny were alone. She had no idea who this attractive older woman was.
"I'm getting up, and going to find my friend, since no one else is. I don't know who you are, but you're not going to stop me."
"Princess Gabrielle please ... my name is Cleotra, I am the healer here."
"Clio leave us." The healer looked at Ephiny and then turned back to the table she had been working at.
"Gabrielle, I know you're upset, but I didn't know what else to do. Please ... the last time something like this happened ..." Ephiny saw the green eyes close with the pain of remembrance. " ... I'm sorry, but until I knew what was going on ... my priorities are to protect the Amazons, and that includes you."
Gabrielle sat very quiet, trying to calm her emotions and listen to what Ephiny was saying. She was also trying to remember how she had ended up in the Amazon territory.
"The last time Xena was here, might I remind you she destroyed half the village, and wounded the other half. I couldn't take any chances."
Gabrielle had calmed down a bit, as Ephiny's words were finally sinking in.
"What do you mean by ... not taking any chances?"
"The forests are filled with armed warriors ... they have orders not to let Xena on to our land. She is to be turned back ... by whatever means ... possible." Ephiny's voice broke as she spoke the last words.
"Are you telling me, they have orders to shoot her!" Gabrielle couldn't believe what Ephiny was saying to her. She tried to swallow the dryness in her throat and the anxiety rising from the pit of her stomach.
"Only if she refuses to leave." Even to the regent's own ears, her words sounded hollow and meaningless.
"Ephiny, this is Xena. She doesn't take orders well, especially when it comes to looking for me."
"Can you walk." Ephiny asked.
"Believe or not I feel fine and I'll feel even better when we find Xena." Ephiny held her hand out to Gabrielle. As the bard took the offer of friendship and assistance, she was surprised at the tremors she could feel coming from her chosen Queen. Gabrielle stopped and pulled Ephiny back to face her.
"I understand Ephiny and its going to be ok. You were doing what had to be done, I'm not sure if I would have had the courage to make that kind of decision. Xena hurt you all very badly the last time she was here." Gabrielle held her hand up and stopped Ephiny from replying. "... I know, we've been over this many times you and I. The truth is I think Xena would be relieved to see you protecting me, regardless of what she has done. You did the right thing, Eph. You put your personal feelings aside, and put the Amazons first. I'm proud of what you did. I know it couldn't have been easy making the decision ... knowing what maybe the out come." Ephiny didn't try to hide the tears, the burden she had been carrying alone had weighed on her greatly. Gabrielle put her arms around her friend, and held her tightly.
"I told you there would be times being the Queen would be very lonely," the bard whispered in the regent's ear.
"Now, can we call off the dogs before someone shoots my best friend." Gabrielle's attempt to lighten the heavy mood had not gone unnoticed or unrewarded. But Ephiny's small smile did nothing to calm the fear gripping at Gabrielle's own heart.
Ephiny opened the door to the hut as all the guards looked up in shock and surprise. The last they had heard, Gabrielle had only opened her eyes, and yet there she stood, her green eyes alive and staring.
"You really were nervous, weren't you?" She whispered to Ephiny as she counted the Amazons guarding the healing hut.
"Solana, find the fastest runners we have still in the village and start sending out the word. Xena is not to be harmed, but welcomed as a friend of the Amazons. Understood!"
"Yes, my Queen. Happily understood. Let's go!" Solana smiled at her two Queens and then quickly left with the rest of the guards. Moments later, Ephiny spotted all of them taking off into the forest, three scouts were leading the way.
"Well get everyone back in, except the scouts on border patrol. Then this afternoon we'll start searching for our missing warrior princess." Ephiny felt relief at finally disbanding her earlier orders. She turned to look at Gabrielle, who suddenly had a strange look on her face. She turned to take a hold of Gabrielle's arm.
"What's wrong, are you ok?" Concern was written all over the regent's face.
"I don't know ... I don't ... feel right." Gabrielle's face pulled into a frown.
"Maybe you should go back and see Clio ... you are a little pale."
"Forget it Ephiny ... I'm going to look for Xena."
"I'm just saying I think we should stay here. We will be informed the moment she steps on Amazon land."
Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and then her eyes went to the forest.
"Why don't we get something to eat and then I'll take you up to my place. Once all the warriors are back in, we'll start sending out parties to look for our missing warrior princess." Ephiny watched as Gabrielle pondered the offer.
"There is no point in leaving now ... we need to formulate some kind of search pattern."
Gabrielle slowly nodded in agreement.
"Come on, we'll eat as we pick through that brain of yours for some answers."
Gabrielle nodded, and slowly followed Ephiny to the dining hall. She knew she was hungry, but her mind had already started to sift through her memories.
There was very little consumption of food as the two went back and forth, trying to figure out what had happened. The few Amazons still left in the village had all but left them alone. Suddenly Gabrielle's mouth dropped, her eyes grew wide and her face had started to ashen.
"Gabrielle, what is it?"
"Hope was alive." Neither knew what the full effect of those words had on each other.
Ephiny remembered with vivid clarity the words Eponin had said to her when she had returned from looking for Xena. "Xena burned her mother's tavern down trying to kill Gabrielle." It now dawned on Ephiny the only other plausible explanation. 'Xena hadn't been trying to kill Gabrielle, she had been trying to kill Hope!' The regent's entire body shivered.
Gabrielle was totally unaware of what her words had just done to Ephiny, as she watched her memories playing back the last moments of ... her life.
"I was falling to my death, and someone grabbed me." The bard's words were spoken hesitantly as she stared into space. Ephiny stared at her, 'what in Tartarus is going on'. Gabrielle came back from her vision and looked at her friend.
"I should have died, Eph. I knew Xena couldn't kill Hope, so I had to. How is it possible that I survived?" She swallowed the reality of what she now knew to be the truth, "I threw my body at her, and we fell into this ... this pit. I knew I was going die, but I wanted it to be me and not Xena." Gabrielle brought her hands to her mouth. "The look on her face as I was falling ... I knew I had hurt her, but it was me or her, and I wasn't going to let her die for Hope."
Ephiny sat utterly speechless. Once again she thought of what she had ordered, and the repercussion that could have come of it.
"Why am I not dead Ephiny, that pit was full of molten lava. The heat alone should have killed me."
"I don't know Gabrielle, maybe it was Artemis who saved you."
Ephiny pushed herself up from the table. "When you finish eating, come up to the palace. We'll take a look at some of the maps to see where we should start looking."
"Just let me finish this, and I'll walk with you."
"No, you need to eat. Join me when you're done. We can't start looking until some of the warriors are back anyway."
Gabrielle knew how much the waiting was going to drive her crazy.
Ephiny had taken two steps out of the dining hall when she heard the bird call in the distance. Her newly eaten breakfast turned over in her stomach as she stopped. The next birdcall was much louder, and there was no mistaking it this time. The regent could see she wasn't the only one to hear it. The few Amazons in the village were all on their feet at the call of alarm.
"Oh by the Gods, NO!" Ephiny said aloud as her fear tore at her body and soul. She ran in the direction the alarm had come from, the whole time praying it wasn't what she knew it was. When she saw the panic look on the scout face, she knew her new orders had been too late.
"We didn't know, my Queen." the scout puffed, "we didn't get the new orders until we had started back."
"What happened Elious?" Ephiny begged for information, while her eyes scanned the forest for signs of the arriving party.
"We spotted her before she entered our land, she knew we were there, but we didn't show ourselves until Eponin gave the word."
Ephiny's heart went out to the quiet warrior. Eponin had been right all along, but Ephiny had forced her to go against her own beliefs, and now she had been a part of whatever had happened. Never before had Ephiny ever regretted her decisions as Queen.
The regent closed her eyes and prayed. "Tell me Xena left. Tell me she turned around and is waiting outside of our borders."
"No, my Queen, she gave us no choice, we didn't know about the new orders."
Ephiny's knees began to weaken, it felt like her blood was leaving her body.
Elious reached out to steady her Queen, when Ephiny turned to say thank you, the scout's eyes were not on her, but looking wide eyed over her shoulder. Ephiny's curls flew as she spun her head, she didn't have to look to know. Her feet were moving before she even saw the pale face of Gabrielle just behind her.
"Ephiny?" The regent wrapped her arms around the shaking blond bard. She held her tight, the tears streaming down both their faces. Ephiny closed her eyes and lifted her face to the skies. 'By the Gods, what have I done?'
Elious looked from Ephiny to Gabrielle, the scout was in total shock. She didn't even know Gabrielle was awake, suddenly she realized what had just happened.
"Ephiny, my Queen. They're bring her in, she's not dead. Xena isn't dead."
Ephiny looked over at the scout, her mouth was open, but no words would come out.
"It was Eponin's orders. Once we brought her down, she said Xena was no longer a threat, and could be brought in to the healer. It was on the way back they found out your orders had be rescinded." Ephiny spotted movement in the forest as Gabrielle tightened her grip around her waist.
"Are you alright with this?" Ephiny looked down into the ashen face of her friend. Gabrielle could only manage a slight nod.
"How bad are Xena's injuries?" The regent asked the scout, before Elious could answer, Ephiny turned to Gabrielle. "Maybe you should wait in the palace. I'll be there once I find out how she is." Gabrielle gave no indications that she even heard her.
They stood side by side as the Amazons began to break from the trees. Their solemn looks told the regent she was not the only one regretting her actions. They watched as the make shift litter carrying Xena's unconscious body came towards them. Without looking, Ephiny knew, it was Solari and Eponin who were carrying their wounded friend.
The Amazons stopped as Ephiny and Gabrielle both gasped at the appearance of the unconscious warrior. Gabrielle's hand came up to her mouth as she took a step toward the litter and the woman that she loved. With a heart wrenching moan, the bard felt her entire world begin to swirl around her. Ephiny was quickly by her side, refusing to leave her go. The regent herself felt shaky, almost to the point of nausea, she couldn't keep her eyes off of Xena's still body.
The Queen reached out to touch the hand of the fallen warrior princess. Ephiny was shocked by the appearance of her friend. The arrows protruding from her body and the mass of cuts, scrapes and bruises littering her pale and pasty frame. Ephiny could see the evidence Xena had been through more than just a few battles, some of her injuries were obviously older than others. Her eyes fell back on the Amazon arrows and she closed her eyes to her guilt and shame.
Steeling her emotions away, she held Gabrielle tightly as she lifted her eyes to Eponin. The unspoken words were very clear between the two old friends. They had both done what they had to ... they were Amazons with responsibilities, now they just had to live with the consequences of their actions.
Eponin looked over to one of her fellow warriors.
"Help Solari take Xena to the healers hut." The warrior nodded and took the litter from her leader.
"I'm ... I'm going with her." Gabrielle's voice was barely audible, but Ephiny knew what the young bard had said.
"I'll be right there." Ephiny said as her and Eponin watched them all go. The moment they were out of earshot the regent turned to the quiet warrior.
"We spotted her at daybreak. I waited until I had everyone in position ... she knew we were there, and she knew something was wrong. So did I ... she looked like the walking dead, before we even touched her." The warrior's eyes never left the litter as she watched them pack the body of her friend into the healer's hut. Eponin finally looked Ephiny in the eyes. It was hard to tell which of them felt more guilty, or more remorseful.
"We told her she wasn't welcome, and that she had to leave ... But I could tell by the look on her face she had no intentions of turning around. We fired a couple of warning shots, she didn't even blink. So I left the trees and had a face to face with her. I should have known then ... I could see it in her eyes." Ephiny made no comments, she just let the warrior vent her pain and agony at what they had done to their friend.
"She looked terrible, Eph. At first I thought maybe she had lost it, her eyes were so empty and lifeless. I begged her to leave, to turn around, but she just kept coming. The first two arrows didn't even faze her ... Then she asked me about Gabrielle, I knew then Xena was looking, not hunting, for her. She never even gave me a chance to answer. The look on her face ... It was like she ... she gave up. Ephiny ... ," Eponin turned to her friend for comfort, "she walked right into to the wall of arrows."
Ephiny put her hands on the shoulders of the normally unemotional warrior, she was thankful for Eponin's sake, that they were very much alone.
"Was that how many hit her, Ep?" Ephiny tried to think if she saw any broken off shafts. But she couldn't think clearly, all she could think about was what she had seen.
"You mean other than the warnings shots in the thigh and the shoulder?" Ephiny nodded at Eponin's question
"One! ... Twenty of our best warriors, and you only hit her with that one arrow?" Ephiny stared at her in disbelief.
"Yes ... But did you take a good look at that one. Ephiny, it is buried deep in the center of her chest," Eponin paused before continuing, " and it's moving ... with every beat of her heart!"
Clio shooed all of the Amazons out of the hut and then looked down at the warrior princess. The healer wasn't sure where to start. She tried to ignore the desperate plea on the bard's face, Gabrielle's presence was not helping the grievous situation. The arrows in Xena's leg and shoulder were buried deep into the warrior's flesh, but they weren't too serious. No, the critical problem was the arrow deeply embedded into the center of Xena's chest. The steel shaft had missed the brass swirls of warrior's armor, and had found its way through her dark leathers. Clio's eyes could only watch as the shaft twitched with every rhythmic beat of Xena's heart. The healer sat slowly down on the chair next to the bed. There was nothing she could do, and she knew it. The arrow was buried into the solid muscle of Xena's heart, and she knew if she tried to remove it ...
Gabrielle had not uttered a word since entering the hut, Clio looked over at the shaking bard, and she tried to think of something soothing to say. Light flooded the room as Ephiny opened the door and walked slowly to the warrior's side. Eponin stopped at the doorway, she didn't want to move any closer.
"Clio, how is she?" The look on the healer's face gave the Queen the answer she didn't want to hear.
The regent sank down beside the bed and put her arms around Gabrielle. Ephiny tried not to stare at the beat of Xena's heart vibrating through the shaft of the arrow.
Ephiny swallowed, but made no attempt at wiping away her tears. She put her hand to Gabrielle's cheek and wished she had something better to say.
"Gabrielle ... There is nothing we can do for her." The shaking bard looked blankly at Ephiny, then her own green eyes began to tear.
Gabrielle felt numb. It was all too unreal, even when she looked down at the battered body of her friend. She saw the wounds, she saw all the cuts and bruises, old and new. Her eyes went from one arrow to another, until they stopped on the one echoing the beat of Xena's heart. The green eyes watched as the shaft pulsed with the life of the warrior princess.
"Can't we just take it out?" Gabrielle's voice sounded like that of a small child, no one thought it strange as she asked the naive and innocent question.
"We can't Gabrielle ... it will kill her." Ephiny placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
The bard never felt the touch as she knelt down beside the bed, putting her face inches from Xena's. Her fingers began to trace the injuries that marred the warrior's features. Gabrielle's mind flashed to the last time she had seen her, and the look she had gotten from those blue eyes. She would never forget the pain and desperation that went across Xena's face. There had been too much pain, it seemed to be all they had shared lately. An anguished cry escaped through Gabrielle's lips and Ephiny immediately put her arms around her.
"All we seem to do is hurt one another," Gabrielle said in a whisper. She knew Ephiny was holding her, but her eyes never left her warrior's face.
With the back of her fingertips, the bard slowly touched the green bruise on Xena's cheek.
"All I ever wanted to do was to be with you. To love and care for you and all I ever did was cause you pain. I took away your son, I...
"Gabrielle, don't. That's not true and you know it. Xena wouldn't want you to believe that." Ephiny said.
The little bard ignored the comment, and rose up and gently kissed Xena's cheek. She was startled by the warmth of her bronze skin. She put her forehead to Xena's and closed her eyes.
Gabrielle sniffed loudly, ignoring the tears splashing down on the warrior's face. There were so many things left unsaid, the little bard knew there would never be peace in her soul.
Gabrielle pressed her cheek on to Xena's and reveled in the warmth of the warrior's skin.
"Xena, I love you." She felt her words vibrate through the bone and tissue of Xena's skin. She didn't have to see the arrow moving, she could hear the beat in her ears. "I just wish I had told you sooner."
"Me too." She felt the brush of air against her ear, and she looked up just as the blue eyes began to open.
"Xena!" The warrior's name came out in an anguished sob, but the word was clear enough for all to hear.
The warrior looked up into the shimmering, bright green eyes, she knew these were the eyes she had been searching for. The warrior princess had finally found her Gabrielle, and no matter what the cost, she finally felt her life was whole again.
Xena's words were a mere whisper, but Gabrielle could hear every one.
"I thought you were dead, I looked for you everywhere."
"I think I was, but I'm not. I'm here and I love you."
Xena's eyes slowly closed as the words comforted her aching heart. Gabrielle watched with fear, but when she looked to the arrow, the shaft showed Xena's heart was still beating.
"Xena?" It was whispered in question, more than of a name. The warrior pulled her eyes open and stared at the face of her bard.
"Gabrielle, I love you too ... and don't you ever leave me again." Xena watched as a change came over Gabrielle's face, this was not the response she was expecting. Her dark eyebrows knitted with question, causing the bard's tears to flow even harder.
"I'm not the one in trouble Xena." The warrior's eyes followed the look of the woman she loved so dearly, and they stopped and opened wider in amazement at the arrow in her chest. She tried to smile at Gabrielle, but it only made her look sadder.
"Doesn't look good, huh?" Gabrielle only shook her head at the warrior's attempt at humor and the smirk on her face.
Out of the corner of her blue eyes, Xena finally noticed the others in the hut. She said nothing as she scanned the solemn faces of Ephiny, Eponin, and the third person, who was obviously the healer.
Xena looked back at Ephiny and with an apologetic smile asked the regent. "How's the arm?"
Ephiny tried to laugh, but the tears kept coming and she turned and put her head into Eponin's chest. The warrior put her arms around her friend, and looked at Xena. The two warriors said nothing, their eyes said it all. Eponin nodded, and Xena looked back at Gabrielle.
The sun's rays were now reflecting off the flowing crystals of tears running down the bard's face. Xena reached up slowly and tried to brush them away. It only seemed to make it worse.
"Hey, that's enough. I didn't search the known world for you to have you stand there and cry. I'm not going anywhere, Gabrielle. It's not my time, just like it wasn't yours."
"Xena ... the arrow is in your heart. We can't take it out, it will kill you."
"No it won't Gabrielle. You're going to have to trust me, I've seen the future, and believe me ... this isn't it."
Gabrielle looked down at Xena, she wondered if the warrior was becoming delusional.
"The future? ... The future, you're an oracle now?" Gabrielle looked at the others in the room, but no one offered any advice.
"Look," Xena held up her injured hand. "Take the bandage off, please."
Gabrielle looked from the soiled cotton to the firm belief radiating out of Xena's blue eyes. Partly to keep Xena happy, and partly to ease her own curiosity, Gabrielle slowly unwound the dirty cloth. Her green eyes squinted at the thick scab in the center of Xena's palm, she had no idea what it was from or what it proved. The warrior brought her hand up and smiled confidently.
"They're still there. This is how I knew you were still alive, Gabrielle. It's our future, don't you see? How can I have a future if I die today?"
Gabrielle didn't know what to say. But if she had learned anything in her travels over the years with the warrior princess, it was two things. First: Never try to explain what you don't understand, and Second: Always have faith in your friends.
The bard smiled as her hand came up to Xena's cheek, she took a big breath and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she turned to everyone still silently standing around Xena's bed. No one said a word, they were as confused as she was.
"Take it out." Xena said firmly, her eyes never leaving the face she had so missed.
"No Xena, please."
"Gabrielle, take out the arrow." Xena knew her energy wouldn't last forever, it was now ... or never.
Gabrielle hung her head, she wanted to believe, for Xena's sake, but she knew she couldn't do it. She looked at Xena and the warrior closed her eyes and held up her hand. Gabrielle intertwined their fingers, she held on tight as she felt Xena's scabs press against her own palm. The bard said a silent prayer to Artemis, then looked at Clio, and nodded.
The healer wasn't certain she could even do it, but she walked forward at Gabrielle's request. Her shaking hand reached slowly, and just as she took a hold of the arrow Xena's eyes flew open.
"No!" The warrior screamed, but it didn't matter, Clio had already pulled her hand back in pain. Everyone turned and looked as Clio turned her hand over to reveal a burn she had gotten from the arrow.
"What in the ... " Ephiny looked from her wounded healer to the arrow still in Xena's chest.
"It ... it has to ... be Gabrielle." Xena was starting to gasp. She knew what it was, and she knew it could kill her if not removed. "It ... has to be ... Gabrielle."
"Xena, what is it." Gabrielle and Eponin both looked closer at the arrow. Eponin's eyebrows shot up.
"It isn't even an Amazon arrow!"
"Gabrielle ... take ... it ... out." The warrior knew she only had moments, for once the origin of the arrow was discovered ...
Gabrielle looked from the slowing movement of the arrow, to the whitening face of her warrior. She knew what she had to do. She leaned forward, her hand ready to grab the arrow, as she placed a kiss onto Xena's lips.
"Don't you leave me ... Do you hear me? ... Don't you dare leave me alone? ... I love you Xena." Gabrielle took a firm grip of the arrow ... and pulled.
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Continue to Part 3
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