Xena rode away from Gabrielle, her thoughts and emotions in a whirl. Nikias prattled on and on about meaningless things, until Xena finally glared at him and he fell silent under the weight of her stare.
Time passed slowly as Nikias led Xena towards the farms. I guess I should be grateful to this fool,' she thought to herself. He gave me the excuse I needed to get away from those two. Maybe now I can finally sort through all of this.' Not particularly paying attention to where she was and what she was doing, Xena allowed herself to dwell on the situation with Gabrielle. She could see where she had gotten the wrong idea about Cor. But why would she assume that Xena wouldn't want her around if she and Cor were to get married? She hadn't acted like that when they were with Marcus...of course with Marcus there had never been any real possibility of his staying. Still, I thought we meant something to each other...I accused her of just killing time with me...Is that really how she feels about our relationship?'
Caught up in her thoughts and concerns about Gabrielle, Xena didn't sense the ambush until an instant before she heard the sounds of men charging out of the trees and down into the ravine she had just entered. Knowing the odds were against her, but determined not to go down without a fight, she drew her chakram and sent it flying towards a group of men. She watched in satisfaction as it bounced off several of them, knocking them from their horses and wounding a few others in the process. Readying herself to make a run for it, she reached down to pull Nikias into the saddle behind her. To her astonishment, he braced himself and pulled her down from Argo, rolling clear of her in the process.
Cursing herself for her inattention and stupidity, Xena drew her sword, determined to take as many of her attackers down with her as she could, and hoping in the back of her mind that she would somehow be able to reach Argo. Viciously swinging her sword in a wide arc, she fought off several of her attackers, going for quick kills whenever possible, knowing that she was vastly outnumbered. To her surprise the attackers pressed on, heedless of their own safety and, eventually, through sheer force of numbers, she was overwhelmed. The last thing she heard was a sound behind her, before pain exploded in the back of her head and she fell into unconsciousness.
Slowly Xena became aware of her surroundings. Anger flooded through her as she remembered what had happened, but her earlier training helped her control her emotions. Knowing that her only weapon now was the element of surprise, she pretended to still be unconscious, while she carefully assessed her situation. She was bound, gagged and had a hood over her head. Certainly not taking any chances, are they?' she thought wryly. She was tied to the back of a horse, but she knew that it was not Argo. Wherever they were taking her they were obviously in a hurry, judging by the beating she was taking from bouncing on the animal's back.
After what seemed like forever, she began to hear the sounds of the city. The horses slowed as they approached and she heard the sounds growing louder and more distinct. She could hear the laughter of the guards as they rode through what she assumed were the gates, and sensed the stares of people surrounding them as a sudden hush accompanied their movements through the town. Soon they came to a halt and she felt hands holding her down while she was untied. Unceremoniously she was pulled from the horse. She landed hard on the ground and was immediately kicked in the side and ordered to get up. Knowing it would do no good to continue to pretend to be unconscious, she struggled to her feet. She was dragged along and led blindly for several minutes before finally coming to a stop.
"My Lord, as ordered we have captured and brought Xena to you," she heard Nikias say.
"Excellent!" The voice was familiar, but Xena was unable to place it. "Remove her hood and then you may leave to collect your reward."
Blinking several times at the sudden light, Xena struggled to focus on the man standing in front of her. She recognized the face from her past. "Traymon," she said coolly.
He smiled evilly. "You remembered me. I'm touched," he said.
"Well I always thought so," she said with a cocky grin. "You didn't need to go to all this trouble Traymon, a simple invitation would have been enough."
"Same old Xena...haven't changed a bit have you? First things first though." Lashing out suddenly, he slapped her hard across the face.
Xena could taste the blood in her mouth, as she slowly straightened to face him again. Taking a moment to collect herself, she regarded Traymon calmly. "So much for small talk, huh?"
"That was payback for the last time we met when you slapped me in front of my men. I've owed you that one for a long time."
"So now we're even?" she asked with a sneer.
He chuckled. "Oh no Xena...we have much to do before we're even."
"What do you want with me Traymon?" she asked in a bored tone, tired of his silly games.
"Revenge. Pure sweet revenge. Six years ago you killed my son. Now at last you will pay for that. And the price, I assure you, will be high." Leaning closer to her, he whispered softly. "I'm going to kill you Xena, but not quickly, oh no, not quickly. And before I'm done you will be begging me to end your worthless life," he gloated, pure, unadulterated joy showing on his face.
"Don't count on it Traymon." Xena said coldly. "I don't make a habit of groveling to pigs."
Deliberately he drew his sword and, placing the tip under Xena's chin, he slowly lifted her head until her neck was exposed. Xena simply glared at him defiantly. "This will be a great achievement, bringing the Warrior Princess to her knees, begging like a coward. You know Xena, I've always considered torture an art form...and you, you will be my greatest masterpiece!" Turning his sword around, he struck her with the pommel, driving her to the floor and knocking her unconscious. Sheathing his blade, he turned to two of the guards standing nearby. "Take her to her cell and lock her up...I'll be there shortly," he ordered, as he smiled to himself. Today had been one of the best days he had had in ages, and things could only get better now that he had Xena.
Gabrielle waited impatiently in the tavern for Cor to return. All the while, she kept a sharp eye on the door, worried that Nikias might wander in and recognize her. The tavern appeared quite popular with the townspeople, and Gabrielle was soon doing her best to question the locals about their city, as well as everyone and everything in it. Her open face and friendly smile quickly endeared her to the patrons and soon they were providing her with all the information she could want. It didn't take long to learn that the city's name was Uthranis and that the local lord's name was Traymon. Traymon was apparently not well thought of by the common people; vicious, ruthless, and cruel were the words she most often heard associated with his name. His soldiers were not generally well liked either, although there were some exceptions. All in all, the city did not appear to be a happy, peaceful place, Gabrielle decided wryly.
Eventually though, she got all the information out of them that she could, and retired to an out of the way table where she could keep an eye on the door and still be left alone. As she sat nursing her drink, a young barmaid approached her hesitantly. "Excuse me, but aren't you the bard Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle looked up at her in surprise. The woman didn't appear threatening, but the bard wasn't willing to take any chances. She instinctively gripped her staff more tightly before she replied, "Yes, I'm Gabrielle."
The woman smiled broadly. "I thought I recognized you. You travel with Xena don't you?" She looked around hopefully. "Is she here with you?"
"Not exactly," Gabrielle answered cautiously. "How do you know who I am?"
Sitting down next to Gabrielle, the woman smiled in a friendly manner. "You and Xena saved my sister's village, Melphissa. It was months ago, so you probably don't even remember it, but I was visiting my sister at the time and I'll never forget the two of you!"
Gabrielle vaguely remembered the incident. It had been much like the battle they had recently fought in Trezine, although on a much smaller scale. Reassured that the woman intended no trouble, Gabrielle smiled for the first time. "Actually, I do remember Melphissa. I'm glad we were able to help your sister's village."
To her surprise, the young woman didn't get up to leave, but instead leaned in closer. "So," she whispered, "are you and Xena here to help the rebellion?"
"Rebellion?" Gabrielle asked in surprise. "No, I don't know anything about that. What are you talking about?"
"The rebels are getting ready to overthrow Lord Traymon. I assumed since you were here that you and Xena had come to help. Lord Traymon is an evil man, no better than the warlord who was attacking my sister's village."
Considering what she had heard so far that evening, Gabrielle was inclined to agree. Still, she knew that she'd been getting a decidedly one-sided look at the local lord. "Well, we don't have any plans like that, but I can mention it to Xena when I see her," Gabrielle said neutrally.
The woman broke into a huge smile. "That would be wonderful. With you and Xena fighting with us, I know we'd be successful. By the way, I'm Sirrestia," she said, holding out her hand, blushing as she realized that she had only just remembered to introduce herself.
"Good to meet you Sirrestia," Gabrielle said, as she took the woman's hand.
Sirrestia smiled and rose from her seat. "I need to get back to work. I'll bring my brother over to meet you when he gets here. He can tell you more about our plans."
Gabrielle watched her walk away, noticing as she did that Cor had finally arrived. Looking around, he caught sight of her and walked to her table, stopping momentarily at the bar to grab a mug of ale. Gabrielle rose and switched seats, allowing him to have the chair with its back to the wall. As he took a drink, Gabrielle studied him carefully, realizing that she hardly recognized him. The funny, gentle man she had spent the last several days with was gone. Ever since they had found Xena's chakram, Cor had been cold, hard and remote, and she was finally able to see how he had fit into Xena's army. There was a deadliness about him at the moment, a pitiless dark fury, a barely suppressed rage that in some ways resembled Xena at her worst. Gabrielle was just grateful that none of Cor's anger was directed towards her. "You talked to him?" she finally asked, although it was more a statement than a question.
He nodded. "You were right; he was the farmer. The whole thing was a setup to capture her. He led her into the ambush and then they brought her here to Lord Traymon, the leader of this city." He took a long drink before continuing. "On pain of death, they were under orders to capture her alive and keep her in good health. Nikias turned her over to Traymon several days ago and hasn't seen her since, so he couldn't give me any more information. He was pretty sure she was still alive though."
"So she's in Traymon's fortress?"
"Apparently. Nikias said that the last he'd heard, she'd been taken to the prison there. He gave me a general idea of the layout of the fortress, as well as the locations of the guards and such."
"Can we get in there?"
He sighed. "I'm working on a plan. At the moment, though, I'm coming up blank. What about you? Were you able to find out anything that would be helpful?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Maybe," she said, before telling him everything she had learned. When she finished, Cor looked at her thoughtfully.
"A rebellion huh? Traymon definitely deserves to be tossed out. I wonder if we can use this to our advantage?" He looked around the tavern. "Where's your friend?"
Gabrielle searched for Sirrestia. With a soft gasp, she caught sight of the barmaid. "That's her, over there with that soldier." Before she could figure out what to do, Sirrestia saw her and smiled and then began to walk towards them with the soldier in tow.
Cor shifted uneasily when he saw the soldier approach. The man was nearly the same size as he was and, from the looks of it, he was a skilled fighter as well. Preparing for the worst, he readied himself for whatever was to come.
Sirrestia smiled when she reached their table. "Gabrielle, I'd like you to meet my brother, Kieros."
Gabrielle gaped at the soldier. "Your brother, but I thought....," she stopped, too confused to continue.
Sirrestia and her brother sat down at the table. "It's okay, he joined to get inside information. You can trust him," she said smiling. Gabrielle relaxed slightly, noticing that Cor did as well. A clatter in the kitchen caused Sirrestia to jump up quickly. "I'd better take care of that," she said. Turning to her brother, she prodded him gently. "Talk to them. Convince them to join us."
As she walked away, Kieros smiled indulgently at his little sister. Turning back to Gabrielle and Cor, he grinned. "Excuse my sister, she gets a bit...caught up in things at times." He looked them over carefully, assessing them. "My sister told me all about you Gabrielle, but I don't remember her ever mentioning a man when she talked about you and Xena."
Gabrielle nodded. "This is Cor. He's a friend of ours, but we haven't been traveling together that long."
Kieros studied Cor for a few moments, noticing that Cor was observing him as well. "And Xena? Where is she?"
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, looking at Cor before answering. Seeing him nod, she told Kieros the truth about Xena. He considered her words thoughtfully for several long moments. "So you intend to break into the fortress and rescue her. That's not going to be easy. The prison is well guarded and, from what you've said, I'd guess Traymon considers Xena a prize. That'll make it even harder to reach her, let alone get her back out." He sat back in his chair, lost in thought, while he considered possible options.
Finally he reached a decision. "I'll help you; it's the least I can do after you saved my sister's village." He cleared his throat. "Cor, I have a plan, but I need you to be honest with me. You look like a capable fighter, but truthfully, how good are you?"
"I was once Xena's second in command," Cor said simply.
Kieros nodded. "Good, you may well need that skill if this is to work. You're about my size, I can lend you one of my uniforms and we can go in tomorrow and rescue your friend...."
"Not tomorrow...today, tonight."
"No, tonight won't work, but tomorrow my plan can save your friend." Seeing Cor about to protest, he held up his hand to stop him. "I know you want to go as soon as possible, but listen to me first. Tomorrow, Lord Traymon is throwing a great feast. Every year on that date he has a huge celebration to honor the memory of his son. He buys enormous amounts of food and wine and invites nearly all of his guards to join in. They'll start drinking at sunrise and, by early afternoon when the feast starts, at least half of them will be drunk. Even the guards that are still on duty wind up drinking quite a bit, and there aren't many that are actually on duty' tomorrow anyway. Now, my sister doesn't know this yet, but we're already planning an attack tomorrow when they are most vulnerable...during the feast. And that's the best time for you to rescue your friend."
Cor considered Kieros' plan carefully, finally realizing it was their only real chance of success. "Okay, we'll do it your way. Tell me more."
Gabrielle had been listening quietly and was growing concerned over the direction the conversation was taking. "Yes, tell us more about how we're going to get Xena back out afterwards," she said deliberately.
"No Gabrielle, you're not going," Cor immediately objected.
"Because it's too dangerous? Forget it Cor, Xena pulls that crap on me all the time...you're not going to do it now too. You and Xena may be...." She paused and took a steadying breath. "Xena is my best friend Cor. I'm going with you."
"Gabrielle, be reasonable. How do you think you're going to fool them into thinking you're a guard too? Kieros' uniforms are not going to fit you!"
Gabrielle set her jaw stubbornly. "Then we'll come up with an alternative plan for getting me in. I'm not staying behind and that's final."
Kieros couldn't help smiling at the young bard's determination. "Well...there will be a lot of drinking and partying going on...." Seeing Cor's incredulous look, he laughed shortly. "No, I don't mean they won't notice she's a woman. But she wouldn't be the only woman around. Traymon brings in women to...well to dance and entertain the soldiers, and quite a few soldiers bring in their own personal companionship for the day. They'd probably just think she was your woman if they saw her."
Cor sighed. He knew that if he was in Gabrielle's position he would never agree to stay behind. Shrugging his shoulders helplessly, he agreed. "Okay...let's hear the rest of your plan."
Gabrielle and Cor said goodnight to Kieros and his sister and gratefully went to the room that Sirrestia had arranged for them; it turned out that the inn belonged to her and Kieros. Gabrielle sat on the bed, thinking about Xena and what they were going to have to do the next day. "Cor, do you think the plan will work?" she asked quietly.
"It's a good plan Gabrielle, better than anything we could have come up with without Kieros' help." Cor sat down in a chair, going over what needed to be done before they went to the fortress. More importantly, though, there were things that needed to be said. He had been struggling with this issue all evening, and he'd finally decided what he wanted to do. "Gabrielle?" he asked quietly.
"Earlier, when we were talking to Kieros, you started to say something and then changed your mind. When you were trying to convince me that you were coming along, you said that Xena and I may be....' but you never finished it. What were you planning on saying?"
Embarrassed, Gabrielle didn't know how to answer. She had thought he had missed that comment, but apparently he hadn't. "I don't really remember that Cor," she finally said.
"Yes, you do. What were you going to say?"
Turning away from him, she rose and walked to the window, staring out at nothing. "I was going to say that you and Xena may be lovers, but that she's still my best friend, and that I was going to go too."
"Ahhh. Well, the problem with that statement, Gabrielle, is that Xena and I aren't lovers. We never have been, and we never will be."
Gabrielle turned to look at him, disbelief and hope warring inside her for control. "But I saw you...and I heard you talking...."
He shrugged. "I don't know what you saw or heard, but you can believe me when I say that Xena and I are friends; nothing more, nothing less. She's just not my type."
"Not your type?" Gabrielle looked at him incredulously. "How can she not be your type?" Gabrielle couldn't believe she was actually arguing against her own interests, but Cor's statement was the most bizarre thing she had ever heard. "She's beautiful, she's intelligent, she's brave...."
"And she's a she."
"What? What are you talking about?" Gabrielle's brain was frantically working overtime, trying to figure out what Cor was saying.
"She's a she. A woman. Therefore, not my type."
"But...but what about Sairen?"
He nodded. "Sairen was my type."
Gabrielle frowned, trying to make sense of the last few minutes. "Sairen was a man?"
Cor nodded. He hated breaking his promise but, technically, he had never told Gabrielle the truth...he had merely confirmed it. In any case, there were bigger issues here than Xena's stubbornness over the issue of Sairen. "Yes, he was the man I loved, the man I married."
"Why didn't you or Xena tell me then?" she asked in disbelief.
"I didn't tell you because Xena told me not to. You'll have to ask Xena why she didn't tell you."
Gabrielle was quiet for several minutes while she absorbed what had just happened. Finally, she looked at Cor curiously. "So if Xena told you not to tell me, why did you just force the issue?"
"Because, if we're going to get Xena out of that fortress tomorrow, we have to be able to depend on and trust each other completely. I don't want there to be any unresolved issues' between us. I don't want there to be any kind of problems or tensions between us."
Gabrielle nodded. "I understand Cor, about everything," she said, looking at him thoughtfully. "I guess for now, though, I should try and get some sleep."
"Good idea," he said as he rolled out his bedroll. He waited until she had crawled into bed before blowing out the candle.
Several minutes passed before he heard Gabrielle's hesitant voice. "Cor?"
"About tomorrow...I was thinking...."
"What is it Gabrielle?"
"Well, Nikias could recognize me...and that would spoil our plans...I was just wondering what you did about him...I mean, do we need to worry about him?"
Cor was silent for several moments before he replied. "Gabrielle, don't ask questions that you really don't want answered."
Gabrielle woke early the next morning, although she wasn't sure she had ever done more than doze off for a few minutes at a time. She'd simply been too concerned about Xena to relax and fall soundly asleep. She looked around the room as she slowly stretched and saw that Cor had already left. Frowning, she picked up her staff and went to find him, a little uneasy that he might have decided to leave without her.
To her relief, she found him downstairs in the now empty common room, deep in conversation with a rather grim looking Kieros. As she approached, Kieros glanced at her with a troubled expression, before forcing a smile and welcoming her to the table. Gabrielle sat down apprehensively, worried for a moment that they were going to try to leave her behind when they went after Xena. She realized her fears were groundless, however, as they began going over the plan with her one last time. Of course, there wasn't much to the "plan", since it largely rested on the assumption that most of the guards would be too drunk, or too "occupied" with company, to pay much attention to them.
Cor handed two small pouches to Kieros. "Okay, the grey pouch has the stuff for the gate guard. A pinch of that in his mug will be enough to make him sicker than he's ever been. The black one is for the guards at the feast. It should help even the odds for your people."
Kieros nodded as he took the pouches. "How long will it take for the effects to kick in?"
"For the guard...about 10 minutes or so. The stuff for the men at the feast will take longer, a good hour or so, and it will vary quite a bit. Once it kicks in, though, they'll be snoozing like babies. I only wish I had more of that powder, but I just haven't had much use for it in awhile."
"You're sure about this?" Kieros asked, as he held up the grey pouch.
"Positive. He'll be in way too much pain to stay at his post, especially when your' three guards tell him it's okay to leave."
"All right," Kieros said as he stood. "I'll take this and give it to our people at Traymon's fortress. I'll return once I've seen to the last of our preparations and then we'll leave to get Xena."
Cor nodded silently and watched as he left. Gabrielle waited for him to say something about their plan, make a comment about things to keep in mind, ask her if she had any questions or concerns, but he said nothing. She studied him intently for several seconds, but his face was like stone and gave no indication as to what he was thinking. That fact in itself was more than enough to make her nervous. "Cor, is something wrong? Something I need to know?"
Cor cast a brief glance at her before shaking his head. "No," he said simply. "I'm going up to check my weapons and armor. Let Sirrestia know if you need anything."
Gabrielle watched him walk upstairs with a growing sense of frustration. Gods above,' she thought to herself. He's acting just like Xena. Is there some sort of "Warrior's Handbook" that says, "At all costs, hide your emotions and never reveal what's going on to the bard"?'
By the time Kieros had returned, Cor had rejoined Gabrielle. Kieros handed one uniform to Cor, who took it upstairs to change into. He handed a second uniform to Gabrielle, which she placed in her sack. This one was for Xena to wear once they had freed her from the cell. Cor quickly returned wearing his uniform. It looked a bit snug on him, but it wasn't enough to cause any problems. For one final time, Kieros went to make certain that everything was ready, promising that as soon as he returned they would set out for Traymon's fortress.
"You ready?" Cor asked Gabrielle, as they waited for Kieros.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, I just want to get this over with."
"Gabrielle....," Cor hesitated, not certain how best to say what he needed to tell her. "Gabrielle, there's something you need to know." He saw her looking at him curiously, patiently. "I didn't tell you this before because it wouldn't have made any difference...There was nothing you could do about it and it just would have worried you...but you need to know, just in case...."
Cor took a deep breath and continued, not missing Gabrielle's growing apprehension. "Nikias wasn't exactly certain what Traymon intended to do with Xena, but he was pretty sure it involved torture and, from what he said, Traymon is a master at it. I don't know what kind of shape Xena will be in when we find her, but you should be prepared for the worst. Remember though...she's strong, and if anyone can handle someone like Traymon, it's her."
Gabrielle nodded numbly. The thought that Xena was anything other than a prisoner had never even occurred to her, probably because she hadn't wanted to acknowledge the possibility. But now....Cor was right, Xena was strong, but Traymon had gone to a lot of trouble to capture her....
Kieros walked into the room with a confident smile, a smile that quickly vanished when he saw the expression on Gabrielle's face. "Ready to leave?" he asked uncertainly.
"Yeah, let's go," Cor replied, as Gabrielle gave him a small nod and grabbed the sack containing her staff, the extra uniform and a few of Cor's medical supplies, before following the two men out the door.
As they reached Traymon's fortress, Gabrielle was reassured to see that there were only three guards at the gate. At least the plan's getting off to a good start,' she thought, as they walked through the gate without any trouble. Gabrielle noticed that the courtyard was nearly vacant, although in a couple of places she could see small groups of men drinking and talking with some rather scantily clad women. Actually, they weren't doing much talking, but she was in no mood to think about what it was that they were doing. One of the men leered at her when he saw her, and then winked at Cor and Kieros. "Come on over and join us," he called to them.
"Sorry, they're waiting for us inside," Kieros replied, as Cor draped his arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Maybe later though," he said with a roguish grin.
"Looking forward to it," the man said, as he eyed Gabrielle lecherously.
Not wasting any more time, they moved to the side entrance that led to the kitchen. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when they entered. While she was unhappy at being drooled over, she was pleased that the men outside hadn't paid them any other kind of attention. For the first time since they had launched this plan, she allowed herself to believe that it might actually work.
Kieros spoke briefly with the woman who worked as Traymon's cook and then turned to Gabrielle and Cor. "The banquet has started and many of the men are feeling the effects of the wine and the drug you gave me. We'll never have a better time to get your friend," he said, as he motioned for them to follow him out of the kitchen.
The corridors were largely empty. Most of the guards that were actually inside the fortress were now in the main banquet hall. They stumbled across a couple of men once or twice, but they were always more concerned with getting to the party than with asking where the trio was headed. They were nearly halfway to the prison cells when they heard a deep voice behind them. It brought them up short. "Kieros?"`
Slowly turning around, fearing the worst, they saw three men carrying small kegs on their shoulders. "Yes?" Kieros replied carefully.
"We need help carrying these kegs into the party. You just volunteered."
"Uh...sure, I'll help," Kieros said helplessly, glancing at Cor in frustration.
The soldier who had spoken, looked beyond Kieros to where Cor was standing with Gabrielle. The two were largely in the shadows, however, so he was unable to discern anything other than that it was a soldier with a young woman. It didn't really matter though, he supposed; they didn't need that much more help anyway. "Come on, you can join your friends when we're done," he said suggestively, laughing at his own humor. Kieros smiled weakly and nodded. Turning around once more, he gave Cor a meaningful look. Resigned to his fate, he went to help carry the kegs.
Cor sighed in relief and frustration, as he watched Kieros walk away. "Come on, Gabrielle, let's go. It won't do us any good to stand around here waiting for Kieros and I think I know how to get to the cells."
They carefully made their way deeper into the fortress, knowing that now that they had lost Kieros, it would be much more difficult to bluff their way through if anyone challenged them. They had almost reached the cells, and were approaching an intersection, when they nearly walked into a guard coming from a different direction. The guard looked at them in amazement, before angrily demanding to know what they were doing.
"Uh...nothing," Cor replied. "I was just looking for some place to be alone with my friend."
"You know no one is allowed in this area without Lord Traymon's permission. Who are you?"
"Cor. Look I'm sorry, but....," he stepped forward slightly and spoke in a low tone. "She really wanted to see the prisons...the chains...the manacles." Cor grinned lewdly. "You know how it is. I just thought, you know...." Cor left the sentence hanging.
"Sorry, no one is allowed down here. No excuses...I'm going to have to report this," he said, as he undressed Gabrielle with his eyes. She tried to smile seductively at him but could only manage to look slightly less than repulsed.
Cor saw the way he was looking at Gabrielle and smiled. Reaching out to place a hand on the man's shoulder, he slowly led him closer to her. "Maybe we could work something out. I'm sure you could show her the cells, couldn't you? After you've shown her what she wants to see, we can leave."
"Well, maybe we could work something out," the guard said. As he stepped past Cor towards Gabrielle, Cor's fingers jammed into the back of his neck and he collapsed to the floor.
Cor smirked as he leaned down to pick the guard up. "Sorry buddy, but I just remembered I have a strict policy about pieces of filth touching my friends." Taking several steps down the hallway, he opened a door and tossed the guard inside, before pulling the door shut again. Seeing Gabrielle's inquiring look, he said, "An old guard room; it's not used anymore."
"How did you know that?" she asked disbelievingly.
"Kieros knows this place inside and out. He drew a map for me this morning. That room was on it."
"And you remember all the rooms on the map?" she asked in amazement.
He shrugged. "Yeah, I just see the map in my mind," he said absently, as he looked around to get his bearings. Smiling slightly, he turned back to Gabrielle. "So don't worry, I won't get us lost. It's this way," he said, as he confidently began to walk down the corridor. Sighing quietly, Gabrielle trailed silently behind, desperately praying to the gods that she and Cor would arrive in time to save her friend.
Lord Traymon was in high spirits, as he and his men celebrated the life of his son. Of course, the majority of his soldiers had never known his son. To them, this was merely an opportunity to drink and spend time with the local women, but none of that mattered to Traymon. He had Xena and she had provided him with more entertainment than he had ever imagined possible. His revenge had so far been nearly perfect. All that remained was to see the Warrior Princess grovel at his feet.
Lifting his mug, he toasted the memory of his son and took a drink. Not too much,' he warned himself. After all, he wanted to be in complete control of his senses when he finally killed Xena. He wanted to savor the moment, without any impairment of his faculties.
Leaning back in his chair, he noticed one of the men, who was supposed to be guarding Xena, approaching him and he grew concerned that something might be wrong with his prize. "What is it, Oreias?" he demanded, before the guard had a chance to speak.
"It's Xena sir. She's getting weak. You ordered us to keep an eye on her and report to you if she looked like she was going to die. We're not sure how much longer she'll last...unless you want to get the healer again?"
Traymon considered the option, but decided against it. He had hoped Xena would last until later that evening. Apparently, this was not to be the case unless he ordered the healer back to her one more time. No, he decided, killing Xena now would probably be best and afterwards he would be able to drink to his heart's content. "No, don't bother with the healer. Return to your post. I'll be there in a few minutes." Oreias nodded and left, happy in the knowledge that once Lord Traymon had killed the prisoner, he would be off duty and able to join the rest of the party.
Traymon smiled evilly, as he thought about all of the different ways that he could kill the Warrior Princess. So many ways, but just one life to end. He sighed...it really wasn't fair. Oh well, he would finish his drink and then he would end Xena's life. He smiled as he drew her sword from his scabbard. It was fitting justice that Xena die by her own sword. It was just too bad that it wasn't the same sword that she had used to kill his son. No matter though, he thought, as he studied the blade, this one will cut just as deeply.
Cor and Gabrielle moved stealthily through the fortress, knowing that the closer they got to the prison cells, the harder it would be to talk their way out of trouble. Eventually they caught sight of a massive wooden door which was reinforced by metal strips. "That's it," Cor said quietly.
Gabrielle quickly took her staff out of the bag and assembled it. Taking a deep breath, she nodded at Cor and readied herself for whatever they would find on the other side of the door. Kieros had said that there would only be three guards inside and she fervently hoped that he was right. Before they could move forward, however, the sounds of hurried footsteps reached their ears. Drawing back into the shadows, they watched a soldier approach from the opposite direction that they had come from and swiftly make his way to the prison door.
Oreias barely glanced to the right or left as he walked through the hallways of the fortress. He was too anxious to get back to his two friends to pay any particular attention to his surroundings. He wanted to tell them the good news - that they would soon be able to join the party. Reaching the door to the prison, he quickly opened it and stepped inside, hoping that Lord Traymon would allow him and the others to leave as soon as he arrived. After all, it wasn't as if Xena could pose any possible threat to anyone anymore.
Cor and Gabrielle looked at each other in concern. "So does that mean there are four of them in there now?" Gabrielle finally whispered.
Cor shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "But at this point it doesn't really matter. We can't change our plan and we can't wait around hoping that Kieros will arrive to help us."
Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "You're right. Let's go."
Nodding as well, Cor moved forward silently to stand in front of the door. Breathing in deeply and then slowly exhaling, he glanced briefly at Gabrielle to make certain she was ready. Receiving a quick nod, he opened the door to the cell block and walked inside, while Gabrielle waited outside. He managed to get well into the room before the guards realized something was wrong and challenged his presence. Hearing the guard's question, Gabrielle immediately ducked inside, slamming the door behind her to keep the guards, and the noise of the fighting, inside the room.
As Gabrielle entered, Cor drew two daggers and, in one fluid motion, sent them sailing across the room. The daggers buried themselves deep in the thighs of the guard furthest from the door, who instantly crumbled to the floor in agony. Drawing his sword, Cor immediately attacked the nearest guard, who happened to be the man who had only just entered the cell. Gabrielle charged across the room to engage the third.
Neither of the two remaining guards was particularly skilled. Cor quickly disarmed his opponent and then punched him hard across the face with his bare fist, knocking him out cold. Gabrielle easily parried the attacks of the man she was fighting and was preparing to finish him off when she heard the door behind her open. Glancing quickly in that direction, she prayed that it would be Kieros coming to join them. Instead, she saw a large, dangerous looking man, who was wielding Xena's sword.
Traymon stared at Gabrielle in astonishment as he entered the room. After a momentary hesitation, however, he caught sight of Cor and realized what was happening: they were trying to save Xena...they were trying to deny him his revenge! With an angry growl, he charged Cor. Swinging Xena's sword in a vicious arc, he tried to kill the intruder with a single blow.
Gabrielle focused her attention on the guard who she was fighting. Finally seeing an opening, she managed to disarm him and then drove the end of her staff into his stomach, knocking the wind from him. Dazed and disoriented, he was an easy target as she swept his feet out from under him. She smashed her staff into the side of his head, leaving him unconscious. Seeing that the man Cor had attacked when they first entered was still lying on the floor, she ran across the room to the door leading out to the hallway and shut it again, hoping that this time no one else would enter.
Cor circled his new opponent carefully. Traymon was obviously a skilled warrior and Cor knew that if he wasn't careful, he could end up in serious trouble. Feinting and parrying, he tried to determine Traymon's weaknesses, but the man appeared to be a solid fighter. As they closed for battle, Cor knew that they were more evenly matched than he would have liked.
Gabrielle watched the fight between Cor and Traymon in amazement, their blades flashing so rapidly that she was unable to keep track of them. As they fought, she realized that, even though she had seen Cor fight before, and Xena herself had told her how good he was, she had severely underestimated his skill. As the two men battled around the room, she noticed that Cor always managed to position himself to remain between her and Traymon. She had no idea, though, as to whether that was out of concern for her safety, or whether he simply wanted to keep Traymon away from the door.
Finally, after several minutes had gone by, Traymon stumbled to the ground. He managed to draw a dagger, which he threw as he quickly rose to his feet. Out of position, Cor was forced to dive to one side to avoid the attack, losing his grip on his own sword in the process. Traymon was on him immediately, aiming a killing blow. Cor, however, continued his roll and ended up directly behind Traymon. Recovering instantly, Traymon spun around, slashing violently at Cor. The warrior, who had anticipated the move, reached out and caught Traymon's wrist, maneuvering so that he stood directly in front of the man. Before the warlord could reverse his attack, Cor jammed his fingers into Traymon's chest and then watched emotionlessly as he gasped for breath once, before slowly falling to the ground.
Cor quickly checked to make certain that neither of the two unconscious guards were close to recovering and then moved over to the guard he had attacked when they had first entered the room. He pulled out the daggers he had hurled into the man's body only moments earlier, before quickly wrapping bandages around the wounds. As the man continued to writhe in pain, Cor jabbed his fingers into the guard's temple, rendering him unconscious as well.
Grabbing the ring of keys that were hanging on the wall, Cor moved to the door leading to Xena's cell. Hastily unlocking it, he yanked it open. The stench that rolled out of the room was overpowering and both he and Gabrielle had to fight the urge to gag. Recovering faster than Cor, Gabrielle darted into the room, but the sight that met her eyes froze her in her tracks. She had been preparing for the worst ever since Cor had mentioned the possibility of torture, but she had never imagined that it would be as horrific as what she was now seeing. Dressed only in a tattered and bloody shift, Xena was chained to the far wall. It was obvious, though, that the need to restrain her had long since passed. For a moment, Gabrielle was certain that she was already dead.
"By the Gods," Cor swore aloud. He had quickly followed Gabrielle into the room, but he too had been momentarily frozen in place by what he saw. His words were accompanied by action though, as he ran across the room with Gabrielle following close behind.
As she drew near, Gabrielle heard Xena draw in a rattled breath and realized that she was alive. Xena's body was a mass of bruises, welts, and burn marks. She was covered in dried blood from countless cuts, many of which appeared to be infected. Her wrists and ankles were raw and bleeding from the manacles that held her, and the entire left side of her face was so swollen and bruised that, even if Xena had wanted to, she could not have opened her eye. Her skin was hot to the touch and she was sweating profusely, and what little unmarked skin Gabrielle could see was very, very pale. An attempt had been made to bandage some of Xena's injuries, but the effort had only been half-hearted, probably intended to keep her alive for further torture, Gabrielle thought. Her right leg had a large bandage on it that was dark with dried blood and, to her horror, Gabrielle saw that the shaft of an arrow was sticking out of her left thigh. The bard realized that although Xena might be alive now, whether she still would be in a few hours was a matter for conjecture.
"We've got to get her out of here now," Cor finally managed to say. Leaning down, he quickly unlocked her ankles, before standing again and handing Gabrielle the keys. "You unlock her, while I hold her, otherwise she's going to fall as soon as those come off." Gabrielle nodded and waited for Cor to get a hold of Xena. As he put his arms around her middle, she moaned weakly. Gabrielle swallowed hard and reached up to unlock the manacles, holding each of Xena's arm in turn and gently bringing them down to her side as she freed each wrist.
Carefully, Cor eased Xena to the floor and tried to determine the extent of her injuries. It was immediately obvious that there was something wrong with her ribs and, from the looks of things, her left shoulder was hurt pretty badly too. The fingers on her left hand were puffy and bruised, and the area around the arrow's entry point was swollen and red. Cor cursed in frustration. They couldn't stay here, but moving Xena would most likely kill her. He thought about what he should do but there was really no question. "Hold on Xena. We're going to get you out of here," he said softly.
Cor looked up at Gabrielle. "I can carry her, but if I do, that's all I'll be able to do. I won't be able to fight, and I won't be able to put her down to help you...."
"I understand Cor. Let's go."
Cor inhaled deeply and reached down to grab the arrow, snapping half of it off to keep it from catching on anything. Steeling himself, he gathered Xena into his arms, his heart aching when he heard her groan in pain, before she fell silent again. "Ready," he told Gabrielle and then began to follow her.
Stepping out of the cell, Gabrielle took a few moments to drag the unconscious guards into Xena's former prison. Traymon was no longer a threat, so she left his body where it had fallen. After locking the door, she tossed the keys aside. Taking a deep breath, she gripped her staff tightly as she walked along ahead of Cor. She did her best not to think about Xena, knowing that she needed to focus on getting them out of the fortress, before she could allow herself to worry about her friend. She actually remembered the way fairly well on her own, although Cor occasionally had to indicate which direction to take. At one point they heard people coming, but Cor nodded towards a door to their left and they ducked into a closet before they could be seen. They waited for several endless moments for whomever it was to leave, before cautiously stepping back out into the corridor and continuing towards the kitchen.
Rounding a corner, they came face to face with three guards, none of whom had apparently gotten around to celebrating yet. "Who are you?" one of them demanded as he moved forward, drawing his sword as he did so.
In answer, Gabrielle slammed her staff into the side of his head. As he crumpled to the floor, she vaulted over him to land between the other two guards. Twirling her staff, she drove it into the midsection of the man behind her, before bringing it forward to block a sword thrust from the one in front. Faking an attack to his head, she reversed her thrust and landed another blow to the man behind her, smashing him on the bottom of his chin and snapping his head back up against the wall behind him. Realizing now the danger he was in, the final man tried to call for help. All that came out was a strangled sob, as Gabrielle spun low to the ground, bringing her staff up between his legs and driving it into his groin. The man crumpled to the floor, moaning in pain. "Let's go," she said tersely to Cor, who was staring at her in silent amazement.
They walked a little further before hearing someone coming down the hallway towards them. There was no place to hide, so Gabrielle readied herself and swung her staff when the person came into view. She halted her staff just inches from Kieros' face, as she recognized him at the last moment. "You're okay," he said with relief, before he noticed Xena. "Is she....?" he started to ask, but was unable to finish his sentence.
"She's alive but we have to get her out of here right away," Cor replied. Kieros nodded and led the way to the kitchen as rapidly as he could.
They reached the kitchen without further incident. Kieros turned to them slowly. "I think we can still get her out of here the same way we planned...but we'd better change our destination. For one thing, we'll never get her into the inn in that condition without everyone in town seeing us." Kieros carefully stepped outside and looked around intently. Seeing that the area was clear, he motioned for Cor and Gabrielle to follow. Quickly moving to a large wagon, they gently placed Xena in the back. Gabrielle crawled in next to her while Kieros covered the two women with blankets. Noticing the blood and filth covering his uniform, Cor hastily grabbed the uniform they had intended for Xena and put the clean shirt on. It was a tight fit, but it wouldn't be too noticeable for the short time he was going to need it. The two men then jumped up into the front of the wagon. Kieros took the reins and they slowly began to move out. As they neared the gate, they could see that the guards had changed and Kieros' men were no longer on duty. They stopped the wagon at the gate and waited while one of the guards approached.
"Where are you going?" the guard asked.
"Lord Traymon ordered us to get more wine. He was worried that there wouldn't be enough for later. He wants everyone to be able to celebrate."
The guard grinned when he heard Kieros' answer. "Excellent...I didn't think there would be anything left by the time we got off duty." His eyes narrowed slightly when he saw Cor. "Do I know you?"
Cor shook his head. "I don't think so. I'm new...probably why I'm being sent to get the wine."
The guard chuckled. "Probably. All right, go on, and make sure you bring plenty back. We'll be waiting."
"Don't worry, I'll bring plenty' back," Kieros muttered under his breath, as he drove the wagon out the front gates.
"Where are we going?" Cor asked when they turned away from the direction of the inn.
"A friend of mine has a house near the edge of town that's empty at the moment. He only lives there part of the time and I know he won't mind if we go there. It's closer than the inn and more isolated."
Cor nodded, knowing there was nothing he could do for Xena until they got her to a safe place. He just prayed to the gods that he'd get the chance to try to save her.
It seemed like hours before they reached the house, but Cor knew that it had only been a few minutes. Kieros was right though, this place was definitely better than the inn; no one would be able to see or hear them. Jumping down from the wagon, Cor ran around to the back to check on Xena. If anything, she was worse, but she was still alive and that was all that mattered. Carefully lifting her into his arms, he followed Kieros inside the house and through to the bedroom. Gently laying her on the bed, he turned to Gabrielle and took the sack that she was carrying. "Get me water and any clean rags you can find." He watched her leave and then turned to their new friend. "Kieros, I assume you're headed to the tavern to get your men. I need you to have someone bring the rest of my things to me right away."
"I'll have my sister bring them to you. Is there anything else you need?"
Cor sighed ruefully. "There will be, but I don't know what yet. I'll have to have Sirrestia get whatever it is when she gets here. Oh," he said, as a thought suddenly occurred to him. "There's something you should know. Traymon is dead. He walked in on us when we were outside Xena's cell. I recognized him from the description you gave me."
"You killed Lord Traymon?" Kieros asked, looking at Cor in amazement.
Cor nodded. "I figured it might make a difference to your plans to know that the tyrant you're trying to overthrow is dead," he said with a slight smile.
"Yes, it definitely will," Kieros said with a grin. "I'm in your debt Cor," he said, as he prepared to leave.
"No, you owe me nothing. Without your help we never could've rescued Xena," Cor said, as he continued to examine her. Turning to look at Kieros, he paused for a moment as, for once, words failed him. "Thank you," was all he finally said.
"Good luck Cor. I hope you're able to save her," Kieros replied, before walking out the door.
"So do I," Cor said softly, "But I'll be damned if I know how I'm going to do it."
Cor was still examining Xena when Gabrielle returned with the water. "Thanks. I need you to start heating some extra water and put a poker in the fireplace once you get the fire going."
"I don't know yet Gabrielle," he said quietly. "Please, go start the fire," he continued, wanting her out of the room while he determined the extent of Xena's injuries.
Not wanting to go, she hesitated. Something in Cor's voice, however, told her that she had no choice in the matter, so she left the room. She started a fire and soon had it built up sufficiently that it could be used to heat water. She put a large kettle over the flames and then searched for a poker, trying not to think about what it was going to be used for. As she stood in front of the fire, wondering whether or not she should go back into the other room, she heard the front door open. Quickly looking up, she was relieved to see that it was Sirrestia with Cor's pack. Crossing the room, she thanked the girl and asked her to wait, before taking the bag and heading into the bedroom with it.
Cor smiled in relief when he saw his pack, and quickly began pulling out various pouches until he found the ones he wanted. He had already removed the ripped, blood-stained shift Xena had been wearing and, looking down at her friend, Gabrielle was stunned by how weak and helpless she appeared. "So, how is she?"
Cor hesitated before answering. "I don't know...."
"Yes you do. How bad is it?"
He took a deep breath. "Besides the cuts and bruises, she has a couple of dislocated fingers and a severely sprained shoulder. I'm not sure if any of her ribs are actually cracked or broken, but several of them are at least badly bruised. She has a raging infection, she's lost way too much blood and that arrow wound is one of the nastiest things I've seen in a very long time."
"But she's going to be all right." It was a statement, not a question.
Cor was quiet for several long moments, before he finally turned to look directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "Gabrielle, I don't know how she's managed to stay alive this long. If it was anyone else, they'd be dead already."
Gabrielle stared at him in shock. Finally she heard herself ask, "What can I do to help?"
"I don't think you want to be here for this, Gabrielle."
"Yes, Cor, I do," she told him in a surprisingly strong voice. "Now, tell me what you need me to do."
Sighing with resignation, Cor handed her several small pouches. "I need you to make up some medicines. Find some bowls or something and then come back in here and I'll show you how to mix them. Is Sirrestia still here?" he asked. When Gabrielle nodded, he continued, "Send her in here. I need her to go get a few things for me."
Gabrielle nodded again and left. The first thing she did was to tell Sirrestia that Cor needed her. By the time she had found bowls to use to mix the medicines and checked on the fire, the young girl had left to get the items Cor needed. Cor instructed Gabrielle in how to make everything, while he continued to clean Xena's numerous wounds. When she was finished, he sighed heavily. "I guess we'll start with the arrow first. Have you done this before?" Seeing Gabrielle's nod, he continued, "Hold her leg steady." Gritting his teeth, he shoved the arrow the rest of the way through and then reached around to break off the arrowhead. Working quickly, knowing that Xena couldn't afford to lose any more blood, he yanked the shaft out and grabbed for the medicine and bandages, while he waited for Gabrielle to get the poker so that he could finish the job.
Once the arrow had been taken care of, Cor carefully examined the injury to her other leg. It was a deep stab wound that had become infected. Cleaning the wound as carefully as he could, he smeared a thick paste on it, before placing a fresh bandage on the leg. "That takes care of the two largest open wounds," he said in a tired voice, as he leaned back for a moment to stretch. "Let's take care of the rest of these and then I'll work on her shoulder and ribs."
Gabrielle nodded and, to help the healing process and prevent further infection, they began to carefully spread the medicine over all of Xena's cuts, welts, and lash marks. No matter how carefully they worked, though, it was obvious that they were hurting Xena every time they touched her, and Gabrielle knew it was only going to get worse. "Cor," she finally asked, "Can't you use pressure points on her to stop the pain?"
Cor shook his head. "It's too risky. She's lost too much blood. The last thing I want to do now is start messing around with cutting off her circulation. We'll just have to get through this as quickly as possible."
Cor saw Gabrielle reluctantly nod in agreement, as they continued to care for the injured Warrior Princess. Finally, he could put it off no longer, and started working on Xena's injured hand. Gabrielle sat beside her friend holding her other hand, desperately wishing there was something she could do to ease the agony Xena was in. Cor saw Gabrielle wince when he pulled on Xena's fingers, before he carefully splinted them and then bound her hand to keep the fingers immobile.
Finishing with Xena's hand, Cor began wrapping her ribs, steeling himself against the moans of pain that were ripped from her throat while he worked. Before he was even halfway finished with the task, Xena began to tremble and thrash about, as she frantically tried to get away from the unbearable pain. Terrified that her friend would hurt herself further, Gabrielle leaned in close to hold her still, murmuring soft words of comfort into her ear. Slowly, the warrior began to relax, as Gabrielle tenderly stroked her cheek with the tips of her fingers and began to hum the tune she had heard Xena herself hum so many times before.
While Cor was still wrapping Xena's ribs, Sirrestia returned with the medicine he wanted. Gabrielle refused to look in Cor's direction when she entered, worried that he might try to make her leave again. He smiled to himself as he briefly explained to Sirrestia how to prepare the medicine for use. Gabrielle looked at him gratefully as the young woman left, but Cor just shrugged. He had no intention of sending Gabrielle away. She was the only thing keeping Xena calm at the moment, and he could only shake his head in wonder at the effect the little bard had on the powerful warrior.
Cor finally moved to wrap Xena's shoulder, praying to the gods that they would help her to get through this next horror. Xena began to fight him again, trying to get away from this new source of pain. Gabrielle moved even closer and held her more tightly, promising her that everything would be all right if she would just hold still for a little while longer. Finally Cor was finished and, sitting back, he exhaled loudly. "Thank the gods that's over," he said in a tired voice.
Gabrielle reached out to smooth the hair back from Xena's too-warm face. "Now what?" she asked quietly, focusing on Xena, afraid to look at Cor.
"Now we try to get her fever down, we give her medicine, we replace her bandages, and we wait. Mostly we wait. It's up to her now." Cor rose and stretched his aching muscles. "I've got some stuff I want to get into her; it'll help fight the infection. For now, just try to keep her as comfortable as possible." Cor sighed inwardly as he looked down at Xena, knowing that, despite everything they had just done, the odds of her surviving were heavily stacked against her. Leaning back down, he moved in close to speak to her. "Xena," Cor said softly. "Don't forget, you still owe me. You can't go until you pay me back. Remember, you always pay me back."
The next few days seemed like an eternity to Gabrielle, as she maintained a constant vigil beside Xena's bed, watching the warrior fight for her life. She bathed her with water in a seemingly futile effort to cool her fever, carefully changed the dressings on her countless injuries and helped her to drink water to replace what she was losing from the constant sheen of sweat that covered her skin. She took the ultimate responsibility for Xena's care upon herself, keeping up a steady stream of conversation as she told Xena every story she could think of, making tales up when she finished telling all those that she knew. She discussed where they should go and what they should do after Xena recovered. She talked about Argo, Lila, Xena's mother, Salmoneus, and everyone else they had met in their travels. She talked about all the good times they had had together and the good times that were yet to come. Through it all, she maintained an almost constant physical link with Xena: holding her hand, touching her cheek, caressing her arm....desperately wanting Xena to know that she was there, that she needed her, that she wanted her to come back.
At first, Cor tried to get Gabrielle to take occasional breaks while he looked after Xena for her, but she adamantly refused. Unfortunately for Cor, Xena herself seemed to support Gabrielle's resistance. On the rare occasions that he was able to convince the bard to take a brief respite, to get something to eat or some fresh air, Xena began to react to the young woman's absence almost immediately. Moaning softly and calling out for Gabrielle as she grew more and more agitated, Xena resisted all his efforts to soothe her. Only the bard's return could calm the warrior and allow her to rest comfortably. Eventually Cor was forced to give up, knowing that Gabrielle's presence was the only thing that had any positive impact on Xena.
Finally, however, Cor realized that something had to give. It had been days since Gabrielle had gotten any real sleep, and that fact, coupled with the emotional strain she was under, were beginning to take their toll. "Gabrielle, you need to rest. You're about ready to collapse," he warned her after she finished changing the dressing on Xena's right leg.
"I've been resting Cor," she replied, as she rose to put the unused bandages back on the table.
He snorted. "Falling asleep in a chair for five minutes every seven or eight hours doesn't count," he said sternly. "You aren't going to do Xena any good if you keep going like this."
Gabrielle's planned response died on her lips when she heard that soft whisper. Whirling around, she half expected to see Xena looking up at her, but the warrior was still in exactly the same position that she'd been in for hours. Refusing to give up hope, Gabrielle moved to sit next to her, placing her palm against Xena's cheek. For the first time in days, the skin was cool to the touch and, as she watched, Xena opened her right eye slightly and briefly looked directly at Gabrielle. As her eye closed once again, her lips twitched and Gabrielle saw a faint smile appear on her face. In a voice that Gabrielle had to strain to hear, she said, "Have to...take care of yourself...so...so you can...take care of me." Hardly able to believe what she was seeing and hearing, Gabrielle reached down to take Xena's hand. Her breath caught in her throat when she felt a weak squeeze, before Xena drifted back to sleep.
"Cor?" Gabrielle asked, as she turned to him hopefully.
Cor had already stepped to the other side of the bed. Placing his hand to Xena's forehead, he smiled for the first time in days. "I think she's going to make it. Her fever's finally broken and the rest of her injuries are healing well. She's not going to be doing too much of anything for quite awhile, but it looks like we're going to get her back...Now, you need to get some sleep and I don't want to hear any more excuses," he said as he grinned at her.
Gabrielle nodded and pulled the chair to the side of the bed. As she started to settle into the seat, Cor stopped her. "What are you doing? I said you needed to get some sleep, not a catnap."
"I'm not leaving her Cor," Gabrielle said, as she tried to stare him down.
Cor chuckled. "I don't want you to leave her Gabrielle, I just want you to be comfortable and get some sleep. Get into the bed. It's big enough for the two of you and Argo."
Gabrielle hesitated, wanting nothing more than to crawl into the bed next to Xena. For so many reasons, though, she was afraid to do so, not the least of which was the fear that she might accidentally hurt Xena during the night. Noticing the expression on her face, Cor smiled. "Don't worry Gabrielle, you won't hurt her. Trust me, having you near her is the best medicine there is for her. I'm a good healer, damn good as a matter of fact, but you are the reason she's still here, not me. Now, are you going to get some sleep voluntarily, or do I have to resort to trickery and mayhem?" he asked with an evil grin.
"Okay, okay. You win," she said, as she laughed softly and got into the bed next to Xena. She hesitated for a moment before curling up on her side to face her friend. Reaching down to take Xena's hand in her own, she closed her eyes and sighed blissfully, as she willingly let sleep overtake her for the first time in days.
Gabrielle woke late the next morning, feeling rested for the first time in ages. Remembering the events of the night before, she was afraid for a moment that she had dreamt the entire thing. As she watched Xena breathing deeply and easily, and felt the coolness of her forehead, she knew that it had all been real.
Carefully easing away to avoid disturbing the warrior, Gabrielle moved to the chair next to the bed and sat for several long moments just watching her friend. She was still finding it difficult to believe that Xena was going to be all right. Finally she sighed and began the lengthy process of checking Xena's injuries. It was going to be a long time before the warrior was fully recovered.
It was the middle of the afternoon before Gabrielle noticed Xena beginning to stir. Putting aside the parchment she was writing on, she moved to the side of the bed. The left side of Xena's face was still too swollen for that eye to open, but her right eye was clear and bright. "Morning," she whispered.
Gabrielle smiled. "Afternoon actually. You've really been sleeping in lately," she teased, as she tenderly rubbed her knuckles across Xena's cheek.
Xena smiled slightly. "Must be getting old." She reached up to cover Gabrielle's hand and then laced her fingers with the bard's as she closed her eye.
"Xena, can I get you anything?" Gabrielle managed to ask, her emotions making it difficult to speak.
Gabrielle nodded, as she pulled her hand from Xena's grasp and moved to get her some water. Returning to her friend's side, she helped her take a drink, trying not to let Xena's lack of strength worry her too much. "Looks like I was wrong, huh?" Gabrielle heard Xena say weakly, as she brushed the hair off the warrior's face.
"Hmmm?" Gabrielle asked gently, not understanding what Xena was talking about.
"I was wrong...I do need your help after all."
Gabrielle's heart beat wildly when she heard Xena's admission and it was several moments before she was able to speak in a normal voice. "Do you need anything else?" she finally asked.
"Not right now...just sit here with me for awhile." Her lips quirked into a faint smile. "Tell me a story."
The next time Xena woke was late that night, just as Gabrielle and Cor were getting ready to turn in. "Well, look who's finally awake," Cor said with a smile. Xena tried to return his smile but it took too much effort. Although she actually looked and felt much stronger than she had earlier in the day, she was still in considerable pain. Realizing this, Cor quickly got up and began digging through his pack until he found something that would be safe for her to take, before mixing it up for her to drink. After helping her to drink the concoction, he asked about her injuries, wanting to know which were causing the most troubles. He needed to make certain that there weren't any problems he didn't know about. Relieved that she seemed to be doing better than he had expected, he said his goodnights and left the two women alone.
As Gabrielle got ready for bed, she felt strangely shy when she realized that Xena was still awake. Pushing aside those feelings, she managed to get into the bed next to the warrior. She reached out to take Xena's hand as she had the night before, but suddenly felt too self-conscious and started to pull back. To her surprise, Xena caught her hand and held onto it firmly. As she looked at her friend, she saw that Xena's eyes were still closed but she was smiling that crooked smile Gabrielle loved so much. "You move around too much otherwise," Xena said softly. "I want you to know where I am at all times," she continued, and then drifted off to sleep once more.
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