This story takes place between Seasons 2&3 of Xena: Warrior Princess , but is based on "back story" revealed in Season 4's ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE.
THE GHOSTS INSIDE
The message was brief: "Northern tribe in trouble. Please come. - Ephiny."
Gabrielle didn't think twice about her answer. "Yes, of course."
"Xena," she said breathlessly when she'd located her partner in the stables grooming Argo. "We have to hurry. Ephiny needs us."
Xena glanced over her shoulder with a wry smile. "Are there perhaps a few more details, O One of Many Words?"
"A scout's outside. She heard we were in the area, only a five day's ride away. Something about a Northern tribe."
Xena's face appeared to freeze momentarily before she turned back to work on Argo's already gleaming coat. "Northern tribe? Did... did Ephiny say she wanted me to come with you?"
Gabrielle had remained standing in the doorway, certain Xena would have Argo saddled and headed out by now. "Um, she just said they were in trouble and to please come. Since the word 'trouble' was in there, I assumed she meant you too."
"You're good at getting people out of trouble, Gabrielle. She might need your leadership or negotiation skills."
"Xena?" Gabrielle walked over to frown at the surprisingly tense profile. "Usually the word 'trouble' starts your heart racing. It's useless for me to try holding you back. What's up?"
Xena rested the brush against Argo's side. "I...." She sighed, finally looking at Gabrielle with a rueful smile. "It's not important. I'm ready when you are. Whether they want me or not, I'm your champion." She playfully scrubbed the brush over the top of Gabrielle's head. "Where the Queen goes, I go."
Gabrielle reached up and put her hand over the warrior's. "Xena, you know how I feel about keeping things from me."
"I know." Xena patted Gabrielle's hand, before striding over to Argo's saddle. "Get the bedrolls and our water skins, will you? If the situation's urgent, we should go now. We can talk more on the road."
Gabrielle squinted suspiciously at her partner's back. Shaking her head, she wordlessly complied with Xena's request. Shortly thereafter, the two companions joined the Amazon scout, Melanas, and set off toward the Northern tribe's territory.
Melanas was as verbose as most Amazons. She reserved her few words for discussions about weaponry with Xena. Gabrielle couldn't decide if Xena's eagerness for these dialogues was more from a reluctance to converse with the third member of their party.
"Xena? We'll be there tomorrow morning. You said we could talk on the road. I don't consider a couple of grunts 'talking.'"
They were bedding down for the night. Xena continued her preparations silently, as though she hadn't heard Gabrielle. Finally the warrior sat on her bedroll, sighed deeply, and waited for the bard to join her.
"Gabrielle, I made a lot of enemies in the past," the warrior said quietly, glancing over at the sleeping Melanas. She lowered her head and fingered the edge of her furs. "Including the Northern Amazons."
"Whatever it was, it's still in the past. Surely Ephiny has told them how you've changed, that you've become a friend." Gabrielle laid her hand on the warrior's arm. "You can't get much closer than an Amazon Queen's champion."
Xena looked up at Gabrielle with a sad smile. "Let's hope you're right. C'mon, let's get some sleep, see what tomorrow brings." She lay down, staring into the darkness long after her partner's eyes had closed in peaceful slumber.
Xena wasn't particularly encouraged to see a phalanx of Amazon guards meet them at the border of the Amazon village. Gabrielle figured this was the usual reception for a visiting Queen, so was surprised to notice her partner slowly move her arms out to the side, look questioningly at the lead guard and, at the guard's nod, withdraw her chakram and sword, then lay the weapons down at her feet - all while looking steadily ahead. Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze. The guards had not lowered their weapons, but stood at the ready, watching Xena.
Relaxing now that Xena stood unarmed, the lead guard addressed Gabrielle. "Welcome, Queen Gabrielle. I am Sarantha, weapons master. I will escort you to Queen Naritha."
"Thank you, Sarantha. I hope you accord the same courtesy to my champion, Xena of Amphipolis. I'm sure Ephiny has told you of Xena and that she is a woman with many skills that could be useful in your time of need."
Sarantha blinked uncertainly. "Yes, Ephiny mentioned you traveled together, but we did not really expect...." The Amazon gave Gabrielle's tall companion the once-over. "Her arrival presents a... complication. If you will follow me, our Queen will determine what is best."
Xena responded by smiling fondly at Gabrielle. "Where you go, I go." She stepped away from her sword and chakram.
A guard retrieved the weapons. After a momentary hesitation, Sarantha nodded for the weapons to be returned to Xena. She then led the party to the council hut, knocked, pushed the door open, and gestured for her guests to enter.
"Gabrielle! Xena! I'm so glad they found you!"
Gabrielle rushed inside to embrace her Regent. "Ephiny! It's so good to see you. You know all you have to do is ask, and we'll do whatever we can."
Ephiny released her hold on Gabrielle and extended her arm in a warrior's greeting to Xena. As the two gazed warmly at each other, a silent understanding seemed to pass between them.
"Xena. I hoped you would come." Ephiny turned to the women seated at the council table. "I have told you of Xena's friendship with my tribe and her devotion to our Queen. I hope her presence here is sufficient evidence of that."
A middle-aged, dark-haired woman rose. "Gabrielle, I am Queen Naritha. I welcome you." Naritha looked past Gabrielle to her companion. "Xena, I believe you are already familiar with us. I am sure you will understand if we conduct some private business with Gabrielle. Sarantha will take you to the guest quarters."
Gabrielle frowned and started to respond.
Xena quickly stepped forward and bowed. "Thank you, Queen Naritha. I will leave Gabrielle in your good company." She squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'll be fine. Take good notes." She turned without further ado and trailed Sarantha out the door.
"I don't know who to be more mad at - you or those featherheads!"
It was several candlemarks later, and Gabrielle had come storming into the guest hut. Xena sat quietly on the bed, her face betraying no emotion.
"I knew there was something you weren't telling me. These Amazons have a problem all right, but it's not the one they should be worried about."
"What's the problem they should be worried about?"
"Don't change the subject, Xena." Gabrielle paced in front of the warrior. "They accused you of destroying practically a whole Northern community. It's ridiculous! A warlord is out there now, threatening to actually do that, and these idiots are rehashing old myths about you." She stopped pacing and glowered at her friend. "You could've warned me we might be walking into a hornet's nest."
Xena looked down at her hands. "Would you have refused to help them if you'd known?"
Gabrielle let out an exasperated breath. She grabbed one of the chairs from the little desk in their hut and plopped down on it in front of Xena. "I'm only saying we might have done things differently. As it is, I'm sure you have a lot more experience dealing with people like this Melzakius, but - ."
"Melzakius?!" Now Xena got up and began pacing.
"You know him? Wait. What am I saying? Of course you do."
"Yeah, I do. He's bad news."
"But, Xena, what about - ."
"Gabrielle, we don't have time for that now. We'll all be in trouble if we show any weakness to Melzakius. I need to know more about the situation. Can you convince Naritha to at least talk to me?"
"I need to know more about the situation too. Tell me."
Xena wanted to avoid her friend's eyes, but couldn't. "Whatever they say is true. I can't change that. What I can do - what we can do - is try to help them now. Will you trust me and do as I ask?"
Gabrielle studied the warrior, torn between disbelief, concern and confusion. "All right, but this isn't the end of it. When we've decided how to help Naritha, you and I are gonna talk."
Xena pulled Gabrielle into a tight embrace. "Thank you," she murmured into her partner's hair. "There are many things I will regret when I finally cross over. Being your champion makes me able to bear whatever I have earned."
The Queen and council honored Gabrielle's request to talk to Xena. That next morning they briefed the warrior on Melzakius' threat to overrun them unless they reached an agreement satisfactory to him. They figured he hadn't attacked yet because he was uncertain of their strength or willingness to fight.
"Xena, we are well aware of your battle skills," Naritha said at the conclusion of their report. "But even if we decided to trust you, I do not see how you could help."
Xena straightened in her chair. "Melzakius is lazy. He conquers mostly by intimidation. He uses the cheapest men he can find, which means his army isn't particularly competent or loyal. He's also vain. If he thinks he can't win, he'll do whatever makes him look good. I propose letting me be your negotiator. I believe I can find something he'll want more than risking too much in a fight with the Amazons."
Xena's offer met silence, then chuckles of derision from some and scowls of indignation from others.
"You?! Negotiate on behalf of Amazons?" Naritha snorted. "Why, that would be like a wolf protecting the sheep."
Once again Gabrielle prepared to speak on her friend's behalf. Once again Xena intervened.
"Send Ephiny with me, with a security force to ensure I ... our safety. If Ephiny feels I have overstepped my bounds, she can halt the proceedings."
Naritha glanced around at her council members. They seemed to consider Xena's proposal. "Ephiny, would you be willing to undertake such a mission?"
"Yes." Ephiny looked at her two friends. "If that's what Xena wants."
"But what if Xena decides to betray us again, perhaps by siding this time with Melzakius?" asked one of the councilors.
Gabrielle had been gripping Xena's arm since the warrior made her proposal. She still wasn't sure what she thought about the idea, but did know she wasn't happy with the councilor's question.
"She won't betray us, because you'll have me as insurance," Gabrielle said frostily. "Xena has risked her life for me more times than I can count. She prizes me highly. You may not understand her love for me, but you might believe she'll do whatever it takes to protect what is hers."
The council members whispered among themselves.
"All right, Xena, we will try this. We trust Ephiny and Gabrielle. It will be you we hold accountable if our trust is misplaced."
Xena relaxed. "Then we understand each other. You say it's a little over a day's ride? We have plenty of time before sundown. I suggest our party set out immediately, so we can begin our talks with Melzakius without further delay."
Naritha nodded to Sarantha, who left to assemble the security force. As everyone rose to depart, Gabrielle blocked her partner's path. "Xena, I don't like not discussing this with you. Are you sure?"
The warrior kissed Gabrielle's forehead. "Yes, Gabrielle, I'm sure."
Gabrielle was as surprised as everyone when the negotiating party returned after only two days. She knew Xena was good, but this was almost too good. She soon noticed something she didn't think was good at all.
"Ephiny? Where's Xena?"
Ephiny dismounted and walked over to Gabrielle and Naritha. "We were successful. Melzakius agreed to call off his attack. Xena stayed behind to... iron out the details. She thought it would be safe for Queen Naritha to go seal the agreement whenever she's ready."
The Amazons within hearing distance began murmuring among themselves. "That's it?" Naritha asked, equally puzzled. "What were the terms? Are we expected to give up lands or arms or what?"
Ephiny chuckled humorlessly. "Xena was right about Melzakius. She convinced him you were powerful enough to have the Warrior Princess at your beck and call. He was sufficiently scared about attacking and satisfied he could impress his cronies by saying he forced a negotiation with the woman who never gave up anything. Basically, all you have to do is show up. Maybe promise him safe passage during his next trip."
"Ephiny, I have no reason to doubt your judgment, but are you sure Xena didn't stay behind to make her own deal with Melzakius?"
"Trust me, what she and I negotiated with him is... binding. She allowed him to keep her under lock and key, as a guarantee, since we convinced him she's a valuable servant, so to speak."
Naritha shook her head. "Yes, Xena was the one to deal with him. They obviously speak the same language. We'll set out tomorrow."
"One more thing." Ephiny turned to Gabrielle. "Xena didn't think it a good idea for Gabrielle to come. Melzakius might have heard she travels with Xena and try to kidnap her as a bargaining chip."
Gabrielle stared at Ephiny as though the Regent had grown two heads. "Were you and Xena drunk when you came up with that? You both know there's no way I'm staying behind. I'm sure Naritha can find a suitable disguise for me, just in case, can't you, Naritha?"
"Of course, Gabrielle." Naritha smiled. "If a Queen wants to see her champion, who am I to stand in her way?"
Sarantha had assembled an impressive escort for her Queen. When they reached the outskirts of Melzakius' camp, half accompanied the Queen and Ephiny, while the other half remained behind within striking distance. Melzakius and his guards strode out to greet the royal party.
"Well, we finally meet," Melzakius said to the woman with the Queen's mask perched above her forehead.
"Yes, but certainly not because I would have wished it so."
Melzakius laughed. "Ah, I see now how the Warrior Princess succumbed to one such as yourself. Beauty, brains and bravery - a formidable combination. You were smart to send Xena as evidence of your strength."
"Forgive me if I'm not flattered. We're here to finalize the terms Xena initiated. I suggest we get on with it."
Melzakius smirked and bowed. "At your service, Queen Naritha. Follow me."
As they approached the camp, they heard an agonized scream from behind the large command tent. Gabrielle's blood turned cold. Before she could react, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny whispered, "don't do anything rash. Let's see what's going on first."
"Eph, that... that sounded like Xena."
"Remember, this was Xena's plan. It'll be in vain if we don't play it out as she wanted. Please, everyone just follow my lead."
The party silently trailed behind Melzakius to his command tent. He beckoned them inside, but the Queen had other ideas. She strode instead behind the tent. Her entourage accompanied her and gasped at what they saw.
A woman hung, dark head bowed, from two vertical poles. Her arms were stretched impossibly taut by ropes which passed over a horizontal bar at the top of the poles and extended down into devices with cranks on the sides. Men knelt ready to turn the handles and pull the prisoner's limbs even farther from their sockets.
"Wait!" Melzakius called to them as he joined the stunned Amazons. "Throw some water on her first. Can't you see she's passed out?"
"No!" Ephiny gently wedged Gabrielle between a couple of Amazon guards, then proceeded over to inspect the tortured figure. Her fury grew at the injuries evident from fingertips to toes. She whirled to confront Melzakius.
"How dare you do this without our permission! You were to try her for her alleged crimes against you, but punishment was to be our right."
The scene descended like a fog around Gabrielle. She couldn't believe what her senses were telling her. That couldn't be Xena hanging there. Or Ephiny speaking as if the warrior were no more than a misbehaved dog. She wanted to burst free of the hands on her arms, which, truthfully, had kept her from sinking to her knees. She closed her eyes, but when she opened them, nothing had changed. Except that Ephiny was regarding her in the same way Xena did when it was time for the bard to act like an Amazon Queen. Gabrielle composed herself and focused on Ephiny's words.
"Queen Naritha agreed not to grind your troops into the ground because she understood your need for justice," Ephiny was saying slowly through gritted teeth. "She delivered on her end of the bargain. What you have done goes way beyond the terms I outlined to you. If our Queen deigns to recognize you in the face of this outrage, I will let her speak for herself."
All eyes turned to the petite blonde with the royal mask. Gabrielle used the silence to channel her churning emotions to the cues her Regent had given her. She swallowed the bile threatening to gag her, took a calming breath to slow her pounding heart. Signaling for her guards to remain where they were, she finally sauntered up to Melzakius.
"Yes, I recognize you," Gabrielle said, her voice dripping contempt. "I recognize you as a snake with no fangs, its brain lost in its tail. Have you any idea what Amazons do to those who tamper with what is ours?" She gestured at Xena's body without looking. "It makes what you have done seem like child's play." She put her hand on his arm. "We would not hang someone that way," she continued quietly, stroking her index finger lightly over his biceps, "because there would be no arms to hang from."
Melzakius shivered despite himself, not sure if it was because of the small woman's threat or the eerie contrast between the hardness in her eyes and the gentle caress of her hand.
"It took us a long time to make Xena see the wisdom of our ways. We had intended to cut off the hands that had hurt us so, but decided they were valuable with us moving the strings to them. Not only have you damaged our property. If she dies, you will have denied us our chance to exact further retribution. I would take you in her place, but we have no use for stupid snakes." Gabrielle's hand stilled on the warlord's arm. "Except for their skin." She removed her hand and stepped back a few paces. She turned to her Amazon guards. "Cut her down."
The Amazons moved forward warily, as Gabrielle cocked her head at Melzakius, seeming to invite him to order an attack. Instead, the warlord surveyed the downcast eyes and slumped posture of his men, determining he was lucky to have gotten what he did. He gestured for them to remain where they were.
Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle could see the Amazons freeing Xena and carrying her around the command tent. But she kept her focus on Melzakius. "I want you gone by morning. If we see you slithering this way again, we will skin you and your men alive."
Melzakius started to respond, then simply nodded his head.
"Good answer. Come, Ephiny. I'm beginning to picture this snake wrapped around my boots."
The "snake" in question watched the Amazons leave. "All right, you men," he commanded imperiously, "prepare to move out. We got what we wanted. No sense overstaying our welcome."
The Amazon party traveled slowly and halted when they'd put some distance between themselves and the warlord's camp. Not expecting much action, only an apprentice healer had accompanied them. She did her best to treat Xena's lesser injuries. With Gabrielle's help, the healer had managed to get something down Xena to alleviate pain and fever.
Except for the healer, the Amazons didn't disturb the patient or the two friends quietly watching over her. Partly it was to give them privacy, but mostly they felt a little ashamed. They would have gladly treated the Warrior Princess as Melzakius had, when she'd set foot on their lands this time. None would have believed her capable of making such a sacrifice for them. They hadn't witnessed the negotiations with Melzakius, but some had heard Ephiny say Xena knew what the consequences could be of the "terms" presented to the warlord.
Gabrielle could not yet bring herself to ask her Regent what had happened. She was too angry. With the warlord, with Ephiny and Xena. With herself. She focused instead on the warm, restless head beneath her hand. On willing away the agony evident in Xena's face. On praying the warrior's eyes would open and envelope her in their bottomless blue love. But when the group mounted up, Xena did not seem much improved. Gabrielle continued on foot beside Xena's litter, promising her friend everything would be all right once she was in expert hands.
"Gabrielle, I'm a little worried about Xena." Lucia, the head healer, was gently spreading a medicinal paste over the numerous purple blotches on her patient's torso. "We caught the infection in time. The ribs and shoulders are coming along all right. But from what you tell me about her 'recuperative powers,' I would have expected more progress. It's been three days. Unless the blow to the back of her head was more serious than I thought, she should have regained consciousness by now."
Gabrielle watched Lucia's ministrations with a tightness in her chest that she could recall experiencing only once before. She too was concerned that something wasn't right. "I know," she said, grimacing as Xena moaned when Lucia gently rolled her patient to her side to get at the lash marks on the warrior's back. "Isn't there anything else we can do?"
Lucia looked up and smiled before continuing with her work. "Gabrielle, you seem to be the best medicine. Her body instinctively responds to you - your voice, your touch, even your mere presence. Believe me, she's much more relaxed when you're around."
Gabrielle swallowed. "It was once enough to bring her back from the dead. But now...."
"She's a fighter," Lucia said, patting Gabrielle on the arm. "I'm going to give her a stimulant that has worked on other warriors who've been through what she has. Sometimes the mind refuses to join the battle, even when the body is trained to do so."
Gabrielle sat holding Xena's limp hand after Lucia had left. She heard someone at the door and turned to see Ephiny.
How is she?" the Regent asked, coming over to occupy the chair on the other side of Xena's bed.
Gabrielle sighed. "About the same." She brushed her thumb lightly along Xena's slightly discolored jaw. "All that damage to her body, amazing how little they did to her face."
Ephiny grimaced. "And that one was more a... friendly tap."
Gabrielle raised her head at the strange tone in Ephiny's voice.
"I gave it to her." Ephiny sighed. She figured now was as good a time as any to have that talk she and her friend had been avoiding.
"On the way to Melzakius, Xena told me she'd had a run-in with him. He'd made himself 'king' of some small province. She deposed him. Embarrassed him by dressing him and his surviving men as barmaids, hanging them upside down so the women they'd harassed could spank their butts." Ephiny snorted appreciatively, then sobered when she remembered who was listening.
"Melzakius vowed Xena would one day pay for her crimes against 'his people.' Xena told me she believed that would be a big enough draw to get him off the Amazon's back. The deal was that he would 'try' her, but the Amazons would determine and carry out the proper punishment."
Gabrielle shook her head. "So she just walked in and said, 'Take me. I'm yours.' Knowing what his 'trial' would probably be like."
"Um, not exactly." Ephiny lowered her eyes. "I dragged her in, chained and hobbled." She looked up at Gabrielle, a plea in her eyes. "Gabrielle, I know this is hard to hear from me, your supposed friend. But Xena was insistent. She said Melzakius wouldn't believe she'd bow down to him voluntarily, no matter what the Amazon's hold over her."
Ephiny slumped against the back of her chair, hands folded in her lap. "We went alone to his tent. Just before we got there, I chained and gagged her. I pushed her inside, told him about her and the Northern Amazons, that we had tricked her into thinking she'd been forgiven. I said she was ours now, to do with as we wished. As planned, Xena suddenly tried to butt him in the head. I... I punched her pretty hard. She fell, dazed. Melzakius bought the rest of what I was selling after that."
The contrite Amazon leaned forward again and touched a spot below the bruise on Xena's face. "I figured Melzakius might knock her around a little, but Gabrielle, I swear I didn't know he'd go this far. I'd hoped our little act would convince him the Amazons were perfectly willing to do that ourselves."
Gabrielle listened to Ephiny's explanation, her expression a mixture of anger and pain. Just when Ephiny was beginning to worry her friend would never speak to her again, Gabrielle murmured, "Ephiny, was what Xena did really so horrible?"
"What?" Ephiny wondered where on earth this had come from.
"What the Northern Amazons accuse Xena of. She says it's true, but she thinks everything she did back then was horrible." Gabrielle reached across Xena's body to grasp Ephiny's hand. "Be honest, Eph. Were they exaggerating?"
Ephiny sighed. "A couple of the elders from the royal compound made it to this settlement. They'd been too late and too frail to do anything about what happened." Ephiny recounted what she'd heard about Queen Cyane's attempts to befriend Xena and of Xena's cruel repayment.
"They said.... They said it looked like a monster had torn through a gathering of their leaders. Some died on spikes in the trees. And they were the lucky ones. The only warriors who could've done that were dead. Except Xena. She had vanished, along with the children who fled when their mothers never returned." Ephiny put her hand over Gabrielle's. "That's what Xena was. I thought you accepted it. Does it make a difference now?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle acknowledged softly. "I didn't understand their hatred and distrust when we first came here. I defended Xena, based on the woman I know. You believed in that woman. I think those who witnessed her sacrifice for them are willing to believe she's changed. But to me as an Amazon leader, just now hearing about it.... It's like it happened yesterday. I'm.... I had no idea." Her eyes clenched shut a moment. "Gods, if I'd been one of them then ...."
Gabrielle gazed into the distance, her mind trying to wrap itself around an atrocity that touched her so personally. She heard Ephiny gasp. "Do you think I'm being too harsh? That...." She paused at her friend's headshake and followed the finger pointed at - . Gabrielle gasped too. Xena's eyes were open!
"Xena!" she exclaimed happily, throwing her arms around the warrior's shoulders. "You had us so worried. How do you feel?"
Xena's eyes seem riveted on a spot above her. Gabrielle waved a hand across Xena's face and saw her eyes blink, only to resume staring at the ceiling. She looked in panic at Ephiny.
"Xena?" Ephiny leaned over the warrior. "Xena, can you hear me? We need you to let us know you're okay." The hovering women waited for a response, but none came.
"Oh, Eph, what did they do to her? It's like there's no one in there."
"No," Ephiny said thoughtfully, concern evident in her voice, "she had that same look after I'd struck her. At first, I figured it was part of the act. But later...."
"I wondered.... It was like she wasn't there anymore. Like she was already... gone." Ephiny swallowed. "We'd better get Lucia."
Xena's body shivered from the cold that assailed it when they stripped her and hung her like raw meat. It flinched, recalling the brutal punches, kicks, slashes, and burns. Sweat poured out at the heat striping her back. The normally lazy Melzakius had wanted her "trial" to be very thorough. He'd set his men upon her in teams to make sure they'd have time to "interrogate" every inch of his prisoner. The warlord had ordered her head left alone for a while, so she could be conscious as much as possible of every moment.
It wasn't until they'd nearly pulled her limbs apart that she finally gave in to their need to hear her pain. Still, she hadn't been concerned about the physical torture then, nor was she now. Like Ephiny said, she was dead before they touched her. Except in her soul, where the real pain lay. The endless horror. The blood. So much blood. She'd felt it ooze down her body, as it had her victims', watched it stream inexorably through the sands of time to lap finally at the feet of the one person who'd said it could be washed away. Whose innocent eyes looked up from the red stains on her boots with the discovery, at last, that the gore had seeped in too deep.
Xena could hear that sweet voice trying to get in, as it always did. She'd let it before. No more. It was justice she be forever alone, with no one but Amazons on spikes for company, their guts unspeakable testimony to her deeds. No, Gabrielle, this time the gates must stay closed. Even you see now what must be.
"Lucia, it's as though she's paralyzed. But we saw her limbs move during the fever. A few moments ago, I could have sworn she heard me. She tensed like she was trying to fight her way back."
Lucia gently lifted Xena's lids and passed a candle before her patient's eyes. "You're half right, Gabrielle. Unfortunately, it's the second part I'm not certain of. I see no physical reason for her lack of responsiveness. I think she's choosing not to come back."
"But why?" Gabrielle asked, her voice choked. "Why now? Her plan worked. The gods know she has endured worse than this."
"Gabrielle, I wish I had an answer. Perhaps the stimulant I gave her brought her this far. I'm afraid to give her more in her condition. Keep talking to her. That seems to be our best chance." Lucia patted Gabrielle's shoulder and left.
Gabrielle looked down at Xena's closed eyes. She'd prayed so much to see that blue again, but their depth frightened her now, as Xena seemed lost in it too. She suppressed a sob, willing herself to be calm, to think. What was going on with her partner?
Suddenly she smiled through her tears. She moved from the chair, carefully lifted Xena up a little and slid behind her on the bed, cradling the warrior's upper body. She rested her chin on the dark head, brought as much of the wounded body in contact with her healthy one as she could.
"You don't like using words much," Gabrielle murmured to her silent partner, "but your body has always spoken for you. Let's see if that's still true."
Gabrielle reviewed out loud the events that had brought them there. She thought she felt a small movement when she mentioned Xena's initial reaction to visiting the Northern Amazons.
"It's that, isn't it? Not Melzakius. He was simply a means to an end." Gabrielle flinched at her next thought. "An end beyond the negotiation?" She recalled what Ephiny had said about the lost look in Xena's eyes. "A final end? But why? You've put your life in jeopardy countless times. I've never known you to give up before the battle, when you still had a chance." She felt Xena's body stiffen.
"Ephiny was wrong? You hadn't given up?" Nothing from Xena. Gabrielle gasped, a realization dawning. "You thought you were out of chances. Because of what you'd done to the Northern tribe?" A slight tremor from Xena. "But surely you knew they might see past that, once you helped them? And many have. They respect your willingness to die protecting them." No response.
Gabrielle frowned thoughtfully. "You've lived with others' fear and hatred of you for a long time. You've helped people who assumed you'd betray them. Yes, the attack on the Amazons was particularly bad. They'd seen a kindred spirit in you. Taught you what they knew. Offered their friendship. Believed in you." Gabrielle didn't notice Xena's eyes had opened or the warrior's hands clenching beneath the sheets. "Yet you slaughtered their leaders." Gabrielle shuddered. "Now I'm one too."
Xena's body trembled. Gabrielle lifted the warrior's chin, saw the blue eyes - still staring sightlessly, but now filled with an anguish that knifed through Gabrielle's heart.
"Xena? Xena!" she called, gently shaking her friend. "Is it me you were worried about? What I'd think?" Xena's eyes didn't move, but the tear that escaped told Gabrielle all she needed to know.
"Oh, Xena. Why must you always imagine the worst?" Gabrielle banged her head against the wall. "Dumb question." She brushed her thumb across Xena's wet, bruised cheek. "If only you'd talk to me first. Please come back. Don't you know losing you would be worse to me than anything you've done?"
Gabrielle kissed Xena's forehead, caressed her arms - did everything she could to reassure the warrior. Finally more tears coursed down Xena's cheeks. Her lips began to quiver.
The hoarse croak was music to Gabrielle's ears. "Yes, my champion. Come back now. Come back to where you belong. With me."
Xena's body went rigid. She took in huge, gasping breaths like someone who'd nearly drowned. The breaths became silent sobs that Gabrielle welcomed as signs of Xena's return. She held and rocked the warrior well into the evening. Lucia came in and Ephiny, but Gabrielle shushed them away with a big smile. Everything would be all right.
"I feel like the Titans used me for a kickball," Xena muttered, now more than aware of the physical pain she'd thought no longer mattered.
"Close. Melzakius did a pretty good job of 'trying' you." Gabrielle lightly patted the warrior's sore belly. "You almost didn't make it for the sentencing part."
Xena sighed, eyes closed. "I know. I... I figured I'd run out of chances. I heard the disbelief in your voice. Saw the horror on your face." Her voice caught. "These were your people, Gabrielle. How can you forgive me, when I can't forgive myself?"
Gabrielle smiled against the dark head resting on her chest. "If I waited for that, we'd never get anywhere. For someone so quick, you can be awfully slow sometimes." She gave Xena a squeeze of encouragement when she saw the corners of the warrior's mouth quirk.
"Xena, it's not fair, you know, to let things drop on me without warning, then get upset if I seem crushed. I need time to understand, to get prepared, especially if you know what's coming. If I could only get that through your thick skull."
Xena opened her eyes and tilted her head to look up at Gabrielle. "It's not fair to make you a part of it either. You think you know what it means. There's always something more terrible than you could ever dream. I keep hoping maybe it won't fall on you, if I push you away in time."
Gabrielle held Xena's gaze. "If you want to save yourself the pain of my possible rejection, I can live with that," she said softly. Her voice hardened. "But if it's to save me the pain of knowing the truth, then you dishonor me by assuming I'm not woman enough to bear it. I would not deserve to be Queen, and you certainly wouldn't deserve to be my champion."
Xena blinked. Gabrielle had a point. Except she did deserve to be Queen, even if -- .
"And, Xena? There's not going to be one without the other."
Xena blinked again. "You read minds now?"
"Sometimes. A certain body, mostly. If I could get a few more words every now and then, maybe I could retire from mind reading and live happily ever after with that certain body."
Xena chuckled. "Well, that 'certain body' is pretty worn out. I'm not sure how much more communicating it can do." She tried anyway, wincing as she reached up to touch Gabrielle's face
Gabrielle gently pushed Xena's arm down. "Be still." She bent to kiss the pain lines away from her soulmate's forehead. "Don't worry. Just keep a light burning for me. I'll figure a way to get in."
Xena yawned. "Why bother?" She relaxed, finally yielding to the truth in her body and soul. "You're already there. My home." Smiling, she let sleep take her, no longer afraid of facing the ghosts inside alone.