To the defenders of Neapolis, it seemed that she was everywhere at once. She appeared at the walls to oversee the placement of spiked planks. She was seen in the armoury, checking on the production of bolts and arrowheads as well as the repair and construction of new weapons to her order. Other people spotted her over at the granaries as she saw for herself the condition of the town's rations. The sites where Stephicles' men were anticipated to break through were inspected and discussed at length, examined for tactical advantages to be exploited and defences to be used against the incursion. To each Xena moved tirelessly, and although many were wary of the hard, closed face of their former enemy, the Warrior Princess met their caution with suggestions and words of encouragement.
They were pressed hard by the catapults, but the Xenaís presence on the walls had a marked effect on the morale of the militia stationed there. The rain still fell, and she moved through it, her cloak around her and her head covered as she took in the view from the defences around the city. Throughout the morning the captain of the militia had stayed by her side, directing the warrior through their fortifications or the town's streets. And they stood now, elbow to elbow, staring out into the enemy camp as Stephiclesí men continued to pound away at the walls.
"Good thick stone, this is." Kiran dropped her fist down onto the parapet-wall in front of them. "Itíll take them a while to shatter it."
"Wonít matter if they dig underneath it or undermine the foundation," Xena muttered. Her sharp eyes sorted through the lines. The three catapults had been spread out and were working to chip away at different points around the town. At every couple candle marks, the war machines had been shifted and aimed at a different location. "The bastard isnít trying to knock down any of the walls right now; heís just trying to inflict damage. He wants to hurt people. He probably figures that if he wounds enough of you youíll either give him what he wants or else there just wonít be enough to protect the walls in an all out assault."
"What do you want us to do?" The captain, a rookie still by most accounts and still new to her position, was more than willing to defer to the woman beside her. Kiran had never before felt so outclassed by anyone, and given the thrust of the orders given so far, she would have been willing to concede her command to the warrior on the spot if she asked for it in spite of Xena's past history with Neapolis.
Xena ran long fingers across her face wiping away the rain. "Keep the shifts here on the walls to a maximum of two hours. Stagger the squadsí changes, too. You donít want a lag in the change or for Stephicles to get wise to the schedule. You need to let them rest and warm up or else when something does happen theyíll be useless. Give them tea, or hot cider if itís available, but nothing alcoholic; you want them warm, not toasted."
The captain snorted mildly at the joke and signalled to a lieutenant for a change in shifts. "Itís about time to head back to the council chamber. Laera and the others wanted to meet with you, remember?"
"Mmm." But, she wasnít looking forward to it by any stretch of the imagination. With a last glance at the enemy lines, Xena turned and walked towards the stairs with Kiran following behind as they headed for the Council Hall. A few of the troops offered the tall warrior fist on chest salutes as she past, but she deigned to ignore them; she wasnít in command here, and it was hardly fitting to acknowledge the honour when she had wreaked such havoc on their lives not so long ago. Lives she could never replace. Her eyes took in the mingled looks of desperate hope and hate directed at her and once again felt that clawing sensation of weighted guilt. I owe them so much for what Iíve done. How can I ever make up for it? Even if I do manage to pull this off? She took tighter hold of her resolve and settled her fierce will to the task. She wouldnít fail them. It wasnít an option. Not for her.
With the captain in tow, she strode quickly through outer rim of deserted homes, making her way back to the council hall and maybe a warm fire. The colder weather was becoming a concern, though more for Stephicles than for Neapolis. The thought of him freezing in his pretty tent gave a Xena a sense of grim pleasure.
"If this keeps up, itís going to turn into snow," Kiran complained unknowingly mirroring the warriorís thoughts as they bounded up the steps and into the darker interior of the town hall.
"Well, letís hope it turns to ice first. Their army is outside, itíll be harder on them than us," Xena responded as she dragged off her cloak and squeezed rainwater from her long hair, trying to ignore the fact that her feet were almost numb from slogging through the water-clogged streets. From the sight of the people lying in the hall she knew the healers had had their hands full. Xena felt a tinge of guilt for not having spared the bard a thought all morning, having been so single-mindedly wrapped up in overseeing the defences for the city. The council meeting can wait, she decided. Her sudden need to see Gabrielle overrode any other pressing concern at the moment. With a gesture to Kiran, Xena moved through the crowds, intent on finding her partner and friend.
The bard had checked frequently on Anna, her concern mounting with each subsequent visit to the injured womanís side. A fever grew and raged in such a short span of time that Gabrielle feared that Terrence would be correct, but she tended the woman diligently, bathing her overheated skin with water and giving her what medicines might serve to reduce the unhealthy glow from the otherwise pallid cheeks. Having done what she could the bard had moved unflaggingly to the others who came in an unending stream through the open double doors, some under their own power, most assisted by family, neighbours, or the town militia.
But, for the moment, she had something of a breathing space which she gladly took advantage of near one of the fireplaces at the end of the great hall. Gabrielle slumped against the side of the hearth. Out of the way of the healers and their assistants, Gabrielle watched as they ran in relays to boil new bandages or prepare infusions, poultices, and bubbling concoctions for the people in the make-shift hospital. The sudden lack of movement, of concentration, brought all her own discomforts to the immediate and unpleasant fore. Her ribs and shoulder announced their presence again with an abrupt twinge of pain as she sat ungracefully back against the warm stone of the fireplace, her head tilting back while her tired, gritty eyes fell closed in a moment of relief so vast, she couldnít momentarily remember the last time it felt so good not to move.
A weary sigh escaped her lips at the unbidden memory of a well-loved voice preaching undeniably good advice in her inner ear. Using as little effort and energy as possible, Gabrielle snagged a waterskin from the reserve pile towards her and determinedly set about gulping down enough of its contents to make her slosh. The cool liquid traced a path down her parched throat and felt her stomach grumble, disappointed in the meagreness of the offering. She grimly reminded her stomach of just who was supposed to be in charge here, and took a few more healthy swallows in the hopes it might fill her up and take her mind off how long it had been since breakfast.
She capped the waterskin again, set the container aside, and allowed her head to fall back against the stone once more. Gabrielle rubbed at the edges of the bruise, and wondered if hers were only cracked, how Xena could suffer from broken ribs and still continue fighting, riding, leaping, running, and Gods-all-knew-what-else. It gave her a new, and healthy respect of just what Xena was capable of working through, a better understanding of how strong and determined a woman the warrior could be. How incredibly stubbornÖ And she never tells me, not without me badgering her to distraction. If sheís felt like this, itís a wonder she hasnít smacked me into next week. She pondered that as she shifted a little, looking to relieve some muscles in her side, and couldnít help the grimace on her face.
"Hey, are you okay, there?" a voice said next to her ear. Gabrielle jumped and glanced over to find the young priestess that had been present in their first meeting with Laera squatting by her side.
"Um, yeah," Gabrielle answered, getting her bearings again. "Just taking a quick break before getting back to it."
"Good," the other woman responded. "Because with the way youíve been working, the rest of us were beginning to feel inadequate in comparison."
"What?" Gabrielle said in surprise. How long have I been at it? Only a couple hours, surely.
"Oh, yeah," the priestess continued. She brushed her dun coloured hair back from twinkling chocolate brown eyes and sat back on the edge of the hearth, arranging her robes neatly around her legs. "Some of the ladies helping here were talking about making wagers on how much longer it would be before you collapsed from hunger or exhaustion." She gestured to the frantically working town-wives, talking amongst themselves.
"Youíre kidding me," Gabrielle said in disbelief. It has been only a couple hoursÖ hasnít it?
"Well, only about the wagers," the other woman admitted with a smile. "By the way, Iím Mira, Daughter of Zeus. But, donít worry; Iím not a pretentious as I sound. At least not yet, Iím just an acolyte right now, but I have aspirations to work up to it. Youíre Gabrielle, right? The bard?"
"Yes," she answered, warming to the open good humour of the other woman. Though she wondered if this was how Xena felt when she went on without a breath. "Just howÖ I mean, what time is it?"
"Oh, maybe an hour before noon. By my guess youíve been at it for a good seven hours now. You deserve of moment off your feet. And I have a confession to make. I actually came to see you for a reason," Mira said as she gave the bard a searching look and suddenly gripped the ornate medallion around her throat. "My connection with the Gods, and their divine gift to me of prophecy has forewarned me of dire events coming to pass that relate directly to you."
Gabrielle sat forward, interested in spite of herself. Xenaís own contempt and disregard for the Gods had generally rubbed off on her, but her curiosity had ever been her downfall. "What events?"
Mira raised her dark eyes to the shadowed ceiling, a fervent light growing there as if the vaulted stone were no bar to her view of the heavens. "That without sustenance you will fall over like a sick cow, and then where will the rest of us be without your shining example?" With a chuckle and a grin, Mira relaxed her posture of devotion and withdrew a wrinkled apple from a bag at her side. With a casual motion the piece of fruit rolled from her palm and dropped into the bardís lap.
Humour warred with scepticism on her wan face. "The Gods told you that." She picked up the apple though and gave it an expert polish on the only relatively clean surface she could find on her half-top.
"Naw. I heard your stomach rumble from over there." The acolyte watched with evident mirth at the rising blush on the bardís face. "Thought someone was trying to de-flower a mountain cat in here."
The bard gaped in total shock. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times trying to figure out a response to that. FinallyÖ "I thought priestesses were all shy, meek, holy, virtuous, humourless virgins," Gabrielle commented as she bit into the apple, revelling in the juices that filled her mouth. This was more like it. Her stomach growled in agreement. Quiet down there, she ordered.
"Oh no." Mira laughed again. "Thatís the Hestians who are the shy, meek virgins. I probably havenít been advanced because of the sense of humour thing. The High Priest back in Kozani never could appreciate a good joke. I mean, how was I to know that his chariot horses were allergic to olives? Or that the poor animals would choose just the wrong moment to get indigestion?"
Gabrielle giggled, grateful beyond words for this wonderful distraction from the wretched horror of the last several hours.
"Thank Zeus, the stains came out of his ceremonial robes, but by that point he wasnít in too forgiving a mood," Mira continued as she pulled out an apple of her own and took a loud bite. "My knees were bruised for days from all the kneeling and praying I had to do for penance," she muttered around a mouthful of apple.
"How on earth did you ever become a follower of Zeus?" Gabrielle asked, her bardic curiosity running into overdrive; this woman completely shattered any of her pre-conceived notions of what a priestess should be, and was glad for it.
"OhÖ wellÖ I have these dreams, see? I wasnít really kidding about the gift of prophecy thing, though it's really more of a curse than a blessing." The woman swallowed and continued in a clearer voice. "My parents dumped me on the temple steps when I was really young. Apparently I had been predicting droughts and deaths and things, and people thought I was bad luck and threatened to toss me in the river if my parents didnít do something. So, instead of killing me they gave me away hoping that the power of the Father of the Gods would contain me. They left me there with His followers." Miraís morose expression faltered and then she gave a wan grin. "Neat story, huh?"
"Mira, Iím sorry. Thatís so sad," Gabrielle said and reached over to lay a hand on Miraís knee. "But, your parents surely loved you a great deal to give you up like that instead of succumbing to fear and superstition themselves. It must have been very hard on all of you." She watched with concern the way Miraís expression turned bitter and brooding before trying to rebound into her former smile. Without the light of humour in her round face Gabrielle could see the dark circles beneath the acolyteís eyes. Here was one who hid her pains beneath her laughter and smiles, she realised. "You havenít been sleeping well, have you?"
There was silence as Miraís eyes met those of the bard. "No," the dark-haired woman finally relented, the weak grin disappearing entirely. "The dreams have been really bad lately. For the longest time, it seemed as though Zeus had deserted me, but then a few weeks ago they started again. And itís as if Heís been trying to make for lost time ever since. Itís been dreadful," Mira breathed fearfully.
Gabrielle watched the wildness grow in Miraís eyes at the memory of it.
"Each night, Gabrielle, every night, all night long. All shattered images like a broken mirror, bits and pieces of things that will be, might be, or will never be at all. No order to it, no rhyme or reason, no coherency. Only the feeling of urgency, the feeling you get before a storm. That moment of quiet where the whole world seems to hold its breath waiting for that first crash of thunder, the first blinding flash of lightening." The would-be priestess turned haunted eyes to the other woman. "And in each of my dreams rides death. Men, women, children, dying horribly. Gods." She buried her face in her hands and trembled from the memory of it.
Gabrielle couldnít repress a shudder of apprehension at those harshly whispered words. If she ever wanted to change her calling sheíd make a killing as a bard, Gabrielle thought to herself. "What does it mean, do you know?"
"I rarely know. Iím just the messenger, not an Oracle," Mira replied with some exasperation. "Itís just difficult knowing that each night itís going to happen and I canít control it. Iím just along for the ride. Itís just nightmares all night long."
"But, what of hope? Thereís always hope."
Mira gave her a grim smile. "Iíll tell you what I told Laera. One of Demeterís Daughters heard me screaming my head off and woke me from my dream. Iím told that I kept repeating the same thing; death and hope would ride within the storm. No clue what it means, though."
"Frustrating," Gabrielle commiserated. She had no ideas to offer either. She would have to remember to mention it to Xena though; maybe she could come up with something.
"Thanks, Gabrielle," Mira said quietly. "It wasnít my intention to come over here and dump this on you, but youíre so easy to talk to. Itís been difficult being trapped here, when my life is back in Kozani. I donít know if Iíll ever see my friends again." Her tone was bleak with despair.
"You will," Gabrielle said confidently, patting Miraís knee again. "Xenaís working on it. Sheíll find a way for everyone." Her faith in the warrior was unshakeable.
"Itíd be nice if you were right, especially since-"
Shouts from the door caught their attention, and Gabrielle looked over to see a small crowd gathering near the entrance drawing the attention of healers and militia alike. "Looks like itís time to get back," Gabrielle said and was happily surprised to find Mira offering a hand up. "Thanks," she said. The bard gestured towards the door. "You coming?"
"No. I should really get back to work here. MaybeÖ we could talk later? Iíd love to hear some of your stories."
Gabrielle nodded, and left to discover the nature of the latest emergency, never seeing the satisfied smile that descended upon the acolyteís face as she turned away.
Together the women moved through the noisy corridor, hampered by the people crowding the town hall for shelter and help. Pallets had been laid out along the walls for the injured. Must have overfilled the council chamber already, thought Xena. Cries and moans, shouts and laughter, they were the sounds of war and Xena tried hard not to let it simply fade past her awareness as if it were a commonplace occurrence. For these people there was nothing common about it. Their expressions at the sight of her only reinforced her resolve to find some way of helping these people. But, though it was a common reaction, it was hard to not feel their looks of fear and hate. Look at them now. See what youíve done, she demanded of herself. Even in the crowded conditions people still made way for her, unwilling to stand in the path of the woman who had once torched the city because they refused her tribute.
Kiran followed in her wake, not missing the fearful expressions of the people as they parted before them. From what she could see, the captain didnít think the warrior even noticed them. As they entered the chamber, Kiran had to stop abruptly to avoid plowing into the warrior who had halted and begun surveying the hall.
The strong smells of blood, vomit, feces, cauterised flesh, fear, and pain permeated the room. It struck her like an almost physical force as she took in the rows upon rows of people lying on benches and improvised pallets on the stone floor. The dead in the corner had been removed to make way for the living. Even the council table and map had been moved to eke out a few more feet of space. The air was stuffy and heavy with candle and wood smoke, and Xena blinked against the growing sting in her eyes. The warrior strode further into the room her eyes shifting back and forth among the people looking for the familiar form of her companion. Worry began to gnaw at her gut when, after circling the room twice, she still hadnít managed to find Gabrielle.
Leaving the chamber she went back out into the hall, wondering if she were working out here instead. No Gabrielle. Xena grabbed a passing healer, his arms overflowing with blood soaked bandages.
"Have you seen Gabrielle? The bard? Sheís about this high. Has blondish hair." Xena angled her hand against herself to show the approximate height. At the shake of the healerís head, Xena let go and moved on to the next one. And the next one. And the next.
Dammit, you never stay where youíre told, do you. Youíd better be alright, my bard. She spotted an older man trying to reset an elderly womanís dislocated shoulder and squatted down next to him. The first effort hadnít worked; the woman had fought the healer and was crying piteously. Xena, seeing all the other healers engaged with helping their own patients, crouched behind the woman and held her steady with both hands. At a nod from the warrior, the healer bent the arm in the right angle and whipped the limb forcefully back up into the socket with a loud popping crunch.
"Have you seen Gabrielle? She was helping here earlier and-"
"Oh, yes. I know who you mean," The healer responded as he wrapped a bandage around the older woman to immobilise the arm against her body. "Pretty young thing. Sheís been a big help. Knows her stuff. And has a way with people, too, her stories-"
"Thatís great," Xena interrupted before he could continue. "But, do you know where she is?"
"She went with a detachment of militia. Apparently one fool and his family refused to leave their home when the evacuation was ordered. The house was struck by several catapult stones. One of the children got out and came here looking for help; the rest of the family is trapped. They were alive when the child left, so Gabrielle went with them in case anyone survived to need medical treatment."
"The house was on the outer rim?"
"Near the wall. Yes." The healer finished tying off the bandage and helped the old woman lie down.
Doesnít that just figure? The bard had the most reckless courage of anyone she had ever known. She probably never even considered the danger to herself when the child arrived looking for help. "She volunteered, didnít she?" Xena asked on a hunch.
"How did you know? The other healers were busy at the time, and she just walked over and said sheíd go. We threw together a kit for her, and they were gone in less then five minutes with about a half-dozen troops."
"An hour or so ago."
"West wall, Garden Square."
Xena looked around and found the grim faced captain hovering over one of her troops. The healer attending him was attempting to pull free the remains of the arrow still sticking out of the barely conscious man. Xena came to her side in a few quick strides. "I need you to take me to Garden Square," she ordered the woman. "Now."
"What?" Kiran said tearing her attention from the man at her feet. "What about the council?"
"They can wait."
The tone of her voice indicated that if the council didnít like it they could go to Tartarus for all she cared. Kiran looked up into the icy blue eyes and wondered, a little worriedly, just who the warrior was angry with. "Whatís in Garden Square?" she queried a little warily.
"Will you take me there or not?" Xena was getting impatient.
"Okay, okay." She raised her hands defensively. Donít want her mad at me. The captain allowed Xena to move in front of her clearing a path through the crowd, and then plunged once more into the icy rain. "Itís this way." She pointed down a side street even as she moved in that direction.
"Is it far?" Xena asked as she pulled up the hood of her cloak.
"No, a few of streets straight over and weíre there."
The last of her patience broke and Xena broke into a loping run, leaving the startled captain behind. She couldnít get the picture of an injured Gabrielle out of her head. A broken, crushed, bleeding, dying Gabrielle. Like the last time she had brought the bard into a war zone, because she thought she knew better. Oh, Gods. She ran harder.
Kiran slowed to a halt and watched the quickly receding figure as the warrior sprinted full tilt into the driving rain. Shaking her head, the captain turned and went back into the town hall, wondering who the Hades could be so important that the siege could wait in comparison.
The sound of stone crashing into the town grew louder as she approach the outer rim of the town. Stephiclesí men had wrought a fair amount of damage to the dwellings in this area, and she was glad she had ordered the families moved closer to the centre of the town. The rough cobbled street widened out into a courtyard surrounded by homes and storefronts. The centre of the square boasted a large stone fountain. Its sculpted face work enclosed by leafless trees and the muddy, barren remnants of what would have been the gardens. Xena ignored it entirely, too busy scanning the buildings for signs of Gabrielle or the militia. At the far end she noticed a number of homes had been decimated by falling rocks, their roofs smashed and the debris scattered widely across the square. She leapt over the remains of a chimney, and hurried over, finally catching sight of the uniformed guard as they crouched over an opening into the crumbled house. At her approach the two troops at the door put their hands to their hilts, only relaxing their defensive posture when recognition set in.
"Where's the bard?" she demanded as she skidded to a stop.
A large guard, looking miserable in the rain, gestured into the second level window that was now accessible from the street. "The kid wiggled in there, and the bard went in after him. We've managed to get out two of the kid's brothers. The father's dead; most of the house came down on him. The mother is still trapped and so's another kid. A girl, I think he said."
"You've seen her since she first went in?"
"Oh, yeah. She came out with two of the little ones in her arms. Wouldn't give 'em up until she'd seen 'em into the stretchers herself. That's where the other troops are; they took the kids to the temple. We'd heard the council hall was near full up."
"So where is she now?"
"In there. Said the mother and kids were trapped separately, but none of us could fit in with her to help. We sent a message about half an hour ago to get a few of the smaller militia over here. Bard's too small to lift the beams and stuff by herself. Tried though; sheís a stubborn little thing."
"Oh, you noticed, huh?" commented Xena as she began peeling off her cloak and armour. She handed the accoutrements over to the guards and dropped to her knees.
"You're going in there?" the guard asked incredulously.
"Yep," she said distractedly as she gauged the size of the opening to the width of her shoulders. It would be tight, but she'd have better luck than the guards and there was no way she was going to wait for someone smaller while the catapults continued their lethal rain. She manoeuvred onto her belly and crawled forward into the gloom within. She winced at the scratch of ragged wood through the tunic and against her skin and the sting of splinters as she pulled herself forward, her forearms thankfully protected by her bracers. "Gabrielle? Where are you?"
"Xena?" A surprised response came from somewhere off to her right. Crawling towards the sound she caught sight of the bard, huddled around a small shape in the semidarkness. Closer still and the shadow resolved itself into the body of a little girl, entombed beneath debris and part of one support beam, and a boy, the brother, she surmised. Gabrielle was leaning over the girl, trying to keep the rain from her that fell from the holes in the punctured roof. Xena looked to the bard first and saw the bedraggled woman covered in plaster and mud and sporting a gash over her left eye. A thin trail of blood, half congealed, stained her temple and cheek where the bard had obviously swiped at it to keep it out of her eye. The dark clothes worn in the assault were gone, leaving the bard clothed only in her usual kilt and half-top. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked again, her expression faintly annoyed. "What are you doing here?" As glad as she was to see the warrior, she couldnít get over the feeling that Xena was checking up on her. Again. Whatís it going to take to convince her that I can look after myself?
Reaching out a hand to examine the cut, Xena pulled her partner closer. "I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?"
"Not now." Gabrielle pulled away from Xenaís hand and gestured to the little girl. "I can't lift the wood off her. And her mother is further in. I talked to her a few minutes ago, and I think she's been trapped under a wall. She sounded weaker this time." Gabrielle sounded desperate as she continued to crouch over the small child who Xena guessed could be no more than three or four. "Isha, my friend is here. We're going to try and get you out, soon. Right?" She looked pleadingly at Xena.
Xena sighed, as she glanced around. It seemed sometimes that half the adventures they got themselves into were a result of escapades that Gabrielle managed to initiate all by herself. "Right. You," she pointed at the boy. "Wait outside. Iím not taking chances with you in here."
The boy wore a stubborn look that quickly melted under the dour glare of the warrior. As the child left, Xena began eyeing the debris covering the child. Moving forward more she discovered a clear pocket she could kneel beneath, noting that the weight of the roof above them rested precariously atop one or two pieces of wood, all of which was about a catapultís crash away from tumbling down on all of them.
Xena gained her knees and looked down at the child, concerned by the shallow breathing and waxy complexion. Pressing two fingers lightly against the girlís neck she could only detect a faint and erratic pulse. Not good "We need to hurry," she said to Gabrielle. Her eyes searched the pile, and located the exposed end of the beam. "Come here." She jerked her head at the bard. Gabrielle crawled carefully over the child and positioned herself on the opposite side from Xena. "Help me lift it, and as soon as thereís enough clearance, pull her free."
"Right." Gabrielle nodded and put her hands next to Xenaís on the wooden shaft. Together they strained against the weight of the crossbeam, edging it upwards, inch by painful inch. Their muscles tensed and bunched with the strain, and in spite of the cool air, perspiration beaded down their faces as they shifted to gain a better grip.
"I got it! Grab her!" Xena ordered in a pant as she slid her body beneath the beam to rest the bulk of the weight across her back. Gabrielle let go and quickly grabbed the child, sliding her arms beneath her neck and back to take her out of the path of the wreckage.
"Got her!" Gabrielle shot back. The bard laid the girl to one side, and then returned to Xenaís side helping to brace the weight as the warrior twisted out from underneath. As before, they worked in concert to lower the shaft, trying to avoid dropping it for fear it might knock something loose. A crash close by made the foundation shudder, and Gabrielle threw herself over the girl, protecting the child from falling tiles and debris. Strong hands on her shoulders brought her upright.
"Get her out of here. This thing could fall any second." She watched as the bard gathered the girl against herself, cradling the frail form as she dropped to her knees and slithered back out to where the guards were waiting. The moment she was down the tunnel, Xena turned and began surveying the shattered remains of the house working her way towards the childís trapped motherÖ
Gabrielle dragged herself the last few feet and out into the pouring rain, taking a deep breath of fresh air. "We got her!" she shouted as she emerged. The two guards helped her to her feet, wrapped the child into a blanket, and thrust the girl into the blonde guardís arms. He took off at the quickest pace he could manage without jarring the girl too badly with the older brother in tow. In moments they cleared the square and were on their way to the temple.
"Iím going back in to help get the mother out. Would you get some more help and a stretcher, Kris?" At the guardís nod, Gabrielle turned and was about the re-enter the passage when a strange sound met her ears. Jerking her head up, she barely caught sight of it before the stone crashed into the house. Wood, splinters, roof tiles, and rock exploded outwards further decimating the ruined building and its nearest neighbours. The guard was hit from behind; a section of window frame shattered against him as it drove him face first into the stone fountain. Gabrielle threw her arms up to protect herself, as the force of the impact knocked her over. She felt the sting of rocks and splinters as pieces of the house flew overhead. Stunned, she lay on the rain covered cobbles a moment, before rolling to her knees and shaking her head to get rid of the cobwebs. With clear thought restored the implications of the impact registered abruptly. Ignoring the pain, the bard dragged herself to her feet and stood in panicked disbelief at the crushed remains of the passage. Her one way back was gone. And that meant that Xena wasÖ
"NO!" The jagged cry was ripped from her throat and it felt as though her heart had been pulled out violently along with it. Steeling herself, she began the arduous climb up over the ruin, looking for a path back in. Just something, some indication that the passageway might have survived further in, because if it didnítÖ No, she shook her head sharply. I wonít accept that! She began scrabbling through the wood and stone, digging her own path downwards, heedless of the damage it caused to herself as she flung the pieces off to the side and out of her way. "Xena!" Oh, Gods, please noÖ "Xena!"
The further she went the larger the pieces became, and the tears fell freely as she wrestled them out of her way. She found strength as the layers of weary fatigue sloughed away beneath her adrenaline induced frenzy, too stubborn to believe there was anything other than hope and a breathing friend beneath the wreckage. "Donít you dare give up on me, Xena, or Iíll kill you myself!" She ripped up a loose portion of floorboard and heaved it over the side. Thank the Gods; an opening at last. She dropped down without a thought and frantically called out the warriorís name. She threaded through the openings, her heart pounding fiercely against her ribcage as she squinted into the gloom. "Xena!" She crawled through broken crockery and over the remains of a chair. The place groaned around her as another stone hit nearby. "Dammit, Xena. Answer me!" And then she heard it. Faint, but still; sheíd never mistake that voice for anyone elseís.
"Gabrielle?" The response was weak.
The bard was gasping with the exertion as she contorted herself through the tight openings. And there, almost where sheíd left her, was Xena, trapped facedown where part of the ceiling had collapsed on top of her. Only her head, right shoulder and left hand were visible. The rest was hidden beneath the wreckage. The dark mane, greyed with plaster, shifted as a pair of dazed blue eyes searched for hers. Not in her top shape, but all Gabrielle required was that the warrior be alive and breathing. "Iím here, Xena. Hang on, and Iíll get you out."
"GabÖ" Xena had to pause to take in a deeper draught of air. "Get outÖ gonna fall in." She waved the fingers of her free hand back the way the bard had come.
Gabrielle shook her head and gave the warrior her most irritatingly stubborn smile. "Not without you Iím not." She tried to get all the angles on how the piece was positioned, and then dropped to one knee next to the other woman. The squeal and crunch of wood signalled another point of collapse causing the whole place to shift yet again. Gabrielle pushed herself over top of Xena, protecting her from the shards of wood and chunks of tile as they crumbled downward on top of them. "Are you hurt anywhere?" she demanded when the rain of objects ended.
"No." The warrior shook her head briskly, lying without a qualm. She wasnít going to burden her friend with such trivial matters at this late date, not when the bardís life was in danger. She dragged in another ragged breath. "Too heavy. Get outÖ please," Xena begged her. "Donít dieÖ for meÖ not worth it."
"To Hades with that! We can argue how much youíre worth after I drag you out of here!" Gabrielle drew back and placed herself by Xenaís right side. The purchase on the underside was smooth and too hard to grasp, so she settled for a solid grip on the edge. Bracing herself on one knee with her foot against the remains of another wall, Gabrielle took a deep breath and strained upwards. The corded muscles of her body stood out in sharp relief as she gritted her teeth and pulled harder. There was a faint sensation of something popping, but she ignored it, her attention diverted when she felt the large mass give a little. The subtle movement gave her hope, and she shifted her hold attempting to get a better grip. She pushed her knee under the edge and used that to hold it for a split second to adjust her hands and then hauled upwards again, gasping for air as the strain caused her muscles to quiver from the exertion.
"JustÖ a little more," came the faint encouragement. Gabrielleís attention narrowed, blocking out the excruciating pain in her ribs and everything else as she pulled up once more, giving a snarled cry of effort which rang through the tight enclosure as she brought it up another precious inch. She could feel movement below her, but tuned it out, waitingÖ waitingÖ
That was all she needed to hear and cleared herself from beneath the edge before allowing the side of the wreckage to crash to the floor. She took a moment to wipe the sweat from her eyes with a trembling hand as she looked for Xena. The warrior was scrunched over on her side trying to catch her breath. Ignoring the quiver in her over-taxed muscles, Gabrielle turned and searched the gloom, looking for their one last survivor. "What about Ishaís mother? Weíve got to get-"
"Donít look, Gabrielle." Xena panted. "I heard her. She didnít make itÖ through that last hit."
There was another creak followed by an ominous groan. Their eyes snapped upwards and then towards each other.
"Uh oh," they breathed together.
"Címon!" Gabrielle grabbed Xenaís arm and practically dragged the woman back through the way she had come. She pushed aside what she could, and held up what she couldnít, allowing the taller woman to squeeze through and back up into the cold, wet, wonderful rain. Their arms slung round one another, they stumbled their way down the wreckage, finding precarious footing on the splintered remains of the house. Gabrielle only had a moment to give a startled gasp of surprise when the warrior locked long arms around her and suddenly they were aloft, driven skyward by Xena's strength, evading by precious inches another of the rocks hurled from beyond the walls.
The house behind them shattered in on itself with an ear-splitting crash as they tumbled to the cobbles. The warrior twisted herself to brace Gabrielle's fall with her own body, grunting with the impact as they slid to a stop. Littered with debris and soaked by the incessantly falling rain, the two women stared at the heap of broken and twisted wood, grasping just how close it had been. Sky met sea as they turned to look at one another, both struggling to get their breath back.
"You alright?" Gabrielle got out finally as she eyed the other woman closely.
"Yeah," Xena panted as she did the same. "You?"
The bard sat and stared at the warrior for moment, caught again by that sudden tightness in her chest when she had thought for a moment that Xena might really be goneÖ "Gods, that was too close," Gabrielle muttered just as Xena pulled her into a tight embrace.
They held on tight, both needing to reassure themselves that the other was alive and in one piece. Then Xena pulled back and grasped the bard hard about the arms and suddenly shook the smaller woman, the startlingly blue eyes blazing. "What were you thinking, coming in there after me?" Xena shouted at her. "You could have been killed!"
"You would have died if I hadnít!" the bard retorted in surprise, her own fury growing by the second. "I couldnít just leave you there. And what was that nonsense of you not being worth it?" She knocked Xenaís hands away and poked her hard with her finger. "Donít you ever talk about yourself that way again, do you hear me? You are worth it! Youíre worth it to me!" She pounded her fist against her chest, stumbled to her feet, and began limping away, her body a burning, aching, miserable mess.
Gabrielle was seething. She doesnít get it, does she? There had never been any choice in the matter. Not for her. Going in after the warrior was as right and factual asÖ asÖ as the colour of that damn womanís eyes! It was just that simple. No thought required. And apparently the fact that Xena risked herself all the time doing the same for her was irrelevant. But when I do it itís different. She gets a thank you. I get yelled at. By a- "big, dumb, pig-headed, stubborn, ungrateful, self-centredÖ warrior!" Gabrielle growled tossing her hands in the air to emphasis her point. She was thoroughly annoyed with her inability to come with anything more damning.
"I heard all that!" Xena shouted from where she still lay near the ruined house. She had watched all the head shaking and muttered arm tossing, wondering if the bard was going to leave her there on the street.
"I hope so," Gabrielle answered icily as she came to a halt in the rain. "Can you walk?"
Xena frowned at the tone of the bardís voice. Sheíd be damned if the bard thought she was going to ask for help now. "I can manage." The warrior snagged her belongings and sent a small glare towards the other woman.
Gabrielle was on the verge of responding when she spotted the body of the downed guard near the fountain. On shaky legs she ran to his side, and turned Kris over. The impact against the stone wall of the side of the fountain had killed him instantly, snapping his neck and rendering one half his face unrecognisable. She was only faintly aware of the whimpers emanating from her throat as she stared in horrid shock at the lurid and unnecessary damage to the young man. Gentle hands plucked at her and turned her away from the gruesome sight. "Come with me. Weíll let the captain know. Theyíll come back for him. Címon." Xena put an arm around the bard and pulled her away from the dead soldier, murmuring quietly into the younger womanís ear. They gained some distance from the scene when Gabrielle pulled away again and walked alone in the rain, her pale arms wrapped around herself, missing the small look of hurt that Xena sent her way. "What happened to your cloak, not to mention the rest of your clothes?" Xena demanded, as she watched the growing shivers in concern.
Gabrielle shrugged. "I gave it to one of the kids to keep them warm, and the pants got soaked with blood and then someone else vomited on me this morning, so I changed," she answered through chattering teeth. "Simon said heíd bring the cloak back for me at the council hall."
"Simon, huh? Another admirer of yours?" Xena tried to tease as she pulled off her own cloak and attempted to wrap it around the bard.
Gabrielle glared at her and shrugged off the offer of the cloak. She only increased her speed and passed Xena without a word, intent on getting out of the cold weather.
The warrior watched in frustrated confusion as the bard moved away. Was she ever going to get this right? Why did it have to be so hard sometimes? I told herÖ she knows how muchÖ Gods, Gabrielle, if something happened to you because of meÖ Xenaís heart clenched as always at the thought. She had lain beneath the crumbled section of ceiling, hating the feeling of helplessness as she fought with all the strength she could muster to free herself. But the odd angle, combined with the heavy weight made the feat almost impossible. Even if she had succeeded in escaping, it would never have been in time to avoid the collapse. Never one to give in to defeat, however; she continued to struggle, but at the same time whispered her farewells to the bard, not expecting to see her friend again in this lifeÖ or the next. Or so she thought, when she suddenly heard the treasured voice calling to her in the darkness. And her soul had cringed with the knowledge that Gabrielle would most likely die in there with her. Because of her. Especially if she couldnít convince the younger woman to leave her behind and get out. If she couldnít lift the heavy mass, how on earth could Gabrielle?
Yet somehowÖ Gabrielle had done just that. Against all reason. And the look on her faceÖ Xena recalled in amazement. And you call me stubborn? the warrior thought as she continued to watch the ragged progress of her friend as they made their way back to the council hall.
The poor light threading through the enclosure had given a faint outline of the other woman as she strained to lift the ruined section. Forced to lie still and wait, Xena could only look on in awe at the strength and determination that declared themselves, not only in the clean lines of the bardís physique, but in the expression and presence Gabrielle unknowingly put forth as the bard poured every ounce of heart and will into freeing her. It was if she was noticing the changes all over again. Time and danger had honed the bardís body and skills, and Xena was forced to look again at the woman she travelled with. And she was a woman now. That gawky, naÔve village girl had changed and grown in such a myriad of ways. And she had been willing to risk everythingÖ everythingÖ for an ex-warlord with a questionable past and even more doubtful futureÖ for the simple reason that to GabrielleÖ she was worth it.
Xena lagged back behind the form of her cherished companion, that small half-smile gracing her features, grateful for the driving rain that washed away the burn of unshed tears.
Gabrielle found the stench almost more overwhelming than the crowds as she moved through the cluttered corridor of the town hall. She side-stepped the litters and the bodies of the injured as she spoke briefly with the healers she encountered. She wanted to check on Anna. The woman had been feverish as she slipped in and out of consciousness. The bard was worried for her, and concerned that she had been gone so long when she had promised to be back as soon as she could. The doors to the council chamber were still wide open and she moved slowly, one hand moving absently against her ribs, as she searched along a side wall where the woman had been placed. The chamber, though large, was warm and suffused with the scent of candles and smoke, as well as other things less pleasant.
Her aching legs carried her to the side of ëDemeterís Springí where Anna had been laid beneath the vast and intricately coloured mural. The bard scanned the wall, concerned when she didnít see the woman right away. Another person had taken her spot, a young boy swathed in bandages. A quick search of the hall brought her no closer to discovering her patientís whereabouts, so with growing concern Gabrielle went back out into the corridor. Amidst the confusion of the hallway she spotted Terrence as he tended to a young couple sitting on the floor. As she waited, a man from the militia came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.
Gabrielle turned around and recognised the man as one of the soldiers who had gone with her to rescue the trapped family. "Simon. I didnít expect to see you again so soon."
The man, looking tired and worn, pulled off his helmet and stuck it under his arm, an expression of discomfort on his weathered face. "I wanted to return your cloak to you," he responded as he held out the heavy grey material.
Gabrielle took it from him, apprehension growing in her as she saw his eyes fall to his boots. "Simon, you could have left this at the temple. Surely one of those kids could have used it, at least for the night. They donít have anything else, now that theyíve lost their home and their parents."
"Aye, well, theyíve lost a sister now, too," he told her quietly. "Poor mite. Kylipes brought her as quickly as he could, but sheíd been hurt so bad." He put out a hand as Gabrielle sagged beneath the weight of his words, pained at the loss of a life so young and innocent.
"If Iíd only been stronger, or fasterÖ something," the bard rasped, as her eyes felt the sting of unshed tears and the sharp pain of self-incrimination needled her soul. "I couldnít do it without Xena, and no one else came. But I should have been able to do somethingÖ"
"You did all you could. You know it as well as I." He gripped her shoulder as he tried to comfort her. He jerked his right hand back suddenly and gasped at the sight of the blood covering his palm. "Gods, Gabrielle! Youíre bleeding! You need someone to-"
"Iíll get it looked after, Simon. Iíll be fine." She waved him off, as she swiped at a tear on her cheek. "Thanks for coming to tell me yourself, though; I appreciate it."
Simon nodded as Gabrielle moved away, intent on intercepting Terrence before he took on another patient. Believing she was going to be getting treatment immediately, the guard left her there in the crowded hall and headed back out to the walls.
Gabrielleís focus shifted in and out as she waited, and finally got the opportunity to speak with the older healer before he moved on to the next person in need. "Terrence?" Gabrielle called as she reached out to grasp his sleeve.
"Oh, there you are. Your tall warrior friend was looking for you. Did you see her?" he asked as he came to her side.
"Yes, thank you. I wanted to know if you knew where Anna was. She isnít in the council hall anymore, and Iím worried."
The greying healer tapped a finger against his lips as he thought about it. "AnnaÖ Anna. The name sounds familiar. Forgive me, my dear; Iíve seen so many people today. What did we treat her for?"
"You amputated her leg." Gabrielleís gut twisted just at the memory of the procedure, the moment having been caught forever in all its graphic vividness with her penchant for detail.
The connection made for the healer, his eyes lit up and then dimmed immediately. "Oh, my dear. Iím so sorry."
"What?" Gabrielleís face fell, unprepared to deal with another loss, one right after another. "What happened?" She clutched his blood stained robes in her scratched and cold-chapped hands. "Tell me!"
The healer grasped her gently, his face a picture of compassionate concern. "She passed over not that long ago. The fever, and the blood lossÖ it was too much of a strain on her poor body. And one of the other healers suspected that there was internal damage that we couldnít have treated anyway. That it was quick is the only comfort I can offer you. If it had been an infectionÖ wellÖ it might have been much worse."
He paused for moment, appearing to debate with himself before continuing. "I understand she came to and asked for you while you were gone." He felt a shudder go through her. "I told her you had left to help some children trapped in a house. She asked me to tell you that she liked your story and that she would pray that you would help the children to safety as you did her." Terrence watched sadly as the bardís face drained of colour and was startled as she pulled away to leaned against the wall, her forehead resting against the cool stone. Her hands gripped the finished surface seeming to search to find a purchase on it to keep her upright.
She ached inside and out. It was suddenly too much. I should have been here. I should have been with her. I promised her I would stay by her. Itís my fault, I should have been here and maybe I could have doneÖ something. At least she wouldnít have died alone. She pounded a fist against the stone wall, hardly feeling the skin split at the impact as harsh emotions raged through her. She roughly shook off the healerís hand that settled on her shoulder.
"Leave me be," she ground out between clenched teeth as she tried to hold it together. The whole situation was so much worse than Troy. The Neapolitans had been inadequately prepared for the winter and were nearly the end of their strength as it was. It hurt so much to lose these lives. These people who had never asked for any of this to happen. Young children with their whole lives ahead of them. Young women, pregnant with the sole remembrance of a love dead and gone. It was too much. She pounded the wall again, angry and frustrated at the senselessness of it all. She wanted to hate Stephicles. She certainly hated his ruthless greed. Gabrielle hit the wall again, wanting to do something, anything to make a difference and finding only the evidence of her failure at every turn.
The hand was back on her shoulder, and the bard tried to shake it off again as she continued to smash her fist bloody against the stone. A second hand reached out and restrained her arm. "Donít, GabrielleÖ please."
At the sound of Xenaís voice in her ear, Gabrielle turned to stare at warrior, seeing all her own feelings reflected back to her from within the those bottomless blue eyes. The knowledge of war, its aftermath and all its inevitable suffering, it was there in Xenaís expression. The taller woman silently pulled her forward and Gabrielle came to her, finally allowing herself her tears. The last of her reserves fell away as she sobbed bitterly against Xenaís shoulder, desperate to unburden her soul. Her knees gave out and Xena caught her awkwardly, forced to lower them both to the floor while ignoring her own hurts as she held tight to the woman weeping in her arms.
The intensity of it frightened Xena. Uncertain but concerned, she could only hold on and ride it out. With slow movements she rocked the body nestled between her knees as she murmured quietly against Gabrielleís ear, her voice soothing and low. She used one sculpted hand to cradle the bardís head against her neck as the fingers gently tangled with the fine strands, stroking them in a calming rhythm. The warrior lost touch with her surroundings as she held Gabrielle tight against her and rested her cheek against the soft golden hair. Her own heart echoed each sob and ragged breath the bard released, feeling the other womanís pain as if it were her own. The weeping of one woman becoming a catharsis for the other. She treasured the bard for this reason, among many, that her heart held such depths that she could feel for a people not her own, that she would risk her life to save strangers, and that helping just one more always meant anyone else who needed it, too.
A shadow over her drew her attention back to the hallway where they sat, and Xena glanced up to find Laera standing before her, with Kiran looming behind her right shoulder.
The elderly councillor stood silently, her hands clasped before her as her uncompromising eyes took in the sight of the distressed woman in Xenaís arms. She noted their injuries and rain-sodden, dishevelled state, but even more so, she saw the implicit trust between the two, and the fierce warriorís tender concern for the bard. The sky blue eyes that met her own shimmered with the moisture of unreleased tears. The expression was tight, but unapologetic for their absence from the council meeting.
Laera stepped closer and laid a hand on Xenaís shoulder. "I was told what you two had done," she spoke quietly to Xena. "Take a break for a while and get some rest. Iíll have you notified if anything critical happens. Take care of her and weíll meet later." A quick squeeze to the warriorís shoulder, and then she moved away to speak to the injured. Kiran stood for a moment, watching the two as Xena looked back, and gave an admiring smile and a nod before leaving them.
Xena turned her attention back to her friend, relieved to feel that the worst seemed to be over, as Gabrielle gave small ragged breaths while the tears continued to roll down her face. In time that finally ceased as well.
Gabrielle gave a last shuddering sigh and shifted her head a little, unmindful of the grit, pieces of wood, and Gods-knew-what-else stuck there. The steady thrum of the heartbeat beneath her ear lulled her, as did the fingers lightly kneading the base of her neck. A relaxed but distanced feeling overcame her and she felt so drained. And she needed this so badly. She was worried though that Xena might be feeling irritable and impatient, having so many other things to be concerned with right now. And she must be uncomfortable; I know she hates it when I cry. "Are you okay?" Gabrielle managed. Her voice was rough and cracked from the emotional release. A shiver went through her, the wet clothes only intensifying the chill she felt.
Xena looked down, her brow crinkling with a smile. "Isnít that my line?"
"Only if you do the rescuing. Which you didnít." She felt the warrior give a soft laugh as the enveloping arms held her tighter. One hand came back up to rest gently against her jaw, the callused fingers stroking the sensitive skin of her ear. She sighed at the warm touch. "So, are you alright?" the bard repeated carefully as she breathed in and caught the lingering scent of leather and the tang of metal on Xenaís skin.
"Other than getting a house dropped on me, Iím fine," the warrior informed her calmly.
"Xena-" Gabrielle began, frustrated.
"Okay, okay," Xena interrupted, attempting to placate the bard. How did that go again? Oh, yeah. "Iím tiredÖ Iím stiffÖ Iím sore. Iíve got a couple bruises and cuts that sting like Hades. My shoulder kinda hurts. I want a hot bath and Iím starved . And I have stuff wedged in the most unmentionable of places." Xena paused. "Is this the part where I whine now?"
"I think you just did."
"Really?" The warrior stopped a moment to think that over. "That wasnít so hard."
Gabrielle groaned. "Donít get used to it."
"So I was right; youíre glad that youíre lucky enough that Iím not most people."
The storytellerís brow furrowed for a moment as she ran that one through her head again. "Indubitably, though very confusingly put."
"So youíre agreeing that Iím right," Xena pushed with a meaningful lift to her eyebrow and a devilish grin on her lips. The adrenaline was finally settling, leaving her with the faint buzz she always got from having evaded death yet again. Her blood fairly sang with it, aches and pains not withstanding.
Able to tell that the warrior was in a strange, but happy mood, Gabrielle merely sighed and conceded defeat. "Fine. You win."
"About time, too." Xena smiled and hugged the bard again, relieved that the worst seemed to be past. "Iím taking you back to our room so I can take a look at these cuts. You can get cleaned up and then maybe sleep for a while." She got to her feet and then held out a hand for Gabrielle.
The bard grasped the larger hand in her own and was lifted effortlessly to her feet, but the change in position awoke all the aches and pains, cramped as she was from sitting in one place for a time after such a harsh exertion. Her damaged ribs sang out painfully and she couldnít hold back the grunt of agony as she staggered, unable to stand upright. Hands gripped her shoulders as her leg muscles quivered and threatened to give out again. It felt as though her body had been dipped in liquid fire. "Itís not so bad," she said, her breathing laboured. "Just let me sit again for a moment." Gabrielle fully expected to be given a moment to recover, when- "Hey!"
The world spun and dipped for second before settling into a comfortable spot in Xenaís arms. Gabrielle knew the warrior was strong, saw evidence of it on a daily basis, but it was such an abrupt and up-close reminder of just how much so by the ease with which the taller woman cradled her against her body. "Xena, your shoulder," Gabrielle protested weakly. "Put me down and Iíll walk."
"Be quiet, Gabrielle," Xena ordered softly. "You probably couldnít crawl if the council announced a feast in your honour at this point. And donít think it escaped my notice that youíve ripped open your stitches, either. By all rights you should be out cold on your nose. Now, stay still."
The bard wanted to argue, but there just wasnít the energy for it. She lay her head against the warriorís shoulder feeling oddly empty inside, as if she had poured out the last of herself in the expulsion of her tears. Just so tired. How does she do it? How does she keep going? the bard wondered. "I wish I could keep up with you."
"Hey," Xena chided the bard as she made her way carefully up the stairs to the guest accommodations. "I donít recall being the one that lifted the roof off my back." The sounds of the wounded emanated from the rooms as they past by. The scent of blood and fear were pervasive, the cloying odour forming a constant assault on the senses. Even this floor had been designated for wounded but, perhaps it was at Laeraís orders, their room had been held for them. The warrior shut the door with one booted foot, dampening the sounds from the hallway to a more reasonable level. In a few easy strides she reached the bedside and lay her precious burden down on the coverlet. Xena took a moment to brush the hair from Gabrielleís eyes before moving to pour the rest of the water into the bowl they had used the night before. Leaving the bowl on the table for the moment, Xena collected the bardís robe from where it had been left early that morning and draped it across the bed.
"I need some things from the healers downstairs. Iíll be right back. You." She pointed a finger at Gabrielle as she backed up towards the door. "Stay here. I mean it," Xena told her with a forbidding glare and then headed back out the door. Itíd be just like her to go look for more trouble to get into while Iím gone.
Gabrielle watched the door close a perplexed look gracing her pale features. Just where the Tartarus does she think Iím going to go? She rolled her eyes and shivered a little. The fire in the hearth from this morning had long since gone out leaving the room chilly and quite inhospitable to the waterlogged bard. She eyed the stack of wood next the fireplace and contemplated the possibility of starting a fire again. Sheíd kill me, Gabrielle reminded herself. Another more violent shiver set off more aches and pains, and she gave a mental shrug. Won't matter if the cold finishes me off first.
It took a while, and her upper lip and forehead were dewed with sweat, but she eventually lifted her legs over the edge of the bed. Gotta move faster before she gets back, thought Gabrielle as she pushed herself harder. As if summoned on the wings of her thought the door swung inward revealing the unmistakable silhouette of the Warrior Princess. Her hands juggled a number of odds and ends, the most recognisable being the waterskin and kettle. The icy eyes drilled into hers as they watched the bard freeze in the act of trying to stand.
"I donít believe you," Xena muttered, shaking her head as she watched the sheepish bard reverse direction and lay back on the bed. The warrior went to the hearth and dropped her bundles, her back to the other woman. "Next time Iíll save my breath and just tie you to the bed."
"I was cold," Gabrielle protested. Tie me to the bed? Is she serious? "Are you serious?" Probably. Xena rarely meant anything other than exactly what she says.
The warrior glared at her over her armoured shoulder. Gabrielle took that as a ëyesí.
The fire was soon blazing again, and the kettle filled from the waterskin and set to heat over the flames. She rinsed the dirt and wood dust from her hands and turned to regard the reclining figure on the bed. "Youíll need to sit up," Xena told her.
Together they got her propped up against the headboard before the warrior retrieved the bowl and healing kit, preparing to redo last nightís work. Xena grimaced at the condition of the green top as she undid the laces at the front. The bloodstains and other pieces of debris from the house would, no doubt, be a pain to clean up. She pulled the garment off completely knowing that her friend would be comfortable sleeping without it, before proceeding to the bandage. Nimble fingers made short work of the rain soaked knot, and she unwound the material, helping the bard sit upright long enough to unwind it. Xena heard the small sigh of relief as Gabrielle sank back into the pillows, her throat working hard to swallow the discomfort.
"This, too," Xena said softly, her fingers tugging at the equally stained kilt. "Iíll get your boots." And in moments, with the exception of her undergarments, the bard lay naked and exposed to the warriorís gaze.
"You look like Tartarus," Xena commented sadly as her eyes roamed over the bardís battered form. Cuts and bruises abounded, not including the one she had acquired a few days ago. The stitches had ripped wide open, the wound swollen and red, and the dark stains around the bardís shoulder and chest showed that it had bled quite a bit again. Her hands, elbows, and knees were scraped, and the cut over her left eye might even need a suture or two. For the most part, Xena knew the wounds were superficial, but it didnít make any of it easier to look at.
"So much for my resale value, huh?" Gabrielle tiredly joked seeing the look on Xenaís face. She hurt badly enough that her state of undress was the least of her worries. Her left side was agony from the shoulder down to her waist, and she just knew that her muscles were going to be twice as bad tomorrowÖ or todayÖ or after however long she was going to be allowed to rest this time. Her head fell back against the pillows behind her and watched as her friend drew near.
Xena sat back down next to the bard, and began cleaning out her shoulder again. Her hands trembled a little, bothered more than she cared to admit by her friendís condition. All the more so, since some of it was a result of Gabrielleís effort to save her life. I brought her here. This is my fault. My fault that she risked herself for me. Laera was right. How much does she have to suffer while I make up for my past? Sheís in danger every moment sheís with meÖ Her frame of mind took a decidedly downward turn, as depression and anger hardened her features into a grim mask.
The warrior kept her eyes on the cut as she gently swabbed the area. "Hmm?"
"I can tell what youíre thinking. Stop beating yourself up." Gabrielle winced as the cloth passed over a particularly tender spot. "This one was my screw-up. You came looking for me. If Iíd waited for help, or let someone else go, neither one of us might have been hurt."
"But if youíd waited those kids might have died." Xena acknowledged the truth for them both.
"YeahÖ well," Gabrielle turned her head away. Her sea-green eyes tinged with sad regret. "One of them died anyway."
Xena stopped, and raised her eyes to the bardís face. "The little girl?"
The younger woman could only nod, her jaw clenching as she felt the frustrated anger of having come so close, only to still fail.
Canít let this go on. The warrior wanted to comfort her friend but was unsure how. "There was nothing more you couldíve done, Gabrielle. You did your best." She winced mentally. That was pathetic, Xena.
"And it wasnít enough!"
Xena wet the cloth again and wrung it out, returning her attention to the shoulder wound. "No," she admitted, having known the same sad frustration. "Sometimes it isnít." She knew that reality all too well. She knew the sensation of arriving too late, of managing to protect some, but not all, of the heartache of working hours to save one life only to have it slip away like water through her fingers. It was hard. And it hurt. And now the bard knew that, too. Gods, how I wish she didnít. They sat quietly for a time as Xena re-stitched the cut. She watched Gabrielle bear the whole procedure predominantly in silence, with only the occasional hiss or wince, though the bardís already over-taxed muscles were tense with pain. From there, she moved to the cut over her friendís eye. "How did you get this one?" she asked, craving the sound of Gabrielleís voice.
"Hit by a falling tile. Never saw it coming." The bard offered a small smile. "You should have heard the sound it made when it bounced off my thick skull."
Xena sighed as she tilted the other womanís head back slightly and threaded the needle through the awkward spot. "Itís a wonder you werenít knocked out."
Gabrielle huffed, hardly in the mood to be chastised.
Xena only shook her head at her, and lifted the damaged hand into view. The skin around the knuckles was bruised and split, the drying blood fading to a rusty brown stain. How bad has it become that she would resort to this? What can I expect exposing her to siege warfare? And I thought this would be better than sending her away? GodsÖ itís not as if we donít face enough danger as it is without inflicting it on ourselves. She has such a gentle soulÖ how could she do this to herself?
She could appreciate the emotion behind it, but even she knew how unhealthy this was. "I donít ever want to see you do this to yourself again." Her voice was rough with barely concealed emotion. The warrior held the hand in her lap and watched the fingers twitch slightly with the sting of the disinfectant. Xena gathered a strip of linen and wound the material around the battered knuckles. "Come to me, Gabrielle, and weíll work it out together. Youíve said it often enough; thatís what friends do," she quoted, turning the bardís oft spoken words back to her and then let her voice soften as she tried to convey her sincerity. "Or at least wait until youíve got your staff and you can beat the living Tartarus out of a tree. Okay?" she tried humour, only to watch it fall flat as Gabrielle hung her head, her eyes sad and downcast.
Her long fingers exerted gentle pressure to coax the bard to look into her eyes. "Okay?" Xena asked again. She was concerned by the half-hearted nod she received in return, but was unsure of how to draw Gabrielle out; after all it was usually the other way around. Xena could only hope that the bard would come around in time, as she often did. "Lay down. I want to check your ribs."
A few minutes of careful manoeuvring brought Gabrielle to a prone position on the bed again. Xena sat herself against the bard, close enough to feel how chilly Gabrielle had become. She took a moment to pull the quilt up around the bardís waist before seeing to the next injury. A toss of her head moved her long hair over one shoulder and out of the way as she leaned in and placed her warm fingers on cool flesh just at the perimeter of the bruise.
The bard groaned as she felt the warriorís fingers move across her mid-section beneath her breast feeling for the cracks in the three damaged ribs. She could only hope it wasnít worse, but looking up into the concerned blue eyes above her she believed with all her heart that any damage she sustained would be worth it to have Xena safe and alive with her here. That was worth any price to her, really. Perspiration dotted Gabrielleís face as she tried to stay still and not pull away from Xenaís probing hands.
"Are you having trouble breathing?" She sensed that there seemed to be a little more give in one of the ribs, and the possibility of an outright break was high given the bardís activities in the last few hours.
She bit her lower lip for a second, and then leaned down and put her ear against Gabrielleís bloodstained chest. "Breathe as deep as you can," she instructed. The hollow rush of air came through beneath the rough rhythm of the bardís heart. "Again." She closed her eyes, the better to concentrate. Thank the Gods. No sound of fluid in her lungs. Which hopefully means no punctures. "It feels like one may have cracked further or broken, but otherwise your lung sounds clear. You tell me immediately if you start coughing, or if you feel a wheezing sensation in your chest when you breathe. And for Godsí sakes take it as easy as you can for the next few days. Youíll only make it worse if you try to save Neapolis single-handed."
"Right. Iíll just leave that to you," Gabrielle promised facetiously through gritted teeth, still waiting for the forced pain to subside.
Xena proceeded to clean up the remaining lacerations and pulled out a couple of splinters along the way. The bard lay passive beneath her care, silent and unmoving. The stories and inexhaustible talk which characterised her young friend had been sadly absent the last couple weeks.
The worn and weary cast to the bardís features seemed too commonplace lately for the warriorís liking. She was definitely going to give Gabrielle a rest once they had taken care of their latest problem. A visit to the Amazons, maybe? Xena wasnít too keen on the thought, and given their last visit and her friendís inadvertent and unexpected addition as a member of the royal familyÖ Well, it was safe to say that Gabrielle had at least managed to keep her life interesting since they started travelling together. It would be just like the bard to get herself into some other fix an hour after they arrive and wind up ruling the whole damn nation. So, something quieter. MaybeÖ Poteidaia? Her mind balked almost immediately. Better not. Her family would have hysterics seeing her in this condition, not to mention that smaller fact of me being with her.
Amphipolis, then? She contemplated the possibility of that while she gently sponged the dried blood from Gabrielleís chest, painfully aware of how the bardís eyes avoided hers. Hard to think of it as home anymore, but mother would probably have raptures if we came to visit for a while. And it would give us a chance to rest and get our reserves back. Gods know how hard it is for us to stay even as it is, Xena thought as she let her eyes linger on the outline of the bardís ribs. Part of her simply wanted to take Gabrielle and hide her away from the world for a while, protect her from all this, hold her close until the wounds, inside and out, had a chance to heal. No chance of that happening anytime soon, though that vacation idea was starting to look better all the time. "I think that does it," Xena said finally and then reached over on the bed for the robe Gabrielle had used the night before. "Here, let me help you get into this."
The effort left the bard weak and sweaty, and Xena noted with concern the flush on her friendís fair cheeks. The covers were pulled up under Gabrielleís chin and the pillows straightened before the warrior turned back to the fire to retrieve the kettle. She took a small cloth pouch from the pile she had brought from downstairs and shook some of its contents into a goblet before adding the heated water. A vile odour emanated from the cup as Xena carried it to the bard. "Let the powder steep for a couple more seconds, and then drink it. All of it," she ordered as she handed the medicine over.
"Whatís in it?" Gabrielle asked, her nose wrinkling in disgust.
A smirk lifted the corner of the warriorís lips. "Youíd probably prefer not to know."
Gabrielle sniffed it suspiciously. "Why is it that your treatments always taste so revolting?" the bard muttered and then proceeded to down the greenish brown mixture, her throat muscles working to override the instantaneous desire to gag at the horrendous taste. Finished at last, she wiped at her mouth with the back of a shaky hand, and held out the goblet for Xena to take. "GuhÖ yuck. Pass me the waterskin, would you?"
Having used the mixture often enough in the past herself, Xena quickly grabbed the water and handed it over. She watched Gabrielle swish the water back and forth in her mouth a couple of times before reluctantly swallowing again. The process repeated itself twice more and then, at Xenaís insistence, the bard took a few more healthy swallows. The herbís effects on the injured womanís empty stomach were immediately apparent.
"WhoaÖ" Gabrielle blinked. The pain was still there, but instead of the constant harsh throbbing there now seemed to be the beginnings of a cottony wall between her and the painful sensations. The already strong desire for sleep suddenly intensified, but she fought it, not yet ready to give in.
"No kidding," Xena replied seeing the slightly dazed expression on Gabrielleís face. She felt a knot loosen in her chest, glad that the bard would finally be feeling some relief. It was strong stuff, and she had spent a frustrating few minutes trying to convince the old healer, who had been deeply concerned about Gabrielle, that, yes, she did know how to use it properly. Flattening the old man would have been intensely satisfying to her current mood, but wouldnít have won her any bonus points with her friend. She took the cup from Gabrielleís hand and put it on the table before cleaning up the bloodied strips of cloth from the floor and set the blood soaked garments to soak in the bowl. As she moved about the room she could feel the weight of Gabrielleís eyes on her and didnít really need to guess what was coming next.
"Hmm?" Xena responded as she began unhooking her armour.
"What about you?"
Xena turned and regarded her friend, noting the brow still furrowed in discomfort, as she pulled off her bracers. "What about me?"
"You were hurt, too."
"Once I clean up Iíll be fine. None of my cuts were that serious." Thatís true enough, at least. Canít accuse me of lying there.
"Really?" Gabrielle persisted with a suspicious tone in her voice. It would be all too like Xena to keep something from her.
The warrior made an exasperated sound as she tossed the bracers onto the table. "Do you want me to strip so you can see for yourself?" Xena offered bitingly, hoping the bard wouldnít take her up on it. Not having checked yet, there might actually be evidence.
The image in Gabrielleís mind made her heart lurch in her chest, and she tried, with limited success to banish the alien feelings that were beginning to make her feel distinctly uncomfortable. She tried to look anywhere but at her friend and let out a soft sigh, ill at ease and more confused by her feelings than ever.
Xena took her reticence for hurt, and berated herself yet again for her temper. Her own condition, while not anywhere near as bad as Gabrielleís, had made her short tempered, but it was hardly any excuse for snapping at the bard. She quietly made her way to the bed and regarded the other woman. The words were slow in coming as she searched for some way to bridge the silence between them. "Sorry," she muttered finally. "I know youíre just worried, but Iíll be fine." The bard glanced quickly at her and then away, offering no response. Shaking her dark hair from her eyes Xena unhooked the shoulder piece and laid the breastplate against the bed again. It was a great relief to finally shed her own wet clothes and lay them near the fireplace. The bardís outfit was briefly scrubbed and placed next to her own on the hearth. Finally she arranged their cloaks over a couple of the chairs and set those before the fire as well. Living dirty and wet was becoming depressingly normal.
A damp rag took care of the worst of the grit and blood. She cleaned out a couple of the nastier scrapes and finally pulled the robe over her head. She stood there for a time in front of the fire just soaking in the heat and allowing herself to unwind as her awareness turned inward to identify the extent of her injuries. Well, not great, but it couldíve been a lot worse. Aware that Gabrielle was probably watching she surreptitiously felt at her right shoulder, knowing that she had taken a pretty hard blow to that side of her back. This is gonna hurt for a while, she decided, hoping that it wouldnít impair her ability to fight too badly. My back feels pretty bruised. Just better not let her see it if it looks as spectacular as the one on her side. Sheíd never let me hear the end of it. Got off better than I deserved though, after nearly getting squished to death. Ares would kill himself laughing. After everything Iíve done. To nearly be taken out by a house, of all thingsÖ how embarrassing. She turned back towards the bed and gazed worriedly at the small and forlorn figure responsible for her continued good fortune. The bard lay there beneath the covers, eyes half closed, shivering slightly.
"Cold?" Xena inquired softly as she drew closer.
The injured woman nodded a little. "Yeah. Would youÖ" She paused and appeared to struggle with herself for a moment before continuing. "ÖNever mind," she muttered, her discomfort evident on her wan face.
"No, what is it?" Xena asked, coming to stand by the bed. She looked down at the bard feeling bothered, and a little hurt, by the way her friendís eyes continued to avoid her own. It was so unlike Gabrielle to shut her out that the once welcome silence was now unsettling. "Tell me," the warrior urged softly, bemused to find herself in the odd position of inviting conversation.
Gabrielle shifted under the covers and grimaced as her ribs protested the change in position. From the corner of her eye she watched the warrior seat herself on the bed, a look of worry growing on the tired features. The bard turned away to stare sightlessly at the tray of picked-at food leftover from that morning. Her thoughts, blurred by exhaustion, whirled endlessly within a framework of depression and confused guilt. A shiver wracked her small frame again causing aching muscles to clench involuntarily. She couldnít askÖ she just couldnít. No matter how much she wanted to.
She started in surprise at the warm hand that slid beneath her neck as Xena moved next to her beneath the covers. Gabrielle could not contain a sigh as the warriorís fire warmed body aligned itself next to hers, helping her to fit herself more comfortably into the curve of Xenaís frame. Large hands encouraged her to roll onto her uninjured side, and Gabrielle came to a comfortable stop with her forehead resting beneath her friendís chin, cocooned in warmth as strong arms held her securely in place.
"Now, tell me. Would I what?" Gabrielle felt the faint rumbling vibrations of Xenaís quiet voice go through her as she turned her head slightly to get more comfortable.
"JustÖ this," the younger woman whispered, her lips barely brushing against the pulse point beating beneath the sun darkened skin. Xenaís hands began slow movements across her back adding heat through the gentle friction. There is no place safer to be than this, Gabrielle decided. Or better, her weary heart added. No match for the tender concern offered in the security of this embrace, her distress slowly faded into warm oblivion. She let go the anger and pain of the day as she snuggled in closer, close enough to hear the steady and comforting beat of the warriorís heart again, and gave another soft sigh. "JustÖ hold me?"
The plaintive request touched something inside, and vanquished yet another wall in the few remaining between her and the woman lying in her arms. She tilted her head down slightly to allow her lips to brush against Gabrielleís forehead feeling the fine strands against her face, and then laid her head back on the pillow. "Iím not goiní anywhere."
The storytellerís shivers gradually diminished while the herbs continued to depress the pain and ease her into half-wakeful state. "MmmÖ good. Feels nice," the bard mumbled.
Xena smiled a little at the sleepy tone in the bardís voice. "Yeah?"
"Xena: Warrior Pillow," she deadpanned. "Wonderful." The pain-aborted giggle against her chest cheered her a little. If the bard could find it in her to laugh, then things might not be as bad as they appeared.
The bard nestled closer. "Great pillow. You can list it among your ëmany skillsí if you want." Gabrielleís thick whisper indicated that she was just on the edges of sleep, but she held on, not wanting to miss a conversation with the queen of quiet for anything.
Xena ran that one through her mind briefly and snorted at the amount of damage that would do to her image. "I donít think so."
"Fine. Iíll keep your secret."
"Good. Then Iíll keep yours, too."
"Donít have any secrets," Gabrielle claimed drowsily.
"Uh huh. And Iím sure your mother would love to hear about your little escapade with the henbane. And while Iím at it maybe I could ask her if you started biting people when you were young. Or was that a more recent development, my little bacchae?"
"Thatís blackmail." She was tempted to bite the woman again, just to teach her a lesson, but the effect of the medicine could no longer be denied. Her eyes drooped and closed finally as it reached its full potency.
"And your point isÖ?"
"IÖ youÖ" Gabrielle floundered, unable to think straight any longer. "Damn." Hearing Xena chuckle the bard made a weak, not to mention unsuccessful attempt to slap the warriorís shoulder. Her co-ordination, thrown off by the strong painkillers, missed the shoulder entirely and somehow managed to nearly smack the other woman in the face.
"Gotcha," Xena said smugly as she caught the bardís hand and returned it to dangle over her waist. "Thatís twice in a row. Like Hades you let me win." She pulled the blanket closer around them, drawing the thick material up around the storytellerís body. When Gabrielle didnít respond Xena began to wonder if the bard had drifted off at last. The form lying snugly within her arms was relaxed and limp and her ears noted the deep, even breathing that usually presaged sleep in her companion. At that point Xena knew that nothing short of the gods levelling the town hall would wake the somnolent woman. "Rest now," she whispered to her. "Just rest, my bard." Xena felt Gabrielle shift a little, her friendís legs moving to situate themselves more comfortably against her own.
"ÖLike thatÖ" Gabrielle mumbled vaguely.
Xena wondered if Gabrielle was even speaking to her or already lost in her dreams. "Hmm?" she let out just in case.
"Öyour bardÖ" came the almost indistinct response.
An acute sense of embarrassed pleasure rippled through the warrior as her keen hearing picked up those softly murmured words. Did it again, huh? Her subconscious had betrayed her by adding the term of affection. Slipping a little, Xena?, she taunted herself. Some warlord you are, anymore.
But try as she would, she couldnít deny the contented happiness Gabrielleís complete acceptance once again gave her. Nor could she ignore the sense of connection the innocent phrase seemed to signify between them. Mushball, she weakly berated herself again before closing her own eyes and laying her weary head next to her bardís, joining her in sleep.