Copyright Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Iolaus, Joxer and other characters mentioned in this story are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction and no profit is sought from this. The same goes for any song lyrics I have borrowed. It’s just for fun!

Violence Disclaimer: There is little violence in this chapter but extensive descriptions of the aftermath of the violence contained in Chapter 2. Please do not read if you feel that would distress you.

Subtext disclaimer: Gabrielle and Xena are lovers. There is no graphic sex in this Fiction. If this bothers you (the lovers’ part rather than the lack of graphic action, but I am guessing that will bother some!) or is illegal for you to read in your neck of the woods, please do not continue.

Hurt/Comfort Disclaimer: Definitely fits into this genre. If you feel it would distress you, please do not continue.

Angst disclaimer: Yes! Yes! Yes!

Author’s note (1) Comments, tips, hints, constructive criticisms will be most welcome. Please send to I will reply.

Author’s note (2) This fan fiction is set after season 3, but it disregards season 4. Gabrielle and Xena have been reunited but there is no Alti, India or vision.

Tag Line After the terrible events brought by the Challis, Xena, Gabrielle and their friends must start dealing with the consequences.

Chapter three

There’ll be days
we’ll be on different sides but
that doesn’t last too long
we find ways to get it on track
and know how to turn back on

Westlife “Us against the world”

Ephiny heard a bird call and responded in kind. It was time to move. She motioned to her group and they quietly and efficiently made their way through the trees. Looking right she could see Hercules and his group fanning out and beyond them, Tyldus’s group. They would surround but not quite totally enclose the camp. The scouts had described the camp to perfection she thought as she saw the layout of the camp. Ephiny estimated that most of the soldiers were around the camp fire eating their meal. That should make it more straightforward, she thought with a small smile. But her smile faded immediately as her eyes darted right and she saw one body strung in an X shape over two racks, and a smaller one lying motionlessly on the ground. She gulped and pushed the bile back down her throat, then said a quick prayer to Artemis; don’t let us be too late. She watched as Hercules made a motion to go and they ran forward, readying their crossbows.

Ephiny had always enjoyed using the bow and arrow. Her mother had insisted she learnt Artemis’s weapon of choice from a young age, and she had a natural aptitude for it. The crossbow felt comfortable in her hands and she knew without a hint of arrogance she was a master of it. She took out two sentries within seconds and her group moved closer to the main camp. She looked towards the two broken bodies in the centre desperately trying to see a sign, any sign, of life. She reluctantly and almost painfully tore her gaze away from them, and tried to re-focus on the task.

She looked around the camp, and saw that after the initial darts fired in there were close on fifteen soldiers lying on the floor. Several had evaded the initial dart attack and sprung up shouting and looking for the perpetrators of the surprise assault, eager for a fight. Their cries brought the rest from their tents, including Xena. She looked in fury at the growing number of inert bodies around the camp and turned angrily towards where the darts were raining in from. Her right hand instantly moved towards her chakram but before she could reach for it, Hercules shot a dart at Xena and predictably she caught it. Her look was feral as she surveyed the carnage around her. She caught the next dart fired by Delia and after reaching for her sword made her way menacingly towards them. Ephiny watched the evolving scene with concern. Virtually everyone else had been accounted for. She watched as on the count of three, Delia, Hercules and two centaurs sent darts simultaneously towards the warrior princess. Two were caught, one was swiped away but the last one grazed her leg. She slid to the floor, unconscious before she hit the ground.

Ephiny was not the only person to run towards the fallen warrior Princess. Hercules knelt down beside her to straighten her body and make her more comfortable. When he looked up, he saw that several of the amazons surrounding them had their swords or bows trained on Xena.

“She’s out cold, there’s no need for this,” said Hercules getting up. No one moved. By that time Ephiny had reached them.

“Ephiny, tell them to stand down,” said Hercules.

Ephiny looked down at Xena and then across at Gabrielle and Iolaus who Piri’s team had reached. Before she could speak, Charope said incredulously, “You don’t believe we would leave her unguarded Hercules?”

“She is no threat to you, now. The oil has released her.”

There was ironic laughter. “No threat. Ask Ephiny what she did to her arm, when she was ‘no threat’. And then ask Gabrielle just how many leagues she was dragged behind Xena’s horse.” Charope’s eyes blazed with anger and her tone was one of sarcasm.

Hercules put his hand through his hair impatiently. He glanced towards Iolaus and then back to the circle of women. Ephiny stepped forward. “Protis, you and Thea stay with her. The minute she stirs, I want to know. She isn’t left alone, got that.” Ephiny stared at Charope who nodded at her and turned reluctantly. The other Amazons apart from Protis and Thea looked at each other and also turned to go.

“A bit harsh, don’t you think?” said Hercules with concern.

Ephiny pinned him with a stare. “You know her history with Amazons, Hercules. I watched her drag Gabrielle behind her horse like an animal carcass. She then appeared months later saying that Gabrielle had died-because of her. The first sight of my queen since then is her lying beaten half to death in Xena’s camp.” Ephiny put both hands on her hips. “Forgive me if I am a little over cautious.” Her quiet but caustic tone left no room for argument. The demi god sighed and nodded.

He surveyed the scene. The Amazons and Centaurs were securing all the unconscious soldiers and Amazons. Solari was sitting on the ground away from the mass of bodies and had Epinon’s head in her lap. She was stroking it and talking to her gently. He watched as Piri and her group hovered around Iolaus and Gabrielle. “I’m going with them,” he said, his eyes following the healer. He sprinted towards his injured friends while Ephiny trailed in his wake. As he drew closer he could hear Iolaus’ laboured breathing from several paces away. Joxer was cutting the binds that supported him and Hercules stood in front and caught him as he fell forwards. His friend was totally unrecognisable due to the swelling and bruises on his face and his blood soaked hair. Hercules gently cradled him as if he were a child. “Use that tent,” said Piri and she pointed towards the largest one.

Hercules ran to the tent and gently laid Iolaus on the bedrolls on the ground. Joxer had followed him and started to unpack the healing kit. Hercules held his hand gently, rubbing his fingers up and down the smaller man’s palm. Gabrielle arrived in the tent being carried by Dax and accompanied by Piri, Tyldus and an anxious looking Ephiny. There was little room after the bard was lain down on the bedrolls-the tent was already feeling cramped and oppressive. “What do you need?” said the ever practical Tyldus to Piri. The healer looked at her queen and Iolaus and closed her eyes. When she had opened them she had tears in them. She opened her mouth but no words came out. She had seen many wounds and injuries before, primarily as a result of battle, but these were horrific wounds of torture. There was blood. So much blood. She tried to focus on the task at hand. “You can do this Piri,” said Tyldus gently. He put a hand on her shoulder. “You are a good healer.” Piri nodded dumbly and inhaled deeply. That meant a lot coming from the taciturn centaur. Her emotions would have to wait, she was needed. She forced herself into medic mode.

“I’m going to need cooled boiled water, and bandages and rags; I haven’t got enough. If there are no bandages, find clean cloth, sheets whatever and rip them up. And wood for splints. I can see that Iolaus has a broken leg and there may be more broken bones.” Her voice was shaky but got stronger as she became immersed in her task. She looked at Ephiny whose eyes were riveted to Gabrielle and Hercules who still sat silently with Iolaus’ bloodied hand in his. “I’m going to need help; it’s too much for me and Joxer.” Her voice caught for a moment. “I can ask Asteria to come and assist me, if you feel you can’t face it.”

“I’m staying. What ever you want me to do,” said Hercules quietly.

Ephiny turned her head slightly towards Piri and nodded quickly before her gaze returned to Gabrielle.

Tyldus squeezed Piri’s shoulder. “You’ve got it” he said and left the tent with Dax and started to bark orders. Joxer continued to unpack the medical supplies onto a sheet. Piri turned to Hercules and Ephiny.

“You stay with Iolaus. I’m going to examine the Queen first and then him.”

“What do you want us to do?” asked Hercules.

“Set his leg first, Hercules. You’re the best person for that. Then any other bones you find out of place, like his arm.” She looked at Joxer who was looking nervously at Iolaus. “Then start on his back Joxer. Carefully soak his shirt off before trying to clean it. And cover any bleeding wounds.”

The men both nodded and knelt beside their friend.

Piri kneeled down beside Gabrielle and looked her over for a few seconds. She blinked back the tears in her eyes. She liked Gabrielle and had many warm conversations with her. Her first duty was the queen’s health and it had certainly led to tensions with Xena as they both claimed rights when it came to anything to do with Gabrielle. She looked up as Ephiny sunk to the ground on the opposite side to her and gently held Gabrielle’s hand. The regent’s face was one of deep sadness. They exchanged a brief glance before Piri began her examination.

Her expert hands gently caressed Gabrielle’s head feeling for any fractures. There were several bumps and she winced as she came across them and looked for any reaction on Gabrielle’s face. There was a look of discomfort and a quiet moan, which perversely pleased the healer as it showed Gabrielle was not deeply unconscious. Her hands moved down to Gabrielle’s face. Piri could tell her nose was broken; there as already the tell tale swellings under both eyes, one was particularly swollen and her mouth and neck was covered in dried blood. She grasped her nose and with a swift movement and a small crack it was back in place. She moved down and felt Gabrielle’s neck and along her shoulder blades. There was some bruising and then Piri groaned as she felt Gabrielle’s left shoulder was dislocated. She then moved down her arms, noting several gashes that needed stitching to Gabrielle’s left hand. Picking it up gently Piri could feel the broken bones and from the moans and movements the bard was making it was causing Gabrielle serious discomfort. The hammer marks were evident and deep bruising and swelling was already forming. She placed it down gently and inhaled deeply.

“Well?” asked Ephiny impatiently. “Shouldn’t we start? The blood loss-“

“Do I interrupt you as you are drawing your bow? Do I question your technique?” The healer spoke in a calm controlled tone but her eyes showed the depth of her anger. She took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly before speaking again.

“I know you are concerned Ephiny.” She adopted a gentler tone. “But I need to see what we are up against before I do anything.”

“Sorry.” Muttered Ephiny. She swallowed and then said quietly, “Will she live?”

Before Piri could answer there was a loud crack and a blood curdling yell. They looked up and saw that Hercules and Joxer were looking shocked and although still unconscious Iolaus was breathing hard and fast. She looked at his leg and saw it was much straighter. She gave them both a comforting smile before facing the terrified looking Regent.

“I will do everything in my power to ensure they both live,” said Piri without the sign of nerves that she felt. “She has a good chance. But I can’t make guarantees.” She bowed her head. She could do only so much; she had lost too many to infection and blood loss. Just then Charope and Dax carried in two pots of water.

“It’s still hot,” said Dax. Charope stared at Gabrielle and then across to Iolaus and left without saying a word. Piri rolled her eyes before she turned her attention back to Gabrielle and gazed at the dirty, blood soaked tunic. She drew a knife from her pack and cut through the filthy material. She nodded her head towards a blanket by Ephiny and she picked it up and covered Gabrielle from the men’s sight.

Piri eased the garments away from Gabrielle and for a moment both women froze. They ignored the bruising on Gabrielle’s rib cage; the uncomfortable manner how she breathed; the various cuts and slashes, many of them were still oozing, some looking red and inflamed. All they could see were scratch and bite marks across her chest and throat. Ephiny gently pushed back the blond blood soaked hair from her neck with a shaking hand to see a large bite on it. She inhaled deeply as she focused on the mark. She started to shake with the rage she felt.

“Ephiny!” Piri’s voice was insistent. “You need to push this to one side. I need you now.” Ephiny looked away for several seconds and when Piri saw her face again she could see Ephiny had gained a measure of control. “Sorry.” There was a pause. “What do you want me to do?”

“Hold the blanket; I want to remove the rest of her clothing.”

Piri cut the remains of her skirt and threw the knife to one side. She then rolled the skirt off Gabrielle and gently prised her legs apart. A sob escaped Ephiny’s lips before she could stop it. The healer gently laid her hand on top of the regent’s. “Cover her up,” said Piri shakily and Ephiny obliged. Piri then spent time palpating Gabrielle’s stomach before moving down each leg. She stared at her feet breathing deeply, trying to regain her composure. “Ephiny, I’m going to roll her towards you.” The healer gently rolled Gabrielle. Her back was a bloody mess; in places the tunic was ripped apart and lash marks were visible, in others the material was stuck to her skin like a burr on animal fur. With Ephiny’s help she gently rolled the bard onto her stomach, and after gently pacing the bard’s shattered hand on a pillow, she stood up. “I’m going to assess Iolaus; I’d like you to start on her back. Get the tunic off her-cut it; soak it if you have to. Then start to clean the wounds.” She gave Ephiny a comforting smile. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“She’s my friend,” said Ephiny simply, and started to gently cut the material away. Piri moved around Gabrielle carefully and onto Iolaus.

She could see that Hercules and Joxer had set his arm and leg and had splinted both. The demi god was holding him in his arms as Joxer cut his blood soaked shirt and gently peeled it away from his skin. Piri was impressed with Joxer’s skills as a healer. Knowing him to be a clumsy swordsman he had a gentle touch and efficient way about him. She looked Iolaus over as she had Gabrielle. His injuries were very similar; broken ribs, bruises, cuts and the terrible whip marks. He also had a broken jaw and like Gabrielle a nasty head wound.

Even though they were working diligently, Piri could see the effect it was having on both of them seeing their friends in this way. Hercules looked totally shattered, and Joxer appeared barely in check of his emotions. “Why don’t you go Hercules?” the healer said.

“I don’t want to leave him,” he said although his voice lacked conviction.

“Herc?” said Joxer gently.

“No I want to stay here, with him.”

Piri nodded. “Leave that stitching to me,” she said to Joxer pointing at a cut on Iolaus’ face and anything else you are not sure of. Hercules, we may need your help with Gabrielle.”

Joxer smiled weakly and set back to work. Hercules looked at Gabrielle for several moments before re-focusing his attention on Iolaus. Piri carefully manoeuvred over to Ephiny who was gently removing the remains of the tunic.

They all became engrossed in their tasks, there was little speaking, only an occasional moan or whimper from one of the patients breaking the silence or the odd Amazon delivering hastily made bandages and wood for splints. They worked diligently for over an hour, cleaning, stitching, wrapping, and were close to finishing when Thea stuck her head through the flap of the tent.

She coughed and looked down, “She’s coming around”.

They all knew who she was.

“Thank you Thea,” said Ephiny. She finished wrapping the bandage around Gabrielle’s leg and looked down at her friend. She lent over and gave her a kiss on the forehead and gently stroked her cheek with her thumb. She then eased her self up to a standing position and turned on her heels to follow Thea out of the tent.

“Wait Ephiny, I’m coming too,” said Hercules and he stood up and gave the regent a pointed look.

“Ephiny,” said Piri, “keep her out for a few minutes. I’ll come across and talk to her. Prepare her.”

Ephiny gazed sadly at Gabrielle and swallowed and turned and walked out of the tent without a word, Hercules following quietly behind her.

They both blinked as they left the dark interior of the tent and walked into dazzling sunshine. Ephiny took a deep breath and stretched; the smell of healing lotions within the small cramped environment was overpowering and it was good to take deep breaths of fresh air and move around freely. As they were ten paces from where Xena still lay prone, Hercules grabbed Ephiny’s arm. “You will let her see Gabrielle?” It was asked as a question but Hercules’ tone meant he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Ephiny nodded. “On my terms.” She said in an equally determined tone.

The dizziness, dry mouth and nausea were feelings that Xena hadn’t experienced for a long time. Not together anyhow. Momentarily she was disorientated; she struggled to remember where she was and how she got there. She kept her eyes shut while she tried to familiarize herself. She could sense she was lying down in the open, she was unbound, and she could hear the bustle of people around and of some sitting close to her. Carefully she opened her eyes, fearful that the warm sun she could feel on her body would also be bright and dazzling. She was proved correct; the sun did dazzle her and so she closed them again. The clash of swords. The joy of running someone through. Xena gasped and opened her eyes again this time wide. She breathed deeply quickly several times and once her breathing was under control she focused on her immediate surroundings. She used her hands to push herself up into a sitting position. She came face to face with two armed, angry looking amazons.

“A welcoming committee, how nice,” she said.

“That’s right,” growled one of the Amazons. “Don’t pretend you don’t remember. You-“

“Thank you Protis,” said a familiar voice.

“Ephiny?” Xena looked up to see the regent looking down at her with an unreadable expression on her face. Next to her stood

“Hercules?” said Xena, confused. Hercules was in full view, smiling although it didn’t reach his eyes.

“How are you doing?” The demi god said gently and offered Xena a waterskin. She drank deeply. She closed her eyes as she drank, and more images flashed before her eyes; Fire, She’ll be excellent, the lure of Darkness. Her eyes sprung open and she dropped the waterskin and looked at the crowd surrounding her.

“You’re safe, Xena. It’s over,” said Hercules.

“It was real,” Xena whispered. She looked intently at Hercules and then at Ephiny. “It really happened. Those are my memories.” Her whisper was laced with anguish.

“You drunk from the Challis of Hectate and were infected by darkness. “ Hercules said and he crouched next to her. “You had no control over your actions-the darkness did.” There was silence as they both stared at each other. Hercules could see Xena was remembering the events of the past few days and desperately trying to keep control of her strained emotions. Slapping, punching, and using the pinch…On Gabrielle. Lindos, she’s yours

“Oh Gods,” Xena whispered, and Hercules wrapped his arms around her. After several moments she pulled away. Her face was emotionless, the warrior mask had snapped into place. Xena scrambled to her feet and the amazons took a step towards her menacingly. Ephiny raised a hand and they halted but kept their gazes fixed on Xena. She in turn glared back at them before turning to Ephiny.

“Where is she?” she said.

“Piri’s tending to them. She’ll be here in a few minutes to fill you in.” Ephiny’s voice had coolness to it which Xena and Hercules couldn’t fail to notice.

“How is she? And Iolaus?” Xena whispered and her eyes darted around the camp. The memories were coming back, but she pushed them to one side for now.

There was silence. Xena pinned Ephiny with a hard stare. The regent swallowed.

“They’re in a bad way.” Pause. “Piri can tell you more than I can.”

Xena closed her eyes and pictured the last time she saw Gabrielle and Iolaus. Bloodied, battered and bruised and still not saying a word.

As she opened them she saw the healer making her way towards them. As usual her expression was neutral. She nodded at the three of them, and gave an exasperated look at Protis and Thea. Xena opened her mouth to talk but Piri raised her hand and spoke before Xena could get her words out.

“Warrior, how are you?”

Xena couldn’t have been more surprised at the question. “I’m fine, I’m more-“

“Have you had plenty to drink? You need to flush through the sedative. I’m guessing you have some nausea and dizziness.” Hercules bent down and retrieved the dropped waterskin and after shaking it and establishing it still contained fluid he rose and handed it to Xena. Xena drank from it still keeping her eyes on the healer.

“Iolaus’ has a broken leg; it was a bad break and his knee is a real mess. He has a broken jaw; several ribs are broken, his back has been lashed repeatedly and will scar markedly.” She paused so her words could sink in. “He has several head wounds and is still unconscious. He has bruising on his stomach so we need to watch for internal bleeding, fever and infection.”

Piri put her hand on Hercules’s arm to comfort him. The big man nodded and looked away tears in eyes.

“Gabrielle?” asked Xena, and Piri started talking again in a softer voice, looking straight at Xena, “the queen has a dislocated shoulder and her nose, wrist and several ribs are broken.” She paused knowing there was worse news coming, “She too has a head injury and is still unconscious. Her hand is shattered-I haven’t done anything with it as it is too swollen. She also has severe bruising to her stomach and several wounds to her back are already infected.” Xena locked eyes with her and could see no anger or reproach in the older woman’s gaze.

“I want to see her,” said Xena.

“Of course Warrior, follow me.”

“You must be joking,” said Charope, who was one of several amazons who had joined Thea and Protis. “I saw what your handiwork did.” The Amazon glared at Xena who matched the look with equal amount of ferocity.

“Xena has a right to see Gabrielle,” said Hercules coolly.

“A right,” laughed Protis. “After what she did. Look at her, heartless emotionless cow. She’s probably sorry she didn’t finish her off.” The words had barely left her lips when Xena’s movement towards her was so quick that only Hercules could pick it up and he wrapped his arms around her inches from where the Amazon was standing. No one else had time to move.

“That’s enough,” said Ephiny sharply. They all turned to look at her.

“Xena can visit. At all times she will be accompanied by me or Piri. When not in the tent, she will have a small detail following her.” She looked directly at Xena, who had untangled herself from Hercules’ grasp and had given him an annoyed look.

“If you try anything such as losing or harming your detail, you will be arrested and visiting privileges to the queen will be removed.” She then glared at the Amazons. “If Xena is harmed in any way, the Amazon responsible will be doing a month of guard duty on the Northern ridge. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?”

“Yes Ephiny” was the murmur from the amazons and when she looked at Xena, the warrior princess nodded silently.

The three of them followed Piri to the tent. Joxer was sitting next to Gabrielle talking quietly to her. He looked up as the three entered the tent and when he saw who it was he sprang to his feet. He watched as Xena paused to look at Iolaus and then gazed at Gabrielle.

“I’ll just-,” said Joxer and he turned to leave almost tripping over discarded clothing in his haste to exit. He wanted to leave before his emotions overwhelmed him totally. The last few hours had proved to be traumatic for everyone, and Joxer was no exception.

“Thank you Joxer.” Piri smiled warmly at him. He had proved himself a fine healer. He nodded and left the tent.

Hercules sunk next to Iolaus and gently ruffled his hair. Piri busied herself with tidying her stock, or what was left of it. Ephiny watched Xena. She was transfixed by the sight of Gabrielle. She dropped to her knees and took in the bandaged head, swollen eyes, the massive bandage on Gabrielle’s left hand and the splint on her arm. She went to brush Gabrielle’s bangs out of her eyes but stopped. She stared at her hands. Hands that had held Gabrielle, soothed her in Britannia, dragged her back from Hades realm in that Thessalian temple and bought her pleasure again and again. Oh she knew they would never be clean of blood. Nothing she would do would ever rid them of that. But now; when she looked at them she saw the pain she had inflicted. They were hands that had struck Gabrielle only a few months into their partnership; they were hands that had thrown a rope around her and dragged her across the countryside to kill her. These hands put the pinch on her and would have left her for dead; she hit, slapped and cut with them. And she handed her over, to Lindos.

She shuffled onto her bottom and continued to be transfixed by the sight of her motionless hands. She had lived with guilt for many years, first casting it aside, and when she at last embraced it, she learnt to master it, making sure she did not let it control her. This was different. She had hurt Gabrielle once before, mad with grief over Solon, enraged by Ares, and they had got past it, moved on. But they had needed the intervention of her son and the healing waters of Illusia to do it. Challis or no challis she should have known, felt something. How could she do something like this to the person she loved more than life itself? How could the darkness won over her so easily without a fight? Had the last few years been for nothing? How could Gabrielle forgive her, when she couldn’t forgive herself? Her emotions, so tightly controlled, unravelled as the wave of guilt threatened to engulf her. She started to sob and then her whole body shook convulsively and she rocked backwards and forwards, wailing. Hercules, Piri and Ephiny gazed at her and then bowed their heads, conscious that they didn’t want to intrude in the private moment of grief. After a minute her sobs quietened down and she inhaled deeply several times in order to regain control. Her hands were still palms up, inches from Gabrielle. She quickly brought them onto her lap and looked from them to Gabrielle, wincing at the sight of her, pale and bruised.

There was silence for several minutes after that. The only noises were the ragged breaths of Gabrielle and Iolaus and of Piri carefully sorting her equipment.

Ephiny stared for a long while at Xena. She had been shocked at the sight of Xena wailing, and she had felt a tinge of compassion. Now she was faced with an emotionless mask.

“You can touch her,” said Ephiny coolly.

Xena looked down and then across at the Amazon.

“No,” she whispered in an anguished tone that made a mockery of her face. “I can’t.” She stared straight back at the Amazon.

They both tore their gazes away to see Joxer enter the tent. He had brought four mugs and handed them to everyone. Xena stared into hers and was lost in thought as Hercules’ voice broke the silence.

“Are you ready for the whole story?” he said.

Xena looked away, back to Gabrielle and then towards her friends.

“Yes,” her answer tinged with anger. “Tell me.”

At this Piri and Joxer sunk to the ground. Ephiny turned to look at Hercules.

“Gabrielle arrived in Renwa, pretty shaken up. She told us about your meeting with Claudine and Lindos. I knew about the effects of the challis and that there was an antidote, the oil of lanius. We called upon Hephaestus to help us-well Gabrielle did. He agreed to help-seemed quite pleased. “Hercules exchanged a smile with Joxer as they remembered the God’s enthusiasm for the task.

“Joxer went to the amazons, I got the oil and they-“Hercules looked at Iolaus, “they went to destroy the challis. I didn’t know they were going to do it. They decided after I went.” The words came out quickly and the sorrow and anger the demi god felt was evident.

“You heard Hephaestus, it was their choice,” said Ephiny sympathetically.

Xena watched the exchange. Hercules smiled weakly at her. “That’s our side of the story.”

“I’m sorry,” Xena whispered.

“It’s not your fault,” said Hercules.

Xena looked at the bard and said softly, “I remember everything. They were going to kill her that’s why I drunk from it. I couldn’t lose her, not after-“Xena paused and momentarily looked grief-stricken. “I drank from it and now I can feel myself changing. Like nothing mattered any more. Only darkness. It was like a drug. I had to have it, and I didn’t care what I did or to whom.” Xena turned to look at Ephiny. “We came across the Amazons. I fought Pony and decided they would be ideal recruits to my army.” Her voice was laced with sarcasm. “We had set up camp here, we were going to move off, but we had two intruders. I saw it as a chance to have some fun with them“ she gave a snort, “Claudine was mad, she wanted them to suffer, so I was happy to oblige.” She looked down at Gabrielle and tightened her face in order to stop the sobs. She looked away for a moment and smiled. “They never said a word, not one. We had no idea you were coming, who was involved.”

“That’s what they wanted,” said Ephiny.

“Those traders and villagers,” whispered Xena. “They’re all dead. Because of me.”

Ephiny and Hercules exchanged a look. “Yes,” said Hercules simply. “But their blood is not on your hands.” He looked directly at Xena.

“Yes it is,” said Xena sadly.

“It wasn’t your fault, Xena. It wasn’t you.” Joxer spoke for the first time.

Xena turned to look at him.

“How can you say that? I killed those people. I helped to torture Iolaus and Gabrielle. It was me.”

“NO!” said Hercules. “It wasn’t your fault. Gabrielle said you didn’t know her, didn’t recognise her. “Hercules rubbed his face with his hands. “Think about that Xena. You didn’t recognise her or Epinon and the Amazons. That’s not you. If you did you would never had let anything happen.”

“But because of my dark side-“

“Everyone has a dark side,” said Joxer.

“Mine is slightly larger than most,” said Xena sarcastically.

There was silence.

Piri looked around the tent before focusing on Xena. “So is it just you that is going to wear a hair shirt or shall I make one for Epinon and the others?”

Xena looked at her quizzically.

“Epinon fought against those traders with you,” said Piri. “As did the other Amazons. The traders took arms against their loved ones and colleagues. It was not your fault, it was the challis. You were not responsible.”

But my darkness-“Xena was exasperated.

“It doesn’t matter how much darkness you have.” Said Hercules. “Everyone has some darkness. Whether its anger or jealously, the challis feeds off of it. You just had greater skills and tactical awareness. This is not the first time the challis has been used, and it’s always led to tragedy. This is not your fault. Don’t carry the guilt, it won’t help you.”

“Your Amazons don’t think that. Neither do you” Xena looked straight at Ephiny. The regent had the grace to blush and looked at Gabrielle.

“No,” she said quietly. “But-“her voice drifted off.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“There is something else, Xena.” Hercules looked concerned. “Ares.”

“What in Hades has he got to do with it?” Xena growled and her eyes became grey with anger.

“We think he gave Claudine and Lindos the challis.”

Xena gave a shudder when those names were mentioned that wasn’t lost on the other occupants of the tent.

“Are they here?” Asked Xena. They would pay for what they did, especially Lindos, although she knew some of the blame was hers.

“I’ll check”, said Joxer eager to leave the emotionally charged tent for a spell.

“Why do you think Ares is involved? I know it smells of him, but it could have been dumb luck they found the challis.”

Hercules looked uncomfortable. “Gabrielle thought it was him, as do my family.” Hercules, Piri and Ephiny watched as Xena slowly shook her head and made fists with her hands. She brought the right down on the ground with as much force as she could.

“He won’t stay out of my life. And she has to suffer.” Xena looked upwards and within moments had controlled her emotions again so she was wearing her expressionless mask.

“Thank you,” she said genuinely.

Piri walked over and started to fiddle with Gabrielle’s bandages. Hercules excused himself and went back to sit next to Iolaus.

“I’m going to see how Pony and the others are doing,” said Ephiny and she rose and walked out the tent. Xena watched Piri working.

Piri became aware of the Xena’s stare. Their eyes locked and Piri could see the pain in them.

Xena swallowed. “You never judge me. Ever.”

“Not my place to judge, warrior. I heal.”

“I hurt your queen. I was moments from killing her, without a second thought. You must have some feelings on that?”

Piri cocked her head to one side, and smiled. “Do I believe that without intervention you would have done that? No. So it wasn’t you. Yes you drive me to distraction sometimes Warrior, I wish you’d let me do my job in peace, but I don’t doubt your devotion to the queen.” She raised her eyes upwards. “Besides when you have been around as long as me, nothing surprises you. Gods have a habit of interfering in people’s lives and using them for their own amusement.” She looked at Xena again. “You’ll be fine Xena.” Xena couldn’t hide her surprise at the use of her name. “She loves you. She won’t blame you.”

“Piri, I think he’s coming around,” Hercules’s shout interrupted the women. Piri hurried over to Iolaus’ side. The blonde man was breathing deeply and noisily and his eyelids were fluttering. Hercules held his hand while Xena turned and watched.

“Come on buddy, you’re safe.” Hercules spoke quietly. Iolaus’ eyes opened quickly and shut again. Within a few seconds they opened again. His breathing remained noisy.

“Hey buddy,” said Hercules the relief obvious in his voice and his eyes tinged with tears.

“Hercules,” said Iolaus hoarsely. He winced as he spoke due to the pain in his jaw.

“Careful, you might have to keep quiet for a while. That’ll be tough,” Hercules smiled and to his delight Iolaus gave him a weak one in return.

“You’re safe, it’s over.”

“Gab-is she?”

“She’s over there. She’s as beaten up as you,” said Hercules. Piri had settled close to Iolaus and was checking his bandages.

“You need to drink,” she said and with that Hercules gently propped Iolaus up in his arms.

“Xena, could you-“

With that Iolaus turned to Piri oblivious of the pain in his body. “Xena.” His voice drifted off as he saw the warrior princess in the background picking up a waterskin.

“YOU!” he yelled. “Keep away from me, and keep her away from Gabrielle.” He paused breathing hard, although his eyes were blazing. Piri, Hercules and Xena looked at him stunned and before they could speak he started to shout again.

“I’ll never forgive you Xena. Never. What you did-“

“Iolaus it was the challis. You know what it does. She had no choice, no control.” Hercules’s tone was one of surprise.

“Iolaus, I’m sorry I hurt you, I truly am,” said Xena distressed.

“I don’t care about me,” the blond man continued. His anger had given him the strength to continue, even though agonising pain shot through his entire body. “It’s what you did to her.” He pointed shakily at Gabrielle.

Joxer and Ephiny rushed in, after hearing the raised voices. They looked between Iolaus and Xena who was motionless, her face passive, staring at Iolaus.

“Iolaus,” said Hercules sadly. His face was creased in sadness. The two friends looked at each other. Iolaus broke down in tears.

“How could you have handed her over Xena?” His voice was no longer angry, but mournful. His shoulders shook and Hercules tightened his grip on him. “She didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that. I-I-“He couldn’t finish as he started sobbing. Xena remained frozen to the spot, conscious that Ephiny and Joxer were staring at her.

Hercules and Piri waited until Iolaus had composed himself and then ensured he drunk well and laid him down on the bedrolls. There was silence. Piri was looking him over with a critical eye and Hercules continued to hold his hand. He opened his eyes and turned to look at Hercules. “Xena,” he whispered. The demi god looked at Xena who was still staring into space, rooted to the spot.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said those things.” Iolaus tentatively turned his head towards Xena.

“Yes, you should.” Xena sighed and took a step towards him.

“No. My temper got the better of me. Shame I couldn’t have put up more of a fight earlier.” The blond looked embarrassed.

Xena sunk to her knees next to him. “You’re in pain, and angry. This is not your fault. You’re right, what I did.” She closed her eyes. “I will never forget it.”

“But that wasn’t you, Xena, and we both knew that. And it wasn’t just you either. Lindos he was the one…” Iolaus stopped unable to continue, but held his hand out for Xena to take. She did gently.

Joxer cleared his throat. “You might want to know that Claudine and Lindos are not within the camp.”

“Any ideas where they may be, Xena? Surely they didn’t know about the attack?”

Xena looked at Hercules. “No I think they said they were meeting someone. Just dumb luck that they are not here.”

“Ares?” said Joxer.

“Maybe,” said Xena quietly. She felt a tug on her hand. She looked down at Iolaus.

“How is she?” His speech was becoming more slurred as he was fighting to stay awake.

“Still unconscious.” Xena looked around at the bard. “Badly injured.”

“Sorry,” said Iolaus and closed his eyes, and within moments he was asleep.

Xena stared at him for a time and then got up. She sat next to Gabrielle again, still not touching her. She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked around to see pained caramel eyes looking at her.

“I’m sorry too,” said Ephiny. “You were right I did blame you.” She looked to the ground.

“You thought I-I violated her, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” whispered Ephiny. She looked up with tears running down her face. “I couldn’t have forgiven you for that.” There was silence between the two of them.

Xena broke the silence, “I have hurt her, and you before. Whatever punishment you see fit, I’ll take.”

“It may not be up to me or Gabrielle,” said Ephiny, awkwardly. “It would be up to council.” She looked up at Xena. “I don’t think anything we give you could cause you more pain than this.”

“No,” said Xena simply. “Thank you Ephiny. You’ve been a fine friend to Gabrielle. It’s good to know you’re around for her.”

Ephiny looked away embarrassed.

How are Epinon and the others?” It was the first time Xena had asked after them.

“Confused. Guilty. Dreading see Gabrielle.” Ephiny gave a weak smile. “Fancy some dinner?”

Xena nodded, and Ephiny quickly excused herself relieved to be away from the tense atmosphere.

Why don’t you have a walk around the camp?”

“I told you I’m fine,” growled Xena. “I have had enough to eat; I don’t need a refreshing wash or a nap. I am fine here.” She looked down at her hands folded in her lap. She wished they would stop fussing over her, leave her in peace so she could get her thoughts in order. She hadn’t moved for the last few hours, and the crowded atmosphere of the tent was getting on her frayed nerves.

“I think-“

“I don’t care Piri, if you think I need to eat more, I am not.” Xena had lost her patience. Her eyes were riveted on Gabrielle. Piri and Ephiny exchanged a glance.

“I was going to say warrior, I think that Gabrielle may be coming around soon.”

Xena looked up at the healer, and for a heartbeat Piri could see the fear in Xena’s eyes but just as quickly it was extinguished and they became neutral. She had sensed Gabrielle’s breathing pattern changing, and her body uncomfortably moving about more and more. She was torn; she wanted to speak to Gabrielle, reaffirm their love, and reassure the bard she would recover, yet she dreaded the thought that Gabrielle would wake and she would see hatred or fear in those expressive emerald eyes. See it all but briefly and it would devastate her, but if the past few days had destroyed their bond and Gabrielle hated her, Xena wasn’t sure how she would recover.

Gabrielle’s deep and ragged breathing caught the women’s attention. They watched and held their collective breath as the bard’s eyelids fluttered for a few moments. A couple of noisy breaths followed and then both eyes opened. There was silence. Gabrielle swallowed painfully and blinked a couple of times. Ephiny leaned over her, and the bard smiled weakly.

“Eph, you came,” said Gabrielle, her voice hoarse and croaky.

“Hey I couldn’t turn down a queen’s order,” the regent said and gently rubbed the back of her hand against Gabrielle’s cheek. They exchanged a smile. Ephiny looked at Xena, who had shuffled away from Gabrielle, and glared at her.

“Xena,” whispered Gabrielle. Her eyes darted about trying to focus.

“I’m here, Gabrielle,” said Xena finally expelling the breath she was holding. Her voice was stronger than she felt.

Gabrielle licked her dry lips and spoke again, in a hoarse whisper, “Iolaus?”

“He’s safe; Hercules, Joxer and the Amazons are all here.”

“Good.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and took a couple of breaths in and then moaned.

“My Queen, we need to help you up so you can have a drink, OK?” Piri reached around and picked up a waterskin.

“Piri, I might have known as I feel this bad you would be here,” said Gabrielle slowly.

“I aim to please,” dead panned the healer and moved closer to the bard. She too pinned Xena with a stare. Xena shook her head. Her heart was still pounding and her throat was dry. Her anxiety hadn’t been abated yet.

Piri and Ephiny supported Gabrielle. “Warrior we need your help.” All three turned to look at her, and she slowly moved towards them. She took a deep breath in and raised her eyes to meet the bard’s. Xena saw none of the emotions she had spent years happy to see in people’s eyes fear, anger, hate or revulsion. It was a look of love. Her heart soared and for a moment she was overcome with emotion, and couldn’t stifle a sob.

“Love you,” mouthed the bard.

“Right back at you,” whispered Xena and she helped to pour water into the bard’s mouth.

“Not too much, now,” said Piri and her and Ephiny gently lowered her back into her bedrolls. They exchanged a knowing look and moved away. Xena almost shyly moved towards the bard and sat next to her. Gabrielle watched her and smiled. With that Xena’s confidence grew and she gently traced her fingers around Gabrielle’s bruised face, luxuriating in the feel of her skin. With her other hand she gently brought Gabrielle’s right hand to her lips.

They sat like that for several moments both relishing the closeness they had missed for so long, not noticing that Piri and Ephiny moved away to the other side of Iolaus to give them privacy.

Gabrielle smiled. “I hope you weren’t doing anything stupid like blaming yourself.” Her voice was stilted and punctuated by heavy breathing.

“I’m so, so, sorry,” said Xena.

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Gabrielle and winced visibly.

“Piri,”said Xena and she stroked Gabrielle’s hair to try and distract her from the pain.

The healer came to Xena’s side and handed her a small cup. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and raising her up, and between them they helped her to drink the foul tasting medicine. “I love you so much, my bard,” she whispered into Gabrielle’s ear. Gabrielle was too overcome with discomfort and tiredness to reply and as Xena laid her down, Gabrielle’s eyes drooped shut. Xena felt the subtlest squeeze on her hand and she carried on stroking the bard’s hair even as her breathing settled down and she knew Gabrielle was asleep.

Xena sat with tears running down her face staring at the peaceful face of her partner. Her relief was palpable, she felt energised and resolute-the next few weeks or months would be dedicated to Gabrielle’s recovery how ever long it took. She would deal with her guilt; because now she knew she had the warmth of Gabrielle’s love to sustain her.

She was surreptitiously wiping her eyes as Ephiny and Piri approached. Ephiny laid a hand on her shoulder.

“OK?” asked Ephiny and she knelt beside Gabrielle and rubbed her arm.

Xena nodded.

Piri looked around the tent. “We need to think about we are going to do.”

“How so?” asked Ephiny.

Piri spread her arms around the tent. “This is far from ideal, and I have a limited supply of medications.”

“What’s wrong Piri?” Xena stared at the healer. She was not one for making bold suggestions without some thought.

“I’m worried about Iolaus’ leg and the Queen’s hand. But I’m even more concerned about the risk of infection. We need to get back to Amazonia.”

“Isn’t it dangerous for them to travel?” asked the demi god who was listening.

“It’s not perfect,” admitted the healer, “but in the long run, I believe it will be beneficial. I’ll sedate them both so there is little chance of them waking. We’re looking at just over a day continuous travelling.”

She looked at Xena, who nodded.

“There are several carts, when did you want to leave?” Ephiny asked.

“The sooner the better,” Piri and Xena said in unison.

Ephiny nodded. “Do you fancy seeing your number two girl, Xena?”

Xena frowned.

“Argo. She wandered into a camp a little while ago.”

Xena smiled but remained motionless.

“I’ll stay with her, if you want to go,” said Ephiny still looking at Gabrielle. “It’ll do you good, stretch your legs.”

“OK, thanks Ephiny,” said Xena.

“But you’ll have to have an escort. Sorry.” The regent looked uncomfortable.

Xena shrugged.

“No I am. I was angry. Pony and the others don’t have one.”

“Pony has never attacked the queen before. Or isn’t high on some Amazon’s hit list. Don’t worry about it.” Xena paused. “Thank you.” She whispered gratefully. She looked from one woman to the next. “For everything.”

Ephiny gave a weak smile.

Xena leapt to her feet. “If anything changes-“

“I will be straight out to see you.” Xena stared for a few seconds and walked out of the tent.

She was met by Charope and Cara. They scowled at each other and the Amazons followed Xena as she crossed the camp to where the palomino was enjoying a long drink of water. The saddle and bags were carefully placed nearby. Xena smiled as she watched the noble animal. Almost as if she sensed her, and maybe she did, Argo looked up. For a moment they stared at each other, until Xena strode towards her. She rubbed her hand up and down her nose and the other found the spot behind her right ear she liked so much. However Argo continued to stare. “What’s up girl?” asked Xena, slightly perturbed by her horse’s reaction. Argo hadn’t seen her once she had drunk from the challis, she hadn’t suffered at her hands. Argo bent her head down and flicked a saddle bag with her nose. A couple of scrolls fell out as well as the bard’s staff, folded away. Xena looked at the items for several moments, and gave a weak smile and looked back at Argo. “She’s fine, Argo.” Xena’s voice broke. “She’s fine.” Argo nuzzled in with real affection and Xena held her tight. “We might need you later-to pull a cart.” Xena looked into the horse’s eyes. “I know it’s not your style but Gabrielle will be on it.”

Argo whickered in agreement and her head bobbed up and down. Xena laughed and it felt so good to have that release. She would never forget the deaths of villagers and traders, yet she felt less guilt for them than she did for the abuses she heaped on Gabrielle and Iolaus. Her practical side knew she had little choice in the matter; the feeling of bloodlust was overwhelming; she also realised that had she not have killed those people another one of the army would have. But the pain she caused Gabrielle and Iolaus, that was another matter. She sighed. Gabrielle may have forgiven her but she had a long way before she could forgive herself.

She looked up sharply as Charope muttered some words, and gave her the look.

“It’s funny, Charope,” Xena drawled, “I don’t remember you being this concerned about Gabrielle’s health when you sided with Velasca.”

The Amazon bristled. “I’ve been loyal since then. I would never hurt the queen,” she emphasized the first and last words. “It’s not her I have a problem with.”

Xena took a step forward and bared her teeth. If this upstart wanted to challenge her, bring it on. She could do with releasing some energy, after being cooped up in the tent for so long.

“Charope, don’t,” said Cara and edged towards them. Charope and Xena both turned to look at her and took a step towards each other.

“Glad you are getting on so well,” a familiar voice barked and Ephiny and Solari walked towards the trio. Charope immediately stepped back and put her sword down, but not before giving Xena a look of disgust, that was matched by ferocity by Xena.

“We’ll take over now,” said Solari. They watched as the two other Amazons walked away.

Xena looked at Ephiny.

“Joxer’s with her,” she said in reply to the unspoken question.

Solari held her hand out for Xena. “How are you, Xena?”

The warrior nodded. “And Pony, how is she?”

Solari gazed across the camp to where the weapons master was sitting alone. “Quiet, disbelieving. It’s a lot to get your head round. Appreciating you had no control over your actions, everything being stripped away.” Solari realised who she was speaking to, and could have kicked herself. “Xena I’m sorry.”

“You’re right, it’s hard.” There was silence. “At least she has you. You understand.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“I hear Iolaus and Gabrielle regained consciousness,” Solari said brightly.

“That’s right,” said Xena.

“I’ve just given the orders to move out.” Ephiny said.

Xena nodded. She looked around and saw the camp had changed to a hive of activity.

“I’ll go and supervise. Xena I’ll see you later.” Solari walked off to the centre of the camp.

“What about the rest of the army? Some of them have lost everyone.” Xena remembered saving the odd villager or trader as their fighting skills had impressed her. They must be in so much pain-losing everything.

“Some have gone. Mercenaries and the like. We relived them of their weapons of course. The others are going with the centaurs. At least for the time being. Get them on their feet.”

“Good idea.”

“How are you doing, really Xena?” Ephiny looked concerned.

“Better, after she woke.”

“You didn’t think she’d hate you Xena?”

Xena rubbed her face with her hand. “I hoped she didn’t. But-“she looked away from Ephiny, “You know what she went through. I was an accomplice.” Xena laughed ironically. “That was one thing I could never stand. Even during my dark days. If any of my men raped they hung for it. How I’ve changed. I handed her over.” She spat out the last words in disgust. Ephiny put her hand on her forearm in support, but didn’t say anything.

“I don’t know how she can forgive me.”

Ephiny looked at Xena and shook her head. “Because she’s Gabrielle. Come on the village wants to welcome back their queen. We’ve waited a long time for this.”

Xena held her hand out and Ephiny took it, and they walked towards the tent.

TBC in Chapter 4