Normal disclaimers apply. The characters belong to Rennaisance, whoever.
The character Saras belongs to BL Miller and is used with her permission.
There`s sex and violence ahead.
Xena looked up to the heavens and tried to see Gabrielle`s bear. The bard was asleep, her head resting on Xena`s right thigh. The two weary travellers had arrived in the clearing a couple of hours before. Xena had unsaddled Argo and Gabrielle sarted to unpack their gear. `No, leave it,` the big warrior said. "C`mere." Together they sat, their backs against a fallen tree.
They talked for a while, drank some wine they had purchased in a small village a day or so before. It didn`t take long for the younger woman`s eyes to start closing. Xena felt the bard relax against her and moved her gently down so her head could rest on her thigh. The warrior played absent mindedly with the fine hair at the girls temple, brushing it back from her face. She bent over to her and whispered, "It`s a big dipper."
Xena gently lifted Gabrielle`s head, laying the bard carefully on the ground next to the log. She then went in search of wood for a fire. She knew she should have done this earlier, but the closeness of Gabrielle was too precious. A few minutes later she had a good blaze going and was spreading the two blankets on the ground next to the fire.
She went back to the bard and gently lifted her in her arms. Gabrielle instinctively snuggled into the warmth that was her warrior as she was carried to the blankets. As she lowered Gabrielle to the blanket her head fell back, revealling an incredibly kissable throat. Xena held her breath, expecting the bard to awaken. Instead, as she settled on the blanket she turned onto her side, pulling an arm under her head.
Xena crouched next to her beloved bard and pulled the hair away from her face. "Do I deserve you?"
As she watched the firelight dance across her beloved`s face she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She closed her eyes,taking in a deep breath, the tingling sensation descending down her spine. When the blue eyes opened again a mischiefous sparkle accompanied a wry smile.
The warrior knelt beside her bard and pulled her gently onto her back. She unlaced the boots, pulling each one off carefully. A glance at Gabrielle told her she still slept.
She began to reach across to the bard`s top, but stopped. Standing a few feet away she removed her armour, arm bands, greaves and boots. Now, dressed only in her leathers, she returned to the sleeping girl. Slightly shaking hands reached for the laces of Gabrielles shirt. The laces undid easily, as they always did, the warrior mused.
Xena spread the shirt wide across the bards arms taking a moment to savour the sight of this beautiful woman.
The moon was, by now, high in the sky, and the moon goddess was kind to her chosen one, bathing her with a silver glow. Xena resisted the temptation to grasp the perfect breasts, instead she put a hand on each of Gabrielle`s shoulders, pulling her to a sitting position. Gabrielle`s head fell forward onto her shoulder and Xena turned her head, nuzzling into the soft golden hair. With Gabrielle`s head resting against her shoulder Xena pulled the shirt down her arms, throwing it to land on top of her armour next to the fire. Putting her hand behind Gabrielle`s head she slowly lowered her back to the ground.
Suddenly the bards arm shot out and a small hand grabbed Xena`s wrist. Xena`s head shot up expecting to see the green eyes of her lover staring at her quizically.
But no, the bard still slept. With infinate slowness the warrior prised open the small hand encircling her wrist and lay the arm across the bard`s stomach. She then reached for the leather belt of the Amazon skirt. That soon lay open, revealing the exquisite thighs of the bard. Xena lifted Gabrielle`s bottom and pulled the skirt from beneath her.
Xena stood and viewed her handywork. `Last, but not least.` She said to herself, looking at the undergarment which was the final barrier between her and her bard. She reached for her breast dagger.
For a moment she hefted the small blade in her hand, running her thumb along the shining blade, remembering how she came by it. With a small smile she again knelt beside the girl. Pulling the cloth away from the bard`s hip she carefully cut through the material, repeating the process on the other side.
Gently rolling Gabrielle onto her side she removed the garment, throwing it on the steadily growing pile of clothes.
Xena walked around the bard, surveying her latest victory. Gabrielle lay before her, naked, vulnerable, beautiful and hers. She knelt again and, licking her lips slightly, kissed the bard gently. The kiss was returned, and deepened. Xena felt the familiar wetness begin between her thighs. Her right hand cupped the bards left breast, her thumb rubbing across the already swollen bud. "My bard," she breathed into the girls open mouth. Xena`s head snapped up, looking into the face of her love. A smile tugged at the warriors lips as she bent her head and ran a series of kisses down Gabrielle`s throat and on to the breast that wasn`t being kneaded by a large hand. She took the swollen nipple between her teeth and felt the bard arch into her. Xena heard the girl`s breathing becoming heavier and she suddenly felt a small hand entwine itself in her hair. "You awake?" Xena waited, no answer.
The warrior could wait no longer. She slowly trailed her tongue down the bards taught stomach until she met the golden patch of curls at the juncture of her thighs. With her hands she spread the lips of Gabrielles sex, finding a wet warmth, as always. After one last look at her love`s face she lowered her mouth to her goal, taking the hardened nub gently between her teeth. Pushing Gabrielle`s legs futher apart she manouvered herself so she could push harder into her bard`s centre. Bringing her right hand beneath Gabrielle`s left leg she inserted a finger into her bard, then another, then a third. Gabrielle was, by this time moaning, but still asleep. But even in sleep she was matching the rythm that Xena was setting.
Xena felt the muscles round her fingers start to tighten. With a rush Gabrielle came, arching her back and tightening her thigh`s against Xena`s shoulders. Slowly the small body relaxed, the breathing became steady. Xena looked up and crawled up her love`s body, trailing kisses as she went. She fixed her mouth on her bard`s. Then, taking a small naked shoulder in her hand she began to wake the still trembling girl.
"Gabrielle?" no response, just a sigh of pure pleasure. "Gabrielle, come on wake up, I have something to show you."
Slowly the green eyes opened. "Xena?" Gabrielle put a hand to her head. "Xena?" The little bard looked around her and back to her lover. "What happened?"
"I just won a bet."
"What bet?" Gabrielle knew something had happened, she wasn`t quite sure what, but she was sure she had enjoyed it.
"You remember, I said you could sleep through anything." Xena was smiling now, laying down on the blanket next to Gabrielle. "Well, you just did."
"You just made love to me, didn`t you?" Gabrielle was sitting up now, looking down at her own glistening thighs reflecting the moonlight.
"Yes I did, it was wonderful." Xena put both her arms behind her head and smiled up at the puzzled bard. Then she reached out her arm. "Come on, lets get some sleep now."
"I dunno if I should, what else could I miss?" Gabrielle fitted herself neatly into the side of the big warrior, resting her head on the powerful shoulder. Her arm snaked round Xena`s waist, her leg across her thighs. Xena pulled the other blankets across them and reached over to throw a couple of logs onto the fire.
"Don`t worry, you won`t miss anything again, I promise."
With that she kissed the top of Gabrielle`s head, pulled her closer and drifted into a warm comfortable sleep.
Xena had packed up all their gear, saddled Argo and was waiting for the bard.
"Why did you have to cut it?" Gabrielle said biting through the thread. She stood and stepped into the undergarment, pulling it up as Xena looked on. "I`m always having to repair my clothing because of your impatience."
"Seemed the easiest way at the time."
"Why didn`t you just wake me?"
"I was proving a point." Giving one last check to the straps holding the saddle she mounted Argo and held out her hand to the bard.
"No, I`ll walk, I think."
"No you won`t, I want to get to the coast by nightfall, come on."
With a sigh the bard took the offered hand and found herself hauled effortlessly onto the horse behind her warrior. Both arms found their familiar place around the waist of her love.
"Try to stay awake." Xena said, feeling the bard snuggling up against her back.
"I`m tired, I was woken up last night, remember?"
"Only for a few minutes." Xena shot back. "Anyway, if you fall asleep you may fall off Argo."
"No I won`t."
"I`m not going to spend all morning hanging on to you."
"Yes you will."
`Yes I will,` Xena thought. The tall warrior shrugged and waited for the tell-tale signs that sleep had, once again, caught up with her bard.
The bard was suddenly wide awake. Xena was slapping her on the thigh. "Gabrielle, wake up." Before she was fully awake Xena was dismounting Argo and pulling the bard down after her.
"What is it?" said Gabrielle pulling her staff from its place alongside Argo`s saddle.
"Trouble I think." The warrior was scanning the dense forest that flanked the narrow road they were travelling. She unsheathed her sword, "keep walking."
Xena heard the arrow before she saw it. She turned to see Gabrielle falling clutching her left shoulder.
Keeping her eyes on the forest she backed up to her fallen friend. A quick glance told her the arrow had passed right through. Its length also told her it was a crossbow bolt. Gabrielle`s face was contorted in pain as she knelt looking up to her friend for an answer. "Who is it?"
Xena put her hand on the bard`s shoulder. "I don`t know, I can`t see anyone."
A voice from the forest. "Your friend is hurt warrior. We could just as easily have killed her. Put down your sword."
Xena said nothing, but beside her she could hear the sharp intake of breath from her friend as another wave of pain swept across her.
"Let me see to her wound."
"Throw down your sword."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle. "Don`t give up your sword Xena." Gabrielle`s eyes were pleading but she was becoming weak. Blood was, by now, streaking her left arm, dripping onto the road below.
Xena threw her sword a few feet away and knelt beside Gabrielle. "It`s passed straight through, that saves a bit of work." She gave the bard a lopsided smile.
Behind her three men walked out of the trees.
"Walk away from her, warrior." The largest man, obviously in charge, levelled a crossbow at her. When she didn`t move he swung it in Gabrielle`s direction."Move away from her."
Xena stood and took a couple of steps away from the girl.
"What do you want? Me?"
The man ignored her. He turned to one of his companions. "Got the rope?" The second man, shorter and stockier pulled a length of rope from his waist. The leader turned back to Xena. "Turn around, don`t try anything, your friend will die before you."
Xena didn`t move. For a long moment she looked hard into the face of the man before her. "You know I can`t do that."
"You can and will Xena." He smiled at the warriors look of surprise. "Yes, I know who you are. I also know you could easily kill all three of us in the blink of an eye. However, your little friend would be dead by then. I don`t think even you could move quicker than a crossbow bolt."
He walked over to Gabrielle, placing the sharp tip of the bolt into the bards neck. Gabrielle was still kneeling, holding her wounded shoulder.
"Now, down on your knees."
Never taking her eyes from his Xena sank to her knees.
"Hands behind your back."
Xena complied. A rough pair of hands quickly secured her hands.
"Look, take me, that`s fine. But please, take her to a village, there`s one nearby. She needs a healer."
"You really do have a high opinion of yourself warrior." Timor laughed at the confusion on Xenas face.
"No, it`s not you we want. I`ve come for the Amazon Queen. Shame about the damage." He looked at his companion and shook his head. "Piracis, your aim doesn`t get any better." The tall thin man shrugged."I was just told to deliver her, they didn`t specify a condition." He nodded to Piracis who was sanding behind the warrior.
Xena suddenly realised her mistake.
"We want you to take a message to the Amazons. Tell the bitches that their Queen will be executed in Tarynth, the walled city of Tarynth. Her body will be left outside of the walls after the execution has taken place."
Xena strarted to rise and felt the hilt of a sword on the back of her head, she pitched forward. She tried to struggle to her knees again but was hit once more. She turned her head to the side to see a now unconsious Gabrielle being hefted onto the shoulders of the short stocky man. As darkness crept from the sides of her vision her brain screamed one word.
Timor walked over to the fallen warrior and turned her on to her back. Taking a small amount of powder from a small pouch he opened her mouth and placed the powder beneath her tongue.
"There, that should give us some time."
Gabrielle was disorientated. She woke to find her face mashed against something soft. She realised she was being carried. The pain in her shoulder was excrutiating, the crossbow bolt hadn`t been removed and the shaft kept hitting the back of the man carrying her.
"Timor, she`s awake." said the short man to the leader walking a couple of steps in front of him.
"Ok, we`ve put a bit of distance between us and the warrior bitch, lets see to the bolt. Sit her down against that tree."
The short man, Garon, put Gabrielle down with something approaching care. He pulled out a pouch from his shirt and then took a short dagger from its place in his boot.
Gabrielle was pale, her face sheened with sweat. "Xena?" she said to him. "Is she......?"
"She was alive when we left her, she`s delivering a message for us."
"What`s this all about?"
"Don`t ask me, I`m just the delivery boy." He pulled Gabrielle`s head forward till it rested on his shoulder. Reaching behind her he cut the tip of the bolt off. Gabrielle screamed in agony as he quickly pulled the shaft from her shoulder before she realised he was going to do it.
He began unlacing her top. "What are you doing?" She said weakly.
"I have to clean the wound, otherwise it`ll get infected." He pulled the top down off her shoulder and washed the wound out. Then he pushed some dried moss in each of the entry and exit wounds. He then handed her the water skin so that she could quench her burning thirst.
"What`s your name?" asked Gabrielle, taking a long drink from the waterskin.
"I know who you are. Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. Follower of Xena Warrior Princess."
He finished bandaging the bards shoulder and pulled her top back up.
"Why are you doing this Garon?"
"The pay is good, someone wants you, it`s what I do." He shrugged.
"Who wants me?"
"I don`t ask, Timor got us the job, he knows the details."
Garon pulled the bard to her feet. Watching her while she swayed he said,"can you walk?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I think so."
"Timor, we`re ready here."
"Let`s go then, " Timor called back into the wood. "Piracis, any sign of her?"
The tall thin man appeared from the forest. "No, I hit her pretty hard though. I don`t think she`ll be up and about for a few hours yet."
"The powder`ll slow her down too." Said Timor.
Holding her shoulder Gabrielle approached Timor. "Who`s paying you?"
"Walk." Timor roughly pushed Gabrielle ahead of him. "You don`t want to know."
"I do, please, tell me." She looked back at him over her shoulder.
Timor sighed. "Have you heard of a warlord called Mastacles?"
"Well, that`s who`s paying me."
"I don`t know him, d`you know why he`s doing this?"
"He lost his army to the Amazons a couple of years ago, he wants revenge." Another shove to
Gabrielle`s back sent her tumbling to the forest floor.
"There`s no need for that." Garon helped the bard to her feet.
Timor smiled at his companion. "Going soft Garon?"
"No. There`s just no need to treat her like that. She hasn`t tried to escape. She`s hurt anyway, she wouldn`t get far."
"Garon, this is an Amazon." He put a hand in Gabrielle`s hair and pulled her towards him. "She could probably kill you as easily as her warrior friend. I think we should tie her."
Timor pulled a length of rope from his pack and tied Gabrielles hands in front of her. He then tied a long length to the bindings so he could lead her.
He started to pull the bard after him when she pulled back on the rope. "What is it now?"
"Xena." She said. "She`ll kill you, you know."
"She can try. I`ve stayed alive with a lot of people wanting me dead. One more won`t make any difference." A smile crossed his lips.
"No, this is Xena. I can assure you, she will kill you. Let me go now, I`ll find her, you can get away."
"I have a contract. I`ve never failed to deliver. Mastacles wants you. He`s gonna get you. Now shut up and walk, I want to get to Tarynth by nightfall."
Xena rolled slowly onto her back. She didn`t know how long she`s been unconsious but guessed, by the position of the sun, it had been a couple of hours.
She had a strange substance in her mouth, she spat it out. Immediately she realised it was a sleeping powder. They had underestimated the Warrior Princess, however. Although she`s remained unconscious for longer than she would have normally, the powder only had a small effect.
Her sword was still where she`d thrown it. Reaching behind her she embedded the tip in the ground and quickly cut through the ropes binding her wrists. The blood rushed back to her hands painfully. A short, sharp whistle brought Argo crashing through the forest.
`First things first,` she thought. As much as she wanted to go after the men who had taken her love immediately, she had to get a message to the Amazons. Mounting Argo she turned her in the direction of the nearest village and rode like the wind.
Gabrielle and her three captors were sat some distance outside the walled city of Tarynth. The bard`s shoulder was aching and her head was beginning to pound. Timor handed the rope to Garon. "Watch her. I have to go on ahead. Mastacles wants to see her first."
With that Timor was gone.
"Let`s have a look at that shoulder." Said Garon untying Gabrielle`s hands. He pulled her shirt gently down off her left shoulder. Carefully pulling the dried moss from both wounds he inpected them for signs of infection. "It looks ok. I don`t have anything for stitching, sorry."
Gabrielle smiled at him. "Garon?"
"Let me go now. Xena will never stop if I die." She remembered the conversation she and Xena had beside their campfire once. "You know, she once promised me she wouldn`t avenge my death. But now I don`t think she`ll be able to keep that promise."
Garon replaced the moss and pulled the bards top back up.
"You know I can`t let you go Gabrielle."
They both looked up to see Timor walking towards them followed by an even bigger man. The man, who Gabrielle assumed to be Mastacles had jet black hair. His clothes were black and he carried a huge sword at his hip. His left arm appeared withered and bent at his side, his left eye was closed.
"So, this is the Amazon Queen." He bent and peered into Gabrielle`s face. "What happened to Melosa?"
"She`s dead, she was killed in a challenge for the throne."
"No, by her adopted daughter Velaska. I already had the right of caste."
"So why isn`t this Velaska Queen?"
"Xena killed her, she would have led the Amazons back into war. The Amazon nation is at peace now, that`s how it`ll stay."
"Stand her up."
Garon pulled Gabrielle to her feet. Mastacles spun her round and tied her hands behind her back. "The Amazons may be at peace now, but four years ago they weren`t. They killed my family, destroyed my army and burned Tarynth to the ground. The city you`ll see in a moment is the result of four years hard work. We want to celebrate its completion with the death of the Amazon Queen."
He turned the bard to face him once more. He took a wide leather strap and fastened it about the bards neck. Attached to it was a long silver chain.
"The whole city is awaiting your arrival, Queen. You`re going to get quite a reception." Mastacles turned to Timor. "Here." He threw a bulging purse at him. "D`you want to count it?"
"No, I trust you. Besides, I know where to find you, don`t I."
Mastacles pulled on the chain, causing Gabrielle to stumble towards him. "Come Queen Gabrielle, your audience awaits."
Garon felt a pang of guilt as he watched the young girl being dragged behind the brute of a man to her death. She glanced back at him, but he turned away and followed the two men into the forest.
Mastacles was much rougher than Garon and kept pulling savagely on the leash. Twice Gabrielle fell to her knees only to be hauled roughly to her feet by the chain at her neck.
The gates to the walled city opened and the warlord pulled her in. Gabrielles eyes darted from side to side as dozens of people rushed forward to get their first glimpse of the Amazon Queen.
One man pushed his way through the crowd, he had a long piece of wood in his hand which he brought down across Gabrielles back. She fell to her knees and the crowd fell upon her like hounds on a deer.
Mastacles beat them back but Gabrielle was left with a cut over her right eye and what felt like a broken rib.
"I know how you feel!" he bellowed. "She is going to take punishment for the Amazon nation." He pulled Gabrielle to her feet by her hair. "But she will die slowly and in great pain."
Pulling Gabrielle by the leash he made his way to a platform that had been erected in the city square. Pushing her ahead of him up the four steps, he laughed as she fell onto her face.
"This is Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons." Mastacles pulled her to her feet using the leash.
Gabrielle`s eyes were on the crowd, she had never known such hatred and it was all directed towards her. She didn`t see the punch coming. Xena had taught her to roll with a punch but this time she took the full force of it against the side of her head. Again she fell to the platform, the cheers of the crowd ringing in her ears.
Gabrielle knelt, her forehead only inches from the wooden floor of the platform. She watched her own blood as it dripped and seeped into the wood.
"Please, no more." She gasped.
"No more Amazon? The Amazon Nation would not listen to such begging."
Mastacles undid her hands and threw her into the arms of two soldiers that had followed them up onto the platform. They dragged her to a thick post erected in the centre of the platform, pulling her hands above her head, they fastened them to a metal ring sunk into the post. She was then turned to face the post. One of the soldiers bent and picked a short, thick whip.
Gabrielle looked into his face, he was smiling. She turned her face back to the post, resting her forehead against it. She tried to focus, focus on the one thing that might get her through this. "Xena." She whispered.
"This woman will take many days to die, I promise you. The war with the Amazons was six days long. In that time many of you lost loved ones as I did. If, at the end of six days she still lives I will give her to you. Her punishment begins now."
He nodded to one of the soldiers of his small army who stepped forward and uncurled the whip. "Six lashes, one for each day of the war. She will have no food and no water. If she falls asleep she will be woken. Begin."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and saw the face of her love. She knew Xena would come for her. Her main concern was what would happen to her warrior if these people succeeded in killing her before Xena found her. "I love you." She said to the image of Xena in her mind`s eye.
The soldier had wielded a whip before. Gabrielle screamed at the first contact, the second didn`t seem so bad but by the sixth she was hanging limply from the ropes about her wrists.
After the beating they turned her so that her back was against the post and tied her securely to it with ropes. One rope around her shoulders, one around her waist. Her arms were pulled painfully behind the post and secured.
The crowd watched for a while as a bucket of water was thrown over her. A soldier stood in front of her slapping her face until she returned to her senses.
Mastascles smiled. "Welcome to Tarynth, Queen."
Xena arrived at the walled city after dark. She had been to a village and paid a young man to take a message to the Amazons. She had told Ephiny to bring only two warriors. However, she didn`t want to wait for them, Gabrielles safety was most important now. The thought of her being at the mercy of a city full of revenge ridden people, cut her to the core.
The city was in silence.
Leaving Argo at the edge of the forest Xena stealthily approached the walls. She found enough purchase to climb the walls. There were a couple of guards on duty. She waited until they had passed before hopping over the top and onto the city ramparts. In the city square she saw a platform, in the centre of the platform she saw her love. For a moment she thought her dead, seeing no movement.
Then a soldier walked up to the bard, giving her a hard slap across the face. Gabrielle lifted her head wearily.
By now Xena`s heart was pumping so hard in her chest she thought it would burst. The blood was rushing in her ears threatening to deafen her.
Gabrielle put her head back. Xena saw the blood running down her face from the cut above her right eye. She wanted nothing more than to rush down to her but knew they would both be dead in a matter of seconds if she did. No, she wouldn`t be able to get her bard out of this city. The only person to do that would be Mastacles.
She put her plan into action. From her hip she took a small crossbow. Attaching the dart to it she took aim.
Gabrielles head snapped up as the dart hit her in the right thigh. She scanned the square for the perpetrator. The soldier guarding her hadn`t heard or seen anything. Gabrielle started to feel drowzy.
High on the wall a shadowy figure hopped over the edge and disappeared.
The guard watched the captive with something approaching curiosity. Her head sank to her chest and as it was his job to keep her awake he climbed the few steps to the platform and again slapped her face.
Getting no response from the bard he raised her head by her hair. He looked into the face for a long time, slowly moving his body against the girls. Then he felt something. Looking down he saw the dart embedded in her thigh. Roughly pulling it out he slipped it into the waistband of his breeches and jumped down from the platform.
Mastacles was woken from a deep sleep. "What is it."
The soldier was nervous. "It`s the Amazon, Lord. She`s dead."
"What!" Mastacles threw back the blankets and lept from the bed. He was still dressed. "How could she die so quickly?"
"I found this, Lord." The soldier handed him the dart. "Someone poisoned her."
Mastracles took the dart from him. "Did you see anyone?"
"No Lord, I`m sorry."
Mastacles walked past him out into the night. On the platform the Amazon Queen hung limply from her bonds. The warlord lifted her head, he put a hand to her neck , feeling no pulse he said, "Shame, still the city has had it`s revenge. Leave her here for the night. We`ll put her body outside the walls in the morning." With that he returned to his bed, regretting the fact that the girl hadn`t given them as much sport as they would have liked.
Gabrielle`s body was taken down as dawn broke. Much of the city`s inhabitants had learned early that the girl was dead. They stood in silence as she was dragged by her arms through the streets. The soldiers dragged her to the edge of the forest and discarded her in a heap.
Xena watched as the men returned to the city and the large gates were closed. She walked out to where her bard lay. From the walls of the city Mastacles called "Xena!" He was not surprised to see her. He had told his guards to be on the lookout for her and was quietly pleased with himself that he had prevented her from rescuing the Amazon.
Xena looked up at him.
"Xena, tell the Amazons this is not the end. Their Queen has paid part of the price, but they will pay ultimately. Take the Queen back to them and tell them to prepare for war."
Xena picked the bard up in her arms and walked as slowly as she dared into the forest. As soon as she was out of sight she broke into a run, whistling for Argo.
Setting the bard down she reached into her saddle bags for a small bottle. If this didn`t work............
Inserting her little finger between the bards teeth she opened her love`s mouth and poured the small amount of liquid down the bards throat. Then she pulled Gabrielle into her arms. She didn`t realise the tears were flowing until one fell onto Gabrielle`s face. She suddenly felt a wetness on her arm and, turning the bard over, discovered the welts on her back.
"Oh Gabrielle, I`m so sorry."
There were six angry marks, two of them bleeding. Xena let the bard down onto the forest floor and again went to the saddle bags. She pulled out a small container which held a soothing balm. With gentle fingers she spread the balm across the welts. Then she took out a needle and thread and proceeded to sew the two arrow wounds. The wounds looked clean and there was no sign of infection. She cleaned the small cut on Gabrielle`s forehead and decided it wouldn`t need stitches.
Pulling Gabrielle back into her arms Xena once again leaned back against a tree and waited for the effects of the strong drug she had shot into her bard to work itself off. The antidote would speed the process. It was also a stimulant and Xena was a little worried what effect this would have on Gabrielle`s beaten body.
A small jerk alerted Xena that the bard was coming out of her stupor. The warrior held tightly on to her love, she knew this would be bad. Another spasm. The green eyes shot open.
`It`s OK Gabrielle, I`m here.`
"It hurts." Gabrielle clutched at the strong arms that held her tight.
"My side, I can feel something moving, my ribs I think."
Xena lay the trembling girl down on the ground. Expert fingers probed the girls ribs, pulling back when the bard winced. "Just one broken, I think. But that`s enough."
She looked back up to the face of her love. Gabrielles eyes were tightly shut and tears were squeezing out from between the lashes.
"Hey come on, you`re safe now."She pulled Gabrielle back into her arms. The bard tried to climb right into Xena`s soul there and then. "Gabrielle, I`m here, you`re safe. Tell me what is it?"
"The worst thing wasn`t the thought of dying." She said between sobs. " It was dying without seeing you one last time. It was the thought of what would become of you."
"But I promised you......."
Gabrielle put her fingers on her warriors lips. "I know what you said, but do you really think you could keep that promise?"
"I`ll always try.`"Xena looked down into the eyes of her beloved. "We have to go, can you stand?"
"I think so."
Xena helped Gabrielle to her feet and held her steady as she swayed.. A short whistle brought Argo to her side. She packed the medical supplies back in the saddle bags and then helped the bard up into the saddle, jumping up behind her. Turning Argo into the forest she slowly urged the mare forward, one hand on the reigns the other gently round her lovers waist.
In Tarynth Mastacles still rued losing the Amazon to death so quickly. He called a soldier into his chambers. "Do you still have that dart?"
"Yes Lord, it`s here ." The soldier handed him the dart.
Mastacles put it to his nose. "I want to find who shot this, they deprived us of a few days sport." His brow furrowed in a frown. "I recognise this, do you?"
The soldier sniffed the tip of the dart. "Is it Talmac?"
"I think it could be, in a concentrated form." Mastacles smiled. "You know what that means. The Amazon could still be alive." A feral grin crossed his face. " Make an announcement. We`ll have a hunt." The soldier turned to leave. "Wait," Said Mastacles. TThere will be a five thousand dinar reward for the head of the Amazon. Make sure that is made clear. Go."
Xena was becoming concerned for Gabrielle. It had been a few candlemarks since they`d mounted Argo. In that time the bard had said very little.
The bard was leaning back heavily against her. Every now and again the warrior would reach a hand up to feel the girls brow. Every time the hand came away with a glistening of sweat.
"Gabrielle?" Xena leaned forward, her lips touching the girls ear. "Gabrielle, are you awake?"
"Just. Where are we?" Gabrielle squinted against the afternoon sun.
"We`re some way away from Tarynth, I think we should set up camp. You need a rest."
"I`d rather get further away." The bard pushed some damp hair out of her eyes. "Can`t we make it back to the Amazons before dark?"
"No, I don`t think so." The warrior jumped down and held up her arms for the bard to follow. Gabrielle looked down at her love and felt a wave of dizziness sweep over her. Xena caught her as she fell from the horses back.
Gathering her up in her arms she carried her to a tree and sat her back against it.
"Stay here, I`ll get you some water."
Xena returned with the water skin and held it to the girls lips."You`re getting a fever. Could be the arrow wound, I may have to open it again."
Gabrielle`s eyes were closing."That`s fine, whatever." Her head fell forward. Xena was worried, this was not sleep, it was illness. The bard was sick.
Xena watched from her perch high in the tree. Making nothing out in the failing light, she jumped to the ground.
She had heard the sound of hounds some time ago but hadn`t wanted to disturb Gabrielle who was sleeping fitfully.
Xena guessed that Mastacles had worked out that the bard still lived. Brushing the damp hair from the bards face she gently called her name.
"Gabrielle, come on, we have to go."
The green eyes, slightly unfocused, opened.
"We have to go." She repeated.
She turned back to the sound, louder now.
Picking Gabrielle up, she whistled for Argo. The huge war horse approached. Another whistle and the mare lowered her front legs, allowing Xena to mount easily with her precious bundle in her arms. Through all this Gabrielle remained silent. Xena pulled her tighter to her chest and urged Argo forward.
After a short time they came to a river. A small smile crossed Xenas lips. This could work to their advantage. If she could get them to the other side the hounds could lose their scent.
"Gabrielle." She whispered into the bard`s ear. "I need some help here."
If Gabrielle had heard she showed no sign.
"I need you to hold the saddle horn." Xena took the bards hands in her own and put them on the saddle horn.
Gabrielle watched her hands willing them to grasp the saddle horn, but as soon as Xena removed her own hands the bard`s smaller hands fell to the side.
"Xena, I can`t, I`m sorry." The weakness in the bards voice caused a knot of fear to twist in the warriors stomach.
"It`s OK, I`ve got you." She whispered into Gabrielle`s hair.
Kneeing Argo forward the horse tentatively edged into the rapidly moving water.
They were about half way across when it happened.
The river was swollen from recent rain. Xena had underestimated it`s fury. She had been so determined to put it between them and their hunters, that she`d ignored the danger.
The horses panic threw both riders from her back. Xena grasped the bard tightly, releasing the reigns. The horse bucked away as the current threw the two women away from her. Xena kicked her legs, holding Gabrielles head above water the best she could. She suddenly felt hard ground beneath her feet, and dragged the bard higher onto the bank.
As she sat gasping for breath she realised she was back on the same side of the river. Argo, however, had made it across. She was stood pawing the ground, shaking the water from her mane.
Xena sat, holding tightly to the bard in her arms. Gabrielle was shivering violently, partly from the cold, partly from the fever but mostly from her latest adventure on a horse. Xena realised this would do nothing for the girls confidence when she next had to mount Argo.
Xena sat Gabrielle with her back against a tree. Peering at her in the moonlight she tried to assess her for new injuries. "Do you hurt anywhere else?"
Gabrielle had her arms wrapped around herself and looked very miserable. She shook her head. `I can`t feel anything.`
Xena gave her a lopsided grin. "I`ll just make sure Argo`s OK."
She walked to the edge of the river. "It`s OK girl, you go." She shouted above the din from the river. Argo hesitated. "Go."
With that, the powerful war horse disappeared into the night.
She turned back to Gabrielle. "Hey."
"Hey to you too." She tried to smile up at the warrior. "Argo?"
"She`s ok. She`s on the other side of the river though. She can`t get back safely. "
"How will we manage?" Fear tinged the bard`s words.
"We`ll manage, can you walk?"
"I don`t know, help me up."
Xena helped Gabrielle to her feet, but it was obvious she couldn`t stand.
"Listen." Said Xena, holding the bard by the shoulders. "I`m going to take us further into the forest. The trees are thicker there. They won`t be able to get through with horses."
Gabrielle was following Xena`s words carefully, but her tiredness was obvious, she struggled to keep her eyes open.
"I`m going to have to carry you. But if the pain gets too bad I want you to tell me, hear?"
"Good." With that the warrior bent and easily picked the bard up. "Comfortable?"
Gabrielle put a hand on the warrior`s chest. "Always comfortable here."
Xena had walked for some time. It was very dark now, the sky was cloudy, the moon which had lit her way earlier had now disappeared.
"Gabrielle?" She said softly, looking down at the pale face.
There was no answer from the bard.
Xena leaned forward so that Gabrielle`s feet touched the ground. Immediately the girls legs buckled, Xena lowered her to the ground.
"We have to get you warm." She said more to herself than to the bard. "I`m gonna lose you if I`m not careful."
The forest was so dense she decided to climb the nearest tree to see if she could see any sign of a village. She didn`t really want to stop, but right at this moment the bard was probably freezing to death, so she told herself she had no option.
She smelt it first. Smoke. She thought she could see a small light. She was back down the tree and picking up Gabrielle before she realised that she no longer heard the sound of the hounds baying.
Straining her ears, she listened. They must have given up for the night after losing the light of the moon. Picking Gabrielle up, in her arms, she made her way to the light she`d seen from the top of the tree. Gabrielle was very still now. Her clothes were still damp and her skin felt very cold. Xena held her close, hoping to transfer some of her own body heat into the bard, realising as soon as she thought of it, that it wouldn`t be enough.
The small light was getting stronger now. It wasn`t a village, just a lone cabin.
Xena set the bard down on the ground, she was unconscious. The warrior crept up to the window and peered in.
A woman sat near the fire tending a pot of something. She could see two children asleep on a big bed, but no man. For a moment she thought about putting her shoulder to the door and forcing her way in, but thought better of it. Picking the bard up she went to the door and knocked.
She heard voices, and the door slowly opened, the woman stood, broom in hand. Two small faces stared from behind her skirt.
"What do you want?"
The Warrior Princess was a terrifying sight to some, especially in the middle of a dark night.
"My friend, she needs help."
The woman dragged her gaze from the warrior to the pale face of the smaller woman she held in her arms.
"Our horse threw us, in the river. She`s freezing, I need to get her warm."
The woman backed away so that Xena could enter the cabin, but the warrior noticed that she kept hold of the broom. The two children grasped their mothers skirt, keeping her between them and the warrior at all times.
Xena put Gabrielle down on the bed. The warmth from the room was welcoming, but there was no time to spare. `I need to get some water heated, how many buckets do you have?`
"Only one that we can heat water in. If we want water for a bath we heat it out back in a boiler. That takes hours to get going, though."
"OK, we`ll just heat the one bucket then. That`ll have to be enough."
"I`ll get it."
She put the broom down and shooed the two children away. They went to sit in her chair beside the fire.
Xena was undoing Gabrielle`s top when the woman returned. "Is there anywhere else the children can go while we do this?" Xena was concerned about the young ones seeing the wounds on Gabrielle`s back.
"Yes, of course." After hooking the bucket above the fire she sent the two children to a small bedroom.
"They like to fall asleep in my bed, I take them into their room when they`re asleep."
As she came back from securing the bedroom door she said,"Please, tell me who you are."
"I`m sorry. My name is Xena, my friend is Gabrielle, you are?"
"Alyssia. Good, that`s over."
She made no comment. If she had heard of Xena she didn`t show it. Gabrielle was now naked and Xena was rubbing her arms and legs, trying to get her circulation going.
"Take her to the fire, Xena, I`ll make some tea."
Xena picked Gabrielle up, wrapping her in a blanket as she did so.
As she pulled her to a sitting position Alyssia saw the angry welts on the bards back."What did the child do to deserve that?" She said, with a look of horror on her face.
Xena settled into the seat by the fire with the bard in her lap. Absent mindedly rubbing the bards skin she said, "This `child` is Queen of the Amazons." She looked down at the pale face, shaking her head.
"Then Mastacles did this."
Xena`s head snapped up. "You know him?"
"I know him. I also know the Amazons. My husband and I lived in Tarynth. He died in the war with the Amazons."
Xena tightened her grip on the bard instictively.
"Don`t worry Xena, I don`t feel the same way. I moved out of the city when my father died and left me this cabin. I make a living by taking in mending and washing. Mastacles is full of hatred. It was him that started the war with the Amazons in the first place. A lot of people forget that. Most of the people of Tarynth want to forget the war. They`re afraid of him, Xena."
"Well, the people of Tarynth certainly seemed to enjoy doing this to her." Xena said nodding her head at the limp form in her arms.
"They just follow Mastacles` lead. Without him they`d be peaceful." Alyssia looked at the fire. "The water`s boiling."
Alyssia took the bucket from the fire and put it in front of Xena. Then she gave her some rags. Dipping the rags in the water Xena began to sponge Gabrielles body with the warm water, taking care not to scald her.
"Hey," she whispered to her love, "you`re gonna be alright, I promise."
Alyssia watched as the dark warrior treated her friend with the utmost care.
"What is she to you?" The woman asked, realising she was seeing something special.
Xena stopped, looked at the bard`s face for long moments and then back to Alyssia.
"Everything." She shook her head as if the thought had only just occured to her. "Everything."
In her arms Gabrielle stirred. "Hi there." Xena said.
"Xena?" The bard`s eyes opened and Xena realised how much she`s missed them.
"We`re safe for the moment. Relax."
The bard jumped when Alyssia appeared at her side. "It`s ok Gabrielle." Xena held her tighter.
"Here Xena, some hot tea will help. I`ve put plenty of honey in it."
Xena gave her a smile of thanks and took the mug. Alyssia made herself busy putting Gabrielle`s clothes in front of the fire to dry. "Xena, you should get out of those wet things."
"I`ll be fine." She said, holding the mug for Gabrielle to drink. The bard enjoyed the feeling of the warm tea as it hit her stomach. She finished it and snuggled closer to the warrior, and fell quickly into a more natural sleep.
Xena let out a long sigh. A single tear ran down her cheek and into the golden hair of the girl in her arms.
Alyssia was standing by the fire watching her.
Xena shook her head as if to clear it. "It`s been a long day." Another glance at the bard. "I`ve been worried about her. She took quite a beating. To get her out of Tarynth I shot her with a drugged dart. It made them think she was dead. " A shake of the head again. "She was also hit by a crossbow bolt." Xena looked up at Alyssia. "I think Mastacles knows she`s alive. I think he`s coming for her." She saw fear in the womans face. "Don`t worry, we`ll be gone as soon as she`s rested, they won`t find us here."
"No, that`s not what I`m worried about."
She sat on the bed. "Xena, Gabrielle can`t be moved. You can`t take her out there. She has to stay here."
"I won`t put you and your children in danger."
"We won`t be in danger. We have a cellar, it hasn`t been used in years, you could hide there."
Xena looked at her for a long time before answering.
"What you`re offering is very brave. Yes, I will leave her here. But I`ll go on, draw the hunting party away. When she`s strong enough to leave, tell her to go to the Amazons."
"Xena, I`m sure you`ll be back for her."
"Well, just in case I`m not, tell her that."
Alyssia put a hand on Xena`s shoulder."Why don`t you get some sleep, I`ll wake you at first light."
"Thankyou I will." Xena settled back into the chair. "You don`t mind if I stay here by the fire do you?"
"Wherever you want Xena."
Xena slept, but it was not a peaceful sleep. A recurring image of Gabrielle tied to the stake kept propelling her to wakefulness. In the end she gave up trying to sleep. She propped her chin on top of the bards head and held her tight, wondering if this was the last night she`d be able to do so.
Xena watched as it grew steadily lighter.
Alyssia was asleep on the bed. Xena called her, "Alyssia?"
The woman woke, looked around her, suddenly remembering her houseguests.
Xena was standing, the bard in her arms. "Let`s get her dressed."
She sat Gabrielle on the bed, the bard was waking slowly. Her skin felt cool, her eyes seemed alert.
"How do you feel?" Xena said, bending and looking into the green eyes.
"Better." Gabrielle smiled up at her. "I have a bit of a headache, but I don`t feel so sick."
Xena quickly checked the arrow wound. It seemed ok. Then the lash marks. One was weeping, but not too badly. Alyssia handed the bard her top and Xena helped her into it. Then the skirt.
Once the bard was dressed Xena sat next to her on the bed and took one of her hands.
"Gabrielle, listen." As soon as she spoke those words Gabrielle got the idea she wasn`t going to like what was coming next.
"There`s a cellar beneath this cabin. I want you to hide there while I draw the hunting party away."
"Now listen to me. You don`t have the strength to run from them. I do. I can get them far from here, they won`t catch me."
"Don`t make this harder than it already is." Xena placed a hand on Gabrielles cheek, rubbing away a tear with her thumb.
"It`s me they want Xena, I won`t let you die because of that." She put her hand over Xena`s which was still pressed against her cheek. "If you go, I want you to go to the Amazons."
"Gabrielle, I`m not going to die. I have a good head start, they won`t catch me." Xena looked up at Alyssia, who nodded her head and went outside, leaving the two women alone.
"She`s a good woman Gabrielle, she`s taking quite a risk for us." Xena clasped Gabrielle`s hand.
"For me, you mean." Gabrielle looked down at their hands. "It seems you`re always taking a risk for me. Now someone else is in danger because of me."
Xena put a hand beneath Gabrielles chin and lifted her face so she could see into her eyes.
"Alyssia knows what she`s doing. Besides, I`ll make sure the hunting party comes no where near here."
"What do you mean, no?"
"I mean, no, I won`t let you do it." Gabrielle pulled her hand from Xena`s grasp and looked her defiantly in the eyes.
Xena smiled. "Ok my bard, have it your way."
Gabrielle shot her a surprised look.
"Come here." Xena pulled her into a kiss. Gabrielle`s hands circled the warriors neck, while Xena`s arms were around the bard`s back.
Gabrielle was so engrossed in Xena`s soft lips that she didn`t feel Xena`s right hand seeking out the pressure point on the bard`s neck. A quick jab and Gabrielle fell limp in her arms.
For a long moment Xena held her love, burying her face in the golden hair. Then she laid her back on the bed. The pinch wasn`t the same one that she used to get information, it would wear off in a candlemark or so.
Alyssia came back into the cabin to find Xena sheathing her sword and the bard seemingly asleep on the bed.
"Is she alright?" She said, putting a hand on the girl`s forehead.
"I had to put her out, she was being...." Xena searched for the right word, "difficult."
Picking Gabrielle up she said, "Right then, show me the cellar."
Alyssia went out of the cabin and round to the back, the warrior following closely. She pulled a circle of rope and the floor seemed to rise. It had been so seldom used that grass had grown on the trap door.
Xena put Gabrielle down and descended the ladder into the cellar. After a moment her head poked back up through the entrance. "It seems ok."
Picking Gabrielle up again she carefully descended the ladder again, setting the bard down on the floor. She laid her out carefully, wrapping her in the blanket that Alyssia threw down to her. Again she left the two women alone.
Xena took a small hand in her own and kissed the palm. Then holding the hand and rubbing a calloused thumb across the fingers she spoke to her soul-mate for what could be the last time.
"Gabrielle, I have to do this. I know you don`t like it, but you being safe is the only thing that matters to me now. I wish I could have told you goodbye. I wish I could have told you how much I love you. But I think you know that, don`t you." She brushed her own lips with the fingers of the bard. "If I can`t come back for you, know I`ll always be in your heart, and you`ll always be in mine." She bent and kissed the bard`s lips." Goodbye, my love."
She tucked Gabrielle`s hand inside the blanket and then quickly climbed the ladder. She didn`t look back, for if she had she would never have gotten out of that cellar.
Xena closed the trap door and turned to Alyssia.
"You`d know an Amazon if you saw one, wouldn`t you?" The warrior said.
"If any turn up, let them take her. Anyone else, deny all knowlege of her. Anyone, hear?"
"I won`t let anyone take her Xena."
Xena nodded and looked towards the forest. "Time I was going." This not much more than a whisper. She turned to Alyssia. "Tell her...." Xenas throat constricted.
"Xena, I`m sure she already knows all she needs to know. Just hurry back to her."
Xena nodded tightly and ran quickly towards the faint sound of baying hounds.
Mastacles had bellowed in fury when the hounds lost the scent at the edge of the river. The head tracker, trying to control a wildly pulling hound, shouted at him from the rivers edge.
"Looks like they crossed here." The hound was trying to pull him in the opposite direction.
"Damn you, you flea ridden excuse for a ........"
"What`s the matter with the beast?" Said Mastacles.
"I don`t know, probably picked up the scent of a squirrel." The tracker hit the dog with a short whip.
"No," yelled the warlord. "Let it track."
They let the dog lead them a small way from the river bank. The light was failing, but they could just make out the indentations of two bodies in the soft mud. Then one set of tracks, deep, as if carrying something, or someone, lead into the forest.
"They`re on foot." Said the tracker. "Look here, two sets of footprints. There were two people standing here. Then one picked the other up."
"So." Mastacles face twisted into a grin. "The Amazon Queen lives."
The head tracker peered into the forest, the dog straining at the leash. "We can`t go into this in the failing light."
Mastacles looked around him and realised that the townsfolk had given up and returned to Tarynth. He was now left with only three men.
Shaking his head he said to the tracker,"You`re right. It`s the same for Xena, and she has an extra burden. We`ll camp here and start out again at first light."
First light came quickly.
Ephiny knew Tarynth well. She had lead the main assault on the city, and it was her tactics that had ultimately brought about the downfall of the warlord, Mastacles.
When she recieved word from a very nervous young man that Mastacles had Gabrielle the terrible battle had replayed in her mind in one bright flash of horror. She wanted, there and then, to take the whole Amazon nation and reduce the city to ashes once more.
She`d lost a lot of good friends during those six awful days. Mastacles had been running a slave business. Amazons, it seemed were desirable material for the slave market. A raiding party had taken twelve Amazon warriors back to Tarynth.
Melosa had sent Ephiny with a small contingent of Amazons to give Mastacles an ultimatum. Release the Amazons or face a war.
Mastacles killed one of the youngest captives and hung her body from the gates to the city. The war started that day. It lasted six days. The whole Amazon nation taking part. Mastacles had underestimated the strength of the Amazon. "They`re just women!" He had told his people on the eve of the battle.
It was this battle, above anything else, that turned the Amazons into a reclusive, suspicious people. Untill, of course, Xena helped them find peace.
Ephiny read the note carefully. If Xena`s plan had worked she would have gotten Gabrielle out of the city. The note said two Amazons, who would she take?
She called Eponin and Solari to her.
"What is it?" Said a breathless Solari.
"Mastacles." She said, screwing up the parchment. "He`s kidnapped Gabrielle."
"Then we fight." Eponin turned to call the rest of the Amazons.
"No, Xena says just three of us should go. If she`s done what she wanted to she should have the Queen out of there by now. " She looked at the two warriors infront of her. "I need one of you to stay here."
Eponin and Solari glared at each other.
"Solari, you come with me, Eponin, you`re in charge." Ephiny cast on eye over the rest of the warriors.
"Raega, you come with us." The young warrior glowed with pride.
Ephiny put a hand on Eponin`s shoulder. "I`m sorry. I need someone here I can trust."
"I understand." Eponin shrugged, then gave Solari a brief hug. "Be careful."
Ephiny nodded and lead the two warriors that would accompany her to one of the huts.
The sound of the hounds was getting louder. The sun had been up for a few candlemarks.
Xena had backtracked away from the cabin, back towards the noise. She had to let the hounds get her scent and follow that, so she would have to get pretty close.
She had tried to banish all thoughts of the bard from her mind, so she could concentrate on the task at hand.
However, the bards face kept coming back to her minds eye, and, more than once, she had to stop when her eyesight became blurred with tears.
She stopped, and listened, they were close now. She would let them catch sight of her, then lead them in the opposite direction to her bard.
"Why Xena, fancy meeting you here."
Xena whirled to the sound of the familiar voice.
The God of War smiled at his one time prodigy. "Got yourself in a mess again, I see."
"Ares, I don`t have time for this." Xena turned her back on him, scanning the dense forest for signs of movement.
"So, where`s the brat?" The God sat on a fallen tree trunk.
Xena turned slowly to face him, then closed the distance between them until she was right in his face.
"Stay away from her, stay out of this."
"What do you mean?"
"I can`t pass up this opportunity. You`re in it up to here." Ares brought his hand up to his chin. "I`ll get you both out."
"In exchange for me." Xena shook her head and turned away from him again.
"You read my mind."
"No way, it`s not going to happen."
"You have no choice Xena. Either you come back to me and both live, or you both die. Simple." Xena turned to face him once more. "If I came back to you I`d lose her anyway. I can get us out of this. Just stay away from her."
Ares smiled. "That`s the problem Xena, I can`t stay out of it. I can`t resist you, you see."
With that the God of war waved his arm and Xena was thrown back into a tree with great force. The God winced when he heard her head crack against the tree trunk. He watched her slide down the tree and crouched by her side.
Xena was struggling against unconsciousness. The God of wars` face swam before her. "Dont hurt her," was all she managed before slipping into darkness.
"Now the fun starts Xena."
The God vanished just as two men almost fell over the prone body of the warrior. The first one started to approach the woman.
"No!" said the second. "It could be a trick."
He lifted a small horn to his lips and blew it.
Within moments Mastacles had appeared and looked down at the body before him.
"Is she alive?"
One of the men felt her neck for a pulse, he nodded.
"Well, looks like today is our lucky day."
Ephiny shivered. The last time she had been in these woods was just before the battle of Tarynth. She could hear the sounds of baying hounds, and gesturing to the two Amazons with her she started moving towards the sound.
Xena was standing. She didn`t know how she was standing, but she was sure she was upright. There was a pain. Where was it? She couldn`t pin it down. Ah, there. In the back of her head. Suddenly cold water was thrown in her face. Her eyes snapped open.
One eye glared back at her. Mastacles.
She had been tied, standing, to a tree. Thick rope was wound round her waist and shoulders, her hands pulled painfully behind the tree and secured with manacles and chain.
Her sword, armour and chakram had been removed, and lay out of reach. Mastacles paced in front of her, a long thin dagger in his hand.
"Xena, you`re back."
Xena stared at him, he slowly came into focus.
"Now then, you know what it is I want. Make this easy on yourself." He closed the space between them, the tip of the dagger raised her chin. "Where`s the girl."
Xena glared at the warlord, clenched her teeth and gave him a lopsided smile.
"Very well." He said.
He plunged the dagger into her left side. Not below her ribs, but to the side. So that when he ripped it sideways it left a bloody gash in her side.
Xena gasped at the pain, Mastacles stood back, enjoying the look on the warrior`s face.
"That won`t kill you. Not yet anyway, but you`ll bleed to death unless it`s treated."
A slap across the face.
"Where`s the Amazon?"
Again the silent gaze.
Another slap. Xena`s head bounced back off the tree. The wound on the back of her head opened and she felt warm blood running down her back.
A punch this time, on the dagger wound. The pain was awful. Mastacles fist was covered in blood. The blood also ran down her left side and onto her thigh.
She knew she was losing blood quickly. She was starting to get light headed. The thought occured to her that maybe she was losing blood quicker than Mastacles thought. Maybe she would die soon, and deprive him of his sport again. But if she could just hang on a while longer. Keep the warlord busy.
Maybe it would give Gabrielle enough time to get away.
Xena raised her head slowly just in time to see the fist heading for the side of her head.
Her head snapped sideways, she couldn`t ride the blow. A small cut opened above her left eyebrow. Again Mastacles punched her in the side, on the knife wound.
"Xena, you don`t want to die, here, like this. just tell me what I want to know." Mastacles lifted her face. With the last ounce of strength she had she spat in his face.
The warlord bellowed in rage. He lost any composure he had and beat the bound woman mercilessly. Taking his sword from the scabbard at his hip he raised it above his head.
He watched as Xena slowly raised her bruised and bleeding face to him, she said."I win."
"Die!" He screamed.
The sword didn`t descend, however.
The trackers looked from the woman to the warlord.
His sword was still held above his head, but he stood like a statue. Then they saw the arrow protruding from his neck. Mastacles slowly sank to the ground, dead before he hit the forest floor. Two more men fell, before the three Amazons jumped from the trees.
Very quickly Ephiny put her sword to the throat of the one remaining man.
"You`re from Tarynth?" She said.
The man nodded tightly.
"Then go back there. Tell the people Mastacles is dead. The Amazons don`t want war, but if the people still want it they shall have it. This time we`ll leave no-one to rebuild the city. You got that?"
The man nodded again and disappeared into the trees.
Ephiny turned back to Xena.
Solari was searching through Mastales` garments for the keys to the manacles, she found them and handed them to Ephiny.
Ephiny undid the manacles, then, as Solari and Raega held the warrior, cut the ropes.
The three Amazons slowly lowered the warrior to the floor.
Xena was barely conscious and in obvious pain.
"Solari, get something to hold over the wound, we have to stop the bleeding."
Solari went to one of the dead men and tore a strip from his clothing, she held it to the wound on Xenas side.
The blue eyes fluttered open.
"No Xena, it`s Ephiny."
The blue eyes began to drift shut again. Ephiny gently tapped Xenas face. "Xena, where is Gabrielle?"
"Yes Xena, where is she, is she safe?"
"Safe." Xena was slipping into uncosciousness.
"Where is she?"
"North......cabin....nice wo....woman. She looked.........after us."
Ephiny turned to the two Amazons.
"You go, find the cabin, take the Queen back to Amazonia. I`ll follow with Xena as soon as I can."
Solari didn`t move when the younger Amazon started to walk away. "You don`t think she`s got much longer, do you?"
Ephiny shook her head. "She`s dying. I`ll stay with her, find Gabrielle, take her home."
Solari nodded and followed Raega as they headed north.
Gabrielle had woken with a start. Her eyes were opened, but she could see nothing.
Her arms were restricted and she quickly realised that she was tightly wrapped in a blanket. She had no idea how long she had been asleep. She tried to remember. Xena had been talking to her. What about?
She was going to lead the hunting party away. That was it. She had to stop her.
She extricated herself from the blanket and stood on wobbly legs. Suddenly realising how weak she was she shot her hand out to try and find something to lean against. Her hand found the ladder.
Slowly climbing it toward the small chink of light she saw, she came to the trap door. There was something heavy holding it down.
Balling her hand into a fist she banged on the door.
"Xena! Xena I`m fine now. Don`t leave me in here, let me go with you."
A sudden wave of nausea hit her and she slowly descended the ladder. She sat heavily on the floor and buried her head in her hands.
A noise above her made her look up, she squinted into the light. There were two figures peering down at her, she couldn`t make them out against the blue sky.
She stood, swayed a little, and started to climb the ladder, taking the offered hand when it came in reach.
When she reached the top of the ladder she threw her arms around the Amazon. "Did Xena find you?"
"No, we found her."
Gabrielle looked over Solari`s shoulder. "Where is she?" Then back to Solari`s face.
Gabrielle immediately saw the pain there. "Solari, where is she?"
The Amazon lowered her eyes to the ground. "She`s badly hurt, Ephiny`s with her."
"Then we must go to her."
"No Gabrielle, Ephiny said you were to go back to Amazonia with us."
"I can`t, I can`t leave her. If she`s hurt I want to be with her."
"She`s not just hurt Gabrielle, she was dying. I`m sorry, I have my orders from Ephiny. I have to take you back." Solari hated herself when she saw the pain in the bard`s eyes.
"I won`t go. I want to see her. I overrule Ephiny, you know that Solari."
Solari closed her eyes, she was in a no win situation.
"Gabrielle, by the time we get to her she could be gone. Do you really want to see her like that?"
"What happened?" Gabrielle`s eyes were cold.
"Mastacles caught her somehow."
"What did he do to her?" The voice flat and emotionless.
"Gabrielle, you really don`t want to know."
Solari had never seen her Queen like this. All the warmth that was Gabrielle was gone.
"He stuck a dagger in her side and let her bleed."
"Was she dead when you left?"
"Then there`s a chance." Gabrielle looked around her. "Alyssia," she walked across to the woman who was talking to the younger Amazon.
"Alyssia, I`ll never be able to thank you enough."
"Gabrielle, go find your warrior, she`s a strong and wonderful woman."
Gabrielle smiled her thanks. "I will find her, and we`ll be back one day, I promise."
Alyssia pulled the young woman into an embrace feeling her wince slightly as her arms made contact with the welts on her back.
"Gabrielle, will you be alright?"
"I`ll be fine," she turned to the two Amazons, "come on."
Ephiny held Xena tightly. She knew the warrior didn`t have much longer. There was nothing she could do. Xena had lost too much blood. She held the rag against the wound, but it still bled. She knew she couldn`t carry the large woman out of the forest, and her only hope lay back at the Amazon village in the healers hut.
A noise made her look from the pale face to the forest beyond.
Three figures emerged from the trees.
"Solari! What did I tell you?" She cried seeing Gabrielle running towards them.
Gabrielle threw herself to Xena`s side and Ephiny allowed her to pull the fallen warrior from her arms.
"Xena. Xena please, open your eyes." Gabrielle`s tears were flowing freely.
Ephiny still held the rag to Xena`s side.
Gabrielle brushed back the hair from Xena`s face and wiped away the blood with her fingers.
"Ephiny, we have to do something."
Ephiny couldn`t look at the pain in her Queen`s face. "There`s nothing we can do." She shook her head.
"We need to get her back to the village, but we couldn`t get her there quickly enough, even with all of us carrying her."
The bard`s eyes snapped down to the pale face below her. "Xena?"
Xena`s eyes were open, though unfocussed. The warrior lifted a shaky arm, her hand went behind the bard`s head, her fingers entwining themselves in the golden hair.
With the last of her strength she pulled Gabrielle`s face down to hers, the bard`s lips to her own. Slowly she kissed her.
"Love you." It was nothing more than a whisper.
"Xena, I love you too. Hold on, please hold on."
Gabrielle looked up at Solari with a tear stained face. "Solari, whistle."
Solari frowned her confusion."What?"
Solari did as she was asked.
"Again." Another inquisative look. "Please."
After a few more whistles they heard it. A crashing sound, then there she was, to Gabrielle the most beautiful sight she`s ever seen.
Gabrielle pulled Xena to a sitting position. "Ephiny, we need to get pressure on this wound. Get a belt or something."
Ephiny pulled a belt from one of the dead men and some more cloth.
Placing it against the wound they tightened the belt until it held fast.
Gabrielle looked up to the big war horse. "Argo down."
Argo lowered herself allowing the amazons to seat Xena in the saddle, Gabrielle climbed up behind her.
Wrapping her arms around the warrior and taking the reigns she turned back to Ephiny.
"Try to keep up, I`ll have to keep going, though."
"Gabrielle, are you strong enough to do this?"
"I`ll have to be Eph, for her sake."
With that Gabrielle spurred Argo forward, the three amazons following in her wake.
The call was relayed from the outposts. The Queen was coming, and the healer, Saras, was to prepare. Saras didn`t know the nature of the emergency or who was injured, but she readied her hut for any eventuality.
The huge war horse suddenly thundered into the village. Half a dozen Amazons rushed forward to take the uncoscious warrior from the horses back.
They carried her to the healers hut under the watchful gaze of Saras. Before entering the hut Saras looked back at Argo.
The Queen hadn`t moved. She approached the girl, then saw Ephiny and the two other Amazons run breathlessly into the village.
"See to the Queen." Saras said to Ephiny. Ephiny walked round to the side of Argo. She looked up at Gabrielle, the bard was staring straight ahead.
Gabrielles eyes slowly closed, her body slumped forward, then sideways. Ephiny caught her before she hit the ground and carried her limp body to the healers hut.
Saras was bent over Xena when Ephiny got to the hut.
"Over there." Saras said without looking up. "Just exhaustion I think."
Ephiny took Gabrielle to a pallet and lay her down. Then taking a cloth she dipped it in water and held it to her Queens forehead.
They had already gotten Xena out of her leathers and were stitching the wound.
Ephiny walked over to the healer. "Will she be alright?"
"The blood loss is bad. But this is Xena. Anyone else would have been dead by now. If she`s survived this long, she may well pull through."
Saras bent to inspect the cut above Xenas eyebrow. "That won`t need a stitch." Then she found the cut on the back of her head. "But that will." Turning the warrior on her side she stitched the wound, then held a dressing against it and lowered her head back onto the pillow.
She spoke to her two helpers. "Clean her up, and try to get some water in her. Put some cold compresses on the bruises." She then turned her attention to the bard.
"She`s exhausted, do you know what happened?"
"No, we haven`t had time to talk about it."
Saras began to examine her Queen.
"Arrow wound, looks clean. She`s been beaten, nasty cut up here." Saras pointed out the cut on the bard`s forehead to Ephiny. Saras turned Gabrielle so that she lay on her stomach. Both women drew a breath when they saw the whip marks.
"Whip salve." Said Saras, immediately one of her assistants appeared with the preparation.
"You know," said Saras, "she was virtually unconscious when she got here." Saras spread the whip salve on the bard`s wounds. "I don`t know how she did it."
The healer finished and wiped her hands on some cloth.
"Will Gabrielle be able to take losing her?"
Ephiny shrugged. "Let`s hope we don`t have to find out."
"We`ll let them both sleep. You too Ephiny." Ephiny smiled at her friend.
"Yes I`ll sleep, watch them for me."
It was dark when Gabrielle awoke. She found she was lying on her stomach, she tried to move.
Every muscle screamed in protest. She realised she`d been operating on adrenalin alone when she brought Xena in. Now she felt weak and ill. She needed water.
Saras noticed the movement and was at her side in an instant.
"Water." Gabrielle managed to croak.
Saras brought a waterskin to her, helped her roll over and sit up. Gabrielle took the waterskin from her but didn`t have the strength to lift it. "Here, let me help." Saras held the skin while Gabrielle drank.
"I think she`s going to be fine. There`s no fever, she weak and pale, but her breathing`s steady, as is her heartbeat."
"I want to hear it."
"You are staying in bed."
"No." Gabrielle swung her legs over the side of the pallet. "I want to hear her heart."
Saras knew there was no arguing with her Queen. She helped her across the hut to where the warrior lay. Pulling a chair up Gabrielle sat beside her love. She watched her face for long moments, then watched the steady rise and fall of her chest beneath the blankets.
She traced the dark bruise on her friends left cheek, and the cut above her eye.
Then she lowered her head to the warriors chest and listened to the steady heart beat.
She felt the pressure of a hand on her head.
"That belongs to you." A weak voice.
When Gabrielle looked into her loves eyes her own were filled with tears. "And my heart is yours, always."
She took the warrior`s hand and placed it on her own chest.
"You`re everything to me, Xena."
She kissed the warriors palm.