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.
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