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The archer squeezed his eyes shut and dropped to his knees. Raven could do nothing to hold him up on his feet. The blow she had delivered to his sternum had shocked his heart and lungs and he was having a desperate time of breathing. His hand clutched at her arm in his fear of not being able to draw a breath... his eyes bugged out of their sockets.
Xena was retrieving her chakram from the dead soldier's skull while Raven watched the archer on his knees in front of her. Neither one of them were prepared for Ciaus's reaction to the archer being left alive.
Ciaus walked deliberately on a path of vengeance to where the archer knelt. He held a bow with an arrow knocked and ready. The murderous look in his eyes and the grim set of his lips caused Raven to backed away from the archer by a single step, but Xena wrenched her chakram loose finally and then stood in between the archer and Ciaus as he got closer. Neither woman spoke.
Xena waited for Ciaus to come to a stop. The closer he came, she knew her chances of grabbing an arrow in flight were reduced. To her relief, he stopped his march towards the archer a few yards away. She was still in the mood to fight and she was finding it hard to turn it off even with Ciaus.
"Are they all dead?" she asked him after a moment.
"Three of them killed in their sleep..." Ciaus said evenly in a dark, low voice. He was fighting for control of his emotions and the outcome of the battle decided whether or not the arrow was released. His injured arm shook with the intensity of his anger, threatening the restraint he had on releasing the arrow. His line of vision remained along the arrow shaft pointed at the kneeling man, right through Xena.
"You can't kill him like this, Ciaus," Xena cautioned him, trying to soothe him.
"He killed my friends in their sleep!" he said in the same deadly tone. "Now, get out of my way!"
"Has he asked for quarter?" Ciaus asked anxiously.
"He can't talk right now," Raven said.
"He can nod," Ciaus pointed out. "Ask him."
Xena sighed. She was covered in blood and gore and the coppery smell of it was starting to get to her in the closed in heat of the forest. She didn't need this from Ciaus now. She stepped aside to confront the man kneeling at Raven's feet.
When Xena stepped aside, the gasping man saw Ciaus in his full threatening fury... saw his face, the arrow pointed at him and the line of sight was clear now that Xena had moved aside.
The only defense he could see was the dagger still laying beside him and he lunged for it. The archer rolled to his side, picking the dagger up as he continued to roll. Raven watched with amusement at his futile attempt at arming himself while Xena simply rolled her eyes.
"Put it down!" Ciaus warned him. His line of sight had remained fixated on the pathetic archer and the arrow still remained knocked.
The archer became aware of what he had done and his desperation to live drove him to hysteria. The whites of his eyes predominated his face which itself was set in a grimace of primeval terror. He stared at the dagger as if it were a venomous snake.
"Put it down," Ciaus said again, this time much more calmly.
The archer was immobilized with fear. He lost his bodily functions and didn't even notice. Whimpers came from him as his ability to breathe returned.
Xena approached him slowly. There was something about this man that told her that he didn't deserve this. She moved between Ciaus and the archer and knelt down.
"Give that to me," she said softly, holding her hand out. Without her height predominating her appearance, the archer seemed to focus on Xena's proximity to him and listen to her voice.
"We won't kill you... now give me the dagger."
Xena had seen this before... soldiers broken after battle and so deep in shock that they barely seemed human. This archer, like the girl they found at the camp, was losing his ability to function for himself. She knew that a mind could shut down at the disbelief of what it had just been through. She had been pretty close to that herself at one time.
Xena studied the archer for a moment, reached out, and took the dagger. Once he was relieved of the dagger, the archer collapsed to the side on the forest floor. His hysteria overwhelmed him as he broke into sobs, uncaring of his situation.
The bloodied warrior arose and began to walk to camp. She stopped beside Ciaus and held the dagger out to him knowing that he would have to unarm the bow to accept it. Their eyes met and Xena could see the relief in his.
"I thought you were better than that... I'm glad to see I was right."
Ciaus shook his head and snorted. "You don't know how much..."
Xena place her hand on his shoulder and felt him sag at her touch.
"Yes... I *do* know..."
Gabrielle felt and heard the hot, dry wind roar in her ears as the women pushed on. Once again, Roses proved herself to be a true leader as she carried her awkward rider towards the horizon that rose up darkly in the distance. The bard sighed inwardly, knowing that the rise indicated trees... tall, shady trees... and water to swim in and drink. Gods, let there be a stream or a spring to cool off in and scrub the dusty grime stuck to her sweaty body.
On this second day of riding she began to feel the effects of the sun on her exposed skin. Her tanned arms were reddened and the back of her neck felt like she had slept too close to the campfire again. She drifted in her thoughts to Xena quietly stoking the fire, unable to sleep, and keeping a vigil over her during her deepest slumber. Gabrielle felt her heart do a little squeeze as she recalled how safe she felt when she was with the warrior.
How far to go? How much further? How long? Are you safe, Xena? Please be safe until I can find you.
Loatian was pacing back and forth in front of the nook impatiently. He could see Ciaus and Raven guiding the archer back to the carnage that was suppose to be their safe haven for the day, but that had all been taken away. Xena saw Loatian first as she entered the camp ahead of the others, and her first impression of him was that he was angry... not frightened or worried.
"You look like you could take on Ares all by yourself," Xena said to him as she passed by on her way to check on Katrina.
"I felt... helpless," he explained quickly, his words choking him... it had appeared that he wanted to say something else but had changed his mind. "A wonderful thing has happened only to have *this* take it all away." He pointed at the dead soldiers.
"What wonderful thing?" Xena asked dubiously as she stood beside Katrina. She was still looking at Loatian who strolled into the nook casually. His eyes now smiled brightly as he looked back and forth between Xena and Katrina.
Xena felt a hand weakly flop across the toe of her boot. She looked down and a slow smile spread across her lips.
Raven dropped to her knees at Katrina's side... this time she would not be pushed away or be removed by Xena or Ciaus no matter what. She took Katrina's hand in hers and she raised it to her lips as she bent low, looking into the puffy eyes of her lover. The swelling had made her blind and Raven realized that Katrina couldn't see her. She didn't even know if Katrina was even trying to open her eyes. Her heart squeezed hard as she searched for the words to let Katrina know it was her.
"We have many years still to be enjoyed," she said weakly. Tears escaped her and she kissed the fingers she held against her lips as she spoke. Several seconds passed and there was no response... and then... fingertips moved and brushed the lips that spoke with the familiar voice and breathed the familiar breath.
Raven laughed and touched Katrina's hand to her tears.
Xena and Ciaus sat crossed legged on the ground and watched the proceedings with apprehension. When Katrina acknowledged her awareness of Raven, Xena and Ciaus exchanged satisfied grins. Xena glanced at Ciaus a second time quickly and saw the deep sadness in his eyes. She marveled at how he could be happy for someone else despite his own deep grief.
Xena reached over and put her hand on Ciaus's shoulder... she noted that his minor wound was turning into a major bleeder and made a mental note to have a better look at it.
"I'll change her bandages, and then I'll look at your arm again."
Ciaus mused for a moment without returning her look. "I should look after my friends now. It'll only take..."
"No, Ciaus," Xena said firmly but softly. "We'll do that together... all of us. Nobody is alone here... we're all in this together."
"Even that murdering archer?" he asked through slightly clenched teeth.
Xena chuckled wryly. "No. He may have a problem finding a friend right now. These men were not hunting for us. My guess is that they were a scouting party looking for a passable route to Athens for the army and they just stumbled upon us."
"Then, where are their horses?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. And then she scowled.
"Good question and I don't like the possibilities...."
Xena rode Argo ahead of Ciaus as they made their way back along the foot paths that the soldiers had taken. The trail that they left in their wake caused Xena and Ciaus to cast glances at each other more often the further they road along.
"They weren't shy," Xena observed. "They were in a hurry."
Ciaus stopped his horse. Xena no longer heard his horse moving and pulled Argo to a halt. She turned in the saddle and saw Ciaus sitting with his face buried in his hands as he sat atop his horse.
"They're all dead, Xena... all my friends are dead... they trusted me and now they're dead. Tethian has killed the two men I sent back to the camp. They're dead."
"Ciaus, you don't know..."
"Stop it, Xena!! Don't patronize me. You've been thinking it, too."
Xena studied him for a moment and then nodded to him when he finally looked up from the shelter of his hands at the warrior for confirmation. She heard a strangled sound catch in his breath... so soft... he had barely managed to contain his anguish. She knew that he wasn't accustomed to losing people close to him like this. As a warrior, she had grown accustomed to favorite lieutenants not returning from battle to celebrate in her war room after a victory.
"This invasion has touched us all... mortal and god alike..." she murmured.
"No... the gods are still using us as pawns."
Xena thought a moment. "This is different, Ciaus... the gods are being used as pawns as well. They are all at risk of losing their connection to us. For some of them... that wouldn't be so bad for *us*. But, we cannot risk losing Aphrodite, or Athena, or Artemis... Apollo... Hermes.... the list goes on."
"And if you lost your friend... Gabrielle.... how would you feel about the gods then?"
Xena turned in her saddle and urged Argo to continue through the tree. "I wouldn't 'feel' at all, Ciaus. All that I am would die with her."
They carried on in silence, their horses moving no faster than a man on foot would have been capable of. After almost an hour the trees began to thin out and get smaller, Xena halted Argo again.
"Their trail widens out here. They were spread out when they entered the forest."
"I'll wager that just ahead is where they dismounted," Ciaus said softly.
The unspoken question of 'where are their horses' was making their hearts beat faster. Xena felt her adrenalin surge and a heightened awareness coursed through her like a shock from touching something hot. She felt the prickles go all the way to the crown of her scalp.
They were in trouble.
Gabrielle lay back in the shallow stream and let the cool water run its course over her and around her and through her. Even with her clothes on, she could feel the water rush against her skin simply because of its coolness on her overheated body. Beside her, Roses stood knee deep in the mountain run off and drank her fill with gusto. They had been walking for hours and the horse had cooled down but her thirst still needed to be slaked.
The bard opened her eyes as she floated with her butt resting on the bottom of the stream. She studied the seemingly huge beast beside her as it stood so very close. Roses soft brown eyes glanced at her rider every few moments to make sure that all was well and that the laying down position was not because of injury. Roses concern made the bard smile.
"Ephany should have named you Xena," she murmured to the mare. From under the water Gabrielle brought her hand up under the horse's submerged chin and held it with her fingers as she drank. The sensation of wet chin whiskers and the firm lip muscles as they sucked in the water thrilled her.
"Careful, bard, or I'll start to think you've lost your fear of horses," Ephany teased as she approached Gabrielle from the opposite side.
Even though her ears were partially underwater, Gabrielle could still make out Ephany's muffled words. She rolled her eyes as the warrior sat down in the water beside her.
"The army has already been through this area. There are wagon and horse tracks by the hundreds and the game is gone. There's several rabbit burrows near hear and they've been picked clean... dug apart with shovels and raided. It hasn't been too long ago, either. Further along the banks is some slag from a forage."
"Do you think that hunting parties will come this far north again?"
Ephany nodded. "There's a village just to the south... a fair sized one... and there's a probability that they will send the army supplies."
Gabrielle sat up and looked to the sun. "We better get moving if we want to gather information and then set up camp away from the village."
Ephany stood up in the river. She was naked and unashamed of her strong muscular body. Gabrielle smiled and shook her head at the sight.
"What?" the warrior asked.
"I just notice... things... now that Xena and I are lovers."
Ephany arched an eyebrow, "And I thought you only had lusty eyes for the Warrior Princess."
Gabrielle sat up suddenly, "No, wait... I meant that," she shrugged as she paused, searching for the words, "well, I mean that... um..."
Finally, Ephany laughed and extended her hand to help the bard up. When Gabrielle was standing and they were relatively eye to eye, the warrior smiled at Gabrielle's consternation.
"I know what you mean, Princess... it's quite all right to appreciate another woman's physique. I know where your heart is, and where your mind is when you 'looked'."
The bard sagged visibly. "This is hard being away from her after... being so... intimate... with her. I look for her everywhere and in everyone. Sometimes, I think I hear her voice. When I looked at you just a moment ago, it felt like if I tried hard enough, I could imagine you were her. When I caught myself thinking that, I think I finally understood soldiers who have affairs even though they have wives and children at home."
The smile faded from the warriors lips but not her eyes. "Sometimes, warriors take comfort wherever they can find it. Sex can make you feel alive even though you are facing death at every turn. Friendships sometimes become much more when there is death hanging about and you are scared and lonely."
The bard looked into Ephany's smiling eyes. She had so much to learn about loving a warrior... more than the hard lesson she had learned in her mistake of marrying Perdicus.
Xena held up her hand for silence... no questions. Steely blue eyes darted from point to point of her surroundings. Nothing was coming in clearly... she couldn't read anything. These were quiet bastards. Why couldn't she feel anything except the cold dread as sweat trickled down her back??
Off to her left, movement. She looked sharply and saw nothing but she knew *something* had to be there. Xena's eyes searched as the dread deepened.
Only one way out... head first with both arms swinging.
She gathered herself to dismount Argo as aggressively as she could from a stopped position... and then movement caught her attention again to her left only slightly ahead this time.
She began her war cry but a crossbow bolt strangled it before she could let loose. Instead it erupted as a squeal of anguish and surprise as the bolt struck her in her right side and hit a rib. The wet crack sounded loud in the silence... louder than the impact of the bolt going through her leather armor and into her flesh.
Eyes wide, she stared down at the offending protrusion. It didn't make sense to her. Why didn't she feel it coming. Why didn't she 'feel' the shooters presence? This shouldn't have happened... oh, Gabrielle.... oh, gods, I need you..
Mercifully, Xena fell to the ground before the pain registered in her shocked mind.
Ephany arrived back in the Amazon camp just shortly before nightfall. She had a grim look about her and she trembled from deep within. The other Amazons stood about waiting for her to calm herself so that she could speak. Gabrielle solemnly approached her and took the reins from her hands.
"They took eight women and one boy from this village as 'hostages' after they killed three villagers to make their point," she said quietly.
Gabrielle handed the reins off to an Amazon and placed her hand on Ephany's arm. There was nothing she could do about the abductions, and even though it pained her she shut the thoughts out and concentrated on their mission.
"What about supplies?"
Ephany pulled away from the bard and searched close at hand for a waterskin. She found her own close to where she had staked out her little patch of ground for sleeping. They had arrived and set up near the village just after high sun.
"They are sending out 11 wagons. They've been preparing them ever since the army passed through here two weeks ago."
Gabrielle joined Ephany as the warrior sat on the green grass and stretched out her legs. She took several long swallows of water before returning her attention to Gabrielle and the other Amazons.
"Did you get close enough to the wagons to see what's on them?" the bard wanted to know.
Ephany nodded. "There's no soldiers in town even though the army left behind 8 wagon for them to fill. The wagons are loaded with smoked meats and winter stored vegetables. These villagers have literally cleaned themselves out of food in hopes of getting their people back."
"They believe that?"
"They think that the soldiers meeting them halfway will have their people with them." The warrior shook her head in disbelief.
"Then we have to make sure they're not right first before we interfere with this supply shipment." Gabrielle thought a moment. "What else is in those supplies?"
"Iron, bronze and copper bars from their forges. The army's smiths can make weapons and armor at their leisure with that... remember the slag along the riverbank?"
Gabrielle nodded as she looked off towards the setting sun. "When are the wagons being shipped out?"
"Tomorrow... they are meeting the soldiers at high sun along the southern coastal road... about 20 miles north of the cull-du-sac you said the army was stationed at. I know that area... you could hide an army twice that size in there if they came in by sea."
Gabrielle frowned, "What?"
"I'm saying that more invaders could have landed there and joined the forces already there.... it's not like this hasn't been done before. It's rough landing because of the currents and breakers but it can be done at low tide when the rocky beach is exposed. At high tide the surge against the larger rocks is too powerful."
The bard squeezed her eyes shut as she took in the factors to the growing equation. The only military strategies she had learned were from Xena, and the more complicated ones, Xena wouldn't talk about... it was part of her past. She suddenly felt tired... tired beyond mere sleep deprivation, and they were about to experience more of that now.
"Let's saddle up, then... we have about 25 miles of riding ahead of us if we want to intercept those soldiers."
Gabrielle began to get to her feet as the other Amazons disbursed to break their barely used camp. Some of them had gotten some sleep while Ephany had ventured into town, but not much. Ephany stopped the bard and studied her face.
"You're thinking of getting back to Xena, aren't you?"
"Among other things, Eph. I've never been part of an ambush quite like this." Gabrielle tried to smile convincingly but dread was creeping into her heart. "Those villagers think that they are getting their people back with those supplies... what do you think they'll do when they get to the exchange site and find dead soldiers? Go home?"
"We'll deal with that when it happens, Gabrielle... right now we have to stop those soldiers from getting the supplies. Any way we can possibly weaken them, even slightly, before they reach Athens, will help the cause."
Ciaus scrambled to unfold the crumbled body of the warrior princess. The man in black leather and his cryptic words were forgotten as he rolled Xena onto her back to assess the damage and her condition. Gods, he prayed, let it be a broken rib and nothing else. He began to unbuckle her armor and unlace her leathers after he pushed her up onto her left side. Once everything was undone he rolled her onto her back again.
So much blood.
He pulled the leathers down and ripped the shift she wore underneath. The sounds of being alone filled his senses and he felt a panic rising from his soul. He knelt close to her lips and placed his cheek near them to gage her breathing. He was almost satisfied when Xena's hand came up in the form of a claw and she wrapped her taloned fingers around his larynx. She pushed him back far enough to get a good look at him with those angry, murderous eyes before her eyelids fluttered and she succumbed to the darkness again.
Ciaus trembled to realize how close he came to death at the hands of the warrior. He suddenly felt like a little boy... alone and in need. His companion... no, his *friend*... was in need of his help and he had no way of helping her on his own. He had to get her back to the camp.
The bolt was close to the surface. It had hit dead on the rib and had stopped at the break. Ciaus worked the bolt out of the thin layer of flesh and threw it to the side like it was a poisonous snake. The wound flowed strongly, each beat of Xena's heart pushing her lifeforce out of her body and onto the ground. The only thing Ciaus had to staunch the flow was his own shirt and he knew it wasn't very clean... but first things first.
Ciaus worked with such intensity to staunch the flow of blood that he didn't hear the sound of the soldiers and horses approaching at first, and then when he knew he was within range of arrows or spears it was too late. He never stopped working on Xena until the soldiers had surrounded him as he knelt in the sand beside his friend. When at last he raised his head and shielded his eyes from the sun to look at the soldiers he almost wept.
They had to ride further than anticipated along the coastal road. The road and terrain were flat and travelers were visible from either direction for quite some distance. At high moon they came upon a stretch of road where it wound through the trees and this is where they stopped. It had taken them 6 hours to get here in the dark and they all were exhausted.
"The rest of the road winds through forest all the way down to where Xena is with the others," Gabrielle pointed out. She loosened Roses saddle and began to give her water as the others did the same with their mounts.
So close and yet so far, Gabrielle thought. She hung the waterskin back over the pommel of the saddle and looked south down the road. Her heart squeezed tightly and she could almost see Xena riding Argo slowly towards her along the moonlit road. Gabrielle closed her eyes and envisioned Xena extending a hand down to her and then pulling her up behind her in that ever so familiar way. The bard could feel the warmth... smell the warrior's scent and leather... her mind had triggered sensations that brought the presence of Xena to her in a false reality. Gabrielle barely contained her breathing as she opened her eyes and dispelled the illusion.
"Let's get under cover of the forest and get some rest," Ephany instructed everyone. "We can set up our strategy and positions at first light... it'll give us a couple of hours to prepare."
The moon still hung full over the canopy of the forest. Moonlight provided enough illumination to the shadows so that the Amazons could move west into the shelter of the trees. A cool, salt laden breeze could be felt filtering down from the canopy.
"No fires..." Ephany reminded them all but she really didn't have to.
Everyone of these women had seen combat before and were experts with their weapons as well as hand to hand. They had been trained well in tactics and common sense... and protection. Unknown to the bard was that these women were also assigned to protect her.
"Gabrielle," Ephany called to the bard in the dark.
"Over here," Gabrielle answered back as she wrapped a cloak around herself. Her sunburned arms felt the chill of the night air and her teeth chattered slightly as she talked. She didn't know if it was from the cold or her anticipation. "What is it?"
"Stay with me," the warrior instructed as she joined the bard.
"You aren't going to baby me, are you, Eph?" Gabrielle asked archly. She tried to hold herself erect and dignified as she asked the challenging question but a huge shudder shook her body and rattled some undignified sounds out of her.
Ephany smiled slightly. "No, my friend. You, I and four others will be part of the ground assault. We need to talk."
"Oh," Gabrielle nodded, grateful that she didn't have to defend herself to Ephany the way she did with Xena on these occasions. She was even more grateful that she wouldn't be up in the trees.
The warrior turned her look from Gabrielle so that the bard could absorb the implications to the forthcoming discussion. The ground team had to fight whoever escaped the archers in the trees.
"We need sleep. We'll talk when the watch is changed."
For the first several hours of sleep the Amazons allowed their tired horses to snore as much as they wanted... those that did snore. Towards dawn, the women on watch would gently awaken the animals with caresses and whispers so that any advanced scouting party wouldn't hear them. At the first hint of morning grey, ten of the horses were taken further back into the forest until they were out of earshot of the road. Although the animals were well trained, they couldn't take the chance of their horses calling to the soldiers' mounts out of curiosity as horses sometimes do.
A sleepy Gabrielle stumbled about in the bushes as quietly as she could while she sought out some privacy to relieve herself. Alone and with her thoughts, she realized that her shivering had begun again and that her teeth chattered. Why am I doing that? she admonished herself.
She joined Ephany, Tia and three other Amazons specialized in ground assault. The bard studied the three other Amazons openly as she listened to Ephany and Tia give instructions. Each woman listened quietly before leading their horses away. Gabrielle was left alone with Tia and Ephany.
"Are you okay?" Ephany asked as she noted the bard's chattering teeth and strained expression.
"I *think* so," Gabrielle answered honestly. "I really don't know why I'm doing that."
"You sound like a woodpecker," Tia smiled. She reached a hand out and rubbed Gabrielle's arm warmly, trying to get her to smile, which Gabrielle did but she still sounded like a woodpecker. Unexpectedly, Tia gathered the bard up in her arms and held her reassuringly. Gabrielle welcomed the contact and with a deep sigh of comfort, the chattering of her teeth quieted considerably.
"Thank you, Tia," the bard sighed gratefully.
Tia chuckled softly and brushed back Gabrielle's hair, her fingers finding the braid that Xena had made with her own hair intertwined. She brought the braid up to Gabrielle's vision and smiled.
"Soon," was all she said to her Princess.
The road had a bend in it in order to skirt a large rock outcropping where the trees thinned out. Even though there was sparse brush and saplings to hide in, the best cover was to stay behind the curve of the road behind the rocks and wait until the soldiers came into view. Tia and Ephany were positioned there while Gabrielle positioned herself on the opposite side of the road behind another outcropping of rocks at the furthest point north.
Further south and before the bend, the trees grew close to the road. It was in the trees in this area that ten Amazons positioned themselves high above the road. They wore their battle masks and held their bows at the ready. It was their job to initiate the ambush... the three Amazons to the south would cut off any retreat and ....
Gabrielle's teeth began to chatter violently as she contemplated the upcoming encounter while she lay in wait with Roses. Soon, her whole body joined in and she knew why. It came to her with a start and she knew this wasn't right. None of these soldiers were going to be given a chance to live.
The time was close, she knew. If she could just see down the road... if she just moved a little...
Ephany and Tia exchanged frantic looks when they saw the bard leave her position. They saw her move into the trees and then disappear. This is *not* the time to pull any stunts, Ephany warned Gabrielle silently. She searched the tree line for any sign of her Princess but with resignation she realized that Xena had trained her well.
Gabrielle was up to something.
An Amazon archer waited high in the trees above Gabrielle. She met the bard's eyes, expecting a signal of some sort that she assumed would have been relayed from Ephany. Gabrielle could not see the expression of confusion behind the battle mask when no order was given.
They continued to look at one another when the faint sound of men singing suddenly drifted down the road to their ears.
"Wait for my signal before you attack," Gabrielle said as loudly as she could before she began back the way she had come.
"Up, Roses," she said to her mount.
Roses had been laying down on her side waiting for a signal from her rider. She could feel the bards urgency and she raised herself quickly. She felt Gabrielle latch onto the pommel and swing her leg over the saddle as she pulled the bard up with her.
Gabrielle spun Roses and urged her south along the road. She could hear the singing of the men... and laughter... as she deliberately rode towards an unknown fate. Her teeth stopped chattering and her body calmed its shivering as her mind reached a resolve and brought her to harmony with herself. She knew she had to try it her way before she could attack with the force she knew would be required of her.
Roses obeyed unerringly as the bard used her knees to guide her. She could see the men ahead of her and she knew her course.
Gabrielle pulled her staff from its sheathe on the saddle and held it across her body. She saw the group of men ahead of her at the same time that they saw her and their morning revelry of bawdy songs halted abruptly.
Five men were mounted on horses while another fifteen followed on foot. The five horsemen were seasoned warriors sent to protect the foot soldiers and escort the wagons. One of the horsemen wore the tell tale armband of rank. The foot soldiers were younger... much younger. Gabrielle, even from a distance could see that they were no older than she was... after all, they were only required to drive a wagon on this 'dangerous' mission they had been sent on. Their age, she knew, did not make them any less dangerous with the swords they all carried.
Gabrielle pulled Roses to a stop even with the three Amazon's stationed with their horses far back in the trees. She casually lay her staff across her lap with one end high and the other end lowered. Her face was a mask as she calmly awaited the troops to approach her.
Slowly, the quieted men continued north, the five horsemen in front. They were no fools, and they knew that just one defiant woman in the road like this spelled danger. Cautiously, they stopped just thirty feet short of where the bard waited. Her unwavering stare unnerved the younger men and the leader came forward another few feet even though he looked reluctant about it. He stopped his horse, his eyes meeting the bard's when they weren't darting from one side of the road to the other looking for her backup.
To Gabrielle's surprise, the ranking officer removed his helmet and tipped his head to acknowledge her. He kept his eyes grim but a sly smile played at the corners of his lips.
"You know I can't let you through..." Gabrielle said gravely.
"I recognize an ambush when I see one," he conceded matter-of-factly. "But, I have my orders, and we are, after all, soldiers... and I am going *that* way." He emphasized '*that* way' with a jab of his finger and indicated a path north, right through Gabrielle.
The bard was completely taken aback by the officers calm tone and his manner of speaking. She tensed and Roses shifted under her in anticipation.
"Let me ask you one thing... are you one of the women that attacked our camp a few nights back? Are you one of the ones Tethian is hunting?"
Gabrielle smiled slyly. Two could play this game of polite smiles. She noticed the foot soldiers shifting nervously behind the riders and decided she needn't answer the question because the desired reaction had already been effected.
"Turn back... you will get these young men killed if you insist on having it your way," Gabrielle responded with equal calm. "My guess is that you aren't taking me seriously because I'm a woman?"
Their leader chuckled deep in his throat. This consultation was coming to a close.
"Women have their uses, but it's not for giving ultimatums to soldiers," he grinned maliciously. The four horsemen chortled at his remark and many of the foot soldiers hooted.
The bard straightened her shoulders as her hands tightly gripped her staff until her fingers ached. She nodded her understanding before she looked at the other four horsemen who weren't backing down and then into the faces of the fifteen foot soldiers. About half of the foot soldiers looked like they were ready to drop their weapons and run. She quickly returned her gaze to the officer.
"I can't convince you to give up your plans to get the supply wagons?"
"What do you think?" the horseman on the far left sneered. He drew his sword from the scabbard on his back to make his point. Yes, the consultation was definitely over. Everyone knew it.
"I think..." and the bard emphasized 'think' , "you have underestimated women and your ego will be your undoing."
With that grim challenge, the bard tightened her knees against Roses as adrenalin surged through her. Her heart skipped a beat before it began a rapid pounding and her 'fight or flight' instincts blossomed like an orgasm through her entire body.
Roses backed up rapidly as more swords were drawn and the tighter Gabrielle squeezed with her knees. The reins were already wrapped loosely around the pommel as Gabrielle held her staff in front of her. Roses retreated those few steps before she spun hard and hightailed it north along the road with her rider bent low over her neck.
The horsemen reached high speed faster than Roses did and within a short distance the officer had moved within striking distance of the bard's back. Roses countered the move by trying to cut off the horse and rider. The bard felt the bumping between the two horses and knew Roses was vulnerable. She had made herself the biggest and easiest target. The officer's horse angrily bit at Roses rear flanks until blood began to color its teeth. With desperation, Gabrielle used the end of her staff on the biting horse's head, knocking the animal's head hard several times and down it went.
With a scream the horse landed and rolled. The officer was unable to fully dismount before his horse pinned his leg at an odd angel to his body and his leg snapped. His broken leg remained trapped in the stirrup. Terrified and bewildered, the horse righted itself quickly and tried to flee, dragging the screaming officer on an angle across the paths of the charging soldiers. Gabrielle didn't see one of the other horses trip over the officer and go down hard, spilling it's rider headlong onto the road.
Roses was picking up speed. The ground blurred under her as Gabrielle bent low and looked to her left and right. The three remaining horsemen trailed behind her and she could hear the shouts of the charging foot soldiers. As she rode into the treed area of the road, she was at least satisfied that she had given them a chance to change their minds. She had no regrets as she road past the trees towards Ephany and Tia.
The Amazons hidden in the trees waited... and waited. Gabrielle passed by them at an astonishing pace before raising her staff high over her head. She had almost reached Tia and Ephany before the arrows began to rain down. The three horse men were felled swiftly as every Amazon targeted the threat to their Princess. Their arrow riddled bodies littered the ground just at the bend in the road. It took the charging infantry less than 30 seconds to realize their officer and the four veterans were no longer commanding them... they were on their own.
Two of the foot soldiers fell to arrows at the front of their line and it caused at least half of them to stop dead in their tracks. By then, it was too late... the three Amazons that had hidden in the southern trees emerged from the forest with their horses and closed off any retreat.
Another volley of arrows whooshed down around the men, most of them finding their mark. Five men remained standing and they threw down their swords or knelt in the road while using their swords to shield themselves as they cried out for mercy.
Using ropes, the Amazons quickly rapelled to ground level and drew their swords. Thirteen Amazons wearing battle masks closed in on the frightened and the dying to issue Gabrielle's ultimatum once again, and this time there looked as though there might be some takers in the terrified group.
Gabrielle pulled Roses around finally after convincing her that they were no longer being pursued by shouting men waving weapons over their heads. The horse nervously strutted, throwing her head up and down as the bard soothed her with pats along her neck and soft words of reassurance. Gabrielle was so engrossed in pacifying Roses she didn't even notice her own condition. Tia and Ephany met them on their way back toward the ambush area and they both quickly dismounted as they reached horse and rider.
Tears coursed down the bard's cheeks as she slumped over the saddlehorn. She let the staff that Ephany had bestowed upon her fall to the ground as she wrapped her arms around the noble animal's neck.
"Thank you... thank you," she repeated over and over to the creature who's impeccable timing and speed had saved her from a direct attack.
Ephany, the warrior who had trained Roses, took the bridle in her hand to steady her from bolting, but she somehow doubted that Roses would do that to her rider. Tia reached up to Gabrielle and tried to ease her down from the saddle but a neat little sidestep by Roses prevented that from happening. Roses had bumped Tia hard and the warrior danced back quickly to avoid being knocked to the ground and trampled. Tia and Ephany looked at each other, eyes wide.
Gabrielle looked from warrior to warrior and saw them shrug at each other.
"What is it?" she asked quietly. She sat up and wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. She at last took a cleansing breath.
"I could never get her to sidestep from or into a ground attacker before," Ephany said simply.
"Did you ever train her to cut off a mounted attacker so that they couldn't get a clear strike with a sword?" Gabrielle smiled through new tears.
"She wouldn't do it... she'd just run like the Hounds of Hecate were after her.
For a moment they stood there as the bard lovingly stroked the horses neck, both of them relaxing and their breathing returning to normal. The bard's total appreciation of Roses protection showed in her smiling green eyes.
Ephany and Tia mounted after returning the bard's staff to her. They took their place behind Gabrielle so that she could lead. Presentation was everything and Gabrielle had to appear like she had thoroughly won her point to the remaining soldiers.
Back straight, eyes alert... Gabrielle rode south on *her* horse to meet the next challenge... getting the remaining soldiers to rescind their allegiance to Ares.
It had been the second in command whose horse had tripped over his commanding officer. Before the Amazons could stop him he had caught up with the screaming man and slit his throat with a dagger. As the arrows fell around him, hitting his foot soldiers to either side, he knew they were sparing him in order to question him later. He turned the dagger on his own throat.... the commanders closest to Tethian would keep the secrets he entrusted upon them, such was their loyalty to the raiding tyrant.
Gabrielle looked upon the scene impassively... or so it seemed. Inside she raged at the seductive evil of Ares. Oh! the promises he must have made to them through Tethian.... the lies! The riches and rewards he had teased them with... riches like a few wagons of meat and vegetables. They would destroy Gods with their force and their numbers... but then what would be left? No poetry or song... no love or festivals of honoring. No peace... just constant war. Their lives wouldn't belong to themselves anymore, and Ares would control everything.
By the time Gabrielle finished with the five remaining soldiers, they had wept and thrown down their swords. Before they began their return to their villages, they spoke of the men who had come from the northeast and recruited them for the invasion and the attack on Athens. These soldiers could not be turned with her words of reason, they assured her. These men were true invaders and what they wanted was expansion into the entire peninsula. They cared not for the Gods of Mount Olympus but instead brought their own gods with them. Gabrielle smiled knowingly at the men and told them what Raven had revealed to her about the gods of other lands. Then, they understood how the Brat God had initiated everything.
Gabrielle and the Amazons would never know about the one soldier who chose to fall on his sword en route to his home, and that he did for the crimes he committed to a female hostage he had lusted after from his own village. Despite his enlightenment to the overall situation and his return to reason, he felt he could never go home again and face her family... or his own.
They were only fifteen miles from the cull du sac... twenty from the old campsite at the grotto... thirty from the campsite in the woods that Athena had lead them to. That was at least eight hours of riding in very dangerous territory.
Gabrielle contemplated their next moves while she cleaned Roses flanks where she had been bitten. One gouge was deep and the flesh flapped loosely. Ephany provided Gabrielle with a numbing salve to anoint the wound so that some stitching could be done. When a few moments had passed, the bard held the horse's attention with her voice and her touch while Ephany quickly put the stitches in.
The Amazons cleaned up the area and erased all signs of the ambush while Gabrielle and Tia kept watch on the south road. They had a good view of a long stretch of it and both women kept a silent vigil as they waited for someone to relieve them. In truth, only one of them was needed as a look out but because it had been Gabrielle who volunteered first someone was obligated to accompany her. Without any prompting from Ephany, Tia smoothly offered to accompany the bard as her partner... Ephany was busy with the clean up.
It was spring, and the insect population that bred in the tidal pools along the shore and in the wet forest were swarming them in full force. Tia angrily slapped at a blackfly that persisted in landing on her head or shoulders no matter how she counter attacked.
"Fifteen bodies for these bastards to swarm over and this one finds *me*," she complained woefully.
Gabrielle smiled wryly as she watched Tia finally whack the fly into mooshed oblivion with a gloved hand. A look of triumph showed on Tia's face.
"Disappointed you didn't get to kill someone today?" the bard asked, barely containing her haughtiness.
Tia arched an eyebrow towards the bard who had returned her attention to watching the road.
"No... I'm pissed at *you*, if you must know," Tia answered back in the same tone.
Gabrielle didn't answer for a moment and her expression didn't change. At last she sighed and nodded her understanding. Fifteen men lay dead, and the only life the Amazons were concerned with was their future Queen's and she had just put them all through Tartarus and back.
"I understand what you did, Gabrielle.... but it might not work out so well next time.... what if they had used bows or spears? You'd be dead."
The bard shuddered as she began to calculate the 'what ifs'. There were too many of them and none of them led anywhere comforting.
"There's really no use in trying to figure out what The Fates have decided. When it's time... it's time," she said finally.
"That's not true !!" Tia answered back just a little too loudly. She admonished herself and then continued in a more subdued voice. "Just as the Oracle can tell a Prince he will die by treachery when he takes the throne, it doesn't mean *immediately*.... there are measures of precaution the new King can take to delay his Fate."
Gabrielle narrowed her gaze at the striking woman beside her. "Before you were sold to the Helios Cultists of Cardapia..."
"Delphi... I came from Delphi," Tia answered quietly. "I was a priestess, and someone didn't like the consultation I gave."
"That's how you came to be the property of slave traders?"
"You have The Sight?" the bard almost whispered in awe.
"It's not something I like to admit to," Tia answered quickly. "Some people treat it as a game... paying dinars to have 'their fortune told' in taverns and markets... laughing about... what scares them. I've learned to never volunteer any information... people scoff."
The bard remembered her experiences with the Mystics. There was a danger that came with being... different.
"Could you ever go back to Delphi?"
Tia nodded. "I'm sure they wonder what happened to me... but I don't want to go back... not as long as I feel like I belong to the Nation. It's the Amazons who helped me be a Warrior Priestess and my destiny is just letting itself be known to me."
Gabrielle frowned, "don't you know what your destiny is? Can't you divine it for yourself."
Tia turned in her saddle to look for that relief, and she slumped noticeably when she saw Ephany walking toward them. She remained silent as she awaited the Regent.
"The wagons are coming into sight and should be here soon, Gabrielle. We need you to talk with the people when they arrive."
Gabrielle locked eyes with Tia as she turned Roses and then rode north. Tia kept her face stoic.
"What was that all about?" Ephany quizzed the seer after the bard had left.
"The conversation started to get... complicated." Tia sighed. "I didn't want to say anything that would affect her own decisions. She has enough to worry about right now."
The wagon master left supplies with the Amazons before the wagons were turned around. With surprising little effort the drivers were convinced that not delivering the goods would help the cause especially when they resigned themselves to the fact that their townsfolk were not going to be returned to them. They returned home with prayers for the Athenian army whispered from their lips and angry curses for the Brat God seething in their hearts.
"What are they doing?" Gabrielle whispered to anyone who would answer her. Six of them had crept as close to the main encampment as they could to observe the morning activities of the soldiers and approximate a head count. They also noted the two ships anchored just off shore.
"Latrine duty," one of the women answered.
"The human waste, horse manure and the food refuse has to be removed and put somewhere.... those pits are it."
From their vantage point they watched as several wagons pulled up to long, trench like pits in the ground. Men wearing cloths over their noses and mouths got out and began to shovel a mixture of muck into the pits. Many of them had to stop while their stomachs emptied of their own accord.
Ephany chuckled, "The offshore breeze is bringing in a storm tonight. My guess is that cull du sac doesn't smell very good and anyone caught shitting in the woods gets latrine duty. They've been storing it for a while, it looks like."
To prove her point the wind swirled up around them and a blast of the odor from the wagons and pits wafted around them.
"Whoa..." Gabrielle gagged as she screwed up her face and held her breath. "That's potent !!!"
"They'll be moving soon... those pits look like they're full."
"Speaking of moving," the bard gagged as she turned and pushed her way back into the denser part of the forest where the breeze had less effect. The others weren't far behind her.
"That storm will hit tonight and by morning the camp will be a cesspool. They have no choice but to move," Ephany said.
"The ships just weighed anchor and set off to the south," Tia said as she joined the others. "Those ships have enough wind to get them to a harbor further south before they get caught in the storm."
"It's happening," Gabrielle said solemnly, "and I don't even know where Xena is."
One look at the bard and everyone could see her heart sinking.
Tia approached the bard and held her by the shoulders. "It will take all day to move through the mountains, but I promise you that by tonight we'll find Xena." She hugged Gabrielle as if to seal that promise.
Gabrielle laughed wryly as she kissed Tia on the cheek and then released her. "Is that something you know, or something you hope?"
Tia watched the bard pick up the reins of her mount and prepare to get on. "That's something I *feel*."
It was dark when they came down off the hills. The long silence over the short journey wore heavily on them all. The only comfort was the proximity they had with each other and their horses. Many times they shared comforting glances with one another as they moved through the trees and struggled up and down the steep hills. The distance had not been great, but the traveling had been brutal.
The Amazons had reached the pass that the army would take west to reach Athens. Ephany halted their journey and dismounted along side the stream they had followed down from the hills. While they drank and watered their horses, Gabrielle sought out the Regent.
"Ephany, the camp is a few miles east into the forest."
Ephany straightened herself and stretched out her back, "where you left Xena?"
"Yes," the bard whispered.
"Are you sure? There's an Athenian outpost a short distance into the pass... they could have made it there."
Confused, the bard turned to face west, and then east, and then back to the west. Tia watched her do this with great amusement.
"What do you feel?" Tia asked.
In the moonlit darkness with the sound of the running stream and the horses moving, Gabrielle listened with her heart. Tia's low voice still reverberated in her ears and caused her skin to tingle. The bard shuddered and faced west again.
"This way," she said at last.
Gabrielle mounted Roses and began a steady pace to the west as the rain began to fall.
Raven had given Loatian the last dirty look she was going to give him before she was going to rip his tongue out, she decided. The boy insisted on conversation as if stealth and secrecy were a foreign concept to him. She sat in the bushes of their lookout position with the boy at her side. The last few days of being stationary were driving her crazy so Ciaus had suggested she keep watch... and take Loatian with her. Now she knew why he had suggested the lad come with her.
"If Ciaus would only let me see Xena..." he lamented for the fourth time.
Only her appreciation for all the care Loatian had lavished on Katrina kept Raven from pinching his jugular and shutting him up for a few hours. He seemed to have no fear of dying.
Raven was about to issue a verbal warning when the first sound of horses walking towards them reached her ears. Luckily, Loatian heard it as well and kept his mouth shut. They were hidden in the bushes and could watch whoever was on the road come almost straight at them without the fear of being seen. They waited. Loatian gripped the signal horn in his hand and wondered if he and Raven could get to a safe distance before he had to blow it.
A voice... a woman's voice. Another voice, that of a woman.
Slowly, steadily, the Amazons came into view in the moonlight... Ephany and Gabrielle leading side by side out in front of the others. Without wanting to startle their horses by moving right away, Raven whistled softly.
"Gabrielle," she called out in a normal voice. "It's Raven."
"And Loatian," the boy added with some annoyance in his tone.
The clouds and the rain had caught up with them as Raven led the Amazons to the outpost. The rainfall was light and gentle... a late night spring rain for awakening the earth to receive seeds for future birth. They were far enough inland to not feel the raging winds and pelting sheets of water that assaulted the eastern coastline.
"The Athenian army is recalling the soldiers from their outposts to fortify the city... this is the last night for this outpost," Raven explained as they hurried west along the road.
"Xena is there?" Gabrielle asked anxiously. She had avoided the question, assuming without a doubt that where Raven was, Xena was.
Raven hesitated, "we moved her and Katrina here two days ago."
Before Raven could offer any further explanation Gabrielle reached her hand to Raven's arm and gripped it hard.
Raven winced at the grip the bard had on her arm but kept her pace up. "Both Katrina and Xena have been wounded... Xena, not so bad if infection can be avoided. She hasn't been conscious since she tried to rip out Ciaus's throat after she was hit with a crossbow bolt. But he got the flow of blood stopped and the soldiers brought us back to the outpost."
"Who's Ciaus? Who shot Xena? What..." Gabrielle's voice had raised a few octaves as she rapidly fired questions at her friend. She began to berate herself for not reading the signs... if either Xena or Katrina had been okay, one of them would have been on watch with Raven... not Loatian.
Angry at herself, the bard released Raven's arm and picked up the pace. For her, anger was a good thing now because it helped to keep the fear from her heart.
"Start from the beginning... from the time I left... and don't leave anything out."
The heavy crossbar on the gates was lifted and the door swung wide after Raven had given the guards the appropriate password and assured them that Gabrielle and the Amazons were allies. Gabrielle entered first with Roses in tow but a guard stopped her.
"Not enough room for all your horses," he said. "There's a corral on the west side."
"Fine," Gabrielle snapped. She turned to find Loatian behind her and she handed the reins to him. "Please?"
The boy took the reins and captured her hand in his. "Please, I would like to see Xena, too.... soon."
The bard was touched by his voice and his gentle plea. It was obvious that in the short time that she had been gone that Xena had won herself a few new friends. It was their care that had kept her alive.
"Sure... soon," she answered quietly. Her state of shock was complete and she was numb to anything said to her.
Raven led Gabrielle to a tent near the command hut while the Amazons stabled the horses. Her heart pounded in her ears but she found herself remarkably calm. Raven lifted the tent flap to the side and motioned for her to go into the candle lit tent. She ducked through the opening and found herself face to face with a man carrying bloodied bandages and she winced.
"Gabrielle?" he asked tentatively.
"Yes?" she asked, her eyes locked on to the bloodied bandages. In the blink of an eye she realized that he didn't know who she was. "I mean...yes."
"I'm Ciaus... I've been looking after Xena."
Gabrielle's gaze went past the tall man who blocked her view of the bed. "Yes... thank you."
"Let me dump these," he said warmly, "and then I'll return."
The bard drew her attention back to Ciaus briefly but she could only nod. The past few days had sapped her soul and now she just wanted to see the person who lay under the army blanket... to touch her and feel her warmth.
Ciaus moved out of the bard's path and stepped outside. Gabrielle could hear Ciaus and Raven exchange greetings as he filled her in on Xena's condition. He was worried, she heard. Xena was still not awake but she wasn't getting any weaker.
Gabrielle felt like she was moving in slow motion as she drew a stool up beside the bed. Xena's face was pale... paler than she had ever seen before. She took the warrior's wrist and held it gently with her fingertips until she felt the pulse of the great warrior's heart.
"Xena?" she whispered. "Xena, I'm back..."
Without warning she lost control of her panic and fear. She crumbled inside as she lowered her forehead onto Xena's shoulder and her tears touched her lover's skin. She could handle a small army face to face without fear, but to see Xena in such a state could undo her completely. The bard snuggled her face into the warrior's neck and cried softly until she could cry no longer.
It was hot... oppressively hot. Still in darkness, she knew she had only to open her eyes to view her surroundings but this was her only advantage right now... if she had one at all.
There was movement... a sudden brightening to even closed eyes and then a waft of cooler air over her heat tortured body. She was in a tent and someone had just come in. She was being cared for... she hoped.
Xena's mind began to calculate and then she drifted slowly but surely away from lucidness. She couldn't hold on and reality began to intermingle with fantasy... thoughts of Gabrielle... stitching Katrina's head back together... Raven ... Raven... where was Ciaus? Was that rain she heard pelting down on the tent? She was drifting back up from the blackness again and she flinched involuntarily.
"It's me, Xena... Ciaus," came the gentle voice. It's urgency pulled her closer to being lucid and she opened her eyes to just narrow slits.
"What's happening?" she croaked through parched lips. A few seconds later she felt tepid water dribbled onto her lips and she opened her mouth.
"I removed the bolt from your side and cut you so I could move the rib back into place. The bolt broke it and there were some splinters."
"Who shot me? Why am I in this tent?"
"Just relax... a lot has happened, my friend."
"Where *am* I? Where's Gabrielle?"
Xena began to make overtures of rising from her bed but Ciaus pushed her shoulder firmly back.
"Well, if you just hold on a moment I'll tell her you're awake. It's morning and she's gone to get some food... finally. I just thought I could attend you while she was gone and she didn't have to watch me change your dressing."
Xena stopped arguing with Ciaus about getting up when the hot pain in her side flooded her body in protest of her movements. She grunted hard and held her breath, her eyes squeezing shut as the pain rolled over her.
"So, who shot me?" she asked after a few moments.
Ciaus shook his head as he wiped the sweat from Xena's face with a wet cloth. He rubbed the cloth over her shoulders and arms, and then her upper chest and her breasts as he pushed the blanket down the length of her body. He began to wipe down her solar plexis and she noticed that he made a wide path around her right side but close enough to clean away her sweat. She looked at him and saw that he didn't seem affected by the heat and she knew that she was feverish.
"How long have we been here?" she asked, trying to distract herself from the realization that she was naked under his administrations. His touch was gentle and light with the cool washcloth and she knew she couldn't be in better care.
"Two days... the army has begun to move.... slowly. The man in black leather who shot you just laughed when you hit the ground. He said: 'maybe that'll slow you down and stop you from interfering.'"
"Ares," the warrior hissed through clenched teeth. "Where'd he go?"
"He just looked at me, told me to take care of you, and walked north towards the army."
Ciaus peeled away the dressing and Xena hissed again.
"When did Gabrielle come?" the warrior asked, trying to work past the pain.
"Last night... she hasn't left your side," he murmured absent-mindedly as he peered closely at her wound. "She's exhausted."
"Infection?" she wanted to know.
"No... it *is* red, though, but that's from the cauterizing."
Ciaus stood up looking quite satisfied with what he saw of the external indications of the wound.
"You're no worse than a farmer gored by his prize bull, Warrior Princess," he smiled. He saw Xena try to smile back but she was too weak to muster much enthusiasm. Ciaus removed the blanket and then recovered Xena with a clean, dry one.
"It looks pretty good, so we'll leave it uncovered for the rest of today. Let me know if those stitches start to dry up and we'll do something about it." He gathered up the soiled items and then turned back to her. "I'll tell Gabrielle you're awake... she can feed you. Try to get her to sleep, too, will you?"
She felt her strength leaving her and she fought hard to stay lucid. Despite her joy at hearing that Gabrielle had found her she couldn't hold onto reality. She closed her eyes and then opened them when she felt a presence... but they closed as darkness swirled around behind her eyes. Xena could feel the presence again... a muffled male voice drifted into her thoughts and she became aware of him.
A vibration, soft at first but then stronger, began in her tailbone and worked its way to her groin. It had a voice and it was comforting as its tone resonated along her vertebrae, pinning her to the bed. Her bowels and guts felt like they were being rearranged just before a bright burst of light shot from her chest. The resonating light continued along her spine to her throat, causing her eyes to fly open and she found herself staring at the roof of the tent, unable to move. She groaned. The brilliance of the light hurt her eyes but she could not close them. The light seemed to crackle as it was sucked back down into her head and shot out through the crown of her skull.
It was silent. Xena sighed and when she drew breath it was no longer painful. The warrior could still feel the male presence but felt no threat from him. She turned her head slightly and saw him. Seated next to her was a figure wearing a cloak with a billowing cowl that covered his face. She wanted to say something to him... anything. Instead he raised a finger to his cowled face as if placing it over lips that could not be seen. Xena nodded, still feeling as if in a dream. She obeyed an unspoken command and shut her eyes. The command was one word said in that deep male voice. It repeated one more time.