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Standard Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and any other characters you recognize from the show do not belong to me. They are property of Universal Studios, Renaissance Pictures, blah, blah, blahÖ Taleah, Tormis, Leah, and Sarah are mine, so please donít use them without consulting me first!

Of course, with a little persuasion from Universal Studios, I might let them borrow the story lineÖ. *GRIN*

Quick Note: This is my first attempt at writing a lengthy Xena story, so please, go easy on meÖ

Violence/Sexual Content Disclaimer: There is mention of rape, but nothing real graphic. If you canít handle a little violence, I find it hard to believe you watch Xena. As for Subtext, no more than in the show. You can look, but you wonít find much.

Disclaimer: No Amazons were harmed during the writing of this fan fiction. However, one is in serious need of an attitude adjustment.

Comments: Any and all comments or constructive criticism can be sent to:
Y02Mustang@AOL.com

Now, on with the story:


The Silent Amazon

by: C. E. Gray

 

The young girl slowed her pace to a walk, and tried to urge her leg not to throb. The gash the merchant had made was very deep, possibly to the bone, and hurt like Hades, making it very difficult to walk. Glancing back once more to make sure the man had not followed her, she adjusted the bag on her shoulder, and shifted the position of the staff she held in her right hand.

Noticing a nice stream, the girl thought about washing her wounds in the clear water, but stopped when she noticed four fish on the embankment. Suddenly realizing how terribly hungry she was, the girl pondered taking just one fish. Not a thief, she would find the people who had caught them, and give them something useful in return, as she always did.

Approaching the fish, she knelt down, keeping her staff close by her side and the bag on her shoulder. She was ready to run, should the need arise. As she fingered the string, trying to figure out how to break it, she heard a shout behind her.

"Hey!" she heard a woman yell, and looked over her shoulder, as a girl with honey-colored hair ran towards her. Immediately assuming she had found the owner of the fish, and that the woman was not happy, the girl took off. Grabbing her staff she ran to her left, into the woods, and hoped to find a place to hide.

Running that hard and that fast caused her leg wound to re-open, and blood ran down her leg, but she tried not to stop. Finally, when the pain became too much to bear, she tripped and fell, barely catching herself in time to stop her face from hitting the dirt. Looking up, she saw a pair of boots, followed by shin guards, leather, armor, and a warrior woman with black hair looking down at her. The girlís hazel eyes met with the clearest, most beautiful pair of blue eyes she had ever seen.

"Are you all right?" the woman asked, offering a hand to help her up. Nodding, the girl accepted the hand, and balanced with her staff to keep the weight off her pounding leg. For some reason, the girl felt a pull to the warrior woman, and immediately trusted her.

Quickly, the girl with blonde hair rushed into the clearing, the same one who had chased her. Feeling safe with the woman warrior, the young girl didnít run - yeah, as if she could with the pain she was feeling. "She tried to steal the fish," the one with honey hair said, talking about the girl, but looking towards the warrior.

"Is that true?" the warrior asked. The girl didnít respond, she just hung her head. For the first time, the girl noticed that the blonde also carried a staff. Sighing, the blonde involuntarily brought the staff into a defensive position, a natural feeling for her. Thinking that the girl was angry with her, and may fight her, the one with hazel eyes did the same, and drew herself up to her full height.

The warrior noticed this, and told the green-eyed blonde, "I think she thinks youíre going to fight her." The young woman nodded, and the blonde looked startled.

"Oh! No, I wasnít going to hurt you," she said. "Here," she said, and stuck the staff out, as if to give it to the warrior woman.

The young woman thought the blonde was going to hurt the warrior, and when the woman made no attempt at moving, the girl took the end of her staff and hit the blondeís, knocking hers into the air. Then, limping slightly, she took a few steps to her left and blocked the warrior, standing between her and the blonde.

To her surprise, the tall warrior chuckled slightly. "Now she thinks youíre going to hurt me! Itís all right," she said, and laid a hand on the girlís shoulder. "Weíre friends, she wouldnít hurt me. Thatís right, weíre friends," the warrior repeated, her voice deep, rich, and calm. The girl glanced from the warrior to the girl and back again, looking at them, confused. Finally, accepting that the warrior wouldnít lie to her, the girl returned to her place by the warriorís right side, and made no further attempt at a fight.

"Iím Gabrielle, and this is Xena," the blonde said, introducing them. The girl looked at them both, and nodded her understanding, but remained silent. The warrior seemed to be looking for some kind of reaction in the young womanís face, and seemed relieved when she didnít find it. Xena had watched for recognition of her name, or hatred, to appear in the girlís eyes, and could not help but relax when she didnít see anything.

Noticing that the girl made no attempt to introduce herself, Xena said, "You can come back to our campsite, and Gabrielle can tend to your leg." Gabrielle nodded that she would do that, and the girl picked up her bag, and followed the friends to their campsite.

Once there, Xena motioned for the girl to sit on a nearby log, and she obeyed, grateful for the chance to relieve the pressure on her aching leg. As Gabrielle washed the wound, and did her best to sew it up, Xena took that time to look the girl over more carefully.

She didnít appear to be more than a few years younger than Gabrielle, and her light brown hair was about the same length as the bardís. The girlís hazel eyes had been the first thing the warrior had noticed; something in them told her she was trustworthy, and in need of some help, though from what Xena had no idea. The young woman wore a skirt that didnít quite reach her knees, and an overly large sack, that she had apparently cut holes in for her arms and head. Xena had noticed that she had straps of another top under the sack, and wondered what she was hiding.

Gabrielle started to bandage the wound, but the girl stopped her, shaking her head. "What?" asked Gabrielle. "You donít want me to wrap it?" The girl shook her head again, and then dug for something in her bag. Finding it, she gave the container to Gabrielle, and motioned for her to put the salve on her leg. "Are you sure?" Gabrielle questioned, not recognizing the odor of the ointment. When the girl nodded, Gabrielle sighed, and applied the salve to the wound. The girl flinched, but said nothing.

After the ointment had been applied, the girl took the cloth from Gabrielle and wrapped her own leg, and then replaced the salve in her bag.

"Iíll go get some firewood. It will be dark soon," said Xena. "Will you two be all right?" When the girls nodded, the warrior left, saying, "Iíll be back soon."

Without the warrior nearby, Gabrielle noticed that the young girl seemed slightly nervous. She waited for the girl to say something, hoping she was all right, but after a long silence she decided it was up to her. "Are you hungry?" Gabrielle asked, trying to make conversation and relax the young woman. The girl nodded, and Gabrielle smiled. "Yeah, me, too," she said.

"Sheís always hungry," said Xena, returning with an armful of wood. The young girl and warrior smiled, and Gabrielle gave Xena a hard glare before breaking into a grin. "Gabrielle, why donít you get the fish so we can eat?" Xena asked, and Gabrielle nodded, taking her staff and walking down towards the river. "You like fish?" the warrior asked, after Gabrielle had left.

The young girl nodded enthusiastically, and Xena smiled. "Good, because thatís about all we have right now," she said, and started the fire. The girl watched with interest, and tried to figure out how the warrior kept the fire burning so long. There had been many nights when the girl couldnít sleep, because she was always tending to the fire so she wouldnít freeze.

Xena felt the young girlís eyes on her, and looked up to catch her gaze. "What?" she asked. The girl pointed to the fire. "Donít know how to get a fire started?" Xena asked, hoping for a real answer rather than a gesture. Instead, all she got was a sheepish shake of the head from the girl, indicating she didnít.

"Well," Xena explained, "use dry leaves and twigs. Stack them like this," she said, gesturing to her own fire, "and theyíll last longer. Got it?" The girl nodded her understanding. Gabrielle came through the clearing, holding the fish, and Xena rose to meet her.

"Can she talk?" Gabrielle asked, in a whisper so low the girl had to strain to hear their words.

The warrior shrugged. "I donít know. Maybe you can get her to talk," Xena offered, and Gabrielle looked hopeful. The whispering over, they returned to the campsite, unaware that the young woman with the injured leg had heard every word.

The girl sighed. She was quite capable of talking, but no one had ever been interested in hearing what she had to say. Not only that, but most people were angry with her, and she only talked to people who were nice to her - she had learned to avoid arguments that way. Yes, she trusted the warrior, and maybe even her friend, but knew they would start asking questions, and she didnít know what would happen when she told them the answers.

The blonde began cooking the fish, and the young woman watched the food very carefully. When Gabrielle was about to take the food off the fire, the girl stopped her, and brought out a small pouch. Taking some of the powdered contents in her fingers, she made a move to put it on the fish, when the warrior grabbed her wrist, restraining her.

"What are you doing?" she demanded, and the girl shrank back. She shook her head, trying to tell the warrior that it wasnít poison. Taking a small amount, she put it in her mouth, and swallowed, then she smiled. Xena released her grip on the womanís wrist, and the girl sprinkled some of the herbs over the fish.

The three ate, and Gabrielle said, "Whatever you did, it sure tastes good!" The girl smiled, and her grin widened as the warrior agreed.

"Sorry about grabbing you like that," the warrior apologized. When she had seen the fear in the girlís eyes, she had immediately felt bad for frightening her. There was no reason for the girl to wish them harm. The girl smiled slightly at the womanís apology, and waved it off.

Gabrielle took a drink of water from the water skin, and offered some to the girl. "Thirsty?" she asked. The girl nodded, and gratefully accepted the water.

As she drank, Xena, who sat on her left, put her hand gently on her back and said, "There you go," as another small apology. With the touch, the girl stiffened and pulled quickly away.

Almost as if in pain, Xena thought. "Are you all right?" she asked, again. The girl simply nodded, and returned the flask to a concerned Gabrielle.

The girl yawned, and got up to leave. "No," said Gabrielle, "you can sleep here. You donít have to leave."

"Yeah, you can take my blanket," Xena offered. The girl shook her head, she wouldnít dream of taking the warriorís bed. "No, really, itís all right. I donít need a blanket, Iíll just use my bedroll," she insisted. Seeing the determination on the womanís face, the girl relented, and nodded. "Good," Xena said, and moved her blanket to the side, next to her own bedroll. Xena would sleep between Gabrielle and the young woman, which was an idea she wasnít too fond of, but knew that for some reason the girl felt the need to be close to her.

The hazel-eyed woman was the first to lie down, and Xena and Gabrielle followed. The warrior in Xena couldnít help but smile at how the girl slept with her staff within reach. The girl was asleep soon, and Gabrielle wasnít far behind, but it took time for the warrior to fall asleep.

For some reason, the girl made Gabrielle uneasy. She seemed nice enough, but life with Xena had taught the bard to be cautious. Maybe it was the way she was so eager to help, or the way she never spoke, but something in Gabrielle told her not to trust the young woman completely; at least, not just yet. Still wary of the woman who slept on the other side of her best friend, Gabrielle slept.

The next morning, the young woman awoke to find that Xena was gone, but the soft snore told her that Gabrielle had yet to wake up. Hearing something not far away, the girl took her staff, and limped off towards the sound, glad that her leg seemed to be a little better. As she looked around, she saw the warrior woman practicing with her sword. She seemed very good. Clearing her throat softly, the girl made her presence known.

Xena spun around, ready to strike, when she realized it was only the young girl. "You shouldnít sneak up on me like that," she said. "Most people know that." The girl hung her head, and then lifted it, looking the warrior in the eyes. She held her staff in the defensive position, diagonal across her body, and slowly pushed it forward. The warrior raised an eyebrow, as she understood what the girl was asking. "You want to practice with me?" she asked, and the girl nodded.

The thought of having someone else to work with was interesting enough, but Xena wasnít sure if the girl could handle it. "Are you sure youíre up to it?" she asked, pointing to the girlís injured leg. Nodding, the girl furrowed her brow, to show that she was still willing to fight. "All right," Xena said, "Iíll go easy on you." This got a strong objection from the girl. "No? Well, then, weíll both fight our best, howís that?" she offered. The girl nodded, happy.

The young woman took a few steps forward, favoring her right leg, and moved towards the warrior, into the clearing. Gripping her staff tighter, she signaled she was ready to start. Facing each other, the two took a deep breath, and began.

Xena struck first, but the girl quickly blocked the blow that was intended for her left shoulder. Trying to catch her off guard, Xena swung for the opposite shoulder, only to find the move blocked. Two blows to opposite sides of the girlís ribcage were both blocked by the staff, and Xena drew back, thinking. The girl was better than she had thought.

Going for an overhead strike, the girl was forced to bring her staff horizontally above her. Xena continued the pressure, until the girl was forced to touch her left knee to the ground. Suddenly, in a burst of strength, the girl shoved her staff straight up, stood, and then brought one end of her staff up to hit Xenaís sword. The blow struck the hilt, and knocked the sword out of Xenaís hand, into the branch of a tree that towered over them.

Moving quickly, the girl brought her staff around and caught Xenaís leg, sweeping her legs out from under her. Then, bending down on her left knee again, she pressed the end of her staff to Xenaís throat.

"Very good," said Xena, raising an eyebrow, thoroughly impressed. She had been fighting her best, as she had told the girl, and the young woman had beaten her - quickly. "Now, what are you going to do about my sword?" she asked. The girl, never taking her eyes off Xena, motioned for her to stand. Keeping the staff near her throat, but never on it - showing she knew they were only practicing, the girl followed Xena until both women stood, face to face.

Taking her staff, she hit just inches away from Xenaís neck, hitting the trunk of the tree, hard. Then, reaching out with her right hand, she grabbed the sword as it fell, and put it near Xenaís throat, where her staff had been only moments earlier.

Suddenly, there was a cry from the bushes, and Gabrielle ran out. I knew I couldnít trust her, she thought, as she ran towards the girl. With all the force she could muster, Gabrielle swung her staff, and hit the girl in the lower back, knocking her down. The hit sent the girl sprawling to the dirt, and gave her a bloody nose as she hit the ground. Walking over to the form on the ground, Gabrielle forced the girl to roll over, and put her staff next against her throat.

The young girlís eyes widened, as she realized this was not part of the practicing routine. The pain that was sent through her body, due to her full weight being on her back, was enormous, but she tried not to show it.

"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, when she had first seen Gabrielle strike the girl. "Gabrielle, stop!" she yelled, nearing the two.

"She was going to kill you, Xena!" Gabrielle insisted, not moving her staff.

"No, Gabrielle, we were just practicing. Now, let her go," Xena said.

Realization dawned in Gabrielleís green eyes. "Practicing?" she repeated, hoarsely, suddenly too numb to move her staff away from the girlís neck. Xena nodded, and approached Gabrielle. In just half a second, Gabrielle was flat on her back where she had once stood. Looking down to the girl, Xena saw that she had rolled onto her side, and now struggled to breathe.

Gabrielle recovered, and stood up again. "What did you do?" she asked, not knowing what had happened. The girl couldnít have answered if sheíd wanted to, all the wind was knocked out of her, and her back hurt her too much.

The girl had finally reached her limit of pain, and knew she had to get off her back. Knowing she couldnít move with a staff against her neck, she reached down, grabbed Gabrielleís boot, pulled up, and then pushed out. It had the desired effect, and she was able to move.

Once she was able to breathe, the girl tried to get up, but found it difficult. Then, to her surprise, there was a pair of strong hands on her shoulders, pulling her up gently. Looking up, the girl saw Xena standing there, looking worried.

"You okay?" she asked. The girl brought her hand to her nose, saw the blood on her fingers, and shook her head. She was secretly glad there was another injury to blame her pain on, since she wasnít sure the two women were ready for her story yet, and explaining her back would mean explaining everything.

Xena had a feeling it was more than a bloody nose, but decided not to push it. "Come on," she said, "letís get you cleaned up." Xena walked the girl to camp, not failing to notice that Gabrielle was not following. Deciding to take care of the girl first, and talk to her friend later, Xena kept going. Gabrielle needed some time to think.

"Got any thing in that bag for your nose?" Xena questioned, as she wiped the blood from the girlís nose, and told her to keep pressure on it. The girl shook her head, but smirked when Xenaís lips crept up into a smile. Satisfied that it had nearly stopped bleeding, Xena stood to leave and talk with Gabrielle. The girl put a hand on her arm, stopping her.

"Itís okay," Xena said, "I just need to talk with Gabrielle. Iíll be back in a little while." Again, the girl shook her head. She pulled Xenaís arm, and made her sit down. Then, she removed the cloth from her no longer bleeding nose, and stood. Putting a hand on her chest, she motioned to herself, and then to the area where Gabrielle was.

"You want to go talk to her?" Xena asked, surprised. The girl nodded, and left. When she was gone, Xena said to herself, "But you canít talk."

The girl found Gabrielle quickly. The blonde was sitting on a rock, not far from where they had left her, with her head in her hands. Her head jerked up and her eyes opened when the girl put a hand on her shoulder. When she saw who it was, Gabrielle said, "I am so, so sorry. Are you all right?"

The girl nodded, and smiled, making a muscle and pointing to Gabrielle. "You think Iím strong? Well, thank you," Gabrielle said, when the girl nodded. "Still, I shouldnít have done that to you." The girl waved it off, as she had Xenaís apology. Walking back towards camp, she waited patiently for Gabrielle to follow.

Xena was surprised when she saw the girl return so quickly, and rose, afraid that something had happened. Her surprise increased when she saw Gabrielle right behind her.

"Everything okay?" she asked, and both women nodded. Then, they all three heard a growl come from Gabrielleís stomach, and they grinned. "Iíll get breakfast. Gabrielle, refill the water skins down by the river. Weíre almost out," the warrior said, not unkindly. "Will you be all right by yourself for a while?" she asked. The girl nodded, and sat down on the log.

The two women left, and the girl was by herself. Seizing the opportunity to be alone with their things, the girl limped over to the saddlebag that lay on a saddle, across the campsite. Opening it, she made a mental inventory of what the women had, so when she gave them their gift in return for helping her, she wouldnít give them something they already owned.

Before she knew what was happening, a man had run into the campsite, and shoved her up against a tree. What is it with people and my back today, she thought. If it wasnít for the excruciating pain in her back, she could have done something about her predicament, but she was in too much pain to even think clearly. The bark of the tree dug into her skin, and into her wounds, and the man leaning all of his weight against her torso wasnít helping any.

"You stole my horse, you bloody thief!" the man shouted, and brought his knee into her stomach. He dropped his hands from her shoulders, and she was able to drop to the ground, glad that her back was no longer pressed against the tree, but finding it hard to breathe. She looked up just in time to see the hilt of his sword come up, and then down on her head, causing everything to go black.

The man kicked her in the sides two or three times before Xena arrived, and pulled him away from her. "What in Tartarus do you think youíre doing?" she demanded, holding him by the throat.

"She stole my horse!" the man complained.

"You like beating women so much, try me!" she threatened. The man looked scared, and shook his head. Disgusted with the man, Xena threw him out of the campsite, barely holding herself back from killing him.

"Get out of here! Go!" she shouted. Thankful to be alive, the man ran, and never looked back. Turning her attention back to the unconscious girl, Xena went to her side, just as Gabrielle appeared with the full water skins.

"Gods, what happened? Is she okay, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena nodded. "She should be. Get me some cold water and a rag," she said, and Gabrielle scrambled to get the items. Handing them to Xena, the warrior wet the cloth, and began cleaning the small wound on the girlís head. Slowly, the girl moaned, and began to come to.

She opened her eyes, and focused on the worried pool of blue that looked down at her. "How you doing?" Xena asked. The girl brought her hand to her head, felt the blood, and moaned, softly. Then her eyes darted around, as she remembered what had happened. "Itís okay, heís gone. And he wonít be coming back," Xena said, trying to reassure the injured girl.

The young woman struggled, and Xena held her down, trying to get her to hold still. "Donít move, youíll only hurt yourself worse. Iíll be done in just a minute," Xena said, but the girl kept thrashing.

The girl nearly cried from the pressure that was on her back, and the burning sensation told her that the wounds had re-opened, and were bleeding. Seeing no way of getting out of the pain without talking, she said, carefully, and with ache lacing her voice, "My back." The warrior didnít let go of her arms, so she had no other choice. Taking her hands, she hit the inside of Xenaís elbows, causing her to loosen her grip. Then, she pushed up on Xenaís shoulders, and pushed the warrior away from her.

Once able to move, she tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness told her that a couple of ribs may be cracked, or at least bruised. Content to roll over, as long as she wasnít on her back, the girl did just that, and struggled to regain her breath.

"You spoke," Gabrielle said, softly. The girl coughed, calmed down, and nodded.

From behind her, Xena swore softly, "By the Gods! What happened to your back?" Knowing that she still had the sack over her, the girl assumed that Xena must have noticed the blood stains that had seeped through. She tried to sit up, so she would be more comfortable, but that just made her more dizzy. In an instant, Xena was by her side, helping her to sit.

Gabrielle wanted to talk to her, but knew that the girlís wounds needed to be taken care of first. Xena slowly lifted the sack over the girlís head, revealing her dark blue top, much like Gabrielleís. Looking at the girlís back, Xena had to bite her lip to keep from gasping out loud at the sight she saw. On the young womanís back, there were dozens of marks made by a whip, and almost all of them were bleeding. Xena noticed that one might be in need of stitches. Beyond the blood, the warrior took note of more than two dozen scars with the same markings - this was not the first time the girl had been beaten, but Xena swore to herself it would be the last, if she had anything to say about it.

"Your head will heal nicely, but I need to clean your back. Itís going to hurt like Hades, so brace yourself," Xena warned, taking the wet cloth back into her hand. Before she started to sew any of the wounds, she needed to clean them out and make sure they werenít infected. Xena loosened the strings on the back of the top, so all of the wounds were revealed, and yet the girl was still covered. "Ready?" she asked. The girl bit her own lip, and nodded.

As Xena cleaned, she counted. Twenty-two (recent lashes) was the final number. To Xenaís surprise, the girl had not screamed, although she had noticed several sharp intakes of breath from the girl. Despite their appearance earlier, none of the wounds required stitches.

"There," said Xena. "Do you want me to use the salve?"

"I need my bag," the girl said, weakly. In a flash, Gabrielle brought it to her side. "Thank you," she said, and dug through it. Finding the correct ointment, she handed it to Xena. Xena applied the salve to every angry red welt she saw, and when she finished, she retied the girlís top. Xena looked at her, and noticed there were tears streaming down the girlís face, although she had not made a sound.

In a motherly fashion, Xena gently gathered the weeping girl into her arms, and held her for a little while, stroking her hair to help soothe the girl. When she was done crying, the girl pulled away, and smiled at the warrior. Despite Xenaís obvious concern for her friend, the girl never thought Xena would hold her like that.

"Thank you," she said. She reached for the sack, to put over her again, but Xena stopped her.

"It will be good if you let some air hit it," she said, and the young woman reluctantly agreed. Turning the sack around, she noticed the large amount of blood on the back, and threw it to the ground in disgust. She didnít feel like walking around with a blood stain, anyhow.

Looking down at her hands for a moment, the girl said, "Well, since you know I can talk, Iím pretty sure you have a lot of questions."

Xena held up her hand, stopping the question she was sure was going to come out of Gabrielleís mouth, and said, "Before anything else, I need to take a look at your ribs." The warrior was wondering how she could wrap the girlís ribs without hurting her back, when she got an answer.

The girl shook her head. "Iím all right, theyíre just bruised. Iíll be a lot better by morning," she said. Seeing that Xena wasnít going to make any further comment, she said to Gabrielle, "You had a question?" When her words werenít soaked in pain, Gabrielle and Xena realized that the girl had a very nice and soft sounding voice, very calming.

Gabrielle jumped right in, glad for the opportunity. "First of all, whatís your name?"

"Oh, Iím sorry! My name is Taleah," Taleah apologized. "I should have thought of that earlier. Before you continue, I have a question to ask." Gabrielle nodded, and Taleah turned to Xena. "I noticed you have a saddle. Whereís your horse?" she asked.

That question seemed to affect the warrior deeply, and her eyes were enveloped in a shadow for a moment, before she answered. "I donít know. Five days ago, I woke up, and she was gone. Iíve been looking for her since, butÖ Iím staying here in case she comes back," Xena explained, and Taleah nodded.

"May I ask another question, now?" Gabrielle asked, anxious.

Taleah grinned at the bardís eagerness. "Of course," she said.

"What happened to your back?" Gabrielle asked, and Taleah sighed, her grin fading.

"Thatís a long story, but Iíll tell it if you want to know," she said. Gabrielle nodded, and Taleah began her tale. "Well, yesterday morning, I found a merchant who was selling apples. I wanted one, so I took it." Seeing the look that crossed Xenaís face, Taleah quickly continued, "Donít get me wrong, Iím no thief. I had found a handful of wild fruit the day before, and I knew they were worth three times as much as a single apple, but I was going to give them to the merchant in exchange for the apple.

"He didnít see me set the fruit on the stand, all he saw was me taking the apple without paying. He caught me, and tied my hands, quite loosely, and held them over my head. Then, he called one of his friends over, and told him to hold my hands. While the other man held my wrists, the merchant whipped me over and over again. For a while, I wasnít sure he would ever stop." The girl paused, a little nervous about her admission. When no one said anything, she continued, "But, eventually, he got tired, and stopped.

"Instead of letting me go, like I thought he would, he handed the whip to his friend, so he could do it. I didnít do anything to that man, I swear it!" she exclaimed, and Xena nodded, urging her to continue. "When his friend took the whip, he released my hands, I grabbed my staff, and I ran. It took me all of three seconds to get my hands free, but I kept running. I wasnít about to start a fight with a burning back. As I ran, the merchant threw his dagger at me, and hit my leg," the girl touched her leg softly, remembering. "I ran to where I had hidden my bag, and then I kept going, afraid he would follow me or send someone after me. I didnít get the apple, so I didnít eat all day. I saw your fish and I stopped. I was going to give you something for it, but then you found me, and I left," she said, looking towards Gabrielle. "I didnít stop until I fell, and ran into Xena," Taleah finished.

"What did that man mean when he said you stole his horse?" Xena asked, breaking the silence that had settled after Taleahís story.

"I didnít steal it, honest! It wasnít his! He had no right to own a horse, and I saved the animal." Seeing there was another story needed, Taleah sighed, again.

"It was three or four days ago, and I came across a man beating a horse. She was the most beautiful creature Iíd ever seen, and it hurt me to see her whipped like that. I didnít want to start anything right then and there, so I waited until nightfall, and then I got her out of that awful place. It was strange; when she was around the man, she was mean and uncooperative, but when I was around her, she was gentle and kind, and offered no resistance," Taleah said.

"Once I was sure we were safe, I tended to her wounds. She only had a few, and they werenít bad, but the salve helped her with the pain. I stayed with her through the night, and the next afternoon, I let her go," Taleah finished, and shrugged it off like it was no big deal.

Taleah looked over at Xena, noticing the strange look the warrior had on her face. "What did she look like?" asked Xena, quietly.

"The horse? Oh, she was a beautiful golden color with silver hair, and a heart of gold!" Taleah gushed.

"How long ago was it that you let her go?" Xena asked, still speaking softly.

"Three days ago, I think. Why? Do you think it might be your horse?" Taleah questioned. Xena nodded. "Well, you were right to stay here. If it was her, Iím sure sheíll find you," Taleah said.

The warrior sat next to her, and Taleah noticed that Xena kept rubbing her shoulder, as if it hurt. "Sore muscle?" she asked, and Xena nodded. The warrior had pulled it during an early morning drill, when she had overextended her arm.

Moving a little closer to Xena, Taleah moved Xenaís hair aside, and started to move the leather straps down off her shoulders, when she felt Xena stiffen. "Itís okay," she said, "Iíve got some stuff in my bag that will help."

After a few moments of thought, Xena nodded, and Taleah searched through her bag. Finding what she was looking for she brought out a small amount of the oil on her fingertips. Rubbing it into Xenaís skin, and massaging her shoulders at the same time, Taleah was glad when she felt Xena relax. When the oil had been rubbed in completely, Taleah stopped.

"Thank you, Taleah," said Xena, but Taleah was on pins and needles. She wasnít sure what the warrior would think of the next part. As if on cue, Xenaís eyes widened, and she glared at Taleah. "Thatís hot! What is it, Taleah?! What did you do?" she demanded, raising her arms as if to strike the young girl.

Brave as she was, it took nearly all of Taleahís courage to grab the angry warriorís hands, and keep them away from her. "Just wait," said Taleah. In a few moments, Xenaís face softened, and she took her hands away from Taleah.

"It doesnít hurt anymore," Xena said, and Taleah shook her head.

"Itís supposed to get warm, it helps relax the muscles so they arenít strained," Taleah explained.

"Taleah, Iím sorry, I shouldnítÖ" Xena began, but Taleah waved her off, again.

"No, itís all right. I should have told you what to expect," she said.

"Are you a healer?" asked Gabrielle.

Taleah blushed slightly, and shrugged. "I donít know," she said, modestly. "I just do what I can." She wasnít used to getting compliments, but it felt good in her heart.

"Have you ever thought of becoming an Amazon?" Gabrielle asked, and Taleah looked up at her, nodding.

"Iíd like to, and I even went to the Amazon Village once. The only one I know of is three days journey from here, and I asked them about joining, but they said the Queen had to make that decision, and she wasnít there. Iíve been back a few times, but sheís never been there." Gabrielle and Xena exchanged knowing looks, but let Taleah continue. "Besides," she added, "I donít think Iíd be of any use to them. I mean, I donít think theyíll like the means I go through to eat."

"But like you said, you donít steal, you trade," said Gabrielle. "Xena and I will take you there. Iíve heard that the Queen will be there, and youíre an excellent fighter. Iím sure theyíll let you in."

Taleahís eyes lit up. "You think so?" she asked, hopeful. Gabrielle and Xena both nodded.

"Youíd make a fine healer, too," Gabrielle added.

Suddenly, Taleah frowned. Moving swiftly, she took the dagger from a startled Xenaís boot, and stood, ready to throw it. She was facing Gabrielle, and for a moment, the warrior and bard thought Taleah might throw it at Gabrielle.

"That was a compliment," Gabrielle muttered, but Taleah didnít pay any attention to her. In a quick flick of her wrist, Taleah released the dagger. It sailed above the stunned bardís head, and went into a shrub about fifteen feet behind Gabrielle.

There was a cry of surprise from the man hiding in the bush, and Taleah strode over to the noise, reaching her hand in and withdrawing the would-be assassin. Holding him by the upper arm, one of the many pressure points she knew, she led the man over to Xena, and threw him on the ground by her feet.

Xena pressed her fingers into his neck, and said, "Iíve cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Youíll be dead in thirty seconds unless you start talking. Who sent you?" she demanded. The man said nothing. "Who sent you?" she demanded, again. "Answer me, or I just leave you here to die," she threatened.

"No one," the man choked out, seeing that Gabrielle was going on twenty seconds. "I did it myself."

"Why?" she asked, angry.

"To get to you. Hurt worse if she dies, than if you die," the man said, blood trickling down from his nose. Xena knew that the man was right, losing Gabrielle would be worse than death for her. Frustrated, she released the blood back into his brain, and knocked him unconscious with her fist.

"Taleah, whereís my dagger?" Xena asked, noticing that the man had no wounds on his body. Walking over to the bush, Taleah retrieved the loaded crossbow. The arrow was ready to be shot, but a dagger pinned it to the frame, stopping the release.

"You hit the arrow?" Gabrielle asked, finding her voice. Taleah nodded.

"ButÖ how? I didnít even hear that," Xena said, amazed.

Taleah shrugged. "I donít know, I justÖ felt it. And as for the arrow, I could see part of it through the leaves, so I knew where to aim," she explained, as if she had done nothing extraordinary.

Aiming the crossbow down towards the ground, Xena pulled out her dagger, and the arrow shot into the dirt, splintering against the hard ground.

"Thank you," said Gabrielle. "You saved my life." There was no longer any doubt in Gabrielleís heart, she trusted the girl completely.

"Hey, I still owe you both plenty," Taleah said. When the two women gave her curious looks, she said, "You fed me, took me in for the night, helped me practice, and took care of my wounds. I owe you."

"Speaking of wounds, let me take a look at your leg, Taleah," Xena said, and the girl nodded. She took off the bandage, and let Xena examine the cut. "Well, it appears to be healing nicely, and if you donít open it up again, I doubt thereíll even be a scar," she explained.

Taleah nodded. "There shouldnít be. The salve I have helps lower the chances of a scar," she said, and prepared to apply more salve on her leg. "I would have had plenty of scars all over my body if it werenít for that."

"But, then why are there scars on your back if the salve stops scarring?" Xena asked, cautiously.

"I canít tend to my own back, and no one has ever been willing to help me. Until you two," Taleah added. "Youíve got no idea how much I appreciate that. Anything you need, just ask. That reminds me," she said, "here." She handed the container with the salve, as well as the one with the oil for muscles, to Xena.

"I canít take this, Taleah," said Xena, and tried to hand them back. "Theyíre yours, and you use them."

Taleah insisted. "Thatís okay, I can make more pretty easily. Besides, itís the least I can do, to start to repay you both for your kindness. Those should last you a while," she added.

"You wonít let us leave without them, will you?" Xena asked, defeated.

"No way!" Taleah said, grinning.

Startling all three companions, a snort came from the bushes. Xena jumped up, recognizing the noise. "Argo?!" she exclaimed, and walked towards the sound. There, hidden behind some shrubs, was a dusty but healthy Palomino mare. "Argo!" she said, happily, when she saw her.

Gabrielle and Taleah followed. "Thatís the horse I helped. See?" Taleah said, and pointed to a very faint mark on the horseís flank. "That should be gone by tomorrow. How you doing, girl?" she asked Argo, and the horse nuzzled her, thankful. Xena hugged the horse around the neck, patted her on the nose, rubbed her ears, and Taleah was content just to pat Argoís back and shoulders. Gabrielle touched Taleahís shoulder gently, and motioned for them to leave. Nodding, she followed Gabrielle back to the campsite, leaving horse and owner to reunite.

"What are we going to do with him?" Taleah asked, nodding in the direction of the partially conscious man, still lying on the ground.

"Iíve got it," Gabrielle said, and walked over to the man. Pressing the staff to his throat, she growled, "Youíre lucky itís me talking to you and not my friend. Now, leave!" The man scrambled away, stumbling and tripping, but never once stopping.

"Whereís our smelly little assassin?" Xena asked, returning from Argo, promising to brush her later.

"I took care of him. He left," Gabrielle added, and saw the scowl on Xenaís face. Xena knew the scum had left alive, but she didnít think he deserved it. He tried to kill Gabrielle, for Zeusí sake! Trying to change the subject, Gabrielle asked, "Xena, whereís breakfast?"

"On the way. Be back in a minute," she said, and quickly retreated to find their food. A hungry Gabrielle is not a good thing, she thought, smiling to herself.

"I still feel like I should apologize for knocking you down like that," said Gabrielle. "Especially with your back, Iím really sorry."

Taleah gave her a small smile. "Forgiven; donít worry about it. You were just worried about Xena, trying to protect her. I understand," she said.

"Whereís your family?" Gabrielle asked, curious as to why Taleah had yet to make mention of any siblings. Or parents, for that matter. "Arenít your parents worried?"

Taleah looked down before she replied. She looks like Xena did when Taleah asked her about Argo, Gabrielle thought, but Taleahís response broke her thoughts.

"Iím an only child, Gabrielle. My mother died when I was very young, and my father died during battle eight summers ago. Iíve been on my own since then," she said, raising her head to meet Gabrielleís sorrowful gaze.

"Oh. Iím sorry," said Gabrielle. "Is that how you got so good with your staff?"

Taleah nodded, glad for a change of subject, no matter how slight. It was still hard to think about familyÖ "Experience," she agreed. "Okay," she said, "my turn. How did you meet Xena?"

Gabrielleís face lit up, glad to do the part of the bard. "Nearly four summers ago, when I was still a farm girl from Potedia, a warlord named Draco attacked my town. They were going to take all the women for slaves, but Xena saved us. I was so impressed by what she did, I asked her dozens of questions, and even got a few answers!" she joked, and was glad to see Taleah smile. "The elders in my village didnít like having her around, they had heard stories of her warlord days, and didnít think enough to see that she had changed.

"When she left, I somehow got the idea into my head to follow her. I found out where she was going, and left the same night. I had my first run in with a Cyclops, but was able to get out of that safely, and find Xena. I arrived in time to stop her village from stoning her; it seems they had the silly idea that Xena was still working with Draco, and then I practically forced her to take me with her. I donít think she was very happy with me for a while, but sheís learned that Iím not so bad," Gabrielle said, finishing her tale.

Xena walked in from the woods in time to hear the last part. "Learned how to tolerate her is more like it," she joked, giving Gabrielle a lop-sided grin. Gabrielle tried to glare at the warrior, but didnít want to jeopardize her chance at some of the rabbit Xena was holding, so she smiled.

Taleah laughed. "I find it hard to believe that a farm girl from Potedia forced anything on Xena!"

"Yeah, I need her around," replied Xena, grinning. "Sheís helped me out more times than I can count."

Gabrielle smirked. "No, she just keeps me around because without my cooking, sheíd starve to death!" In response, Xena tossed the rabbit to Gabrielle. Wordlessly, Gabrielle began to cook.

Once again, Taleah watched the food, and when it was nearly done, she approached it with a pinch of seasoning. "Do you mind?" she asked, looking at Xena before she did anything. Xena smiled slightly, and shook her head. Sprinkling the herbs on the food, which once again improved the flavor, the three ate.

"Howís your back feeling?" Xena asked, once they were finished eating.

"Better, thanks," replied Taleah. "It doesnít hurt nearly as bad as it did, and my leg hardly hurts at all."

"Feel up to a little practice?" Gabrielle asked, lightly.

Taleah smiled. "Sure!"

"Donít be surprised if she beats you, Gabrielle," Xena warned. "She beat me, fair and square." Suddenly, Gabrielle looked worried.

"Relax, Gabrielle. That was with a sword. When Iím up against someone with my same weapon, I donít always win," Taleah said, but a glance from Xena told her the warrior knew she was just saying that for Gabrielleís sake. Xena knew exactly how well she fought, staff or sword.

"Mind if I watch?" Xena asked. She wanted to see how much Gabrielle improved, and also wanted to see if Taleah had any new moves. Taleah and Gabrielle both shook their heads; Xena was welcome to join them.

The three walked to the clearing, the safest spot to practice, and Xena stood back, giving the two their space. The warrior noticed Taleah still had a slight limp, but not as bad as before. Facing each other, Taleah and Gabrielle nodded; the fight was on!

Gabrielle went for the left shoulder, the right side of the ribcage, and the left leg, but all were expertly blocked by Taleah. Gabrielle tried an overhead strike, wondering how Taleah would block it, but the girl was not stupid. Blocking horizontally would mean an open shot to her stomach from the other end of Gabrielleís staff, so she knocked it to the side, quickly returning the staff to itís defensive position.

All the while, Taleah was wondering whether or not she should let Gabrielle knock her down. There was a move she wanted to repeat, so she decided a short time on her back shouldnít be too bad. Deliberately forgetting to block the leg sweep, Taleah felt Gabrielleís staff hook her leg, and bring her down. As expected, Gabrielle stood, and held her staff to Taleahís neck.

Taleah grinned, an unsettling sight to the bard. One moment, Gabrielle was standing on her own two feet, and the next, she was flat on her back, and Taleah was back on her feet.

"Howíd you do that?" Gabrielle asked.

"Iíll show you," Taleah said, and laid back down, softly. "Stand like you were," she said, and Gabrielle mimicked her former position. "I reached my hand down, grabbed your leg, pulled it up, and then pushed it out," she explained each move as she did it, and by the time she said Ďand thení, Gabrielle was back on her butt. Taleah rose quickly, not realizing that so little time on her back could cause her so much pain.

"Can I try?" Gabrielle asked, and Taleah nodded.

"Sure, but Iíd appreciate it if Xena would stand in for me, as Iím not sure my back can handle getting thrown to the ground right now," she admitted, and Xena stepped forward. "All pride aside, warrior, prepare to get knocked on your butt," Taleah warned, but Xenaís expression did not change.

"Here," said Gabrielle, handing Xena her staff. Xena took it, and Gabrielle laid down on the ground, on her back. Xena positioned the staff near her neck, and stood beside her. Gabrielle did as Taleah had demonstrated, swiftly, and in a moment, Xena was on her back.

"Another thing," Taleah said, before Gabrielle could get up. She took her own staff, kneeled, and positioned the staff above Gabrielleís throat. "Now try it."

Gabrielle did her best, but could not move the girl. "I canít," she said.

Taleah nodded, and helped her up. "Thatís why I kneel," she said. Gabrielle nodded. Taleah offered a hand to Xena, who was still on her back. Xena gratefully accepted, and only Taleah noticed that she had had the wind knocked out of her.

"Thatís a good move," Xena praised, a subtle thanks that the girl understood, and Taleah smiled. "Care for a rematch?" Xena asked, and Taleah accepted. She knew this fight would be tougher, because Xena was experienced and Gabrielle was still learning, but she knew she could win. The question was, did she want to? Deciding to show one more move, Taleah knew before they even started that Xena would knock her off her feet - for only a moment.

Xena started out the same way, going for the shoulders, and the moves were blocked. The warrior made a jab for Taleahís stomach, but Taleah caught the edge of her blade with the side of her staff, held the staff vertical, and pushed to her left, diverting the sword. Taleah caught a slight smile on Xenaís face, and knew Xena had been impressed by her quick thinking.

Taleah didnít want to land on her back, so she turned around as if to block a strike, and Xena pushed the inside of her left knee with her foot - not hard enough to cause damage, but enough to push her to the ground. Taleah caught herself, but remained on her stomach.

"Not going to hold the sword on me, warrior?" Taleah asked, looking over her shoulder. Xena was wary of a trap, but seeing the staff had been knocked out of Taleahís hands and lay a few feet away, and Taleah was on her stomach with her hands above her head, she didnít think there was much the girl could do. As Taleah watched, Xena moved around to her side, and stepped in the two foot space that separated her ankles.

Wanting to wait until Xena had both feet in the space, but knowing that a warrior took big strides, Taleah closed her legs and grabbed Xenaís leg with her ankles. Turning quickly onto her right side, she twisted her body, and caught Xena off guard, twisting her leg back until she had no other choice than to fall - her knee didnít bend backwards. The warrior fell flat on her back. Taleah leapt up, grabbed her staff, kneeled, and positioned the staff by Xenaís neck, again.

Taleah grinned, noticing that Xena had had the wind knocked out of her again, and didnít move the staff until Xena nodded. Gabrielle suspected no weakness in her friend, only that Taleah had left the staff on her neck longer than necessary. Taleah offered her hand to Xena, but made sure Xena had a good grip on her arm before she rose from her kneeling position - she was almost never caught off guard. Xena smiled her thanks, and released Taleahís arm.

"Good move," Xena repeated. "Who taught you all of this?"

"Me. I just learned how to survive, and made my own moves that seemed to work. Also, I pay attention to my opponents, and learn some moves when they use them on me," Taleah said.

Xena nodded her acceptance; the girl was young, and yet knew about as much as Xena. Taleah alternated between Gabrielle and Xena, and the three practiced until it was time for lunch. Taleah only taught a few moves to Gabrielle, not nearly all the moves she knew. Despite pleadings from Gabrielle to teach her how to do that "ankle-grab-thing", Taleah let that move remain a secret; it was solely her own, and she wanted it to remain that way. That was one thing she remembered her father telling her - never teach anyone everything you know, or they will be an equal to you; only teach them what you want them to know.

By the time Xena returned with three small fish for lunch, all three of them had time to cool down and relax. It had been quite a workout, and they were all glad for the full water skins. When lunch was over, however, Gabrielle was forced to refill them.

Xena left for about an hour, just brushing and spending time with Argo. Taleah felt good that she had been able to help Xena with her horse, even if it was unwittingly. She was also glad that she knew the horse would be safe; she had worried for a while, wondering if the man would catch Argo again. She was still slightly on edge; if the man could get her once, she thought, he could do it again.

With all of them too exhausted to practice anymore, the three spent the hours until darkness talking. Even Xena joined in a couple of conversations, but she asked more questions than she answered. When the sun set, Xena retrieved more firewood, but let Taleah start the fire. The girl did well, and remembered all that Xena had told her the night before, and the fire lasted for a few hours without having to be tended to.

When darkness began, so did stories from the bard. Xena stayed for one tale about The Warrior Princess, but then left to do a perimeter check - she was gone three hours, knowing how long Gabrielle could talk. The warrior returned, only to find Gabrielle asleep, and Taleah staring into the fire. She held back a smile, as she realized this must have been how she and Gabrielle looked almost every night - the bard snoring, and Xena finding comfort with the flames.

"Sheís been out for a half hour, now," said Taleah, not looking up - she knew it was the warrior. "Donít like her stories?" she asked, and Xena sat down next to her.

"Itís not that! Sheís a very talented bard, but all of her stories are about me. She doesnít give herself enough credit, is what bothers me. Without her, I couldnít do half of the things that I do," Xena said, and Taleah nodded.

"Yeah, you two make a good team," she said. Then there was a minute of silence.

"Thank you," Xena said, finally, and Taleah looked confused.

"For what?" she asked, looking at Xena.

"For saving Gabrielleís life, and Argoís. And donít try to shrug it off," Xena said, stopping Taleah in mid-shrug, "because it is a big deal. If I lost Gabrielle, I donít know what Iíd do. And losing Argo is the same way."

"I understand. You love them both, youíd do anything for either of them. Theyíve become a major part of your life, and without them, you wouldnít feel complete," explained Taleah.

Xena looked at the girl, amazed. "Very wise for someone so young," she said.

"Iíve just been around a lot of people. My father used to tell me that I have a way with people. He said I can get them to open up, I can soothe them, and that I have an uncanny perception when it comes to peopleís feelings. I guess thatís true, because I can usually tell what people are feeling, and I try to help them," said Taleah.

The warrior was quiet for a while, but then she said, "You would make a great Amazon. I also wanted to thank you for understanding when we were practicing today. I was surprised when I had the breath knocked out of me, and I appreciate that you let me recover," she said, smiling.

"Hey, even the biggest warriors fall," Taleah said. Then she yawned, and stood. "Iíll sleep on the other side of the fire tonight. I know you didnít feel comfortable being in the middle last night," she said.

"You are good with peopleís feelings," said Xena, "but you donít have to move. If I sleep in the middle, I can protect you both."

Taleah grinned, but shook her head, and put her hand on the warriorís shoulder. "Thanks, but I can pretty much take care of myself. If I need anything, Iíll wake up Gabrielle," she said.

Xena protested, giving Taleah a raised eyebrow. "No, donít wake her, wake me. Waking me up in the middle of the night is much safer than waking her," she said, gesturing to the snoring bard. Taleah smiled, and nodded. Moving Xenaís blanket to the opposite side of the fire, she laid on her side, and was soon asleep. Xena watched the fire for a while longer, and then joined the bard, surprised at how quickly she fell asleep.

Two hours later, for some reason, Taleah awoke. She frowned, wondering what had caused her to awaken. Listening, she thought she heard something in the brush. Grabbing her staff, she went to investigate the sound, and was relieved to only find Argo.

"Hey, girl," she said, "you scared me." Despite the comfort of the company of the mare, Taleah could not shake the feeling of something being wrong. Suddenly, there was a restraining arm covering her mouth, and a knife at her neck.

"Make a sound, and the horse dies, got it?" threatened the voice, and Taleah shivered. She recognized the voice: it was the man who had beaten Argo; he had returned as she had feared! "Got it?!" he asked, roughly, when she didnít answer. She nodded. "Good, now leave your staff against the tree. If you donít cooperate, Iíll kill the horse right now!" he said, when she hesitated. Taleah leaned her weapon against a nearby tree, and was pushed ahead of the man, his hand still over her mouth, knife still on her neck.

"Weíre going down to the lake so your little friends wonít be able to hear you if you scream. I guarantee it, though, you scream, you and the horse die. And donít even try to escape or fight back, or you will be sorry," he said, and Taleah could only watch as they neared the water.

There was a large tree by the lake, and he moved her behind it. "Letís see," he mused, "how do we keep you from running?" Noticing the bandage on her leg, he grinned. Reaching down, he grasped her leg - purposely on the wound, and squeezed as hard as he could. "Not a sound," he reminded her, and she fell to the ground, whimpering softly. Satisfied that she wouldnít run, the man sheathed his dagger, and brought out the same whip he had used on Argo.

Taleahís eyes widened at the sight of it. "Oh, so I was right! The marks on your back are from a whip. Letís add a few more, shall we?" he said, gleefully, and proceeded to strike her with the whip. His torture was not limited to her back, he hit her stomach and even across her shoulder, catching her chest. The hit to the chest was only once, and even through her top, it hurt Taleah worse than any of the others. He didnít break any new skin, he just left many, many angry red welts all over Taleahís body.

Grabbing her throat, he dragged her roughly to her feet. "This is for stealing the horse!" he said, and backhanded her across her cheek. "This is for calling your little friends on me," he said, but was careful not to raise his voice too loud, in case Taleahís friendís did hear. He made a long list of things to blame her for, and many of them had nothing to do with Taleah. Each time he said something, he hit her face, until she had a split lip, a bloody nose, a bruised cheek, and a swelling eye. Seeing red through her good eye, Taleah knew that the man had reopened the wound to her head that he had given her before.

"This is for my wife leaving me!" he said, and hit her in the stomach.

"Smart woman," Taleah muttered, barely hanging on to consciousness.

Noticing she had spoken, the man punched her in the stomach, harder than before. "What was that?" he growled, drawing his knife to her neck again.

"I said, smart woman," Taleah repeated, in too much pain to care. He pressed harder on her neck, until a few drops of blood appeared. Then he stopped, and glanced up at the sky, putting the knife away. He determined it would be light in just two hours or so. Looking back to where Taleah had been, he saw her trying to limp away.

Taleah took her only chance, and slowly staggered away, but was quickly caught. The man pushed her to the ground, severely twisting her left ankle. She cried out in pain, and the man grabbed a handful of her hair, yanking her head up so she was forced to look at him.

"I told you youíd be sorry," he said, and kicked her hard in the side with the toe of his boot. "Once more," he said, and slapped her face again, before dropping her head and running off into the night. When the man left, Taleah did her best not to cry, but she failed. Tears of pain fell from her eyes, but only made the ache in her lip worse, as the salt seeped into her wound. Willing herself to stop crying, she took a deep breath, and tried to decide what to do.

Walking was obviously out of the question, since she couldnít stand on either of her legs. Looking down at her right leg, she saw that the cloth was soaked in fresh blood, and more ran down her leg. She didnít dare take off her left boot, for fear of what she would find. Finding that her arms didnít hurt too badly, she knew the only way for her to get back, was to drag herself.

Gripping the blades of grass, and struggling to pull her weight, she started to drag her body with her arms. The pain in every other part of her body was horrible, but she tried to ignore it, and concentrated on focusing her eyes, as she was seeing double. Only partly conscious, she continued to drag herself until she topped the hill that led to the lake. She hadnít realized how far the man had taken her, until she reached the top of the hill, and realized she was not even half of the way there. She didnít quite make it to the edge of the woods, when the pain became too much, and she lost consciousness, and lay on the ground.

Back at the campsite, the cold awoke Gabrielle, and she noticed that the fire had was almost completely burned out. Only a few glowing coals remained. She saw that she and Xena were the only two on that side of the fire, and figured that Taleah must have moved the blanket. Sure enough, on the opposite side of the fire, was Xenaís blanket, but it was empty. Gabrielle thought that Taleah had left to get more firewood, but when she saw a pile of it not far from the extinguishing fire, she became alarmed.

Turning to face Xena, she said, "Xena, wake up. Xena!"

Xena opened her eyes and turned to face an alert bard. "Gabrielle?" she mumbled, half asleep. It had been one of the first good nightís sleep she had gotten in a while, and wondered what reason Gabrielle could possibly have to wake her up.

"Xena, Taleahís gone," Gabrielle said.

"No, sheís not. She just moved to the other side of the fire," Xena said, assuming Gabrielle had seen the empty spot next to the warrior. Turning back over, she closed her eyes again.

"Xena! Sheís not there, either. I mean, her blanket is, but Taleahís not," Gabrielle corrected, and Xena sat up.

"Taleah?" she asked, the urgency of the situation sinking in. Gabrielle nodded, and Xena stood up. Walking towards the clearing, Xena stopped when she saw Argo. "Have you seen her, girl?" she asked, and Argo snorted. Nudging Xena, she drew the warriorís attention to the staff that was leaning against the tree. "Thatís Taleahís," she said, recognizing the weapon.

Xena continued, calling the girlís name. Then, in the light of the moon, she could make out something lying on the ground, just beyond the edge of the trees. "Taleah!" she cried, when she identified the shape. Rushing over to the girl, Xena felt little hope that the girl was still alive, from the battered appearance of her body. The shallow rise and fall of her back, as the girl fought to breathe, told Xena she was alive - but may not be for long. She noticed the indentations in the ground, and realized that Taleah must have dragged herself. With her injuries, and just the ones that she was able to see in the dim light, Xena was surprised the girl had the strength to go as far as she did.

Gathering the girl into her arms, Xena cringed as a soft moan of pain escaped Taleahís lips. "Sorry," Xena apologized, but the only way for her to carry her was grasp her around the shoulders, which meant touching her back. The girl was unconscious, and Xena could only hope she didnít feel much pain.

"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, as she neared the campsite. "Water and rags, now!" By the time the warrior had laid the girl on a blanket, Gabrielle had the materials ready.

"Oh, by the Gods, no," Gabrielle muttered, as she stoked the fire and the light illuminated Taleahís injuries. Even Xena seemed slightly taken aback, now that she could see the damage more clearly. The firelight made the girlís face stand out, showing her bruised cheek and the blood on her face, as well as her black eye. Not only that, but there was blood on her neck, that trailed down her throat. Ugly red welts stood out on her stomach, sides, and even her chest. Gabrielle was afraid to see her back, for she knew it could only be worse.

Noticing blood on the blanket that Taleah was lying on, Gabrielle saw that her leg wound had reopened, and was bleeding profusely. She also observed the angle of her left ankle, and winced at the pain Taleah would feel if she came to. When, Gabrielle corrected herself, not if, when.

Xena set to work right away cleaning Taleahís wounds. She started with her face, wiping the blood from her nose and lip, and then putting cold water on the bruises. She cleaned the concussion on her forehead again, relieved that while it had reopened, it wouldnít need stitches. Washing the cut on her neck, Xena was pleased to see that it wasnít much more than a scratch, and wouldnít need stitches. There was nothing she could do for the hand-print on her throat, so she was forced to leave it.

Moving on down, the warrior was angered when she saw the red mark that went from her shoulder diagonally down to her side, leaving a trail across the top of her breast. Oh, thought Xena, this is going to hurt even worse in the morning. She put cold water on all of the welts, hoping to keep the swelling down, and her breath caught in her throat when she saw the large purple bruise on her stomach. Feeling Taleahís sides, Xena deduced that two of her left ribs were cracked, but not broken.

Seeing the blood that oozed through the rag on her leg, Xena unwrapped it, and began to clean it. The stitches had been torn out, and Xena re-stitched the wound once she had wiped all the blood away, and stopped the bleeding. She removed both of Taleahís boots, only to find the right one soggy with soaked up blood, and the left one hiding a swollen ankle. Xena straightened the joint, and placed a cold rag over it, to hopefully stop further swelling.

Gently, Xena rolled Taleah on her side, so she could look at her back. Relieved that none of the wounds had reopened, she cleaned the numerous welts, and then put Taleah on her back, again.

"Thatís all I can do for her," Xena said, handing the rags and water to Gabrielle.

"But, sheíll be okay, wonít she?" asked Gabrielle.

"I donít know for sure. Sheís strong, but sheís taken quite a beating," said Xena. Secretly, she was worried that Taleah hadnít made any noise since she had first found her, and that could mean it would be a while before Taleah regained consciousness. Xena took her blanket and softly laid it over the girl, before sitting on a nearby log to watch over her.

"Who did this?" Gabrielle asked, cleaning the rags.

"I donít know, but I hope she does," Xena replied, nodding towards the unconscious girl.

Xena kept watch through the night, but there was no change by dawn. A few hours afterwards, Gabrielle complained of being hungry, so Xena sent her down to the lake to fish, making sure she took her staff. Not long after Gabrielle left, Taleah started tossing and turning.

"Hey, easy there, little one," Xena said, moving to her side, putting her hand on her head. Just as Xena had feared, Taleah had acquired a fever. Wetting a cloth with cold water, Xena placed it on the girlís forehead, and stroked her hair. The girl calmed, and lay still, but did not regain consciousness.

The fever was most likely caused by infection, so Xena looked over Taleahís wounds again. Seeing the swollen red edges of her leg wound, Xena determined that that was where the fever was fueling. She washed it with cool water, and then double checked her sutures. Remembering the ointment that Taleah had given them, Xena searched through the saddlebag, and found it. Putting the creme on the wound, Xena hoped it would help fight the infection and bring the fever down, before the girl got worse.

Another hour passed by, and Taleahís condition remained unchanged. Xena had just gotten up to tend to the fire, when the girl moaned. The warrior was by her side in an instant.

"Taleah?" she asked, hopeful that the girl would come to soon.

"ArgoÖ" she mumbled, obviously in distress.

"ShhÖ Argoís all right, sheís fine," Xena said, and after repeating this several times, the girl seemed to relax. Feeling her forehead, Xena determined that the fever had lowered, but had yet to break completely. She replaced the cool rag, and then sat by Taleahís side, stroking her hair and trying to talk her into waking up.

"Anything?" Gabrielle asked, entering the campsite with two fish. It was nice to see Xena so concerned over the young girl.

"Not really. Sheís got a fever, but she hasnít come to yet. She muttered something about Argo a few minutes ago, but that was all," Xena said.

"Hungry?" she asked, holding up the fish. "I caught two."

Xena shook her head. "No, not right now. You go ahead and eat, though," she said, never taking her eyes off Taleahís flushed face.

"You need to eat," Gabrielle said.

"Not right now," Xena repeated, firmly. Gabrielle didnít take offense, she knew the warrior was just worried. The bard cooked her own fish, and ate it quickly. Xena never moved away from Taleahís side, somehow knowing the girl felt safe with her nearby, and also feeling peaceful around the girl.

"Gabrielle, will you refill the water skins, please?" asked Xena, wanting to replace the cloth on Taleahís forehead, only to find that they had no water. Wordlessly, Gabrielle collected the skins, and went down to the river.

"Mm," moaned Taleah, and opened her good eye, trying hard to focus.

"Taleah?" asked Xena. Taleah looked at Xena in response. "How you doing, little one?"

"Hurts," she whispered, her throat dry, and her lips cracked. It hurt to talk, so that was all she said.

"I know. I know it does," Xena said, soothing the girl. "Gabrielle will be back with water in just a minute, okay?" Taleahís nod was barely noticeable, but Xena saw it. Gabrielle returned shortly, and handed the water skins to Xena, who tried to decide how to get Taleah to drink it.

"I knew youíd be all right, Taleah," said Gabrielle, seeing that Taleah was awake. Taleah focused on the voice, and the corner of her mouth twitched, a weak attempt at a smile.

"Taleah, Iím going to raise your head to help you drink, okay? Iíll try not to hurt you," Xena said, and Taleah gave another nearly imperceptible nod. Xena slipped her hand under the girlís neck, and supported her head, while touching the water skin to her lips. Most of the water dribbled down her chin, but some of it got into Taleahís mouth, and she swallowed. Xena withdrew the skin, and looked questioningly at Taleah, who nodded that she was finished.

"Hurts," she repeated, slightly stronger than before.

"What hurts?" Xena asked, handing Gabrielle the water skin.

"You name it," Taleah said, her mouth twitching again. Xena smiled at the girlís attempt for humor, she had a strong spirit.

"Let me rephrase that. What hurts the most?" Xena asked, still smiling.

Taleah was silent for a moment, as she thought about everything that hurt, and tried to pick the one that was the worst. "My stomach," she decided. The middle of her stomach was throbbing from the bruise, and her sides hurt from the cracked ribs. Each breath caused her pain.

"It hurts when you breathe, doesnít it?" Xena questioned, having experienced cracked and broken ribs many times.

"Yeah. Breathingís a silly little necessity," Taleah said, and immediately decided that laughing hurt much worse than breathing, and tried to control her jokes. Xena smiled again.

"You said something about Argo earlier," Xena reminded. "What did you mean?"

Taleahís eyes widened as she remembered what had happened. "Is she okay?" she asked, and was relieved to see Xena nod. "It was the man who had her before, he came back," she explained. "Said he would kill Argo if I didnít do what he wanted."

Xena cringed. Taleah had risked her own life for Argoís, again. "DidÖ did he do anything else?" Xena asked, wondering what the man had Ďwantedí.

Taleah shook her head, then decided that made her dizzy, and stilled. "No, just this," she said, understanding all too well what Xena meant.

"Can you tell us what happened?" Gabrielle asked, softly.

"Iíll try," Taleah replied. "I woke up in the middle of the night, because I heard something in the bushes. At first I thought it was just Argo, but then he came up behind me, and covered my mouth and put a knife against my neck. He said if I made a sound, he would kill Argo. Then he told me to leave my staff, and he took me down to the lake.

"He grabbed my leg, and squeezed my wound, to make sure I wouldnít run." Xena flinched, realizing how painful it must have been, the feeling of the stitches coming out one-by-one. "Then he whipped me," said Taleah, continuing, "on my back, and my stomach, and my chest. He grabbed my throat and pulled me to my feet, and he started hitting me, blaming me for every bad thing in his life.

"He hit me in the stomach when I made a smart remark, and then put the knife to my neck, and put pressure on it, but not a lot. When he checked to see how long until dawn, I tried to get away, but he knocked me down. Thatís how I twisted my ankle. He kicked me in the sides, and then he left," said Taleah. "I tried to get back to camp, but I didnít make it." Her throat was dryer than before, and she started coughing. Xena tried to support her, to try and lessen the pain, but each cough sent spasms of pain through her battered body.

"Thatís enough talking for now, little one," said Xena, unconsciously using the same nickname for Taleah that Xenaís mother used for her. Taleah nodded, and tried to get comfortable. Deciding that comfort wouldnít be possible for a while, she closed her good eye, and was soon asleep. Talking had taken a lot out of her, and she was glad Xena had noticed, because she had no doubt that Gabrielle would have continued with her questions.

Taleah slept through the afternoon, and Xena was glad the fever didnít seem to be returning. Gabrielle pestered Xena to eat something, and she nibbled on the fish for a while. Usually Gabrielle was good at sitting still for long periods of time, and it was Xena who was restless, but the bard became fidgety. Taking one of her scrolls, she set out for the clearing, hoping a change of scenery would help.

Taleah awoke, and saw that Xena was leaning against a tree a few feet away, starting to doze off. She decided that sitting up might be a little more comfortable, so she braced her entire body for the shocks of pain that were sure to emit from her moving, and tried to get up. The first attempt sent a wave of nausea through her, and almost caused her to pass out, but she steeled against it, and tried again. Groaning, she supported herself with her arms, and was able to get her back two or three inches off the ground, but that was all.

Her sounds of pain awakened the lightly sleeping warrior, who was surprised to see Taleah trying to sit up. Xena went to her side, took her by the shoulders, and slowly assisted her. Eventually, after two more waves of dizziness and one of nausea, she was sitting up.

"Thanks, Princess," Taleah muttered. Xena raised an eyebrow at that title. "Gabrielle told me stories of the Warrior Princess. Do you mind?" Taleah asked, suddenly worried that she had offended the warrior.

Xena shook her head. "No, I donít mind. At least if someone calls me ĎPrincessí, Iíll know who it is," she said, smiling. Taleah did her best to smile, and while it was more recognizable than before, it was not a full smile.

"If I had a big sister, Xena, I think I would want her to be like you," said Taleah. She was able to identify the pull she felt towards Xena, now - she felt like a sister.

"Thanks," Xena said, moved. She was about to say more, when Taleahís face took on a strange appearance. "Taleah?" she asked, concerned.

"I donít feel good," said Taleah.

Xena nodded. "I know," she said, but Taleah shook her head.

"No, I mean, I think Iím going to be sick," said Taleah, and Xena responded quickly. Helping the girl to lean over, Xena held her and tried to comfort her as Taleah vomited. "Remind me," she said, finished, and sitting up again, "not to sit up on my own again."

"Just call me and Iíll help you, okay?" said Xena. "You donít have to do everything on your own, you know."

"Okay, sis," said Taleah, and Xena grinned. "Howís my eye?" she asked.

"Not as bad as it was. You should be able to see through it by tomorrow," said Xena.

"And my ankle?" asked Taleah, glancing down at her left ankle.

"That should be okay in a few days. The cold compress helped. Your leg should be better by then, too; that salve really helps," said Xena, and Taleah nodded.

"When can we leave for the Amazon village?" asked Taleah, hopeful.

"Youíre really anxious to get there, arenít you?" said Xena, smiling.

Taleah nodded. "Yeah, I want to meet the Queen, to see if sheíll like me. Are you sure sheíll be there?" she asked.

Xena gave her a knowing smile. "Iím sure. Weíll leave whenever youíre ready," she said, answering Taleahís first question.

"Tomorrow?" questioned Taleah.

Xena looked at Taleah, serious. "I donít know if youíll be ready to travel by then," she said. "You certainly wonít be able to walk, and if you canít sit up, thereís no way you can ride Argo."

"Oh, Argoís a gentle ride. I rode her bareback for a while before I let her go," said Taleah, in response to Xenaís surprised look. "And I heal pretty quickly, when I have time to rest. Iím not used to getting this kind of treatment; this is a real treat," she said.

"Why didnít you talk before?" asked Xena, sitting beside Taleah.

"Most people donít want to hear what I have to say, and when I tell them what I do, they get angry. Iíve learned that if I donít talk, I donít get myself into trouble, and I wonít be in anyoneís way. At least," she said, remembering the apple and the fish, "I try not to be."

Xena sympathized. "Itís hard convincing people youíre not the troublemaker they think you are," she said, and Taleah looked up at her.

"Youíve had experience with things like that, I see," said Taleah, once again accurately reading Xenaís feelings. "The warlord image can be hard to get rid of."

It was Xenaís turn to look at Taleah. "How did you know?"

"Oh, Iíve heard of the mighty Xena, Destroyer of Nations," explained Taleah.

"Then why didnít I see any hate in your eyes, when Gabrielle told you my name?" asked Xena, confused. If Taleah knew what she had done, why wasnít she angry? Why didnít she react like everyone else?

"Truthfully, I didnít think it was you. I had never seen that Xena, and no one had ever told me too much about her, so I didnít know what to expect. I thought it was just a coincidence that you had the same name," said Taleah. "But, when I heard Gabrielleís stories, I learned that Xena died a long time ago. A few people still hear Xena and think warlord, believe me, but those people are getting less and less, thanks to your friend."

"So most people donít treat you like Gabrielle and I do, huh?" asked Xena, glad for a change in the subject. Her past had never been a very pleasant topic for the ex-warlord.

"Nah, Iíve got it good," said Taleah, grinning. "Most people wouldnít give me a second glance, much less take care of me the way you two have. Like I said before, I owe you," she added. Xena was about to protest, to say that she would always owe her for saving Gabrielleís life, when Taleah coughed violently. "Oh, not a good idea," she moaned, holding her sides after she could breathe.

"Enough, now. You rest, little one," said Xena. The warrior had connected with Taleah quickly, and thought of her like a younger sister. She thought nothing of the loving nickname.

"Whatever you say, Princess," said Taleah, and Xena helped her to lie down, an agonizingly painful process that had to be done. Once she was on her back, and as comfortable as she could possibly be, Taleah closed her eyes. Xena waited until Taleahís breathing steadied, before leaving her side to think about lunch.

After eating a little bread and cheese, Xena got up to check on Argo, as well as Gabrielle. The warrior found Argo peacefully grazing around the campsite, and patted her lovingly.

"You have no idea how much that girl cares for you, do you, Argo?" Xena asked, stroking the mare. "Sheís risked her life twice for you, now. I think she wants to ride you soon. Can you do that, Argo? Will you be easy on her?" she questioned. The mare snorted her response. The horse sensed that Taleah cared for her, almost as much as Xena did, and would be as gentle with her as she could. "Good girl," said Xena, smiling. Leaving Argo in the grassy area, she left to search out Gabrielle.

 

Continues


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