The following story contains extreme violence and rather graphic descriptions of the aftermath of these events. If this kind of thing bothers you, you might want to reconsider reading it.
If you do decide to read it, be forewarned--I don't think it will be an "easy read," because it certainly wasn't an "easy write", but it was rather cathartic for me.
Xena:Warrior Princess and the characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are the sole property of MCA/Universal. The author intends no copyright infringement.
"But I feel fine now!" Gabrielle insisted as she watched Xena packing the saddlebags.
They had been camped in the forest clearing for three days, because the little bard had gotten sick after they'd left the last village and had spent the last two days vomiting and retching, retching and vomiting. She'd even thrown up the tea Xena had brewed for her, insisting it would settle her stomach. But Gabrielle was finally able to keep the tea down last night and had even eaten a bit of biscuit for breakfast that morning and so far so good.
"You're feeling better, but you're not fine yet," Xena said as she finished saddling Argo.
"Oh, I am, too!" Gabrielle said, beginning to get a little irritated with her dark-haired companion. "I don't want to be left behind while you get to have all the fun running that warlord out of Apollonia!"
Xena whirled around and pinned the bard with icy blue eyes.
"Dealing with the likes of Minolais is not fun!"
"Oh, I know that! It was just a figure of speech! What I mean is I'm not going to wait here like a good little girl while you go--"
"Yes, you are!" the warrior said in that tone of voice she reserved for those times when she would brook no challenge to her authority.
"I thought we were partners...a team," Gabrielle said, emotion about to get the best of her. "Well, fine! You don't want me around, I'll--"
"Gabrielle!" Xena said harshly, then took a deep breath. Her attempt to control her temper was not lost on the bard, who found herself resenting her friend's attitude. "It's not that I don't want you around, but you've been sick, sicker than you're probably aware, and you need to rest and get your strength back--"
"I'm not finished!" the warrior snapped, then immediately regretted the hurt expression she'd caused to appear on her best friend's face.
Dammit, she thought, why does everything have to be so difficult?
"Look, you were really sick and you're still pretty weak. I don't want you getting hurt."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but a warning glare from the warrior caused her to rethink this action.
"If you come with me, my attention will be divided when it comes to dealing with Minolais and his men. You may think you're completely well, but I know better and I'd be constantly watching out for you and then I could get hurt. You don't want that to happen, do you?"
"Well, of course not...."
"Good! Then it's settled."
Xena turned and mounted Argo, then looked down at her friend.
"I shouldn't be more than a couple of days. If you behave yourself and rest up and start getting some solid food into you, you should be back in peak condition by the time I return. Then we can head for Corcyra. Okay?"
"Yeah, sure," Gabrielle said, not at all agreeing with Xena's decision, but knowing from past experience she wasn't going to win.
"Alright. I'll see you in a couple of days."
The warrior turned Argo north and spurred her into a trot just as she heard the little bard behind her say, "You win. You don't win fair, but you win."
Dammit! Xena thought as she urged the mare into a run.
The next day, Xena was riding back south in the warm afternoon sun.
"What a waste of time," she mumbled to herself as she neared the campsite.
After traveling most of the previous day, she had arrived at Apollonia only to be told Minolais and his men had left early that morning.
She'd spent the night at the inn, a tiny, dirty place, but at least the bed was clean or so she'd kept telling herself each time she was awakened by the drunken brawling downstairs. Finally, just before dawn, unable to go back to sleep, she had packed up her saddlebags and turned Argo south.
As she rode into their camp, her eyes search left and right for her friend. Sliding down off Argo, she called out, "Gabrielle!"
No response. Nothing but the twittering of a bird high in the trees and the distant sound of a waterfall.
"Gabrielle!" she called out again, having difficulty keeping the irritation out of her voice.
Again, no response.
"Dammit, where are you?" the warrior muttered as she moved off to the left toward the lake a few hundred yards away. Skirting a large boulder, she stopped.
Oh, Tartarus, she thought, if I'm going down there, I might as well take the waterskins and refill them. It'll save time later.
She turned to head back to Argo, then froze, the blood draining from her face so rapidly she had to reach out to steady herself against a tree. She needed a moment to absorb what she saw and grasp the full horror of it.
Before checking to see if her trembling legs would support her, she stumbled to the right towards the small figure staked out, spread-eagle, in the dirt just past the boulder. There was no doubt in her mind who it was - the tangle of blonde hair matted with blood clearly identified the victim in Xena's mind.
She fell to her knees beside the brutalized body of her best friend. Tears ran down the warrior's face as she tried to bring the healer in her to the fore. Her eyes ran over Gabrielle's body, assessing the devastating damage.
The little bard's face was all but unrecognizable. Both eyes were hugely swollen shut and mottled with the horrid, deep, painfully dark purple of massive bruising. A deep gash from her left temple to her mouth had bled profusely, but was now clotted and matted with dirt and strands of the blonde's hair. Blood still seeped from her badly torn lips.
Xena placed shaking fingers beneath Gabrielle's battered and broken nose. Nothing. Not even the smallest whisper of breath. She moved them to the side of her friend's throat, terrified she wouldn't feel even the slightest flutter of life. Then a gasp of relief caught in her throat as she felt the smallest, feather-like pulse reach her trembling fingers.
"Thank the gods," she whispered as her eyes continued their tear-filled inspection of the horrendous damage her friend had incurred.
The little bard's naked body was horribly bloody. A livid, diagonal bruise across her stomach drew Xena's eyes and told her the young woman had received a powerful strike with a staff or some other long, narrow weapon. Crusted blood on Gabrielle's breasts couldn't hide the tell-tale evidence of bite marks. Finally, the massive quantity of blood on and between her friend's legs jolted Xena into action.
She removed the breast dagger and gingerly cut the ropes binding her friend's hands and feet to the four stakes. Then, tears still tracking down her cheeks, she gently slipped her arms beneath the bard's back and legs and started to lift her from the ground, only to be stopped by a pain-induced groan.
Fighting back sobs, Xena carefully lowered Gabrielle the few inches back to the ground, then rose and ran around the boulder and across the campsite to Argo. From the saddlebags, she snatched a half-full waterskin, a wad of cloth and her healing pouches, then sprinted back to again fall to her knees beside her unconscious friend.
Tearing off a strip of cloth, Xena uncorked the waterskin and sloshed some of its contents onto the rag, which she then used to tenderly clean the dirt and dried blood from Gabrielle's face.
When a feather-light touch near the little bard's grotesquely swollen right eye drew another moan of pain, a sudden influx of tears all but blinded Xena and she murmured, in a voice choked with emotion, "Oh, gods, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry. If I'd let you come with me, this never would have happened."
Almost frantic with worry and guilt, Xena worked feverishly for over three hours, first cleaning the blood and dirt from her friend's body, then suturing and dressing the dozens of cuts and gashes.
The slash from the bard's left temple to her mouth took 36 stitches and the warrior worked tirelessly sewing 23 tiny sutures in and around Gabrielle's mouth.
When cleaning the bard's leg's, Xena discovered her friend was still oozing blood at her groin. Her attempt to gently, softly sponge the area clean elicited the most heart-wrenching groans of pain yet and the warrior instantly ceased her ministrations, a sob catching in her throat.
For the first time in three and a half hours, Xena left her friend's side to retrieve the other, empty waterskin from the campsite and carried the two containers down to the lake where she filled them both.
She then walked several hundred yards up and down the shoreline gathering an armload of moss, which she soaked in the cold lake and carried back to lay on a bed of leaves she pulled from nearby trees.
Once again, she knelt in the dirt beside Gabrielle and carefully, gingerly rotated the little bard's right knee towards her, then packed some of the icy cold, wet moss between her friend's legs.
When this elicited another moan of agony from deep in the bard's throat, Xena murmured, "I know...I know, but I've got to stop the bleeding...you've lost so much blood already."
She then rotated the knee back so the leg was again straight and looked at Gabrielle as if, by confronting the agonizing damage, she could soothe the pain in her heart and calm herself.
Having done all she could for her friend, Xena wearily tended to a patiently waiting Argo, removing the saddle and giving the mare some food and water.
The warrior couldn't bear to leave the little bard's side for long--as though to do so would ensure her injuries were permanent, while sheer stubborn denial might eventually cause a miraculous rehabilitation.
On her way back to her friend, Xena finally noticed what she had consistently missed seeing earlier: Gabrielle's torn and bloody clothes where they had been tossed to the ground a few feet from where the little bard lay. The warrior picked them up and gently laid them on Argo's saddle, planning to wash and mend them later.
Then she saw the trampling of footprints--not hers and too large to be the bard's. For long moments, they were all that existed for her: footprints and her guilt, defined by footprints and her fury.
Too exhausted to build a fire, Xena fell almost immediately into a fitful sleep on the bare ground next to the little bard, having given up her blanket so she could cover Gabrielle with both of them to protect her friend's poor, naked body from the chill night air.
Each of the half dozen times the warrior awoke during the night, she either re-wet the packing between the bard's legs or completely replaced it with fresh, damp moss made icy by the cool air.
Just before dawn, Xena knew further sleep was a lost cause and arose to build a fire a few yards away. She retrieved their cooking pot from the campsite and what food staples they had left from Argo's saddlebag, then poured the rest of the water into the pot. She cut up the remainder of their dried meat and added it to the water, then dropped in a few herbs from her healing pouch and set the pot on the fire.
Moving back to sit by the little bard, she took her friend's hand, one of the few places on her poor body which had sustained minimal damage.
"Gabrielle," she said softly, hoping the bard was just sleeping now. "Gabrielle?"
The little bard was frighteningly pale. Waxy skin. A gray tint to her lips. Her blonde hair lank and stringy with dried sweat and crusted blood.
Oceans of guilt washed through the warrior in endless, corrosive tides. Oh, gods, she thought, this is my fault, all my fault, and she lowered her head, allowing her tears of grief and guilt to flow freely.
After several minutes, she released the bard's hand and gingerly lifted the blankets from her legs to inspect the packing, then reached for the supply of moss only to remember she'd used the last of it several hours before.
She rose and returned to the cooking pot to stir its contents, then, with one more glance at her friend, picked up the empty waterskins and walked down to the lake where she refilled the skins, then moved along the bank gathering more moss, which she again soaked in the early morning icy lake.
Turning to leave, she spotted some reeds swaying near the shore and plucked two out of the water, then picked up the waterskins and hurried back to camp.
After depositing the moss and reeds on the bed of leaves and dropping the waterskins near the unconscious bard, the warrior turned to the cooking pot. Picking up the spoon, she stirred the thin broth, then tasted it. Satisfied, she spooned some into one of their cups, then returned to her friend's side where she set the bowl on the ground to cool.
Lifting the blankets again and rotating Gabrielle's knee towards her, she removed the packing and gasped at the sight the early morning light revealed. Most of the dried blood had been soaked away during the night exposing horrendously mutilated and swollen tissue.
Tears rising in her eyes, Xena whispered, "Oh, Zeus...how will you ever forgive me?"
She reached for a handful of the cold, wet moss and gently packed it against the devastated area. The groan rising to the bard's lips was a little stronger than the night before, raising the warrior's hopes that her friend would regain consciousness soon.
She carefully straightened the little bard's leg and replaced the blankets, then reached for one of the reeds from the pile of damp moss. With the breast dagger, she cut a six-inch section of reed and inspected its interior. Satisfied the thin broth would flow freely through it, she reached a hand out to turn her friend's bruised and battered face towards her, then drew some of the thin broth through the reed into her own mouth.
She gently pried her friend's torn lips apart, placed one end of the reed between them and allowed the broth to slowly travel down the reed and into the little bard's mouth. At least half of it dribbled from between Gabrielle's lips and ran down her neck, but half didn't and Xena was relieved to see the bard swallow, knowing it would take time, but that she would be able to get the much needed food into her friend's brutalized body.
After half an hour of this tedious, but gratifying, undertaking, the cup was empty and Xena rose to begin packing.
When they'd set up camp, they hadn't expected to be there more than a day or two, but now the warrior knew it would be several weeks before the bard would be able to travel and better accommodations were in order. She decided a cave she had noticed the day before, about a mile north, would do very nicely.
After washing the cup and utensils in the lake, she stowed everything in the saddlebags, except the pot containing the remainder of the broth, a smaller pot into which she put the damp moss, and one of the blankets, which she left covering the little bard. She then saddled Argo and slowly rode north with the two pots cradled in her arms.
Entering the cave, Xena knew she couldn't have found a better place to shelter Gabrielle during the long days and nights of her recuperation.
The chamber was large enough to accommodate Argo with a ceiling as high as twenty feet in some places and as low as ten in others, one half smooth and slanted, the other half composed of countless boulders jammed together in a tight, mutually supportive mosaic and its entrance could be easily camouflaged with a bush or two to prevent any unwanted visitors.
She dismounted and carefully placed the pots near the wall, then went back outside to cut the newest, softest evergreen twigs she could find and formed them into a soft bed on one side of the cave and spread the blanket she'd brought with her over it.
She then rode back south, spurring Argo into a run to cover the distance in the shortest time possible.
Once back at the campsite, she stood looking down at her friend, trying to decide the best and, most importantly, least painful to Gabrielle way of transporting her to the cave.
Putting the little bard on Argo was out of the question. The jostling that would entail would cause unnecessary distress to the bard and Xena didn't think her own heart could take the groans of agony sure to emanate from her friend were she to attempt such a thing.
She could always build a travois, but its use would necessitate picking Gabrielle up twice, once to place her on it and once to remove her when they reached the cave. Again, one too many chances of inflicting pain on the little bard.
No, Xena reasoned, the least painful for Gabrielle would be if I carry her.
That decided, the warrior lifted the blanket from her friend's legs and gently removed the packing from between them, then replaced the blanket and ever so carefully slipped her arms under Gabrielle's back and legs and stood, steeling her heart against the moans this elicited.
The little bard's battered head nestled beneath her chin, the warrior started the long walk to the cave, careful to avoid jostling her friend any more than was absolutely necessary, but each groan bringing fresh tears to the warrior's eyes.
Finally reaching the cave, with Argo following, Xena gently lowered the bard to the bed of evergreen, retrieved the pot of moss from where she'd placed it by the wall and gingerly placed a fresh handful of the cold, damp packing at her friend's brutalized groin, the act of which again drew agonizing groans of pain from Gabrielle and a stab to the heart of the warrior.
After replacing the blanket over the bard's legs, Xena went out and led Argo into the cave, removed her saddle and placed some grain and a pan of water on a nearby rock. Sensing the warrior's distress, the mare gently nuzzled her.
"Thanks for understanding, girl," Xena said as she lovingly patted the horse.
She strode outside again to gather wood and built a fire near Gabrielle, which she hoped would help keep the little bard warm. She then put the pot of broth on the large stone she'd placed at the edge of the fire and went out to locate some camouflage for the cave entrance.
Finding a large bush and a couple of smaller ones, she chopped them down and hauled them back to erect a few feet from the entrance, stabilizing them with several large rocks.
Pleased with the way the camouflage looked, Xena re-entered the cave to find the broth ready to eat. She added a few more healing herbs to it, then spooned some into a cup and returned to the bard's side to repeat the time consuming and somewhat messy process of feeding her friend.
That night, Xena again bedded down next to Gabrielle and was continually awakened by the bard's thrashing about and crying out, all of which signaled to the warrior that she would soon be regaining consciousness.
At dawn, Xena saddled Argo and led her out of the cave into the brisk morning. She was going down to the lake to catch their breakfast and was several hundred yards away from the cave when a blood-curdling scream ripped through the morning air. She instantly turned the mare and spurred her to run the short distance back to the source of the scream.
Not waiting for the horse to come to a complete stop, Xena jumped off and ran back into the cave where she found Gabrielle propped up on her elbows, screaming and shaking so violently it frightened the warrior. Xena rushed to kneel by her side, but, when she reached out to touch the bard, Gabrielle's screams changed from shrieks to one word:
"Gabrielle, it's me," Xena said, trying to make her voice soothing. When she spoke again, it was in a whisper. "Gabrielle...it's okay...it's me...no one's going to hurt you any more."
Slowly, the bard's screams dwindled to a pathetic mewling.
Tears filling her eyes, the warrior whispered, "Oh, Gabrielle, I am so sorry. This was all my fault."
Slowly, painfully, the little bard turned toward the source of the gentle, soft words and Xena could see her friend was effectively blinded by the swelling around her eyes.
"Xena?" she whimpered. "Oh, Xena...."
The warrior reached out again to take her friend in her arms, but, when she touched Gabrielle's shoulder, the bard cringed and screamed again.
"NO! DON'T TOUCH ME!!"
Xena froze, her hand in mid air, fresh tears tracking down her cheeks.
At the sound of her name, the little blonde turned back toward her friend.
"I'm here...I'm here."
The bard fell back onto the evergreen bed and brought her hands up to her battered face.
"Oh, Xena," she whimpered. "Oh, gods, Xena...they...they...."
"Shhh. I know...I know. But I'm here now and no one's going to hurt you any more."
Xena started to reach out to touch the little bard again, then thought better of it and said, "Gabrielle, give me your hand...it's okay...it's me...no one's going to hurt you...please...give me your hand."
Hesitantly, fearfully, the blonde removed a hand from her face and began to reach for her friend, but, when Xena's hand touched hers, she again screamed and jerked away as if she had been burned.
"Gabrielle, listen to me...listen to the sound of my voice...don't think about anything but the sound of my voice."
The little bard's crying began to abate in response to the almost hypnotic sound and cadence of the warrior's soft, gentle tones.
"That's right...that's right...only the sound of my voice...nothing else...I'm going to place my hand on the bed...."
The little bard gasped in fear.
"I'm not going to touch you...listen to my voice...only the bed...."
Xena slowly reached out and laid her hand on the evergreen bed. Gabrielle cringed.
"It's just me, Gabrielle...it's Xena...we're the only ones here...listen to the sound of my voice...just concentrate on my voice."
Little by little, the bard began to calm down.
"That's right...that's right...it's only me...now, when you're ready, I want you to reach down and take my hand...there's nothing to be afraid of...I'm here...take my hand, Gabrielle...I'm not going to let anything happen to you...."
Hesitantly, the little bard's hand began to inch its way through the air toward her friend's.
"That's it...you can do it...just listen to my voice...you're safe now...."
Finally, Gabrielle's trembling hand reached her friend's, touching tentatively, fearfully, then gaining courage and grasping Xena's hand. The bard reached out her other hand in the warrior's direction and cried out.
At this, the dark-haired woman reached down and pulled the little bard into her arms. Gabrielle grasped at her with a desperation Xena had never seen in her friend and clung to her as if her life depended solely on the warrior.
Wrapping her arms tightly around Gabrielle, Xena murmured into her ear, "Shhh...it's okay now...you're safe...I'm here...you're safe now...."
Xena held the bard, continued her soft murmuring and rocked her for several long minutes while Gabrielle's sobs dwindled to quiet weeping. Finally, the warrior could tell from the pattern of the little bard's breathing that she had cried herself into an exhausted sleep. Xena held her a few minutes more, then gently laid her back on the evergreen bed.
The warrior looked at her friend for a moment, fresh tears filling her eyes, then suddenly stood and strode out of the cave. When she'd cleared the entrance and skirted the camouflage bushes, she broke into a hard, dead run. Tears still coursing down her face, her legs pumped faster and faster. Thorny branches raked at her and she ran; exposed roots reached up to trip her and she ran. Blindly, she pushed herself to the brink of collapse, then ground to a halt, sweat dripping from her forehead to mingle with the tears below.
Frantic in her anguish, she moved first in one direction, then suddenly turned and paced off in another. Finally, she stopped, whipped her sword from the sheath on her back and swung it at a nearby tree. Again and again she struck at it with a ferocity she had thought she'd left behind in her dark past. At last, exhausted, she collapsed to the ground, wrapped her arms around her knees, lowered her head and sobbed.
Half an hour later, Xena finally raised her tear-stained face and looked around, trying to get her bearings. Initially, she had no idea where she was, didn't even know which direction she had run. Then she recognized a dead, leafless tree off to her left, then a rock formation several yards in front of her. To her amazement, she realized she'd run almost all the way to the lake.
Well, she thought, as long as I'm almost there, I might as well go on down and catch some food so I won't have to later.
She turned north and whistled loudly for Argo, then strode off south. The mare caught up with her shortly and the warrior jumped on, spurring the horse to gallop the rest of the distance to the lake.
Once there, she rapidly caught four fish, then rode Argo at a dead run back to the cave, fearful Gabrielle would awaken alone and, in her temporarily blind state, become terrified and hysterical again.
She rode the mare into the cave, dismounted and crossed to her friend. The warrior was relieved to see the little bard was still sleeping--fitfully, at best--but at least she hadn't awakened alone.
Returning to Argo, she unsaddled the mare, gave her some food and water, then set about cleaning and boning the fish. She built the fire back up, then added water and some of her healing herbs to the leftover broth and placed it on the fire. She then cut up one of the fish fillets and added that, too, to the warming mixture.
Going to the cave entrance, she stripped several handfuls of large leaves from one of the camouflage bushes, then, after sprinkling on a few herbs, wrapped the fillets in the leaves and placed them on the large rock at the edge of the campfire to cook.
In short order, the aroma of the broth and cooking fish permeated the cave.
Not bad, Xena thought, smiling. Gabrielle may do all the cooking, because I don't like to, but, when I have to, I'm pretty damn good.
While dinner was cooking, she poured some water into one of the cups, added a large quantity of herbs from her healing pouch, skimmed the fish oil from the surface of the broth and slowly mixed it all into a thick, greasy paste.
An hour later, as she was removing the fish from the cooking stone, she was startled by a shriek of terror from the evergreen bed.
Dropping the two leaf-wrapped fillets she was holding--into the fire, unfortunately--she turned and saw the little bard propped up on her elbows again, still blind and screaming in terror.
"XENA! Don't let them--"
The warrior rushed to the bard's side.
"I'm here, Gabrielle...I'm here," she said as she fell to her knees by her friend and reached out to enfold the little blonde in her arms, only to be rebuffed with a scream.
"NO! DON'T TOUCH ME!!"
"It's alright, Gabrielle...it's me...Xena," she quietly said, her voice returning to that hypnotic tone. "It's alright...you're safe now."
The little bard began to calm.
"It's just me...no one's going to hurt you any more. My hand is in front of you, Gabrielle...take my hand."
Slowly, the bard began to lean forward while reaching for her friend's hand, then screamed in pain as the forward movement put too much pressure on the brutalized tissue at her groin.
Without thinking, the warrior grabbed the little blonde and pulled her into her arms, moving her torso back to a more reclining position to relieve the pressure on the traumatized tissue. Almost immediately, she realized her friend was burning up with fever.
"NO!!" Gabrielle shrieked as she struggled to escape the arms holding her, but Xena pulled her in closer.
"Shhh...it's me, Gabrielle...you're safe now...shhh...no one's going to hurt you."
The soothing tones began to calm the bard again.
"That's right...you're safe now...shhh...."
After several minutes, the warrior said, "Okay...let's get you lying down again," and she released the bard, helping her to lie back on the bed.
"I know...I know," the warrior said, then turned Gabrielle's face to inspect her friend's facial wounds. "As long as I'm here, let's see how you're doing."
"It's...it's bad, isn't it?"
"...Yes, it is," Xena said, refusing to lie to her friend. "But you're going to be just fine...I'll see to that."
Gabrielle laid quietly, allowing the warrior to examine the repair job she'd done on her cheek and mouth, which looked pretty good--all things considered. Finally, she took the bard's hand and held it.
"Gabrielle...I need to do something now you're not going to like. It's going to hurt and it's going to frighten and embarrass you."
The little bard started struggling to get away from the warrior, but Xena held on.
"Gabrielle...you have to let me do this...if you don't it'll take twice as long for you to heal."
"What? What is it? What are you going to do?"
Xena thought a moment, chewing her lower lip in concentration.
"Remember how it hurt when you tried to sit up?"
The little bard nodded and a tear squeezed through the swollen tissue around her eye.
"I need to change the packing and--"
"Gabrielle...you have to trust me...."
"Yes, you can. We have to do this or it might get worse. You're burning up with fever as it is, which means there's an infection somewhere. Please...trust me...let me help you."
After a moment, the little bard nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Okay...I'm going to lift the blanket off your legs now."
As she did this, the little blonde began to whimper softly.
"It's okay...it's going to be okay. Now...I have to move your leg...."
When Xena gently placed her hand on her friend's right knee, Gabrielle gasped.
"It's just me...you're safe...."
Then the warrior gently rotated the knee and pulled it a few inches toward her, effectively causing Gabrielle's right leg to bend slightly in her direction. The little bard whimpered and began trembling.
Keeping her hand on her friend's knee, Xena reached over, picked up the cup containing the thick paste and set it down next to her. Moving her own knee to touch the bard's leg so she could maintain physical contact, she then picked up the cup and stirred the thick mixture with the large, wooden spoon.
"I've made a salve for you, but, first, I have to remove the packing."
"No," Gabrielle whimpered so softly Xena almost didn't hear her.
"It's okay," the warrior said, then picked up Gabrielle's hand and held it. "Do you trust me?"
The bard nodded hesitantly.
Xena released her hand and said, "Okay...good...here we go." She gently put her hand back on her friend's knee and, when Gabrielle reacted with a jerk, said, "It's alright...it's just me."
She continued to talk, hoping the bard would focus on what she was saying and not what she was doing.
As she reached to remove the old packing and tossed it aside, she said in her most soothing voice, "Just listen to what I'm saying, Gabrielle...try to ignore what I'm doing and concentrate on my voice...that's right...now, this is just some moss I gathered from the lake shore and soaked in water. It works as a compress to stop the bleeding, soaks up any blood and, because the water keeps it cold, it helps reduce the swelling."
She picked up the cup of salve, spooned some out, thought a moment, then decided against using the wooden spoon. It was so hard, so unyielding and would cause her friend unnecessary pain. As she replaced the spoon and scooped out a small quantity of the salve with her fingers, she continued her soothing, hypnotic monologue.
"Okay...just listen to my voice...I've got the salve I made up...just for you, I might add...it doesn't exactly have your sister's seventeen herbs and spices in it, but I think it'll do the trick."
The warrior was relieved to see the tiny smile that crept onto her friend's torn, but healing, lips.
"Now, this is going to be cold at first...see?"
She daubed some of it on the bard's knee near where her other hand rested and was not surprised when the bard jumped, but it wasn't a reaction of fear, only to the cold of the salve. With her free hand, she took Gabrielle's right hand and held it.
"Okay...this is going to be the worst of it...when this is over, the rest will be a breeze. Now, I need you to try to not move your legs...okay? The less you move your hips and legs, the less it will hurt. Squeeze my hand instead...okay?"
Xena waited for Gabrielle to nod her assent and was gratified to feel the bard grip her hand a little tighter.
"Okay...here we go."
The warrior took a deep breath, banished all hesitation from her mind and reached down to apply the salve to her friend's mutilated, exquisitely tender groin.
This lightest of touches ignited a flare of pain that made Gabrielle grit her teeth and she squeezed Xena's hand in a vice-like grip as her legs tensed.
Xena wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible for her friend's sake, but knew any rapid movement would be painful to the bard and the warrior wasn't sure how much more pain Gabrielle could tolerate.
Unaware she was holding her breath, the warrior spread the salve as gently as she could. The intense heat radiating from the traumatized tissue to her fingers told her this was the source of the infection.
"Just a little more and then we're done," she said softly, squeezing Gabrielle's hand as she scooped more of the salve out of the cup.
Finally finished with the painful task, she picked up a handful of damp moss and said, "Okay...the worst is over...now I'm just going to put on some fresh packing and we're through."
The moss in place, Xena gently rotated the bard's leg back and pulled the blankets down to cover her friend's feet. Her eyes were then drawn to Gabrielle's face and she thought her heart would break when she saw it was awash with tears and silent agony.
"Come here," she whispered as she pulled the bard into her arms, careful not to pull her too far forward.
Gabrielle threw her arms around the warrior and clung to her with a fierce desperation, the sobs she had been holding in gushing out like a tidal wave and rattling off the walls of the cave.
For several minutes, Xena held and rocked and murmured softly to her friend. As the sobs began to dwindle, the warrior said, "Hey, I think our dinner's burning."
Gabrielle suddenly gripped her tighter and said, "No! Don't leave me!"
"Oh...I'm not going to leave...don't you worry about that. The fire is just a couple feet away...and I'd better get the fish out of there or we're going to have nothing to eat."
She gently extricated herself from the little bard's grasp and helped her to lie back on the bed, then returned to the fire to rescue their dinner, talking all the while, hoping to soothe her friend.
"I caught some beautiful trout this morning while you were sleeping. Can you smell it?"
"No...I wish I could, but I can't smell anything."
Xena could have kicked herself for causing Gabrielle to dwell further on her brutalized condition, but shook her head and went on in a light tone.
"Well, that's okay...you can take my word for it. While we're eating, I'm going to steep up a little something for that fever of yours, too. A little of my bark tea should do you up just fine."
She returned to Gabrielle, dinner in hand, and said, "Okay...let's see...how are we going to do this? Well, do you think you can feed yourself or do you want me to feed you?"
"Oh, I can do it."
"Okay, then, let's see...I guess the best thing would be for me to sit behind you so you can lean back on me. It'll keep you from having to sit too far forward, but you'll be up high enough to eat and drink easily. How does that sound? Want to give it a try?"
Gabrielle nodded and struggled to sit up.
"Ah-ah-ah...just wait a minute. Let me help."
The warrior put the cup and plates on the floor and stepped behind her friend. She sat and moved forward, one leg on either side of the little bard, then lifted Gabrielle's shoulders and slid farther forward until Gabrielle's head was resting against her chest.
"Ooh...lucky I didn't put my armor on this morning, huh?"
Not in much of a joking mood, the little bard merely nodded.
Xena picked up one of the plates and made room on it for the cup of broth, then reached around the bard and placed it in her lap. Gabrielle gasped and jumped, almost spilling the broth.
The warrior immediately picked the plate back up and said, "Gods, I'm sorry! I should have--"
"No, it's okay. It just startled me."
The little bard nodded.
"Here, let me put the plate in your hand. Okay?"
Gabrielle nodded again and Xena reached around and took her left hand and placed the plate in it, then grasped her right hand.
"Okay, let me show you where everything is. There's not that much, so it shouldn't take too long."
A tiny chuckle escaped the bard's lips and the warrior smiled as she placed her friend's right hand on the fillet and then the cup.
"Here's the fish...and here's some broth for you."
"Okay, thanks," the little bard said as she ate a piece of fish. "I sure wish I could taste this...I'll bet it's wonderful."
Xena picked up her plate and forked a bite of fillet into her mouth.
"Not bad...not bad...even if I do say so myself."
Gabrielle only ate a little of the fish and barely touched the broth. The warrior noted the bard's lack of appetite, but decided not to make an issue of it--not yet, anyway--and set both their plates aside.
"Okay, let me slide out of here and I'll get that tea for your fever."
Bracing Gabrielle with her hands, Xena slid back, then gently lowered the bard's head to the bed. She rose and crossed to the fire from which she removed the cup of bark tea. Inhaling its aroma, she removed the bark and set it on a rock to dry and crossed back to her friend.
"It's lucky you can't taste anything, because this is probably a little bitter."
She knelt beside the evergreen bed and started to carefully slip her left arm under the bard's shoulders.
"It's okay...it's just me," the warrior said as she began to lift her up a bit.
"What is it? What's wrong?" the older woman asked, fear and concern edging into her voice.
"I'm gonna be sick."
Without hesitation, the warrior pulled the moss out of the nearby pot, placed the container between herself and the bard, then rolled Gabrielle toward her.
As the little bard convulsively vomited up what little she'd eaten, white-hot blazes of pain shot through her groin and she screamed in agony.
Feeling helpless and useless, Xena held the bard's head over the pot and tried to brace Gabrielle's torso with her own against the shattering spasms wracking the little blonde's body.
The nausea finally abating, the warrior eased her friend back onto the bed, wincing at the muffled scream this evoked.
A tear slipped from the warrior's eye as she watched her friend tremble with pain and fear. She reached for the bard's hand and held it in both of hers.
"It's going to be okay, Gabrielle...I promise. You're safe now...I swear you are. I'm not going to let anything happen to you. We're in a cave and I camouflaged the entrance so no one can tell it's here. It's just you and me. No one's going to hurt you any more...I promise."
Her face pale and pinched with pain, the little bard sniffed back her tears and, trying to calm the tremors rolling through her body, nodded.
Xena thought her heart would break when she saw the brave front her friend was trying to put on and the price the little bard was paying.
Moving the pot aside, she steeled her heart and said, "Okay, I'm going to help you sit up a little bit so you can drink this tea."
"Sure you can."
"No, I won't be able to keep it down...and...I can't...it hurts too much to...."
Tears ran down the warrior's face as she said, "I know...I know it does...but this will help...I promise...please...."
When Gabrielle finally nodded, Xena again carefully slid her arm under the bard's shoulders and lifted her up just a bit, then picked up the cup.
"Okay, put out your hand so I can give you the tea."
Gabrielle shakily complied and the warrior handed her the cup and watched as she hesitantly drank down half it's contents, then held it out for Xena to take back.
Lowering the bard's head back down to the bed and taking the cup, the warrior said, forcing a lightness she didn't feel into her voice, "That should help your fever, help the pain and help you to sleep better, too. It's pretty impressive stuff. Think you can take a little nap now?"
Gabrielle nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Good. You sleep, that's the best thing for you right now and, when you wake up later this afternoon, we'll see what we can do about getting you cleaned up a bit and maybe even wash your hair. How does that sound?"
The little bard nodded again and slipped off to sleep.
Then the warrior began trembling. She was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain her traditional calm in front of this brave young woman whose body had been so brutalized and whose mind had been so traumatized.
Later that afternoon, Xena was drawn across the cave by her friend's frightened voice.
The little bard whispered, "Xena...?" and reached out.
When the warrior took the outstretched hand, however, Gabrielle pulled away again in terror.
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle...it's me...shhh...it's Xena...you're safe now."
The little bard slowly reached out her hand again and whispered, "I'm...sorry for...."
Xena took her hand and said, "Uh-uh...you have nothing to be sorry for...it's my fault, I should have spoken before touching you...let you know it was me...but you know how much I love to talk."
A tiny smile crept onto the bard's lips and she said, "Yeah, I know."
"So, how are you feeling?"
"No...now, come on...you're the bard, talk to me...I can't help if I don't know what's going on."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand and began to cry softly, pitifully, then said, "Oh, Xena...it hurts so much."
Tears filled the warrior's eyes as she reached her free hand to gently stroke the little bard's forehead, registering that the fever had not dissipated as she'd hoped, but, in fact, seemed a little worse.
"Oh...I know...I'm sorry...can you tell me...where...?"
Gabrielle squeezed her friend's hand in a vice-like grip and moaned.
"Okay...okay...everything's going to be alright." Trying to brighten things up a bit, Xena then said, "Okay, here's the plan...I've got the rest of the bark tea heated up for you. Why don't I get it and you can drink it down while you still can't taste it...."
She hesitated and searched the bard's face for any hint of a smile, her heart sinking when she found none.
"Then we'll get a little bathing taking care of--I've got some water heating up--and, if you're feeling up to it, we could even wash your hair. How does that sound?"
Finally, a hint of a smile appeared on Gabrielle's face and she said, "Oh, yeah...I'd like that."
"Great! That's what we'll do then."
The warrior released Gabrielle's hand and stepped over to pick up the bark-tea cup, then returned and said, "Here we go...I'm just going to help you sit up a bit so you can drink it. Okay?"
The bard nodded and Xena gently slipped her arm under her friend's shoulders, lifted her head a couple of feet off the bed, then handed her the tea, which Gabrielle took and drank straight down.
The warrior lowered the bard's head back to the bed, took the empty cup and said, "Okay...what say we get you cleaned up now?"
Gabrielle nodded and Xena stepped back to the fire, put the cup down and picked up their small pot, which was full of tepid water, and returned to set it down in the dirt next to her friend. She then picked up their bathing sponge and soap, which she had previously laid out, and said, "Ready?"
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle said in a very small, frightened voice.
Xena reached out and took her friend's hand, relieved the little bard only started slightly when she did so.
"Hey...listen...I'm not going to go near...any place that hurts and, if you want me to stop--at any time--you just say the word. Okay?"
"Okay," the little bard said in a tiny voice.
The warrior then proceeded to bathe her friend's poor, brutalized body, talking constantly, anything that came into her head, convinced she was just babbling, but continuing to do so, because she saw it seemed to soothe the little bard.
She gently, gingerly washed Gabrielle's face, careful not to get the sutures wet, and took the opportunity to inspect her friend's wounds, all of which seemed to be healing very nicely. She folded the blanket down to Gabrielle's hips and bathed her sweat-covered chest, stomach and arms, noting the bite marks on her breasts no longer looked so red and angry.
That done, she replaced the blanket over her friend's torso and moved down to wash Gabrielle's legs. The little bard stiffened when Xena exposed her legs, but the warrior increased what she considered to be her babbling and Gabrielle relaxed.
The bath finished, Xena asked, "Would it be okay if I just wet down the packing moss a little?"
Gabrielle drew in a tiny breath, but then nodded her assent and Xena reached for the waterskin, uncorked it and poured some onto the moss, which really made the little bard gasp.
"Oh, gods, I'm sorry...are you--"
"No, it's okay, it's just so cold."
"Oh...of course," Xena chuckled, "I guess I should have warned you, huh? So, what do you think? Want your hair washed?"
Xena hauled Argo's saddle over and propped the bard up with it, then placed their large cooking pot under the bard's head, allowing her long, blonde hair to fall into the pot, and proceeded to wash her friend's hair, the large container catching the run-off.
The bathing and hair-washing completed, Xena said, "Feel better?"
"Good. We aim to please."
In spite of uncharacteristic, long, painful silences and a new solemnity in her eyes, Gabrielle gradually regained a healthy glow and a small measure of her former spirit.
Six and a half weeks after that horrific day, the bard's healing process was well completed--physically, anyway. Her fever had broken the day after Xena had washed her hair the first time and the warrior was well pleased with how her friend's body had recovered. In a year, the scars on the little bard's face and around her mouth would be gone and no one would be able to tell anything had happened.
But the warrior was becoming more and more concerned about Gabrielle's emotional and mental health.
The bard was still waking up two, sometimes three, times a night, screaming. Xena would always rush to hold and soothe her, hoping the younger woman would talk to her, tell her what the nightmares were about, tell her what had happened, but Gabrielle would just cry herself back to sleep, only to awaken screaming again a few hours later.
Finally, one evening, when they were camped in the forest a few day's from Pharsalus, Xena broached the subject for the first time.
"Gabrielle, do you want to talk about what happened?"
The bard froze, a forkful of meat halfway to her mouth, and her eyes filled with tears.
Well, that was a stupid question, Xena thought. Of course she doesn't want to talk about it.
"I mean...can you talk about it? You can't go on like you have been, waking up screaming every night. The nightmares aren't going to go away until you start facing what happened. You know I'll do whatever it takes to see you through this, but I want you to come out a whole woman at the other end."
She watched as the little blonde sat staring into the fire, big tears running down her face, and crossed to sit beside her, dinner forgotten.
"Gabrielle...I know you can't do this until you're ready, but, when you are...I'll be here to help you through it."
The little bard's head dropped lower and her shoulders began to shake as she was wracked with sobs.
Xena drew her into her arms and said, "Oh, Gabrielle...please talk to me...please let me help you."
But the little blonde shook her head and wept uncontrollably in the warrior's arms.
Every few days, Xena would bring up the painful subject again, knowing her friend was trying to pretend nothing had happened, hiding from the pain and terror of her memories, but each time would be a replay of the first with the little bard refusing--or unable--to talk about what had happened. And the nightmares and the torment continued.
Two weeks later, they were camped in a beautiful little glen just outside of Patrae. The night sky glittered above them as Xena, having finished dinner, put down her plate and looked across the campfire at her friend.
The little bard looked up expectantly, then recognized the expression on her friend's face and angrily threw her plate into the dirt as she half-ran from the campsite.
"No, Xena! I can't! Now leave me alone!!"
The warrior lowered her head, tears filling her eyes.
Several minutes later, her anger spent, Gabrielle turned and walked back to camp, but stopped several yards away and saw, for the first time, how distraught her friend was.
Unaware she was being observed, Xena looked up at the glimmering sky and whispered, "Please...if any of you are listening...you helped me once...please help me now. What happened was all my fault...I should never have left her behind...alone...to face those...and now I don't know what to do to help her. She's slipping further and further into darkness and I'm afraid I won't be able to pull her back. Please...help me...help her."
Burdened with the guilt she bore like a leaden yoke, Xena lowered her head to stare with clouded eyes into the fire and Gabrielle gradually became aware of the defeat in the slope of her friend's shoulders and the subtle hint of grief in the tilt of her head.
Fighting back fresh tears, the little bard walked the short distance back to the fire and picked up the plate she had flung to the ground in such anger. She started to scrape the gritty remains of her dinner into the fire, then collapsed to the ground, her legs crossed in front of her.
Elbows on knees, her head in her hands, she swallowed back her sobs and, in a barely audible, quivering voice, said, "Xena...?"
Startled, the warrior looked up from the fire. So lost had she been in her own troubling, painful thoughts, she'd not noticed her friend's return.
"Xena...." Gabrielle said, tears evident in her shaky, whispery voice. "Please....help me...."
In one, fluid movement, the warrior was on her feet, skirting the fire, sitting next to her friend and enfolding the little bard in her arms.
Gabrielle gripped desperately at her, still crying quietly, then suddenly shook her head and tried to pull away.
Xena resisted her efforts, holding her tightly, and whispered, "No, Gabrielle...it's time."
All the fight left the bard's body and she slumped in her friend's protective embrace, crying so pitifully the warrior thought her own heart would break.
Finally, as the fire burned low, repressing the persistent, debilitating terror she'd been living with for what seemed like an eternity, Gabrielle began to talk.
Xena all but held her breath, afraid the tiniest word or movement would stop the little bard from releasing the demons that had held her captive all these weeks.
Her tears subsiding, the bard talked about pacing angrily around the campsite after the warrior had ridden off that morning, then finally grabbing the sponge and soap and going down to the lake where she'd bathed and washed her hair.
Still angry and worked up over what she'd considered Xena's treating her like a kid again, she'd started swimming and continued to do so until she'd felt her anger and animosity dissipating.
At sunset, after a dinner of fish she'd caught that afternoon, she'd written in her scrolls by the light of the campfire and then, finally admitting the warrior might--just might--have been right about her needing more time to get her strength back, she'd gone to bed early and had fallen almost immediately into a deep sleep.
"The next thing I remember is being awakened...it was so dark...I guess the moon hadn't come up yet and the fire had gone out. I heard voices all around me...men...."
The little bard's voice trailed off as she stared blindly at the dwindling fire.
Xena waited patiently for her to continue and, when she didn't, whispered past the lump in her throat, "Then...what happened?"
After a few more moments, the bard said, "I don't know, I guess I panicked...I didn't know where my staff was, I couldn't see very well...I jumped up and started running. I ran around that boulder...I guess I was headed for the lake...but...but...one of them went around one way and another one went the other way and they...they caught me in the middle...."
Tears coursed down Xena's face as she willed her friend the stamina to go on and the strength to survive the telling. Gabrielle took a deep, jagged breath and then continued, her face expressionless, her voice a monotone.
"They grabbed me and threw me against the boulder. I guess that's how I got this."
She reached up and touched the scar on the left side of her face.
"I fought back...I swear I did, Xena...I swear I tried to...."
The warrior had to wait a moment to be sure her voice wouldn't tremble, then said, "I know you did."
"Two of them finally just grabbed me...threw me on the ground...and held me there while the other...the other one...tied my hands and feet to...I don't know...trees or rocks or something...."
Xena shuddered as she remembered the sight of the little bard staked out on the ground, naked, bleeding...helpless.
"I screamed, but one of them hit me over and over and over again...until I stopped...."
The bard unconsciously touched her nose and a single tear ran down her cheek.
"I kept trying to pull my hands free until...until...one of them hit me with a branch or something...oh, gods, it hurt...I was afraid they were going to kill me...so I...stopped fighting...then they...they...."
Tears started flowing freely again down Gabrielle's cheeks, although her eyes still seemed glazed...dead.
The warrior pulled the younger woman into her arms again and whispered, "I'm here...you're not alone now...what did they do?"
"They...they...tore my clothes off...and...and...oh, gods...."
The little bard started to sob in her friend's arms.
"What?...What did they do?"
Gabrielle shook her head and tried to pull away.
"No," Xena whispered, holding her tightly, "you've come too far...don't run away now."
The little bard shook her head again and fought against the warrior's grasp.
"Say it, Gabrielle...What did they do to you?...Say it."
"No," the bard whispered pathetically, her struggles weakening.
"They raped you, didn't they?"
Gabrielle started to shake uncontrollably, then screamed, "NO-O-O-O!!!"
"Yes," the warrior whispered, praying she was doing the right thing and not chasing her friend into a blackness she would never be able to bring her out of. "They raped you...didn't they?"
"Yes...they tied you down...and they beat you...and they raped you...over and...over again...and then they left you to die."
Suddenly, Gabrielle threw back her head and screamed out her rage at the clear, glittering sky above them.
"YES!!...THEY RAPED ME!!" Her screams dwindled to a whisper as she collapsed, sobbing, back into the warrior's arms. "...they raped me."
Xena held her tightly, crying with her, trying to soothe the little bard with her voice, with her touch.
After a few minutes, Gabrielle haltingly continued.
"First one...then another...oh, gods, Xena, it hurt...it hurt so much...I thought I was going to tear in two...but I didn't make a sound...I was afraid they'd kill me if...so I bit down on...I bit down so I wouldn't scream."
The warrior gasped when she realized the devastation that had been her friend's mouth nine weeks before had been self-inflicted.
"They lit a torch or something...so they could see...and laughed as they...then...then...the last one...he got mad, because I wasn't...I...he couldn't...he took his...knife...and...and...."
"He cut you?!" Xena whispered, her sudden rage barely controlled.
Gabrielle nodded, unable to speak through her tears.
"Oh, gods," the warrior murmured, not even aware she had spoken.
"He put it...the...he put it...inside me...then he pulled it...out so fast...but I didn't scream...I didn't make a...I could feel the blood...running...but I didn't...then...the last one...he laughed and said...he said, 'There, that's more like it' and he...he...they took turns...I don't know how many...times...maybe I...because the next thing I remember is you...I'm never going to...no man will...I won't...."
"Shhh," the warrior whispered. "It's alright now...it's over...you're safe now...you're safe."
Xena held and rocked her, speaking quietly, murmuring encouragement and pride, until the little bard fell finally into an exhausted sleep. The warrior lowered her to the ground, then got up and spread their blankets.
With no effort, she lifted her friend, cradling her like a baby, and placed her on half of one of the blankets, then folded the other half over her.
The dark-haired woman looked down at the little bard, tears of compassion, guilt and rage mixing together and spilling down her face. Then she uncovered her friend and spread the blanket back out on the ground, picked up the other one and placed it over the bard, then crawled between the two blankets herself. She reached over and pulled Gabrielle into her arms and held her through the night.
At first morning's light, the warrior awoke with a start. Then she remembered the evening before and kissed the sleeping bard's forehead when she realized neither of them had moved during the night. Gabrielle had slept through, with no tortuous nightmares, for the first time in over nine weeks.
That evening, after a full day of traveling, they set up camp by a little brook and, as Gabrielle was preparing their dinner, Xena looked up from polishing her armor and said, "Those men we ran into on the road today...for a moment, you were afraid they were the ones. Weren't you?"
The bard paused in her preparation of the rabbit Xena had killed earlier and, in a faraway voice, said, "How did you know?"
"Well, when I came back from talking to them, you were sitting on the ground by Argo, shaking all over. I don't think I've ever seen you that pale, except...well.... I knew they weren't the ones--I've known Timon for years, he's a good man--but they were men and there were three of them and you thought...."
Still clutching the rabbit and knife, Gabrielle sat down in the grass and stared at the ground in front of her.
The warrior put down her armor and polishing cloth and crossed to her friend, squatted down next to her and placed a gentle hand on the bard's shoulder.
At this slightest of touches, Gabrielle jumped and Xena said, "It's okay...it's just me," wondering when--or if--the little bard would feel safe again.
The warrior sat in the grass next to her friend and said, "All men aren't monsters, you know."
"I know," Gabrielle said in a voice so soft Xena almost didn't hear her.
The dark-haired woman put her arm around the little blonde and pulled her into a hug.
"You do know you're safe now, don't you?"
Gabrielle nodded her head silently.
"Okay, then, let's get going with dinner. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
Later, after Xena had devoured her half of the rabbit and Gabrielle had picked at hers, the little bard was scraping off their plates and preparing to take them over to the brook to wash when she glanced over at her companion.
Her eyes faraway, the warrior was deep in a memory that furrowed her brow.
"What're you thinking?"
Shedding the troubling memory, the older woman focused on her companion, smiled and shook her head.
Gabrielle knew that, at times, when the past lay especially heavy on her friend, it was sometimes best to not intrude, so she picked up their plates and utensils and headed for the brook, only to be stopped by the warrior's voice.
"Do you remember anything about those men? A name one of them might have called another one? The sound any of their voices might have had? A special odor about one of them? Anything like that?"
The bard turned and looked at her friend, then thought a minute.
"Well, one of them said the name...."
"Why are you asking?"
"Because we need to find them and bring them to justice," the warrior said, then picked up her sword and started sharpening it.
Gabrielle looked at the older woman for a long moment, then quietly asked, "Whose justice?"
"What do you mean?"
After another long moment, the bard put down the plates and utensils, then crossed to kneel at her friend's side and said, "You know what I mean...and I know what you're planning."
"What are you talking about?"
"You're planning to hunt them down and butcher them. Aren't you?"
"Don't be ridiculous!" the warrior snapped, suddenly becoming defensive.
"Xena, look at me."
The dark-haired woman returned to sharpening her sword with a vengeance.
"Look at me, dammit!"
Stunned by the little bard's suddenly aggressive tone, the warrior looked over at her.
Gabrielle studied her friend's face, the eyes in particular, for a moment, then said, "I'm right, aren't I? You're going to hunt them down and kill them like dogs."
"They don't deserve any better! They're worse than dogs!" the warrior growled between clenched teeth, barely able to contain her rage.
"A few years back, you promised...you promised me that, if anything ever happened to me, you would not turn into a monster."
The anger seemed to drain out of the warrior as she remembered that night, that campfire.
"This is different. Those men--"
"Deserve a fair trial. They--"
"No!" Xena shouted, the rage back in full force. "No! They deserve to be treated the same way they treated you!! They deserve to be staked out and--"
Understanding suddenly dawned on the little bard's face and she quietly said, "This isn't about them, is it?"
Xena just looked at her.
"This is about you, isn't it?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You feel guilty, because you wouldn't let me go with you that morning. My gods, you really think the whole thing was your fault. Don't you?"
"You don't know what you're talking about," the warrior snapped, then rose, threw down her sword and whetstone and strode off into the night.
In a flash, the bard was up and running after her friend.
"Leave me alone, Gabrielle!"
Catching up to the warrior, the little blonde grabbed her arm and spun the older woman back around to face her.
Although the bard was fully prepared for the angry reaction this would engender, she was stunned by the icy blue daggers that impaled her and the shaking rage that was her friend.
You've come this far, the little blonde thought, don't back down now.
Taking a deep breath and swallowing down her fear, Gabrielle quietly said, "It wasn't your fault, Xena."
As tears filled her eyes, the tall warrior turned away, but the bard moved quickly around in front of her and took her other arm, this time gently.
"It wasn't your fault."
The warrior again tried to turn away, but the little bard wouldn't allow it. Finally, Xena slowly sank to the ground and put her head in her hands.
Gabrielle knelt by her friend and pulled the older woman into her arms. When Xena tried to pull away, the little bard said, "Stop it. Sometimes I need you to hold me...and sometimes, whether you like it or not, you need me to hold you. This is one of those times, so quit fighting me...please."
The warrior's resolve melted and she slumped against her friend, secretly grateful for the little bard's comforting arms around her, although she would never have admitted it...not even to herself.
"Oh, gods, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry."
The younger woman pulled the warrior closer and wrapped her arms tightly around her.
"You have nothing to be sorry about." Xena tried to pull back, to protest, but the bard whispered, "Don't...please...." and the warrior finally let go of her tears of remorse and allowed herself to be comforted.
After a few moments, so relieved the warrior was allowing her to do this, Gabrielle said, "I know about the pain that lives in your heart. I know you think you can never make up for the things you did in your past...and maybe you're right, maybe you can't...I don't know, because you've kept me so sheltered from that part of you...but I have watched you time and time again accepting guilt that does not belong to you. You blamed yourself for Marcus' death, you've done the same with Callisto and you're trying to do it now. Well, I can't do anything about those other times, but I will not allow you to accept the responsibility for what happened to me."
The warrior pulled away, but would not--or could not--look at her friend.
"Gabrielle, you don't understand," she said through her tears. "If I had--"
"Yes, I do understand," the bard said and turned Xena's face to look at her. "You think you're to blame for my being...for what happened, because you wouldn't let me come with you that morning. Well, excuse me for saying so, but that's crap. You didn't make me stay behind because you knew what was going to happen. You made me stay behind because you were trying to protect me."
The warrior turned away and said, "Yeah...alot of good it did."
The little bard again, gently turned her friend's face back to look at her.
"Xena, you were right. I was still too weak to go with you. If I had gone, you could have gotten hurt by--"
"But I couldn't have! Minolais and his men were long gone by the time I got there. If I'd let you come with me, you would have been safe...nothing would have happened to you."
"But you didn't know that," Gabrielle said, holding her friend's face between her hands, forcing the warrior to look at her. "You didn't know...you couldn't know...and I will not allow you take responsibility for what happened."
Slowing, agonizingly, Xena dissolved into tears and the little bard pulled the warrior in, wrapping her arms tightly around the older woman.
Finally, after several long minutes, the dark-haired warrior slowly pulled away, wiping the tears from her face, and said, "If I looked for the rest of my life, I'd never find a better friend than you."
"Well, I'm glad you finally realize it."
The two looked at each other and smiled.
"You saved my life back there...again," the little bard said. "If you hadn't come back when you did, if you weren't the best healer I have ever seen, if...well, you saved my life and then...two nights ago...you saved my soul. I don't know that I'll ever be able to repay you."
The warrior drew the little bard into her arms and softly said, "You already have."
Late the next morning, as they were on their way to Lamia, Gabrielle looked up at her taciturn friend who'd been riding so silently all morning and said, "A dinar for your thoughts."
The warrior looked down at her, thought a moment and said, "You were very impressive last night. I know what you're capable of shouldn't surprise me anymore, but...."
"Hey," the little bard said, laying a hand on the warrior's stirruped foot, "what we've been going through lately...it brings out the best in love."
Xena pulled Argo to a stop, climbed down and turned to see a questioning look on the little bard's face.
"I just thought I'd walk with you for a while," the warrior said.
The two friend's smiled at each other, then continued down the dusty road in companionable silence.