Ephiny had just left the food hut when she saw Ilanna running toward her at a breakneck pace. The blond woman's heart beat double-time and she ran to meet the dark-skinned Amazon halfway. "Where's Queen Gabrielle?"
"She's still in the food hut. What's wrong?"
"We…we found Argo." Ilanna said while trying to catch her breath. "You'd better come see."
The golden mare was lying on her side, her breathing erratic and shaky. Two Amazons were kneeling next to her, doing their best to keep her calm. Five darts were lying on the ground next to her, pulled out of Argo's side a few moments before. Ephiny knelt down and gently stroked the injured animal. With barely controlled anger she asked "What happened?"
"We don't know." Ilanna said. "There are signs of a struggle and three more darts over here." she pointed to an area not far from the mare. Ephiny patted Argo's cheek and stood up.
"Is Marina on her way?"
"Of course, I stopped to get her before I went looking for you. I told her what I found and she ran back to her office to get her medical kit." they turned to the sound of a wagon and saw the animal healer approaching. "There she is."
Marina pulled the team to a stop and rushed over to Argo's side. "Give me room." she said firmly in a tone reminiscent of her sister, Saras. "Poisoned?"
"Five darts." Ephiny said, holding up one of the offending objects. Marina nodded.
"Take those darts to my sister and have her find out what kind of poison is on them." she put her hand on the mare's chest and concentrated on the erratic breathing. "I can't move her until we know what's running through her, it's too dangerous." she rattled off a list of herbs and powders she needed to a young Amazon and sent her back to the village along with the darts to deliver to Saras. Ephiny and Ilanna headed back to the village to break the news to Gabrielle.
They arrived at the bard's hut to find her sitting at the table with a piece of parchment in her hand. When she looked up at them the streaks of tears glistened in the candlelight. "I found this note pinned to the door with her breast dagger." she said as she handed the parchment to Ephiny. "They've got Xena and say they'll kill her if I sign the treaty."
"Gabrielle…" she said softly, pulling out a chair and sitting next to the bard. "I've been to the site where the fight took place. It looks like Argo tried to protect Xena." Ephiny looked down at the floor, desperately wishing that she didn't have to be the one to tell her young friend. "Argo…well, she…" each time she stumbled over the words it only served to cause more alarm and fear in the bard. "…she got hurt."
"Where is she?" Gabrielle asked as she got to her feet and headed for the door, almost running Ilanna over in the process.
By the time they returned to the site, Argo's breathing was punctuated with wheezing and Marina had a concerned look on her face while she continued to examine the weakened animal. Gabrielle knelt down and put her hand on the mare's chest. "What's wrong with her?"
"She's been drugged rather heavily and she seems to be having a reaction to the poison. I've sent someone back to the village to get something that'll help." the animal healer said. Argo trembled visibly and her muzzle and lips were flushed.
The Amazon returned with a pouch of herbs and a jar of ground up bark. Marina took the two medicines and mixed them together. "This will help her breathing." she separated Argo's lips but when she tried to put the mixture into the horse's mouth, the mare struggled and tried to rise to her feet. "Keep her down!" the healer urged. Eponin and Ilanna leaned on Argo to keep her on the ground but the mare refused to take the medicine.
"Let me." Gabrielle said. "Ep, in the left front pouch of the saddlebag is a small tin of honey." she took the sticky substance and mixed the medicine with it. "Come on, Argo…I know you can't resist a treat." the bard dipped her fingers in the mixture and wiped a little on the mare's lips. After a moment she was rewarded with the sight of Argo's tongue slipping out to lick the sweet substance. "That's a good girl…come on now…just a little more." Gabrielle continued to give Argo the medicine until Marina reached out and took it from her.
"That's enough. Now we'll have to wait and see if it helps." Within a quarter candlemark Argo's breathing had become more even and regular but the horse was obviously too weak to stand. Gabrielle was torn between running off in search of Xena and staying by Argo's side. Darkness started to fall and the bard knew that any kind of search at this point would be fruitless. There was no way that whoever took Xena would be stupid enough to make finding them easy. Gabrielle wiped away a tear and looked at the glassy eye looking at her. She swore that Argo was scared. "Shh…it's okay." she said. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm right here."
No matter what Marina tried, the bard adamantly refused to leave Argo's side. Ilanna eventually brought Gabrielle's bedroll out to the site when it became obvious to everyone concerned that the young queen wasn't going to go anywhere. The bard nodded to acknowledge the Amazon but never let her eyes leave the injured mare nor did she stop her gentle stroking of Argo's neck. "It's going to be all right." Gabrielle murmured to the unconscious animal. "You're going to be okay and so is Xena." whether the words were to reassure her or the horse, the bard didn't know. She took the bedroll and added it to the saddle blanket in an attempt to keep Argo warm. Ephiny, Ilanna, Eponin, and Marina stood by and watched their queen curl up against Argo and cry herself to sleep. Ephiny and Ilanna returned to the village to form a search party to look for Xena while the other two stayed with Gabrielle and Argo. All knew that it would be a long night.
The bard awoke to see Eponin and Ilanna sitting near a small fire. Her momentary confusion was replaced with fear as she remembered the previous day's events. "Morning, Gabrielle." the stocky warrior said as she leaned over and handed the queen a cup of steaming hot tea. The bard nodded and looked at them questioningly. Eponin looked at Ilanna, silently asking who was going to tell their queen the news. The dark-skinned Amazon looked down at her lap, deferring the task to her lover.
"What did you find out?" Gabrielle asked, not willing to wait for them to decide. Eponin looked everywhere except at the worried green eyes of her friend.
"We don't know who's responsible, but we do have our suspicions." this time the Amazon caught the glare from the queen that silently warned her to reveal everything she knew and to do so quickly. "There's only a few women that are capable of using the blowgun so efficiently. We're checking them out now. We also have two dozen Amazons searching the caves nearby for any sign of Xena or whoever took her."
Gabrielle nodded and continued to softly stroke Argo's cheek. "Where's Marina? Why isn't she here taking care of Argo?"
"She had to return to the village to tend to a newborn foal. She'll be back as soon as she can." Ilanna offered. "She said that if Argo wanted to stand up that we should let her. So far she hasn't moved much."
The bard nodded and stood up. "She means that Argo should be up and walking as soon as she's able. It'll help get the poison out of her system. Argo…Argo, come on…let's get up now. Up." she watched the golden mare struggle to rise but drop back down. "No, come on now. We have to get you up and moving. Come on…" she continued to gently coo and pet the horse. It took a while but eventually Argo stood up on shaky legs. "That's a good girl. Xena will be proud of you." she wrapped her arms around the mare's neck and hugged tightly. "I know you did everything you could to protect her."
Gabrielle walked Argo around in a wide circle until Marina arrived and took over. After a brief discussion about the care and health of Xena's beloved mare, the bard headed back to the village with Eponin and Ilanna to get an update on the search for her lover.
Xena kept very still and concentrated on keeping her breathing even and deep while her senses tried to gather as much information as they could. She was sitting against a cold stone wall, her arms shackled as were her legs. After being reasonably sure that she was alone, the warrior slowly opened her eyes and looked around. She was definitely in a cave, no doubt not far from the Amazon village. Her head pounded and her throat was parched, a side effect of the powerful drug they had given her. Convinced that she was in fact alone, Xena tested the strength of the chains that held her prisoner. They were strong, but not so strong that she couldn't tear them from the wall given enough time. She turned her head and immediately regretted it as blinding sharp pain shot through her temples. She closed her eyes again and waited for the torturous pain to stop before trying the restraints again. The sound of footsteps echoed somewhere outside her makeshift cell. Xena quickly pretended to still be unconscious as Darbo and Iphito entered. "Do you think we gave her too much?" the small Amazon asked, her blowgun ready just in case.
"It really makes no difference, does it?" Darbo replied. "Even if she dies, Gabrielle won't know until it's too late anyway." she ran her hand gingerly over her cracked ribs. "I'll tell you one thing, I'm glad you were there, Iph. That damn horse would have killed me."
"I can't believe it took five darts to bring her down. I mean, I know she's a big horse but still…I hate the thought of killing a defenseless creature. I mean, what would Artemis think?"
"It was that stupid animal or me!" the large Amazon snarled. "I hope you killed it. I should have run it through with my sword just to be sure." Xena felt her anger rising at the news but forced herself to remain still, knowing that she was still too weak to fight. "Don't worry about Artemis. She wouldn't want to see Amazon land given away. We'll be heroes."
"I don't know." Iphito said regretfully. "What happens now? Even if Gabrielle doesn't sign the treaty, how are we going to get away with this? Surely Xena will be able to identify us."
"Oh, I don't think Xena will be able to remember her own name much less anything else by the time we're done with her." she pulled a narrow tube from the pouch on her belt. "Give me a dart."
Xena's head still pounded and she felt drained beyond anything she'd ever known, but she knew she had to get out of there before they pumped her full of drugs again. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her arms back and jerked hard. The left bolt anchor pulled free but the right one remained steadfastly imbedded in the stone. The sudden movement startled Iphito, who let the dart fall harmlessly to the ground and scrambled to retrieve it. "Playing possum, huh?" Darbo growled, drawing her sword. Xena moved to her knees and swung the length of chain and anchor in a circle in front of her body. The movements caused her head to swim and spots to appear before her eyes, but the warrior reached deep inside to find the inner strength she needed to continue. Iphito fired a dart from her blowgun but Xena deflected it with the swinging chain. "Darbo, she's gonna get free!"
"Oh no she's not." the large Amazon said, moving closer but keeping herself out of range of the viscous swings of the length of linked metal. Xena quickly changed the direction of the chain, whipping it forward until the end wrapped around the tip of Darbo's sword. With the last of her reserves, the warrior jerked the weapon out of the Amazon's hand. The spots before her eyes grew larger and the pain in her head could no longer be ignored. Xena picked the sword up weakly, the weapon feeling like it weighed ten times more than it should have. Focusing was impossible and she sadly realized that her chance of escape was gone when she felt the first of two darts pierce her skin. She never felt the next one as blackness swept over and claimed her before she ever hit the ground.
Darbo cautiously approached the unconscious woman. "Give her another one."
"I can't…it'll kill her." she protested.
"She should have been out for at least five more candlemarks with all that she received the first time. I'm not taking any chances." the large Amazon walked over and sent her booted foot into the warrior's ribs, feeling her own ache in the process. Xena never stirred. "All right, wait two candlemarks and then give her another one. Give her one more every three candlemarks."
"What about the chain?"
"I'll take care of that right now." Darbo said. She stepped out of the room and returned a moment later with a thick piece of rope. "Keep your blowgun ready, just in case." it was a needless precaution as the large Amazon was able to remove the loose chain and tie Xena's right arm securely against her body, making sure the rope constricted against the leather-clad woman's chest in the same area where she had been kicked so hard. "That should keep her for a while."
It was almost dark when Eponin called off the search. They had followed every hint of a trail but still turned up empty handed. Although she wouldn't voice it to the upset queen, the stocky warrior figured that the trails would reveal nothing. After all, they were no doubt tracking Amazons and hiding their tracks was one thing they were experts at. Gabrielle listened to the reports intently, trying hard not to let her disappointment show. The dark circles and puffiness around her eyes revealed the emotional pain she was going through. Ephiny had called off all meetings and functions so she could devote her time to helping in the search. All of the experts with a blowgun had been questioned but that had turned up nothing.
It took great prodding by both Eponin and Ilanna to get Gabrielle once they got to the village to go to the food hut and get something to eat. They knew the bard hadn't had a bite since Xena disappeared. They led her to a small table in the back while Trasis loaded up a plate of food for the young queen. "I'm not really hungry."
"Gabrielle, you need to eat." Ilanna urged, pushing the plate closer to the bard.
"You think Xena's had anything to eat?" she asked glumly, pushing the food around with her fork.
"Hey…" Eponin said, putting her hand on top of the queen's. "You know Xena, you know how strong she is. She'll be fine. How do you think she'd feel if she knew you weren't taking care of yourself?"
"Yeah, she'll be fine." Gabrielle said unconvincingly. She had seen what the poisoned darts had done to Argo and could only imagine what their effect was on her lover. Three Amazons entered the food hut and took a table at the far corner, the largest one with her back to Gabrielle and the warriors.
"Don't look at them." Darbo hissed quietly to Iphito and Staina. "Just eat up and let's get out of here."
"She looks so sad." Staina whispered, casting another glance at the other occupants of the food hut.
"I told you not to look at her. You'll give us away." she jabbed at her meat with her fork.
No matter how she tried to shake it, Gabrielle had a strange feeling. She looked up and locked eyes with Iphito. The small Amazon looked down at her plate but she could still feel the queen's green eyes bore into her. "I…I need to get out of here." Iphito said nervously. She left her plate on the table and walked out of the food hut as quickly as she could, her eyes everywhere except at the woman she knew was watching her.
"…and then Ilanna…Gabrielle, are you listening to me?"
"Ep, do you know the women sitting at that table?"
"You mean Darbo, Staina and Iphito? Of course. Why?" she looked over and was surprised when Staina glanced away. Usually the staff wielder was much more pleasant and friendly. At the moment she seemed like she didn't want to be seen.
"Ep, meet me in Ephiny's hut in a quarter-candlemark." Gabrielle said quietly, her eyes never leaving the other table.
"Sure, but why? What's going on?"
"I think they're the ones who kidnapped Xena." she whispered into the stocky Amazon's ear. "Don't ask me how I know, I just feel it." Gabrielle stood and used her bardic skills to make certain everyone in the hut heard her. "I just can't seem to get this headache to go away. Ilanna, can you walk me back to my hut?"
"Of course, my queen." the dark-skinned Amazon said, rising to her feet. They walked out with the bard rubbing her temples to ease the imaginary tension. Eponin turned her attention back to her food, mentally calculating how long she had to sit there before she could leave. She cast covert glances at the pair at the far table, noting that they apparently believed the queen's ruse and continued to eat their dinner. The more the stocky Amazon thought about them, the more she realized that they indeed could be suspects. Iphito seemed to have taken off in a hurry and she had never known the little woman to be one to leave without her friends. Darbo usually talked all through her dinner, yet was unusually quiet. Eponin's blood began to boil as she thought about it and it took all her energy and concentration not to jump from her table and confront the women. Instead she pushed her food about her plate some more before clearing the table and walking over to the pair. "Darbo, Staina, how are you two tonight?" she said, forcing herself to be friendly.
"Fine Ep, and yourself?" Darbo said politely while putting another piece of meat in her mouth.
"All's well, I suppose. It's been a long day, what with looking for Xena and all."
"Yeah, the whole village is worried. Have you found any sign of her?" Staina said, feigning concern.
"No, not a thing." Eponin said in a defeated tone. "Hopefully tomorrow will be better."
"Hopefully." Darbo mumbled around her food.
"Well, have a good night." the stocky Amazon said as she turned and left, more convinced than ever that Gabrielle was correct about them. There was no doubt in her mind that they were hiding something. 'If you hurt Xena, Darbo…I swear you'll pay.' Eponin thought as she walked out into the cool night air.
"How do you know they're involved?" Ephiny asked.
"I just do. There's something about the way that one woman acted when she looked at me. I'm a bard, I'm good at reading people. She just looked like she knew something." Gabrielle turned to see Eponin enter. "Ep, what do you know about them?"
"I think you might be right, I went over to talk to Darbo and Staina and they acted like I was the last person in the world they wanted to see. I think they're hiding something." the stocky Amazon replied. "Darbo is good with a sword, not the best, but good. Staina is an expert with the staff and Iphito, that's the one that left early, she's a master with the blowgun."
"They're not hiding something, they're hiding someone." the queen corrected. "I'll go get my staff and then we're going to follow them."
"Gabrielle..." Ephiny said, putting her hand on the bard's shoulder. "Why don't you let us handle it?"
"If it was your lover would you stay behind?" the young queen queried. "I can't stay here if I know there's a chance we'll find her."
"Wait." Ilanna said. "If we're going to follow them in the dark we'll need to be properly disguised. It's almost the full moon and I hate to say it, my queen, but your hair will shine like a beacon if they look back. Yours too, Eph."
"I'll wear my mask, that'll cover it." the blond Amazon replied. "Gabrielle, your mask is ceremonial. It'll be too difficult to maneuver in it."
"Ilanna's right." Eponin said. "The moon really is bright tonight and between the bare skin and her hair..."
"And just what do you expect me to do about the color of my hair?" the bard asked hesitantly. "Oh no, I went through that once before. It took forever to get that stuff out and my hair was dull and flat for almost a full moon."
"That's the idea." Ilanna said with a grin. "Come on, we'll find you some dark clothes to cover yourself with and Ep can get the grease paint."
A candlemark later Gabrielle stood and looked down at the strange clothes covering her body. The top was a dark brown leather that tied up the front and covered her from waist to neck, the sleeves stopping just above the elbows. Instead of her usual skirt, which she always found to be quite comfortable, Gabrielle found herself in long britches the same shade as her top. Her face, hair, and lower arms were covered in soot mixed with grease. Eponin stood back and admired her handiwork. "They won't see you now." she said with pride.
"Uggh, I feel like I need a bath." the bard complained.
"Just remember not to touch any of the grease or you won't be able to handle your staff." Ilanna reminded her. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and twirled it briefly, loosening up the muscles she knew would be needed soon.
It was almost three candlemarks later when Darbo and her companions left her hut and headed for the caves, unaware that they were being silently followed. Ephiny and Eponin moved along the branches of the trees, their Amazon training allowing them to move swiftly yet still keep the leaves from rustling. Ilanna and Gabrielle kept to the ground, taking advantage of the brush and trees to keep themselves hidden. All four stopped when they reached the edge of the forest and watched carefully as Darbo and crew crossed the field and entered the mouth of one of the caves. "We have to follow them." Gabrielle whispered.
"If we move now they'll see us." Ilanna responded just as quietly. "We have to wait until we're sure they're further into the mountain." she put her finger to her mouth and motioned for the bard to be silent. As the dark-skinned warrior had suspected, a moment later they saw Staina exit the cave and look around. Gabrielle watched the staff wielder slowly scan the area, paying close attention to the trees. The bard held her breath, doing her best to remain still and praying to whoever would listen that they wouldn't be seen. A moment later Staina returned to the cave, apparently convinced that they hadn't been followed.
"Do you think she saw us?" Gabrielle asked while letting out a deep breath. Ilanna shook her head. Several heartbeats later they heard Ephiny and Eponin descend from the trees and join them.
"I know that cavern." Eponin said. "It goes into the mountain quite a way. There's also a lot of side tunnels off it. We'll have to split up if we have any chance of finding them. Ilanna, stay with Gabrielle."
The bard's eyes flared. "I don't need to be protected. You just said that splitting up is the only way we'll find them."
"And if you come across them? What are you going to do against three trained Amazons?" the stocky woman retorted.
"You want to see what I'll do to three Amazons if you try to insist on treating me like a helpless child?" the bard replied. "Xena's in there. Who knows what they've done to her if she hasn't been able to escape yet. Now are we going to sit here and argue or are we going to try and rescue her?" she stood up and stepped out from the cover of the brush. Ephiny looked at the couple and shrugged her shoulders before arming her crossbow and following their queen. Ilanna moved to follow only to be stopped by her lover's hand on her arm.
"I don't care what she says, you stay behind her, just in case." Eponin whispered.
Once inside the cave they were plunged into complete darkness. Ephiny felt along the wall until she found a torch while Gabrielle felt along the floor for pieces of flint. Soon they had the end lit and found more torches. Ephiny handed two small pieces of the flint to the bard. "As soon as you see a tunnel, put the torch out until you're absolutely sure there's no one there. If they see any kind of light they'll know we're here and we'll never be able to get to Xena in time. If you find either them or Xena, don't move in until we're all there. Have you been practicing your bird calls?"
"Not enough." Gabrielle guiltily admitted. The blond Amazon muttered a curse while thinking of a solution. "All right, if you see anything, anything at all, retreat back until you find one of us." she put her hand on the bard's shoulder and looked at her sternly. "Don't even think about trying to take them all on, Gabrielle. These are well trained warriors. You can't forget that Iphito has that blowgun with the darts. If they spot you, yell as loud as you can and we'll find you. Don't take any chances."
"I'll be careful, I promise." the young queen replied, meeting her friend's gaze. "How will I know if you find them?"
"Listen for a bat screech. Two short bursts then a longer one. Come back to the main tunnel. One of us will be waiting for you." with the instructions finished, the four women wished each other luck, double checked the readiness of their weapons, and set off down four different tunnels. Several heartbeats later Ilanna put out her torch and quietly followed Gabrielle, making certain to stay far enough behind that the bard wouldn't realize she was there.
"She still out?" Darbo asked, although she could see the slumped form lying against the wall.
"Seems to be." Staina replied. "Are you sure we haven't over-drugged her? I mean, it took only five darts to bring her horse down, we've given her twice that so far since she's been here. Maybe we should wait until she wakes up before giving her any more."
"Are you crazy?" Darbo scowled, not at all pleased with the note of concern in the staff wielder's voice. "This isn't just anyone we're talking about here. This is Xena. You saw what she did to the chain. Pulled it right out of the wall and that was after getting two shots. No, we can't take the chance." she looked at the leather-clad woman and couldn't suppress an evil grin. "Although she doesn't look all that dangerous right now, does she? Give me your staff." she said, holding out her hand.
"What are you going to do? She's completely out. I know it. Darbo, you said we were only going to hold her to keep Gabrielle from signing the treaty. Look at her. Her arm's still tied against her body. She's harmless."
"Oh that's where you are very wrong, Staina. If there's one thing that Xena isn't, it's harmless." Darbo jerked the weapon out of the small woman's hand and within a few short strides was standing over the warrior. "Up and at em, Xena." she said, punctuating her statement by stepping on the drugged woman's hand, gradually applying more pressure until she felt Xena try to pull her hand out from under the Amazon's boot. "Good morning." Darbo said sarcastically. "Have a nice rest?" she pressed down harder with her foot, threatening to break the bones in the warrior's hand. Her drugged state made it impossible for Xena to offer much resistance. "You know Gabrielle has had half the warriors out looking for you. She's so concerned." she said mockingly. "All she has to do is refuse to sign that treaty and we'll let you go. You'd like us to do that, wouldn't you? Hmm?" she rocked her foot, sending new waves of pain shooting through Xena's hand. Darbo let out an evil laugh as she stepped off and watched the warrior's face twist in a grimace of pain.
Gabrielle swore she heard a laugh in the distance and quickly moved down the passageway, still unaware of her Amazon shadow. She turned the corner and came face to face with a startled Iphito. Before the small woman could position her blowgun she found herself pressed against the wall, the bard's staff pressed against her neck. "Where is she?"
Ilanna tried to reach them but she was too late. Iphito brought her hands up and effectively boxed Gabrielle's ears, forcing her to release her hold. "Darbo! Darbo!"
"Damn." the dark skinned Amazon swore as she turned the corner just in time to see the blowgun raised and aimed at the bard. With a mighty yell designed to startle Iphito and alert Ephiny and Eponin, Ilanna threw herself at the small woman. Gabrielle picked her staff up and ran down the tunnel, certain that she'd find Xena there. She had no doubt that Ilanna would be able to subdue the smaller Amazon. The light grew stronger as she moved further into the depths of the mountain and Gabrielle's heart raced with fear that she wouldn't reach Xena in time.
"Go see what's going on!" Darbo yelled as she crossed the room and put her sword at Xena's throat. Staina gripped her staff tightly and ran out into the darkened corridor. Darbo heard the sound of staffs clashing against each other then a groan and a thud. "Staina! Staina, what's going on?" she asked excitedly, worrying that her plan was falling through.
"Staina won't be answering for a while." Gabrielle said as she stepped into the room, her staff at the ready. "Step away from her. It's over." she said in her most commanding voice, her heart lurching at the sight of Xena lying helpless on the floor.
"No. Drop your weapon, Gabrielle." Darbo knew she was trapped. The only way out was past the angry queen and the Amazon had no doubt that the bard wasn't alone. "Don't you understand? You're going to doom us if you sign that treaty. It'll be a generation before we'll be able to reach that silver."
"It's the right thing to do, Darbo. Get away from her." she took a step closer but stopped when she saw the blade press against Xena's neck, causing a small trickle of blood to flow. "All right, just relax." she took one hand off her staff and held it out in a placating motion. "I'm sure we can work this all out somehow."
"Who are you trying to fool? There's no way you'll let me walk out of here."
"Why don't you let Xena go and we'll talk about it? I'm a reasonable person." Gabrielle fought to keep her emotions in check but found it more and more difficult as she saw just how helpless her lover was. "Come on, move away from her and we can talk."
"Put your weapon down and maybe I will. Actually, put it down anyway."
'Act, don't react.' the words Xena had spoken to her so long ago echoed in her mind and the bard knew that losing her weapon wouldn't secure Xena's release. She gripped her staff tighter. "I'll make a deal with you. If you can beat me then I won't sign the treaty."
"I don't believe you!" Darbo roared. Her attention was focused on Gabrielle and not on the woman she thought was still unconscious. Xena opened one eye and tried mightily to focus on her surroundings. In the back of her mind she dimly thought that she heard Gabrielle's voice but her vision only showed a dark blur standing across the room. What she was keenly aware of was the cool steel blade pressed against her neck and her inability to do anything about it. Even without moving her head, the waves of dizziness threatened to send her back into the darkness. Closing her eye helped, but not much.
"You don't want to kill her." Gabrielle said as calmly as she could. She had seen the all too brief movement of Xena and knew she had to get Darbo away from her. Reasoning with the angry Amazon didn't work. She needed to try another tactic. "It's me you want. I'm the one who's going to sign the treaty. Killing her won't stop that."
"You willing to risk Xena's life for a treaty? I don't think so." she snarled.
"You overestimate my feelings for her. Xena's a warrior. She does a good job protecting me when we're on the road, sure. She's even good for other matters, if you know what I mean. But my feelings are only so deep. You've wasted your time kidnapping her."
"You're lying! I've seen you two together." even as she said it, Darbo silently questioned her assumption, especially when she saw the sly grin spread across Gabrielle's face.
"You saw me being close to her, touching her and acting like I was in love with her. Tell me Darbo, do you think she'd continue to stay with me and protect me if she thought I wasn't lost in her charms?"
In that instant the large Amazon felt everything fall to pieces. She lifted her sword and pointed it menacingly at the queen. Gabrielle made sure not to let her relief show as she tightened her grip on the staff. "You bitch!" Darbo roared, advancing on the bard. Gabrielle quickly circled until she found herself between the Amazon and Xena.
"Give it up, Darbo. There's no escape. Eponin and Ephiny are here. They'll find us in no time. You may be able to kill me, but you'll never get through them." she raised her staff defensively, silently wondering what was taking her friends so long to get to them.
"When they get here they'll find both of you dead." she snarled as she swung her sword at the bard. Gabrielle blocked the blow easily.
"Is that the best you can do?" she taunted, hoping to make the Amazon more angry and thus careless. Darbo backed up until she reached a small pouch sitting on the floor. With her free hand she pulled out a dart already coated with the poison. Gabrielle's eyes widened with understanding.
"Oh I can do much better." she said, throwing the dart with force. The bard brought her staff down in an attempt to block the poisoned missile but Darbo had deliberately thrown it beyond the reach of her staff. Gabrielle watched at the dart sank into Xena's thigh. With a gasp the bard bent down and pulled it free. The limp woman never moved. "Oh and I thought you didn't care." Darbo sniped, aiming another dart. "Maybe I'll just kill Xena before I die. Then you can live with the knowledge that you weren't able to protect her the way she's always protected you." she saw the bard flinch visibly and knew she had struck a nerve. She pulled out another dart and threw it at the warrior. This time Gabrielle was ready and caught it with her staff, the poisoned tip sinking into the wood. With no more darts to use in her arsenal, Darbo lunged at the bard, sword raised. Just as she moved within striking distance, Gabrielle dropped to one knee and swung her staff hard at the Amazon's midsection. The ribs that had been cracked under the force of Argo's hooves took the full force of the wooden weapon. Darbo groaned and rolled back out of range, her free hand pressed against her aching bones as she struggled for air. Gabrielle knew she had found a weakness, although she didn't know the original source, and quickly moved to plant another blow on the injured ribs. Darbo dropped her sword and dove at the bard's legs, but as the both hit the ground, Gabrielle's knees slammed into the Amazon's midsection, knocking the wind out of her lungs.
"Move and die!" Ephiny said as she stormed into the room, her crossbow pointed at Darbo's chest. Eponin and Ilanna followed, each with an Amazon in tow. Gabrielle scrambled over to Xena and pulled the warrior's head into her lap, her hands brushing the dark locks of hair off the warrior's face. Ilanna jerked Iphito's arm up behind her back and passed her off to Eponin, who used her brute strength to keep both prisoners from moving. The dark skinned Amazon knelt down next and pulled out her knife, cutting the rope that held Xena's arm against her body.
Xena struggled to maintain consciousness. She was dimly aware of great pain in her left hand and the gentle touch of her Gabrielle on her face. Her lips moved but no sound would come from them. The feeling of complete helplessness scared her but she also felt a sense of comfort in the knowledge that her beloved was there with her. "Shh…I'm here, Xena…I'm here." Gabrielle bent down and placed a soft kiss on the warrior's forehead. "I've got you…you're safe now."
Saras covered the sleeping couple with a blanket and quietly stepped outside to talk with Ephiny. "It'll take a few days for the drug to work its way out of her system and her hand's broken but other than that I don't see any other serious damage. I'm sure Xena won't have to worry about doing anything for herself for a while though." she said with a grin.
"Oh, I'm sure of that." the blond Amazon agreed. "Gabrielle insisted on helping to carry Xena's litter back to the village."
"That warrior is very lucky to have someone like our queen."
"The bond between them is something far deeper than any I've ever seen, Saras. Those two would go to the ends of the earth for each other, battle any god, do whatever it takes to keep the other safe." Ephiny sighed wistfully.
"Love is a powerful thing, my friend." the healer said.
Xena spent the next day floating in and out of consciousness, Gabrielle by her side the entire time. The bard fed and cleaned her, all the while telling nonsense stories to make certain that her beloved warrior knew she was there. Saras kept the visitors at bay, allowing Gabrielle the time and privacy needed to tend to the still weakened warrior.
When Xena finally was able to open her eyes and focus on her surroundings, she found herself wrapped in the warm embrace of her love. She shifted slightly and gazed at the sleeping form before her. "So beautiful." she murmured, placing the softest of kisses on the bard's forehead. She reached over to brush away a stray lock of hair and frowned at the wrappings on her hand. Xena tried to flex and move her fingers, wincing at the immediate pain. The stitches from her drunken game with Eponin had been removed, leaving only a thin red line to remind her of her foolhardiness. Head pounding, she laid back down and tried to rub both temples with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. It worked but not nearly as well as having two free hands would have done. Sighing, she laid her head on her arm and continued to study the sleeping Gabrielle. Xena tried to recall the events of her rescue but everything was hazy. Her only clear memory was lying there helpless and the bard protecting her as she had done for Gabrielle so many times before. Sometimes the love Xena felt for the young woman was more than she could understand. At those times all the warrior could do was hold on tight and let the feeling wash over her like a warm soft blanket. Xena buried her head in the crook of Gabrielle's neck and pressed her lips against the soft skin. It wasn't long before her tongue slipped out to taste the bard's salty flesh. Eyes closed, Xena let her desire dictate her actions and she began sucking, softly at first, but then with more fervor.
Soon simply tasting Gabrielle's neck wasn't enough. Using her right hand, Xena painstakingly undid the laces of the bard's shift until she was able to open it up and view the soft globes. Warrior lips moved downward until they closed around one soft nipple. "Mmm…"
"Good morning." Xena said before reclaiming the rapidly hardening flesh.
"I guess you're feeling better." she murmured as her fingers sank into the dark tresses and held the warrior's mouth close.
"Mmhmm." she used her tongue and teeth to elicit the sounds that she loved to hear the most from her bard, increasing the movements and suction when she felt Gabrielle's back arch and the fingers buried in her hair curl into a fist. Xena mentally cursed her broken hand and their respective positions that kept her right one from claiming the bard's other breast.
"Um…Xena? We're still in Saras' hut. What if…oooh, that's nice…what if she walks in on us?"
"Let…her…find…her…own…queen." the warrior said as she kissed her way to the other breast, the new position allowing her good hand to replace her mouth on the bard's left mound.
"Oh gods…" Gabrielle felt the heat building between her legs in response to Xena's glorious lovemaking and knew that if it continued that she wouldn't care if the healer walked in on them. The added weight of Xena's upper body on hers made it a bit harder for her to breathe, but Gabrielle was rapidly going beyond the point of caring about something as trivial as air getting into her lungs. Her attention was completely focused on the warrior's mouth nibbling her aching flesh. Xena shifted again, pressing her thigh against the bard's center, drawing a throaty moan from the young queen.
"So responsive." the warrior growled, moving up to claim Gabrielle's mouth with a searing kiss that took the breath from both of them. It never ceased to amaze Xena just how quickly their mutual passions rose. No matter how many times they made love it always felt like the first time to her, the intensity of the emotions and feelings so strong that there were times when it reduced both women to tears of joy. She kissed a trail down Gabrielle's jaw until she pulled an earlobe into her mouth and treated it to the same oral manipulation that she had bestowed on the bard's breasts just moments before. Gabrielle's fingers dug into Xena's shoulders while her hips ground against the warrior's thigh, desperately seeking relief from the burning ache deep within her. "Getting a little anxious, love?" Xena teased, moving down to renew her activities on Gabrielle's heaving chest. She pulled one erect nipple between her teeth and flicked her tongue back and forth across it mercilessly.
"Gods, Xena…you're driving me crazy." she groaned. It was all the bard could do not to reach down and touch herself, so strong was her need.
"Good, I like driving you crazy." Xena pressed her thigh firmly against Gabrielle's wetness, causing the young woman to whimper and rock her hips desperately.
"You're doing…oh gods…a great job of it." she pressed hard against the warrior's shoulders, silently urging her to move down and give the much needed release.
"Where's your patience?" the warrior teased, nibbling her way down the washboard stomach, touching with a lover's knowledge all the sensitive spots that were guaranteed to drive Gabrielle wild.
"Please…" the bard was beyond anything resembling rational thought. Her body screamed for Xena and she had no control of the erratic movements of her hips. Her soul begged for the warrior to take her to that pinnacle of desire and passion. "Xena…please…I can't take it."
"Mmm, yes you can." the warrior mumbled, moving lower still until her breast fell between Gabrielle's legs and touched the flood of wetness. She arched her back, pressing her nipple between the swollen folds and against the center of the bard's desire. Xena's own passions were running rampantly out of control. Her need to please Gabrielle overrode her teasing mood. Rolling onto her back, she urged the bard on top of her. With her right hand on Gabrielle's soft rear, she urged her forward. The young queen understood immediately and positioned herself over her lover's waiting mouth. The contact of Xena's tongue against her throbbing clit made Gabrielle cry out and she ground her hips against the warrior's face.
"Oh gods…don't stop, Xena…please don't stop." every movement of Xena's tongue against her sent her one more step closer to what she already knew would be a mind-shattering climax. Eyes closed, head thrown back, Gabrielle's body went on automatic, her hips bucking wildly. Xena fought to maintain her position but the bard's erratic motions continually made her lose her place. With a low growl that reverberated through the excited woman, Xena wrapped her right arm around the bard's thigh and held her still as best she could. Gabrielle's fingers clawed helplessly at the warrior's dark hair while the room filled with her combinations of moans and cries. Unable to control herself as the powerful orgasm rocked her, Gabrielle let loose a scream that was heard several huts away. She fell back against Xena's body, her long gold tresses mingling with the warrior's short dark curls. She felt the soft tongue move against her again used her remaining strength to pull her sex out of reach. "Please…no more…I can't take it." she said as she tried to regain control of her breathing and slow her rapidly beating heart. Xena chuckled and continued to lick the soft skin of the bard's thigh.
"I can't help it, you just taste so good." the warrior said, taking a small nip.
"You're the one who's supposed to be here recovering, not me." Gabrielle mumbled, rolling off the warm body beneath her and wrapping her arms around Xena's powerful thigh.
"What can I say? You know I'm a fast healer." she chuckled, twisting so her good hand could reach Gabrielle's triangle of golden curls. The bard answered by doing some exploring of her own, her fingers diving through Xena's short hairs and bathing themselves in the warrior's flood of passion. It was a good thing that Saras had the good sense to listen at the door when she returned. The grey haired healer decided that a visit to her sister was in order for the rest of the morning, and possibly the afternoon judging from the sounds emanating from the hut.
The treaty signing went smoothly, Gabrielle receiving congratulations from several Amazons regarding her handling of the whole situation. The overwhelming majority of women felt that their young queen handled the matter in the best possible way. Krana and Susa agreed, although Marto was still a bit upset that the harvest payments had to continue. Nonetheless, even he had to admit that it was better than declaring a war with the warrior women. Immediately after the treaty signing, Ephiny suggested that they throw a party to celebrate, drawing a knowing grin between Gabrielle and Xena. "Any excuse will do." the warrior said to the smaller bard.
"At least it's not a war party." the bard returned, maintaining a smile for the crowd. Xena made a slight hacking sound and pulled a small hair off her tongue, causing the bard to turn several shades of red.
"Sorry." the warrior said with a sheepish grin. Ephiny looked at the couple quizzically, trying to figure out what they were saying. Gabrielle kept her attention elsewhere while the warrior would only give her a non-telling grin.
"Gabrielle? You awake?" Xena said softly, then a bit louder with a gentle rocking of the bard's shoulders.
"No…I'm too tired." the bard mumbled, burying her head under her pillow.
"It's not that, I want to talk to you." she said, shaking Gabrielle's shoulder again.
"Now I know I'm dreaming." the muffled voice said.
"Gabrielle…." she said sternly.
"Oh all right." the bard sighed, putting the pillow under her head and rolling over to face her lover. "What's so important that you had to wake me up?"
"I…I wanted to thank you." Xena said softly. "I don't remember too much about what happened after I was captured but I do remember you standing over me, protecting me when I couldn't protect myself."
"Xena," she put her hand on the warrior's cheek, her thumb stroking the chiseled features. "I didn't do anything that you haven't done for me a thousand times before. And how could possibly expect me to do any less? I love you."
"I love you too. It's just strange for me to depend on you to be the protector." she leaned forward and kissed her. "You've changed so much from that young woman that followed me out of Poteidaia."
"You've changed too, you know. You're more open with your feelings, your thoughts. I don't have to pry them out of you like a dentist pries teeth." she leaned forward and tasted her warrior's mouth. "I'd go to Tartarus and back to protect you." she wrapped her arms around the taller woman and snuggled close. Xena placed a kiss on the top of the golden mass of hair and returned the embrace, silently thanking whatever gods were listening for having the bard in her life before joining her lover in sleep.
When the day came to leave, Xena took Argo's reins and led her out of the stable. The golden mare reared up and jerked her reins free from the warrior's hand. "Argo! Argo, get back here!" she said to the rapidly running horse.
"Where's she going?" Gabrielle asked, concerned about Argo's strange behavior.
"I don't know." Xena replied, breaking into a dead run to chase her horse. "Argo, get back here right now!" the golden mare paid no attention to her master, running full out until she reached the back of the jail. She looked into the barred windows until she found the Amazons who had made her so sick, then turned around, raised her tail, and left a large deposit just below the barred window. Had anyone bothered to notice the condition of the hay in the mare's stall, they would have seen that Argo had been saving herself up for this little present to the imprisoned women. By the time Xena and Gabrielle reached her, Argo was prancing around happily, her head bobbing up and down while rather vocal complaints about the smell were heard from within the cell. Gabrielle broke into laughter and Xena patted her horse's cheek. "Good girl. Remind me to give you an extra apple for that one." she wrapped her arms around the powerful war-horse's neck and gave her a hug. "And thanks for trying to protect me. You truly are the best." Argo nickered in agreement and nudged Gabrielle's pouch, knowing full well that her treats were stored inside. Within the jail, Darbo and Staina screamed at the guard about unfair treatment and demanded that the source of the stench be removed at once. Ilanna looked at them and laughed, muttering something about mentioning it to someone just as soon as she finished her shift. The dark-skinned warrior moved her chair to the far end of the hall, away from the smell, and leaned back against the wall, chuckling to herself all the while about how smart Xena's horse was. For some reason, Ilanna forgot to mention it to anyone until late the next day.
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