The Better Part of Valor
DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to MCA/Universal and Renassiance Pictures and no copyright infringement in intended here. All other characters and this story belong to me.
This story contains acts of violence that may be destressful to some people.
Please read another story if this offends you in any way.
The heavy leather whip streaked across the narrow room and slashed against the woman's bare back, leaving another raw, purple welt in it's wake. The prisoner's body recoiled from the seething pain and a low, guttural moan escaped her throat. Her head dropped forward and she gasped hungrily for air.
The captive had only a moment to recover before the lash landed again, sending a raging torment along her shoulders. She clenched her teeth together and tightly gripped the lengths of rope tied from the beams above her head and bound around her wrists.
When the whip lashed her skin the next time, the woman gasped mutely. Her body stiffened and her head jerked back toward her assailant. The lash repeated its assault, but by now the prisoner's reaction was filled with revulsion and defiance. Her body hardly moved at all.
Suddenly the woman became aware of another voice within the filthy area. For a moment, the vicious torture was suspended. She took in gulps of air, trying to recapture her resolve.
"Paladron?" said a distinctly female voice. "What do you think you're doing?" The voice was filled with mocking and disgust. A small, auburn-haired figure stood a stride's length inside the wooden door to the cell. In the shadows, all that was discernible was a general shape, that of a female warrior, and her angry stance, hands on her hips, boots set wide apart.
The prisoner tried hard to focus on the face of the caped figure striding toward her. The other woman passed just beyond the victim's view and strode on toward the brutal soldier who was wielding the whip.
"Just havin' a bit of fun with our friend here," came the sniggering reply from the soldier. Then he flicked the whip just smartly enough to make it dance once more on the prisoner's lower back. She recoiled again and grasped the ropes tighter.
"Now," the female voice began, "I thought we had discussed this." The woman's tone resembled that used when addressing a disobedient child. "Don't you remember what we decided?" she chided the soldier as she slowly moved toward him.
"What you decided," came the churlish reply. "I said we should--" the soldier began.
The prisoner turned her head in the direction of the two figures behind her. Her vision cleared just in time to see the smaller woman's gloved hand suddenly dart from under her cape and capture the soldier's throat. Instantly he dropped the whip and began to gasp for air. He pulled hard at the leather hand in a savage struggle to remove the deadly grip.
The woman let the man gasp for a moment. Then she spoke again, her voice cloying and indulgent."Now you remember, don't you Paladron?" she taunted him, her hand still exerting force against his windpipe. The soldier tried to speak, still trying to loosen the woman's hold on his throat.
"What was it?" the woman cooed again. She released the man only slightly.
"She's yours!" the soldier croaked. "She's yours!" he squeaked again, still gasping for air.
The woman increased her hold again and the man's struggle also became more primal.
"That's right, Paladron.," she mocked him, pulling him toward her. "This one is mine," she said, gesturing toward the prisoner with her other gloved hand. "If anyone's going to send her to Hades, it's going to be me." The voice was smooth and deadly. And the soldier continued to gasp and pull at the hand at his throat.
The woman brought her face only inches from that of the suffering bully. "And, if you or any of your animal friends ever touch her again..." she told him in an icy warning, "you'll have to carry your sword in your teeth!"
After a long moment, the small warrior released her grip on the soldier's throat and shoved him back hard against the stone wall. The man collapsed and sank to his knees. For several moments, the only sounds in the dirty cell were the coughing and gasping of the soldier as he tried to pull air into his lungs. While he struggled to breathe, the woman stood over him nearby, both hands again perched on her hips, boot-clad feet set apart.
"Now get out of here!" she growled at the cringing man. He pulled himself up using the stones in the wall then reached down to retrieve the whip. The woman slammed one heavy boot across the grip, nearly catching the soldier's fingers beneath her foot. "Leave it," she snapped at him and the man pulled his hand back. Still coughing and rubbing his throat, the soldier slinked away from the woman and out the cell door.
Xena's perception had nearly returned to normal, but the burning welts on her back were clouding her judgment. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, trying to clear her mind. Her head dropped down toward her chest and she fought to restore the immovable control she always employed against pain.
She became aware that the woman had moved from behind her and now stood facing her. The warrior slowly opened her eyes, preparing to meet the captor with her usual steely glare. As the female came into focus, Xena realized she recognized the face in front of her.
"Xena?" the woman asked quietly.
The warrior's jaw dropped a bit, then she closed her mouth and studied the dark eyes meeting her own blue orbs.
"Myfia," Xena said, quietly.
"It's been a long time," the smaller woarrior said, her voice smooth.
"A long time," Xena answered, her tone low and firm.
The woman began removing her leather gloves but kept her eyes on Xena's face. "You all right?" she asked the warrior.
"I've been better," Xena said calmly.
"No doubt," the woman said back.
For a moment, neither spoke. Each seemed to be testing the other's will. Finally Xena spoke again. "So, now what happens?" the warrior said to the smaller woman, flexing her hands still captured by the ropes. "You get to have your turn?"
The other warrior returned Xena's intense gaze, then let her eyes travel over the prisoner's bruised, dirty face.
"Right," she said in a tone as quiet as Xena's had been. "Now I get my turn."
Chapter One ~~~
Xena's chin rose a degree as she stared back at her captor's face. She watched as the smaller woman drew a slim, lethal dagger from her belt and advanced forward a step. Xena instinctively pulled back as the she saw the woman reach toward her.
The woman lowered the dagger, then leveled an impatient glare at the warrior.
"Hold still," she said tersely, "unless you want to lose a finger."
Xena's exhaustion was obvious on her haggard face. Even so, her expression showed that she was more than slightly surprised by the woman's next move. Myfia reached above the warrior's head and grasped one of the ropes securing the tall woman's hands. With a quick move, she sliced away the restraining hemp, then did the same to the rope holding the other hand.
With her arms released, Xena suddenly felt light-headed. She began to sway, nearly loosing her balance. Myfia, wrapped a steadying arm around the warrior's waist and pulled her gently toward the wooden cot against the wall behind them.
"Easy," the woman crooned. "Easy" she said again as she helped Xena sit down on the mound of dirty straw. With the warrior safely in place, Myfia replaced the dagger in her belt, then retrieved a small flask from under her cape. She picked up a small, grimy mug from the wobbly table next to the bed and splashed some liquid from the flask into it. She emptied the liquid onto the dirt floor, then refilled the vessel again. Then she walked back to where Xena sat and offered her the mug.
Xena's ragged stare focused on the mug, then up at the woman holding it. For a moment, Myfia thought she might refuse the liquid. Finally Xena took the mug with a shaky hand and raised it to her lips. The rope still dangled loosely around her wrist as she upended the mug and drained it. Her eyebrows shot up in surprise as she reacted to the taste of the liquid. It was wine, and rather strongly laced.
The warrior cast her blue gaze up at the smaller woman's face. Myfia offered the flask but Xena shook her head slowly. She handed the mug back to the other woman who set it back down on the table.
"Where's Gabrielle" Xena asked in a voice bolstered by the wine.
"In my tent," Myfia answered, returning the flask to her cape. "She's OK," she said as she read the concern in Xena's face. "She's got one hell of a knot on her head, but then, " Myfia chuckled, "she says it's all right because she has a hard head."
Xena stretched her aching back and winced at the stiffness caused by the raging, red welts swelling across the skin. "That's a truth," she muttered. Myfia waited until the warrior's attention was on her.
"I'll take you to her, but you've got to trust me," she said to the woman in pain on the bed.
Xena raised a cold, hard glare to meet Myfia's questioning eyes.
"Yeah, well," the smaller woman said, "at least for as long as it takes to get there." Myfia waited again. She knew Xena was striving to gather her resources. "Do I have your word?" she asked the tired warrior.
Xena reached to soothe her shoulders, then looked up at the smaller woman standing before her. She took a long, shaky breath and let her hands drop to her knees.
"All right," Xena said her voice regaining it's certainty and coolness. "You have it ... until we get to the tent."
Myfia felt a sly grin cross her own face. "Fair enough," she said and withdrew the dagger again. She climbed onto the rickety bed behind Xena and reached toward the beams above them. Working quickly, she cut down the long section of the rope that hand held the warrior's hands above her, and handed the hemp to Xena.
"Wrap that around your wrists," she told the warrior. "Try to make it look convincing." She stepped down off the bed and noticed the contempt in Xena's eyes. She sent a sheepish look toward the warrior and turned away again. While Xena worked with the rope, Myfia reached down and picked up the loathsome whip from the floor where the bullying soldier had dropped it. She coiled the leather strip and hung it wordlessly over one of the posts of the bed.
Next she reached under her cape again and withdrew a small, clean blanket from one of the pockets. She shook it briskly and draped it over her own forearm. Then she turned to stand before the bed again.
Xena had finished looping the rope through the hemp bracelets still in place on her wrists. To anyone who cared to notice, it appeared that the warrior's hands were still bound together with the rope.
"Give me the other end," Myfia said. Xena raised her hands to extend the loose end of the rope toward Myfia. The other woman took it, then wrapped it snugly around Xena's slim waist. When she had encircled the warrior, Myfia looped the end of the rope through the circle at the wrists, thus completing the illusion that the warrior's hands had been secured in front of her. The smaller woman wrapped the expanse that was left into a tight bundle. Then she drew her leather gloves back on.
Finally Myfia stood upright again in front of Xena. "There's just one more thing," she said, looking the warrior straight in the eye. "And I'm really sorry about this." Xena returned a quizzical look.
Without another moment's hesitation, Myfia raised her hand and struck Xena full and hard across the face. The warrior's head snapped sharply to one side, following the direction of the blow. For a moment, she lost what small manner of control she'd retrieved and her body rocked backward on the bed. In her mouth, Xena could taste the salty, warm flavor of her own blood.
For a second time Myfia reached out to steady the warrior's weary form. She watched as Xena's senses cleared once more; she also noticed the cold rage that had returned to the icy blue eyes now glaring up at her.
Myfia grimaced at the blood showing in the corner of Xena's mouth. "I'm really sorry," she said again. "But it'll all make sense in the tent," she said, pushing back her own nervousness at the sight of Xena's wrath. She watched the fury recede slightly as the warrior took in more gulps of air.
Myfia then took the small blanket from her arm and draped it around the warrior's shoulders. Xena winced openly as the scratchy material brushed against her tender back. But she allowed Myfia to cover her. When the blanket was in place, the smaller woman stood back and took a short breath.
She looked at Xena's face and waited. "You ready?" she asked the warrior.
"As I'll ever be," Xena replied. She stood up. "Let's go."
Myfia recoiled the rope again, picked up the whip from the bedpost and turned toward the doorway. Then she abruptly turned back toward Xena. Leaning close to the warrior's ear, she spoke softly. "But lose some of the defiance, OK? I just slapped you silly, remember?"
Xena's jaw rippled as she fought to control the anger still rampant within her. She glared at Myfia for a long moment, then lowered her eyes. With a determined effort, she unclenched her fists and let her shoulders droop dejectedly.
Chapter Two ~~~
Myfia turned again toward the doorway and tugged gently on the rope. As the two women walked out the door of the small cell, Myfia fixed a smirk of her own face, an arrogant grin that she flashed openly at the soldiers flanking the path to her tent.
"What's up, Myfia?" one scraggy ruffian inquired when he noticed his superior and her captured prize.
Myfia smirked at him and slapped his chest with her gloved hand. "Time for some fun, eh, Thesius?" she giggled and poked him playfully in the ribs. She turned a gloating grin toward Xena and yanked sharply on the rope. Xena kept up the subterfuge by stumbling forward a step, and keeping her eyes trained on the ground before her.
The soldiers laughed and nudged each other knowingly. Myfia expended a large, exaggerated wink at the group and waved the whip obviously in the view of the drunken men. Laughing, she led Xena into her tent as the soldiers amused themselves at the warrior's conquered state.
Once inside the tent Myfia's manner changed immediately. She dropped the whip and, in one swift move, pulled off her cape and gloves. Then she turned to Xena and began to deftly loosen the deceitful loops of rope to free the warrior's hands. While Myfia worked, the warrior's eyes searched the tent for Gabrielle.
"She's over there," Myfia said, her voice low. She gestured with her head toward the young woman, sleeping quietly on a mound of cushions. Xena started for her friend but Myfia stopped her progress with a tug on the rope still knotted at her waist. "Wait," the smaller woman said, still trying to work the hemp free. "Ahh," Myfia said finally as the knots opened and the rope fell away. Xena shrugged off the blanket and Myfia watched a softness glide across the warrior's face.
In an instant, Xena crossed the floor of the tent and gently sat down next to her friend. She carefully put one hand to the blond girl's face. A heavy thickness formed in her throat when she noticed the deep, purple bruise that covered most of the left side.
Above Gabrielle's left temple, a clean, neat bandage was visible. She noticed that the rest of the girl's face was showing it's nearly normal pink. Xena swallowed hard against the lump in her throat and blinked fast to stem the tears filling her blue eyes.
"Gabrielle?" Xena said softly. She waited for the girl to respond. "Gabrielle?" she said again and her heart leaped when she saw the young woman stir slightly. After a moment, Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open and she turned in the direction of the voice she treasured. When she recognized Xena, the girl heartily flung herself into the warrior's open arms. For a moment the two women held the tight embrace while the smaller warrior watched silently from across the tent.
Myfia noticed the agony etched across Xena's face. She thought at first it was concern for her young friend's appearance. Then she realized that Gabrielle had unknowingly brought her loving arms directly down onto the painful welts that littered Xena's back. Yet the warrior hadn't moved even a centimeter away from her young friend's embrace. She held the girl close and bore the pain without a moment's hesitation.
The obvious devotion between the two friends touched a chord in Myfia. She silently turned away from the scene and entered the smaller, adjoining area that she used as a dressing room. Moving quickly, she gathered soft cloths, healing oils and herbs. She opened the heavy chest that stood in the center of the room and took out a large bundle wrapped in an animal fur. Then she quietly returned to the section of the tent where Xena and Gabrielle still sat, their arms enfolding each other.
Finally Gabrielle broke from the embrace and sat back to look into her best friend's face. Her elation faded immediately when she noticed the blood on Xena's mouth and her haggard, pale appearance.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, her voice trembling with concern. "You're bleeding."
She reached toward Xena's dirty face with a shaky hand. Xena caught the small hand in hers and smiled wanely at the girl.
"I'm all right," she said to the young woman's concerned expression. "Don't worry about me." Xena touched Gabrielle's face with a tender finger. "How's your head?"
The old 'Gabrielle twinkle' began to emerge again. "It hurts," she said, touching the bruised space near her temple. Then a shaky grin crinkled the green eyes. "But it's better than it was. Good thing I have hard head, huh?" she joked and Xena smiled back.
SlowlyGabrielle's eyes began to travel over her friend. "What happened to you?" she said at last. "Where's your leather suit?"
Xena looked down self-consciously at her grimy clothing. The short, light-colored tunic she normally wore under her armored uniform was stained and filthy from her stay in the cell. Her long, black hair was matted and tangled with perspiration, and bits of straw and dirt could be seen stuck throughout the raven tresses.
Slightly embarrassed, she ran a wavering hand over the garment and cast a sheepish grin at her best friend. Gabrielle watched the hesitancy in Xena's face with concern. She could sense the warrior's uneasiness and it began to trigger warnings within her.
Xena forced a lightness into her own voice. "You know me," she began. "Always in the muck and the mud." She knew Gabrielle wasn't really fooled by her contrived joviality. She could read the girl's concern in her open face.
Eventually Gabrielle's gaze fell onto the pieces of rope still tied around Xena's wrists. Their telltale message registered in the young girl's eyes. She also noticed the raw, open burns left by the hemp on Xena's skin. She raised worried eyes to meet the warrior's blue gaze.
"What happened to you?" Gabrielle asked again, a seriousness now in her voice.
Xena decided to drop the pretense and meet her friend's concern honestly. She took the girl's hand in hers again and smiled warmly at the green eyes searching hers. She could feel her own tears threatening again and she knew that would certainly upset Gabrielle.
"I'm fine now," she told the girl earnestly. "Don't worry about it." She held the girl's gaze a moment longer, then turned her head toward Myfia where she stood across the tent. Gabrielle studied Xena's bruised and tired face. She pulled herself more upright and put a small hand on the warrior's shoulder.
Absently Xena covered the hand with her own. Then she addressed Myfia. "Thanks, Myfia," the warrior said quietly. "For taking care of my friend, here."
The smaller warrior winked at Gabrielle. "Actually, she's good company," she said. "'Course , she was sleeping most of the time," Myfia joked, hoping to lighten the atmosphere in the tent. Of course, she noticed the worried look Gabrielle still gave Xena. But she was not about to interfere with the relationship between them. If Xena didn't want the girl to know about her stay in the cell, Myfia was certainly not going to be the one to tell her.
Gabrielle looked from one warrior to the other. Her head still throbbed when she moved her eyes back and forth, but her resentment at both women began to outweigh her discomfort. She knew they were trying to hide something from her, she just couldn't think straight enough to figure out what it was. Xena looked like she'd spent a fortnight in a dingy cave and Myfia kept avoiding looking Gabrielle in the eye. Yup, something was definitely up, but nobody was telling her what.
Finally Gabrielle noticed the cloth and healing oils that Myfia had brought from the smaller room. Absently she touched her own forehead where the tight bandage Myfia had applied still covered the ragged wound in her scalp. She blinked hard when another wave of dizziness clouded her senses. Sitting up did that; she'd forgotten about that since the last time.
Just then, Xena swung her body around on the side of the bed to face Myfia more directly. The warrior's blue eyes searched her hostess' brown gaze. "She's going to be all right? Are you sure?" Xena probed.
"She'll be fine, if she stays put for another week or so," Myfia said. "I wouldn't recommend her getting near a horse ever again, but seeing as how she travels with you....." Myfia let the statement fade, hoping with all her might that her light banter with Xena wouldn't seem too improbable to Gabrielle. She glanced at the girl to measure her reaction, but Gabrielle's wide eyes were now trained on the welts covering Xena's back.
Xena swept a shaky, grimy hand across her own forehead. The exhaustion and excruciating pain of the flogging were beginning to catch up with her. She was willing herself to be strong for Gabrielle's sake when she heard the girl's terrified voice beside her.
"Xena!" Gabrielle said, then covered her mouth with her hands.
The warrior instinctively reacted to the tone of panic in the girl's voice. She turned sharply toward her friend. Gabrielle's eyes were brimming with tears, her hands trembled against her face. Finally the girl's gaze left Xena's back and traveled to the warrior's weary blue eyes.
"Your back ...." Gabrielle gasped. "What happened to your...?"
Finally Xena realized what had so frightened the girl. She turned her own shoulders away from Gabrielle's line of vision and put loving hands on the young woman's arms.
"Gabrielle," Xena began, keeping her voice as calm as possible. "Gabrielle!" she said sharply to soothe the terrified look in her friend's eyes. "I'm OK," Xena said soothingly. "Really I am." The warrior again pulled the girl into her arms and held on tightly. Soon Gabrielle's sobs lessened and her manner seemed more calm, too.
Myfia could tell that Xena was at the end of her personal reserves. One more pull at her waning strength and the warrior she'd admired for most of her life would certainly be destroyed, one way or another. But just as Myfia had made a decision - to take a chance and involve herself in the matters between Xena and this brave, charming young woman - the piercing blue eyes of the warrior silenced whatever intentions Myfia might have had.
Xena released Gabrielle and held her at arm's length. "It's part of the scheme," she said, keeping her eyes locked on those of the girl. "I swear to you." Gabrielle's weeping quieted as she tried hard to concentrate on her friend's words. When she appeared calm, Xena cast a quick glance at Myfia. The other warrior read a desperate plea in the direct blue gaze. The meaning there flashed clearly to her.
Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze and looked directly into Myfia's dark brown eyes. "Scheme?" the girl said in a voice still thick with tears. The concern in the young woman's face for the woman holding her close nearly broke Myfia's resolve. She cast another glance at Xena, but the message there had not changed. The smaller warrior summoned her own determination and forced herself to smile comfortingly.
Myfia moved near the pair on the bed and sat down on the low table in front of the cushions. With as much conviction as she could muster, she spoke to Gabrielle's tear-streaked face.
"Maybe you don't remember, Gabrielle," Myfia began, her mind scrambling to make this falsehood believable. "But I told you that the first day. Xena allowed herself to be taken by these .. vermin," she gestured roughly toward the men outside. "She's helping me .. us to defeat Coreigas .. by destroying his army from within." Myfia finished her invented speech and glanced at Xena again quickly. Then returned her attention to Gabrielle.
The girl seemed to weigh the facts set before her. Her eyes traveled between the other two women, searching their faces for signs to weaken their words. She trusted both of them, Xena completely, of course, and now Myfia, because of her kindness after her own injury. Slowly the panic began to clear from the girl's face. She wiped away her tears with the back of one hand and swallowed hard.
"OK," the girl said, her emotions still affecting her tone. "But did you have to let them .. do this to ...? " Gabrielle tried to ask, then her voice broke again.
Xena took the girl's hand. "We had to make them believe I'm a real prisoner," she said plainly. Myfia waited for Gabrielle's reaction. She hoped the young woman would accept the invented tale and be relieved.
The warrior's gaze held that of the girl. Myfia could see the love between them transcending the horror of the situation. They truly believed in each other. Myfia felt her own throat tighten at the obvious intensity of their friendship. She swallowed hard herself.
Finally she touched Xena's arm and the warrior turned to her. "I'd better treat those..." she stopped and glanced at Gabrielle again. ".. umm, your back.," she amended. "Then we have to .... " Myfia stammered, reluctant to say the inevitable. She had to return Xena to the filthy cell before one of the soldiers got curious about her whereabouts.
A look of weariness returned to the warrior's face. "Right," she answered returning Myfia's gaze. "We'd better get started." Xena looked back at Gabrielle. The girl's face remained concerned, but the strength of her spirit was present as well. The warrior squeezed the girl's hand again and smiled. "You'll be safe here with Myfia," she told her friend. "She's a good friend, too."
Xena turned to the woman seated nearby. "You will take care of her, won't you?" she said, her words more a statement than a question. Myfia saw the difficulty Xena felt at leaving her young friend. She also read the grateful longing in the warrior's eyes. Keeping her voice light, Myfia said, "Like she was my own baby sister."
Gabrielle reacted, although weakly, to the term 'baby sister'. A trace of her endearing 'gumption' returned as she chirped, "Hey! Who's a baby?"
The two warriors smiled together at the injured girl on the cushions. After another moment, Gabrielle reached for Myfia's hand. The girl's intense green glare made Myfia a trifle uncomfortable. There were tears still present on the sun-bleached lashes. But she returned the young one's gaze.
"You take care of her, too," she said motioning with a nod in Xena's direction. Then, abruptly, Gabrielle's free hand moved up to her throbbing temple. "Ouch!" she said, closing her eyes tightly. "Not a good idea," she said, trying to make light of the stabbing pain behind her eyes. For a long moment, she grimaced and held tightly to her head.
Xena's body tensed at the sight of her young friend's pain. The warrior watched helplessly as Gabrielle suffered through the results of her injury. Finally the girl opened her eyes, but they still seemed dulled in pain. Quickly Myfia crossed the tent and prepared a small drink of herbs and warm tea. She returned to where Gabrielle lay and held out the cup to the girl. Xena helped Gabrielle sit up far enough to swallow the potion, then handed the cup back to Myfia. Then she helped the girl lie back down on the soft cushions.
Almost at once Gabrielle's headache seemed to subside. She blinked her eyes again, struggling to stay aware long enough to speak to Xena again. The warrior still held the girl's hand and stroked the young face with the other. When she noticed that Gabrielle was trying to talk to her, Xena leaned forward to hear the words.
"I'm sorry," the girl whispered. "If I hadn't fallen off of Argo...." Her voice seemed to trail away. She tried to finish her thought, but the herb drink was already working. In another instant, Gabrielle was asleep again.
Myfia watched intense anguish cross Xena's ashen face. The effects of her own recent abuse seemed secondary to the torment she felt at the sight of her young friend's pain. "It wasn't your fault, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, tears now streaking the dirt on her chiseled features. She brought Gabrielle's hand to her own cheek and held it tenderly. "It wasn't your fault."
Chapter Three ~~
Abruptly Myfia rose from her seat on the table and strode purposefully across the tent. She picked up the coiled whip and the large bundle in the animal fur and dropped them both close to Xena. The warrior's attention remained on the sleeping girl until she heard the bundle thump down beside her. She turned a questioning glance toward the source of the noise, then trained tear-filled eyes on the other warrior.
"What's this?" Xena asked, her voice more vulnerable than Myfia had ever heard.. She glanced down at the bundle and at once recognized the skin that she always used under the saddle on Argo's back. She raised questioning eyes to Myfia again. "What are you ...?" Slowly the warrior realized what the gesture meant. The bundle suggested a means of escape for her.
"It's all your things," Myfia said. "Your sword, the chakrum, your clothes...all of it." Xena looked down at the bundle again, then returned her attention to the woman standing defiantly before her. "Get out of here, Xena. Gabrielle can stay until she's well enough to travel. I can protect her for that long, just like you said," Myfia said. "Argo's in a clearing about half a leag ...."
"No," Xena said in the voice anyone who faced her soon recognized. She gently laid Gabrielle's hand on the cushions and rose from the bed. She crossed the tent to Myfia and took the other warrior firmly by the arm. Glancing cautiously at the sleeping bard, Xena steered the other woman toward the smaller room. Myfia picked up the whip and the bundle and followed. When she was sure Gabrielle was safely out of earshot, Xena turned to Myfia again.
"No. She can't travel yet and I'm not going anywhere without her," Xena said firmly. Myfia knew the warrior was not speaking lightly; she'd seen that shade of steel come into those blue eyes before. There was no reasoning - or suggesting - otherwise.
Despite the fatigue and exhaustion fast overtaking the warrior's body, Myfia recognized the will of iron that had always made her admire this woman the most. Myfia remembered having tried to change the warrior's mind on something - once.
"Xena, look ...." Myfia began in frustration.
"No, Myfia," the warrior silenced her with a cold statement, then turned tired eyes in her direction. "No," Xena said again. Her reserves were beginning to fade away. She sat down heavily on the large chest, giving in to the aching in her back. For several moments, the warrior took deep breaths and concentrated on staying conscious.
Myfia growled an oath that even shocked Xena. The smaller warrior whirled angrily and began to pace the small area in frustration. Xena turned to stare at the woman who, as a youngster, had been almost as close to her heart as Gabrielle was now. She tried to imagine the young face she held in her memories compared to this mature, and hard-skilled one. There were similarities. But there was now a great difference in the souls of those two women. Xena felt somewhat guilty; this warrior had been her protégé; now they were barely friends.
Xena gathered what little reserves she had left. "You said a week," she said to Myfia. The smaller woman spun around to face her.
"You said she'd be ready to travel in a week. Didn't you?" Xena said again, steeling her will against the weakness she knew would overtake her soon.
Myfia met the warrior's defiant glance. She strode back to the woman seated on the chest and dropped to one knee in front of her. Myfia studied the haggard face, the dull blue eyes. She knew the warrior's will would survive; she just wasn't too sure that her body would.
"I said ' about</> a week', and but, what do I know? I'm not a healer," Myfia said, impatience returning to her tone. She stood up abruptly.
"Then give me a week," Xena countered. "As long as I know she's safe, I can...I can ... help you with ...." the warrior's speech was becoming garbled and confused. She took in a long breath and steeled herself again against the dizziness threatening her senses. She turned an exhausted, and pleading, face toward the woman standing over her.
"Myfia," Xena began quietly, "I know you and I didn't part company ... on the best of terms." Myfia scoffed away the remark. "And I can't think of a single reason on the gods' earth why you would do ... what you've done ... for me ... for Gabrielle." The warrior stopped again, her voice breaking so pathetically that Myfia wanted to comfort her somehow. Xena gathered her waning strength and went on.
"Please," the warrior pleaded, "just let me stay with her this week."
Myfia flounced away. "You could be dead in a week," she said unkindly. "By Hades, I could be dead tomorrow. Then where would Gabrielle be?" She watched as the hurtful words struck Xena like the blows of the whip. Myfia decided to pursue the vulnerable area. She didn't enjoy it, but she knew it was the right tactic for the warrior's own good. She marched forcefully back to Xena.
"Right now that girl believes she got you captured ... and flogged, for Ares' sake," Myfia continued, knowing the hurtful words were doing damage to the warrior's pride. "How do you think she's going to feel if she thinks she got you killed? What's that going to do to her, Xena?" Myfia's words to the warrior bit hard, like the teeth of an angry animal. Myfia maintained her approach. "If something happens to you, how's Gabrielle going to feel then? Or doesn't that really matter to you?"
"Nothing's going to happen to me," Xena snapped back through clenched teeth. "I'll be careful and you'll be here," she finished stubbornly..
Angrily Myfia turned away. "Well, I can't protect you forever!" There was a bitterness in the statement that both women knew had nothing to do with the current conversation. The feelings conveyed with Myfia's words were totally separate from what was happening now.
For a moment, Xena sat stunned on the chest, trying with all her might to maintain her slowly crumbling senses. The heavy irony of Myfia's words clanged loudly in her mind. Perhaps it was the fatigue, the manic nonsense that often comes with complete exhaustion. Maybe it was the rock-splitting pain now rampant across her back. Or maybe it was just the only choice she felt was left to her.
Xena laughed ... outloud ... softly, but outloud. Myfia was so shocked at the sound, she couldn't respond. She stared at the warrior who now shook her head slowly then laughed softly again. Xena raised her eyes toward the top of the tent, as though appealing to the gods who seemed most content to mock her.
Myfia's surprise quickly changed to nervous concern. "Something funny?" she said as the warrior's amusement faded slowly. Xena shook her head sadly, then raised penitent eyes to meet Myfia's angry stare.
"No ," Xena said. She rubbed her forehead with the back of one grimy hand. "That's exactly what I said to you ... the day I left Amphipolis." Xena's voice was suddenly very sad. "The day I took the men into the hills to ...." she stopped, a tired, faraway look in her blue eyes. "Don't you remember?" she asked numbly.
Myfia felt a bolt of shock crash through her as Xena's memory became her own. She did indeed remember the statement, and the day, and the numbing, paralyzing and overwhelming, sense of abandonment and fear she'd felt as she watched Xena and the men ride away. A wave of nausea swept through her throat and Myfia clamped her jaw together to stem the feeling. The small warrior's lips curled back in disgust and her knuckles blanched white with shaking rage.
" Do I remember?" Myfia said, her voice bitter and cold. "I thought of nothing else for ten long years after that day," the woman said. "I hated you that day; I hated you every day for a long, long time." The woman slowly moved closer to Xena. "That's why I became a warrior, Xena. To find you and kill you." Myfia's unbridled hatred showed clearly in her eyes. It was so clear and complete that the warrior truly didn't know how to respond. The woman's voice was full of sarcasm and hostility.
"I had nothing," she continued, "absolutely nothing left. No home, no family, no belongings ... nothing," Myfia spat out the words at the warrior's face. "And you left me there," the woman said, slowly, deliberately pronouncing every word. "All I had left was you!" Myfia's voice peaked. "And ... you ... left ... me."
For a long moment, the two women stared at each other. The brown eyes of onr were filled with resentment and animosity. The blue eyes of the other were ashamed and tragically repentant. Silently, Xena begged Myfia to stop this reenactment; she wanted only to forget the incident. But Myfia seemed determined to punish her.
The warrior-clad woman stood defiantly at Xena's ear. She leaned forward to deliver another indictment, then abruptly changed her mind. She stalked away a few paces, then spun around to Xena again.
"For ten years, I followed you and your army. Every time I found out where you were, I'd start in that direction. Oh, I always missed you. By the time I found the town where you were supposed to be, you and your warriors would be gone. All that was left was the destruction, the damage and the dead. So, I'd find out where you were going next, and I'd make my way there. And again, you'd have left and I'd follow."
Xena closed her eyes tightly and covered her ears with her hands. She didn't want to hear anymore. But Myfia grabbed her arm and demanded the warrior's attention. "All I've wanted, for ten long years," Myfia said, her eyes glinting with rage, "was to find you again, and remind you of that day and of how I remember it!!."
The warrior's own deep fury was being awakened. She pulled her arm out of Myfia's grasp and faced her tormentor straight on. Showing the icy glare most everyone had come to fear, she locked her eyes onto those of Myfia.
"Well, you've found me, haven't you?" Xena said coldly to the younger warrior. "Now what do you want?" The blue eyes that had so recently shown defeat and surrender now sparkled with the same fire that always frightened opponents and had often won battles of will.
For a long moment, neither woman moved; brown eyes and blue remained focused on each other. It seemed as though the two females were frozen in an instant in time, moving neither back to the past, nor forward to the present. Finally Myfia's body relaxed. Without pulling her eyes from Xena's she stepped back a pace from the warrior. Then she turned and picked up the coiled whip and the bundle wrapped in the fur blanket and dropped them both at Xena's feet.
In a clear, calm voice, Myfia spoke. "I want you to get away from here," Xena looked down at her things numbly, then caught the smaller warrior's eyes again. The auburn-haired woman continued quietly. "I want you to take your things, get dressed, get Argo and get as far away from here as you can."
Chapter Four ~~
Xena stared at Myfia with total amazement. Her mouth dropped open and she stared back dumb-founded at the woman a few paces from her. The warrior's confusion let Myfia continue.
"Argo's tied out in a small canyon half a league from here - to the west. She's got food and water for another fortnight. There's a dry cave there. You'll be able to rest." Myfia watched as Xena tried to assimilate what she was saying. Finally the warrior's tired gaze settled on the adjoining area where Gabrielle still slept comfortably on the cushions.
"Gabrielle can stay with me," she said, anticipating Xena's objection. "I promise you, no harm will come to her. I give you my word on that. She'll be safe here." Myfia waited until the warrior's attention wandered back to her. The blue eyes were clearer; they were also brimming with tears.
Softening her tone, Myfia crouched before the warrior again. "Coreigas is due back in camp in the morning. If he sees you, he will kill you. Without ceremony, without a moment's hesitation. He will kill you, Xena, and have your body torn apart." Myfia knew she was being somewhat cruel, but she was determined to make her point. "You have to leave before he gets here. I will not watch you die. And neither will Gabrielle," Myfia said to the warrior's humble gaze.
Xena tried to speak, but she couldn't form the words. She dropped her head and fumbled with the pieces of rope still encircling her raw, abraised wrists. As Myfia watched, two large rivulets of tears traveled down the warrior's face and splashed down onto her trembling hands. Xena looked up again at the other woman, sorrow and shame bringing a new wave of tears.
Myfia laid a gentle hand on the warrior's arm. Xena glanced down and covered it with her own. She took a long, shaky breath. Myfia drew her dagger and gently cut away the pieces of rope still in place on Xena's wrists then looked into the warrior's eyes again. Xena nodded mutely. Myfia waited a moment, then rose and crossed the room. The young warrior picked up an earthen jug and poured water into the basin sitting next to it.
"Let's tend to your back, and those wrists. Then we must get you out of here." Myfia spoke to the silent warrior as the basin filled. Xena acknowledged the instructions and wiped a weary hand across her eyes. Myfia waited until she saw Xena rise and move toward the basin. Then she turned and walked back into the larger room.
When Myfia returned, Xena was wearing her 'leather suit', as Gabrielle had named it, her boots and the matching leather coverings on her shins. The armor that usually covered her body was laid out on the chest, along with her sword, the chakrum and the long, coiled whip. The grime had been washed from her face and her long hair had been brushed somewhat smooth, but the fatigue and the strain were still very evident behind the clear, blue eyes.
Xena recognized the items that the woman carried with her. One was a small vial containing a soothing balm which was used to treat certain wounds; the other was a cluster of several clean cloths with which to apply the ointment.
Wordlessly, Xena gathered up her long mass of hair and pulled it forward over one shoulder. She moved her gear from the top of the chest and sat down, turning her back toward Myfia. The other warrior moved behind her and poured some of the oil in the vial onto a cloth. Then she carefully laid the cloth against Xena's battered back.
The warrior gasped openly, clenching both fists tight when the cloth touched the savage welts across her skin. She gritted her teeth and waited for the ointment to take effect. Myfia gently dabbed the balm over the most abused areas, then remoistened the cloth and applied another coat. When she was satisfied that she had treated the area completely, she moved in front of Xena and the warrior offered her wrists for attention.
Myfia ministered to the raw burns as the warrior watched quietly. Even as the ointment stung the open scrapes around her wrists, Xena looked gratefully into the face of the woman leaning over her.
"Thank you, Myfia," she told the other woman. "I won't ever forget this."
Myfia's eyes glanced up from her treatment of Xena's wounds and held the blue gaze for a moment. The women exchanged a knowing look.
"Neither will I," the smaller woman replied softly. "I learned it from you, you know." Myfia stood back then, satisfied that the treatment had been applied sufficiently. She turned away, replaced the cork in the vial and wiped her hands on the cloth. Then she returned the medicine to it's normal place and turned back to Xena.
Myfia watched as Xena tightened the straps on the gauntlet that covered her left arm. The matching protective device was already in position. The younger warrior's eye caught sight of the metal bracelet that rode at the base of the leather piece, along the edge closest to Xena left hand. When she recognized the adornment, she reached to touch it.
Xena held her arm still so Myfia could stroke the bracelet. She could see the younger woman's reaction and that she knew the bracelet's origins.
"Mother gave it to me last year," Xena told Myfia. "I've worn it ever since."
Myfia traced the bracelet's design with one finger. "I remember when you gave this to him," she said softly. "I don't remember him ever being without it," Her dark eyes looked up to meet the blue eyes of the warrior. The two women shared another memory. Myfia tapped the bracelet lightly. "Good place for it," she said, bringing a tiny smile to the warrior's tired face.
Xena studied the bracelet for a moment. Then she turned and picked up the armor that usually covered her upper body and slid the metal pieces into a narrow, leather bag. It was obvious that the armor could not be worn with her back so injured.
When the metal panels were packed, Xena picked up the chakrum and placed it in the leather bag. Then she tightened the drawstring at the top. She laid the bag down, next to her sword, it's scabbard and the coiled whip, in the middle of the fur blanket. Drawing the leather thongs around the weapons tightly, she retied the bundle. Then she turned again to face Myfia.
Myfia's gaze traveled over the warrior's form. Now clad in her recognized attire, the weapons for which she was known nearby, Xena displayed quite a different presence than that of the tortured woman in the cell. There appeared to be an aura of strength about her now, one that clearly replaced the trembling, defeated subject that Myfia had ordered about in the room earlier.
"I want to say good-bye to Gabrielle," Xena said, glancing toward the area where the girl still rested. "I don't want her to think I deserted her." The warrior turned back to Myfia and flinched inwardly when she realized the irony in her own words. Her blue eyes sent a silent apology toward the younger woman, but Myfia's eyes only showed only forgiveness.
"She's still asleep," Myfia said, her hand on the warrior's arm. "Maybe a good thing, though, huh?" she added, a glint of amusement in her dark eyes.
When Xena cast a curious look at her comment, Myfia gestured wryly at the warrior's form. Xena looked down at herself, then realized the meaning of Myfia's remarks. Awake, Gabrielle would surely notice that her friend was now wearing her regular 'leather suit' even without most of its normal accessories.
Xena's somber expression broke momentarily. She even managed to look a bit sheepish at her own lapse in awareness. She sent Myfia a thankful look and moved quietly toward the room where her friend slept.
Chapter Five ~~
When she saw Gabrielle's sleeping form, Xena felt the same wave of peace sweep through her that always followed her sight of the young woman. The little blonde's breathing was steady and even, her face, though slightly flushed, showed a healthy color. The girl slept comfortably, one small hand captured beneath her cheek, the other falling gracefully across the cushions around her.
Xena sat down and gently stroked the tousled blond head. Gabrielle stirred slightly, then her body relaxed again. The warrior took the small hand lying on the cushions and carefully pressed her lips against the warm palm.
"Sleep well, little bard," she whispered. "We'll see each other soon." She laid Gabrielle's hand back on the cushion and rose quietly. For a moment, she filled her mind with the sight of her lovely friend, then turned and walked silently into the smaller room again.
Myfia stood up when Xena entered the dressing room again. She watched the warrior's face regain it's composure. Knowingly, she approached the tall form and took Xena's hands.
"The moment she can travel, I'll send her to you," she said to Xena's worried blue eyes. "I'll send someone trustworthy with her," she told her. "I swear to you, she'll be safe."
Xena studied the face of the small woman before her. This was the face of a friend nearly forgotten. Until the incident which had resulted in the past few days' events, Xena had not thought of Myfia in many years. She told herself it had been easier in order to put that part of her life behind her. She realized now that Myfia would forever be part of her, just as Gabrielle, too, would always be in her heart.
She gathered the young warrior in her arms and held her tightly. Myfia returned the embrace, while still being mindful of Xena's injured back. The two women reclaimed the friendship of their youth and put the old hurt behind them. Finally Myfia stepped away from the warrior and straightened her shoulders.
"You've got to go, Xena. Now," she said. "Go due west. The clearing is about a half a league, due west," she said, emphasizing the directions. "Use the cave. It's protected." Xena nodded and picked up the bundle in the fur blanket.
As she turned back to Myfia, she saw the younger warrior standing near what was actually the back wall of the tent, a reluctant look in her eye. Behind her, a long, ragged gash had been slashed in the fabric.
"OK," Myfia said, her hands set loosely on her hips. "I'm ready," Xena stared at the younger woman, again confused by her words. "Well, now it's your turn.," Myfia added facetiously. "I told you it would all make sense in the tent." Xena began to understand the younger woman's inference. However, she was reluctant to execute the final move of the subterfuge.
"Xena," Myfia said anxiously, "you must. They're not going to believe I just let you walk out of here. Not the way I 'hate you'," Myfia prodded, coaxing the warrior. "Hurry, we running out of time."
The warrior's strength surged one last time. Quickly she gave the younger woman a hug, then stepped back a few paces. Summoning every ounce of reserve left in her, Xena drew back her hand and delivered a jaw-numbing slap across the side of Myfia's face. The younger warrior's head snapped to her left and her body was slammed backwards into the room, tumbling over the small table and finally landing face-down on the bed. Just before she succumbed to unconsciousness, Myfia looked up to see Xena's form disappearing through the gash in the tent. Then everything went very dark.
Chapter Six ~~
Xena leaned back against the large rock and shielded her eyes against the morning sun. She followed the form of the young blond woman walking gracefully near the stream. Gabrielle bent down to scoop up a handful of the clear, sparkling water. The girl brought her hand up and spread the cool liquid over her face and neck. She filled her cupped hands again and drank deeply. Then, shaking her hands of the remaining droplets, she turned to wave at Xena's reclining form.
The warrior waved back. A calm, grateful smile played across the dark-haired princess' face. The wound on Gabrielle's skull had healed completely, leaving no
after-effects and no noticeable scarring. The dizziness that had plagued the young bard after the initial fall had disappeared. Xena had said many silent thanks to the gods for the girl's recovery.
Gabrielle sank down on the shaded area next to Xena. Her color and spirit had also returned to their normal, refreshing levels. Her eyes were bright, her awareness as sharp as before. And, Xena noted with amusement, she had resumed her telling of tales.
"It's so peaceful here," Gabrielle said, gently stroking the lush grass around them. "Even Argo seems happy to be without the saddle." Both women turned to look at the powerful steed who now munched lazily on the grass near the stream. Xena smiled back at her friend. As always, the mere presence of the young woman filled the warrior with a warm, calming peace.
Xena pulled her legs up and wrapped her long arms around them. The warrior's leathers were tucked away in the bag with her armor. She hadn't worn them since her arrival at the clearing. At first, the outfit had been too painful against the blisters on her back. While the abrasions healed, Xena had taken to wearing the soft loose-fitting shirts that had also been part of the cache left by Myfia's couriers. On her left wrist, she wore the wide, metal bracelet with the intricate designs.
There had also been two long, comfortable skirts wrapped in the blanket with the shirts; the warrior had shortened them deftly with her knife. Long skirts would never be her forte again. Besides, she told herself, the linen had proven painful against the cuts and scrapes that had covered her legs. They'd been another souvenir of her time in the cell and the sadistic soldier with the whip.
She turned to the Gabrielle, now lying on her stomach, her leather boots in the air behind her. "How's your head?" the warrior asked, tousling the blond hair. She scanned the area on the girl's scalp where the bandage had been. The only evidence of the wound was a small area near her left temple where the hair seemed thinner and more fragile.
"It's fine," Gabrielle answered absently. Then she smiled up into the warrior's concerned blue eyes. "It's been fine for days. It hasn't even ached since the morning before last. So you can stop worrying, OK?" the blond said. She rolled over onto her back, folded her hands across her waist and gazed lazily at the sky.
Xena let her gaze linger on the young bard for a moment longer, then raised her attention to the sparkling water in the stream again. Sunlight danced on the water, making glistening star-shaped bursts on the surface.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said.
"Hmm?" the warrior answered, still enjoying the magic on the water.
"How long was I hurt?" Gabrielle asked, her face now turned toward the warrior.
Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle's open face laying sideways next to her.
She studied the young countenance for a moment. "You were with Myfia for a week and three days."
The warrior waited, not ready to impart more about the horrid fortnight past than Gabrielle requested. Xena's own body was also strong and healthy again. The welts on her back were gone as were the burns from the ropes. By the time Gabrielle had arrived at the clearing, the effects of her own nightmarish ordeal had disappeared, too. She had decided to let Gabrielle pursue only whatever pieces of the events she remembered; she would not volunteer anything new to her.
She watched as Gabrielle's face showed the confusion she still had about some parts of those days. Again, Xena held her tongue, letting Gabrielle ask the questions. She could see the young woman struggling to put events into blank spaces in her memory.
Gabrielle's gaze returned to the clear sky above, and Xena's to Argo who still munched languidly. When the warrior sensed Gabrielle's eyes on her again, she glanced to meet them.
"I think I was having nightmares while I was there, too," Gabrielle said. Her face grew frightened for a moment.
"Oh?" Xena said, waiting for Gabrielle to continue. The look of worry on her friend's face brought a tightness to her chest.
Gabrielle flopped back over onto her stomach. "Yeah, horrible nightmares. I dreamed I saw you hurt...terribly hurt ... with your back ...." The girl shuddered at her own vision. "Your back had been ...."
Xena reached for her friend. "Don't, Gabrielle. It was just a nightmare." She squeezed the little hand and smiled at the anxious face. "It happens with an injury like yours." She watched the young face relax. "Try not to think about it."
Gabrielle searched the warrior's face for a moment. Xena tried to keep her own expression as blank as she could. Finally Gabrielle's fears seemed dispelled. Xena leaned back against the large rock again and stretched her long legs out before her.
She patted her own thighs. "C'mere," she said to Gabrielle. The girl scooted closer, laying down on her back, her head settled comfortably on the warriors strong legs Xena stroked gentle fingers across the young woman's forehead, fingering the soft, blond hair around the girl's face.
"You're probably going to have those dreams for a while. Just let them happen and soon, they'll go away. It's from your injury." Xena hoped she was giving Gabrielle some comfort. She'd seen the effects of an injury like hers keep madness in a man forever. Gabrielle seemed calmer now. Xena watched the green eyes close.
The quiet sounds of the clearing softly lulled both women. Xena leaned back against the rock again and closed her eyes. She breathed in the clean, wholesomeness of the clearing. For a moment, her own nightmares seemed far away, the demons within her fell silent. Even Argo's whinnies seemed more content.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and gazed up at the dosing warrior. Xena had been more at peace these past few days than at any time since she'd known her. Lying here comfortably on the grass in the shade, without her armor and her weapons, the woman Gabrielle called her best friend seemed almost transformed by the gentleness of the clearing. They'd talked together, actually talked, every night before they went to sleep. Talking had never been Xena's favorite activity; usually, Gabrielle had to lead the conversations and direct the questions.
But here, the warrior princess had found an inner calm, a reconciliation within herself and it had opened a part of her heart not even Gabrielle had known before. Xena had shared several events in her early life with the bard that week. She talked about her life in Amphipolis before the siege of Cortese and the violence that had claimed her life for so long. Xena had also spoken of Myfia and the girl's friendship during their childhood.
Gabrielle had listened closely and watched the warrior's face during those tales. There was great pain in her friend's eyes when she spoke of the other woman, but Gabrielle had never truly learned the reason why the subject hurt the warrior so. The young woman had developed a great intuition when it came to this, her most treasured friend; the warrior's pain had become her pain too. That was the reason Gabrielle had been dreading telling her friend what she knew must be told.
Xena's eyes popped open when she felt the girl's gaze. She focused on the face in her lap. "Something the matter?" she asked when she saw the concern in the young bard's eyes.
Gabrielle sat up, pleased to notice that she could raise up again without waiting for the vicious headache to subside. "Nope," she said, her face away from Xena. The warrior kept her attention on the girl. She sensed the uneasiness that had risen in her friend and it had awakened her internal warnings again.
Gabrielle stood up and stretched her lithe body. She looked at the clear stream for a moment. "You hungry?" she asked, turning to Xena. "So am I," she said, answering her own question. Xena's quiet smile reflected her on-going amazement at the girl's uncanny ability to sense her needs. She had long ago given up trying to figure out how Gabrielle's senses had become so attuned to her own; she had decided to simply enjoy the girl's knack.
"Then I guess I'm hungry too," Xena finished lamely. Gabrielle had already started toward the cave where the cooking utensils were. When the warrior had arrived at the clearing nearly a fortnight ago, ragged and suffering greatly from her abuse as a prisoner, she had found them and all the other provisions waiting for her. Food, water, blankets, bedrolls, wood for the fire, clean clothing and medicine were all stacked neatly in the cave. There had even been a large pile of hay and fodder for Argo, as well as a leather pouch filled with the strong wine Xena had tasted in Myfia's camp.
At the time, the warrior had been too exhausted and hurt to spend the effort figuring out where the supplies had come from. As she grew stronger and her wounded body healed, she recognized the most logical answer to the question. Myfia had somehow found a way to provide the reserves. She had sent them with one of her men, knowing that Xena would not be able to forage for them or purchase them for herself.
During the time she had spent recuperating, the warrior had vowed to find a way of thanking the other woman for her kindness and the nobility of her actions. Myfia had indeed saved both her and Gabrielle's lives; it was not a deed that Xena would ever forget. She had also spent those days combating the shame she felt at the way she had treated the other warrior in their younger days. She had pledged to find a way of atoning for that action, too.
Sounds of meal preparation were coming from the opening of the cave. Gabrielle had insisted on resuming her function as chef as soon as she had begun to regain her strength. Xena had admitted that she was happy to oblige the girl; cooking had never been a favorite activity for the warrior, either. The tall, beautiful woman rose smoothly from her position against the rock and strode toward the activity. She realized that she really was hungry. As she came closer to the fire, she recognized the aroma of one her favorites - roasted game bird.
On her way to the cave opening, Xena checked Argo's food trough and the hay in her area. Both were nearly spent. Soon it would be time for them to move on, to leave this lovely, peaceful place. Gabrielle was healthy and sound again. Her own body felt stronger than ever. As tempting as staying was, Xena knew they would have to leave and resume their journeys. She decided to simply enjoy what time they had left.
The smells of the meal greeted her when she arrived at the campfire. Gabrielle had laid out the plates, earthen mugs and eating tools they'd found among the supplies. She had even placed a lovely, lavender flower in the vessel Xena usually used. The warrior watched as the girl busied herself with the meal's preparation. How completely their lives had become melded together in the short time they'd traveled beside each other. And how painfully incomplete Xena felt whenever the young woman had not been there at her arm's reach.
Xena sat down cross-legged at the edge of the blanket Gabrielle had spread next to the fire. She picked up the flower from her cup and held to her nose to enjoy the petals' fragrance. The girl glanced up from her work and smiled when she saw Xena toying with the flower. The women exchanged a smile, then Gabrielle's attention returned to the fire and the pot she was stirring.
The warrior inhaled deeply and sank down to rest on one elbow. She looked down at the flower in her hands. "We're going to have to be on our way soon," she said regretfully. "Argo's almost out of hay," she commented lightly.
Gabrielle brought the pot to Xena's dish. "Yes, I know. So are we," she said, the grin Xena so adored gracing her face. The women laughed together at the bard's joke. Then they settled in to enjoy their meal.
Before they'd finished, Argo wandered back towards her fenced area and pushed her head into the fodder pile. The mare munched the feed quietly, her eyes on the women near the fire. It was as though the magnificent animal was also readying herself for the resumed journey to come.
Chapter Seven ~~
After they had eaten, Gabrielle took the pot and the earthen tools down to the stream to clean them. She carefully rinsed and dried each mug and plate to make sure no food remained. When she returned to the cave, she held the utensils out in front of her and turned a questioning eye toward Xena.
"Should we take these with us, or leave them here, do you think?" she asked.
The warrior thought it a strange question; she hadn't even considered either option before that moment. She carefully studied the young bard's face.
"I think Myfia would want us to keep them," Xena said finally. "She knows we lost all our gear and that it'll be a while before we can replace them." The warrior waited to hear Gabrielle's reply. When the girl didn't respond, Xena pressed on, keeping her tone light. "I vote for taking them with us," she said easily, yet the familiar warnings were sounding again.
Gabrielle looked down at the implements for a moment, then turned a little smile toward the warrior's nervous blue eyes. "OK," she said, "I vote we take them, too."
Xena watched the young woman carefully pack the tools away in the pouch she wore slung over her shoulder when they traveled. Even in the quiet shadows in the cave, Xena noticed the tender way the girl handled the items, as though paying homage to the other young woman who had provided them.
The warrior fought the nagging fear rising inside her. She told herself that Gabrielle had her own way of dealing with certain feelings and Xena had worked long and hard at affording the girl that right. Her chest had turned tight and nervous again, but she steeled her impulse to press the girl.
That night, as she prepared for sleep, Xena turned to gaze at Gabrielle as she always did before reclining herself. Her heart bolted when she realized that her friend's face was covered with tears. The warrior threw back the blanket and moved quickly to the young woman. Gabrielle sat almost transfixed, staring into the clear night, saying nothing, barely noticing that Xena had moved to her side.
"Gabrielle?" the warrior began. "What is it? What's wrong?"
After a moment, Gabrielle took a long, shaky breath and wiped her face with the back of her hand. She focused her attention on her other hand, clenched tightly in her lap. As the warrior watched, the young bard labored to compose herself. Finally, when Xena was nearly wild with concern, Gabrielle turned her tear-streaked face toward the worried blue eyes.
Gabrielle looked back down at her hand and opened the small fist. Xena followed the girl's gaze to the item nestled against her palm. It was a small, round medallion tethered on a short, leather string. The warrior recognized the metal ornament at once. Myfia's battle uniform had had rows of the identical object attached across the front and back of the vest. Xena stared at the silver piece, then looked back at the tears streaming down the girl's face. The warrior's mind worked frantically to determine the importance such an item could possibly have for Gabrielle.
Xena searched the bard's countenance for some clue, then simply elected to wrap her arms around the young woman to offer whatever solace she could. Gabrielle's young body shook with new sobs and Xena pulled the blanket around the two of them. Her own heart was aching with a numbing concern for the girl she held in her arms.
"Shhh," she crooned to the sobbing girl. The warrior pulled her closer and held the trembling body tightly. After Gabrielle had quieted somewhat, Xena spoke softly. "What is it?" she asked again. "What's wrong, tell me," the warrior said, her chin against the blond head. She pulled back enough to look into the young woman's tearful eyes. "Gabrielle, please. Tell me what's the matter."
For the next few minutes, the only sounds in the cave were the crackling of the fire and the lessening sobs coming from the young bard. Xena continued to hold the girl close, rocking her gently, waiting for a sign that Gabrielle was ready to talk about this painful thing. Finally the young woman took in several gulps of air and wiped her face with her hand again.
Without releasing Gabrielle, Xena reached for the water jug and the group of clean cloths near it. She soaked one of the pieces in the cool water and placed it against the girl's hot face. Gabrielle pressed the cloth against her eyes, then cooled the rest of her face. Xena handed over the water jug and the girl drank heavily. The warrior waited, watching the young bard fight to reclaim her control.
When Gabrielle at last seemed calm, Xena stroked the long, blonde hair away from her friend's feverish cheek. She strained to focus in the light of the fire, searching the little bard's anguished expression for some sign. Finally Xena sat back, propping one long leg up against Gabrielle's back. She leaned on one hand to observe the bard's face.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice gentle and warm. "Did you have another nightmare?" Gabrielle continued to stare at the medallion, stroking it lovingly with one finger. She shook her head 'no' in answer to Xena's question. Then, in a voice still thick with her tears, Gabrielle began to speak.
"Myfia gave me this the night before she had Demarius bring me here." Xena assumed the name she mentioned was that of the young soldier who have delivered Gabrielle to the clearing. The girl looked up into Xena's eyes. "She told me that, if I ever needed her, all I had to do was send this to her and she'd find a way to come to me."
Xena's throat tightened when she heard of the kindness of her former protégé. She added this decency to the list of acts for which she would thank the woman. The warrior stroked the soft hair again and ran a comforting hand along the girl's back.
"We have quite a lot to thank her for, don't we?" Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle looked down at the medallion again, a new wave of tears covering her cheeks. "Now I'll never be able to thank her," the girl sobbed. "I'll never be able to tell her how grateful I'll always be for what she did for me ... for us." Gabrielle's body shook with sadness again and Xena reached to gather her close.
"We'll find her again, I promise," she said soothingly. "We'll make sure we find her so you can tell her," Xena said to the girl whose pain ravaged her own heart.
Gabrielle's anguished voice came from within the warrior's comforting embrace.
"She's dead, Xena," the girl said woodenly. "Myfia's dead."
The warrior's body stiffened at Gabrielle's words. She felt as though someone had leveled a lethal blow to the middle of her chest. Her arms tightened around the young woman and a loud clamor sounded in her ears. Slowly she released Gabrielle and looked into the girl's tearful gaze.
"Demarius told me the day he brought me here. Coreigas killed her when he found out she'd let a prisoner escape. He just pulled out his sword and killed her."
Gabrielle's eyes locked onto those of her most valued friend.
"No," Xena said into the fire. "No," she stammered again. The warrior seemed to crumple forward, her expression empty and cold. She covered her face with her hands and rocked her head back and forth. "No!" she whimpered, her voice strident and pathetic.
The girl's voice became calm, now, as she watched the fury mount in the warrior's eyes. "That prisoner was you, wasn't it?" Gabrielle said. Xena's tortured gaze was drawn to the green eyes trained on her. "The prisoner Myfia freed was you."
Xena pulled her eyes away. She could feel her own body begin to shake as the bard's words hammered into her brain. The warrior in her began to scream out as her arms fell limply into her lap. For a moment, she couldn't move. Her heart was pounding and the tightness in her chest shortened her breath.
Gabrielle took hold of Xena's hands. For an anguished instant, the girl felt a wave of panic threaten her own control. She watched as the warrior's rage swept through her, peaked, then slowly receded into a smoldering heat behind the clear, blue eyes. Just when she was certain that Xena's anger would explode from her, she saw a frightening weakness settle around her.
Gabrielle reached forward, now comforting the woman whose pain she shared. Soon Xena's sobs shared the sound of Gabrielle's. The two friends moved to console each other. They wept together for the fine woman whom they had both come to value so much. As the thin lines of dawn crept into the clearing, they fell into an exhausted sleep. The young woman's head rested on the warrior's shoulder. Between them lay their intertwined hands.
Xena stood near the edge of the sparkling stream. Argo's reins hung loosely from her left hand. She wore her standard outfit, metal armor covering the leather suit, shin lacings, boots, gauntlets and arm bracelets. Her sword was laced on her back, her chakrum hung on her belt. For a time, the warrior let the peaceful beauty of the clearing seep into her soul. Her thoughts were calm and steady.
The warrior turned when the young, blond woman approached her. Gabrielle smiled at her warmly and gave Argo's neck a gentle pat. Over her shoulder, the girl carried her signature pouch filled with various travel gear. In one hand, she carried a strong, wooden staff. She lifted the flap on one of the bags latched on the horse's back and dropped in the two large stones of flint. She cradled the staff in the crook of her arm to retie the bag. When she had picked up the staff again, she turned to her companion.
"Ready to go?" the bard asked the warrior princess.
"Ready," the warrior replied. The women started walking toward the ridge above the tiny meadow.
When they arrived at the road, the two friends turned to face the sun. Then, for a moment, they both turned back to gaze down to the lovely clearing, with it's cool, clear stream and the safe, comfortable cave at the center. Each indulged in her own memories of this special place, both spent time securing those memories in her heart.
Finally Gabrielle turned to Xena and placed a loving hand on the warrior's arm. Facing the quiet cavern in front of them, she spoke quietly to her best friend.
"She loved you, Xena," Gabrielle said. "She told me so the night we said good-bye."
Xena smiled at her best friend. "I know," the warrior said. "I loved her , too." She touched the girl's face with a gentle finger. "She gave you back to me."
The two travelers turned together then to walk down the road.
~~~The End ~~~
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