Though this is my original story, I gratefully acknowledge that Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, and other characters in this story are owned by MCA/Renaissance. No copyright infringement is intended.
WARNING: This story contains violence, some of it graphic and possibly disturbing, and is intended for mature audiences only. This is one of my early Xena stories. I think I got better. <G>
"Good. Now stay in the crouch, keep your staff level, and turn towards me. Use your lower center of gravity to maintain your balance." Gabrielle concentrated on following Xena's instructions exactly, letting her tongue dig into the corner of her cheek. Twisting, she lost her balance for a moment, her staff jabbing into the ground. She tried to recover, but found herself sitting in the dirt.
"Here, Gabrielle," Xena extended her hand to help up the frustrated bard. "You just need practice."
"But it comes so easily to you!" spat Gabrielle, dusting herself off.
"I've practiced a lot, and I still do every day. No one said this was easy."
Gabrielle reluctantly agreed. "Okay. Let's do it again. I don't want to have to endure any more of your lectures."
"Well, you let that big one get behind you," the note of distress in Xena's voice was not lost on her friend.
"But you were right there!"
"This time, yes." responded Xena. She thought about the men who had accosted them on the road the day before. It had been a little too close for her liking, and she decided it was time to teach Gabrielle a few more fighting techniques.
"Fine." Gabrielle defiantly raised her staff into position. Xena teased her with the tip of her sword, drawing Gabrielle into the play, prodding more swiftly and deeper, forcing Gabrielle to parry her thrusts with more intensity. Suddenly Xena flipped high over Gabrielle landing directly behind her. Gabrielle was ready: she brought her staff before her, crouched low to the ground, coiled up to turn as fast as she could, hoping to react more quickly than Xena anticipated. "Ouch!" she fell to the ground before completing the maneuver.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"Yes." A sullen Gabrielle held up her hand to Xena, "Help me up. It's my pride that's hurt." But as Xena pulled her up, Gabrielle let out another yelp and sat back down.
"What is it?" Xena's brow furrowed.
"My ankle. I think I twisted it a little." Gabrielle slammed down her fist in frustration.
"Let me look at it." Xena's gentle hands prodded the small ankle until she felt Gabrielle wince. "Does it hurt here?"
"Do you have to keep poking it?"
"You'll live, but I'd keep off it for a couple of days." More carefully this time, Xena helped her stand. She supported Gabrielle with an her arm around waist and the pair slowly walked back to their camp. After seating Gabrielle on her bedroll Xena said, "Wait here. I'll make a poultice and wrap it."
"It's fine, Xena. Just leave it alone."
Xena knelt by Gabrielle and started taking off the boot until she felt the bard tense. "Fine, huh?" Xena murmured.
"What's that look for?" a feisty Gabrielle asked.
"What look?" Xena glared at her.
"What look? What look could it be? That smirk on your face!"
"Sorry, Gabrielle." Xena dropped her glance, hiding the smile that had crept onto her lips, and removed the boot smoothly. "I have to make a fire to heat the poultice before I wrap this. I'll be back in a minute." Xena headed off to gather wood.
"And lunch! I need lunch, too." Gabrielle called after her friend, trying to sound irate. She could see Xena shaking her head and knew the warrior was smiling.
Soon there was a roaring fire, and the comforting aromas of simmering herbs mingled with frying fish spread across their camp. Gabrielle sat by the flames and kept a cook's eye on the trout. Xena returned again from the creek, water skins re-filled, and proudly produced a treasure-trove of sweet dark berries.
"Hey, where'd you find those?" Gabrielle grabbed one before Xena could snatch them back.
"They're dessert, and they're just across the creek." Xena put them down out of reach of Gabrielle. "If you eat them all now, I'll send you back for more, but since you can only crawl it will take you a long while to get there."
"Funny. Maybe I'll do just that. I'll have them for dinner, just don't be asking me to bring some back for you."
Xena just shrugged and said "You're welcome."
"Xena, I'm sorry" Gabrielle realized her bickering had gone a little too far. "It's just that this gets old."
"You're always taking care of me. You always get to be the strong one." Gabrielle dropped her shoulders and sighed.
Xena moved to sit beside her and said firmly, "No, Gabrielle, that's not true."
Gabrielle scowled, "Then why can't I get even the most simple moves right. Everything you teach me is so easy for you and so hard for me."
Xena lay a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Don't confuse that with power. There are many kinds of strength, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, sure." Gabrielle pressed her index finger into the fish. "They're done."
"How can you tell?"
"It's a texture thing. If there isn't enough resistance, they're under-cooked. If it's too hard, they're over-cooked."
"See, now that's something I'm not good at."
"Oh boy, Xena. We're equally mighty. You can fend off an entire army, and I can poke a fish. I'd certainly be afraid of me."
"Well, right now I'd say your skills are more welcome than mine. Pass me one of those, would you?" Gabrielle laughed and tossed a fish to Xena. Gabrielle savored the fare as it did taste good: the rare luxury of a hot mid-day meal.
After lunch, Xena applied an herb-infused clay poultice to Gabrielle's ankle then wrapped it with rags. The dichotomy of Xena's strong hands and gentle touch brought immediate relief to the young bard. As Gabrielle spent the rest of the day snoozing and scribbling on her scrolls, Xena took the time to clean and repair her armor, sharpen and polish her sword, and brush down Argo with a thoughtfulness she couldn't often afford. Before bed, Xena replaced the poultice with a fresh, warm mixture. This time, she included some herbs to help Gabrielle sleep well.
Early the next day, a half-awake Gabrielle could hear Xena stoking the fire. She stretched, forgetting the tumble of the day before, flinched, and let loose a mild curse under her breath. "So it's a little stiff?" Xena asked.
"What makes you say that?"
"Let me have a look." Xena unwrapped and slowly rotated the ankle. "Not too bad, but there is some swelling. You're riding today."
"I can walk." Gabrielle pleaded.
"Don't say that until you've tried." Xena said smugly. It didn't take long for Gabrielle to be convinced. She was of little help in breaking camp, and when Xena told her it was time to mount Argo, Gabrielle didn't complain.
Gabrielle appreciated the escape from the ordinary. She took in the view from Argo's saddle and enjoyed watching Xena's back as the warrior walked, leading her horse down the path. They traveled beside a creek for awhile, the path twisting and turning along its banks, the gentle murmuring of trickling water deeply soothing. Gabrielle was almost considering nodding off when she felt Argo stop. Her eyes popped open only to see Xena laughing at her. "Having a nice time?" asked Xena.
"Hey, I'm the one with a sore ankle. I should be able to enjoy something, don't you think?" Gabrielle teased. "I could get used to this riding stuff. In fact, I think I'll do it again tomorrow."
"Maybe," growled Xena. "Don't grow too fond of it. Remember riding isn't all lolly-gagging about."
"Don't remind me. I remember..." Gabrielle stopped talking when Xena threw up her hand demanding silence. She tensed, knowing Xena had heard something suspicious, and reached for her staff.
Xena whispered under her breath, "No, Gabrielle. You're in no condition to fight."
Xena turned her attention down the path. Gabrielle waited long seconds before six scruffy men lumbered into view. As they neared the pair, Xena stepped out to block their way.
One of the men, a stocky blonde, signaled the others to stop and he stepped forward to meet Xena. He smiled, revealing rotted teeth, and inquired, "The Warrior Princess and her bard?" Gabrielle found herself very uncomfortable at the notion that their identities were know, but Xena shot back, "What makes you say that?"
"Just checking," and with that he nodded to his companions and they drew their swords in unison. Xena reached over her shoulder, taking her sword from the scabbard on her back. Her confidence was a powerful weapon, and she used it to it's fullest advantage.
Taking a few more steps forward, putting just enough distance between her and Gabrielle to keep the bard out of the fray, but not so much she couldn't easily defend her friend, Xena waited for the men to come to her. The stocky blonde approached first, took one swing at Xena and was down without further bother. "Come on, come on," taunted Xena.
The other five looked at each other and approached as a group, hoping their united efforts would change the balance of power. Xena would have had a much easier time dispatching them, but she had to concentrate on keeping them all in front of her, not letting any flank her to get to Gabrielle. Xena relished the fight, as it was the kind of challenge that got her juices going, until six more men approached. She realized they were outnumbered and began considering her options. It looked too difficult to make a run for it--leaping into the saddle for a hasty retreat would have been possible if it weren't for the fact that the saddle was already occupied.
Xena sensed that Gabrielle's staff was held at ready, but she hoped to keep Gabrielle from needing to use it. Unfortunately, one of Xena's most successful ploys in such fights was now useless, as the risk in flipping over the attackers to surprise them from behind was too great; it would have given them a clear path to Gabrielle. Then she heard Gabrielle thump her staff hard into someone's chest and she knew they were surrounded. Without turning to look, she whistled for Argo to take off. Just as the horse pushed off with a strong stride, one of the men lunged for Gabrielle's staff and used it to pull her off the horse as the steed broke into a gallop.
Xena saw Argo fly by with an empty saddle and flung around in time to see a knife appear at Gabrielle's throat. That was the last thing she remembered as darkness flooded her senses.
* * * * *
She focused on a soft voice at her ear and smiled when she recognized it. "Xena, it's okay, I'm right here." Xena stretched to put out a reassuring hand, but felt tight bindings on her arms and legs. Struggling to open her eyes against the sun, she began to make out Gabrielle lying beside her. They were in a wagon being carted somewhere, presumably by the men who had soundly defeated her earlier. The wagon's tall sides blocked their view of everything but tree tops, still Xena made sure to check their general direction--south.
She swallowed and tried to wet a dry throat. "How long?" was all she managed to croak out.
"An hour or so." whispered Gabrielle. "They whacked you pretty hard. How's your head."
"Fine," said Xena.
"All right, I have a headache, I admit it. How are you?"
A burly voice interrupted them, "Shut up back there!"
They stopped speaking, both worried that retribution would be taken out on the other one. Finally Gabrielle shimmied closer so the could carry on a conversation without being overheard. "Who are they?"
"I don't know," frowned Xena. "Have you heard anybody's name?"
"No. I know this, though, somebody wanted us and sent these guys out just to get us," Gabrielle was sure of her logic.
"More likely they wanted me."
"No, no," Gabrielle countered. "You remember the chunky one said 'Xena and the bard' when they found us."
"No, no," mocked Xena, "they said 'The Warrior Princess and *her* bard'."
"Yeah, well, I was trying to forget the possessive part. Not that I mind all the time, you know, it's just that once in a while I wish someone would say 'The bard and her Warrior Princess." Gabrielle rambled on, "The bard and *her* Warrior Princess. Don't you think that has a better ring to it?" It was not difficult for the bard to read the look in her Warrior Princess' eyes. "Fine, I'll shut up."
Xena smiled and whispered, "I'm glad you're okay."
It was well past sunset when their journey ended. The rode through large gates cut into magnificent stone walls, coming to a halt in an expansive courtyard. Rough hands hauled them from the wagon, untied their legs, and stood them on stiff muscles. Xena's headache had cleared for the most part, but she noticed Gabrielle still favoring the ankle. Any sort of escape would have to be designed to avoid running.
Xena studied the courtyard, noting the guards placed high along the walls, the stables a stone's throw down a side path, and the over-sized carved doors leading into the main building. Gabrielle caught the flicker of recognition in Xena's eyes, realized Xena had been here before, and gave her a quick nod to show she understood. As they were shoved toward the door, Xena whispered to Gabrielle, "Menesis."
A cold shiver ripped through Gabrielle. The Warlord Menesis was well-known to her and the stories were rife with gruesome detail. She hadn't known that Xena once faced him, a fact made clear to her now. Gabrielle swallowed hard as she was pushed through the door, down a dimly lit hall, and into a huge room. She couldn't make out back wall clearly, but wasn't sure if it was because of the size of the room or because there were only a handful of candles illuminating the area where they stood.
Out of that darkness came a disembodied voice, "Nice to see you again, Xena."
"Menesis." Xena's curt greeting was met with a foreboding laugh. Footsteps approached them until a grotesque man's features emerged from the shadows. Gabrielle was at first sickened by a long ragged scar running from his left ear and through an eye, or rather an empty eye socket. He made no attempt to hide his disfigurement and although it carried the weight of an old wound, it still maintained an angry red hue.
Menesis walked right up to Gabrielle, grabbed her chin, and stared down with a hungry leer. "So this is your bard?"
"Menesis, if your business is with me, why don't you let her go?" asked Xena.
"Because, Xena," Menesis dropped his hold on Gabrielle and stalked Xena, "because I intend finally to conclude my business with you and I need the bard to do it."
Both women remained silent, Gabrielle because she was literally too afraid to speak and Xena because she knew better than to goad Menesis. Menesis circled them a few times, weaving through the men holding the captives. He slowed behind Gabrielle, ran his finger across her back, up her neck, and then around to her throat as he swung his frame before her. Gabrielle's body trembled in disgust at the touch, but her green eyes were clear and sharp.
"This one's going to be entertaining, don't you think Poros?"
Though Poros, Menesis' lieutenant, said nothing in reply, he curled his lips into a menacing smile.
Menesis caught his fingernail under Gabrielle's chin and tugged it up. "Did Xena ever tell you what she did to me?" Gabrielle shook her head just enough to answer him, being careful not to let the rough fingernail rip into her skin. "Xena, I'm surprised!" Menesis spoke to Xena, but kept his nail pressing into Gabrielle's skin. "I would have thought you'd tell that tale far and wide."
Xena merely replied, "I'm not much for old stories."
"And yet you have a bard?" Menesis pressed himself into Gabrielle, his face inches from hers. She tried not to flinch as he said, "How incongruous. Still, I can enjoy the irony. Well, pretty bard, I'll have to tell you about it myself."
Menesis took his hand away and Gabrielle discovered she had been standing on her toes. "Several years ago, I was a respectable man...now Xena, don't interrupt. A good story needs continuity. I had made a fine name for myself. I had a wonderful family, a wife and a son. My son was just coming of age and had taken an interest in the daughter of a neighbor--she was not unlike you, my little bard." Menesis smiled at Gabrielle. "Between the two families, we owned a great deal of land and the happy union would have merged our properties into quite a magnificent kingdom; one that would have brought peace and tranquillity to the region."
Xena couldn't stand it any longer, "More like oppression."
"Now, now, Warrior Princes. You haven't taken the time to tell your version of the story, so I am claiming first right to that now." He turned to Gabrielle. "My family owned a lovely jewel--the Rose of Ardor--which my son planned to present to his beloved."
"Bribe," Gabrielle heard Xena whisper.
"Then your friend Xena arrived," continued Menesis. "She stole the jewel and upset everyone's plans. My son met her in battle in an attempt to retake the precious gem. He was wounded and died a long, slow, painful death." Menesis let his anger best him and he continued, shouting now, "He lay in agony for seventeen days while his wounds slowly consumed his heart, burned his soul. There was nothing to do but watch." Menesis spat to clear the memory.
Xena spoke up again, "Well it seems you got the estate you lusted after anyway."
"No thanks to you! The lovely daughter grew despondent after my son, her lover, died. She took her own life. Her father blamed me for her death and he sent his men to attack." Pointing to face he said, "This was my punishment, my poison for sacrificing my own son and at last I can exact my revenge on you, Xena."
Menesis said in a cold, harsh whisper, "First you'll get to watch your bard suffer, scream in agony, wretch blood until she can no longer heave, roll her eyes back into her head against the excruciating pain...Then I'll do the same to you, Xena and I will watch that with pleasure."
Horror fixed on Gabrielle's face. She saw Menesis nod to Poros and his men and felt herself being pulled away. Kicking, she landed a few choice punches to unprotected crotches, but with her hands bound she was no match for any of them. The last time she saw Xena, Xena was struggling with her guards, putting up a much better fight than Gabrielle had, but it was to no avail. When Gabrielle was dragged from the great hall, she could hear Xena screaming her name, echoing off walls like a wild bat.
Poros and two other soldiers led Gabrielle down narrow, deep steps that spiraled into darkness. The further down they went, the more acrid the air became and a wet cold seeped into her already weary bones. At the bottom of the stairs, they took her through a short tunnel, then stopped at a row of heavy doors. One was opened revealing a dark, dank cell into which she was tossed. When the door closed behind her with an ominous thud, she felt truly alone.
Gabrielle struggled to think clearly. She was lying on a thin bed of old straw, the only insulation against the hard stone floor, with hands still securely bound behind her. A small barred window drew a thin slit near the ceiling. The few rays of moonlight barely illuminated the room enough to study it.
She thought about what Xena would do. Rolling over onto her knees, she stood carefully. She ran her hands against the walls, but discovered only shackles and irons at odd intervals around the room. She returned to a set of manacles secured to the wall at the height of her bound hands and rubbed the bindings against a rusty edge. It took several minutes, but Gabrielle eventually freed herself from the bonds.
Quietly then, the door to her cell opened, and a figure slipped in. "Xena?" Gabrielle's hopeful voice asked.
A cloaked figure answered her, "No, but Xena is all right. Here, drink." A woman's voice...
Gabrielle took a water flask and drank deeply. The woman said to her, "You must cooperate with them. Do everything they ask."
"Who are you?" asked Gabrielle.
"Do everything they say and it will give Xena enough time to get you out of here." The cloaked head jerked, "I must go."
The woman left a speechless bard in the cell, but Gabrielle thought little more about the visit. She was so exhausted from the day's adventure and worry about Xena, Gabrielle curled into a corner and fell into an uneasy sleep.
Noises in the hall rousted her. She was disoriented: the moon had set and her cell was completely dark. Breathlessly, she waited for her door to be opened again. Then she recognized Xena's angry voice outside. She could hear bumping and crashing, but it passed her door and went further down the hall. Though they were taking Xena to the next cell, the thick stone walls made it hard to figure out what they were saying. She could tell that Xena was angry and fighting as best she could and it seemed that several men were needed to secure her in the dungeon. The Gabrielle heard a loud thud, and all was quiet save the sound of a door shutting tightly.
Gabrielle waited until she was sure the men had left. Then she called, softly at first, "Xena?" Then louder, "Xena?" But there was to be no response.
* * * * *
Her head was swimming and she strained to open eyes. She heard noises, then decided they were screams. Cracking whips and screams. With the realization that she was hearing Gabrielle scream, Xena regained full consciousness immediately.
Xena was shackled to the stone wall, too high to sit, too low to stand easily. Since she had been brought in, several hours had passed, the sun was full, but she had no idea what time it was. In those hours she had been unconscious, her limp body pulled against her shackled arms, leaving her numb, sore, and stiff. In the few moments it took to asses her situation and shake out the tightness in her muscles, the screaming had stopped.
"Gabrielle?" Xena spoke tentatively, then more forcefully, "Gabrielle, can you hear me?" She was answered but a crack of the whip and another muffled scream. Xena didn't dare call out again for fear they would take it out on Gabrielle.
Xena's frustrations escalated, almost overtaking her. Helplessness was a state she had no idea how to handle. Allowing her anger to manifest itself physically, she pulled and tugged at the manacles until her ankles were bruised, wrists trickled with blood. Her head was pounding from having been twice knocked out the day before. It was her fault that they were there. And Gabrielle...A terror-filled foreboding infected her every thought. Was it worse not to be with her friend, not knowing just what they were doing to her, not being able to reassure her that everything would work out? Would it really be any better to see it? To watch Gabrielle being tortured before her eyes, to live with that permanently etched visual memory? Shaking, she slunk to her knees on the cold floor. She couldn't watch. She wouldn't be able to. It would surely kill her.
Time passed, the shadows creeping across the floor. As they faded into the gray of evening, Xena still slumped weakly. No thought had entered her mind, none could have or she would have lost her sanity, but the warrior's skills were still in force, and she tensed, hearing someone approaching. A door was opened, but not to her own cell. A whip again. More screams. Xena sobbed uncontrollably, trying to drown out Gabrielle's wailing.
Though it had grown quiet next door, Xena was still shaking, recapturing her breath. Tears had long since dried when she heard a door opening and men moving about. The door to her cell opened. Menesis strode in dressed in a gilded robe of dark red. He stood before her, legs planted firmly apart, fists placed on his hips. "Xena, I've come to see how are you?" Xena offered no reply. "Well, I've brought you a present to help lift your spirits."
Two men dragged in the unconscious bard and dropped her on the straw across the cell from Xena, near a large stone bench. "There, that should cheer you up."
Xena's anger unleashed itself, "You bastard. You bastard!" Menesis bowed to her deeply and left. He swaggered, unaffected by Xena's verbal assault. "I'll kill you, you bastard. I'll kill you!"
The door clicked shut and Xena forced herself to look at Gabrielle. The small body had been thrown in a heap, one arm pinned under her, legs tangled. Gabrielle's back was covered in welts, some bleeding freely. Xena again strained at her bindings until she cried out in pain. Defeated and tearless, she stared blankly at her friend. She longed to be near her, take care of her, stand between her and Menesis, take the blows in her place. And yet she knew it was not to be. Never had she felt so hopeless.
Silently, a cloaked figure slipped in. She crossed to Xena and whispered, "I am here to help. Do not kill me."
"I'll be the judge of that." Xena's icy voice rang in contrast to the other woman's.
"I will help you if you promise not to hurt me."
"Xena, I know who you and Gabrielle are. Please trust me." She produced a bucket and clean rags. "I can let you out of the manacles for the night. This is warm water, you can clean Gabrielle's wounds and stay with her, but you must agree to let me put you back before morning."
"No. Let me out. I'll take care of it from there." Xena was defiant.
"There are others who will be here to help, but they have not yet arrived. Menesis has been bragging that he has you and, well, it seems the two of you have many friends."
Xena wanted to believe her but hadn't been convinced. "Why should I trust that you're telling me the truth?"
The woman drew close, however Xena still could not see her face under the cloak. The woman spoke clearly, "Once I was where you are now and that," she said pointing to Gabrielle, "was my daughter."
Xena remained silent, letting the full meaning of that simple statement sink in. "Bring me my weapons."
"I cannot. I am held here against my will as well."
"Then how did you get in here," Xena asked skeptically.
The woman answered, "I have many skills."
Xena smiled. "I agree to your plan."
The woman reached around her and unlocked the shackles holding Xena's wrists and ankles. Xena rubbed the warmth back into her hands and looked up to see that the woman was gone. It surprised her, but the shock was short lived as she remembered why she had been released.
Taking the bucket and rags, she went to Gabrielle. Xena was almost afraid to touch her, but the protector in her took over. She put Gabrielle in a more comfortable position, straightening her arms and legs. Gabrielle's green top was ripped in the back by the whip, but since there was no substitute, Xena left it, ragged and threadbare. She dipped the rags into the water and noticed a soothing, herbal essence. Beginning at Gabrielle's neck, she tenderly washed each welt, pulling out bits of straw and dirt, until all of the wales were clean.
When she finished with Gabrielle's back, she ran the healing cloth over her own wrists where she had pulled against her irons and was struck by how much better they felt. Then Xena lay down by Gabrielle and stroked her cheek. She longed to hold her, to wrap secure arms around her, but she was wary of touching the welts running up and down her back. Instead, she pulled Gabrielle up on top of her, placing the bard's head on her breast and spoke softly to her through the night.
The next morning, the woman returned just before dawn. Xena groaned as she realized what the woman's arrival meant. "Please, you can't make me leave her." Xena almost pleaded.
"You must. It is the only way to save her." The woman spoke firmly.
"I can't subject Gabrielle to another day of this. We must to try to get out now."
"No, it is not yet time."
They both heard guards coming down the tunnel, the woman placed a hand on Xena's shoulder. Xena nodded and reluctantly lifted Gabrielle, putting her down softly on the straw. She hung her head as the woman returned her to the fetters, the woman disappeared into the shadows.
Menesis arrived with his lieutenant, Poros, and a large entourage of guards. They ignored Xena, went directly to Gabrielle, and tried to wake her. They poured water on her, shook her, and called her name. Gabrielle stirred, but never really realized where she was or who was taunting her. Shortly, she lay still again. Menesis prodded her with his foot, checking to see if she was conscious or not. Apparently frustrated that his trophy wasn't cooperating, he kicked her before turning his attention to Xena.
Xena watched the scene without speaking, revolted by it. When Menesis recognized that look in Xena's eyes he stood before her and said ingenuously, "This is the price you must pay for your sins of old." He added with a sarcastic twist, "You can spend the day guarding your friend."
"I will kill you, Menesis." Xena spoke evenly.
"I sincerely doubt that." Menesis reached toward Xena, as if to ridicule her with his touch, but she thrashed in her manacles so violently, he was taken aback. He chose instead to bare his teeth as he took his leave.
Xena waited through the day to see if Gabrielle would regain consciousness wishing she hadn't let that woman put her back in the restraints. Knowing the next round of torture wouldn't begin as long as Gabrielle was unconscious, she hoped Gabrielle didn't come around, and yet what Xena most wanted to do was talk with her friend, reassure her that they would find a way out, hear Gabrielle put her trust in Xena.
Sometime in the late afternoon, Menesis and his men returned. "Xena, have you had a good day?" Menesis offered her a skin. "Water?" He waited patiently before chuckling, "Oh, that's right. You can't even get yourself a drink. Here, let me." He held the water skin up to Xena's lips and though she wanted the satisfaction of knocking it out of his hand, she took several sips.
Menesis beckoned to Poros, "Give some to the bard." Poros took the water skin and shook Gabrielle. His touch was much more gentle than Menesis' had been, and Gabrielle responded. Kneeling over Gabrielle, he blocked most of Xena's view, but Xena saw Gabrielle sit up and drink.
As she handed the skin back to Poros, Gabrielle caught Xena's eye. Neither face registered anything an outsider could have recognized, but between them they said all that was needed.
Menesis interrupted the non-verbal exchange. "Well, aren't you going to say anything to each other?"
Xena responded, "There's nothing you need to hear."
"Oh, so cocky now, Xena. Well, since you're so sure of yourself, why don't you tell me what I should do next? What would make your stomach turn, your knees weak? I have some ideas of my own, but I'd really like to hear them from you."
Xena did not respond, but she found she was now unable to look at Gabrielle. That disquieted her unlike Menesis' words ever could. She was embarrassed to be seen chained, mortified to see Gabrielle in pain, and she was terrified of what might happen next.
Menesis sauntered over to Gabrielle and lowered himself down onto the stone bench near her. Gabrielle remained on the floor, too weak to move. Without warning, Menesis reached over, pulled her to him, and kissed her deeply. She kicked him--hard--and he broke his hold. "What's the matter, dear, don't like it?"
He ordered two of his men to hold her down, then he slid off the bench and straddled her. Gabrielle squirmed under the hold of the men, but she was gripped securely. Menesis leaned forward to kiss her again, but he yelped in pain and slapped her. "The bitch bit me!" he bellowed. He shot up and stormed around venting a long-pent rage. "That bitch actually bit me!" He circled around her, stopping behind the bench. Then, fortified by years of indignation and hatred, he kicked over the heavy bench, crushing Gabrielle's leg. As she cried out in agony, he left her pinned under the weight, ordering his men to leave with him.
Xena screamed at him, cursing, using every ounce of strength she had to tug and pull at her shackles. Menesis left, this time without uttering a word to Xena as he passed her and departed.
Gabrielle stopped screaming and lay quite still, her head turned away. Xena tried to calm herself, but she was gasping for air after her outburst. "Gabrielle," she finally was able to say, "Can you hear me?"
Very softly, almost a whimper, Gabrielle replied, "Yes."
"I'm so sorry." As soon as the words were out, Xena regretted saying them. She had wanted to say something encouraging, to try to give Gabrielle some hope. Instead, she sounded defeatist. She tried again, "Everything will be okay. We'll get out of this somehow." The words had the hollow ring of fiction.
Long moments passed while Xena again searched for the right words. Then she heard Gabrielle moan. Silence again. "Gabrielle?" she asked tentatively.
"Xena, help me." The bard's words pierced her heart, but she pushed away the ache that was building within her, buried it out of sight, and replaced it with her warrior's soul, the one trained to fight, to endure.
"Gabrielle, there is a woman. I don't know who she is or even what she looks like, but she will come soon and then I can help you." Xena truly hoped she was telling the truth. "You must hang on until then."
"Talk to me." Gabrielle's weak voice pleaded, though she still did not turn to look at Xena.
"Of course." A new sense of purpose helped Xena concentrate. "This woman, she wears a cloak."
Gabrielle whispered, "I've seen her."
"You have? She didn't tell me. She came last night and unlocked my manacles. She brought water and rags so I could tend to your back where..." Xena saw Gabrielle wince. "Gabrielle?"
"No, it's nothing. I just..." Gabrielle's voice faded.
"I...I never wanted...you can't see me...not like this."
"What? What do you mean?" Xena was astonished.
"I let them..."
"No, you did not! You did not give in to them! Neither of us did. And we cannot give into them now. If we do, then Menesis has already won. That woman told me we will get some help. She reminded me that the two of us have lots of friends. They will come, and we will get out of here. And when that woman comes tonight, I can help you."
Gabrielle, almost claimed by pain-induced sleep said, "I know you will."
Xena took some solace in that and watched her friend sleep, knowing the pain was not reaching deeply enough to trouble her dreams. At last, the woman did arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, and let Xena out of her bonds.
Released, Xena turned and held the woman by the shoulders. The cloak still hid the woman's face and Xena found it disconcerting to judge truth only by the tone of the woman's voice. "You will not lock me in again tomorrow morning," she instructed the woman.
The woman protested, "But I must. You cannot escape from this place on your own."
"Close the bindings, but do not lock them. I cannot subject Gabrielle to another day of this." Xena's fierce determination convinced the woman. She nodded and left.
Gabrielle was still sleeping, so Xena examined her leg at first without touching it. The bench was obviously quite heavy, but fortunately the floor was not smooth and Gabrielle's leg lay in a slight depression in the stone. The side of the bench once benefited from intricate carvings, however now the splintered edges dug into Gabrielle's skin, blood running down her injured leg. The bone had not been completely crushed, but clearly there was a bad break or two and Xena knew that the moment she lifted up the bench, Gabrielle would be in terrible pain.
She reached for Gabrielle's hand, "Gabrielle, I'm here." The pressure on her fingers was returned. "I'm going to get you out from under the bench and, ah, this is going to hurt."
Gabrielle bit her upper lip and nodded. Xena held Gabrielle's hand a few moments longer, then steeled her will. There was no sense in delaying this. Still, knowing what Gabrielle was about to experience made her actions slow.
Xena placed her hands under the lip of the bench on either side of Gabrielle's leg. She would have no chance to test the weight of the stone before lifting, for as soon as she released the pressure from Gabrielle's leg, she would not be able to put down the bench again without making matters much worse. Xena took a deep breath, closed her eyes, exhaled and lifted. Her powerful leg muscles strained against the weight, but with adrenaline's help she quickly righted the bench.
Gabrielle whimpered beside her. Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's forehead and said, "That's done, but I need to check how bad it is." Tears leaked out the corners of Gabrielle's eyes while she fought to control her fear. Xena carefully ran her hands over the leg as Gabrielle's whole body shook. Her friend was lucky, though. It seemed to Xena that there was only one break and it was clean. Xena grabbed her foot and pulled to set the leg saying, "Hang on."
Gabrielle resisted the urge to scream, her body convulsing. But in an instant, it was over and Xena was there taking her into her arms. She buried her face in Xena's lap, tears running freely, sobs racking her body. Xena stroked her hair and waited patiently for Gabrielle to calm. She examined Gabrielle's back, and though the welts stood out in relief from the smooth skin, most of the open wounds had healed over. Xena silently thanked the woman for bringing the water laced with healing herbs the night before and she wished that the bone could be so easily healed. Xena knew she needed to make a splint for Gabrielle's leg, but there was nothing in the cell that could be fashioned into one. She heard Gabrielle's whisper, "What are we going to do?"
Xena was grateful that Gabrielle couldn't see the despondence in her face, but she garnered the fortitude to answer boldly, "We are going to get out of here, of course."
"I told the woman she couldn't lock me up again. We'll get out in the morning, I promise."
"How long?" asked Gabrielle.
"Awhile. It's not yet late, but I will stay with you through the night." She felt Gabrielle's arms tighten around her and heard her say "Thank you."
Gabrielle slept on and off through the night, her head resting in Xena's lap. Xena took some comfort in the closeness, but it was dampened by empathy for the pain her friend was enduring. She tried to keep angry thoughts from her mind, to let herself relax and know that Gabrielle's faith in her would give her the strength she needed.
When morning came, Xena eased Gabrielle's head from her lap. She stretched, shaking as much of the days of tension she could from her body. The cloaked woman arrived with a stealth Xena greatly admired. The woman's hand held out the hilt of a dagger, "Here. It was the best I could do."
"Thank you. This will help. We must get out this morning."
"I know," replied the woman. "Hurry, people are on the way, you should look like you are securely fettered." The woman closed the manacles, but made sure they would spring open when necessary.
As the woman turned to leave, Xena asked her, "What's your name? You never told me."
Xena smiled warmly, "Thank you, Nepenthean."
* * * * *
A rustling in the hallway took Xena's attention. She knew somehow that the woman had secreted herself away, and Xena wished she'd taken the time to learn that trick from her. This morning's brigade was thankfully small: just three soldiers led by Poros but unaccompanied by their warlord. When the last one had stepped into the room, Xena flew out of her irons, surprising the men. Before they could react, Xena had thumped one in the belly, knocking the wind out of him, and another she kicked in the head and sent reeling to the floor. Poros drew his sword and charged her. She easily side-stepped out of the way, relieved him of the blade and knocked him unconscious. Xena sprinted over the threshold and into the hall just in time to see a guard's feet disappearing up the spiral staircase. Bolting to the bottom of the stairs, she whipped out the dagger Nepenthean had given her and whirled it at the back of his neck. He faltered, lost his step, and rolled down the stairs toward her. ! She stepped out of the way as he landed, dead at her feet.
Back in the cell, Xena collected a sword and whip from the unconscious or dead soldiers. Then, kneeling by Gabrielle, she asked, "Ready?"
"Yes. It hasn't been my favorite place to stay."
Xena put her long arms under Gabrielle to pick her up. "This is probably going to hurt."
Gabrielle smirked, "Tell me something I don't know."
"My favorite color is blue."
"Huh, I thought it was green..." Gabrielle drew a sharp breath as Xena picked her up. She hadn't been kidding, it hurt like Hades. Gabrielle rested her head under Xena's shoulder, nestled in the warrior's muscled arms, and tried to endure the ordeal silently.
With the stealth of Nepenthean, Xena started up the spiral staircase. She stopped about half-way up and cocked her head to listen, "There's something going on outside, Gabrielle. I'm going to have to find a safe place to put you for awhile."
"Why?" questioned the bard.
"I think our friends have arrived and they are causing quite a ruckus."
"I can still help," complained Gabrielle, who really didn't want to be left alone.
"Oh yeah? Do you expect to crawl around and trip people?" Xena added warmly, "You'll be fine. Don't worry, I've never let you down."
"Xena, you've died on me before."
"Yeah, but I did it gracefully and it wasn't permanent, you know." She brought them to the top of the stairs and found a shadowed alcove in which she could leave Gabrielle. "I'll be back for you. Don't go anywhere."
"Not likely..." Gabrielle's tone betrayed her fatigue. Xena hoped she would be able to get some rest, but in the mean time there was a fight to join.
There was chaos in the courtyard with soldiers, townsfolk, and some old familiar faces kicking up dust and clanging swords. Xena spotted Joxer, valiant though forever clumsy, taking on three foes. Others came into view: Salmoneus, Autolycus. Now she owed him two favors, she thought.
Not one to shun a good fight, she let loose a war cry, sounding her warning that Xena: Warrior Princess was now immersed in the battle. The tide immediately turned forcefully in favor of Xena's battalion. It felt so good to be able to vent her frustrations physically. The events of the last two days propelled her to a new level of strength and endurance. It wasn't long before what was left of Menesis' army scattered. Several pursued them, out the gates and into the forest beyond.
Joxer caught up with Xena. "Are you all right?"
"Joxer! Thanks for helping. Yeah, I'm fine."
"I left her inside. She has a broken leg. Do me a favor and find a cart or something. She can't walk or ride."
"Consider it done." As Joxer went in search of transportation, Xena returned to the alcove where she had secreted Gabrielle. She wasn't there. Joxer came in to say that he had a cart, but he could tell something was wrong before Xena said anything.
Xena grabbed him, "She's gone. Joxer, I left her right here. She can't get anywhere on her own." Xena frantically searched for Gabrielle while a dark feeling that she had to find her quickly churned in the pit of her stomach.
"We'll find her, Xena," Joxer tried to reassure the warrior. "I'll go this way." Xena nodded and Joxer took off down a long hallway.
Out of nowhere Nepenthean appeared, now uncloaked, her long white hair streamed back behind her, her alabaster skin almost glowing. The woman's face was rutted with wrinkles, showing an age not measurable in years: so ancient, it was stunning. The woman, wild-eyed, gave her a message, "The tower."
Xena ran as fast as she could up a long staircase. She could barely hear the muted sounds of a struggle and it made her push her legs up the stairs even more swiftly.
Gabrielle had dozed off during the battle and was gagged before she fully awoke. Menesis grabbed her and dragged her up the stairs, not caring about how his treatment sent her into agonizing waves of nausea. He took her up in the tower, to his own bedroom, and threw her on his over-sized bed. He was determined not to fail this time and with everyone occupied outside in the scuffle, he was sure to claim his revenge.
Yanking off her top, he ran rough hands over her body. Then he pulled off the gag and traced the edges of her mouth with a thick finger. Gabrielle begged him to stop and tried to push him away, but she had been so weakened by the last few days, she was almost ready to give in rather than endure another struggle. His hot reeking breath was on her lips and he kissed her. She returned the favor by biting him once more. But he was back again, his tongue prying open her lips, hungrily searching for her own tongue. She clamped her jaw shut and tried to pull away, but he was much stronger than she was. Eventually, he drew back and cast a leering look down the length of her body while she screamed at him to leave her alone.
Menesis allowed her the luxury of screaming, knowing no one could hear her, and he turned his attention to her breasts, suckling and nipping them as if he owned them. Gabrielle pounded on his head and back, crying and cursing as his body crawled on top of hers, his weight resting on her broken leg, sending excruciating pangs up her thigh. Just as Gabrielle was about to succumb to the horror, Xena flew in and rammed Menesis, hurtling him off the bed with enough force to infuse him with fear.
Xena's sword was on his throat, inching him further and further away from the bed. "I told you I would kill you, you bastard, and I always keep my word." Behind her, she heard Gabrielle bury her head in the pillows trying to stifle tears. He bumped into a table and slid sideways along it, still with Xena's sword pressing into the tender skin under his chin. They reached the window and Menesis felt for the curtain behind him. He leaned back, latched onto the fabric and pulled it in front of him, using the thick folds to protect his arm as he knocked away Xena's sword. Her weapon fell from her grip and clattered to the floor several feet away. Although Xena didn't give it a second thought, her concentration so focused on the task of killing Menesis, it caught Gabrielle's attention.
Then Gabrielle's worst fears were realized as she watched Xena lunge for Menesis, fling him out the window, and be pulled out with him. In an instant, she was gone.
Hysterical now, Gabrielle threw herself down on the bed, wrapped her arms over her head and wailed. It was the enraged cry of anger and betrayal, of having a reason to live one moment, and having it brutally stripped away the next.
She didn't see the tip of a whip snake up and catch on the leg of the table, the hand reach to grasp the window sill, the proud warrior haul herself back in the room. Xena slipped onto the bed by Gabrielle. Gabrielle flipped her head around wildly to see who dared disturb her and couldn't believe her eyes. Xena smiled, brushed back the tears and gently wrapped her in a loving embrace. Softly, she spoke to Gabrielle, "Everything is okay now. It's over, it's over."
Joxer appeared at the door, out of breath. "We should go. Salmoneus saw Poros re-grouping with quite a few men."
Xena nodded, "Poros will likely step into his former warlord's shoes. He is not a man to be trifled with." Then she spoke quietly to Gabrielle. "We need to go. Can you manage it?" Xena stood up and Joxer became painfully aware that Gabrielle was not fully clothed, turning beet red. Xena threw him a smirk and asked, "Will you see if you can find a shirt for her."
Joker rifled through the room until he found something suitable, tossed it to Xena, and stepped outside the door to wait for them. Xena emerged carrying Gabrielle, and let Joxer lead them down the stairs, his sword held high, muttering on and on about protecting them.
Joxer ushered them to a cart which had a large black horse hitched to it. Xena rode in back with Gabrielle while Joxer drove them away from the dungeon, away from the tower, away from Menesis, and out into the freedom of the woods.
* * * * *
The ride was bumpy and each jolt fired through Gabrielle's body. The bard seemed only barely aware that Xena was there, trying to insulate the ride. Sometimes Gabrielle mumbled to herself, but it was difficult to discern what she was trying to say. When she did pop into awareness, she thrashed out, once smacking Xena hard in the chin. She quieted only after Xena assured her they were safe and away from Menesis. At last Xena felt a deep rhythmic breathing, warm against her arm. When she was quite sure Gabrielle was asleep, she climbed up on the seat and rode next to Joxer.
He was quiet and Xena was grateful that she didn't have to strike up a conversation with him. Joxer covertly watched Xena out of the corner of his eye seeing her more weary than he ever had before. Her shoulders had fallen, her eyes were no longer lit by that spark he so admired. Finally, he summoned the courage to break their silence. "Are you okay, Xena?"
Xena took time to answer him, deciding how much she should admit, "Yes, Joxer, I'm fine. I'm just worried about Gabrielle."
"I know you are, so am I," he tread into dangerous territory, "but that has a way of dragging you down, too, Xena." She did not reply, but neither did she give him the warning look, the one that told him to back off or to risk his very life. She surprised him a few minutes later, though, when she whispered, "Stop here."
Joxer reined in the horse, and drew a knee up under his chin. Xena jumped down and glanced about, then she whistled once. The forest was still, nothing returned her call. Joxer saw Xena's face lighten several seconds before he heard the galloping horse himself. Argo, Joxer realized. He witnessed the tender reunion of horse and master as Xena buried her head in Argo's neck and ran her fingers through the steed's mane. Joxer had always known Xena had a heart, but he had never been privileged to see it. That Xena would allow him to see such an event firsthand made him feel quiet proud of himself.
Xena tied Argo's reins to the cart and the magnificent horse walked along at her side. Joxer stared straight ahead as he guided the wagon, but his self-satisfied grin was not lost on Xena.
A few hours after mid-day, they halted. Gabrielle's sleeping was increasingly fitful and Xena didn't want to push her too hard. While she sent Joxer to a nearby creek for water, she collected several pieces of wood and built a small fire. The larger sticks she separated out, lashing them together to make a splint. Xena had no intention of making a permanent camp close to Menesis' territory, so she planned the fire to be short-lived. That ready, she returned to the cart to bring Gabrielle over by the fire.
Gabrielle felt herself lifted by familiar hands and she clasped her arms around Xena to remind herself where she was. "Gabrielle, I'm going to put a splint on your leg."
"Okay," managed Gabrielle. "Where..."
"We're just out of Menesis' territory. I have to put you down now." Gabrielle reluctantly loosened her hold. "Are you thirsty?" The bard gladly accepted the water. "I've sent Joxer for more water, then I'll send him to scrounge up some food."
"Yes, Joxer. He's been behaving himself." In fact, mused Xena, he's been downright helpful.
Gabrielle fell in and out of consciousness. With the water warmed and Joxer on his next errand, Xena waited until Gabrielle was asleep, then she washed her back and was pleased to see it healing well. When she turned Gabrielle over, though, she was shocked to see bite marks on Gabrielle's breasts, and her only consolation was the image in her mind of Menesis splattered in the courtyard. Xena washed the dried blood caked to Gabrielle's legs, and checked that the bone was still properly set. She lifted the leg and slid the splint under it, tying it securely.
Next, Xena turned her attention to Argo who had been wearing her saddle for three days. She brushed the steed and spoke to her, confessing her anxiety about Gabrielle's health: both physical and emotional. The thought of Menesis trying to rape Gabrielle was almost more than Xena could bear.
Joxer, despite his usual ineptitude, managed to bring back two rabbits. Xena instructed him to cook it and he protested but there was to be no argument. They were edible, however that was their only redeeming quality. Still, Gabrielle was able to eat a little and that lifted Xena's spirits tremendously. Neither of them had eaten in almost three days and she knew Gabrielle's recovery depended on her regaining her strength.
After they ate, Xena announced they had to continue traveling.
"You know, Xena, we're much too slow with the cart. They're going to catch up to us." Joxer tried to be clever, "What we really need is a trick, a ruse, a way to cover our tracks so they can't find us. I wish we could just sail away..."
"Joxer, you're a genius." Xena's words left him dumbstruck. "That creek leads to a river not far from here."
"Now, wait a minute, Xena. It was just a figure of speech. I'm not much for boats, and I can't swim very well, and what about Gabrielle?"
"Relax, Joxer. I have a plan. Help me load up and we'll go down to the river." Xena was truly excited for the first time in days. She had a plan and a purpose.
At the river, they left the black horse stolen from Menesis hitched to the cart. Then Xena and Joxer found several sturdy pieces of wood. Xena unraveled long sections of the whip she took from the guard in the dungeon to lash the wood into a raft.
Joxer felt very uneasy about floating down the river on something as makeshift as their current project, but he didn't dare say anything to Xena. If she was willing to put Gabrielle on it, then it must, somehow, be safe enough for him. When they finished, Xena picked up a few of their things and tossed them onto the raft. Then she sat down by a tree on the banks of the river and admired their work. "Well, Joxer, what do you think?"
"I think I'm not too sure about all this."
"Don't you get it? There are rapids not far down the river."
"No offense, Xena, but I don't want to go over any rapids on this thing."
"Don't worry, Joxer, we're not going to. We're just going to make them think we did."
"Huh?" Joxer creased his eyebrow.
Xena continued, "We'll shove this out into the current, it will float down the river, and then we'll follow the creek up the other direction. That way we hide our tracks, just like you said."
"Oh." Joxer was impressed. "And then they're going to see all this mess, find the cart, and think we've gone off on a boat trip."
"And if they look hard enough, they might find a raft washed up near the rapids, and maybe even a few of our belongings." Xena stood and said. "Give me a hand and let's push this thing in."
The two of them watched the raft head downstream. Satisfied with her plan, she handed Argo's reins to Joxer, picked up Gabrielle and they began their trek up the creek.
The going was difficult at times, especially for Argo. Xena occasionally had to coax her mare over slippery rocks and around big boulders, but she never relinquished her hold on Gabrielle. Joxer offered to carry her once, but Xena made it quite clear that Joxer's only job was to lead Argo.
Joxer's feet were cold and wet, the sun was setting and yet Xena showed no signs of slowing. He wondered where she got her stamina, especially since she was carrying Gabrielle. Joxer was really getting quite ready to complain when they came to a clearing and stopped. He looked up at a magnificent cliff face, glowing orange and red in the sunset. Over the face of the cliff spilled a dazzling waterfall. Xena looked over her shoulder and said, "Not much further, Joxer. Just up here."
Joxer shuddered at the thought of climbing up the cliff, but a path gently ascended the back of the hill then swung back around to the face of the cliff. From there the view was extraordinary. They could see down a valley rich with tall trees and split by the twisting and turning of the river they had floated their makeshift raft down earlier that afternoon. Xena led him around a bend, behind the waterfall, and surprised him by walking into an expansive cave. The mouth of the cave was not visible from the path nor from the floor below, so only those who had been told about it would ever know it was there.
The cave's smooth walls also had the red-orange hue, made more prominent by a newly burning fire. Xena left Joxer to watch over Gabrielle while she fetched dinner, but when she returned with fish, he had fallen asleep. Xena leaned against the wall and watched the two sleepers. She allowed herself to relax, finding relief in the security of their secret hiding place. They were in a location they could stay safe for awhile, giving Gabrielle some time to recuperate. The leg wouldn't mend for several weeks, but she would be better able to travel long before that. And Joxer: she had to admit that she probably couldn't have made it there without his help. He had matured over the months from a foolhardy, insecure, wannabe warrior, into a genuinely nice person, if still a bit of an oaf.
She kneeled over Joxer and shook him gently, "Wake up! I need a cook."
Joxer tried to wake up quickly, but he was groggy, "Xena, oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"It's okay. You needed the rest. I brought some fish. Cook them while I check on Gabrielle."
"You can stand my cooking again?" Joxer kidded her.
"You haven't had mine. But, let's just say I hope Gabrielle is feeling better soon."
Xena tried not to disturb Gabrielle as she made sure the splint was still secure. They largest cut on her leg had re-opened, so Xena prepared a warm herbal solution to clean it. When she applied the healing rag to Gabrielle's leg, the bard woke up with a start. Xena lay a hand on her shoulder, "It's just me. Does this hurt?" Xena asked.
"Not bad. What do I smell?"
"No--I mean I smell food."
"Well, that's a good sign, but the bad news is that Joxer's cooking."
"Wait a minute," he grumbled from the other side of the fire, "you gave me this job. I didn't volunteer."
Gabrielle tried to sit up. "Hey, take it easy," Xena eased her back down.
"But I should do that."
"Not yet, Gabrielle. Maybe you can cook tomorrow." Xena told her.
"You're gonna want her to cook tomorrow," added Joxer.
The food tasted good anyway. Gabrielle ate her fair share and then fell into a sound, restful sleep. Xena and Joxer finished the rest of the fish and Xena produced a wine flask from Argo's saddlebags. Together, she and Joxer sipped the spirits and sat by the crackling fire. The wine loosened Joxer's tongue and slowed Xena's temper. When he asked about what had happened up in the tower, she told him that Menesis tried to rape Gabrielle.
Joxer was appalled, yet all he could manage to say was, "I'm sorry."
"Sometimes I wonder why I let her hang out with me. These things wouldn't happen to her without me around"
"Xena, don't be a fool. You mean more to her than anyone else ever has. Besides, you'd never be able to convince her to stay put someplace while you went off on another crusade." Joxer saw the dull look in Xena's eyes and said boldly, "Gabrielle never would have been completely happy with Perdicus. She would have missed her life of adventure with you too much."
"There's no maybe about it. It's true. She's only content when she's at your heels."
"She is a very important part of my life. I can't imagine where I'd be without her." Xena was quiet for a moment then raised her head and met his eyes, "You've grown up a lot lately, Joxer."
"More like I've discovered my limitations, if that's what you mean."
"No, I mean that you've grown up. You were very helpful today. Actually," she said almost under her breath, "I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you, Joxer."
"You know, Xena, it's you and Gabrielle who bring out the best in me." He spoke truthfully, "I couldn't have done it without you."
* * * * *
The next morning, Gabrielle felt much better. She sat up on her own and although she let herself nap frequently, she was awake most of the day. The three loitered in the cave during the daylight hours, under wraps from any eyes that might be searching for them. Xena left and returned before the sun rose with replenishments of firewood and water, so there was no pressing need to venture out.
Few words were exchanged as the morning wore on. Xena was particularly aware that the bard wasn't as chatty as usual. She hoped it was because Gabrielle was still fatigued, but feared the real reason was that Menesis had stolen Gabrielle's lighthearted spirit and replaced it with a grisly, dark memory. Try as she might, Xena couldn't get out of her mind the sight of Menesis on top of Gabrielle, his ruthless mouth and hands brutalizing her, Gabrielle's screaming, marshaling all of her inadequate strength to fight him. She distracted herself for a short while constructing a pair of crutches for Gabrielle, though it would be a few days before she let her try them out, but the memory kept haunting her.
Joxer was painfully aware that both of his companions were brooding and withdrawn. His instinct was to leave them alone, but there was no place to go until darkness could hide him in the world outside. Dozens of times he caught Xena casting a sidelong glance at Gabrielle, trying to hide a mixture of worry and reticence. Joxer spent the rest of his day considering ways to get Xena and Gabrielle to talk to each other, but ultimately he knew this was one battle he needed to stay out of.
As the day faded, Xena trekked off to catch more fish. Joxer stood at the mouth of the cave and watched Xena in the last rays of the sun, snaring fish with her bare hands. Hearing Gabrielle grunt, he wheeled around to see her reaching for the crutches. Quickly he tried to dissuade her, "Oh no, no you don't. Xena will kill me if you do that."
"Come on, Joxer, give me a hand. I'm going crazy, I need to get up." Gabrielle used her good leg to get halfway up, planted one of the crutches in the dirt and used it to steady herself as she pulled her body up the rest of the way. Joxer reluctantly handed her the other crutch. "Hey, this works pretty well," remarked Gabrielle as she took a tour of the cave.
"Gabrielle, you've got to stop this before Xena gets back."
"I don't have to do everything she says. Look, I feel fine and I need to move around." Gabrielle made her way to the mouth of the cave where Joxer had been standing. Gabrielle studied Xena in the creek below, a small pile of fish nearby on the bank. The sun's sharp angle on the water, the reddish glow of the cliff, the backdrop of dark green foliage, all reminded Gabrielle how often Xena seemed to be made of magic. Xena thrust her hand underwater, claimed another prize, and then without looking, tossed the flopping fish over her back so that it landed at the exact center of the pile.
Joxer put his hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, "She's something special, isn't she."
"There's no one like Xena. Do you know what it's like to come to your senses and say to yourself, 'Why in the world is this woman even talking to me?' I mean, she's Xena."
Joxer laughed, "That doesn't happen very often. She usually doesn't have much to say to me."
"She likes you, Joxer. There are certain...endearing qualities about you."
"She puts up with me." Joxer thought about Xena's words to him the night before and changed his mind, "Okay, sometimes she likes me."
Gabrielle ambled back into the cave. "Well, she has been quiet today, even more than usual."
"I think she's worried about you."
Gabrielle dropped her head. This was an old story, one she didn't much care for. "I wish she wouldn't worry about me. You know, sometimes it seems to be her favorite activity. Why can't she figure out that I can take care of myself?" a rawness clung to the edge's of Gabrielle's frustration.
"Because you do stupid things like getting up too soon!" They both cringed at Xena's return, knowing they'd been caught red-handed. Joxer had never seen Xena so mad so he took a few small steps backwards, away from her. "Joxer, how dare you..."
Gabrielle interrupted, "He didn't do anything. I just wanted to get up, okay?"
"No, it's not okay. Joxer, I told you to take care of her." Xena seethed, jabbing her finger into his chest.
"Ah, yes, Xena, I know. And I told her you'd be...that, ah...she shouldn't get up. But, well, you try saying no to her."
Xena backed Joxer into the wall but said nothing more, then she took the crutches from Gabrielle and sat her down. Gabrielle didn't speak to Xena, instead she hardened her gaze and directed it into the blazing fire. Suddenly Xena flung the crutches to the back of the cave and turned on her friend yelling, "Gabrielle, you don't always know what's best for you. What if you had fallen? Here we are stuck in this cave and you're taking stupid risks. I can't even leave you with Joxer," she glared at Joxer, "you fool. I can't trust you with Gabrielle."
Joker slid along the wall until the mouth of the cave was a few short steps away. He waited for Xena to redirect her rage back on Gabrielle, then he slipped out and escaped into the night. The cool air felt good against his cheeks and he took a deep breath to settle his nerves. He just wished he could have made his getaway earlier in the day, then Xena wouldn't have gotten so mad at him. Still, it seemed like the perfect time for a little stroll, then later when things had calmed down, he'd return. He hoped the two of them would talk to each other at least.
At the moment, however, they were not speaking. Xena sat down across the fire from Gabrielle when Joxer left, glad to be rid of that annoyance. Neither woman looked at the other, both engaged in internal battles. Gabrielle thought about how Xena insisted on treating her as a child. Her frustration was almost tangible, as if it she could reach out and swat away, but like a mosquito it kept hovering around her, pestering her, badgering her.
Xena considered killing Joxer, but decided it would be better just to permanently maim him. She couldn't believe he had the nerve to defy her. Joxer, the Lummox, disobeying her. And Gabrielle. How dare she be so thick-headed. What if she had actually hurt herself? That thought rekindled an ache in her chest, one that she had been burying, trying to ignore. She recognized the impetus of her anger, and knew it was neither Gabrielle nor Joxer that caused it. That damned vision of Menesis...It was, however, another matter to admit it. It would mean really talking to Gabrielle about it, all of it.
Xena shifted uncomfortably, attracting Gabrielle's attention. Xena saw the frustration and anger in her friend and softened her own gaze. Gabrielle's face remained grim. Gathering her courage, Xena began, "Gabrielle, we need to talk."
"Do we?" the icy response.
"Yes." Xena scooted over and sat by Gabrielle. "First, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you."
"I shouldn't have yelled at Joxer, either."
"You should tell him that yourself." Gabrielle returned her gaze to the fire.
"I will, as soon as we're done." Xena wasn't sure what she should say next. "How are you?" It was the best she could do.
"I told you I was fine." The coldness in Gabrielle's statement was unnerving.
Xena reached over tentatively. Gabrielle didn't flinch, so Xena wrapped her fingers around Gabrielle's hand. "That's not what I meant."
"I don't want to talk about it," Gabrielle choked out.
"Well neither do I, but I think we should." Xena waited to see if Gabrielle would volunteer anything. She felt the bard trembling, and put her arm around Gabrielle pulling her in. Tears flowed freely as Xena held her. It was a ritual of cleansing that Xena wished she herself could perform, but she would have to find her own way later. For now there was only Gabrielle.
When Gabrielle finally talked, she stuttered through her thoughts. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come. He was so...disgusting, so horrible. And then when you fell out of the window, I thought you were dead."
"Menesis paid his price."
"I know. But it wouldn't have happened without you."
Xena stiffened, "None of this would have happened without me."
That shocked Gabrielle. She grabbed Xena by the shoulders and shook her, words running quickly and filled with emotion, "No, Xena. That's not what I meant and you know it. If we keep running into your past, so be it. But don't blame yourself, please. I couldn't live with the guilt."
"Guilt? What do you have to feel guilty about?" asked the incredulous warrior.
"It's by my choice, you know. I'm the one who keeps following you around."
"Gabrielle, if you didn't follow me, I'd go back and get you."
"Really?" Gabrielle's lips broke into a smile.
"Yes, really." Xena cupped Gabrielle's face with her strong hands, caressing the bard's cheeks with her thumbs, wiping away the last of the tears, and let her heart speak, "Gabrielle, you mean more to me than anything."
"As do you to me." Gabrielle melted into Xena's embrace.
* * * * *
"Joxer?" Xena called to him. "Joxer, where are you?" Faintly, she heard an unusual sound and followed it. She thought she was hearing something up in the trees, but...
"Xena, is that you?" asked a voice from above.
"Joxer, what are you doing up there?" She looked up to see Joxer hanging upside down, swaying in the breeze.
"It's not my fault. I was just walking along and then next thing I knew I was up here." The pitch of Joxer's voice was noticeably higher.
"So you've just been hanging by your foot, waiting for me?" Xena laughed. "Joxer, trappers usually make their snares pretty obvious to keep people like you from walking into them."
"It was dark and I was thinking, and I, well, I don't know what I was thinking but, are you and Gabrielle talking yet?" Xena raised an eyebrow but the gesture was lost on Joxer as he swayed back and forth over Xena's head.
Ignoring his question, she said, "Joxer, I want to apologize for what I said earlier."
"Thanks, Xena. Now could you possibly get me down?"
"Are you sure you want to come down?" Xena couldn't resist teasing him.
Exasperated, he replied, "Yes, yes I'm sure. Please get me down."
Xena lowered him to the ground and Joxer let himself lay there until his head stopped spinning. "Thanks, Xena. I only wished you'd come a little earlier."
"I was busy." She extended her hand and helped him up.
Joxer brushed himself off and straightened his armor. "So, is it safe to come back yet?"
"Joxer, I'm sorry about what I said to you and I do trust you. And yes, it's safe to come back."
"Oh, good. I was getting pretty hungry up there."
Walking back into the cave, they found Gabrielle leaning over the fire, frying the last of the fish. "You're back. What took so long?" Gabrielle asked.
"Just the usual. Joxer was stuck up in a tree." Xena said smugly as she reached over and snatched a fish that had been taken off the flame and was cooling.
Joxer's face lit up, "Gabby, you're cooking!"
"No offense, Joxer, but for my sake, I needed to."
"Oh believe me, it makes me happy to have lost that job. Besides, I'm really hungry."
Over dinner, Joxer felt brave enough to ask them about what had happened while Menesis held them prisoner. Xena gave an expurgated version, telling him only the most necessary events.
"Xena?" asked Gabrielle, "did you ever find out who that woman was?"
"She told me her name--Nepenthean."
"Nepenthean? I know her, well, I know who she is. I heard many stories about her at the academy in Athens. Xena, she's still stuck there. We have to go back and get her."
Joxer piped in, "I don't think it would be a very good idea either. I mean, they're out looking for us."
"But think about what she did for us! She risked her life for us, she made our escape possible. We must go back for her." Gabrielle pleaded.
Again Xena said sternly, "No, Gabrielle."
"But we owe her that. How can you just leave her there, Xena?"
"Because it's too dangerous to go back now. Poros knows I killed Menesis, he'll be out for revenge." Xena gave her a look that let Gabrielle know her mind was made up and that nothing would change it.
Joxer finished his meal, amazed that Xena really could say no to Gabrielle, but he was also very relieved that she did.
The next morning, Gabrielle woke up late. She was surprised Xena had let her sleep in, for even on days when early morning travel wasn't required, Xena usually found some excuse to wake her up. Joxer noticed her stirring, "Hey, sleepyhead, Xena told me to let you sleep, but I didn't think you'd sleep this long."
"Where's Xena?" asked Gabrielle, yawning.
"She's not here."
"Joxer, where is Xena?" Gabrielle asked more forcefully.
"You know what you said last night, about that woman and all..."
"She went back for Nepenthean? Without us?"
"Yeah. She told me to keep and eye on you, which I'm going to do. And she told me not to follow her, and I think that's a pretty good idea, too." Joxer tried to sound sure of himself.
Gabrielle was incensed, "You let her go alone?"
Joxer found himself uncomfortably in the middle again, "Gabrielle, you try saying no to Xena. Well, sometimes you do, but I can't and she can't to you which is fine because neither can I except now I will if you try to go after her."
Gabrielle nodded her head and said "Huh." Then she though another moment and asked, "Joxer, did you just try to say something that was supposed to make sense?"
"No, not really. Nevermind."
Xena slunk in the shadows under the trees, watching Menesis'--now Poros'-- fortress. There were fewer people around than she had anticipated, though the thought did little to calm her nerves. It meant only that the there were still search parties out looking for them. She fervently hoped that Gabrielle and Joxer would remain safe in their hideout.
Several unguarded passages were tempting her to move in quickly, but she made certain to follow the movements of the guards long enough to anticipate their moves, and when satisfied that she knew their routine, she easy slipped inside. She wished that Nepenthean had foreseen her return and would come to her as she had those several times before, but there was no sign of the old woman.
What Xena least wanted to do was the most obvious course of action to take next. She silently crept down the stairs and re-entered the dungeon. The cell where she was shackled, the cell where she washed the bleeding welts on Gabrielle's back from Menesis' whip, the cell where she watched Menesis heave the bench onto Gabrielle's leg stood open before her. It was as if no one had bothered to come down after their escape and close the door. She tiptoed in, coming to a halt just inside. She dared not go any further. For several minutes she stood there, deadened to the memories, waiting to see if Nepenthean would appear.
Then she heard a noise, someone approaching who cared not that others knew he was there: one loan guard for whom Xena had a few questions. He dropped in pain as she applied pressure to the side of his neck. She told him, "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in thirty seconds unless you tell me where Nepenthean is."
The man struggled to speak, "She died."
"No, you're lying. I saw her here two days ago."
"I've heard people tell that story, swear they've seen her, but I'm telling the truth. She is dead. She killed herself in that cell when Menesis raped and murdered her daughter right before her eyes."
Xena didn't want to believe him, but she knew he did speak the truth. She released her hold and he collapsed. "You'll feel better in a few minutes," she said before she left him.
A ghost? Nepenthean was a ghost? But the dagger, the herb infused water for Gabrielle, the conversations...Xena reeled from the impossibility of it all. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of more men coming in. She climbed the stairs swiftly and evaded three soldiers, dodging into a side passage, but the men turned the corner and started to come toward her. She ducked into a closet and hid until the footsteps passed by. When she opened the door, the light reflected off of something shiny at her feet. Her chakram! Hoping against hope, she scavenged for the rest of her weapons and found her sword--still in its scabbard--her breast dagger, and Gabrielle's staff as well. At least her little foray was not entirely in vain.
Hours later, when she wearily led Argo up the path to the cave, she stopped just before the last bend and looked out over the valley bathed in an enchanting moonlight. She thought about the day, about the last several days. There was a heaviness in her breast she knew would linger for a long time.
Gabrielle's voice carried to her ears, so sweet, so full of passion and humor. She was reveling in a story with Joxer an eager audience. It was as if the last few days hadn't touched her, hadn't hardened or darkened her soul. Xena knew Gabrielle had not forgiven Menesis for what he'd done, but she had forgiven herself. Xena came to the realization that such forgiveness was more important in the end and she wondered if she would ever be able to forgive herself for all she had done in her life. Though it didn't seem likely the possibility would always be with her, particularly if a certain bard was by her side teaching her how.
And then she was there, standing by her, supporting her just by being near. She knew her so well, she didn't have to say anything. Xena had come back alone, there was no need to ask why. Gabrielle put a friendly arm around Xena's waist. They shared that moment of endings and beginnings, of lightness and darkness, and of trust and forgiveness. Xena whispered, "Thank you."
A slight squeeze was the reply. Time passed, measured in the realignment of two heartbeats, before Gabrielle asked, "Are you okay?"
"You know, you look like you've just seen a ghost."
"No, but I wish I had." She handed Gabrielle her staff and relished the surprised and grateful grin she got in return. "Come Gabrielle, I'll tell you what happened."
The three of them sat around the fire, Xena telling a ghost story of a wholly unnerving type. Joxer did not enjoy Xena's story at all, he much preferred Gabrielle's stories where the good guys usually won. When they made ready for bed, Joxer was too keyed up to sleep, so Xena put him on guard duty at the mouth of the cave. Joxer paced for awhile then sat down, leaned up against a wall, and was snoring a few minutes later.
Gabrielle lay on her side under a blanket by the fire, thinking about what Xena told them of Nepenthean, not sure that she believed it. Xena came over, stretched out behind her and said, "Since Joxer is so good at guarding, I thought I'd sleep where I can watch your back."
"Xena," Gabrielle whined, flopping over on her back to talk to her, "You don't have to do that."
"I know, but I want to," Xena smiled.
Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand, "Thank you for trying to to find Nepenthean. I know it was hard to go back there."
"Yes, but it was the right thing to do...and I have a very hard time saying no to you when you're right."
"Hmmm, good. I'll remember that the next time I'm right." Gabrielle winked at Xena, and turned back on her side to sleep.
Xena pulled up her own blanket and said, "I sure you will, Gabrielle, whenever that next time will be."
Gabrielle's hand shot out from under the blanket to slap the warrior but Xena caught it easily and placed it on Gabrielle's hip. Gabrielle murmured, "Why are some things so easy for you and so hard for me?"
Xena replied in a low voice, "For the same reason that some things are so hard for me and so easy for you. Now go to sleep."
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