For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
A cold wind whipped off the sea prompting Xena to tuck Gabrielle in tight against her as they walked back to their room. Time to break out the woolen cloaks, winter had arrived. "Storm?" asked Gabrielle.
"I think so. It's a good night to be inside curled up under the covers."
"Is that a suggestion?" asked Gabrielle, feigning innocence.
Xena laughed, "Just a thought." A few paces later, "Gabrielle?"
"Thanks for telling that story tonight."
"You're welcome, Xena. I'm glad you were there. I must admit I was a little worried, I didn't see you when I started it. But I had a feeling you'd show up."
"You had a feeling?" Xena asked.
"Yup. A feeling."
"And just where was this feeling?" she pulled Gabrielle in a little closer, their thighs rubbed as they walked.
"Oh, in a very special place. Reserved only for you."
They got to their room and Xena opened the door for them She closed it with her foot, listening for the latch to click and then sought the warm lips of the woman in her arms.
Gabrielle reluctantly broke away, her breath catching as she lost contact with that mouth, "We need to talk."
Xena's lips moved back to their refuge, "I think we're okay. Let's talk tomorrow." There was no possible way to deny her, Gabrielle knew, so she gave up quite willingly and surrendered herself to Xena. The warrior's tongue managed the most intricate and seductive moves inside Gabrielle's mouth, all of her senses were focused there until Xena pressed her hips against her and rubbed her center with a muscled thigh.
Fearing her knees would give way, Gabrielle tugged on Xena, asking her to take them to bed, but Xena stood her ground, sliding her thigh between Gabrielle's legs for support.
Gabrielle ground into Xena, the pressure was too inviting. Xena slipped her hand over Gabrielle's breasts and loosened the laces on her top. She let go of Xena only one arm at a time to shrug it off and onto the floor. When Xena pulled the bard back into her firm embrace, Gabrielle's nipples came into contact with the cold steel of Xena's breastplate. Instead of shirking from it, Gabrielle rubbed herself against it, slowly and fluidly at first and then with more intensity, the hard texture just exactly what she desired.
But Xena needed to feel the essence of flesh against flesh. She unbuckled her breastplate quickly, and broke their kiss long enough to pull it over her head. Gabrielle reached around and undid the laces of her leathers, together they freed her body from her battle garb and shift. Xena hugged the bard fiercely then slid one hand down to remove Gabrielle's belt and skirt before picking up the naked bard and finally taking her to bed.
"I never thought we'd get here," said Gabrielle trying to pin the warrior down on her back.
"We're not going there... yet," hummed Xena as she flipped the bard effortlessly onto her stomach then lay out on top of her.
Muffled from the blanket, Gabrielle asked, "Where did you say we were going?" but then she lost all reason as Xena rocked against her back, her pubic hair tickling her bottom.
"I just need to feel you, my bard," Xena whispered huskily. Gabrielle spread her legs and Xena dropped one thigh between them, still rocking along the length of her body. Gabrielle bucked up and savored the contact with her warm center, then bucked again reflexively when Xena's hand found her.
"Hmmm, feels good," the bard sighed. Xena rubbed against the folds, parting them to dip into her wetness. She yelped a little when Gabrielle tossed her off her back, reared up on her knees, and impaled herself on Xena's finger. "Feels real good."
Xena wrapped a strong arm around the bard's hips as they rocked back and up to her and she pumped into Gabrielle with her other. She pumped slowly, in time with Gabrielle's hips, they met each other with grunts and moans. Gabrielle wheezed, "More..." Xena added a second finger and pumped a little more quickly, thrusting in and out of her lover. Gabrielle stayed with her, rocking her hips faster and faster. "More!" screamed Gabrielle. Xena added a third finger and wondered if the intensity might hurt her lover. She lessened her strokes slightly, "No! No, Xena. More. Gods please, more."
The bard buried her head in her hands, resting on forearms and knees, pushing against Xena with all her might. When it still wasn't enough, she reached back and grabbed Xena's wrist, guiding her in farther and harder, deeper and faster, pushing her whole hand inside. "Yes... Oh yes, that's it. Harder, Xena. More." Xena brought her other hand down and found Gabrielle's clit, the hard nub burning and pounding with need. It was so slick, Xena had to struggle to stay on it amidst the frantic rocking of the bard. Xena rubbed and pinched her clit, pumped into Gabrielle as hard as she could, feeling the explosion building in the bard until Gabrielle trembled, arched her back, screamed her name and collapsed. Xena pulled out very carefully and collected the dazed bard in her arms, holding her tightly, amazed at the bond of trust between them.
Gabrielle stirred and nuzzled deeper into Xena's grasp. "You okay?" asked Xena hesitantly.
"Never better," answered the bard. "Never better." She placed a soft kiss on the flesh below her lips. "Thank you for letting go."
"I didn't want to hurt you, Gabrielle."
"You didn't. Xena," she looked up into her lover's eyes, "sometimes I need the roughness just like you. You're not going to hurt me."
The warrior kissed her gently. "I've created a monster."
"Yup, and this monster wants revenge..." It was a long while before either of them slept.
The frigid air seeped in under the door, through the covers, and into the very bones of the cuddled, sleeping women. Gabrielle shivered in her sleep, instinctively the warrior dragged her in closer, wrapping them both in blankets. But when Xena awoke a short while later, they were cold again. The best thing to do, she surmised, was to get up and get dressed. "Gabrielle, wake up," she called in a gentle voice.
"Brrr, I'm freezing!" said Gabrielle without opening her eyes. "Come back here and get me warm."
"I'm cold, too," admitted Xena and with that, the bard's eyes shot open.
"You're cold?" Gabrielle's eyes danced around in a blur. "You're cold?" she asked again, not believing it.
"Even I'm cold. Now get up. We don't have enough blankets to keep warm. Get dressed." Xena slid out the side of the bed.
"You're letting all the hot air out!" gurgled Gabrielle before burying her head in the pillows again.
"Damn." Xena was peering out the window.
"What's out there besides the cold?" asked Gabrielle, peeking through one eye.
"What? Snow? It never snows here. Well, almost never. Not for the last few years anyway. How much did it snow?" Gabrielle's interest was piqued.
"No, I mean it is snowing. Still. And it looks like it's already dumped half a hand." She rummaged through their packs and pulled out their woolen cloaks then hunted for an extra shirt for the bard. "Come on, get dressed. You'll be warmer for it."
Gabrielle donned her usual green top, covered it with an old shirt then wrapped herself in her cloak. "I'm not warmer Xena."
"I know, we need to get a fire going."
"Where? There's no fireplace here in case you hadn't noticed," a cold and cranky bard reminded her.
"I meant," explained Xena, "that we need to get one fire going. One for the whole town. If everyone builds separate fires, the wood will be gone before the storm blows over. Then what we will do for the rest of the winter?" A hint of yesterday's argument worked its way in.
"Okay," said Gabrielle softly, padding back to the bed to put her boots on. "Who gets the job of rousting everyone?" She waited, Xena ignored her question, staring out into the white, blustery wind. "Fine," she said, defeated.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry, that's not what I meant. I guess we still do need to talk but it will have to wait. I'll go wake up Demosthenes and let him take care of it. People should hear it from him, not me." Xena sat down by the bard who had finished lacing her boots and considered her words carefully. "I've told you how I honestly feel about this whole thing but that doesn't mean I'm giving up. I'm not going to air my opinions again, at least not publicly. I know it's their fight, not mine. It's their decision to make. And yours."
Gabrielle kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you, Xena. That means a lot to me... and I am glad you told me how you feel. Please don't ever stop doing that."
The storm precipitated a change in everyone's lives. Not only were their houses cold, only the tavern and infirmary were allowed to have fires, but since the ground was frozen they could no longer bury their dead or dig new latrines. The snowstorm lasted only a day, however with temperatures hovering at or below freezing, the frozen precipitation stayed on the ground, melting slightly during the day and re-freezing at night making any kind of movement treacherous.
The town began to fester with rancid smells, cold beds, short tempers, and frigid harsh winds ripping at their skin when ever they ventured out. Six people were found dead of exposure the first day, five more the next. And in the week that followed, the food supplies fell dangerously low, their weapons were virtually depleted, and many of the townsfolk fell ill. The war had grown ugly in everyone's eyes, the hatred penetrated everyone's heart.
Early one morning, they were awakened by a pounding on their door. "Gabrielle, Xena, wake up!"
"Father?" The bard threw on her clothes almost as quickly as Xena. "What's wrong?" asked Gabrielle pulling her father in out of the cold.
"Your Mother is sick. Can you come?"
Xena tossed Gabrielle her cloak and they followed Herodotus to Gabrielle's childhood home, half running, half sliding on the frozen streets. Hecuba was white, a sheen of sweat covered her brow from fever. Gabrielle sat by her on the bed, dabbing her mother's forehead while Xena examined her. Lila huddle in the corner watching from a safe distance.
Herodotus hovered over them filling them in as best he could, "Her stomach cramps up something fierce. She started complaining about that yesterday afternoon but then a little while ago she couldn't hold her food anymore. She's not passing correctly either. Flux, too often, too thin."
"Has she been drinking water?" Xena asked trying to hide the alarm from her voice. She pressed gently on Hecuba's abdomen eliciting a deep moan.
Herodotus scratched his head, "Funny about that. She's been drinking plenty but not passing any of that at all.
Now Xena was sure. "Hecuba, we need to take you to the infirmary."
"No," she pleaded.
"Mother," tried Gabrielle. "Xena's right. You're sick."
"I know I'm sick! But don't make me go there."
Herodotus explained, "Lila won't go there."
Reluctantly Xena agreed to let Hecuba stay at home. "But Herodotus, you have to promise me you'll do everything I tell you. Gabrielle and I won't be able to help much."
Gabrielle shot her a 'what do you mean' look, but Xena shrugged it off. "Herodotus, I want you to boil all your water. Everything you drink, cook with or bathe in. It's very important."
"But Xena, we're not supposed to have a fire here. How can we boil water?"
"Build one. Tell anybody who asks I said you could. Boil as much water as you can, use every container you can find to fill with the boiled water, and then let the fire die out. Conserve the wood as much as you can. Then make sure you get Hecuba to drink a lot. Put salt in the water she drinks. That will help." She stood up and tugged at Herodotus' sleeve, beckoning him into the next room. Gabrielle was on their heels.
"Well?" asked Herodotus.
"I think it's the gripes," said Xena as calmly as she could.
Gabrielle asked, "What's the gripes."
"It's a sickness that can be dangerous. It comes from unclean water. If it goes untreated, it moves swiftly, but boiling the water will keep it at bay."
Herodotus asked, "So if it comes from the water..."
"Then everyone may get it," finished Gabrielle.
"Yes. But there are three wells, right? Maybe only one of them is bad," offered Xena, hoping each of the wells sprang from different water sources.
"We get our water from the south well, Xena. We'll have to close off access to that one," Herodotus said. "At least it'll save wood if we only have to boil the water already dipped from the south well."
"I'd rather play it safe," countered Xena. "Everyone boils all the water until we see how this plays out. For now, Gabrielle and I should get to the infirmary."
Herodotus glanced to the bedroom and then back at Xena. "You stay, Herodotus. We'll be fine," said Xena reading his mind.
"I'll come back to check on Mother as often as I can," promised Gabrielle as she kissed him on the cheek. "And you be careful, too. All of you have been drinking that water."
Xena nodded, "Watch for cramps, flux, anything else that Hecuba's complained of. Remember, lots of water with salt. Boiled."
By the time Xena and Gabrielle arrived at the infirmary, there were dozens of people there sick from the water. Xena sent one lad, who'd brought in his deathly pale sister, off to get Demosthenes. When he came, she explained everything to him. They'd need every able body to help boil water using the fires in the tavern and the infirmary. They'd need help with the sick, cleaning them, washing clothes and blankets, and she needed Demosthenes to find out just why the water supply was bad. She suspected that with the ground frozen from the storm, someone had come up with a way to get rid of the town's waste and that somehow it was leaking into the water. It had to be stopped immediately.
Demosthenes gathered a few of the healthy people from the infirmary and set them to various tasks. He went to hunt down the problem with the water supply himself. He'd seen the gripes, lost most of a battalion to them, and he had no patience with any fool who'd caused this.
It was quite unfortunate for the Poteidaians that the Athenians chose that moment to
launch their largest offensive yet.
Thermenes helped Xena construct a huge spit, one from which they could hang several pots of water to boil. Thermenes stoked the fire attempting to keep it hot enough to do the job quickly but not use too much wood. He found a long stick of green wood and used it as a poker, prodding the wood to develop into life saving coals, using it to hook the hot handles of the pots hanging over the middle of the fire. Several people gathered around the fire for warmth and companionship and when Thermenes noticed Prodicus among them, he handed over the job a fire tender to the lad. "Keep it going just like this, if you need any help let me know." Prodicus beamed as he took the long poker in his small hands.
Gabrielle worked heedless of her fatigue to force water down those suffering from the gripes. She moved from palette to palette, holding up the heads of those too weak, bringing a cup to their lips, humming softly or telling short stories. Xena's instructions were clear. Everyone needed as much water as they could possibly drink. The sick passed nothing but fluid but that was cleansing them now that the water had been boiled. She also told them that those handling the water were not to help with washing the sick or changing their soiled clothes. Too many times she'd seen people on the mend return to their sickly ways when one person took on both tasks.
Demosthenes spread the word quickly and dozens of people came to the infirmary to help. Unfortunately, dozens more came down sick and soon they were spreading into the tavern, hauling in palettes and blankets from nearby houses, setting up water to boil on the tavern's fire and getting down to the last reserves of wood.
Then the wounded started to arrive. Xena took one look at the first soldier, an spear in his leg, and she knew the Athenians were moving in. Not sparing the time to speak with Gabrielle, she ran with the wind to the perimeter where Athenian troops were crawling over the wall in waves of black, marching ants, ladders pressed up against the rim carrying them more quickly than the Poteidaians could knock them down.
"Kick the ladders! Throw them down!" she yelled as she drew her blade and tried to stem the tide of the advancing Athenians. Blocking the sword of a soldier, she sidestepped a spear thrown at her. Reaching behind for the spear now lodged in the dirt, she yanked it free and walloped the soldier across the temple, breaking the shaft in two and sending the soldier to his knees. She finished him with a kick to the head.
The ladders were the key, so she vaulted up to the rim tossing bodies aside with her elbows to get to the ladders, pushing them back, effortlessly hurling those in mid-climb to the hard, frozen ground below. For every two ladders she swiped away another came up, so though she made progress, it was slow. Dozens of Athenians were in the city fighting an overmatched and under armed group of villagers.
Next came the gastraphetes. A bevy of arrows sailed in, indiscriminately wounding the men below. She heard one of the heavy arrows headed her way, instinctively put out her hand to stop it, forgetting how much power it carried, and though she kept it from impaling her, the inertia of its flight propelled her off the rim, sending her crashing to the ground below.
In the instant it took her to catch her breath, an Athenian spied her and let fly with his spear. Xena rolled to avoid it, rudely discovering her arm had broken in the fall and catching the spear in her shin. Now she was mad. A sword protruded from a body near her, she reached for it with her good arm, pulled it free and set it sailing toward the soldier foolish enough to wound her. He died instantly.
"Xena!" Demosthenes came to her. "You're hurt."
"Yeah, you noticed. Break off the shaft." She grimaced as Demosthenes snapped the spear. "Now help me up, we've got to build a line of defense."
"What? You're crazy. You're going to the infirmary."
"Demosthenes, if we don't do it, there won't be an infirmary." She struggled to her knees, blood running down her leg and pooling at her feet.
"Xena..." He fought against his better judgment. "Okay, tell me what to do." He slung her arm around his shoulder and walked her out of the worst of the fracas, just inside one of the buildings along the perimeter.
She sat down heavily, squeezing her eyes against the jolt in her leg and arm. Demosthenes dropped to a knee and looked at her shin. "I should take this out, Xena."
"No. Leave it. It will only bleed more. Listen, we need to muster as many as we can to work in a line, run it back to the wall forcing a retreat. Get everyone to arm themselves with whatever they can find, there's plenty around," she added with a gruff laugh.
"Good idea, I'll take care of it. You stay here." She nodded weakly. "Oh, in case I don't get a chance, I did find the problem with the water. It's taken care of."
"What was it?" She asked, remembering how many ordeals they were facing at the moment.
"Eupatrids was being stupid. I explained everything to him, though, and he won't be so foolish again." Xena wanted a more thorough accounting, but she knew it wasn't the time to demand it. Demosthenes patted her shoulder and left.
Xena took a few deep breaths. That fall had done more than just break a bone in her arm, she could tell. Her head pounded, a sheen of sweat covered her brow, and something hurt in her stomach. Still, she moved so she could see out the door and watch the Poteidaian's progress. Demosthenes collected about thirty men armed with swords and spears and pushed the Athenians back, cornering them near a section of the wall. And like cornered animals, the Athenians retaliated with a ferocious wildness, driving the Poteidaian's away. Xena couldn't just sit and watch.
Demosthenes was surprised to see her at his side wielding her sword, but when she gutted a soldier about to impale him, he thanked the gods and set against the next man. "Nice to see you're feeling better," he shouted to her.
Xena laughed and lunged at a helmeted Athenian warrior. He parried her blow easily but was not prepared for her sword to sweep him off his feet. He landed hard, his helmet bouncing off leaving him exposed. Xena saw him, and in that split second it took to recognize him, she missed a spear traveling toward Demosthenes. The Poteidaian leader went down and Xena went ballistic. "Alcibiades," she growled, pouncing on the Athenian soldier.
Hands pulled her off immediately, tossing her to the dirt. Three Athenians stood before her, protecting their young leader and ward of Pericles. She took them on willingly, an un-exacted revenge spurring her past the pain. Alcibiades enjoyed the show, he could see she was already badly injured, he had confidence in his men, and he was planning the last blow which he would personally inflict. But once again, he underestimated the Warrior Princess. When she killed the second of his guards, he thought better of his plan to finish her then and there and more in terms of getting himself to safety. While his last guard engaged the infuriated warrior, Alcibiades beat a hasty retreat back over the wall. Seeing their leader returning to the other side, several soldiers followed him, then the rest discovered they were outnumbered and scampered back as quickly as they could.
Xena knew they'd beaten back this attack, all she had to do was finish off the last of the Athenian scum, but she was tired, drained, and not up to the challenge. Alcibiades had picked his guards from the Crimson Wave, the elite and expertly-trained personal soldiers of Pericles and the man she was facing was their best. He was a giant, powerfully strong and yet dexterous enough to avoid her thrusts. She was no match for him in her condition and he played with her for a spell, smelling victory. He smashed the blunt side of his blade against her broken arm, slowing her considerably. He drove her back, forcing her to put her weight on the leg bearing the spearhead. Finally, when he tired of the affair, he savored the final thrust, pulling back with his elbow to skewer her. Xena almost plunged out of the way, taking the blade along her side but avoiding a fatal blow. When she looked up at him, she saw four spears deeply imbedded in his chest and heard the cheer of the Poteidaians. They'd beaten back the Athenians once again.
Demosthenes called for her, his moans leading her as she crawled toward him.
"I'm here. Relax, you're going to be fine," she lied. He had already bled too much to save him.
"No. I can tell... There's something I must tell you, though." The words came with great difficulty, but he forced himself to say them. Xena listened carefully, storing that bit of information away for future reference, and held him as he died.
Gabrielle was in the tavern trying to get water to those down with the gripes, stitching wounds when needed, changing bandages, and directing traffic. Pasio, Hippas, and Cassandra were at the infirmary proper where most of the wounded came, Gabrielle dealt mainly with the gripes. They'd already lost a few, mostly the elderly and children who couldn't handle the intensity of the disease, even for the short time it would take to rehydrate them. An infant died a while ago, cradled in her father's arms. The bard reminded herself that she had the much harder duty in this ward than in the infirmary.
She worried about her mother, her father hadn't come by at all which meant he was still at her side, too scared to leave. She wished Lila could come and give her news, but as she scanned the room she knew the sights and smells were almost too much even for her. Perhaps the fighting would stop soon and more help come to relieve her so she could pay a house call on her ailing mother.
"Gabrielle!" Prodicus ran in.
"Hi there." She drew him up into a hug and felt his fever. "Hey, you don't look so good. Come here and sit down." She knew that coloring all too well by now. "Drink this water, all of it." She waited while he obeyed her. "Now tell me how you feel."
He seemed a little surprised that she'd ask, "Okay, I guess. Sometimes my stomach feels a little funny and I hurt down here." Intestinal cramps. He was coming down with the gripes, too.
"Prodicus, this is important. You might be getting sick and I need you to stay here with me. Drink lots of water and don't get up and run around." Gabrielle ran a cool cloth along his forehead, the shape so reminiscent of a long-dead husband. She had to catch herself from going there.
"Um, Gabrielle?" Prodicus lay back on the palette, sinking into it. "I came here to tell you something."
"What?" she asked with the slightest tinge of nervousness.
"It's Xena. She's in the infirmary. Pasio says you should hurry."
"No, a smaller needle! I'll never get in there with that." Pasio probed the gaping wound on Xena's side doing his best to clean it out before stitching it. When she'd crawled along the ground to get to Demosthenes, she'd done herself a horrible disservice by tearing it open even more and filling the cavity with filth and dirt. Pasio knew he'd have to get every last speck of dirt out or the risk of infection, already high, would soar. He'd glanced at the broken arm and the spear which still protruded from her shin, but decided those had to wait while he desperately tried to patch up her side.
Cassandra fetched a needle more to his liking and threaded it for him. She tried to dab at the wound with a cloth, using it as a wick to soak up the blood, but she'd never been faced with actually having to work on a wound with so much bloody flesh and insides exposed. Pasio grabbed her wrist, "No, go help someone else. Hippas!" His stern voice surprised her even thought she knew how important this particular patient was. Hippas took over for his sister but he wasn't much more help since he was so worried about Cassandra. "Come on," muttered Pasio, feverishly pushing the needle through and pulling the thread behind it, his wet, sticky fingers making the delicate work very difficult.
Gabrielle raced in, falling to her knees by Xena before she could let herself down. "Oh gods... how bad?" She cupped Xena's pale face but there was no response at all.
"Gabrielle, I need you." Pasio spoke to her as gently as he could, but he was too scared to keep his voice steady. "I need you to help me."
Now looking at the rest of Xena's battered body, Gabrielle was horrified. Her eyes were transfixed by the bloody mass in Pasio's hands, more blood at the leg, and the hideously angled arm, clearly broken halfway between the wrist and the elbow.
"Gabrielle! Come and help me." He lowered his voice, "Come and help Xena."
Choking back tears she nodded and awkwardly moved to his side.
"Here, take these rags and clean the wound. Make sure you get it completely clean. It's important."
Again, all Gabrielle could do was nod. She forced herself to move, it was barely more than slow motion, but she did her best to do as Pasio asked. Blinking away her tears, she placed the rag carefully against the wound, in all the crevices she could manage, trying to give Pasio room to stitch.
He sensed her breaking down, "Gabrielle! Stay with me." She fought the trembling in her hands and stretched for a clean cloth dropping the old, dripping red one in a bowl now almost full.
All Gabrielle could think was not again, not again. Don't make me go through this again. I... I can't...
"Gabrielle! Keep working." Pasio had finished as much suturing as he could until the wound was clean and flushed. He helped by taking the soiled rags from Gabrielle and handing her clean ones. "Come on, just a little more."
I can't do this...
"Good. Here, one last time." Pasio took another bloodied rag and tossed it in the bowl.
"Hippas, finish this stitching. Gabrielle help me with her leg." Pasio steered her down the palette. "Come on, you know the routine. Wad up compresses, I'll push the shaft through."
Gabrielle could barely feel the cloth on her finger tips, she watched her hands work amazed that they really belonged to her body. They didn't feel that way.
"Ready?" And with a grunt, he pushed the shaft through then pulled Gabrielle's hands down and held them with the compresses tightly to Xena's leg. "I'll put in a couple of stitches. I really should let it bleed for a bit to flush it, but she's lost too much blood already."
Blood seeped through the cloth, through her fingers and dribbled down her hands.
I can't do this...
Pasio moved one of her hands to the side and sewed three quick stitches over the exit hole. He took the first compress from her and put a new dry one in her hand, then placed it back over the wound he'd just stitched. He repeated the process with the entry hole then wrapped a bandage around the leg.
"Now we can set her arm." Putting his hand on the bard's shoulder, Pasio pulled her up the other side of the palette. Hippas had finished the patch job and was ready to bandage it.
"We should get her out of these leathers first," said Hippas. Pasio nodded. The three of them worked together to pull the garment off without causing any more damage. While one held her arm, the other two worked the shoulder strap down and over her arm. When it came to the wound in her side, Hippas held a cloth over the new stitches while Gabrielle and Pasio peeled the garment back giving Hippas time to maneuver one hand under the leather and grab the cloth from the other that held it firmly in place.
Finally unfettered, Hippas wrapped Xena's side, passing pieces of linens under her back a few times, while Pasio set the arm quickly and secured it in a splint.
Pasio walked to the wash basin and scrubbed the worst of the blood off. He had no idea if she would survive. Drying his hands and tossing the towel aside he spotted a chair, scooped it up, and carried it to Xena's palette. "Sit, Gabrielle."
She hadn't moved since they'd finished, still in fog from everything. Her knees gave way when Pasio slid the chair under her. "Take your time. We'll handle everything else." He spoke softly at her ear but wasn't sure if his words were registered with her.
Gabrielle sat there the rest of the day, occasionally wresting her consciousness back long enough to change Xena's bandages and run a cool cloth over her forehead. Xena's fever soared into the evening as her body tried to ward off the infections threatening it. Still Gabrielle remained ever vigilant, moving to sit on the palette with Xena, needing to feel more contact with her.
I should have listened to her. She was right, of course, all that's coming out of this is death and suffering. Demosthenes is dead. Critias is dead. I can't seem to recall the reason, once so clear, for continuing against such a vicious opponent. Why didn't we talk about this more? She could have convinced me... could have convinced me...
Thermenes, now in charge by default, seemed dazed by the turn of events as he wandered around speaking with everyone, congratulating them for a job well done or consoling them for their loss. He had decisions to make, not the least of which was who would run the supplies in Critias' wake, but seemed only capable of making small talk. For many, it was more welcome than decisions wrought of leadership, but soon everything would crumble without someone in command.
As people came by to see how Xena was faring, Gabrielle heard the story in bits and pieces of what had happened out there. She knew Xena had fallen from the wall and saved Demosthenes' life once only to have him die a short while later. She learned that Xena had faced an Athenian officer, protected by his chosen men, and that she would have died but for the Poteidaian's steadfast refusal to back down and their timely interference in her fight with the last of the guards.
It was late and the ward was quiet. The gripes patients were still in the tavern, the wounded lay in the infirmary and most of them were resting, well on the road to recovery. Herodotus quietly walked up to his daughter. "How is she?"
The voice startled Gabrielle but she settled down immediately in her father's arms. And then finally broke down and cried, really cried, like she hadn't done since... since she was seven and Perdicus had decided to play a trick on her. He hadn't intended it to be a malicious one, but from a distance she couldn't tell the lump on the ground wasn't him. She'd been fooled into believing Perdicus was dead, killed from losing a silly game he'd made up with a bottle he'd filled with water but identified to her as poison. And even though it only lasted long enough for her to belt a gut-wrenching scream before Perdicus jumped down from the tree laughing, she'd run out to the harbor where her father toiled, buried her head in his arms and cried until she couldn't anymore.
There she was again, sitting on his lap like a little girl, eyes red and puffy, nose running. Oh, how she loved this man, this gentle soul whose laughter called her home every day. "Thanks for coming," she managed to get out between dying sobs.
"Sorry I couldn't come earlier. I had to make sure your mother was going to be okay." Gabrielle lifted her eyes to meet his. "She's fine. She's sleeping." Gabrielle settled back into his embrace again. "What can we do for her?" he asked, hoping to convey more than just an eagerness to help.
She answered with a voice barely above a whisper, her eyes on Xena's sleeping face, "Wait. Nothing to do but wait."
"It's the hardest thing to do." He gave her a little squeeze. "I don't suppose I can convince you to get some rest?" She shook her head. "I didn't think so. Pasio stopped me on the way in and insisted I take you home. I told him I didn't think that would be possible and that I'd only ask you once knowing the answer you'd give... knowing I'd say the same. And mean it."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thanks."
"But I do have an idea you might agree to because you really do need to rest and I know you won't leave her. Why don't I pull an empty palette up here right next to hers? You'll know the instant she stirs."
As she lay by Xena, hands entwined, she replayed what had happened since Triptolemus and Kerykes called them back to Eleusis. That city seemed destined to mingle the best and worst of their lives... What had gone wrong? Weren't they supposed to be able to figure everything out? Hadn't Demeter and Persephone told them they could do this?
A low moan wrenched her from her thoughts. Pressing her hand to Xena's forehead scared her, it was burning with fever, sweat beaded on her lip, pooled at the base of her neck. Xena shifted without regaining consciousness, Gabrielle tried to make her more comfortable but Xena pulled away from her, murmuring. The murmuring became more insistent, as if she was fighting something, then Gabrielle heard something that frightened her to her very core, something that chilled her so deeply she couldn't suppress a shudder. Xena, in her delirious state, called not for Gabrielle but for Ares. She called out for Ares.
Gabrielle pressed fingers against Xena's lips, tried to stop her, but Xena shook her
off with surprising strength, flipping her head to the side and called once again,
"Ares..." All Gabrielle could do was hope he hadn't heard her. And she held
little hope for that.
Gabrielle slept not at all after that, every time she dozed she jerked herself back awake in fear that Ares would do something while she was asleep. By the time morning rolled around her nerves were raw, her vision blurry, and her muscles ached with a profound exhaustion. At least Xena's fever seemed better. It hadn't broken but it wasn't skyrocketing as it had the night before. She forced herself to make a quick check of everyone in the infirmary always keeping one eye on Xena and discovered to her delight that Pasio had been extraordinary. Everyone was relatively comfortable and had recently changed bandages. She returned to Xena's side nervously waiting for... for she didn't know what but she was sure something would happen.
Herodotus came by again in mid-morning. "I see my plan didn't work," he said lightly but with concern etched in his face. "You didn't sleep."
She didn't dare answer him, there would be no lying to her father. "She's better."
He placed his hand on Xena's brow, the warrior tried weakly to shake it off. Interesting, thought Herodotus. "Fever's gone," he chose to say.
"Finally," said Gabrielle fingering one of Xena's hands. "I just wish she'd wake up."
Throwing caution to the wind he decided a near-frontal assault was in order, "She's troubled."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yes."
Herodotus waited for Gabrielle to elaborate, he could tell from her eyes that she knew more. Well, it's not my place he convinced himself. "Your mother would like to see you, given the chance. I've told her it might be awhile."
"Thanks, I'll come when I can." She felt his soft squeeze on her shoulder before he left.
During the day, they moved the gripes patients back from the tavern, they were fewer in number now but more dangerously ill, they hadn't been able to fight off the debilitating symptoms as easily as most, and Gabrielle found the hours consumed by caring for them. She spent most of her time divided between Xena and Prodicus. Prodicus had pushed himself too far before Gabrielle stopped him and sent him to bed the day before. He was weak and had trouble keeping any water down.
That evening, Gabrielle got the shock of her life when Lila came into the infirmary. She stumbled up to her sister, "Tried not to... get sick... hid it from... Father..."
Damn you, damn you! She help Lila to the palette next to Xena where she'd slept, or at least tried to sleep for awhile, the night before. Like Prodicus, Lila couldn't keep any water down, she had a raging fever... it all threatened to push the bard over the edge. Why didn't you ask for help sooner, she thought. Why? Damn you! Lila was barely conscious, slipping in and out of a disordered sleep.
"She'll be okay," came the soft voice.
The bard breathed, "Xena," and the faucets opened, she couldn't help herself. Gabrielle buried her head in the palette, Xena drew an arm around her and held her as best she could in her weakened state.
"Sor... sorry," she burbled. Gabrielle raised her head, just wanting to see the blue of those eyes. She got it and a little, crooked smile to boot. "Hi."
"Water?" Xena croaked.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry. Again." Gabrielle held Xena's head up and put a cup to her lips holding her until Xena could drink it all. "How do you feel."
Xena closed her eyes a moment then reopened them to ground herself with Gabrielle's presence. "Not too bad."
"Okay, now tell me how you really feel," and was pleased to see the crooked smile stretch a bit farther.
"Sore. Headache. Better than I should be feeling. Help me sit up."
Gabrielle pushed an over-eager patient back down on the palette. "Are you crazy? Xena, your side looks like a three-year-old got into the sewing basket."
Xena got that determined look in her eyes and that fire in her heart, "Fine. I'll do it by myself." And even in her weakened state, the warrior had enough strength to get herself a few inches off the palette while the bard was doing her best to hold her down. Gabrielle gave up, Xena would have just kept pushing against her, so it seemed the better plan to acquiesce and help her up.
Xena let her head swim for a second before forcibly clearing it by sheer will. "You look terrible," she said to Gabrielle.
"I wouldn't talk, miss I-can-sleep-for-a-day-and-a-half." You're amazing. How can you do that when any other person would be struggling just to keep their eyes open? "Can I at least get you something to eat?"
Xena smiled, "Uh, sure. That'd help." Gabrielle scampered off and returned with hot broth and bread.
"Aren't you having any?" asked Xena as Gabrielle handed it all to her.
"I've eaten," answered Gabrielle idly picking at dust bunnies along the edge of the palette.
"Gabrielle..." Xena used her best 'I know you're lying to try to make me feel better' tone. "How much and when?" she demanded in a clear voice. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and snitched a hunk of bread from Xena's hand. "Thought so," chuckled the warrior hiding the small wince at the jolt it caused in her side.
Xena dunked the bread into the broth and nibbled the soft end of the loaf. "How long has Lila been here?"
"Not long. She didn't tell anyone she was sick. Why is it that people are so stubborn sometimes?" Gabrielle chose to ignore the eyebrow waggling at her. Then in a voice that conveyed the worry she'd bottled up inside, "I can't get her to keep any water down. Prodicus, too, plus about a dozen other people. How are we supposed to fight this thing when they can't take water?"
Xena put the bowl down and reached for Gabrielle's hand. "There are some herbs that can help: rhatany and alum root. Wouldn't suppose there'd be any around?" she asked expectantly.
"I'll look," Gabrielle replied without much hope.
"Good, now help me lie down again, I've had enough of immortality for the moment." Xena tightened her grip on Gabrielle's hand and accepted the willing assistance to lay her back on the palette. Gabrielle peeked around the room and, deciding it was safe, deposited a quick kiss on Xena's forehead, earning a big grin from the warrior.
Gabrielle padded back toward the supply room, certain she wouldn't find rhatany or alum root, then turned back to gaze at the two figures laying on palettes next to each other. So different, both family. I hate this, she mused. I can't stand to see them hurting. She jiggled the thought from her mind and dug around the supplies for either herb Xena mentioned.
It was late that night before Xena woke again. Gabrielle was sitting on the floor, leaning her back against the palette half asleep when Xena slid her hand over and found the bard's shoulder. Gabrielle jerked fully awake in an instant and got to her feet. She saw clear blue eyes staring back at her. "You feel better," Gabrielle stated flatly.
"Yeah, I do. Thanks." Xena struggled to sit up again, Gabrielle pressed her hand up against Xena's back noticing she needed much less help than last time. "How's Lila?"
Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes cloud over, "Not good."
"Did you find those herbs?" Gabrielle answered with a simple shake of the head. Xena reached up and captured the bard's chin, turning her face so she could see it fully. She didn't like what she saw. "Gabrielle, you're not going to do anyone any good if you don't sleep."
"I've been napping. I'm fine, Xena."
"No, you're not." Xena knew she had to say this just right for her plan to work. "Lila and I need you whole if you're going to take care of us. I want you to go home and sleep, at least for the rest of the night."
"Xena..." Gabrielle whined.
"How long have you been here?" asked Xena seriously. And when Gabrielle didn't answer, Xena let herself get a little mad. "Don't be stupid about this, Gabrielle. You have to take care of yourself."
The bard squeezed her eyes shut and in a shaking voice pleaded, "Please don't send me away."
Xena pulled her in close. "I'm not sending you away. I'm trying to keep you healthy," and played her trump card, "because I need you to take care of me," which melted the bard.
She stayed long enough to share another small meal with Xena, settling her back on the palette and checking on Lila before she made the long, cold walk back to their lodgings. She was dog tired, she admitted to herself, but the thought of sleeping alone in that bed, away from Xena, not being able to watch for Ares... Xena hadn't said anything about him, perhaps she didn't remember calling for him. Gabrielle certainly did and every time she thought of it, she heard Xena's moans and a big bolt shivered down her back.
She changed into a sleeping shift, crawled into the bed and wrapped herself in both blankets. Throwing a kiss Xena's way, she drifted off into a soundless sleep.
Without Xena there to wake her, the bard managed to snooze away until mid-morning. That kind of hard sleep, when you wake up in exactly the same position you left yourself the night before, is hard to shake. It was a laborious waking process even by the bard's standards, as she threw off the numbness and haze of a dreamless night.
Even as she dressed and doused her face in cold water, she knew she hadn't fully regained her normal alertness. Too much to ask for one night's sleep to wipe away that much fatigue. The brisk walk through another cold morning helped and by the time she reached the infirmary, she was feeling more herself, ready to thank Xena for sending her home even when she didn't want to go.
But the palette was empty. "Gods..."
Bounding up to her, Pasio tossed her a warm greeting, "Sleep well?"
"Xena?" and he saw the frightened eyes.
"What do you mean? She said she was going home. Amazing recuperative powers she has, wish we could bottle that up." He quirked his head, "What's wrong?"
Gabrielle asked quickly, "When did she leave?"
"Not long after sun-up. Hey, didn't she..."
"No. She didn't get there. I've got to find her, Pasio." She bolted through the door and racked her brain for where she should even begin to look. Ares. He had to have done this. Damn. Why did I leave last night? Xena made me. Xena knew the only way she'd get to Ares was if I wasn't around. Damn. Damn.
She asked most everyone on the street if they'd seen Xena. A few had. Gabrielle tried to re-trace the warrior's steps but found herself going in circles as if Xena had purposefully disguised her trail.
Think, Gabrielle. Think. What would she do? Her sword, her chakram, her horse. Her sword and chakram had been in the supply room at the infirmary, stored there until... well until she needed them. Argo? Still not able to put full weight on her leg. Xena would never be able to ride her. What else, what else? Her cloak. If she was on foot, she'd have stopped to make sure she had the necessary supplies and her cloak.
Gabrielle ran back to their room, still entirely unsure of what was going on, where Xena might go, or how she would possibly get there through the Athenian army. She pushed the door open and her heart sank. By some miracle, she'd really hoped Xena was there. But it wasn't to be. Her cloak was there, though. Oh, this wasn't working at all.
"Looking for someone?" a low voice asked.
Gabrielle spun around and before she knew it she had flung herself full force into the leather-clad chest of the God of War, beating on him with her fists.
"What a nice greeting," he said, grabbing both her wrists with one hand and dragging her away.
"Where is she? What have you done with her?" Gabrielle screamed, all necessary decorum absent. "Where's Xena?"
"Now why would you be asking me that?" he inquired.
"You know damn well why," screeched the angry bard. "What did you do to her to make her call for you? She never would have done that on her own!"
Ares stepped back and twisted his brow but he recovered before Gabrielle noticed. Interesting. This could be a fun game, he thought. I'll play along. "I dare say she's finally wised up and left you. She's gone, little bard. Gone from Poteidaia, gone from this puny little siege, gone from your life."
"No!" Gabrielle breathed heavily. "I refuse to believe that."
"Okay, smarty, then where is she?"
"I don't know..." her voice trailed off. Then she glowered at him, "What did you do, Ares! By the gods, if you've done anything to hurt her..."
"You'll what? You impudent little girl, don't you threaten me!" He rose up to his full height and extended his chest. She recoiled at his display, the dark god towering over her. "That's better." Ares took a step towards her and captured her eyes. "You're in over your head and have no idea what's going on. Heed my warning: stay out of this. You have no idea..."
Swinging the door open, he walked out on her. Gabrielle watched him smoldering in
disgust at him, stomach juices churning in worry about Xena. I've got to find her, she
told herself. She grabbed her cloak and her staff and headed out after Ares.
Gabrielle got ten paces from the room before she remembered to go back and shut the door. Gods, this is bad, she thought. Now what do I do...
Ares had left no trail, he'd probably just popped himself to wherever he wanted to be next, so she was left with looking for Xena's tracks which meant once again asking the people around town if they'd seen her. And the trail was cold even before she'd talked to Ares.
She dug up enough information to figure Xena had stopped by Argo's stall. That made sense, she wouldn't have gone anywhere without seeing Argo, and from there the stable hand told her Xena had gone out the back way, down a narrow alley that skirted along the back wall of the city.
Gabrielle pricked her ears at this, it was the first time any lead had taken her by the wall. The alley was seldom used perhaps not visited at all since the siege began, and three tell-tale prints were cast in the soft dirt just behind the stable. Those bootprints were very familiar to Gabrielle, the slightly deeper impression on the right telling her Xena's gait was compensating for her wounded leg. With an uncomfortable sense of purpose and dread, she followed the alley and lost the prints entirely. Now she had to be careful, if she traversed the distance between where she stood and the stable too many times she would obliterate any hope of finding Xena's trail. So she stood there and studied the dirt, the wall, the crates, the piles of discarded saddle blankets... they had been moved recently.
She tossed the blankets aside and fell back on her heels. A wooden door revealed itself embedded in the earth. Gabrielle settled her fingers around the handle and lifted it, its weight surprising her, but she strained with her legs and swung it open to rest the lip on the stone wall behind it. Old thin stairs leading into utter darkness stared back at her. Down we go, she thought, happy to spot a few torches sticking out from a crevice in the wall. Oh yeah, close the door. Laughing at herself for forgetting that again, she did her best to re-camouflage the entrance, throwing a few blankets over the lip of the door, and when she closed it, the low, conclusive thud echoed out away from her and back again from a distance she couldn't begin to fathom.
An old story kept pinging at the back of her mind, a tale from childhood told in creaky haylofts late at night by mean boys trying to scare the living daylight out of the young ones. Gabrielle only half remembered it and didn't care to wade through the vast repository of plots she carried in that head of hers to sort it out. Instead she wanted to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other as the path sloped down and began to wind around in narrow then wide passages.
The torch she carried illuminated only a small swatch in front of her and she'd reached a passage that opened into a much larger one. She peered up and had no idea how far the ceiling extended above her. No one had dug this out, she surmised. Nope, this was... this was... gods it was true. The caves. They're real.
She stopped moving and listened to her heart pounding in her throat, swearing she could hear it bounce off the craggy walls. She took a deep breath and tasted the sea. Yes. It was true and she remembered.
There were tales told of a set of caves extending from the walls of the city to the forest beyond, weaving around the cliffs along the shore. Legend had it that while many ventured in, few, if any, ever got out alive, becoming lost in the jungle of paths or slipping into the darkness below. Still she knew Xena had come this way. Something in her told her she was on the right track and that was more than enough to quell her fears enough to reach out with a toe, then her foot, and finally swing her legs into their familiar gait.
All right, think Gabrielle. You've been telling yourself to do that a lot lately, haven't you. Time to do it again. Figure out which way to go without doing something stupid. So... rely on sight, sound, smell... What would Xena do? The trick is not to get caught going in circles but to keep moving forward. That way, I'll be closer to getting out, no matter where I end up. Huh? Does that make sense? Don't go there.
So, keep the ocean smell steady. Track to the right, the ocean is to the south, I'm heading east, if I hug the cliffs, I'll get to the forest. Right? Sure... And then there's the problem with time. When the torch burns down I'm a goner. Nothing to do but hurry, then... Whoa!
She slipped down a wet ramp and landed hard holding onto the torch but letting her staff slide from her grasp. It rolled to a stop not far from her.
What the? Yuck, slimy stuff. Wow, it glows a little.
She lowered the torch toward the incline on the path and found a thin layer of something lichen-like that put off the slightest phosphorescent glow. Though it was quite beautiful all it did was unnerve her, something else to add to the list of weird things about these caves. She retrieved her staff and started to work her way across the floor of the large cavern.
Unfamiliar sounds kept her twisting her head trying to catch their source. A howl, a screech, a sibilant laugh... Though she strained to keep her footsteps light, they reflected off the walls and followed her like some army of zombies, always in step with her. Another narrow passage opened into an even larger chamber, this one filled with lichen casting a soft glow all around. It was extraordinary, but Gabrielle worried about the torch she carried, if it would last long enough to show her through to the far side of the caves and out into the woods beyond.
She passed through four more magnificent caverns lit by the soft blush of lichens before the treacherous part of her journey began. Slits started to block her way, holes leading down into a blackness so complete she had no idea how deep they were. At first they were easy to walk around but soon they grew wider and longer and she had to backtrack, stray from her plan to keep as close to the shore as possible. She was being forced deeper and deeper into the caves, and her torch began to sputter.
The smell of sea salt was strong, a heaviness in the air told her she wasn't far from the water, even though she knew she'd traveled inland. Small comfort that was, but the smell of the sea always had a calming effect on her, so she inhaled its essence and remembered late-night bonfires beyond the harbor, morning walks along the breaking water... it helped.
Okay, the torch is definitely going, she thought. She was still wearing the extra shirt Xena had found, so she stopped and ripped off a few strips from the bottom. She could wrap them around the torch and add enough fuel, perhaps, to get her out of the caves before she lost her light source.
So how do I do this without putting out the torch? If I wrap it with the torch while it's lit, I'll be burned, if I let it go out, I'll never get it going again. Come on, come on, think of something.
She ripped another strip from her shirt and wrapped the end of her staff, lit it from the torch, then put out the torch. After she attached the new strips to the torch, she transferred the flame and extinguished the one on her staff, then quickly tore off the cloth to check for any damage. It seemed okay. Still, knowing she might have to do that again, she re-wrapped the blackened cloth around her staff for safe-keeping.
The path dissolved into rocks, soon she was climbing over boulders and slipping on smoothed stone. The rocks were wet and the footing perilous. She could hear the surf pounding not far from her, she used it as a beacon, and soon was climbing up, her feet finding sandy dirt and easier walking.
Another series of narrow passageways opening into lichen-covered caverns ended in a solid wall of rock through which she could find no opening. A dead end. She sat down, back to the wall, and went through the laborious process of adding more cloth to the torch. That finished, her staff still unscathed, she propped up the torch against the stone, let her eyes close and rested briefly.
Until she realized how close she was to nodding off. If she fell asleep, the torch may go out, and Xena... with that she pushed herself to her feet. Leaning against her staff Gabrielle listened carefully. The pervasive rhythm of the surf was still present, though it was more mute, farther away. No there was something else in there with it, something familiar...
Gods, you're getting wacky. It's like trying to hear something on a very still night. You can listen and listen and never really make it out. Actually it's a lot like that, a lot like... what it sounds like is a very quiet night outside!
And she knew she wasn't far from the exit to this labyrinth. With a renewed optimism she made a decision, turned up the wall and began to trudge along it looking for the opening that would release her.
Her side ached beyond her ability to ignore it and it slowed her down. She'd hoped to be back by nightfall but that idea had already been snagged by the frozen ground and her own weakness when it came to digging up roots. Cold air pelted her and she bemoaned once again the fact that the stubborn Warrior Princess hadn't stopped to take something warmer to wear. Oh well, I've done such things before and I'll do them again, she mused rubbing her leathers to try to infuse some heat under there.
Still, the hunting portion of her mission was accomplished. Heaping portions of both rhatany and alum root lay tucked away in her pouch. One look at Lila told her she needed to get these herbs and she knew what Gabrielle would have said had she mentioned the plan to her. Best to have slipped out as she did. Asking forgiveness works better than asking permission.
And thank the gods Demosthenes told her about the caves just before he died. She now understood his frank admonition not to let them be known, they were far too dangerous for most people to be tackling and if there was a mass exodus from Poteidaia, the sudden influx of townsfolk in the woods surrounding the village would draw the attention of the Athenian army who would, in turn, discover the caves and the perfect means of ambush. Nope, they were best left a secret and an emergency exit in times of dire need. Like this time.
The moon lit a small clearing, she stood back hidden among the trees and made sure no one lay in wait for her. Though she could traverse a sleeping army on a good day, she knew her breathing was labored and a good tracker could find her, so she erred on the side of caution. Besides, she told herself, no one knows where you are to help if you get yourself in a jam.
She stepped out into the clearing, the light of the moon bathing ground in a silver flush, just nipping the edges of the snow still clinging to the ground under thick tree limbs. Her alarms went off too late, a figure grabbed her from behind.
"Fancy meeting you here."
Xena whipped around and disengaged. "Ares! What do you want. Haven't you bothered me enough already."
"Oh, hardly, my dear. Because now I know the truth. I know what you hold deep inside yourself: the desire to be with me again." His eyes twinkled at the glorious thought.
She blew him off with the flick of the wrist and started on her way again.
"No you don't," he said digging his fingers in her arm. "The bratty friend of yours told me what you said."
"Gabrielle?" She scowled, "Did you do anything..."
"Oh Xena, we just talked. I swear I didn't even touch her." Xena's expression didn't soften. "Really. She was looking for you, I ran into her, we chatted..."
Her dangerous voice asked, "What did you say to her?"
"You're wondering about what I said to her?" Ares chuckled deeply in his chest. "You'd better worry about what she said to me."
Xena slapped him. It was hard enough and fast enough and certainly enough out of character to stun him. "What's with you?" He asked, dabbing the back of his hand at the corner of his lip. Finding no blood, he leaned in a spoke in a quiet, fierce tone, "I heard you."
"Heard what?" Xena was getting very tired of this conversation. Already drained, she wanted nothing more than to find the caves and get back with the herbs.
"You called for me!" exclaimed the God of War.
"I did not," she replied with a vehemence he wasn't expecting. "I would not. I will not. Never."
A confused Ares said, "But even that bard of yours heard you."
"Don't mess with her, Ares," she growled waggling a finger at him.
Ares broke into a cynical smile. "Xena, if I didn't know better I'd say you actually cared for that pinhead."
"Ares!" Another voice bellowed. "You idiot. Stop it!"
Xena looked over her shoulder and groaned. Just what I needed, she thought.
Ares greeted their visitor, "Well it's Daddy's Favorite. What brings you here? Eavesdropping on me again?"
Gray-eyed Athena wore full battle garb, thick studded leathers, intricately forged armor, a mighty helmet, and in a scabbard at her side, something hidden from view yet clearly not a sword. "Ares," she reached around Xena to grab him by the ear lobe.
"Hey, hey, cut that out!" Ares shook off his half-sister's hold on him, rubbing his palm over his ear.
"Would you please watch what you say!" Athena seethed, grinding the balls of her feet into the dirt. She turned to Xena and said almost nonchalantly, "Gabrielle's fine, don't even think about her."
Which worried Xena much more than anything Ares had said.
"Athena," Ares assumed a superior pose, "I keep telling you not to bother with Xena's little friend. It's Xena here that we should be concerned with."
Xena listened carefully, the two of them were in cahoots! It was true.
"No, no, no!" countered Athena. "You're too blind with lust for her. I keep telling you it's the other one. We've got to do something about her."
And that triggered all the alarms again. "Athena, don't even think about hurting her," Xena warned.
"You're so irritating, Xena." Athena threw one well-aimed fist into Xena's aching side sending her swirling to the ground.
"Did you have to hurt her?" Ares looked as if his favorite toy had been tossed in the mud.
Athena tossed him an unexpected bit of news, "Don't get your hopes up, Ares. She didn't call for you. I did it to get them apart."
"You?" he asked incredulously. Why?"
"Focus, Ares. We need to get the bard out of the way, but if Zeus finds out..."
"Yeah, yeah. He won't be mad at you very long, but if he gets wind of the fact that I'm in on this, I'll never hear the end of it." Ares glanced at Xena writhing on the ground then looked back to Athena.
"So what are we going to do? I've tried, Ares. It's your turn." Hands on her hips, she waited for her half-brother to solve their problem.
"I'm not tackling this one. You're the one saying the bard's the issue, not me. Fine, get rid of her, but you know what will happen if you kill her."
"I know what will happen if I'm caught..." corrected Athena.
"Wait," Xena struggled to regain her feet. Athena connected again, tossing Xena halfway across the clearing and depositing her in a lump. Xena put a hand to her side, she was bleeding heavily. That last blow must have ruptured the stitches. Her head swam when she tried to stand, she fell back hard, in a pain-induced daze.
"Xena!" Gabrielle stepped into the clearing and immediately assessed the situation. Xena's hurt and there are two gods between me and her. Oh well... She ran toward Xena.
Athena saw Gabrielle, her gray eyes grew wide in fury. Without considering the consequences, she reached into her scabbard, withdrew her father's weapon, reared back, and launched the thunderbolt at the defenseless bard.
"No!" screamed Xena too late to stop it, too weak to stand. She watched the bolt hit Gabrielle squarely in the chest, there was a brief sizzle before the bolt evaporated. Gabrielle seemed to hang in the air momentarily before she crumpled to the ground bonelessly.
Ares frowned. "Now look what you did. And it was you, Athena. You can't pin that on me."
"She surprised me!" Athena looked back at Xena, turned again to Ares.
"Damn. Well, I guess that problem's settled. On to new ones." She vanished.
"Ares," Xena moaned.
"You don't look so good, Xena." He peered down over her. "What's the matter. Did Athena hurt you?"
"Athena is using you," she spit out between clenched teeth.
"No, we're just playing out a little bet. We haven't had this much fun since... well since the Persians came to bother you Greeks." He rolled her over onto her back with his black-booted foot. "Oh Xena, that's revolting. Do you have to... bleed so much?"
She garnered all her strength, she knew it was her last chance. "You're rooting for Sparta, right? Athena is tilting the odds in favor of Athens." She glanced over to Gabrielle, come on, let me see you breathing.
"I wouldn't call it tilting... Let's just say that we've limited the amount we can interfere. Zeus won't let us kill anybody. Oops, I guess Athena has some explaining to do there." He covered his smile with a hand. "But yeah, the basic idea is that I told her Sparta could beat the pants off the Athenians. She disagreed. And you know what? It wasn't very hard to nudge you mortals into an all-out war. Such trigger tempers you have."
"In case you hadn't noticed, Ares, I've been fighting against the Athenians, too." Xena hoped this would work, as she kept her eyes glued to Gabrielle, please let that be her chest rising and falling.
"You didn't at first." Ares scolded, kneeling down to talk to her, "Don't think I wasn't watching you. You were in Athens when this all started, Xena."
"Look at how worried Athena is about Gabrielle. She'd only be that concerned if she thought Gabrielle was a threat to her, not to you!" She watched doubt begin to spread across Ares' face.
"Let me help her, Ares," Xena asked. Please let there be a reason to help her.
Ares crooked his forehead, "You want to help Athena?"
"No." Patience... The man is dense. "Gabrielle. Let me help Gabrielle."
"Not much left to help, I don't think." Ares glanced at the bard. "But since you're on my side, at least I can heal you." He passed his hands over Xena's body.
Xena, suddenly whole again, bounded up and sprinted to Gabrielle's side. Sitting down, Xena turned her over and picked her up, cradling Gabrielle in her arms. The faint pulse she found sent a wave of relief through her. "She's alive, Ares. Help her, too! Remember she's the one Athena wants." Come on, Gabrielle. Hang in there.
"Can't do that Xena. You were injured by mortals but Athena did that to Gabrielle, I can't reverse it. Though I must admit she has to work on her delivery. That thunderbolt should have killed the brat. If Zeus had thrown it she'd be a goner. Hmmm, I'll enjoy teasing her about her incompetence. Still, Athena doesn't get much practice with Daddy's weapons. Well Xena, I'm off. Nice to see you up and around. Sorry 'bout your friend."
"Wait!" She'd need some assistance from the god if Gabrielle was going to make it. "Food, water, blankets. You can do that much, can't you?"
"You're a softy, Xena." He clucked his tongue. "I suppose you'll want a fire, too."
"No! The Athenians will spot us. Can't risk a fire," Xena warned him.
"Fine, I'll take care of that, too." In the blink of an eye, he was gone, replaced by a crackling fire and the supplies she'd asked for.
"Thanks, Ares," she said under breath and turned her attention to the limp bard in her arms. Xena lifted the cloak from Gabrielle to see what damage the thunderbolt had done. All she found was a dinar-sized burn above one breast. Xena washed it carefully and covered the scorched skin with a piece of linen torn from Gabrielle's shirt. Not the first piece to be ripped off, Xena noticed, hoping she'd get the chance to hear the story behind that.
She moved Gabrielle closer to the fire and wrapped the blankets Ares supplied around the both of them. "Gods, Gabrielle. What were you thinking?" she let herself say out loud. Shutting her eyes against the whole ordeal, Xena let her mind go blank for a moment.
Until a very soft voice answered her, "Coming after you, of course."
Xena checked that those green eyes really were open, then buried her face in Gabrielle's hair, squeezing the bard tightly to her. Gabrielle wanted to return the pressure, but she hadn't the strength to do it, so she let herself fall deeply into the embrace, feeling safe and protected. Again.
"How do you feel?" asked Xena, pulling back to look more carefully into Gabrielle's eyes.
"Not sure. I guess just weak. What happened?" Gabrielle glanced down Xena's body.
"I owe Ares one." Xena laughed "He healed me. Sorry he couldn't do the same for you." And was utterly shocked to see the horror on Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle tried to squirm out of Xena's grasp, but Xena held her firmly. "What's wrong?"
"Xena!" Gabrielle panted trying to marshal the strength necessary to convey her disgust. "You... and Ares! How could you?" She closed her eyes, fighting back the tears, "I didn't get here in time..."
"Huh?" Xena turned Gabrielle's face up to hers. "What do you mean you didn't get here in time?"
"Ares. You've gone back to him haven't you!" She spat the words with more anger than Xena had ever seen from the bard. "Tired of the stupid siege, stuck in Poteidaia..."
"Gabrielle! No!" Then a little more softly, "No." She shook her, "That didn't happen. What made you think it did?"
In a halting whisper, she told her "I heard you... you called... for Ares when... in the infirmary... Then you left... Ares said you'd left... left me..."
"That bastard." Xena calmed herself to explain, "I didn't leave you, I came to get herbs for Lila and the others."
Gabrielle wanted to believe her. "But... you called for him..."
"So you did hear that. I thought Ares had made it up. But Athena admitted it was she who did it. This is all so confusing." Xena kissed her relieved that the bard's lips responded under hers. She looked her right in the eye and glinted a smile, "Everything is going to be fine, Gabrielle."
"But Athena... and Ares..."
"Well, the good news is that Athena thinks you're dead. Let her believe that and maybe she'll stay out of our way. And I've got Ares convinced that I'm on his side in this war. He still can't be trusted but he did do us a big favor."
Gabrielle dropped her head back against Xena's chest again. She really wanted to sleep but for one more nagging problem. "Xena, why didn't you tell me you were going to get the herbs? You scared me to death when you left without saying anything." The plaintive quality of the question drove home its point even more fiercely than a statement hurled in anger.
Xena rocked the bard gently. "Ah, Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I just kept telling myself that if I asked you, you'd say no."
"So you didn't ask..." Gabrielle fingered a loose strand of hair.
"So I didn't ask," Xena repeated, admitting the folly of her decision. "I guess I thought I could get your forgiveness easier than your permission. Sorry."
After a long silence, Gabrielle said, "I'm too tired to argue about it now, Xena." And that stabbed Xena more deeply than any Athenian weapon ever could.
And on a night when all seemed resolved -- there was food and a fire, Ares had ensured the Athenians wouldn't bother them, her own terrible wounds had been healed by the god, Athena might actually leave them alone for awhile, she'd collected the herbs to help those sick from the gripes, Gabrielle was safely tucked in her arms -- Xena couldn't sleep. She had violated a trust she thought she would have staked her life on.
Gabrielle slept soundly by her side, the thunderbolt sending her into another deep, dreamless sleep. Xena watched her in the firelight and asked herself over and over how she could have done such a thing to Gabrielle. Gabrielle, the most loving, trusting soul in all the known world...
At dawn Gabrielle stirred. She opened one eye and said, "I guess we should go."
Xena had been worrying about the journey back. If the rhatany and alum root were to do any good at all, if the whole trip out here was to have even a hint of a redeeming quality, they'd have to hurry. The herbs wouldn't bring anyone back from the dead. "Yes."
Gabrielle sat up slowly. Her muscles ached, she still felt tired, but it was nothing compared with the pervasive sadness that constricted her entire body. She couldn't look at Xena, couldn't confront that yet. So tired... Throwing her cloak securely about her, she folded the blankets and grabbed her staff. "Ready."
On the path through the forest to the cave entrance they were heralded by a lone bird but no creature answered it on Ares' promise to secure the area. Behind a large boulder, between a tall crevice in the rocks, through an archway eroded by the winds of time, their steps skirted the water's edge as salt spray ionized the cold wind. The cave entrance, well camouflaged, greeted them harshly, a pile of torches hidden at the first bend. Just past that, where it was no warmer than the bitter morning air, Gabrielle propped herself up against a wall. Xena reached for several torches and considered what the bard must be feeling. "Tired?"
How easy it would be to just say yes to that question, mused Gabrielle. But that would hardly begin to explain how I feel right now. I've been attacked by Zeus' own weapon tossed at me by a maniacal goddess, my sister lies deathly ill, I'm stuck in the middle of a war, the most trust I've seen lately has been from Ares... "Yes."
Xena followed the bard as she gamely trekked back through the caves, watching her shortened gait, slumped shoulders, dropped head. She'll never make it, thought Xena. No, of course she will, Gabrielle wouldn't give up so easily. But we really need to hurry and I can't push her any faster than she's going. Maybe she just needs a break. "Hungry?"
I know I'm slowing us down. And I know that puts everyone who needs those herbs in danger. For Lila's sake, I have to send Xena on ahead. I can find my way back, I just need to rest for awhile. "Xena?"
Their eyes met for the first time that morning.
"Look, I know you need to get back faster than I can go."
"No. It's fine. We're making good time."
"But you could get back much more quickly without me."
Xena thought for a moment. "But I don't want to."
Gabrielle sighed. "This isn't about that. Time is the enemy here, I know that. I'll be fine. No one knows about these caves, I can find my way out. I'll just have a little nap then catch up with you later."
How do I argue with that? "I'll leave the food and blankets here and then come back for you."
"I'm not quite that helpless."
A long silence.
Gabrielle continued, "I'll start after you -- slowly. Then you can come back for me and we'll meet halfway, okay?"
Gabrielle was offering a truce. "Okay," answered Xena, accepting it. But before she left, she laid out the blankets and extra torches, made certain Gabrielle ate something, handed her the flint in case she lost her flame, and gave the bard a hug without asking. It was fine, for it was returned in spirit.
Xena was out of sight around a bend in just a few steps, so Gabrielle lay down a listened to the cave, closing her eyes and falling fast asleep. She had no idea how long she slept, but since the torch still burned it couldn't have been too long. She gathered the gear and trudged forward, too numb to think about much but notice the cold seeping in. She shivered and wrapped the woolen cloak around her more tightly. Gabrielle stopped twice more before the path sloped down and farther back into the caverns. When she hit the slippery rocks she knew she was about half way and it lightened her gait.
But soon she was walking not just on damp rocks, but wet rocks. With her staff, the torches, the blankets, and the food, she didn't have an extra hand to catch her fall when she slipped and landed in a puddle.
This is ridiculous, she thought. It's freezing, I'm wet, it's too damned slippery. She looked behind her and decided she'd come too far over the rocks to give up and backtrack. Peering on ahead, it seemed even farther to get out of them. Fortunately, she glanced up and spied an inviting ledge, plenty wide enough to sprawl her tired body across, so she got to her feet and climbed up to it, happy to find it covered in enough sand to bed down softly. She took off her boots, laid them by her staff, had a bite to eat, and fell back into a well-earned slumber.
Xena sprinted through the rest of the cave. She wasn't sure if it was the gripes patients who needed the herbs or her desperate desire to get back to Gabrielle as quickly as possible that pushed her. Hard as she tried, she couldn't figure out a way to convince Gabrielle that she unconditionally trusted her. Because for the first time since she knew she'd fallen in love with the bard, she'd discovered she didn't unconditionally trust her. Even though she wanted nothing more in the world than to be able to do just that.
No, first she'd have to work this out inside her own head, then she could approach Gabrielle about it. No sense in lying to the woman, it will only make it worse. So then what do I say? 'You're right, I don't trust you?' That hardly seems like it would help.
Why don't I trust her? Because I know she'd have told me I was crazy to go and demanded I stay in the infirmary, maybe insisting she go instead? Why do I think that was the answer she'd give? Why do I think that was the wrong answer? Why can't I trust her to go alone? Yeah, right. Send Gabrielle into a dangerous situation without me? That'll be the day. Well, I guess I've done it before but never willingly. But that's because I love her and I can't stand the thought that she might get hurt, like what just happened.
So does that mean I don't trust her because I love her? Damn, this is too hard.
She ascended the steps up to the wooden door behind the stable. Replacing the saddle blankets over the evidence, she jogged to the infirmary. Pasio was there, huddled over a gripes patient. It was too damned quiet, thought Xena.
Pasio looked up, "Xena!" A grin greeted her, "How have you been? Did Gabrielle find you?" Then a confused, "You look great."
"Hi. I'm fine, Gabrielle found me, and don't ask, I had a little intervention... Here, I've brought rhatany and alum root." She dug into her pouch and produced two sizable bundles.
"Wow. Great. This will help those who are left... if only we'd had it earlier." He crooked his head, "Where?"
"Don't ask. Please don't ask. I wish I could have found some earlier, but it was the best I could do." Xena surveyed the room and asked as gently as she could, "How many have gone home?"
"We lost six more, the rest are at home. Lila's still with us, thought just barely." He grinned again, "I'm sure we can pull her through now, though. Let me mix up a tea with these." They wandered over to the fire which had kettles of hot water perpetually by it, though the water supplies were now under control and they didn't need to boil water to drink. Xena helped Pasio divide the herbs into mugs and steep them in the steaming water. Pasio kept sneaking a peek at Xena, flabbergasted that she showed no ill effects of her recent run-in with the Athenians.
Xena finally put her hand on his shoulder. "I'm fine, really. Let's get this to those who need it, shall we?" She took a mug to Lila who lay in a semi-conscious state, her fever stealing the color from her face.
"Lila?" Xena was rewarded with a look of recognition from Gabrielle's sister. "I have something that will make you feel better. I'm going to sit you up and have you drink it, but it's hot. Okay?" Lila nodded. Xena held her and very slowly let her sip at the tea until it was gone, then lay her back and ran a cool cloth over her forehead. "Gabrielle will be by to see you soon and by then you'll feel much better. For now, get some sleep."
She did the same with three other patients while Pasio administered to the rest. They met back in the supply room. "Thanks, Xena. I'll keep some brewed and get as much down them as I can."
"You're welcome." She considered him thoughtfully before scooting up to sit on a crate. "You've done a great job here, Pasio." The underpinnings of a blush crept up his neck. "Hippocrates will be proud of you."
"I'm glad I was able to help some, but..." He considered who he was talking to and went ahead anyway, "I've... well, I've never lost so many before. And the last one was so hard..."
"It's always hard, Pasio. No one's death is ever easy." She could see, though, that he was more than worn out by the ordeal. He had the frightened look of disaster about him. That will never do, she thought. "Think about how many would have died if you hadn't been here."
"I know," he admitted grimly, "but you can think away only so much of what actually hurts. Then all that's left is the raw emotion. Nothing much to do about that."
How true, mused Xena. Still, Gabrielle had her convinced that talking helped, "Tell me about the last one."
"I really thought he'd make it," Pasio began in a small voice. "He was such a spunky kid. But last night, he took a turn for the worst, he was really hurting, calling out, screaming in his delirium. It was like he died mad. Really angry for not being able to live."
Xena swallowed then asked, "Prodicus?"
Pasio nodded. "Prodicus. That's the one that really set me off, Xena. When you can't do anything to help someone like that... just a child..."
"I understand." She stood, extending her arm around his shoulders. "You will feel better, but don't ever lose the ability to feel, Pasio. Death stinks. It should never be any other way."
"I suppose you're right, Xena." He limped back into the main infirmary and busied himself with the details of running a hospital ward.
Xena waited in the doorway, watching him. He'll be fine, she told herself. He's a good
man and deserves the right to grieve. Shouldering the burden of knowledge, she set off
back to the caves, back to get Gabrielle and to tell her that the brother of her deceased
husband was dead, too.
As she stepped out of the infirmary, Xena was rudely greeted by a freezing rain and the wind whipping at her exposed skin. Great, another storm, and a doozy at that. Remembering how she berated herself for not taking her cloak the last time, she stopped by the room and picked it up along with another water skin and an extra flint. By the time she made it to the trap door, she was soaked even through the wool, but she knew it was better to cover her skin than to leave it bare in those temperatures.
The journey back was longer, she didn't feel compelled to run the whole way. That surprised her and saddened her. It meant she knew she didn't want to deal with Gabrielle, with the whole thing. Xena still didn't have any good answers, just more questions.
What is our relationship? What is it supposed to be? What do I want it to be? What do you want it to be? What am I capable of?
The only answers she got were the ones that admitted she wasn't up to it, that it was all her fault, that she couldn't be the person that Gabrielle needed... and that she couldn't be the person she needed herself to be. The ultimate failure.
Well, I'm going to be good company on the walk back...
Gabrielle woke up wet. What the? She popped her eyes open. Oh gods... the cavern was filling with water, storm surges brought water as high as the ledge, she watched the water recede and then swell up again toward her. She scrambled to her feet and picked up the torch and her staff just before the water tumbled over the lip of the ledge once more. Boots! She grabbed them as they were about to follow the swell back down and into the pool below.
Now what? Jump in there and swim? But which way. It was tricky enough following a path in here, I have no idea where the ceilings are. Too easy to get caught somewhere where the ceiling dips below the water line. I guess I just wait for now. The water will have to surge up a few more feet before it covers my head... Brrr, it's freezing!
She looked down at her cloak and blankets, completely wet under her feet. She shrugged and put her wet boots on so she wouldn't have to hold them. The food, the extra torches, the water skin... gone. And for the first time since Xena left she let herself get scared. There was no way to guess how much higher up the sea would come, no way to know when the tide would reach its apex.
In time, the surge was to her knees. She dug into the ledge with her staff to keep from being pulled off with the receding tide. The pull was powerful, threatening to rip her from her perch above the swirling, dark waters. With each new swell, the waters extracted what was left of her strength, already depleted by Athena, until one enormous wall of water streamed up on the ledge and whipped her feet out from under her. She tried to jam her staff into anything solid but she hit nothing but water. The torch went flying, sputtering out immediately, and she was left to float helplessly in the turgid black waters as they crashed against the walls of the cavern.
As Xena neared the lower caverns, she could tell something was terribly wrong. She heard water gurgling, then heard it breaking against the rocks inside. And she knew there was a fierce storm raging outside, the kind that lifted the waves and carried them to places they rarely saw. As the floor descended into the edge of a pool, the hair on her neck pricked up. Even if Gabrielle had made very slow progress across the caves, she could have made it this far, so either she was on the other side of this, high and dry waiting it out, or she was stuck in there somewhere. Xena didn't dare press her luck, it hadn't been going her way lately.
Backtracking a little to higher ground in the hopes that it really would stay above the rising water, she took off her cloak and spread it out to dry more. Then she unhooked her scabbard and left her sword and chakram next to the cloak. She shed her leathers and boots, and also left the water skin and extra torches, hoping she would soon return to all of it.
She took the lit torch and waded into the cold waters. As it deepened, she began to swim, holding the torch above the waters. It was a strange feeling to swim in waters that rose and fell, sometimes she came precariously close to the ceiling, other times her toes struck the bottom, or at least a rock protruding up from the cavern floor. She made her best guess at navigation, picturing the cave floor beneath her, choosing her direction and striking out for another imagined landmark.
What she was most afraid of loomed before her. The passage into the next open cavern was submerged under water. She would either have to give up and go back or try to traverse the entire distance underwater. Again, picturing it in her mind she tried to gauge just how far it was to the next cavern with a high ceiling, her next opportunity to breathe. She hunted around for a place to leave the torch, to light her way when she returned, and found a split in the rocks several feet above the surface of the water. She jammed the torch in with half-numb fingers and figured it would still be lit when she got back or she would have died from the cold.
Then, taking several quick big breaths, she inhaled deeply, held it, and dove under the surface to find the opening to the next cavern. She swam by feel, descending with one hand against the rock face until the opening loomed ahead. She kicked hard, her hands she held in front of her to protect against swimming into something she couldn't see, until her lungs burned so hard she was forced to use her arms to help pull her through the water as fast as she could. Hearing and sensing the splashing of water and air above her, she shot out of the water, breaking the surface, and breathing in life-giving air in great gulps.
It was dark, of course. She knew in the back of her mind it would be that way, but it never struck her just how dark it would be.
"Gabrielle?" she called into the abyss. She heard movement in the water. "Gabrielle?" she tried again.
She'd have to keep herself oriented to the wall where the exit was or she'd never find it again. If she just went by feel, she might find another passage, one which didn't offer an opportunity to breathe at the end of it. Bobbing up and down in the water didn't help her predicament at all.
She swam toward the noise she'd heard, for a moment letting her mind imagine any number of fanciful or bizarre creatures it might be. But when she bumped into it, there was no doubt of who it was. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?"
Gabrielle had managed to hook her arms over her staff, using its wooden frame to help her float and to keep her head above water. But her skin was very cold, her breathing shallow, and she didn't respond to Xena's calling or to her touch. Xena put her hand under Gabrielle's chin and swam with her back to the wall.
She couldn't tread water with Gabrielle long enough to wait for the tide to recede. The bard was already dangerously cold. She'd have to figure out a way to get her back through the underwater tunnel and out the other side. Xena snugged Gabrielle along her side with one arm, tucking the staff between them, leaving a few feet out in front to use as an early warning system if they were about to run into something. That way she'd be able to use one arm and her legs to propel them along. To keep the bard from inhaling while they were underwater, Xena could pinch Gabrielle's nose closed and hold a hand over her mouth, clamping it shut.
With nothing left to do but make the attempt, Xena took her own breaths, closed off Gabrielle's nose and mouth, and dove. The swim was considerably slower with Gabrielle in tow, but there was much more at risk. Xena hunkered down and swam as hard as she could, taking long strokes with her arm, using her powerful legs to propel them through the water. Gabrielle began to squirm. Xena tightened her hold only to have the bard fight against it. All Gabrielle could sense was that she was underwater and someone was forcibly keeping her there. Xena knew she was scared, that kind of panic you can feel through your skin, so she did all she could, dipping her head down, covering the bard's mouth with hers, and giving up the last of her air to her. Gabrielle calmed immediately, at least she knew who she was with, but it left Xena with precious little time to finish the swim.
Nearing the end of her reserves, her lungs aching for air, Xena charted a course as close to the roof of the tunnel as she dared, leading them that much closer to air on the other side. She angled the staff up, running it gently along the ceiling, waiting to feel it lose the friction against the stone, to hit clear water, and at last they rose to the surface, breaking it just before Xena knew she would lose consciousness. She pulled them to dry land, hauled Gabrielle out, coughing and sputtering, and heaved her body down into the sand.
Xena let herself lay there for a few moments, all of her strength sapped by the swim and the cold. But she knew they weren't out of danger yet. Gabrielle needed to be warmed right away. She stripped the bard of her wet clothes and wrapped her in her almost dry cloak. She lit another torch, grabbed their stuff, heaved Gabrielle over her shoulder and took off as quickly as she could.
Choosing the need to warm up the bard over the risk of letting the secret of the caves out of the bag, she headed for the infirmary. It was the middle of the night, everyone was asleep, so she took Gabrielle to the supply room, dragged in a tub and filled it with water: some cold, some from the pails kept by the fire. As she was hefting the last of the water into the supply room, Pasio came in.
"I could use some help," she called to him, and he jogged over to her. "But I also have to trust you to keep a confidence."
"Sure, Xena," he said taking the pail from her and following her into the supply room. Until he saw a wet and pale Gabrielle unconscious on the floor.
"Help me get her in the tub." Xena lifted Gabrielle's torso while Pasio took her legs and they lowered her into the warm water. "We'll need to add more hot water a little at a time to raise her temperature slowly." Pasio nodded and took the bucket out for a refill. On his way out he snitched a blanket from a cubby near the door and tossed it to Xena. "You need this," he said.
She caught it with one hand, the other held Gabrielle up in the tub. She shook out the blanket and threw it over her shoulders though she barely noticed its warmth. All of her attention was on Gabrielle, hoping it wasn't too late for her, too late to get her back. To fix everything. There had to be a way.
Continued in Part 3
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