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Part 2 of Part 4 of Bound

"That was an amazing story, Gabrielle." Cessi said, leaning forward and bracing her hands on her thick knees. "Though I'm.. what's wrong?" She stood in reflex, reacting to the bard's sudden loss of color, and stricken expression. "Gabrielle?"

"Uhm.." The bard stammered, blinking hard and standing. "Sorry..I need to... excuse me." The vague uneasiness that had been unsettling her stomach since Xena had left had suddenly flowered into a dark flare of upset that brought her heart up into her throat.

Elaini put a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle.. take it easy. You're getting something through your connection with Xena."

Gabrielle turned and looked at her. "I know that." The bard snapped, struggling to stay calm. "You think I’ve never felt this before?"

"OK.. OK.." The healer backed off, raising both hands in a warding off gesture.

Then almost as soon as it came, it began to subside, and then to moderate. "Whoa." Gabrielle sighed. "Whatever it is calmed down." She paused "Ok.. I think everything's all right now." She shook her head to clear it, then glanced around at the silent room. "Sorry about that."

Cessi cleared her throat. "Does.. that happen often?" She asked, trading swift glances with Tobias, who stood, and walked over to Gabrielle. Ares' boots... she knows nothing about this... nothing, the poor cubling. "Sit down, little sister."

Gabrielle sank back down, and gazed at her. " happen often. Well..." She glanced down. "I don't... it's been happening a lot more, recently. I don't think it happened.." She paused, and thought hard. "Well, maybe it did, but not so strong that I knew what it was." She amended, as a memory floated up into her mind, that she hadn’t looked at quite that way before.

Just a vague feeling of apprehension.. that had gripped her for five days, when she'd been sidelined in a small village waiting for Xena to return from a fast ride out to help an old friend; after they'd been travelling together for almost a year. "Just a couple of days, nothing much." The warrior had said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'll be back before you know it." Two days more than a couple, but Xena had returned, and related a somewhat pedestrian encounter with an old warlord enemy of hers. She'd taken him in single combat, and his troops had scattered off, to rebuild and elect themselves a new leader. Time, she had said, was what she'd bought for the city they had been plaguing.

Gabrielle had studied her, finding nothing on first glance that seemed out of place. "Everything OK with you?" She'd asked, bringing over a cup of ale to the table they were sharing.

"Yeah, sure." Xena had answered, then paused. "Why do you ask?"

And Gabrielle had shrugged. "I don't know.. just had this weird feeling, that's all." She had laughed. "Just me being silly, I guess." Sitting down, and only then noticing the silence, and looking up to see an quietly serious expression on Xena's face. "What?" She sat down and put a gentle hand on Xena's arm, which was resting on the table, and only then did she pick up the faint signs all was not well with her companion.

Nothing much, just a hesitation in the way she moved, and a clouded look to her blue eyes, and an unusual tension in her face.

But Xena had just given her a brief smile. "Long day." She'd shrugged. "Long ride."

Gabrielle had nodded. "Let's go upstairs, huh? " But she'd been sure, then, that something had happened. '

So sure that as soon as the door had closed behind them, she'd turned and given the warrior an intent stare.

And Xena had ducked her head, with a faint smile, and held up one hand. "It's just a scratch."

" Uh huh." Gabrielle had snorted, and shook her head. "I knew it." She had paused. "I just felt something had gone wrong."

The 'just a scratch' had turned out to be an ugly arrowhead wound puncturing her ribcage, which had escaped being really dangerous only because the arrow had deflected off her breastbone and bounced back out. Xena had meekly lain down on the bed, and allowed her to take care of the wound, sighing in relief when she'd covered it with herbal salve, and settled a bandage over it.

"Thanks." She said, reaching out and squeezing Gabrielle's hand. "Can't keep much from you, right?"

"Teach you for trying. " The bard had retorted, watching her struggling to stay awake. "Would you go to sleep, already?"

"Your bed." The warrior had protested, starting to get up.

Gabrielle had pushed her shoulder back down, or tried to, anyway. "I don't think so. You're the one with the arrow hole in you." She laughed. "After all these months of sleeping on the hard ground, a wood floor will seem like luxury. Don't worry about me."

Xena had gazed at her for a long moment, then let a small grin quirk her lips. "It's a big bed, Gabrielle." And had patted the mattress at her side, and raised an eyebrow in invitation. "I promise I won't bite you."

And Gabrielle had found herself caught between shy reluctance and surprised happiness at this break in the oh so sturdy stone walls her companion kept built around her. "All right." she'd agreed softly, putting away the medical supplies and returning to slide into the bed next to the half asleep warrior, curling on her side and facing Xena. "Night." She'd said, giving her a little smile.

"Night." Xena had responded sleepily, then opened a sharp blue eye and regarded her. "Gabrielle?"

"Yeah?" She'd answered, just enjoying the closeness, and the quietness, so rare so far in their relationship

"Did you really have a bad feeling?" Curiosity in that tone.

The bard had nodded. "I really did." she had paused. "why?"

Xena had shrugged. "Not used to having someone worry about me, that's all."

Gabrielle had smiled, and felt a warmth flow through her that now, all these months later, she realized was the first gentle stirring of the connection that now bound their souls together. "Get used to it." She'd said. And they'd both smiled at each other, before Xena's eyes had closed and her breathing had deepened into sleep.

"Yeah, " Gabrielle admitted, glancing up into Cessi's red gold eyes. "It happens a lot now, because we're always in the middle of things."

Tobias patted her back, and crouched down next to her. "Little sister.." He gently said, casting a glance over his shoulder, to where Gennen and Ereth were now peacefully sleeping. "You said you'd experienced the breaking. How? Can I ask you that? It's such a serious thing for us... I'd like to understand."

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and gazed at him. Can I tell that? Gods, it was hard the last time. Never does get any easier to think about, either. "I'll try. But it's a hard thing to tell.. especially after what happened the other day." She answered honestly. "I might have to stop."

"All right." Tobias answered softly, settling onto the floor cross-legged. "Remember, we understand, Gabrielle - what you feel... we know this."

The bard smiled. "I know." she glanced down. "We were under attack." She started, looking off into the distance. "And I had been captured, along with some other village women by a tribe of flesh eaters.. we'd been tied up, but Xena found us and set us free, staying behind to fight off the rest of the tribe."

"Really?" Tobias breathed, glancing at Cessi. "Why didn't she just run away with you?"

Gabrielle stopped, and looked at him in puzzlement. "Run away? Because she just doesn't do that." she shook her head. "Anyway, she caught up to us, but so did some of the flesh eater tribe. She fought them off, but they set loose a log trap, and there was a little girl in the way."

She cleared her throat. "And, she got the girl clear, but the log hit her, and smashed her against a tree."

The forest dwellers all looked at each other. "You were there?"

"Sure." Gabrielle said. "I hit the last one of them with my staff, but he got me in the leg with his knife before he passed out. I got to Xena.." Remembering those glazed eyes, and the blood dripping from her ears that had gotten over.. everything. "And she was able to tell me to take her to a healer she knew up in the mountains" She paused. "Who might be able to save her."

"What did you do?" Cessi asked, wrapping her arms around her knees and gazing at the bard in fascination.

"I took her there."

"Alone?" Tobias asked, edging closer to her, until his fur covered shoulder was pressed against her leg.

"Yes, except for Argo." She paused. "That’s Xena’s horse." She paused. "But when we got there.. I guess... it must have taken too long, because I just..." And it hit her again, the memory of those agonizing hours watching Xena slip away from her. "Oh gods."

Furred hands gripped her firmly. "We’ve got you, Gabrielle. It’s all right." Cessi said gently. "We understand."

"She died." The bard said, in a pool of quiet. "And... I felt... like a really big part of me died with her."

Cessi circled her shoulders with one long arm. "It did, cubling. That’s not something you imagined. That was real."

"I know that now." Gabrielle whispered.

"Then... what happened?" Tobias asked, cupping her knee in one hand.

"I took her home." The bard answered, bleakly. "I promised.. her. That if anything ever... That I would take her back to Amphipolis and have her buried beside her brother Lyceus."

"Alone???" Cessi rumbled, a note of outrage starting in her voice.

"Yes." Gabrielle answered, looking up at her. "There was no one else." She shook her head. "She only has her mother and brother Toris, in Amphipolis. " She paused, and sighed. "And me."

"Gabrielle, you have to understand..." Tobias said softly. "that’s not how this is done, with us. You would have had the support of all your brothers and sisters here... that’s never, ever something you should have to go through alone. How did you survive it? "

The bard took a deep breath, and let it out. "I just did, because I had to, that’s all." She answered, simply. "Xena taught me that." She looked down at her hands, the fingers knotting together. "Well, anyway, on the way back, I was met by an Amazon escort."

"Amazons?" Cessi asked, one bushy eyebrow curving up.

"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed. "They wanted to render escort to Xena..they’d heard.. and also because they were looking for me."

"You?" Tobias queried. "Why?"

The bard smiled a little. "Well, because I’m their queen by rite of caste, and they needed me, I guess." She paused. "The previous queen had died in challenge, and the new queen wasn’t so.. well, there was a difference of opinion over who should run the Amazon nation. "

‘Wait." Cessi said, holding her head in her hands. "You’re the Queen of the Amazons???"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Good Ares’ boots and spurs." The forest dweller said. " But they rule by right of arms...and forgive me, cubling, but a warrior you are not."

The bard sniffed reflectively. "Well, no. But I had a champion to do the fighting for me."

They all looked at each other. "Oh." Cessi said, slapping her forehead. "Of course. Go on."

Gabrielle related the events in the village, and about Velasca, and finally got to Autolycus breaking into the hut they’d stored Xena’s body in and trying to steal it.

"What?" Tobias said, now resting his elbow on Gabrielle’s knee. "He said what??"

"That he was doing it under a cooperative effort with Xena." Gabrielle repeated. "I know, I thought he’d lost his mind too, until he stopped us from burning the casket, and took off with it. Then... what he was doing, the things he did... I can’t explain it, but that was Xena. I was sure of it."

"From beyond death???" Elaini spoke up for the first time, and that in a whisper.

The bard nodded. "Yeah.. I didn’t believe it until then, and I took off after him. And then.." She tipped her head back and swallowed, and bit her lips to keep them steady. "And then she told me to close my eyes..and think of her.. and I did.. and.. and... she was there."

"In your mind?" Came the whispered question.

"I.. I guess. I don’t really know." Gabrielle answered. "So real.." she added, in a hushed tone. "I started crying when I saw her there, it felt so wonderful."

"Ohh.." Tobias breathed, patting her knee. "You poor cubling.’

"Well, she told me what we had to do, to get to the ambrosia, and restore her body to life." Gabrielle sighed. "And.. I told her I couldn’t lose her again." She looked at the four sets of golden eyes glued on her. "I meant that." She added quietly.

"We know." Tobias and Cessi answered in concert. "We understand."

The bard smiled. "You do, don’t you." She felt her body relax at last. "And she told me she’d always be here." The forest dwellers exchanged glances. "And after we got the ambrosia, and she did come back.. I made her promise she’d never die on me again."

"Tis a terrible promise to ask of one of our kind, cubling." Cessi said gently, but her eyes were understanding.

"I know." Gabrielle answered, closing her eyes. "But she promised."

Xena lifted Ares off her shoulders and put him down on the ground, with a pat. "You stay here, boy." She muttered, then began moving towards the three forest dwellers, stopping just inside the last ring of trees and pausing to consider her options.

Which weren’t numerous, actually. She could leave. Not an option. She could pick up that long fallen branch nearby and just go in swinging. Sounds fun, possibly an option. She could walk in calmly and use threats to intimidate them into leaving. Entertaining, but they looked mean and that could possibly turn into a brawl.

Question is, am I in the mood for a brawl? She asked, as she started to move, then paused when she spotted a pile of jagged stones, evidently from a quarry nearby. Oh. Her mind chuckled. Now, I like this option better.

She picked up a handful of the stones, and gazed for a moment at the two strange forest dwellers. Then she wound up and let fly, her unerring aim directing the rock neatly into the forehead of the closer forest dweller.

He yelped, and spun, eyes darting around the ring of trees.

Xena grinned wholeheartedly, and let a second rock loose, catching the other forest dweller on the side of the face. A third and fourth rock followed, causing blood to fly from the enraged victims, who held their arms over their heads, and started to retreat, unable to see their attacker, and beginning to feel the deadly sting Xena had started to put in the rocks’ momentum.

Jessan had lowered his hands, and was starting to grin, letting his eyes also search the treeline without success. He waited until his attackers were out of range, then crossed his arms over his chest, and laughed, now catching the first sign of movement as Xena jogged towards him at an unhurried pace.

"Hey." She said, as she drew even with him. "What was all that?"

"Trouble." Jessan replied. "That’s some arm you have there.. were you all the way up on that ridge?"

Xena chuckled. "Yep. " She admitted. "Many years of my youth spent trying to best my brothers, actually."

"Did you?" He teased, sure of the answer.

"Uh huh." She cheerfully confirmed.

And Toris had been furious, too, she remembered, because she’d not only beaten him, she’d beaten his friends who he’d been trying to impress.

"You can’t play. You’re a girl." Toris had said, with a laugh, as he ran of with the village boys. "Girls can’t throw." It was a common game they played, standing on one side of the stream that bordered Amphipolis, and throwing stones across the surface of the water, trying to hit the row of sunken logs near the other side. The closer you got to the log, the more points, and hitting the log was the prize.

Every time she tried to join in, they chased her off, until she trudged downstream from them, and found her own spot on the bank to try her luck.

They had been a lot older, and she had never tried throwing stones, so it took her a long time to figure out how the best way was to throw the rocks, and what size traveled furthest, and just how hard she had to throw them.

At first, it was bad. Then it got a little better, and after a while, she knew Toris had been wrong. Girls could throw, all right. At least this one could, and she started throwing bigger and bigger ones until she was satisfied she could hit the logs, every time.

So she had gone up the bank, to where they were standing in a circle, egging each other on, and watched them for a while. Then, at a gap in their throwing, she’d picked up a nearby loose stone, and let fly over their heads, hitting the furthest log with a distinct sodden thump.

"Hey!" The largest of them had yelled, spinning around. "Who threw that?"

"I did." She’d said, crossing her arms and smiling.

"No way." He scoffed.

For an answer, she’d picked up another rock, and barely glancing across the stream, let her new found coordination between her arms and her vision find a target, and threw, hearing the resounding thunk of the stone hitting wood and smiling again.

The boy had laughed, and given Toris a shove in the chest. "She throws better than you do."

"Does not!" Toris had yelled, and shoved him back, and that had degenerated into a scuffle, until the older boy had had enough, and just picked Toris up and threw him on the ground. And had then aimed a kick at him that never fell, because he was knocked off his feet by a flying body, who was all yelling energy and small fists, and whose arms, wrapped around his body, held shockingly surprising strength.

"Get off me!" The boy screamed, as he felt the blows his groin. "Help!"

It had taken all of them to pull her off him, and then finally they pushed her back, and stood huddled in front of where he was stlll writhing on the ground, facing her.

She stood with her hands balled into fists, breathing hard, and ignoring the cuts and scrapes that covered her arms and legs from the rough ground, watching them staring at her with looks that mixed fear and respect in equal measure.

And she decided she liked that. So she looked down at Toris, who was just getting to his feet on the dusty ground. He glared at her.

She glared back. "Girls can too throw." She informed him, and walked off, to where she could see Lyceus crouched wide-eyed behind a tree.

"Wow." Ly had said, in his gentle voice as she drew near him. "Mommy’s gonna be mad with you, Xeney." He plucked at her worn tunic. "You gots blood all over this." He slipped his hand in hers and they started walking home together. "Will you teach me to do that?"

Xena had looked down at him, still thinking about what it had felt like, to fight, and win.. and get those looks. "Yeah, Ly. We’ll do it together, ok?"

Lyceus had given her his most enthusiastic grin. "All right!"

"But, this time Gabrielle will be proud of me." Xena commented, slapping Jessan on the shoulder. "I decided to take the easy way out for a change."

Jessan laughed. "Oh, the rocks?"

She nodded. "Yep... so, what was that/" Bringing the question right back around to him, but then she stopped, and stiffened. "Damn."

"What...oh." Jessan growled, as the faint sounds she’d detected came to his ears as well. "Well, you tried. Let me talk us out of this, Ok?"

But there was no time for talking, as the brush suddenly parted, and the two forest dwellers returned, springing on them with wild, angry roars that exposed white fangs and red mouths.

Jessan returned the roar, and met the first one, who bowled him over with his greater size, and slammed a heavy clawed fist against Jessan’s side.

Xena dodged the leap of the second attacker, and let him hit the ground and bounce up, right into a solid kick that snapped his head back and robbed him of breath for an endless instant.

Long enough for Xena to slip inside his reach, and slam an elbow into his jaw, causing his eyes to glaze in shock, and knocking him back several paces.

Then he shook his head to clear it, drew his sword, and came after her in earnest, weaving the blade in front of him like a scythe.

Xena felt the blood pumping in her veins, and the tingle that always came to her in this kind of fight, when life and death were equal partners, and the only influence to one or the other were her skills, and her determination. She laughed, and bounded to one side as he came on, crouching slightly and kicking away from the ground, flipping over his head and twisting in mid air, lashing out with one powerful leg to catch his head and snap it forward.

She heard the sharp crack as his neck broke, and he slumped to the ground lifeless, as she completed the flip and landed neatly on her feet, bouncing a little to bleed off the momentum. The remaining attacker was stumbling off, holding an obviously dislocated arm and she let him go, after locking eyes with him for a long moment.

"Jess.." She hissed, dropping to the ground and seeing the blood stained fur. "He got you?"

The forest dweller winced, and tried to roll over. "Ares’ blood." He gasped, holding his side. "Ribs, I think."

Experienced fingers probed, and Xena sat back with a sigh. "Cracked, and that’s a bad slice." She indicated the bloody cut on his side.

Overhead, the cloudy sky began to shed itself of its watery burden, and a light mist fell on their heads, drenching Xena’s tunic and beading in Jessan’s draggled fur.

"You..OK?" He gasped, golden eyes searching her face worriedly. He’d seen the effort she had to muster just to walk back to the village yesterday, and had been concerned.

Those blue eyes met his with a wry warmth. "Yeah, I’m fine."

His hand reached up and clasped hers. "Good.. cause I think I’m gonna need some help to get home." He glanced around. "We can’t stay here."

"All right." Xena said, standing and carefully surveying the surrounding forest. "Can you walk? "

Jessan snorted. "Probably. Can you help me up?"

And he got a smile at that, which charmed him. "Sure." The warrior affirmed, and extended both hands down to him. "Grab hold."

"Xena..." He hesitated. "If you’re still..." Ares.. I don’t want her hurting herself worse trying to help me. I’d rather rot out here.

"Grab hold." Xena repeated, giving him a look. "Or I’ll just grab your fur and pull. Your choice."

Golden eyes widened in mock horror. "All right.. all right..." He grasped her warm hands, and felt her fingers tighten on his wrists like iron bands. "OK.." He said marshalling his strength.

And felt himself being lifted up with a speed and sureness that startled him. He swayed on his feet a bit, from the blood loss and the pain, and she got a shoulder under his, and wrapped his arm around her neck. "Thanks." He grinned at her. Then his eyes glanced back. "They’re not going to forget a dead scout, I’m afraid."

Xena shrugged. "Not my problem. You attack an unarmed person with a sword, and you get what’s coming to you." She moved forward, walking very slowly in deference to his wounds.

Jessan snorted, then laughed a little. "Unarmed? Who are YOU kidding?" He shook his head vigorously, scattering the light rain about him and over her.l

Xena chuckled. "Well, you know what I mean." She flicked her own damp dark hair out of her eyes.

"Oh yeah.. right. If you were tied up from head to foot and then wrapped in a linen shroud, and then shackled with iron chains, and then dead drunk, maybe, just maybe, I’d think of you as unarmed. But I wouldn’t take a chance." Jessan stated, stumbling a little.

"Oh really?" Xena laughed. "I’ll have to remember that."

Jessan smiled. "Yeah." He took small breaths to reduce the pain from his ribs. "Hey Xena?"

"Hmmm?" The warrior answered, glancing at him.

"Could you... I dunno.. tell me a story or something to make me not think about how much this hurts?" The forest dweller asked, wistfully.

"Me?" Xena muffled a laugh, and rolled her eyes. "Oh boy, you don’t know what you’re asking here, my friend." She shook her head to move the hair out of her eyes again, and ducked a little to avoid the feathery ferns soddenly slapping her. The smell of the rain, and the wet vegetation rose around her. "I don’t do stories well."

Jessan sighed. "I know.. sorry ."

They glanced at each other.

Xena’s blue eyes took on a gentle twinkle. "What did you have in mind?" With this slow progress, I might as well.

"Oh, I dunno... what have you guys been doing since I saw you last?" Jessan asked, shyly.

Xena took a breath, and looked around her. "Oh. You wanna hear about the Amazons, huh?"

He nodded.

"Sure." Xena said, taking a firmer grasp on his arm, and starting up the shallow incline towards the path she’d been on. Ares trotted at her heels, sneezing as raindrops hit his furry face.

Gabrielle moved quietly to the back of the healer’s cot, and listened to the forest dwellers talk amongst themselves. The anxious, worried feeling she’d had in her gut was gone, she was glad to note, but she, herself, was still upset at her partner’s continued physical problems. "Elaini.." She said softly, as the healer walked past. "Can I ask you something?"

The forest dweller paused, and put down the basin she was carrying. "Sure.." She said, focusing her attention on the bard. "What’s wrong?" She paused. "Is it Xena?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Yeah." She glanced down to where her fingers were twisting a bit of linen around into knots. "She told me this morning she thinks she got hit in the wrong place by one of those rocks.. and that’s what’s causing those dizzy spells she keeps getting."

Elaini sat down, and a worried expression found it’s way across her face. "That’s bad." She sighed, looking at the bard. "She’s just resting, right?"

The bard gave her a look. "You’re joking, right?" She let out a breath. "No, she’s out trying to find out just how bad it actually is."

The healer looked at her in horror. "Gabrielle..that’s not funny. She can do herself... a lot of damage." Her brows contracted. "One wrong move.. and if it’s her spine that’s hurt, she can paralyze herself. " How can she risk... Ares’ boots, I don’t understand these humans.

Gabrielle took small, silent breaths. "That hasn’t happened." She said, but her voice shook. "I’d know." Would I? What was that horrible... she’d feel like that if she... oh gods. "I gotta go."

"Shh.." Elaini soothed her with a hand "You’re exactly right, Gabrielle – you’d know if something bad had happened, you know that." Gotta stop scaring her like that. Poor kid.

The bard sat down slowly. "I know.. it’s like a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.." She shook her head, then glanced up and noticed the odd expression on Elaini’s face. The healer brow furrowed, and she absently let a hand drift down to her abdomen. "What’s wrong?" Gabrielle asked, putting a hand out.

"Uhm. Nothing." Elaini said, giving her head a brisk shake. "What did Xena say she was going to do?"

Gabrielle studied her for a moment. "She said she was just going to go for a walk." Which probably means she went for a walk, that turned into something else, but I don’t’ think she’d be dumb enough to try anything too strenuous.. she was hurting, so bad that she couldn’t stop me from seeing it.

The smell of rich herbal tea spread throughout the cot as Cessi fiddled in the corner, pouring steaming water of a large basin of herbs. The rich steamy scent held traces of mint, and that brought a faint smile of remembrance to the bard.

It had been not long after Perdicus’ death, and relations were still... strained.. between Xena and herself. It wasn’t anything the warrior did.. or said, or anything Gabrielle did.. but she still heard Perdicus’ screams at night in her dreams, and her guilt, compounded by the guilt obviously felt by Xena, and combined with the whole mess involving Callisto and that body switching had caused the distance between them to lengthen.

And that, she had reflected sadly, as she sat near the fire on a cold winter’s night in the outlands, was the worst thing of all. It felt like she was losing something she’d come to count on. To depend on in a way that she hadn’t expected.

She’d thought that Xena was feeling it too – the warrior had taken to spending more time with her solitary drills, and often came back to the fire plainly exhausted, to toss her weapons down and just sit, staring at the fire with a look of... helpless sadness in her blue eyes that stung Gabrielle’s heart.

But she didn’t know the way back to where they were... they’d been through so much, and it still hurt so bad, she could hardly stand it sometimes. What she wanted was... something she couldn’t have, she knew, as she looked over at Xena’s closed, silent face and felt an anguished tug on her heart. She’d hugged herself closer, against the stinging cold wind that was sweeping through the campsite, and wanted very badly to just curl up in a ball and forget the world. Vaguely aware of Xena’s moving around, she focused her thoughts, or lack of them really, on the fire, and let the misty sadness that seemed to dominate her thoughts lately roll over her.

Until she’d been called back by the scent of steamy mint, and looked up into the shadowed blue eyes of the warrior now standing over her with a cup not far from her face. "Here." Xena had said. "You look a little chilled."

And instead of her usual offhand denial, or smart remark, she’d let out a tired breath. "I’m freezing." Had come out in a hoarse voice she hardly recognized, and that had brought Xena swiftly down on one knee.

"Let me get your cloak." The warrior urged, curling Gabrielle’s stiff fingers around the mug.

"It’s not the weather." The bard had whispered, unable to stop herself from speaking.

And Xena had stopped in mid motion, paused for a long instant, then slowly sat back down next to Gabriele’s too still body. "Look, Gabrielle.."

But the bard had put her other hand out, stopping her. "No.. there aren’t words for this, Xena. I’ve been trying and trying to come up with something.. anything I could say to fix this.. but I can’t." Her eyes raised up and found Xena’s, and stayed there, seeing the anguish she felt reflected back at her. "Are you mad at me?"

Xena’s jaw dropped slightly. It would have been almost funny if it hadn’t been so serious. "Me?" The warrior blurted, shaking her head a little bit. "What.. why... No." Then more gently. "No."

"It’s Perdicus, right?" Gabrielle’s voice was no more than a whisper. I abandoned you.. again, Xena. Don’t think I don’t know that. Don’t think I don’t know that hurt you.

And got silence for a response, and eyes that would no longer meet hers. "I tried, Gabrielle." Xena’s response was low and controlled. "I just didn’t... I didn’t think Callisto would.."

"Xena, its not your fault." Gabrielle had responded. "I shouldn’t have said yes to his offer." She’d taken a gulp of the half forgotten tea in her grasp, and was pleasantly surprised by the delicious taste as it rolled down her throat. "Mm." She murmured.

"Gabrielle... don’t be silly. You loved him. Of course you should have said yes. It’s not your fault Callisto... did what she did. It’s my fault. If you’d never met me, it never would have happened." Xena answered, in a tired voice, staring moodily down at her clasped hands, examining the callused fingertips as though they were a stranger’s. "Yet another thing to add to my list of regrets."

"I didn’t." Gabrielle had said, studying that half profile, lit by a scattering of dull crimson flames from the fire.

‘Didn’t what?" Xena had asked, finally lifting her head with a sigh and meeting the bard’s eyes.

"Love him." In a bare whisper, that nonetheless brought Xena to an abrupt stillness.

A very long silence had followed, in which they studied each other’s faces with a vivid intensity.

"Then...." Xena asked slowly, finally. "Why... Did you just want to go home? I would have.. you could..."

"Xena." Gabrielle had said, with a gentle smile.

"Hmm?" The warrior replied.

"I am home." She had allowed her heart free rein, and she knew a lot of things were showing on her face, in her eyes. I’ve been sitting outside the doorway for months now.. for the sake of the gods... please.. let me back in.

For a long, frozen moment, she thought Xena wasn’t going to respond. And if that was the case.. having put her heart on the line, maybe leaving would be her only option. Staying like this simply wasn’t.

But those blue eyes had gentled, and softened, and the warrior had allowed a little of her own heart to show as she raised a hand and cupped Gabrielle’s cheek. "You will always.. " Her voice dropped in pitch. "Always, have a place in here, no matter what happens." Xena’s other hand rose and tapped her chest. "You do know that, right?" A pause. "Gabrielle??"

"I was starting to wonder." The words came out strangled, as her throat closed, and long held tears started to track down her face.

But then she was physically lifted up and pulled into a hug so strong, and so fierce it blocked out the chill wind, and the dark memories, and the coldness between them. And filled her with a growing warmth that eased the knots she’d been carrying inside for months as though they had never been. She’d cried herself out, and they’d talked for hours, finally erasing some of the grief that had held them apart.

She’d woken up, groggily, the next morning, still wrapped in Xena’s arms, the warrior’s woolen cloak folded around both of them in a makeshift shelter. Her head had been tucked under the taller woman’s chin, and she had felt Xena’s steady, even breathing and resting heartbeat where their bodies were pressed together. It had been cold out, and warm where she was, and she had closed her eyes and just drifted back to sleep, with a smile, and the faint, remembered taste of mint in her mouth.

They both glanced up as thunder rolled overhead, and Gabrielle could hear the beginning patter of raindrops hitting the thatched roof. A glance outside showed them a cold drizzling rain, and Gabrielle shivered as the breeze blew in the door. "Brr... it sure got cold fast."

A yell outside caught their hearing, and they both turned to look out the open door. "Gods." Gabrielle spat, heading out the door and pulling up short with one hand on the porch railing and her heart in her throat.

Out of the falling, misty rain came two drenched figures, one supporting the other.

"Damn." The bard cursed, but her body relaxed when she realized which one of the pair was supporting the other. She stepped off the porch into the rain, and heard pounding footsteps behind her as Elaini leaped off the porch and powered past her, throwing up splashes of rain at every step.

"Easy, easy." Xena cautioned Jessan, as they came down the end of the muddy path and into the village. "Slippery here."

"Yeah, ok." The forest dweller panted, keeping his head down.

Xena looked up and spotted the running form heading towards them, and the smaller one not far behind. A smile appeared on her face. "Looks like helps on the way, Jess. A little bit more." She said quietly, as Elaini skidded to a halt next to her, and put a hand up. "Ok.. ok.. he’s got some cracked ribs, and a cut. It’s not major." She told the anxious healer.

"I’ve got him.. let me get that weight off your neck, Xena. For Ares sake, be careful." Elaini snapped, grasping Jessan’s arm and allowing the warrior to duck out from under it.

"Relax, I’m .." Xena got halfway through that when a pair of arms slid around her and she looked down into Gabrielle’s mist green eyes. "Fine." She finished, but in a soft voice that only the bard could have heard. "Really." She added, seeing the disbelief in the bard’s glance.

Thunder rolled in overhead, and they all glanced up. "Let’s get out of this." Xena said, sliding an arm across Gabrielle’s shoulders and moving towards the healer’s cot. "You’re shivering." She accused the bard, and felt her snuggle closer in response.

"How’s your back. " Gabrielle asked, watching her face for a response. Something’s different.

"Much better." The warrior reassured her. "You won’t believe what happened."

"Won’t I?" The bard smiled gently up at her. "You look like

They mounted the stairs to the healer’s hut, and went inside, where Cessi and Tobias were helping Elaini get Jessan settled in a cot on the far side of the big room.

"He looks like he’s in good hands." Xena whispered to the bard, who giggled. The warrior crossed over to where Gennen was snuggled down, watching the action on the other side of the room. "How is he?"

Gennen turned his face towards Xena. "He’s going to be ok." His mouth moved into a big grin, showing all his teeth. "I owe you two lives, eh? Mine and his."

"Nah." The warrior patted his arm. "I just helped a little. He saved himself."

Heavy footsteps on the porch, several sets, then Lestan and Wennid entered, and Wennid bolted immediately for her son. Lestan let her go, and stopped by Xena’s side, nodding as the warrior stood to meet him.

"Xena." He sighed. "What happened?"

Xena stood to her full height, and put her hands on her hips. "Suppose you tell me what’s going on with your northern neighbors, and I'll tell you what they did to your son."

Silence in the room, as all eyes studied the leader and the human.

Finally Lestan nodded. "It’s time." He replied. "Call a council." This to his aide, who had followed them in.


Continued in Part V

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