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Just a Simple Warrior
by: Lord Nelson

Parts 6 - 9


Gabrielle and Laertes were surprised as they approached the inn later that evening. A body, a mans body, came hurtling through the closed door headlong into the street. The man, who was unconscious, reeked of Ouzo.

"Xena?" asked the old man.

On the point of answering, Gabrielle goggled, for it was not the Warrior Princess who had rolled the drunk, but standing at the door theatrically rubbing her hands, was the stocky peasant woman Phoebe. Phoebe walked out onto the street, turned the drunk over, and pinioned his hands together with a piece of leather twine. Finished, she turned and yelled over her shoulder. "Xena that rolling throw works great! He's out cold!"

Xena poked her head out the door with a smirk on her face. "You did it right the first time too, Phoebe! Now just drag him over to the big house and throw him into the cellar!"

Phoebe did more than that. The peasant woman squatted down, picked the man up and threw him over her shoulder in a fireman's carry, then walked towards the big house with a very evident swagger. The short woman was very strong!

Gabrielle burbled at the Warrior Princess: "Phoebe did that all by herself?

"Sure Gabrielle, Phoebe is a really good athlete; not only is she strong but she runs very fast, and rides beautifully also. She's tough and pretty smart too. I've told Nicias that she should be the chief guardian when we're done here. I can teach her some more hand to hand combat technique, basic fencing skills and motivation. Nicias has promised me to have her taught to read. All that power she has came from picking up and chasing calves all day. She's a born leader too. People will listen to her. Pretty impressive considering that she is only 17."

"How about the other three, Xena?" the old warrior weighed in.

"They'll be OK, but Phoebe is far and away the most talented. If I had her in my army 5 years ago, she would be a VERY impressive warrior now. Good thing she wasn't though because she'd probably be dead now."

Xena had a distant look on her face, an expression with which Gabrielle had recently come all to familiar. Laertes called it the 10,000 yard stare. The Bard took Laertes sleeve and glanced at her new friend. The old man looked at Gabrielle and gently nodded.

The pair knew that the Thracian was somewhere back in her past, or with Marcus. Everyone who has seen too much of war has that look from time to time. The old warrior clumped up the steps and took his remaining arm and whacked the big brunette on the back with a big, crooked smile on his face, then Laertes pulled Xena to him shoulder to shoulder and squeezed. Xena looked at Laertes with a great respectful smile and then looked down shyly. The veterans then entered the inn.

Gabrielle took in her breath. She had never seen such a look on her friend before! Xena had always been confidence personified. Xena had an arrogance that couldn't be pierced. The Bard had seen many people wilt in front of Xena's confidence, either in death or allegiance.

For the first time since Marcus's second death, Xena's face had slipped. The Bard then remembered something Laertes told her about her friend. Xena, he claimed, was ALWAYS optimistic in front of the troops. TROOPS! Gabrielle had a thought dawn upon her. She rarely saw the real Xena! Except for Marcus' return from the dead, Xena had treated her as a member of her army, more gently and concerned perhaps, but Gabrielle was now convinced, to Xena, Gabrielle was a member of her ARMY! The little redhead suddenly felt hollow inside, for she now knew that Xena couldn't really share her war experiences with her. Only Laertes could get Xena to share them. Laertes could do that because he had been a warrior as well, both were members of a fellowship: Both had killed people for a living. Gabrielle could not be a part of that fellowship for she hadn't lost her "blood innocence", and she hoped that she never would.

Most people would think that the inn of a small town would be pretty rowdy when the sun set and all the men returned from work. It wasn't here in Aegeanopolis. The men worked late into the night preparing the fish that they had spent from dawn to dusk catching. The fish had to be gutted, scaled and packed carefully in sea salt or eaten immediately. The town though was too small for the total fish that was caught and the surplus had to be sold. The fishery was so good that prices seldom rose, so volume was the only way that dinars could be made. When they finally finished, the men were so tired that they went directly home to their frustrated wives or into the inn to slump down with a glass or two of watered wine before going to bed. The rowdies of Aegeanopolis were unemployed street toughs or homeless people from the nearby mountains.

So the inn was a place of quiet relaxation for the men of the town, for only visitors had any energy left to do much of anything. This quiet atmosphere was just wonderful for storytelling. So, Gabrielle the travelling bard was in her element. The performance was brilliant, so Gabrielle thought, and it brought results which amounted to 5 dinars in tips. Gabrielle, despite her preoccupation, was curious about the growing relationship between Laertes and Xena.

So, whenever she could she would glance over to the table where the two were engaged in intense conversation. From time to time, Xena would look at her, often with a look of mild embarrassment on her face. The look on the big Thracian woman's face was caused by the fact that for every classic story, like that of Icarus, that Gabrielle told, two were about Xena. Xena had never complained, for Gabrielle's storytelling supported them both. but the Bard wasn't all that sure her friend liked it that Gabrielle was increasing Xena's fame. The time came when Gabrielle's voice needed a rest so she took a break. Coming over to the table with her friends she saw that the old man was doing most of the talking.

"Gabrielle," Xena said. "You should listen to this old goat. He has done a lot of stuff that would make great storytelling. Gods! He was there when Achilles took the arrow in his heel, He held Pegasus when Ballerophon mounted up in his attempt to destroy Hippolyta from the air, he also carried Agamemnon's spears during the war with Pisa.!" Xena was rarely impressed, but she was impressed with Laertes without doubt.

"I'm tired now Big'un, I've done enough talking and not enough drinking!" The old man reached out and grabbed the flask of ouzo in front of him and theatrically guzzled its contents down, dribbling the powerful liquor down his beard. An incredibly loud burp then erupted from the old man who wiped his mouth and smiled broadly. Xena snapped a sharp look at him. Gabrielle thought that Xena really didn't like to be called Big One, but The Warrior Princess' visage softened quickly.

"Xena really likes him!" Gabrielle thought. Gabrielle pushed the flask of wine that was in front of her towards her two friends.

"Yeah Xena, you've worn Laertes out. Why don't you talk for a while?" Xena shot a sharp look at the little bard, but her visage again softened, as she took a big swallow of the wine.

"Yeah, Big'un." The old man chimed in. "Besides Gabrielle here says life has been tough lately. Talking can't hurt, besides I can't believe some of the stuff that your little friend here has to say about you!"

Gabrielle's eyes widened then narrowed into small slits. She stared at the old warrior, smirking.

"Why ain't a good looking woman like you working in a royal court somewhere, or married off to some man sitting on a hill of gold?"

Both Gabrielle and Xena began to glower at Laertes who waved his hand and claimed that no disrespect was intended. "Even better, Why ain't you an Amazon? You have more weapons and athletic skills than any ten of the bitches put together!"

"She's an Amazon Queen, Laertes and I'm a Amazon Princess!" Gabrielle squawked, offended.

"Neither one of you are. I don't care if you hold those titles. I know Amazons, you don't act like them! Amazons are clannish, secretive, arrogant. They never leave their lands unless their tribe is out to conquer and most of them HATE men. No Amazon in her right mind would lead men in battle, as you have done Xena, let alone wander around bailing peasants out of jams. Besides, YOU, Big'un, definitely don't hate men," The old man said with a slight leer. "I can tell." he continued. "Little Gabby here is still a virgin, tch, tch!" The old warrior cocked his head towards the little woman and clicked his tongue loudly. Greek men valued virgins VERY highly.

Gabrielle hissed: "Hey! Keep quiet will ya!" Gabrielle also wondered how he knew!

"Calm down Gabrielle!" Xena urged in a low, rumbling voice. The Thracian looked at her elderly comrade with narrowed eyes and a flirty smile on her face. "How do you know so much?"

"Hey! You don't survive 17 major engagements without drinking deeply of the cup!"

"And I bet you boasted that you could rut like a centaur too!" Xena sneered.

"I could; I could!" The old man said without missing a beat. "Every one of these damn wounds took 10 women to prepare for! Boasting is an old soldiers' habit."

Gabrielle blushed. Xena just rolled her eyes.

"Yeah Big' un just what is it with you? How come you ain't self interested like most of the warrior trade?

"Lets just say I found myself, old man." Xena said, her eyes drifting off.

The old man then looked in the Warrior Princess' eyes and asked flat out: "You found out you love to kill people; didn't you? Battle is the one thing you love above all else; isn't it?"

Xena looked with horror at the old man and started to get up, but she remained where she was and looked down. After a long time Xena looked up with a look of great pain on her face, but that pain was immediately mastered by the woman warrior's incredible will. Gabrielle sat there stunned into silence. Xena turned to the old man with an impassive look on her face and drew herself bolt upright, just as if she were standing in the dock before some magistrate, looked the old man in the eye, and simply said: "yes."

Gabrielle sat back horrified. She had no idea.

"Trying to do good as you see it helps with the pain." the old man continued very serious now.

"Yes." Xena said again. "This time the word came a little easier. The shame I feel is sometimes very hard to bear."

Gabrielle, with a tear in her eye, reached her hand toward her best friend, but Laertes beat the redhead to it.

Reaching across his body the old man took the Warrior Princess' callused hand and squeezed it. "Xena," the old man said, "you aren't alone dear comrade. I'm exactly the same way you are. Combat was the most important thing in the world to me, but now all the pain and grief I carried has now passed. You can be rid of it too. You just need to talk. Gabrielle here is your friend. She can be trusted with everything you did in your life. This is something you cannot do alone, I guarantee that we won't run away from anything you say, or from you. So dump it, you'll feel better."

Xena thought for a moment. Then to Gabrielle's amazement the Tracian put on her war face followed by a look of determination that was terrifying to behold and said: "It started with a hunting trip..."

"My dad used to take the 30 men under his command out onto hunting trips," Xena began, "not only to provide game for the village to eat but for training purposes. Hunting and war have a lot in common. The skills of one activity often carry over into the other. Laertes, earlier I told Gabrielle here that as punishment for doing a very silly thing, my dad put me under military discipline. It turned out that this punishment was exactly what I wanted to do, for I had been bugging him since I was 5 to teach me what he did with the men that he led.

"Well the first thing that Dad did to me was that he took me out of the inn and away from my girl friends and put me to doing the hardest work of which he could think; he put me to mucking out the stables, digging ditches, carrying out water to the field women and building stone walls. Although I was very tall, I was very skinny, and despite the fact I was extremely strong, Dad told me that I needed to put meat on my bones; so he put me on a diet to build me up. He always said that soldiering was very VERY hard work and that I had better start getting used to it. I remember that I started gaining weight really fast. Finally, when everyone went home for the night he started me on serious weapons training.

"Now after all that work that day, I was really tired, but he insisted on continuing. He also constantly reminded me that war meant constant toil, night after night without sleep and possibly no food, so it was better to get me used to it now. Dad constantly reminded me that: 'A gallon of sweat saves a gallon of blood!' When he finally let me handle a sword, I was amazed at how heavy it was. I could lift it easily enough but I couldn't get it to move in the way that I wanted it to. Naturally, after a few days, being only 10, I started to resist all this pressure, but Dad was very firm with me. He was always watching me. He seemingly had eyes on the back of his head and when I faltered he would stand me up, put a box in front of me and yell right into my face, his nose almost touching mine:


Xena put a strange half smile on her face and shook her head. "I don't mind telling you it hurt. I cried in my pillow every night for a week after that night. My dad had always been kind and indulgent with me, he was still kind and indulgent with my three brothers, but he always reminded me that I had made the decision to jump off that cliff and that I had to be taught to be responsible for my actions. Since I wanted to be a soldier and I had been becoming more unmanageable, the only way to teach me the kind of responsibility a soldier must take, toughness was very necessary. I know that mom objected strenuously to my being treated like an adult at such a young age; I have heard my parents arguing, but later that week Dad said something that made me sit up and take notice:

'Cyrene, she is bigger and stronger than virtually anybody in Amphipolis. She is regularly playfully beating up our sons and, she never gets tired. Despite her age, she needs to learn how to be responsible, and loving her is no longer enough to do that. She is too powerful for the normal things people do to discipline children. You remember when she got into a fight with Castor and then jumped up into the tree in back (I still don't know how she could jump twenty feet!) and threw Castor through the roof of room one? Thank the Gods there was a bed under him! You had to ground her for a month! I realize it wasn't deliberate, but she doesn't know her own strength! Besides, dear wife, I still love her dearly and I will make sure that for every criticism and abuse that I hit her with I will find something about her to praise---just like I do with my men.

"'There's something else, I've had a strange voice ringing in my head since Xena jumped off the cliff. Its a woman's voice, very deep, that just says: "Toughness now; she will thrive!" It sounded very much like the voice that Xena said she heard when she was falling from the cliff. Funny that I should hear something similar.'

"I had no idea what the last thing dad said meant, but the first part made me very happy. His treatment did start to work. In short order the sword became much easier to work with and I was getting much better at carrying out orders the first time. I could tell that Dad was secretly pleased with me because the sword drills were going so well. Things were going SO well actually that he even allowed me to spend some time with my girlfriends. After a few weeks of working with me alone, he threw me in with his squad without a life raft.

"Outside town the town chief had built a place for the defense force to train. There were pits for wrestling and hand to hand combat training, an athletic field for running and throwing weapons, an archery range and an obstacle course. Many of the guys when they knocked off work would head for the athletic field to play games, wrestle, and box. Saturdays this field was the focus of the military training the men of Amphipolis received. On that day almost all of the men of the town over twenty years of age were there training. Most of them knew me and I knew all of them. All had come through the inn and most of them worked doing the town's business. They were really good fellows, but a little rough. That was fine, I know I'm not exactly too smooth meself."

Gabrielle started nodding in a very exaggerated manner. Laertes shot a sidelong look at the both of them and saw that Xena was glaring at Gabrielle. Then the big woman grinned and started to chuckle.

Xena then said: "Hey if you guys want refinement, why don't I send Phoebe to Trieus and have her bring Princess Diana down here!"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and poor Laertes looked lost.

"Don't worry about it Laertes. Inside joke!" Gabrielle chortled.

Xena's face went back to its serious mein. Her eyes drifted off again into the distance."How well I remember it." Xena continued. "The men were merciless with me. At first many of them were really abusive. They called me beanpole, Amazon, and the name calling escalated to all the worst names that you can think of. Bitch was one of the most common and easier words they used. I stood there the first Saturday at rigid attention quivering with anger, but Dad had ordered me to stand there, take it, and do nothing. Somebody, I think it was Nicalaus, even called me weakling, which they all knew was a bloody lie. I hate bragging; the both of you know that, but I was able to lift a 6 month old horse very easily by then.

"The men closed in hammering me with more insults and finally one of them, Turamon, pinched me on the behind. Dad had moved to where I could see him, and he saw what Turamon had done. I don't think that Dad liked Turamon very much. He was new in town and a terrible braggart and had a reputation as a womanizer. Dad bellowed 'Xena!' and I looked at him so mad that I could barely see through a red haze. He just nodded to me. At that moment, an odd feeling of peace came over me. Before I realized it five of the men, including Turamon, were down on their backs and three of them had bloody noses. I was getting ready to stomp on Turamon's head me when I heard Dad yell again: 'That's enough! Fall in you men!' But I didn't care. Dad had waded through the crowd of men that I had angered and prevented them from falling upon me. I finished stomping on Turamon's head when I finally felt a familiar arm around me and heard my Dad whispering in my ear: 'That's enough sweetheart, you've made your point.'

"The men had fallen back into squad formation and many of them looked at me with shock, disbelief, and fear in their eyes. I couldn't understand it. I had never ever acted like that before. My behavior had frightened and upset me. I just didn't know that I was capable of what I had just done. The men that I had hit, including Turamon, got back into formation trying to tend their bruises as best they could. I attempted to go over to them to help, but Dad stopped me and told me to get into formation.

When I did, Turamon looked at me with a glare on his face I will never forget, just as I will never forget him for another reason. I'll tell you that later.

"Well, my relations with the members of the squad were rough for a while. I heard them often muttering about being shown up by a ten year old girl, but many of them began to soften and treat me like one of the guys. Several doubted that I was a girl at all, but about that age was starting to mature and it wasn't too long when the sniggering stopped."

Laertes chimed in: "I can see why!!!"

Gabrielle shushed him.

Xena continued, ignoring the old man. "Dad kept up the discipline on me at all times, but I became used to it, and I really began to enjoy myself. The daily weapons training was especially fun and it became even more enjoyable as I improved to the extent that I could hold my own with sword, spear, javelin, and chillbones against single or multiple opponents. One time on a dare I took on half the squad using sticks instead of swords at once and came out on top. As I grew older I grew much stronger and quicker, and I found out that no matter how much punishment the men meted out to me I could take it and come back stronger.

"I loved the wrestling and boxing. The men were at first reluctant to try it with me but I proved to be tough. I could take a punch and give back two or three more. Nobody in the squad, or in the city ever beat me, but I got into a lot of really tough fights. At wrestling my quickness proved to be another advantage; It was hard for anyone to get a good grip on me. I proved to myself that I had many special abilities and the men began to admire them. I loved the obstacle course too. At first sliding down a taught rope into the river was scary but it wasn't like jumping off the cliff upstream, and I found that I had an advantage in the course. I could jump many obstacles that the men needed ropes to climb. My confidence soared. The excitement was intense.

"A regular part of the Saturday training was with horses. Here Dad taught me how to ride in formation and use a lance. Every other month or so we would take the horses through an obstacle course as well, while using lances to skewer melons on spikes for points. After a while I began winning these competitions too. By the time I was twelve, I had gained my present weight and I had become expert in the weapons that dad knew. The men had started turning to me for leadership so one day Dad held a little ceremony. He inducted me into the town defense forces and gave me a silver cord to wear around my right arm. I was given half the squad to command. The men all agreed that I'd earned it. This prestigious post earned, Dad also said I could now go on the squad's monthly hunting trips. Only Turamon complained, and Dad warned him off with a look. I was a soldier now, but I kept asking myself: what would happen in a war?

I didn't know. The month's hunting trip was going to be north of town not too far away from Amazon territory. I was going to take the opportunity to improve my skills with a bow, a weapon I had only just learned how to use. This time though, Dad only wanted bowhunting to be a part of the hunt. I remember the talk that he gave us the day we arrived at our hunting grounds very well.

"'We are going pig sticking. This is excellent cavalry training for using the lance. It is also the closest to war you people will come to without it being the real thing. The wild boar is a wily and very dangerous animal. Treat him with respect at all times. If you strike one and only wound him, DO NOT FOLLOW HIM INTO THE BRUSH! The pig will set up an ambush and attack your horse and dismount you. You are then in a WORLD OF HURT! Also keep in mind that this is wild territory. There are lions about. So keep alert. Good luck and good hunting.'

The idea was that half the squad would ride out about a mile ahead of the other half and dismount. They would then take shields and swords and walk towards the mounted force banging their shields with their swords driving any animal in front of them either up one of the many trees or toward the horses. We who were on horseback teamed up in pairs each covering the others back. This day Turamon was my partner. I had no choice in the matter, for Dad made up all the pairings. He felt that getting too close to others on military duty was a big mistake, especially in war. So he would often pair rivals or people who didn't know each other too well. The whole army was constantly switched around. I never forgot that."

Laertes interrupted, somewhat to Gabrielle's annoyance. "That is one of the tragic necessities of the warrior's life. It is very hard to give it up sometimes."

Xena nodded and went on. "The terrain was rough, with lots of gullies and rough hills. There was lots of scrub around---perfect for pigs which browse on the bushes. The hunting was really good. We stumbled on a herd of pigs, but my, and Turamon's, luck wasn't too good---at least until near sunset. I remember it was a hot day and everyone was wearing armor. We needed it; wild pigs are that dangerous. Turamon and I hadn't seen a pig while the rest of the squad had killed at least four. We were both mad and disappointed, as well as hot and tired. I was taking a drink from my water bottle and was thinking of returning to the rear because my horse, a big black gelding named Nightwing, was tired too, when a yelp came from my right rear. I turned over my shoulder and saw Turamon flying off the back of his horse which was rearing and screaming. A huge boar had just exploded out of cover right in front of that horse and the pig tore past me going like hell. I screeched and spurred the gelding after him. I thought I had him cold.

"The wild pig looks vulnerable, especially to somebody on horseback. but they are smart, strong, fast and extremely tough. The best way to kill one is with a lance strike between the shoulder blade and the spine that hits the heart, but the area is covered with thick hide and a VERY thick layer of fat. There's been many a time that someone had hit a pig perfectly only to find out that the wound wasn't serious and that the pig was after them, its long, ivory tusks glittering in the sun."

Gabrielle interrupted: "Is this the first time you used that battle cry of yours?"

Xena answered: "Ululating you mean? Yeah it was. You know that call seems to make me stronger somehow. I don't have any idea why. Anyway I learned it only a week or so earlier when a couple of Arab women who danced passed through town and Mom booked them at the inn. They used that noise in their act. It got the men really excited when they used it in their dancing. I thought it was scary and I asked them to show me how they did it. I have never regretted it. Every person upon which I have used that cry has been at best knocked off balance, and at worst terrified to within an inch of his life---especially if I surprised him with it.

"Well, the pig darted and dodged up a ravine but my horse was experienced and very fast so I did get a chance at hitting the pig. The end of the ravine was coming up and I had one chance at it because I had to break off the pursuit soon. There was heavy brush coming up and I remembered dad's warning. I must have chased that boar for two hundred yards and I did get close enough to hit him. I remember screaming and ululating as loud as I could to let the others know where I was. Just a little farther and AAAAHHHH!!! The lance struck home in what looked like the perfect spot, but the pig, rather than falling, accelerated, and the lance broke off in its shoulder. The pig then dodged across our path and vanished into some brush. I reined up, shouting as loudly as I could, but I was too far up the ravine for anyone to hear me. I knew that I had better get out of that box before the pig came back."

I had just turned the gelding around and spurred him on when I heard a hellish squeal from my left. Almost before I could react the pig charged out of the brambles and gored the horse in the belly. I had just enough time to push back off the horse when he reared and do a back somersault and land on my feet. I was lucky because the horse nearly landed back on the pig when he fell. This gave me enough time to draw my sword and start running like hell. Off in the distance I saw Turamon staring at me open mouthed. I was yelling 'Get the Pig!!' as loud as I could but I felt a twitch on the back of my neck and somehow knew it was right behind me.

"There was no cover anywhere and only a sheer rock wall to my right. Then I clearly heard the rumble of the pig's hooves. I had no choice: I couldn't out run it and couldn't hide. I had to turn and fight or I was dead. I was scared to death but Dad's voice rang in my head 'ACT! DON'T REACT!' and sprang TOWARDS the pig. The wounded beast, the head of the lance still glittering in the fading sunlight shot by under me as he sprung into the air to try to grab me. One of his tusks caught my foot but I was able to do a front somersault with a half twist and still land on balance. I had enough time to make one slash with my sword and I succeeded in cutting the beast's tail off and take a chunk out of its haunch. Momentarily, I thanked Tyche for the luck I had had up to this moment. The pig had already lost a lot of blood and was slowing down."

Xena paused for a moment. "You know I think that is the only time I even thought of a god in my entire life and certainly the last time I thought of one when I was in combat."

Laertes chimed in saying: "Xena, you ought to know by now that there are no atheists in the front rank!"

"AHH push off Laertes!" Xena sneered waving her hand, "You don't expect me to go in for that kind of crap do ya?"


"Around me," Xena continued, "I started to hear shouting, but I was far too busy to let that bother me. I was trying to save my own life. The pig had finally turned and I had enough time to see Turamon sitting on his horse with a big grin on his face, the bastard! He was doing absolutely nothing! I'm sure he wanted to see me dead. The pig had finally gathered himself for another rush and I knew that my earlier leap wasn't going to work again so I stood my ground. I drew back my weapon and when the pig leaped at my face I kneeled and skewered it in the gut. I held onto the weapon and pinned it to the ground as the beast turned head over heels in the air and landed on its back. I pushed the sword into the ground and then cut the beasts throat with my dagger. I looked up and Turamon was finally riding in to get his share of the spoils when something hit me hard in the back knocking the wind out of me. I also felt something very sharp raking me. I fell over the pig's carcass and had enough wit about me to grab the hilt of my sword.

When I finished rolling over onto my behind, I looked up and discovered that I was staring right into the open muzzle of a lion."

"Did that cat's breath stink! I was never so scared in my life!" the Warrior Princess continued. "I knew that there was going to be no way that help would arrive in time to save my life. The rest of the men were too far away and the ravine too narrow to allow another man on horseback in. I either had to run or fight. Worse, I could have tried to climb the ravine wall but the lion had me blocked. I would have had to go through him to get to it. There was a tree somewhat close, but that wouldn't have helped me much. Lions can climb trees. Something was wrong though. The lion just sat there roaring with a weird look in its eyes. Could it be that I caught a break and the animal stunned itself by landing wrong? I knew that I was straddling its lunch, but I was determined not to give it up. The men of the squad were up on the brink of the cliff fifty feet above me looking down as if I were either a sacrifice or a freak show attraction. There was no way I wasn't coming out of that gully with out that pig! I do have my pride y'know?"

Gabrielle looked at her friend with a mocking look on her face. "Boy is that true!" she thought!

"Then I got an idea. I had to get in close and get my dagger into its neck or I was dead. The lion is too quick; it would dodge any kind of a sword thrust or slash. It literally was neck or nothing. I had to move too, because it looked as if it were coming around.

So, I let the beast get closer. While I was still squatting over the pig, I pulled my dagger out and put it between my teeth. I reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt from an uprooted sapling at my hand. Then I uulated as loudly as I could; threw the handful of dirt into the cat's face and simultaneously sprang for the cliff wall! The cat lunged, roaring like mad, but it was still moving unsteadily and it missed. I hit the wall with my hands and pushed upwards. I started a quarter of a back somersault and pushed off the wall with my legs. I did a half twist while pulling the dagger out of my mouth with my right hand. Then somehow I landed on the lion's back!

"What a ride!! That beast bucked and twisted and jumped like no horse I had ever ridden before, but I had a good grip on it. Both of my legs were locked around its belly and I had my left arm around its neck. It started running and trying to scrape me off against the wall of the cliff. I could hear the men yelling, especially my dad who was trying like hell to get some help down to me but the men weren't moving. As the animal spun around I saw Turamon sitting on his horse sneering. If I had more time, well...

"The lion started again to try to scrub me off, this time on the side where I hung onto the knife for dear life. I had to kill the beast and fast, but killing it fast entailed risk. I had to loosen my grip with the other hand to get a clear shot at the beast's neck. I just couldn't believe the experience I was having. I could see the cat's teeth. My heart was pounding so hard that I felt it in my ears, I have never been so excited in my life! I moved my grip, and nearly lost the cat all together, but my legs held firm. I could see out of the corner of my eye that the cliff wall was coming closer really fast. I had one chance. I struck just as the lion turned his head away from the knife and the blow fell right on the big blood vessels under the beast's ear.

"Blood sprayed everywhere! It came shooting out of the wound in great gouts soaking everything within 10 feet, including me. The smell got to me. It was hard, metallic just like licking a steel blade. Within seconds the animal collapsed as if it were a balloon that had suddenly lost all its air. I DID IT!! I WAS STILL ALIVE!! I jumped off the lion's carcass with my arms over my head screaming and uulating. I was so happy I'd survived! Then I heard something I would never forget. It was the distant sound of men chanting in unison: 'XE-NA! XE-NA! XE-NA! XE-NA!...' All the men on the brink of the cliff were chanting and applauding. I couldn't believe it! My friends, I cannot describe the feeling I had in my heart when I heard that chant!"

"I understand Xena." Laertes the old warrior said. "Glory is an amazing feeling."

"My family loved me. I knew that, but I was overwhelmed. I nearly ran away and hid.

"No kidding Xena?" Gabrielle gaped.

"No kidding! Then I started feeling as if I were a goddess!, and that I could not be killed! I felt so good that I couldn't wait to have more! Finally the men started filing down through the narrow ravine to look at what I had done. The first in line was my dad who looked immensely relieved. He ran up to me with a huge smile on his face, and he nearly jumped into my arms when he hugged me. Then he then pulled my ear down close to him and I heard him whisper: 'Remember Little One, all glory is fleeting!!'

"I just stood there quivering and dripping blood. I got it all over dad, who had a stupid grin on his face. Then I spotted Turamon and all of my joy turned to blind rage. I remember roaring and pushing my dad to the ground and yelling: 'You yellow son of a bitch!!' I blasted my way through about 10 men and when I got to Turamon he was blanched white with his mouth wide open. Before he could utter a sound I hauled off and nailed him with a right that must have knocked him 10 feet. I don't think that I was so mad ever again in my entire life. I straddled him yelling as loud as I could and I insulted everyone Turamon ever associated with until someone tackled me. It turned out to be my brother Pollux. When I had finally calmed down, I told my big brother that I had never better be paired with Turamon again because he had nearly gotten me killed.

"I made sure that I spoke loudly enough for Dad to hear me. Turamon was still on the ground groggy, but when he finally came around he sat up glaring at me and the group of men around me. 'You limp wristed bastards! How in the hell can you call yourselves warriors!? That goes for you too Illictrates! Even you fall in behind this whore! She's a supposed to be a bloody girl for Zeus' sake. I ought to rip her clothes off and prove she's damn man!' Turamon started to get up but my dad arrived and straddled him and kicked Turamon back onto his back. My dad then bent down and put his nose less than an inch from Turamon's, and started talking very quietly and intensely:

'I saw the whole damn thing you castrated excuse for a human being! You abandoned your squadmate to die. When you remounted your horse you had plenty of time to get in and finish off that pig and you would have been there to ride that lioness off. But no! You sat on your fat ass laughing! I couldn't care less if it was my daughter. If this had been a battle, I would have skewered you myself! You are done--finished with this squad! Once I file a report with Epictitus you are going to be lucky if you leave Amphipolis with your head! Nobody will ever trust you with anything ever again. So get out of here you worthless slime. If I ever see you again, you'll be wearing your scrotum on your head within a minute!'

"Dad pulled Turamon off the ground by his hair and slapped him hard across the face. Turamon tried to reach his dagger but Dad grabbed his wrist and twisted the blade out of Turamon's hand. I could hear bones breaking. Turamon yelled then started to whimper. Dad then kicked him on the ass and he flew out of the group and landed on his head. Turamon somehow got back to his feet turned and pointed a finger from his good hand right at me and bellowed: 'This gods damned he bitch Warrior Princess is going to get you all killed!! and I'M going to be the one to save your asses by massacring her and her family. You just wait!! You mark my words you'll ALL regret what you've just done to me!'

"Pollux came up to me and grabbed me by the shoulder and said: 'Well I'll be damned sis! You just got a nickname!! And by the Gods you deserve it! What you did was absolutely magnificent! By the Gods! My little sister the Warrior Princess!!' and he hugged me.

"The entire squad was there by then and they started chanting my name again. My brother Castor had skinned both the pig and the lion, which indeed had turned out to be a lioness, and brought the skins over. Dad hadn't completely severed the lioness' head and he came along behind me and draped the lions skin on my shoulders and put the attached head on mine. I was already soaked in blood, a little more really didn't matter. I was so happy, relieved, and proud that I stood there uulating while the squad members hugged me one at a time seemingly forever."

Gabrielle sat there looking at Xena who had a strange look on her face. "Xena, you were only twelve when this happened? It is just amazing!"

Laertes added: This was your first hunting trip? Hercules was in his twenties when he killed the Numidian lion." I have never heard of a woman killing a lion let alone a woman alone with nearly nothing but her bare hands. I don't even know if an Amazon ever killed a lion single handedly. It is amazing! How could you possibly know that what you did was exactly the right thing to do?"

"I didn't." Xena said quietly. "It was pure instinct. I have never lost it either." Xena's face grew grave. "You know, Turamon was right. Out of the thirty men in Dad's squad that day, nearly all of them are now dead. I was responsible for most of their deaths. They were either in my first army when they died or killed by my command. The human blood on my hands is very, very old." A look of great sadness and regret washed across the big woman's face and she looked down quietly.

Laertes reached over and pulled a flask of watered wine over in front of Xena and urged her to drink. Xena picked the flask up and drained it. Gabrielle walked around behind her friend and hugged her as hard as she could.

Laertes took his flask of Ouzo and struggled to his feet. He held it out to the Warrior Princess and made a toast:" "To all our friends lost in the maw of war!" The old warrior exclaimed drank deeply.

Xena stood, took the flask from the old man and said "May they all be in the Elesian fields!" She too tipped the fiery liquid down her throat.

Gabrielle stood as well. She took another flask of the flammable liquor and held it out to Xena and while proclaiming: "Xena of Amphipolis the Lioness of Thrace!" and took a deep draught which immediately backfired on her; for she sat coughing and spluttering from the concentrated alcohol.

Xena looked at her red headed friend with swelling affection and smiled while saying: "Gutsy move Gabrielle!"

The whole room, the people in which had been listening discretely, erupted in laughter and applause.

Gabrielle had a bad feeling about today. She had awakened not feeling particularly rested because the one shot of Ouzo she had had last night left her with a pounding headache. She could remember most of the evening, thank the gods, but couldn't deal with the fact that Xena had to carry her back to Nicias' house. What really hurt was the image in her mind of Laertes scratching his eyesocket and laughing at her. "I think that I'd better stick to talking." She thought.

Xena was already up and out. Gabrielle was not surprised. Xena was always up before dawn. Since they were not out on the road, the bard was sure that the Warrior Princess was practicing. Xena's life was rhythmic. Except for events it never varied. Xena's morning always started with practice.

The little redheaded woman rolled out of her bed and went over to the window to see what, if anything, was up. Before she could open the shutters, she was startled by the whinny of a horse very close. Gabrielle recognized the whinny. It was the peculiar nasal voice of Argo, Xena's palomino mare. Gabrielle stuck her head out the window and saw that the Lioness of Amphipolis must have just returned from a ride. Sweat glistened on the withers of the animal, with whom, after many months, Gabrielle had finally created a decent working relationship. Xena was herself astride Argo in her uniform and armor holding her broadsword in her right hand so the blade inclined up her arm to her shoulder. Gabrielle marveled at the strength in that right arm. The sword had to weigh at least 30 pounds.

Xena was headed to the large field that lay behind the inn where she had been training the three women who were to replace her. In that field, someone, probably Phoebe, had driven stakes into the ground in a single line about 100 yards long. On top of these stakes were what appeared to be melons of some kind. The stakes were set at differing heights so that Xena had to either stretch or bend to reach the melons. Gabrielle wondered what was going on. Xena answered that inner question for the bard. With a great shout, the Warrior Princess spurred her beast into a gallop and the horse and rider headed for the line of stakes.

Gabrielle thought it was one of the most stirring sights she had ever seen. Xena was leaning forward on her saddle yelling like a griffin---her black hair blown back parallel to the ground by the intoxicating speed of her charger. Next came the terrifying uulation Xena always used when on the offensive. The dawn sunlight glittered off the blade as Xena took the sword off her shoulder and pointed it at the first melon which disintegrated as the point of the sword hit it. Gabrielle watched in horrified fascination as Xena wove Argo in between each stake in succession as if it were a gate. Argo moved so that her flank barely touched each stake. Xena was steering the horse only with her left hand on the reins and the pressure of her knees on Argo's flanks. Gabrielle saw the great blade rise and fall in horrible rhythm, and Gabrielle heard the chuffing of the animal and the animal grunts of her friend as melon after melon exploded in spray. Gabrielle had to get closer, so pulling on her Amazon dress as fast as she could, she bolted out of the room and down the stairs to the front door, filching an orange off the hall table on her way out.

Just as Gabrielle reached the edge of the field, the Warrior Princess ran out of produce to skewer. Xena reined in her excited mount and turned around where Gabrielle saw the expression on Xena's face. It was one of great excitement and enjoyment. Xena's smile was glittering and her voice boomed in satisfied laughter. Just then Argo reared and Xena raised her blade to arms length shouting in joy. The horse and rider held that pose for what seemed to be an eternity, the morning sun surrounding them with a golden halo. Gabrielle fervently wished for some way to record this incredible moment. "Oh how I wish I were a sculptor!" the bard thought. Xena then spotted her friend, urged Argo into a canter, and headed for Gabrielle.

"I still got it Gabrielle!" Xena shouted at the bard in glee.

"I haven't practiced cavalry swordplay in a dogs age!"

Gabrielle grinned ear to ear, despite her headache, for the big Thracian. Gabrielle goggled: "That was awesome Xena!" "Why haven't I seen you do that before?"

"Haven't had much opportunity to stop long enough to set up the equipment, Gabrielle. We've been moving continuously since we met. Also, this is a deadly art. I have been jumping off Argo to fight because I didn't want to kill most of the people I have had to fight lately. I don't know any way to make this easier on the foe!"

Gabrielle shuddered. Suddenly, in her imagination, Gabrielle saw the shattered melons on the stakes turn into human heads.

Xena continued: "Argo here was one of my best mounts when I was still a warlord. She was born to be a cavalry mount. Most of what you saw was due to her. Horses never forget what you teach'em. By the way Gabrielle, thanks!"

"Why Xena?" Gabrielle gaped.

"I thought I was going to lose it last night in the inn. You and Laertes helped me a lot. I was going to thank you then, but you had already run off to see Morpheus."

"Get down here Xena!" Gabrielle barked, and to the little Bard's surprise the big brunette did so. Gabrielle ran up to Xena and gave her a big hug. "It was what you needed, Xena. I couldn't do any less, my friend." Xena smiled again.

Then, without warning, a scream came from somewhere in the town and a black horse blasted southbound down the street. A woman's yowl could be heard followed by shouts of "My Baby! MY BABY!!"

In another moment, a big bay gelding with a short woman aboard galloped in pursuit of the man on the black horse. The woman was Phoebe. Xena had left her on duty in the new guardian's office in the inn. In a trice, tall, skinny Nike, and the pretty Hebe ran up to Xena with a report.

"That scream was from that transient woman who arrived in town yesterday with her infant child Xena."

Xena filled Gabrielle in: "This woman, her name is Irene, arrived yesterday afternoon with her baby. She told me that her no account husband was after her to take the child. We put her up in the inn for the night under lock and key."

Nike continued: "The bastard must have staked out the inn because when Irene came out in order to do some shopping at the bakery, and well, you saw what just happened."

Hebe chimed in: "I got a good look at him Xena. The man fit Irene's description.

"What's the man's name?" Xena asked.

"Stavros!" Hebe answered, "Irene finally told us this morning!"

Xena exclaimed: "Where's he got the baby?

Both the assistant guardians answered together: "We didn't see it!"

Xena was decisive: Both of you mount up and ride. Hebe, head south down the beach in case he has a boat. Try to stay in sight of Nike if you can. Nike, you follow Phoebe in case the bastard doubles back, and to support Phoebe if he fights. I found a back way this morning that cuts 5 miles off the coastal track. I should be able to cut him off. MOVE!"

Both of the young women turned and ran for Niciac's stables. Xena had told them to keep several horses there saddled in case of emergency. Xena was putting her sword back in the scabbard on her back when Gabrielle started to say: "Xe... HEY!!!"

Xena's next move cut the bard off. The big woman grabbed her friend under the arms and hoisted her onto Argo's back and then leaped up behind her. The sudden action made the hungry Bard drop her orange.

"Hang on!" Xena exclaimed, and with a "Heeyaa!!" The Warrior Princess spurred the mare into action.

Gabrielle was very uncomfortable jammed between the saddle's long horn and her friend. She tried to turn to Xena but gave up and just yelled: "Hey! what are you doing!! That was my breakfast!! You know I'm afraid of heights! Especially when they're bucking!"

"Gabrielle," Xena said in a very serious tone. "We don't know if he has the baby. He probably does, but we don't know where on the horse it may be stashed. He could be holding it in his arms. I can't just bushwhack him because the baby might get killed. All we can do now is to stop him then talk to him until he shows us the kid. After that I should be able to take him from ambush. You have to talk to him. Get him to reveal the kid. Once its location can be seen, then I'll take him out one way or another. You can smooth talk honey from a hungry bear.

"Well, gee thanks a lot Xena! Gabrielle griped. "I'd rather have my orange thank you! That's all I need is a life and death situation before breakfast!!

Xena glared at the redhead, so Gabrielle smiled, shrugged and added: "Well I'm not doing anything important this morning anyway. OOOFF! Hey! watch the potholes!" Gabrielle exclaimed as Argo jumped to avoid a tree root.

Xena groused: "You don't even ride and you're a back seat driver!!"

Gabrielle shrugged and then yelled "YYEaaaa!!" for she had to duck under a low hanging branch.

Xena thanked the Fates that she hadn't given Argo a really hard workout. The palomino had plenty left. The terrain that they had to cover was pretty rough but the mare was sure footed and Xena's hands were firm. The Warrior Princess knew exactly where to set up, but would she get there in time? The sucker had at least a five minute head start. Finally after what seemed to the Warrior Princess to be forever, Xena caught a glimmer of sunshine on the sea. In the distance she could hear the hammering of distant hoofbeats. The shortcut had worked!

Xena remembered what she had seen earlier that morning. There was a huge oak tree on the inland side of the coastal track that overhung the track. It would be a good place to climb and jump on the kidnapper. Xena looked around for something to block the road. Gabrielle wouldn't be enough. Xena had heard two horses. Phoebe was close and Stavros was probably pushing his mount to stay ahead. She found what she needed. There was a poplar tree whose trunk was about a foot and a half across just south of the oak on the same side of the track. Poplar was a very soft wood and would chop down easily. The tree was about 30 feet high and the crown was big enough around to prevent the horse from jumping it.

Reining up, Xena told her friend: "Gabrielle, take your staff and put the hawk's head on it. Stand in the middle of the road directly in front of this big oak. I'm gonna chop down this little poppel here for an abatis, then go up that oak." Both women jumped down off the horse, and Xena slapped the animal on the rump to make her run off. There was a clearing nearby so she would be able to graze out of sight. Xena took out her sword and with both hands she started working on the tree. Chips flew in a cloud until after about 10 strokes the tree fell across the road. The Bard was already walking out into the middle of the road when Xena added: "Make yourself look as big as possible!"

As Xena climbed the tree, Gabrielle shot back: "Oh yeah sure!!" but she did what she was told. She stood out in the middle of the road with the downed tree at her back. She drew herself up to her full 5'4" and stuck the fighting staff's hilt into the ground much as her teacher Eponin had done. Then she reconsidered and wished by all the gods she still had her Amazon bird mask.

But there she stood looking northwards up the road expecting a half crazed man on a charging horse to run her down. She looked around nervously to see if Xena were still around, but the Warrior Princess had vanished. Gabrielle was not surprised. Xena was a magician with tactical concealment. If Xena wanted to disappear she could at will. Despite that reassurance, Gabrielle's knees were weak.

The wait wasn't all that long. The pounding of hooves had slowly grown louder until swinging around a corner about 100 yards north of her position Gabrielle saw a man on a big black horse riding like hell straight at her. Swallowing hard the little bard snapped her fighting staff into both hands as crisply as she could and held it parallel to the ground over her head.

"Halt!!" Gabrielle bellowed. She wish she had Xena's command voice, Xena could be heard for miles over a thunderstorm. The horse kept coming. Gabrielle saw that the animal was heavily lathered and its tongue was hanging out despite the bit. The poor animal did not have much left. Gabrielle yelled: "HALT!!" so loudly that she nearly jumped into the air. Just a few seconds behind the man rode Phoebe. The big bay was famous in Aegeanopolis for his endurance and now the horse showed it. It appeared it wasn't even breathing hard despite galloping at least five miles. Phoebe was bent low over the horse's neck with a very serious look on her face.

Gabrielle yelled halt once again this time to Phoebe, who looked up and recognized the Bard and reined in. "Gabrielle!" Phoebe roared. What in Hades are you doing here? Where's Xena?" Phoebe bellowed. Gabrielle was amazed how loud the little woman's voice was. It carried like the call of a wounded bull. "Wait there Phoebe!" Xena will be here!" Gabrielle continued. She then yelled halt at the man on the horse. It seemingly had no effect. Gabrielle was getting really worried now, But there was no way she was going to let Xena down. Eponin and Ephany had taught her how to dismount a rider with a staff and she took the stance to do it. The man had other ideas and finally reined in his tired mount in a cloud of dust.

"Get out of my way Bitch!" Bellowed the man with the horse rearing and dancing under him.

Gabrielle now held her staff at high port position, at an angle to her body. She yelled back: "My Name is Gabrielle. I am a law officer from Aegeanopolis. You were seen stealing your child from its mother in town. You cannot get away! The road is blocked as you see, another officer is behind you, the slope to the beach is too steep for either you or your horse, and there is an officer there too. You can't climb the embankment on your right. You are surrounded! Give up the baby and come quietly. You will be given a fair hearing in the chief's court!"

"What's to stop me from killing you and getting around that tree?" the man bellowed obviously extremely agitated.

"You don't want to do that!" Gabrielle shot back, fear building in her gut, but she gritted it out and went on. "I can handle myself as you can see, and my boss is Xena, the famous Warrior Princess! Piss her off and your life isn't worth a plugged dinar!" "Now where is the baby?!"

Suddenly, from the oak tree Gabrielle was startled by a very loud bird call. It was a nightingale. That didn't make sense! It was mid morning. She looked up and Phoebe had moved up much closer. Stavros' behavior had changed too. When he heard Xena's name he went white and looked very scared.

"I am not giving back my son to that whore! I'll kill him and myself first!"

Gabrielle thought fast and said: "You don't want to do that do you? You love your boy don't you? Nicias is a fair man. You'll get a fair hearing. If your case is good you might keep the baby. If you kill your son and yourself, you won't have your child and you'll be in Tartarus for the rest of eternity. You really don't want to do that. I've met Hades, he's fair but VERY tough! Now where is the baby?"

The man reached forward towards what looked to be a bedroll, but was a plain homespun wool blanket. Then Gabrielle heard a bleat and a baby's head popped into view. Gabrielle's breath caught when she saw it for it was a lovely child. The man however was still not in his right mind for he took out a dagger and held it towards the baby's throat!

"I don't care! "The man yelled again, Irene is Death herself!" "She will corrupt him and see that he dies abandoned."

"Oh he's soo beautiful Stavros!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "I know that you love him. "Don't you want him to go on and make you proud! Don't worry Stavros, Nicias will not allow him to be hurt!"

Again there was a loud call from the oak tree. It was a quail. "That's really odd, Gabrielle thought, "quail don't live in trees!" Gabrielle looked up and was surprised. Phoebe was gone! Nike had taken her place! Another odd call came from the trees. This time it was a kildeer. Gabrielle took a step towards the man on the horse and the man got more desperate.

"Get back bitch or YOU'LL kill him!" The man was now clearly insane and he tried to shift responsibility onto the redheaded woman.

"Look, I know you're upset now, but just wait until you've calmed down before making any decisions." Gabrielle urged in as soothing voice as she could, but the man moved the knife closer to the neck of his child. Suddenly, Gabrielle heard the hoarse squawk of a stork. It was from the opposite of the track. She had not seen a stork. It was winter and they were all in Africa.

A loud grunt exploded out of the big old oak tree and a flash of silver streaked through the air followed by a familiar whine. Xena's chakram was in flight. At the same time Phoebe emerged out of the underbrush and dashed faster than Hermes for the horse. The chakram whistled over Gabrielle's head missing it seemingly by inches. It struck the man squarely on the head before he had time to react. As he pitched backwards out of the saddle the dagger went flying out of his hand. Phoebe was there and grabbed the blanket with the baby and ran towards the tree. The man fell back off the horse and Xena jumped out of the tree, landing by him. The crisis was over! Phoebe came over to the bard and showed her the precious bundle.

The Warrior Princess examined the prostrate child stealer. Looking up at the still shocked bard she said calmly: "He's out cold, but the skull hasn't been fractured His eye pupils are equal and reactive. He's going to be fine. Phoebe! that was great work! Your actions couldn't have been better if we'd practiced! Gabrielle, I swear your talking is the gift of the gods! Excellent work!" Both small women beamed from the unexpected phrase from Xena. They hugged and chuckled with glee.

Gabrielle was still befuddled however. "What went on there Xena? First I see Phoebe over there, then she's gone and replaced by Nike. I also heard birds I shouldn't have heard?"

"That was me and Phoebe, Gabrielle." Xena said. "Its a tactical code I picked up from the Amazons. Pointing towards the stocky girl, Xena continued: Phoebe here loves birds and knows a lot of calls. I told her about the code and she picked it up immediately. The nightingale call basically told her to hide in the woods and sneak up opposite us. You can get a lot of information into that call because it's so long. I had to get help from Phoebe because when I saw the baby I realized that I had no chance of getting him and the baby by myself. It was too dangerous to the baby. I couldn't yell to you because it would have revealed my position and taken his attention off of you. The quail call said "Get the Baby" and The kildeer call told Phoebe to signal me when ready. The stork squawk was the "I'm ready!" call. I really hoped that you would have been able to talk him into not being stupid, but nobody could have convinced him, he's clearly nuts. So, I used you to keep him distracted."

Gabrielle was extremely pleased. So pleased that her headache had completely vanished! But something else happened to lower her mood. Her stomach growled loudly. "By the Gods I'm starving!" Gabrielle bleated, and you made me lose my orange, Xena!"

The Warrior Princess just looked at her with a look that said: "Well..."

Phoebe piped up. "You're hungry Gabrielle? No problem! We have food on our horses! When I've finished trussing this guy up I'll let you have it!" The stumpy maid finished tying the unconscious man up with leather twine, picked him up and threw him over her shoulder and carried him back to her big bay horse. After depositing him across the animals withers, Phoebe reached into her saddlebag and gave the bard a big piece of cheese, a loaf of bread, a cooked chicken, 2 oranges, a big square of baklava, and a skin of watered wine.

"By the Gods Phoebe, that's a lot of food! What were you planning? A month on the road?" The Bard goggled.

Nike, who had been joined by Hebe finally, chimed in: "You don't know Phoebe very well do you Gabrielle; to her that's just a snack!" The two girls started to titter, but a sharp look from Phoebe stifled them.

Then Phoebe smiled herself and said: "OK ladies mount up we got to get this guy and the baby back to town! Eventually all looked at the Warrior Princess who was standing there smirking. Xena just waved her three assistants along and they all mounted up and started riding back to town.

"Nike is right Gabrielle," Xena said Phoebe eats more than YOU do!" Xena said with an amused snort.

Gabrielle shot back: "If my hands weren't full I'd bounce one of these oranges off your head...well maybe not. I might lose it! No wait both. The orange and MY head!" and the bard laughed out loud.

Both of the friends walked over to the big oak tree where Xena had been hiding and sat down in its shade. Xena whistled long and loudly. The whistle was followed by a sharp whinny and the clatter of hooves. Argo was coming back.

Xena finally relieved some of the sumptuous burden from her redheaded friend and sat down under the oak up the embankment were she could get a view of the sea. Greece has lovely weather and the Aegean looked just splendid in the noon sun. Argo finally came and nuzzled her owner. Xena got up and got a couple of carrots out of her saddlebag and a small nosebag full of grain. There was a small brook nearby and Xena was sure that the horse had already found it. Argo was hungry and she greedily took the two carrots and snorted as Xena put the bag over the palomino's nose. Xena led the horse down to the track, tied her to a small tree and returned to her seat. Gabrielle was already tearing into the chicken. Xena joined her in eating in silence for a while then started talking.

"You know Gabrielle," the warrior woman said to her friend, "I really thought that when you first started following me that you were going to be a burden to me."

Gabrielle looked hurt and looked away.

"Oh Gabrielle, don't be hurt!" "You proved me wrong many, many times in these last eight months." The big woman reached out and put a strong hand on her friend's shoulder. "You were so callow and naive when we first met. I thought that I would be constantly rescuing you. That was true once, but now you are as strong in your own way as I am in mine."

Gabrielle's hurt expression evaporated and she began to swell with pride.

"Standing in front of that horse was above and beyond the call of duty. You were even going to take Stavros on weren't you?"

"Yes." Gabrielle said. The baby had to be saved, someone had to keep him close to you."

"Gabrielle you are brave and smart as well as my sister in life. We really do make a great team. I fervently hope you don't have to pay the price that I paid."

"Thanks Xena. Thank you so much. And what I know about courage I learned from you." the Bard told her friend.

Xena smiled and shook her friend's shoulder again. The Warrior Princess then said: "This oak tree reminds me so much of the big oak Flora, I and my friends used to play in. I built a tree house in it. It was a very important place. My mom used to say I liked it in that treehouse more than at home. And my mom was pretty right."

"You and you're mom didn't get along, Xena?" Gabrielle asked?

"Sometimes yes and sometimes no," said the Lioness of Amphipolis. "Laertes showed me how important talking to friends is. So, I'm going to talk about life at home."

Continued - Part 10 - 13

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