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The Long Road Back

by Eimajj

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended. The rest of the characters are from my own imagination.

This is a dark tale filled with hurt and comfort. Xena and Gabrielle go through an emotional roller coaster ride and if you are offended or bothered by this, please read no further.

Some graphic violence is depicted. Xena and Gabrielle canít have an adventure without smashing a few heads.

No graphic sex or theme is portrayed. What you read between the lines, is between you and your own imagination.

Enjoy!

This story takes place after the events portrayed in the episodes Debt I and II and after The Huns. However it is not necessary to have seen these episodes or read The Huns to follow the story.

A special thanks to Flynn for her fantastic advice and helpful editing.

Comments are appreciated, please send to eimajj@earthlink.net

Prologue:

The wind grew stronger, sweeping over the gray green barren landscape cutting into two weary travelers who traversed the rounded hills. Silence like a thick black shroud covered the shoulders of the two friends as they trudged along side by side with a large rangy palomino warhorse bringing up the rear. The taller woman on the right raised her head occasionally searching the horizon with piercing cobalt blue eyes. Once finding no danger lurking, she let her head droop down, staring at the ground in front of her. Every once in a while a grating, raspy cough deep and unbidden would rise from her throat, shaking her body in a brief spasm. The smaller woman looked up searching her friendís form with concerned sea green eyes each time the event occurred. Still with nothing to say or to do about the situation, the two continued to plod along.

The gray clouds grew more threatening as the bite in the air grew worse, colder and damp. Both travelers wore gray cloaks that whipped in the wind and swirled around their legs as they moved through the short cropped grass and bush. In the far distance, the outline of mountains could be vaguely seen behind the deep clouds.

"Weíve got to find shelter soon, Gabrielle. Stormís aícomin," the tall dark haired warrior noted softly with a deep, hoarse voice.

Gabrielle threw back her hood, revealing ash blond hair and searched the surroundings in front of her. "Not much out here, is there?" Gods, the land was so barren and cold, no people nothing but the howling wind. The young woman turned to her friend. The land was as cold, silent as her partner and best friend. Yes, sometimes the coldness from within is worse more bitter than any wind or storm. Not that it wasnít well deserved the young bard reminded herself. No, she had earned this fair and square.

She had insisted upon going to the Kingdom of Chin arriving ahead of her soulmate. She alone had betrayed her best friend to an evil tyrannical emperor, Ming Tien. Her act had caused the warrior to be brutally beaten, thrown into a dungeon and tormented by a heavy wooden collar locked around her neck. Left to try to survive in two feet of filthy evil smelling water, the warrior had spent a number of days in the cold damp tomb. The cough was the gift she had taken away from her stay.

"Xena, you should rest. You sound worse." Of even more concern to the young bard was the drooped shoulders and dragging steps of the warrior. Xenaís trademark jaunty swagger was clearly missing. Her whole appearance spoke clearly to the bard who knew her so well of fatigue and illness.

"We canít stop here." With these whispered words, the warrior pulled herself onto the horse and held a hand down for the bard. Without a word, the young woman grasped the offered support and swung up behind the warrior. Xena urged the horse into an easy lope as they continued to head south west towards the distant mountains.

Gabrielle held onto the waist of the warrior as they jogged along. She could feel the heat radiating from her body through the coarse woolen cloak. The bard recognized the warmth as fever yet another bad sign. So close, Gabrielle thought, holding onto the woman that defined her life and yet so distant, so unreachable just as the gray mountains barely visible in the distance.

Xena had been kind yet reserved the entire time. She had never mentioned any of the events that had occurred in the Kingdom of Chin. The boat trip had been long and uneventful. The warrior had stayed below deck in her bed rather than on deck taking part in sailing the ship as was her normal custom. The only emotion that Xena had displayed was when they had landed and she had regained her warhorse, Argo. The crooked grin and hug she gave the horse had touched the bardís heart. Then a pang of emotion had shot through her very soul. Could the warrior ever smile at her again and hug her in the old way? No, probably not. Still she hung onto the waist of the warrior, glad for at least that much contact.

After a while, the horse slowed to a shuffling walk as the wind died down slightly. Suddenly, the rain came, falling in sleeting angles drenching the travelers to the bone. Still they pressed on. Gabrielle could feel Xenaís body hunch forward as she wrapped her arms more firmly around the warrior. She took the reins from Xenaís nerveless hands and guided the horse. The harsh cough from the warrior was the only sound that competed with the drone of the wind and patter of the rain.

Finally, with dark almost upon them, the rain let up to a soft drizzle. In the distance, Gabrielle could see the outline of a rock slope. Farther on, a hollowed out indention in the shear wall was barely visible through the gray mist. It wouldnít be much but would give them some shelter from the rain. She had to make a fire somehow and warm the trembling warrior. Her condition was becoming desperate. All of this she knew to be true with no words passed between them. Xena never complained and Gabrielle knew better than to ask. Perhaps the truth was she was afraid of an honest answer.

Chapter 1

The smoking fire crackled and complained but gave off weak warmth and light. Gabrielle brewed tea and made a thin gruel that she was able to coax Xena to eat. Afterwards, they huddled together under their damp cloaks and blankets. It was all they had and it would have to do. The heat coming from the warriorís body was increasing. The bard could hear her breathing become more difficult and labored.

Gabrielle pulled Xenaís body more on top of her own, shielding her from the damp ground. She held her friend tightly, giving her own warmth to her soulmate. The warrior slept fitfully, with the constant cough keeping her from deep rest. Every once in awhile she grew restless causing the bard to hold on tightly to keep her from trashing. At these moments, Xena moaned softly, her troubled dreams only adding to her pain. Gabrielle whispered low, reciting a poem or story and stroking the raven black damp hair of the warrior. This seemed to ease her turmoil.

Gabrielle reached over and threw more branches on the fire. She looked down at the strong right arm that fed the flames and made a fist. It was this arm, this hand that slapped her best friend as she knelt before her, helplessly confined in that heavy torturous collar. How can I ever forget her face, the look of her eyes, sad, lost, yet defiant? They were without the burning passion and hate that have so often welled up into them in the past. Ming Tien promised not to condemn her to death. All she had to do was promise not to kill him. She was so silent, stubborn in her determination to murder. I was so frustrated and so afraid of losing her, I struck her. With that one stupid act, I lost her. The emperor told me he would have killed her anyway so it was all for nothing but I knew differently. It was not for nothing. It was my test and I failed it. I failed her and yet later she said she did not hate me. Still, everything is changed. Quiet tears of loss and pain ran down the cheeks of the bard. Gabrielle hugged the warrior closer to her, knowing that if she were awake, she would never take such liberty. She couldnít risk seeing the rejection in the warriorís eyes or the loathing on her face. That would be too horrible.

A weak sun climbed over the top of the eastern mountains casting a gray light on the two huddled women. Gabrielle awoke and found two glazed blue eyes regarding her.

"Hi."

"Hi yourself. How do you feel?"

Xena closed her eyes selecting options and finally admitted, "Rotten."

"Letís get some more tea in you and then back to sleep." Gabrielle started to climb out from under the blankets and the warrior when a hand reached out to hold her tightly. "In a minute," Xena whispered hoarsely.

"Okay, at least drink." Gabrielle grabbed the water skin and held it to the warriorís lips. She smiled as Xena drank long and deeply. They lay together sharing their warmth until the sun climbed well into the sky. The soft breathing of the warrior told Gabrielle she had returned to sleep. She gently climbed out of the blankets and turned to make sure the warrior was still covered.

The bard walked away from the camp gathering as much wood as she could carry. Argo was gazing peacefully and seemed none the worse for their wet journey. Gabrielle returned to the rock cavern and piled more wood onto the fire. Xenaís temperature seemed down but keeping her warm was crucial. Still the warrior slept, her coughs more sporadic but just as deep and grating.

Gabrielle set about making a breakfast of soft gruel and tea. Xena must eat to regain her strength. In the dungeon the prisoners were given only moldy bread to eat and vile water to drink. The emperor had finally allowed Gabrielle to see Xena in her prison after she was condemned to die. He told her Xena would kill her on sight. How wrong he was! Gabrielle knew that was impossible. Despise her, yes, hate her, even hold her in contempt! All these emotions the warrior would have. But kill her, no Xena could never do that. Gabrielle knew her too well. Yet she went down into that dark dungeon to face her best friend with a terrible fear in her soul. The rejection and hatred she deserved never came. Somehow Xena had turned to her with quiet blue eyes and asked her to scratch her nose. Gabrielle had cried with relief but the gnawing fear in her gut did not leave and was still with her now.

She picked up a plate and scooped the tan mass onto it. Not very pretty, she decided, but certainly nourishing. She poured some tea into a cup and walked over to the warrior. She was greeted with two blue orbs clear and sharp. "Youíre feeling better."

"Yeah."

Gabrielle gave the plate and cup to the warrior. She was glad to see Xena able to finish all her breakfast. "Iíll set up some snares later and try to catch us dinner."

"No you wonít. Youíre staying put. Weíre fine for a few days." The bardís green eyes danced with determination as her jaw tightened waiting for an argument. None came as the warrior leaned forward fighting spasms of coughs that racked her body. Finally, able to regain control, she drank again deeply and laid back down. This action scared the bard worse than anything else could have. Xena never gave up nor gave in so easily. The worried bard watched the warrior sink into sleep.

The rest of the day passed quietly with Gabrielle watching over her companion. About mid afternoon, she realized that water might become a problem and went out into the open on a search of the gray desolate land. Luckily, she did not have to travel far with the empty water skins as Argo showed her the way. The warhorse had ranged far down between two low hills. There Gabrielle saw a pound and the leap of a silver flash, the sure sign of fish.

The young bard carefully waded into the icy water shivering involuntarily. She stumbled on a submerged rock, flaying wildly and drenching herself completely. With an angry curse, Gabrielle straightened up and stared into the clear pool. Intent on fishing, she did not notice the sky darkening towards nightfall. Finally, with a triumphant laugh, she was able to grab an elusive silver lake bass as he flashed by her legs. Cold and shivering, she climbed out of the pound and gathered up the filled water skins. Gods, it was late and there still was wood to gather.

Quickly she scampered back up to the cavern on the hillside. As she rushed inside, a cheerfully crackling fire greeted her. Her patient was propped up against the saddle, watching the blaze with serious eyes.

"Bout time you got back. Thought Iíd starve to death."

Gabrielle looked with astonishment at her lounging friend followed by a relieved smile. "So, youíre feeling better? You must be if youíre giving your nurse a hard time."

"Yeah. Must say watching you fish was the most entertainment Iíve had in awhile."

"You were....wait a minute, just what is wrong with my fishing?"

"Gabrielle, Iíve told you over and over, if you want to catch anything, you have to be quiet. All that thrashing about would wake up the dead not to mention scare all the fish to the other side of the pound." The warrior gave this lesson firmly but the twinkle in her eyes gave her away.

Gabrielle stared at her friend as she felt the resentment rising. She opened her mouth to make a stinging retort but it died on her lips as she realized she was being baited. What was even better was that Xena was feeling well enough to engage in the banter that had so been a part of their lives together before they entered the Kingdom of Chin. Okay, Gabrielle, get a grip she told herself. This is a good thing.

The smile died on her lips as the hacking cough doubled over the warrior. She dropped the fish and immediately set about making tea. "Here, you keep warm," she said as she pulled the blankets up over Xenaís body. "How did you watch me without me hearing your cough?"

The warrior turned towards the bard and with a crooked grin replied, "I have many skills."

"Ahuh. Well, put your drinking skills to work and finish all of this." Gabrielle handed her patient a cup of steaming tea that she readily accepted.

Gabrielle made short work of cleaning and preparing her catch which both ate with relish. Xena seemed stronger and was able to help with the clean up chores. She also noted that the wood supply had been replenished and knew who was responsible.

As the fire crackled cheerfully, the two friends enjoyed the rest of their tea. Gabrielle felt this was the opportunity for sharing her feelings. Yet where to start? So much between them left unsaid. So much Gabrielle wanted to say. Yet try as she might, she couldnít find the words to began. She was not sure of her own truth, of her own motives. She had promised herself there would be no more lies to Xena. Yet how could she have been so easily deceived into betraying her best friend? Was stopping Xena from murder worth her life? The only truth Gabrielle was sure of was her own pain and the terrible guilt gnawing at her insides.

As the young woman watched the crackling fire, she sneaked a peek at her friendís face. The hard chiseled profile of the warrior was in repose, blue eyes staring into the fireís orange coals. Her dark hair was matted and tangled, showing the need of care. There was a slight flush in her cheeks telling the return of fever and her grating cough continued to disturb the nightís silence. Yet the stoic warrior made no complaint, and actually seemed stronger with her shoulders back and her head high, almost proudly carried.

Gabrielle pulled her eyes away from the beloved face and back to the cheerful blaze. "Xena, I just wanted to say again how sorry I am for what I did in the Kingdom of Chin. I thought I was saving you and instead....."

"Weíve been through this before," Xena interrupted. "I told you then and I meant it just as I do now that I understand why you did what you did. There is nothing to forgive. You were trying to save me from returning to the darkness and committing murder. You did what you had to do. I did what I had to do. Itís over and we need to move on." The warriorís voice ended in a hoarse whisper as a raking cough finished her sentence. She reached over to the water skin and took a long draught.

Gabrielle swung to face her friend with a quick retort on her lips, blazing fire in her eyes. It died there as she saw the weariness cross Xenaís pale face, quickly hidden behind the stoic warrior mask.

"Why donít you crawl between the blankets and get some rest?" she said instead.

Xena gazed at her friend as her eyes softened with the unmistakable look of love and sadness. A strange flash of longing crossed her quiet face. As quickly as it was there, it was gone to be replaced with a look of resignation.

The warrior nodded and stretched her long frame out before the fire. The bard made no move to come any closer. After a moment, Xena turned and rolled into the blankets.

Chapter 2

As Gabrielle stared long into the dying coals, the raspy breathing of the warrior told her she had fallen into a fitful sleep.

Oh gods, now what? The bard looked deep within herself as she fought to understand her motives that led to the actions of the last fortnight. Gabrielle had always prided herself in her honesty especially when it came to her own motives that drove her actions. Now was the time to face tough questions, question she knew Xena would never ask her. Questions she had to ask herself and answer for herself.

Did I go to the Kingdom of Chin to save Xena or because I was angry with her? Did I hate her? Did I some how want her dead? No, this does not feel right. How could I have been so stupid? Was the life of an evil emperor worth Xenaís? No, never! I saved her soul only to loose her, to loose us.

Perhaps, I need to leave Xena. I could do that. She would let me go now. Perhaps, she would rather I leave. She will never trust me again. Canít say I blame her. I wouldnít trust me either. She does what she thinks is right to repay a debt and her best friend nearly gets her executed. Now there is a real friend for you.

A few misty tears trickled down the cheeks of the bard. What a mess Iíve made of our friendship, of our life together. Gabrielle thought back over the years they had shared. In danger and in battle, they were always on the same side, always fighting for what was right. Each guiding the other, each teaching the other, a perfect complement. One dark and haunted with the skills of life taking and of life giving, the other bright and optimistic, seeing the good in people and bringing out the best in even the darkest souls. One taking action and the other looking for alternatives. One filled with dread, the other filled with hope. Yet each giving themselves to the other, opening their souls to the other. Yes, with opening your heart and soul comes terrible risk for now each has the ability to inflict terrible wounds on the other. Gabrielle wondered which of them would heal the fastest. The warrior was legendary for her fast healing ability, but that was on the outside. Gabrielle knew her warrior well. She was vulnerable on the inside and easy to deeply hurt there. It was not clear that she could recover so quickly from such wounds especially when they were inflicted by her best friend. The one person she had trusted enough to open her soul to had failed her. Used to trust, Gabrielle reminded herself. That was gone now.

She said there is nothing to forgive, but she did not forgive me. I know Xena. She is day by day building back the wall between us, brick by brick. Here I am, letting her do it, even helping her to do it. Is that because I canít face her with the truth? Or is it because if she tells me how she really feels, how hurt she is, how much pain she is in, I will die of shame for what I have done. I donít think I can stand the look on her face, the cold stare of her eyes, the proud toss of head as she walks away from me forever. She will never trust me with her soul again. I wouldnít if I were in her boots.

The bard sighed heavily and glanced at her sleeping friend. A deep cough came up suddenly from the slumbering warrior, causing her to jerk awake. Gabrielle stirred the fire and put another log on top of the coals. She put a small pot of water to boil and put some herbs into it. She felt cobalt blue eyes on her while she worked but made no comment. Once the tea was bubbling, she poured it into an earthen cup and turned to the reclining form.

"Here, drink this down," she said extending the cup.

"Thanks." Xena took the cup pulling herself up on an elbow. She sipped the tea and gave Gabrielle an appreciative look. "Youíve gotten pretty good at herb tea making."

"Had a good teacher."

"Hmm, good for something anyway."

"Xena, you are...." Gabrielle stopped the rising anger and instead turned back to the fire. "Donít sell yourself short. I donít like it when you do that."

The warrior lowered her gaze to the cup and finished her tea. She set it down and turned over on her side into the blankets. Sleep soon claimed her weary body but a peaceful rest continued to elude her as the cough periodically woke her. Gabrielle watched the dying fire for a time. When she was sure Xena was asleep, she slipped into the blankets and held her close as the chills of fever again overtook the warrior.

Chapter 3

The gray dawn lit the entrance to the cavern waking the bard with a start. She realized she was alone in the blankets and turned over to give the area a quick scan. A bright fire was burning with a mound of fresh wood stacked beside it. Gabrielle jumped up and looked for the warriorís sword. A strong feeling of dismay came over her as she saw the sword and the warriorís armor were missing. She pulled on her cloak against the early morning chill and ran out of the cavern to the ledge. There below she could see Argo grazing peacefully on the hillside. An incredible sense of relief coursed up through her. The bard returned to the cavern and put up tea to boil.

Not long afterward, Gabrielle heard the familiar footsteps of the warrior. Xena strolled into the camp area and handed over two skinned rabbits. As she turned, the deep cough shook her for a moment.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked impatiently. "You should be resting, not hunting. We had enough gruel to last us another day or so."

The warrior turned back with a masked face and shadowed eyes. "We have to keep moving. Weíll need food stores to get us through."

"Xena, you arenít going anywhere but back to bed. That cough is not getting better and the night chills are still with you. By the gods, youíve got to take care of yourself." Gabrielleís sea green eyes snapped with anger as she shook a finger at her friend.

The warrior gave the bard a weary look. "We must leave here and keep moving south. If we get caught on these plains with the winter storms coming, it will be rough." Xenaís voice was low and patient. "Iíve been through here a few times and wintered here once. Itís a bad time of year for us to be crossing now. Faster we hit the mountains to the south, sooner we can get home to Greece."

"And what about you?"

"Iíll be all right. We just have to keep moving south. Okay?"

Gabrielle search the face of her friend. She saw the shadowed eyes soften as they returned her gaze. "Honest, itíll be fine."

"All right, Xena," Gabrielle replied with resignation in her voice. "But when I say stop for a rest, we do it!"

"Fair enough. Now how about cooking us some breakfast?"

Gabrielle nodded but before she could demand that Xena rest while she cook the rabbits, the warrior had strolled outside with Argoís saddle in her hand. The bard gave an exasperated sigh and began the morning meal.

The two women made quick work of their breakfast and gathered up their few possessions. Once loaded on Argo, they set off south towards the hazy mountains that seemed to draw no closer as the hours passed. The weather held as a languid sun kept them company for the entire day. Gabrielle insisted on several rest stops including a brief lunch. True to her word, Xena did not protest although she gave Gabrielle the cold warrior look when she demanded yet another rest stop mid-afternoon. Night found them in a sheltered cove under some scraggily pine trees.

The days passed as the travelers plodded along through the barren land constantly traveling southwest. Xenaís cough seemed no better but she moved forward with determined step. Her strength seemed to flow away by nightfall but return the next morning. She seldom spoke, saving her energy for walking or riding. Gabrielle had given up on any discourse. She kept a silent pace side by side with her friend, haunted by her inner emotional turmoil, gnawing gut and troubling visions of the past.

After a number of days of weak sunlight, the weather again turned dark and foreboding. The chill in the air and the brisk wind spoke of yet more storms to come. As the two friends crested yet another gray green hill Gabrielle spotted the square shapes of a village in the distance.

"At last, civilization. We can get a hot meal and warm bed for the night."

Xena drew her head up and looked stoically at the bard. "Afraid not. Thatís Thorbis. Letís just say that village and I have a history."

"Xena, you have a history with over half this inhabited world. Maybe we can just sneak in quietly."

The warrior shook her head and moved off to the left giving the village a wide berth. Gabrielleís resentment grew as the wind cut through her. The thought of hot food and a warm place to sit was too much to let pass.

"Maybe I can go down to Thorbis and get some supplies."

The warrior stopped suddenly, straightened and turned to the young bard. "Suit yourself. If you want to stay the night there, thatís fine. Iíll be up ahead." This comment was made with cold shadowed eyes, and the hard set warrior mask firmly in place on her face.

"Not without you," Gabrielle replied firmly. "I just thought we could use some food we didnít have to catch and prepare."

The warrior shook her head firmly and swung onto the back of the palomino warhorse. She reached down a hand to the bard demanding coldly. "Decide, Gabrielle. Come with me now or go to Thorbis. Your choice."

Gabrielle lifted flashing sea green eyes to the face leaning down towards her with a ready retort on her lips about just where and how fast the warrior could go. The instantaneous flash of sorrow that crossed Xenaís face gave her pause. Just as quickly as it was there, the expression was gone with the cold mask firmly in place. Without comment, Gabrielle grabbed the offered hand and swung up behind Xena. Argo moved out at a brisk cantor.

They hadnít traveled more than a mile or two when Xena pulled the warhorse to a halt. She stiffened and turned her face into the wind with listening attention. Gabrielle knew the expression and movements of the warrior all too well and grabbed her staff firmly. Trouble was ahead.

Without a word, Xena dismounted and with Gabrielle following closely behind, slowly made her way up a steep hill. Near the top, she dropped down to all fours and crawled forward, parting the bushes carefully. Gabrielle followed suit, long use to mimicking Xenaís movements when danger was near. As they reached the summit, Gabrielle caught the tangy smell of wood smoke and peered over Xenaís shoulder. Below the hill, a rough camp was being set up by a group of dark suited soldiers of fortune. Huddled near a small ravine, a group of young girls sat, each tied by the leg to a rope line strung between two scrubby trees. By the expressions of fear and horror on their faces, Gabrielle sensed they were newly captured, no doubt taken from their homes that very day. They seemed to range in age from older teenagers to fairly young girls. All seemed physically in good shape.

Xena watched the camp for a moment and then motioned Gabrielle back. They retraced their steps down the hill to the waiting Argo. A grating cough over took the warrior that ended in a slight shudder as they reached the warhorse. Gabrielle reached up, pulled out the water skin and handed it to her friend. Xena took the skin silently and took a long drink. She replaced the skin and turned back to Gabrielle.

"Slavers," she noted in a hoarse voice.

Gabrielle nodded slowly looking up searchingly into the piercing blue eyes of her soulmate. "Xena, thereís five of them down there. Maybe we should let this one go."

"What are you saying?" demanded the warrior.

"What I mean is, you are in no shape to go up against five thugs. We should pass on this. Maybe I can go back to Thorbis and get help. But if not that, then I think we should ride on."

"No!" the warrior uttered with firm voice and fierce eyes. "Once the men finish setting up camp, they will go after those girls. I wonít leave them to that fate."

"But Xena," Gabrielleís voice held a note of pleading. "You are not well enough. Please donít do this to yourself."

The warrior searched her friendís face and then a half grin turned up the corners of her mouth. "This is the first time you have ever doubted my abilities. I know Iím not at full strength. I didnít plan on attacking them all at once. Iím going to use your tactics and talk them to death."

"What?"

"Gabrielle, I know their leader. His name is Orbis. He used to be a young soldier in my army. I taught him how to use a sword and fight. We go way back."

The bard stared at her friendís face while the warning bells went off in her gut. The slight grin on the warriorís lips was not reaching her cold calculating cobalt eyes. Gabrielle was not fooled. There was more to this situation than the warrior was sharing but she decided to go along for now. "You know him, so what. Talking is my thing, not yours. Whatís your plan?"

"Iíll ride into camp, strike up a conversation, and get those soldiers in close. You take my dagger and cut the girls loose. Sneak them away down that gully and head for Thorbis as fast as you can. Get them there safely, Gabrielle. Iíll meet you later. Thatís it, short and sweet."

"And when they see the girls gone, you end up taking them all on. This is a lousy idea. Xena, normally this is a piece of cake for you but not now. Donít do this." The worry and concern in the young bardís face broke through the warriorís cold mask. She drew the bard close.

"Itíll be okay, honest Gabrielle. I can take them. I promise to finish it quick, use my chakram and get out."

"Xena, do you promise? I mean it. Quick and get out of there."

"Yes, I promise. Do you promise to keep those girls safe and get them to Thorbis? They are the main concern here. Now promise me."

Gabrielle searched the treasured features before her. The warrior was keeping something from her. She could sense it. "I promise to keep them safe. But is Thorbis such a good idea? Thought you wanted to avoid that village."

Xena looked searchingly at her friend. "One problem at a time." She released the bardís shoulders and turned towards Argo. "Síallright, then. Letís get on with it. Just like old times, huh Gabrielle?"

The bardís worried frown stayed on her face, "Like old times, Xena. Do you trust me to do this?"

"With my life," came the ready reply.

The catch in the bardís throat choked off further comment. She fiercely hugged the warrior, turned and walked rapidly towards the slaverís camp.

 

Chapter 4

Gabrielle moved carefully and cautious through the tall grass and brush making a wide circle around the camp. Finally, she struck the ravine that stretched out towards the west and scampered down the embankment. She picked her way carefully over the rocks, doing her best not to make a sound. Finally, she crouched down low as the coarse voices of the slavers reached her ears. Crawling slowly up the bank and moving quietly between several large boulders, she finally was able to see the captives directly in front of her and just beyond, the movements of the soldiers. She moved closer but remained hidden behind some dense bushes. She must have made a slight sound for one of the older girls swung her head around to stare. Gabrielle placed a finger to her lips smiling encouragingly. The girl's eyes widened. She nodded slowly and turned back. She whispered something to the girl next to her who did the same to the next. No one looked back in Gabrielleís direction but each girl stiffened slightly.

Now there was nothing to do but wait developments. There was a gnawing in Gabrielleís stomach that she sensed was fear and excitement. The excitement always came over her before a fight no matter how many times she and Xena found themselves in this situation. The fear was new. Gods, she was never afraid before. Why now? She trusted Xena completely. The warrior would get them out of any scrape and deal with all opponents. Yet now fear clawed at her gut. Was she doubting the warriorís strength and skills? Right, that would be a first. Or was she doubting her own ability to carry out this plan and get the young girls to safety? Iíve messed up so many times recently. Will I blow this as well and get Xena killed? She said she trusted me with her life but do I trust myself? By the gods, if I screw this up, I wonít be able to live with myself. Gabrielleís musings were cut short by the sight of a horse prancing from side to side entering the small camp. A low sing song voice purred into the air.

"Hiya boys. Long time no see."

Gabrielle stared at the warrior as a thrill coursed through her body. She was magnificent, so strong, tall and self-assured sitting the saddle proudly and moving instinctively as the horse under her danced and shifted. Her dark head was held high as pure menace and hatred surround her like a black swirling cloud. Her sharp piercing eyes gave off such a penetrating glare that even from that distance Gabrielleís heart froze.

The effect of the warrior princess on the lounging men was immediate. They scrambled to their feet as one and grabbed what ever weapons they could find. As they huddled closer, the tallest of the group sauntered forward.

"Xena, it has been awhile."

Gabrielle started out of her trance and slipped around the bushes to the rope that held the captives. She quickly cut the line, moved to the nearest girl and cut her free. As she moved from captive to captive, she freed them and motioned to them to move into the gully. The oldest girl gathered up the youngest and moved the freed girls ahead of her down the bank while Gabrielle continued to work on the ropes that bound the rest. She worked feverishly while listening carefully to the conversation from the camp site. She paused in mid-motion as Xenaís words cut through the air, hard and cold.

"Orbis, heard they call you the best swordsman in Greece these days. You donít really believe that talk, do you?"

The tall slaver dressed in dark leather, spikes and armor gave a harsh laugh. "Taught me well, Xena. Iíll give you that but those days are gone. I am the best. Want to find out just how good I am?" His mocking laugh grated on Gabrielleís ears as she freed the last captive. She risked a quick look over at the camp in time to see Xena swing down from Argo. She slapped the horseís rump, moving her away from the men and danger.

"Maybe, but I donít think it would be much of a match. Building your reputation by killing defenseless villagers is not very impressive." The warriorís cold tone and the rage that radiated from her gave the slavers pause as they glanced nervously at their leader.

"But Xena, you did!" Orbis spat out. He drew his sword and twirled it in a vicious arc.

Gabrielle gave a last glance at the confrontation. So much for Xena talking her way out of the situation. The bardís heart lurched as she saw three more men come out of the bushes to the side of the camp. This now made eight. Xena didnít have a chance dealing with all these thugs and the greatest swordsman in Greece. Gabrielle knew she would draw out the confrontation and then the fight, giving her time to get the girls to safety.

"Centaur dung," Gabrielle swore under her breath.

She scrambled down the embankment gathering the girls to her. She pointed the way down the gully and put her finger to her lips signaling them to be quiet. The older girl nodded and helped Gabrielle get the small group moving. Carefully, they scampered over the rocks and sand as the distance increased from the slaverís camp.

Gabrielle kept them moving as fast as she dared with frequent looks over her shoulder. They had not yet been discovered as the first clang of swords echoed from the camp. She broke into a slow jog and encouraged the girls to move faster. Finally, they came out of the gully and onto a wide wagon road that lead down towards the village in the distance. She stopped the girls there for a brief rest and pulled the oldest to the side.

"Whatís your name?" she asked her.

"Inda," came the quiet reply.

"Inda, my name is Gabrielle. Can you get these girls the rest of the way into Thorbis? You must keep going and run as fast as you can. Donít stop again until youíve reach the village."

The girl was tall with bright red hair and serious gray eyes. She nodded slowly. "Arenít you coming with us?"

"Iíve got to go back to help my friend, Xena. Weíll keep those slavers busy to give you enough time to get to safety."

"Xena? That warrior who rode into camp was Xena? She must have been joining them."

Gabrielleís eyes flashed fire as she grabbed the shoulders of the girl harshly. "Look, I donít have time for this. Xena is risking her life to safe yours. Iíve got to get back there. If we donít make it, at least remember who saved your butts!" Giving Inda a quick shake, the bard angrily jerked the girl around and pushed her towards the village. With a quick glance back to make sure the girls were hurrying away, Gabrielle broke into a dead run back to the slaverís camp.

Panting, she scrambled up the bank from the gully and found herself behind the same bushes where the girls had been held. In front of her, the sword fight between Xena and Orbis was swirling dust as the two fought viciously back and forth in the middle of a tight circle of yelling men. Gabrielle shook her head. Xena was clearly parrying the thrusts of her advisory and drawing the fight out as long as she could.

"Great promise, Xena," she muttered under her breath. Gabrielle could also see that the normally fluid strokes and easy motions so like a ballet and second nature to the warrior were missing. She was tiring and soon would be in big trouble. Just as Gabrielle was about to yell to her best friend to finish him, one of the slavers turned and noticed the captives were gone. With a yell, he pointed towards the bushes were Gabrielle lay hidden and started to run. He was joined by two others. It was their last action as Xena flipped over Orbis and released her chakram. The three fell to the ground as the weapon cut their throats, flew in an arc and returned to her left hand. She turned just in time to parry yet another thrust by Orbis while delivering a back kick hitting one of the soldiers behind her.

Two more slavers started running down the hill towards the gully. Xena turned to make yet another throw of her chakram. She felt another opponent behind her and rolled just in time to avoid a sword thrust but took a cut across her arm from Orbis in the process. As she whirled yet again, frantically searching for the two men, she saw Gabrielle leap from behind the bushes and take them both out with a neck high thrust of her staff. A feral grin turned up the corners of her mouth as she swung around and began a full out attack on her opponents. There would be no more holding back. Now blood would flow! Xena fought the three to a stand still, never giving ground.

In the meantime, Gabrielle finished off the two thugs with a blow to the head of one and than the other. The sound of Xenaís voice in her head told her to always be sure, so she stopped a moment to check the condition of her advisories. Finding them both unconscious, she took off running for the fight still raging on the hill side.

A quick kick to the face finally dropped one of the three slavers as the other two charged Xena at once. Xena swung her sword high blocking yet another thrust by Orbis just as Gabrielle arrived in time to deliver a staff blow to the arm of the other soldier. He whirled and attacked her with his sword flashing. Gabrielle met the swing of the sword solidly with her staff and swept low, taking his legs out from under him. As he fell back, he grabbed Gabrielleís staff jerking it from her hand. She kicked his sword hand and the blade fell to the ground as he rolled over howling in pain.

Gabrielle turned back to her friend. Xena was fighting with all the reserves she had left but she was gasping for breath and stumbling badly. Orbis was bleeding from numerous cuts but he sensed finally an advantage and pushed forward with all his strength. Xena gave ground blocking his thrust as she gave him a severe cut in his side. With a roar of pain, he flung himself forward forcing Xena back. Suddenly, Gabrielle saw one of the soldiers rise with a dagger in his hand starting a downward swing for Xenaís back.

"No," she screamed and grabbed the sword that lay at her feet. With a leap, Gabrielle thrust the sword towards the torso of the attacking soldier. In a flash, as the blade struck forward, Gabrielle was shocked to find it knocked from her hand with a fierce sweep. She turned in astonishment as Xena completed the swing and then rolled away from the dagger swipe. She was quick enough to avoid a direct stab, but the knife cut her side as she rolled away. From the ground, she threw her chakram directly into the chest of the soldier who slumped forward, blood spewing everywhere.

Orbis took advantage of this motion to slice down with his sword. Xena raised her arm in defense and took the cut directly there and on part of her gauntlet. The sudden flash of pain cost her the hold on her own sword and it fell to the ground. She again rolled and tried to reach her feet but the world started to spin as a wave of dizziness overcame her. As she staggered up, a terrible spasm of coughing took her down on one knee gasping for breath. A red mist came before her eyes as she lost sight of her opponent.

With a harsh laugh, Orbis staggered to his feet and brought his sword forward for the killing blow. Suddenly, he found his arm stopped in mid-motion by a very desperate bard who hung on to it for all she was worth. She released her hold only to leaped on his back with such momentum he fell forward to the ground thrashing wildly. As he flung Gabrielle off and rolled to his feet, he found himself face to face with the warrior princess sword in hand.

"We finish this now, swordsman," she croaked. The two dirt covered bloody fighters circled each other and then came together in a final lunge. Xena let his blade slide by, under her arm scoring her leathers as she brought her own blade up into Orbisís body. She plunged her sword into his heart. As he fell back, she was dragged forward by his momentum and collapsed on top of him.

Gabrielle scampered to her feet and ran to the side of her friend. She knelt down next to her soulmate, rolled her on her back and onto her lap. "Xena, Xena, can you hear me?"

The warrior opened her cobalt blue eyes and looked up into the face of the bard. "Howíd we do?" she whispered hoarsely.

Gabrielle grinned as tears fought their way down her dirt stained cheeks. "Same as always. Good guys won, again."

Xena returned her grin and struggled to a sitting position. She looked at the bodies scattered around and nodded. "All in a dayís work." The cough came again doubling the warrior over. This time a trickle of blood appeared in the corner of her mouth as she completed the spasm.

Gabrielle reached over and held the warrior until the spasm and shaking passed. "Xena, weíve got to get you help." She turned and whistled for Argo. As the warhorse appeared, she gently lowered the warrior back to the ground. She grabbed the water skin from the saddle horn and lifted Xenaís head. The warrior looked up at her gratefully and swallowed several large mouthfuls of water.

"Can you ride?" she asked the wounded warrior. Xena nodded and once again struggled to sit up. Slowly, she climbed to her feet with a helping arm from Gabrielle. She stood for a moment and turned to hold onto the saddle of her warhorse. Gabrielle again offered her water which she drank. Then she slowly and painfully climbed into the saddle. Gabrielle turned and grabbed Xenaís sword and chakram, cringing as she pulled the bloody weapons from the lifeless bodies. She took them back to Xena and tied them onto the saddle pack. She turned and started to lead the horse away from the slaverís camp.

After a moment, Gabrielle stopped and turned back to her friend. She saw Xena sway in the saddle, and quickly jumped back to her side, holding her steady. Without further thought, she climbed onto the back of Argo holding Xena around the waist with one hand and grabbing the reins with the other. She urged the warhorse forward out of the camp and onto the road to Thorbis. Xena needed help and needed it fast. As Xena had said, one problem at a time.

Chapter 5

Gabrielle guided the golden warhorse down the wagon road to the edge of the village. She circled behind the huts and wooden structures until she saw a building that looked like a tavern and hopefully an inn. Halting Argo against the back wall of the building, she slipped out of the saddle. Carefully, she drew the warrior from the horse and helped her to a sitting position, her back against the wooden wall of the building.

"Xena, can you hear me? Iím going to see if we can get a room inside and get a healer."

The warrior opened weary eyes and regarded the bard steadily. Another spasm of coughing again doubled Xena over, leaving her gasping for breath. Her chest heaved as it no longer seemed possible for her to drive air into her lungs. She nodded and looked up at the bard with pained blue eyes.

"Do what you think is right, Gabrielle," she whispered as her head drooped forward.

Gabrielle reached back up behind the saddle, drew the warriorís sword and laid it next to her. "Just in case," she said as she turned on her heels and rapidly walked around the tavern to the front door.

Once inside the dark interior, Gabrielle paused until her eyes adjusted. She finally saw a bent grizzly old man wiping cups. He was stacking them on a shelf behind a long wooden counter, carved and worn just as he appeared.

"Do you have a room available?"

The proprietor turned and stared at the young bard in front of him. He noted her disheveled appearance and the dry blood on the front of her cloak.

"Could be," he replied evasively.

"I want a room now for me and my friend who is hurt. We also need a healer. Do you have one in this village?" Gabrielle dropped her demanding tone as her voice took on a desperate note. She gave the man a pleading look.

His expression softened slightly as the open caring face of the young woman before him overcame his better judgment.

"You can have the room over there," he said pointing to a stout dark oak door near a steep staircase. "Two dinars for the night."

Gabrielle gave him a winning smile that lit up her whole face as relief swept over her. The old man returned her smile, unable to help himself. "About the healer?"

"Oh, right. We do have a woman who delivers babies and knows something about herbs and such. She lives out at the edge of town."

"Will you ask her to come for my friend?" Gabrielleís voice held such a note of hope that the old manís head froze in mid shake from side to side.

"Yes...well...Iíll see if she can come. Where is your friend?"

"Iíll get her. Please hurry. Sheís in a bad way." The bard looked anxiously at the proprietor with desperation in her voice.

The old man shrugged as he moved past the bard and out the door. Gabrielle turned, followed him out and walked rapidly around the tavern. She glanced quickly around as it struck her that no one was in sight. This was odd since the captive girls must have made it into the village ahead of them and spread the news of the fight. She grabbed her staff more tightly as she thought hard. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled as she had the feeling that they should leave this village at once. Maybe coming here was not such a good idea. Still Xena couldnít travel any further with her wounds and the terrible cough that was clearly attacking her lungs. There seemed little choice. With a sigh, she walked around the building and found two penetrating blue eyes studying her.

"I got us a room, Xena. Letís get you up and into it. The tavern is empty and the owner went for the village healer."

Xena didnít speak but continued to gaze into Gabrielleís eyes. At last, she dropped her head and struggled to her feet. Gabrielle rushed to her side and helped study her. Noticing that the warrior had left her sword on the ground, the bard stooped to pick it up and hand it to her. Xena again met the bardís eyes with a soft glance filled with a mixture of love, sadness and pain. She turned slowly and walked around to the front of the tavern leaving the sword in the hands of the bard.

Once inside, Xena stopped as Gabrielle followed her and pointed to the large door next to the staircase. Gabrielle kept a studying arm around the waist of the warrior as she staggered slightly towards the room. The bard moved forward and opened the door into a clean, cheerful interior. There was a large bed to one side, a stone fireplace and small table. Moving the warrior forward, Gabrielle was able to help her lie on the bed. She placed the sword on the floor next to Xena and turned to start pulling off the warriorís boots.

"Please Gabrielle. Itís okay. Can you take care of Argo?" the warrior pleaded.

"No problem. But you first. Iíll get our packs and be right back."

"Gabrielle," the warrior whispered.

"Yes, what is it?"

"You should know....no more lies or omissions between us. Just the truth, okay?"

Gabrielle turned and knelt next to the bed bringing her sea green eyes level with the warriorís blue. The nagging fear that clawed at her stomach since they had left the Kingdom of Chin returned in an instant. She grabbed the warriorís hand and held it tightly ignoring the dried blood. "Agreed, no more lies."

"This place, I did terrible things here.....too horrible to describe." Xenaís deep voice grew softer with regret. "The villagers will demand justice and they should have it. When the time comes, leave. Ride Argo back to Greece or where ever you want to go. Do what you must. Just leave."

Gabrielleís eyes widened as she looked with astonishment at her best friend. "Why should I leave?" Suddenly, she realized Xena was warning her of pending doom. "You wonít fight them or try to escape, will you?"

"No."

"Than I will. Xena, I wonít give you up and by the gods I wonít allow you to give in."

"Please donít, Gabrielle." The warrior gently intertwined her fingers with the bardís and looked softly at her. Her once piecing eyes now only held pain and weariness. The grating cough overcame the warrior once again. As the bard held Xena until it passed, a slow trickle of blood again flowed down the corner of her mouth.

"No more talk now, Xena. Funny I should be the one to say that. Stay put. Iíll get our packs and get you settled. Then Iíll take care of Argo. I promise." As she finished the sentence, Gabrielle jumped up and rapidly walked out the door before Xena could protest. She quickly brought their possessions back into the small room and gave the water skin to her friend with the no-nonsense command to "drink". While Xena did as she was bidden, Gabrielle piled wood into the fireplace and soon had a cheery fire burning. She then put some water to heat in a pot.

"Now, letís take care of you." Before Xena could say a word, Gabrielle had removed her boots and unclasped her armor. Next she removed the leather under garment now tattered with several deep rents in it. Carefully washing off the blood and grim, Gabrielle found several cuts that needed stitching. She took up the healer's kit and got out the needle. Xena watched her with steady eyes as she pulled the thread through and turned.

"Iíll do the one in your side first, okay?"

The warrior nodded and grabbed the bed post. Gabrielle made clean small stitches and soon had deftly sewed shut the long slash. The warrior was silent throughout the procedure. The only sign that Gabrielle had of Xenaís pain was the white knuckles of her left hand.

"All done. Are you doing okay?"

Xena opened her eyes and looked down at the neatly closed wound in her side. "Nice job, Gabrielle."

"Had a good teacher." Gabrielle looked up into the stoic face of the warrior with a threat in her eyes waiting for yet another self-demeaning remark.

The warrior surprised her with a look of such sadness and remorse that her heart almost broke. "Youíve had way too much practice."

The young bardís wrinkled forehead showed age well beyond her actual years. She nodded in agreement. "Youíve been hurt too much, Xena."

The warriorís stoic features took on a bitter scowl filled with darkness and self-hatred. The bard could not stand seeing the expression. "Donít you say it! I mean it, Xena. Donít you even think it. I wonít let you. Now, Iím going to do the cut on your arm. Are you ready?"

The warrior extended her bloody right arm to the bard and closed her eyes. Soon that wound was closed as well and the rest bandaged. Gabrielle used the rest of the hot water to clean Xena up and slipped a night shift over her battered body. "Here, drink some more and rest. Iíll take care of Argo and find out whatís keeping that healer."

"Gabrielle, take your staff and be careful." The warrior whispered the warning in a low voice as she dropped her head wearily. She seemed to slip into sleep almost immediately. The bard gave her best friend a worried look and hurried out the door.

Gabrielle found a small stable in the back of the tavern and soon had Argo bedded down and curried. She found some grain and hay for the animal. Argo thanked her with a neigh and a nudge of her head. "Thatía girl. You take it easy here. Iíve got to get back to your mistress." The golden warhorseís ears flickered back and forth and she nodded as if in agreement.

Rounding the corner of the tavern, the hurrying Gabrielle almost ran over the old tavern owner. "Where have you been?" she demanded.

"Sorry miss. Lendila will be here shortly. She was finishing delivering a baby, boy it was. Anyway, said she would be right over."

"Good, any chance of getting something to eat?"

"Have some soup cooking. That do?"

Gabrielle nodded. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the old man more closely. "Just where are all the people in this village?" She didnít like his nervous look or evasive eyes.

"Most everyone is out in the fields. Theyíll be around tonight." He uttered this phase while keeping a close watch on his feet.

Gabrielle shook her head as the warning bells went off in her gut once more. Still there was little she could do. She pushed past the old man and went back into the tavern, keeping a firm grip on her staff. Once inside the little room, she added some more wood to the fire. As the warmth filled the room she went over to the bed to check on her friend.

As she approached, two clear blue eyes greeted her. "Hi."

"Hi yourself. How do you feel?"

The warrior thought a minute and finally admitted, "Not too bad, considering."

"So that means rotten but still alive and kicking, right?"

The warriorís eyebrows shot upward as a slow grin turned the corners of her mouth. "Something like that. Howís Argo?"

"Better than you. She told me to say hello."

"And hi back to her. Thanks for taking care of her, Gabrielle."

Xena watched the bard for a long minute. "Shouldnít you be taking care of yourself a little?"

Gabrielle looked at her blood stained hands, arms and clothes and nodded her agreement. She quickly peeled off her clothes and used some of the remaining hot water to wash. She then put on a clean shift. "Iíll clean up all of this stuff in the morning." A knock halted her speech. She grabbed her staff and carefully opened the door to reveal the proprietor who produced two steaming bowls of soup, dark bread and strong hard cheese. He glanced at the warrior lying in the bed and then back at the bard as he set the tray down on the small table. One more look and he was quickly gone pulling the door closed behind him.

"Strange old guy," Gabrielle observed.

"Hmmm," was Xenaís only comment. Gabrielle did not miss the icy blue flash and glitter of her eyes before she dropped them to study the food before her. The bard read trouble from the warriorís reaction and sighed. "Letís eat," was all she said.

They made quick work of the meal. Gabrielle was glad that Xena had shown some appetite and eaten well.

"Now, letís check your wounds." As she moved over to Xenaís side, she noticed the stiffened position of the warrior who was listening intently. "Whatís wrong?"

Xena just shook her head, closed her eyes and laid back, resting her head against the wall behind the bed.

Suddenly, there was a loud bang at the door. It flew open as several well-armed roughly clad villagers barged into the small room. Gabrielle whirled and grabbed for her staff only to find it pulled from her hand by her best friend who gently laid it down on the floor.

"Thatís twice, Xena," Gabrielle angrily spat out as she turned to confront the ever increasing number of armed farmers making their way into the small room.

Chapter 6

"What is it you want here," demanded the angry bard.

"Her!" replied the nearest villager who pointed a finger at the reclining warrior.

"Now wait a minute. We donít want any trouble, just wanted to see your healer." Gabrielle spoke softly and more slowly. She sensed the nervous, tense mood of the ever increasing numbers of villagers who were trying to enter the already crowded room.

An elderly man in a blue tunic elbowed his way through the crowd to the front and then began pushing some of the villagers out of the room. "Get back, all of you. We canít breath in here."

While he continued to push back on the crowd, a large comely woman with a shock of red hair swung around the old man and turned to face the young bard. "Iím Lendila, the healer. Are you hurt?"

"No, please look at my friend. She has a cough."

The healer glanced over at the warrior who had watched the crowd and the movements of the old man with a stone face and cold crystal blue eyes.

"Young woman, your friend will have no need of me. She will be executed long before a cough will kill her. Donít you know who she is?"

Gabrielleís eyes narrowed as she spat out angrily. "I am well aware of who my best friend is. She is a woman who has performed incredible acts of courage and self-sacrifice saving the lives of strangers and battling the forces of evil and darkness all over this land. She has saved countless villages from harm and restored the lives of numerous people with her own healing skills. Just today, she fought slavers to return the daughters of this village to their homes and save them from worse than death. I do not know why you believe she should be executed. I do know that you will look at her and try to help her cough or by the gods you will have me to deal with!"

With a quick jerk of her thumb towards Xena, Gabrielle stared at the healer daring her to refuse. The large woman shifted her weight uncomfortably and finally muttered, "I could take a look."

Gabrielle glanced back at the warriorís face only to see an eyebrow arch and amused blue eyes roll upward. With a shrug, Gabrielle returned the look with one of her own. She noted with a slight grin how fast Xena returned her warrior mask to her face as she gave the healer an icy stare. She turned back to the woman to try to reassure her Xena wouldnít bite but was stopped by a sudden narrowing of the healerís eyes. "Hmmm, well get out of my way and let me see what I can do for this evil warlord and destroyer of nations." She moved boldly by Gabrielle and marched to the bed side of the warrior who continued to glare at the woman with her best intimidating Xena look.

The healerís eyes softened slightly as a sudden bout of coughing wrenched the warrior upward. Xena struggled to gain control of the spasm that followed and laid back in exhaustion as the latest wave passed. The healer turned, reached into her pouch at her side and produced a cloth. She used it to wipe the trace of blood from Xenaís lips. She then reached over to grab the water skin and hand it to the warrior. After Xena had taken several swallows, the large woman knelt down by the bed side and placed a hand on the warriorís head. She nodded slowly, "Some fever." She looked carefully into the warriorís clear eyes, ignoring the icy return stare and then leaned her head over to place an ear against Xenaís chest.

Gabrielle started forward with a warning look at the warrior. Xena was not know to lie still for anyone touching her unbidden. The woman was touchy enough to knock a person into the next county for startling her warriorís reflexes. The stern look of the bard was returned with yet another roll upward of the warriorís eyes who lay still. Letting out her breath, Gabrielle turned back to the old villager who had managed to remove enough people from the room to make conversation possible.

"Now young woman, I am Anthelis head elder of the village of Thorbis. I am here to arrest the warlord known as Xena and take her away to the town jail. I must inform you that she has been judged and sentenced to death several years ago for her crimes against these people."

"How can you try someone who isnít even there to defend herself? That is not justice, itís murder." The bard stared at the old man with fiery green eyes. She took a deep breath and again softened her tone.

"Look Anthelis, my name is Gabrielle and Iíve traveled a lot with Xena. Sheís changed and has done wonderful things for people. She saved the girls of this village from slavers. I think we need to talk this over."

There were several angry mutters from the crowd in back of the elder. A gray haired woman shook her fist and yelled, "She killed my husband. Death to the monster." Others took up the cry and the crowd began to press forward again.

"Enough," shouted the elder as he raised his arms and again drove the crowd back. "Silence."

He turned back to the young bard and then glanced over at the warrior as the healer lifter her head and stood up. "So you know some healing, do you warrior?" she asked Xena with a stern look. The warrior nodded but still said nothing. "Then you know that you have the lung sickness. It is far advanced since you are coughing up blood. There is a rattle in your chest. You might indeed die before this crowd can execute you."

"Lendila, just what are you doing? Iím trying to arrest this woman."

"Oh, be off with you, you old fraud. She isnít going anywhere. If they had wanted to leave or kill us for that matter, something tells me we would have been dead already." The healer turned piercing gray eyes on the bard. "I can help your friend with some herbs and treatments for her cough. She will need complete rest." She paused and turned back to the elder. "Iím not letting you take her to that cold damp jail. She will stay here until she is well or dies, whatever the fates have in store for her. Once she is better, you can decide what you want to do with her but remember she did save our children." The healer turned back to Gabrielle and her comely face softened into a small smile. "Inda is my daughter. Thank you both for bringing her back to me." As she finished, tears came to her eyes. She glanced back at the warrior who dropped her own eyes for the first time.

"Humpf, well I never...and just what makes you think she wonít just leave when she feels better? Perhaps, even murder us all in our sleep."

Xena raised her head and pulled her body up so that she was sitting upright resting against the head of the bed. She eyed the crowd and then returned her icy stare to the old man who shuttered involuntarily under her gaze. "For what itís worth, I give you my word I wonít leave."

"Not good enough," yelled a villager from the back of the crowded room as the muttering of the crowd increased again.

"Here, put these on her and maybe we can all get some sleep." Stepping forward, one of the villagers handed Anthelis a set of leg irons with a sturdy bar welded between each anklet. He was also given wrist irons with a chain between them that attached to another piece of heavy chain that ended in a throat collar. Anthelis dropped the bundle with a clang, unable to hold onto the heavy load. He gingerly picked up the leg irons and looked at the warrior. Her face was a stoic mask as she lifted her eyes to meet Gabrielleís stare. She nodded slightly.

"No," the bard said firmly. "No collar and she doesnít need anything on her wrists. She has bad arm wounds."

The elder glanced at the bandaged arms of the warrior and inclined his head. "Agreed." He moved to the foot of the bed with the leg irons and paused. His hands were shaking so badly, it was clear he was not going to be able to shackle the warrior. Gabrielle sighed and looked again at the face of her best friend. The warrior had slid back down until she was laying flat on the bed. The pain and weariness the bard saw written on the warriorís face tore at her heart. "Do it, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle took the irons from the old man and clasped them around the ankles of the warrior. Once they were locked with the iron bar that held the warriorís ankles in place, she gave the key to the elder and turned back to the crowd. "Okay, showís over. Now all of you, get out!"

With a murmur, the crowd filed back out of the room. The elder followed them with a quick glance back over his shoulder.

The healer closed the stout door behind the retreating crowd, moved to the fireplace and began building up a blaze. She pulled her pouch from around her neck and took out different dried plants. "I use mint, eucalyptus, chicory root and some camphor for a tea. I also make a paste that Iíll rub on your chest that is very aromatic. It will relieve the congestion. You must sit up and spit out the phlegm that is in your throat. You agree?" She looked back at the warrior who had closed her eyes and seemed asleep. Finally, Xena turned her head to regard the healer a moment and finally whispered in a hoarse voice, "Quinoa in the tea as well if you have it." The healer nodded her agreement and continued to work. Gabrielle watched her for a moment and then turned with concern to her friend. She was greeted with a crooked grin and soft blue eyes that begged her not to worry. Gabrielle just rolled her eyes. Why should I worry? If the cough wonít kill her a crowd of angry villagers will. I just delivered her into another situation where she is condemned to die. Good move, Gabrielle. Youíre now two for two.

Chapter 7

Gabrielle sat watching as the large boned woman finish mashing her herbs together to make a cream colored paste. The sweet smelling aroma filled the room and made the bardís noise twitch. The healer returned to the fireplace and poured hot water from a pot into a large earthen mug that contained crushed herbs. She mixed these slowly waiting for the tea to seep. Once satisfied that the drink was ready, she added a fairly large pinch of a white powder and again stirred the mixture. She brought it to her noise, smelling the contents. With a nod, she turned to the reclining warrior. Xena had laid quiet with her eyes closed, her labored wheezing breath more pronounced in the quiet room.

"All right, Gabrielle help me get her up to a sitting position. She must not lie flat." Lendila smiled gently at the bard and then turned. "Come on, warrior. You know Iím right about this."

Xena opened weary glazed eyes and slowly began to struggle upright. Gabrielle was immediately at her side. She gently pulled her shoulders upwards until she was in a sitting position, her back and head resting against the back board of the bed. Lendila passed the cup to Gabrielle who brought it to Xenaís lips. Suddenly, the warrior pushed the cup back almost spilling the contents on the bard. "What are you doing?" she demanded of the healer with a flash of angry piercing eyes.

"Whatís the problem?" The healer returned the glare of the warrior with one of her own. She pushed her bright hair out of her eyes and placed both hands on her wide hips.

"This has a sleeping drug in it. I can smell it. Any reason you are trying to knock me out?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and looked pleadingly at the warrior. Gods, even her sense of smell is better than any normal person.

Lendila grinned slightly and relaxed her stance. "All right, all right. Warrior, I have to admit you are pretty good. Yes, I added a sleeping powder. The lung disease in you is far advanced. The only way you will be able to over come it, is to get complete and total rest. You will have to sleep for days. Weíll wake you periodically to eat a little to keep your strength up but deep sleep is what you need. I watched you. Even when laying down, you are tense and alert. That is not rest."

Xenaís face was expressionless as she stared at the healer with icy cold eyes. "I can not afford the luxury of the kind of sleep you suggest."

"Xena please. Iíll be here to watch over you. I promise." Gabrielle took the warriorís hand and looked gently into her eyes. "Gods know why you should believe me after all Iíve done. Yet I mean it. Lendila is right. This is your chance to get well. Please." The bard took the strong hand that rested in hers and held it against her face. The warrior turned her head. Her eyes softened as they filled with love for her best friend.

"Never could say no to you, Gabrielle," she said with a deep soft voice. In a hoarse whisper she continued, "I never doubted you or your intentions." She took the cup in her left hand while still holding on to Gabrielleís hand with her right. She drained it in one long gulp, handed the cup back to her friend and laid her head back against the wall, too weary to hold it up.

Lendila turned back to the table and brought the paste over to the warrior. "Do you want to do this?" she asked the bard.

"What do I have to do?"

"Just rub this on her chest. Should be done about every four hours."

The bard nodded, set the cup down, and held her hand up to receive the shallow bowl. She looked back at the warrior but Xenaís eyes had grown too heavy to keep open. Gently, Gabrielle reached over and carefully applied the salve under the white sleeping shirt. She thought the warrior was asleep as she finished. Xena opened her eyes smiling slightly. "Feels good, warm," she mumbled. With that, she closed her eyes again and fell into a deep sleep.

Lendila nodded her approval and returned to the small table. She crushed and mixed more herbs quietly while Gabrielle watched.

Finally with a glance towards Xena, the young bard questioned the healer softly. "Will she be all right?"

The large woman turned and looked long into the bardís face. "I donít know. She is strong, powerful. She can become well if she wishes. She can also choose to give up and die. I can make it possible for her body to heal. Itís up to you to help her choose to live. Even then, you will still have to deal with that crowd of villagers who will be demanding her life."

Gabrielle nodded slowly and glanced glumly out the small window. "One problem at a time." The sentence was becoming a mantra.

The next few days blended together into a sameness marked by Lendila reappearing every few hours to check on her patent. Gabrielle never left her side, putting the ointment on her chest and brewing the tea that she had learned how to make that kept Xena asleep. They fed Xena soups and stews several times a day. It was quite a chore to get much down the drugged warrior whose head would roll forward as sleep would claim her almost instantly. Gabrielle wiped her face with a cool cloth as Xenaís fever would come and go. She watched for any sign of chills and kept the warrior warm but in an upright position.

As time passed, Gabrielle slid next to the warrior and held her to keep her warm as the chills started. She talked to her softly reciting poems and stories. Mostly, she just held the warrior close willing her to fight to stay alive.

As the afternoon sun of the third day streamed through the small window, Lendila pushed into the room and laid a rough hand on the bard. "Out you go. Youíve been here for three solid days. Go out and get some air and food. Iíll watch over her."

Gabrielle jerked the hand off her arm and shook her head. "No. I wonít trust guarding over her to anyone else. She wouldnít trust anyone else but Argo."

"Whoís Argo?"

"Thatís her horse. Oh Cyclops turds. Iíve got to see to Argo. Iíll be right back. Donít you leave her!"

Gabrielle grabbed her staff and bolted out the door.

Lendila shook her head with an amused grin and turned back to the warrior only to be confronted with crystal blue eyes that regarded her thoughtfully. "How you feeling?"

"Better."

"Your cough seems to have faded."

The warrior nodded and closed her eyes a moment. "I owe you ...and Gabrielle. Thanks, you are a good healer."

"Coming from you, that is quite a compliment. But it is I who should be thanking you for the return of my daughter. She is my light, my life. After my husband was killed, she is all I have. Inda will come later to thank you herself."

"No need."

"Warrior, will you leave now?"

"Call me Xena." She paused a moment and seemed to look inward. "No, Iíll stay and face your justice."

"Theyíll kill you. Is that fair to Gabrielle?" Lendila turned serious gray eyes on the warrior. "I donít know what drives you or even who or what you are. I do know that you killed my husband, most of the men in this village, burned us out and then saved my daughter. I donít know if I want you dead or just gone. I do know I donít want to watch your execution and that young woman should not have to witness it." Lendila looked at her hands a moment and then raised her eyes to the warrior in time to see the flash of pain and regret that crossed her face. "Ah, you do care about her, donít you? Thought so."

Xena raised her own eyes filled with shame to face the healer directly. "I am truly sorry about your husband. I am guilty of doing terrible things in my past. Nothing can ever undo or change the harm I caused so many. Now, I just do the best I can to atone and go on. I will agree to whatever punishment you deem fair."

"And Gabrielle?"

The warrior dropped her eyes to her hands but the pain and anguish visible there was not lost to the healer. "Iíd hoped for more time....that is... Iíd hoped weíd have time to work some things out. Still,... itís just as well, I guess. She should leave at first light, take Argo and go back home or perhaps to Athens." Her voice trailed off as she seemed lost in her own thoughts.

Lendila gave her head an impatient shake. "And just how are you going to make her go? She hasnít left your side all these days. By the gods, you are selfish. Thinking only of your own feelings. How can you inflict such sorrow on your friend? Warriors, humph, so brave, so courageous, so stupid." The healer rose and with an angry glare at her patient she pulled a key out of the pouch at her side. She strolled to the foot of the bed and roughly grabbed the warriorís shackled ankles. With a click of the key, the iron bracelets fell away as the bar that was suppose to be solid between them fell to the ground.

"Do you think I donít know that you could leave at anytime? You broke the restraining bar two nights ago."

Xena glanced up with a sheepish look on her face and one arched eyebrow. If the healer had not been so upset with the stubborn warrior, she would have let out a chuckle. "I had to go....you know out back," Xena admitted. "Didnít want to wake up anyone or cause trouble."

"Yeah, right. So now you are free, no excuses for you to still be here tomorrow. I wonít say anything about your condition until morning when Iíll have to let Anthelis know you are well. By then you can be long gone and they wonít chase after you."

"No, but there still will be a price on my head and the villagers will send bounty hunters after me. Thatís how I learned I had been tried and sentenced in Thorbis in the first place."

"You knew you were going to be executed if you ever came back into this village and still you saved our children and came anyway? Why? Do you have a death wish?"

Xena dropped her eyes as shame crossed her face. "I always intended to come here and face your justice. I just.....well things happened and I put it off."

"Gabrielle happened, didnít she?"

"Yes," the warrior admitted softly. "I promised her I wouldnít leave her again. I just couldnít break that promise. Figured, one way or another Iíd pay for what I did either here or in Tartarus."

"Xena, while you slept Gabrielle told me stories about you, amazing stories. Why would you leave this world to suffer? Why would you give up the fight you have waged against evil? Are you a coward after all?"

The warriorís head snapped up as icy blue eyes bore holes into the healer. Inadvertently, Lendila took in a quick breath. In an instant, she understood what it was like to look death in the face. In a flash, the look was gone replaced with one of sadness and regret. With a weary sigh, the warrior looked away.

Suddenly, the door burst open as Gabrielle charged into the room, taking deep breaths. She had run all the way.

"Argo was fine...she....wait. Xena, youíre awake." The bard stared at her friend a moment and then her face broke out into a wide grin that wiped out all traces of worry. It seemed as if a burst of sun light threw the little room into a yellow glow. The healer couldnít help but return the smile and she noted that the warrior could not keep a crooked grin off her own face. The bardís enthusiasm was infectious.

"Hey, you look great! How do you feel?"

"Have to say, pretty good. I was just telling Lendila here that she must be a good healer. Had a great nurse as well." The bard basked in the warm glow of twinkling blue eyes.

"Well, Iíll leave you two to talk. Xena, think about what I said. Please. Gabrielle, how about telling some stories tonight? We all enjoy hearing the tales of a good bard and I would love to share you with some of the other villagers." She gave the bard a meaningful stare, turned and was quickly out the door that she pulled closed behind her.

The bard turned back to her friend. "You know, Xena, Lendila has been great. She was here most of the time you were out."

"Címere." Xenaís low musical voice washed over the bard as she held out her arms. Gabrielle flew into them and they held each other in a glad embrace.

"Thanks for taking care of me, Gabrielle."

"No problem," Gabrielle whispered into Xenaís dark hair as they held each other closely.

Gabrielle pulled back searching her best friendís face. What she saw caused her heart to sing. "You look so much better. Cough gone?"

"Seems to be."

"Outstanding." The bardís eyebrows knitted together as a frown slowly tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Now, what was Lendila talking about?" Again she searched her friendís face with serious green eyes.

When the warrior remained silent, the bard continued. "Ahuh. She told you to leave and you refused, right?"

"Something like that. Did you know that I killed her husband?" The warriorís voice dropped to a low whisper.

"Yes, she told me." Gabrielle glanced at the warriorís feet and noting the shackles removed, lifted her eyes back to Xenaís face. "So, she took them off. What more convincing do you need? She doesnít want to see you executed, Xena. She has learned that the woman who killed her husband is already dead."

"Gabrielle," the warrior replied gently, "I wonít run." She placed both hands on the bardís shoulders as they gazed into each otherís eyes.

"Xena,.....you promised. I wonít lose you again."

"Oh, Gabrielle." The warrior pulled her close embracing her in a fierce hug. "So much between us and now perhaps so little time. Letís just enjoy tonight and leave tomorrow to the fates. Please."

The bard sighed and returned the embrace. She snuggled closer to the warrior enjoying the warmth of her body. Perhaps Xena had a plan. In the Kingdom of Chin, Xena had harnessed a strange focused power which she had used to free herself and defeat the evil emperor. Gabrielle knew she would not use this power now. The bard also knew that this time she would not stand by silently and watch her best friend destroyed even if the reason for this was justice.

Chapter 8

The only light in the room came from the low burning fire in the fireplace as the two friends lay together in each otherís embrace. Somehow words were no longer necessary. Together they had watched the brilliant red sunset reflect through the small window against the far wall of the little room. Now shadows danced there as the dying fire gave them form and motion.

Finally the bard stirred. "Iíll get us something to eat from the tavern."

Xena nodded her agreement. "How about I go with you? Iíll stay back out of sight."

"Getting cabin fever?" Gabrielle teased gently.

The warrior grinned. "Yeah, kinda. Busted huh?"

"You doing okay?"

"Better than okay. I really feel good. Honest."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Itís magic the way you heal up so fast."

The warrior swung over the edge of the bed and began to lace up her boots. "Letís go get something to eat and create a little more magic and less havoc for a change." She gave the bard a meaningful glance as she straightened up and stretched. Gabrielle slapped the warrior in the belly. "Enough. You raise more havoc than I do, on any given day."

"Mostly becomes necessary trying to get you out of some jam."

Gabrielleís smile faded as she dropped her eyes to the floor. Gods, was that the truth. Being here in this mess sure was another example.

Xena sensed the darkening mood of the bard and gently grabbed her arm. "Címon, letís go see what theyíve got on the fire."

The warrior opened the door and slipped out into the main room of the tavern. Gabrielle noticed that she had not armed herself with either her sword or chakram. How strange for Xena to enter a room without any weapons! Gabrielle grabbed her staff and followed right behind her friend. Havenít lost that protective streak yet have I, she thought. She gave a silent chuckle, as if Xena would ever need her to fight off attackers.

Xena quietly sat down at a table in the back of the large common room with her back to the wall. The bard watched her a moment and then moved over to the counter on the other side. She saw the tavern owner and motioned to him. He stopped his animated discussion with a patron and inclined his head. "What do you have cooking for dinner?"

He glanced towards the back of the tavern and then back at the bard. "Iíve got lamb stew. That okay?"

"Yeah, thatíll be fine. Also, two mugs of ale."

"Five dinars." As Gabrielle counted out the money, the proprietor turned his back and disappeared into a back room. He was soon back with a tray containing two steaming bowls, a hunk of black bread, and a small block of white cheese. He filled two earthen mugs and set them on the tray. As he accepted the money from the bard, again he glanced at the back table. "You know that tomorrow she dies. Hope she enjoys her last meal. Itís better than she gave any of her victims from this village." He growled out the words in anger as his voice carried across the room.

Gabrielle stiffened as she felt two icy blue eyes on her. As she took the tray, she replied in a low voice, "Thank you for your hospitality." She turned and moved back across the room to the table located in the shadows in the back. She set the food down then slipped behind the table next to her partner. She glanced up to meet quiet pained eyes who regarded her softly. "Thanks, smells good."

The young woman nodded and took a sip of the ale. She suddenly found that she had lost her appetite but was glad to see her friend attack the meal with relish. If Xena noticed that Gabrielle pushed her food more around the bowl than into her mouth, she made no comment.


"Mind if I join you?" The two looked up into the smiling face of Lendila. Right behind her, Inda, her daughter peeked timidly over her shoulder. Seeing the two together, the mother daughter resemblance was amazing from carrot colored hair to the tall comely features and bright freckles that dotted their open faces.

"Please," Gabrielle motioned the two over to the bench on the other side of the table.

"Xena, Inda has something she wants to say to you."

The warrior inclined her head to one side and stared at the girl. She grew red in the face as she stammered, "Hum, thanks......I mean thank you for saving us."

Xena gave the girl a cold stern look. No emotions could be read on her face. Gabrielle alone caught the slight twinkle in her crystal blue eyes and chuckled silently. This was going to be good.

"How did those men catch you? Werenít you paying attention? Do you know how bad your mother would feel if they carried you all off and sold you? Girl, use your head and be careful. Next time there may not be anyone around to save you from your own foolishness." She gave the girl another cold stare and then averted her eyes to the room, dismissing her without another glance.

The teenager tried to speak several times but could only stammer and finally fell silent. Xena glanced over at the healer and was rewarded with a grateful smile. The healer turned to the young bard. "So, Gabrielle. Will you tell some tales tonight?"

"I donít know. Doesnít look like a very receptive crowd."

"Oh, pay no heed to Vargas, the tavern owner. He is sour all the time. In another hour or so, this place will be full. Most folks here love a good story. Will you tell one? Iíll introduce you."

Gabrielle glanced at Xena who gave a slight nod. "Iíd like to hear you."

"Any particular story?"

"No, I love them all. Just take it easy on me, okay?"

A wicked grin crossed the bardís face and Xena groaned. "On second thought,..."

"To late my friend."

Lendila laughed. Inda seemed to lose her timidity and fear as she heard the banter of the adults. "Is it true that you fought the Huns?"

Gabrielle laughed, "Yes, itís true. Xena lured them into a trap and killed their leaders."

"And Gabrielle led the Amazons and Centaurs that defeated them." Xena finished the statement for her with a note of pride in her voice.

"Wow, you did?" As the red began to creep up the neck of the bard, the warriorís grin widened. "Did you know that Gabrielle is actually the queen of the Amazons?"

"Really?"

"Yes, really and she also......"

"ENOUGH!" The bard shouted loudly enough to be heard at the next table. "Iím the bard here, Xena. Remember the rules. You fight, I talk. You were suppose to talk your way out of that last fight. Remember how that went."

The warriorís merry laugh, low and musical carried across the table. Lendila and Inda both looked at her in amazement. How beautiful and lovely her face when the warrior smiled. Gabrielle grinned widely at her friend. It always made her feel so warm inside when others got a glimpse of the Xena she knew.

Inda stole another glance at this woman, so feared yet so fearless. Her anger and dread of the warrior forgotten she stared openly with hero worship in her eyes. Gabrielle watched and laughed. She could spot a case of this disease a mile away. Had a bad case of it myself, she mused. Maybe I still do. She put a hand on the arm of her best friend and whispered, "You want some more ale?" The warrior covered her hand with her own and smiled into her eyes, "No, Iím fine."

"So, Gabrielle. Ready to tell some tales?" The bard glanced up and noticed every table was filled. Some villagers were standing around the bar, talking while filling their mugs. The tavern had become crowded and noisy.

Suddenly, Gabrielle felt her stomach turn over. Butterflies, she thought in amazement. When was the last time that she had been nervous before a performance? Then she remembered why. She was performing for Xenaís life. The bard turned to the healer and nodded. "Iím ready whenever you are."

"Now before they drink too much and Xena has to knock a few heads." All eyes turned to the warrior who rolled her eyes upwards and feigned an innocent expression. "Hey, Iím the sick one here."

Lendila looked the warrior up and down and then shook her head. "Not so Iíd notice." She rose from the table and with Gabrielle in tow made their way across the tavern to a slightly raised platform at one end.

Inda watched her mother as she confidently observed to the warrior, "Donít worry. Theyíll be quiet when mom tells them to."

"Ahuh," was the only response the warrior gave.

Lendila walked onto the platform and turned to face the crowd. "Friends, neighbors, please can I have your attention?" The crowd continued to talk and ignore the healer. "I said friends, kinsmen, we have a real treat tonight." Although she shouted her statement, nothing could be heard over the din in the crowded tavern. Suddenly, a shrill whistle pealed out over the crowd, so loud and piercing that a number of villagers put their hands to their ears. The immediate silence was almost deafening.

"Síokay. Now as I was saying, we are really lucky to have a world renown bard with us tonight, Athens trained. So please give your attention to Gabrielle, the bard."

With a slight wave of her hand, Lendila left the platform to the bard. Gabrielle stepped up and turned to her silent audience. She could feel their coldness and distrust. This was going to be one tough crowd. Remembering her advice to other bards, she decided on her first story and began to see it unfold in her mind. I sing of Xena the great warrior princess and how she and Hercules freed Prometheus thus saving all mankind."

In the back of the room, Xena groaned softly. This was going to be a long night. As the bardís voice rose and fell, her gestures making the story come to life, Xena found herself becoming engrossed in the tale. Soon she along with the whole room, felt their emotions rise in terror only to fall in sorrow. Just when the tension reached an almost unbearable peak, the bard would tell something funny and the room would shake with laughter. Finally, it was back to the thrilling climax. With the taleís end and Gabrielleís last dramatic gesture, the room fell completely silent. Then huge thunderous applause and cheers peeled out with chants of "More, More." Gabrielle smiled, "Very well." Quickly, before the audience could be distracted she launched into her next tale of yet another heroic deed performed by Xena.

The warrior could feel Indaís gaze and finally turned to the girl. "Inda, she is a bard. She exaggerates."

The girl just continued to stare so Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle with a sigh. Lendila made her way back to the table and with a huge grin sat down. She whispered to the warrior, "She is wonderful." Xena nodded her agreement, already captivated by the bardís tale. Even though she knew them by heart, she was never proof against the bardís spell. As she glanced around the room, she could tell the entire room was under the control of the bard as well. Xena leaned back and became absorbed in the story.

Gabrielle told tales for several hours and yet the crowd demanded more. Finally, hoarse and tired, the bard performed her finale and bowed low to loud acclaim. She smiled, skipped off the platform and threaded her way through the crowded room back to her friend.

Xena passed over her mug of ale to the bard who took several sips. "Inda, get some water for Gabrielle, please?" Inda jumped up to pick up a water skin and return to the table. Gabrielle smiled her thanks and took several long pulls.

"Gabrielle, that was just fantastic. You are the best bard Iíve ever heard."

"Thanks Lendila." She turned to the warrior who smiled proudly at her with soft blue eyes. "Great performance," she whispered. "But you could have told a few more classics and left me out of some of your stories."

Gabrielle grinned at her friend, "Nah. You are a classic." She was rewarded with two arched eyebrows.

The bard turned to watch the crowded tavern as the noise level had reached the previous din. She also noticed that more than a few curious stares were leveled at her and the other occupants of the table. Try as she might though, she couldnít stiffen the yawn that tugged at the corner of her mouth.

Xena saw it immediately. "Bed time for bards. Think youíve done enough damage for one night."

Lendila smiled as the two got up from the table. "I think she did fabulous good." She got up as well and drew the warrior close. "Did you decide to leave?" she whispered. When the warrior shook her head, the healer sighed. "Didnít think so. Anthelis will want you in the town square at noon. Xena, please donít be there."

The warrior with a trace of a sad smile took her hand. "Thank you Lendila for your help. I am very very sorry about your husband." She turned from the healer and placed a finger under Indaís chin forcing the girlís eyes to meet hers. "Remember what I told you, girl. Be safe." She patted Indaís head and turned. Taking Gabrielleís arm, she guided the tired bard towards their little room and left the din of the crowded tavern. A number of heads turned and stared openly as the two made their quiet exit.

Lendila also watched them go and then turned back to her friends and neighbors. She could see a mixture of emotions on their faces. Gabrielle had made it much more difficult for this crowd to execute Xena, the brave hero they had heard described tonight. Sill the healer knew that hatred runs deep and the warrior would not be spared. Tomorrow night we will all be murders with blood on our hands, she mused sadly. The very thing we want to punish so it will stop, we will actually foster with our own actions. And for what purpose? The dead will still be gone and a woman who has come to do good will be gone as well. Before she had met the warrior, Lendila had hated the warlord Xena and would have gladly killed her with her own hands. She knew that would be impossible now for her to do. If only she would just leave. The healer shook her head sadly. She knew that was impossible for the warrior to do.

Chapter 9

The two woman returned to their room and pulled on their sleeping shifts. As they climbed into bed, Gabrielleís mouth opened wide in a large yawn. "Wow, I didnít realize how tired I am."

Xena looked searchingly at the bard. "You donít look like youíve had much sleep recently, my friend. My fault?"

"I got some winks here and there. Iím fine, honest."

"Ahuh. Well, curl up and Iíll douse this candle." With a sweep of her hand, Xena put the room into total darkness. She lay next to Gabrielle with her head against the backboard and her arm around the bard. She heard Gabrielleís quiet breathing and knew sleep was soon going to claim her.

"Xena."

"Hummm?"

"What are we going to do about tomorrow?"

"Face it."

Gabrielle leaned back and could see the strong angular profile of her soulmate in the moon light that flooded through the tiny window. "No, I mean it. What are we going to do? I wonít stand for you just strolling into the middle of the town square at noon and laying your head on some chopping block. Xena, these people will kill you." Her voice had lowered into a whisper. The fear and desperation she felt was plain to the warriorís ears.

"Tomorrow morning, I want you to take Argo and leave. Go to Athens or home or where ever you wish. I donít want you to be here at noon." Xenaís soft voice held a note of sadness and regret.

"Just like that. After all weíve been through. You want me to just leave." The bitterness in the bardís voice cut through the darkened room. "What about your promise, Xena?"

"Weíve been breaking a lot of promises to each other lately, havenít we? Perhaps, we should give up making them."

The bard pulled back from the warrior, anger now crackling through her entire body. "Thatís just great. Give up and get it over with. Makes it easier on you, doesnít it?"

"Perhaps," came the weary reply. "Gabrielle, we donít have a lot of time. Can we spend it not fighting with each other?"

"So Iím just to accept that you donít care enough about yourself, about us, about your family, about what youíre trying to do to keep on going? You just quitting?"

"Iím not quitting. Iím trying to face up to what Iíve done. This is the price I owe. Itís come due. It would have sooner or later. Iíd rather it have been later, but I canít run or hide from what I did. I owe these people justice."

"Xena, at least ask for a pardon. Let me speak for you if you wonít. If you truly are interested in justice, then your side needs a fair hearing."

"My side," Xena repeated with a dark bitterness filled with self loathing. "What do I say, Gabrielle? I killed the young men who were defending this town but thatís in the past. What difference does that make? I did it and I should pay for my crimes. You want to know something? What happened in this village really delighted me. My men performed well and my own skills were never better. I left here satisfied, food stores a plenty for my army, a village ransacked and the people no threat to ever disobey my orders again. Yes, I was well pleased with myself. Gods, I donít know why I felt that way, was that way. But Gabrielle, never doubt the truth. That was me. The same woman who lays next to you now was a monster so dark so evil that it is hard to comprehend. Killing that monster is what just and sane people must do to protect themselves."

"But Xena, you killed that monster long ago."

"No," whispered the warrior. "She lives yet, just below the surface, where the rage boils and churns, when the darkness threatens. Maybe one day I wonít be able to stop it or control it." There, at last, the doubt and fear of the warrior was out in the open. Gabrielle finally understood.

"Xena, you are too strong to ever let that happen. Youíve never backed away from a fight. Please donít give up now. You always do whatís right. This canít feel right to you. You are going to make these simple villagers into your own murderer to ease your guilt. Donít do this!" The bardís voice took on a hard edge. "By the gods, if you want to commit suicide, at least have the guts to do it yourself!"

The warrior jerked her head up and turned to the bard. "Is that what you think I want?"

"Yes, Xena. Ever since we left the kingdom of Chin, youíve been looking for a way to give up."

The warrior was silent. Gabrielle could hear her heart beat faster as she laid her head against her chest. The harsh words spoken between them could not drive the bard away. It would have to be the distressed warrior that broke their closeness. To her surprise, Xena lay still and tightened her hold around her best friend. It seemed to Gabrielle as if the warrior was holding onto her as a life line as she was battered and tossed against the rocks of her own acrimony and self hatred.

"Well, at least this time when we are together awaiting your execution, we are in a nice comfy bed instead of cold, filthy water. Iím doing better at getting you executed in style." One lone tear trickled down Gabrielleís cheek.

The warrior turned to her and saw her wet cheek in the moonlight. She gently wiped it with a finger and tilted the bardís chin up so their eyes locked. "Gabrielle, you are not responsible for this. Nothing that happens tomorrow is your fault or is even about you. Donít you think of taking any of this on your shoulders. All of this is my doing. Now, letís try to get some sleep."

After a pause, Xena whispered, "Iím sorry for dragging you into yet another chapter of my sordid past. It must get old, please forgive me."

"Xena, please forgive yourself and ask these people for forgiveness." After a heartbeat she continued in a low voice that broke at the end as the tears came, "I forgive you."

 

Chapter 10

The two women watched the morningís light creep through the tiny window. Gabrielle had dozed some unable to keep her heavy eyes open. Xena had not, staring straight ahead, trying to understand her own feelings. Gabrielleís words echoed in her mind as she tried to figure out who she was and what she should be. In the end, she came up with no answers, just a dull throbbing headache. That wonít be a problem for long, she thought allowing a little gallows humor to invade her dark thoughts.

Gabrielle enjoyed their closeness, feeling Xenaís warmth, hearing her quiet breath. Their hands remained clasped together but nothing the bard could do or say prevented the morning gray turning to gold and than a bright yellow. The day was advancing.

Finally, Xena moved gracefully out of bed and began the job of putting on her leathers, boots and finally armor. Gabrielle slipped behind her and helped fasten the shoulder clips in the familiar way. She laced up Xenaís gauntlets and turned to face her. The warrior stood tall and strong with her dark head held proudly. Gabrielle nodded her approval. "You look great."

Gabrielle noticed that Xena had not put her sword in the scabbard on her back. It lay on the table polished and sharpened as did her chakram.

"Gabrielle, will you grant me a last request and please leave?" Xena begged softly, her eyes brimming.

The bard shook her head emphatically. Her own eyes were filling as well. "Xena, please. You are the most courageous bravest person Iíve ever known. You are not afraid to die, youíve proven this over and over. Donít be afraid to live. Have the courage to beg these villagers for mercy. Swallow your warriorís pride. Lendila forgave you. Perhaps the rest will as well."

Xena smiled sadly. "Folks who have lost their loved ones and lived with the loneliness donít forgive. They get by through their hate. Iíve seen their eyes, Gabrielle. Itís no use."

"At least try. Youíll be giving them a chance to turn from their hatred and giving yourself a chance as well. You owe them that. You owe me that."

Xenaís grip on Gabrielleís shoulders tightened as she brought her face closer intending to give her a farewell kiss. Suddenly, the warrior jerked up. She turned, her head held at an angular stiff attention.

"Gods, what now?" With that exclamation, she grabbed her sword and chakram in each hand and turned for the door. As she bolted from the room, she called over her shoulder. "Trouble, Gabrielle." Then she was gone. Gabrielle blinked twice in astonishment, turned, grabbed her staff and followed on a dead run.

By the time she made it into the bright sunlight, Xena had already engaged a dark horseman in a sword fight. As he swung his large blade down, other riders emerged from around the building corner. Xena saw them out of the corner of her eye. She blocked the singing blade with her own and thrust it back with such force that the rider was thrown back. While he regained his seat in the saddle, Xena let her chakram fly. After one ricochet, it sliced through two riders before returning to the warrior in a wide arc.

Gabrielle met a horsemanís midsection with her staff and watched as he flipped backwards out of the saddle. Meanwhile, Xena turned back to her adversary in time to block another slice of his sword. Giving her war cry, "YaYaYaYa" she jumped and delivered a kick that connected with the raiderís chest driving him out of the saddle. He landed on his back with a thump. Xena delivered two quick blows and he slumped back unconscious. She turned in time to see Gabrielle take on two more sword wheeling thugs. She disarmed the first with a fierce swing and then took the second out with a backhanded thrust of her staff which connected with his head.

Xena let a feral smile turn the corners of her mouth as she turned to attack another group of raiders who had hesitated an instant too long. Throwing herself into their mist, with flying sword they began to drop one at a time at an alarming rate. The remaining few suddenly took to their heels vanishing as rapidly as they had come. The warrior watched them run and then scanned the fallen raiders for further trouble. Finding they were rendered harmless she turned in time to see Gabrielle running towards her. "You okay?"

The bard nodded. "Who where they?"

Xena shrugged. "I recognize this one." She turned, grabbed the front cross strap of an unconscious thug and lifted him up to show his face to Gabrielle. She nodded. "He was one of the slavers."

Xena let him fall back heavily to the ground. "Yeah, thatís what I thought. Maybe they decided to try it again." Xena turned and headed at a brisk pace towards the center of the small village. "Weíd better check on the damage." Gabrielle swung into a quick step, matching Xenaís stride.

As they turned the corner of the main street, they stopped in shock. There were a number of villagers lying scattered on the ground; some bleeding badly, others crying out in pain. Several buildings were on fire as smoke mixed with dust swirled around the village square.

Just then Lendila appeared from a small hut and saw them. "Are they gone?"

"Yeah, donít think theyíll be back soon. A couple are laying out cold up the street and can be hauled off to your jail."

"Thanks, Xena. You saved us. They demanded the girls and when poor Anthelis told them no, they struck him down. I think heís dead."

Xena swung around. "Come on, weíve got to move fast and get the wounded inside."

The warrior moved rapidly from body to body, pointing out which ones could be saved and leaving others that had crossed over unattended. Finally, she found herself staring at the old wrinkled face of the village elder. He appeared in a lot of pain as red blood flowed from a large gash across his chest. Xena reached down, picked up the old man as if he was a light sack of flour and carefully carried him through the threshold of the healerís hut. She laid him down on the nearest unoccupied pallet. Gabrielle came up behind her and handed her the healers pouch they always carried. "Thought you might need this."

Xena nodded and began to pull out bandages and supplies. By this time Lendila had returned, wringing her hands in despair. "I donít know much about wounds. So many hurt. Where should we began?"

"Gabrielle, you know what to do. Start with the ones we can save and stop the bleeding. Lendila, come here. I need help with Anthelis. Thatís it. Put your finger here while I try to stop this hemorrhaging. Weíll lose him if I canít."

Xena worked feverishly, sewing up the wound and then bandaging it tightly. As she finished, the elder opened his eyes and searched her face.

"Take it easy, old timer. Youíve got a chance. Lendila will give you something to drink." As she started to get up, he reached over and grabbed her hand.

"They came too fast. We never saw them. The rest.....?"

"Weíll try to save as many as we can. You have some loses. Donít know how many yet."

"And the raiders?"

"Dead or gone." Again she tried to get up but the old man would not release her hand.

"You saved us?"

"Right place, right time. I have to go, others need help." She gave him a slight smile and again started to rise.

His grip tightened as he stared at her with wide eyes. "Xena, do you know why we didnít hear those men attacking?" When she shook her head, he released her hand and laid his head back down. "We were too busy arguing and drawing lots over which of us was going to execute you."

She jerked her head back around to stare at the old man for a moment. "You can have your thrill later. Right now, Iím busy." Flinging this bitter remark over her shoulder, she made her way to the next pallet that contained a woman with a badly bleeding arm. Xena tossed her dark hair back from her eyes and got to work, putting Anthelis and his stupidity out of her mind.

It was late in the day before all the wounded had been tended. Lendila had stayed close to Xena, learning her healing techniques and helping to patch, stitch and bandage. Gabrielle, Inda and others from the village did what they could, bandaging and cleaning wounds, giving the injured water and comfort. Finally, the weary care givers had done all they could.

Xena gave the crowded room a final look and strolled out into the coolness of the early evening. She watched silently as the villagers placed the last of the dead on a large wooden funeral pyre that had been erected in the village square. She noted with some irony that right next to the pyre was a large oval tree stump with a rusty metal battle ax buried into its center. "No doubt waiting for me," she muttered to herself. She shook her head. A dark depression slowly overcame her. It didnít matter, none of it did. Nothing she could ever do would erase the past. Suddenly, she felt a soft warm hand steal up her arm and rest on her shoulder. Xena reached up and placed her own hand over the one resting on her with such familiarity. Their fingers entwined. Xenaís grasp tightened a moment as she led out a slow ragged breath.

"You were great in there," the bard observed softly. "I am always amazed at your healing skills. You saved a lot of people today."

The warrior turned pained searching eyes to her friend. "Still think asking forgiveness would matter?"

"Yes, I do. It would matter to many of these people and it would matter to you."

Xenaís head slumped forward as her forehead touched the bardís. "Okay, if you say so." The resignation and weariness in her voice tore at Gabrielleís heart. "Sometimes I get so tired, so tired of trying, so tired of failing."

Gabrielle tighten her hold on her warrior. "I know," she said softly. "You havenít failed. Hang in there, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Címon, letís get something to eat."

Nodding her agreement, the two walked away from the fire that was lighting up the night sky. Entering the tavern that had been their home for the past week, the atmosphere seemed somehow changed. The dour old proprietor actually nodded at them as they found their way to the back table near their room. The main room was filling up with villagers who were silent and grim. Several gave the two women long looks but Gabrielle could feel no venom or hatred in their stares.

As they sat down, their landlord made a sudden appearance with a tray that contained two steaming bowls of stew, a hunk of bread and two mugs of ale. As Gabrielle reached into her pouch, the old man stopped her with a shake of his head. "Your dinars are no good here, anymore." Without further comment, he turned and strolled away.

The two women exchanged glances and then dug into their dinner. Gabrielle made short work of her stew and noticed that Xena kept up with her for a change. "You should lie down. Youíre not at full strength yet."

"Yeah, I sort of figured that out today, about the second sword swing."

Gabrielle gave a short snort. "Not so Iíd notice. Still, drink up and off to bed with you."

The warrior shook her head. "Iíll be fine. Weíd better get back to Lendila and spell her. Sheís got to eat and rest. Some of those folks will need constant watching tonight."

"Not by you, warrior!" Xena jerked her head up to stare into Lendilaís warm smile. "Mind if we join you?" Xena inclined her head to one side indicating a spot. Lendila and Inda plotted down. Almost instantaneously, the tavern owner was back with more stew and ale. Again refusing payment, he disappeared into the crowded room.

Between mouthfuls Lendila explained who was taking care of the wounded and what their status was. Xena ticked off several things that had to be done during the night as Lendila nodded. "Weíll take care of it. You go to bed. I donít want any more sick on my hands tonight."

"You and Gabrielle are going to mother me to death."

"Canít be done. Youíre much too stubborn."

Xena tried to think of a retort but her tired mind wouldnít wrap around one. In the end, all she could do was arch an eyebrow and roll her eyes. That got a full laugh from Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle, I know youíre tired but if you could tell a story or two it would do a lot of good for these people." Lendila waved her arm to indicate the quiet crowd.

Gabrielle looked about her and then nodded slowly. As she started to rise, she felt a hand on her arm. She looked into the soft eyes of the warrior. "Not about me, okay? Not tonight."

The bard stood up and looked down at the warriorís quiet expression. "Sorry Xena. These people need something to make them laugh and I can think of a couple of things you and I got into that is perfect." With a mischievous grin, the bard strolled to the raised platform. There was no need for whistling tonight as everyone was instantly quiet.

The bard launched into two tales about Xena and a look alike princess. The misadventures and mistaken identity soon had the crowd roaring. Yet another tale of the strangest beauty pageant in all of Greece that was won by a man dressed as a woman had the crowd rolling on the floor and pounding the tables. Gabrielle finished with a tale of two friends, a wolf and a magpie. The tale told of their adventures, how they helped each other and gave each other hope. As Gabrielle took her bows, the crowd cheered and cheered. Xena noticed that many had tears in their eyes. Once more the bard had deeply moved her audience.

As she returned to the table the warrior reached up and grabbed her hand. "That was well done, my bard. Best performance ever."

"You think so?" Gabrielle asked with shinning eyes.

"I know so. Come here." She pulled the bard down next to her and gave her a big hug which was returned with enthusiasm.

"Okay, you two. Now both of you off to bed."

The two women looked at Lendila and laughed. They glanced at each other and in unison said, "Yes mom."

Inda chuckled and gave them both a knowing look.

Suddenly, Xena stiffened and turned. Several villagers approached the table slowly with stern hard expressions. Lendila saw the wary move of the warrior and half rose from her seat to face her neighbors. One of them put out a cautionary hand facing the warrior directly.

"We just wanted to say thank you for what you did for us today. Those raiders would have killed us all if you had not been here."

Xena glanced at Gabrielle and remembered the bardís angry words from a long ago argument. Gabrielle had been very upset when the warrior had turned away from a grateful village and silently walked away, ignoring their thanks. She looked directly at the villagers before her with an icy stare. After a moment, she dropped her eyes and said a quiet "Your welcome." After a pause, she continued "Glad we could help."

The roughly clad farmers nodded and one gave a tentative smile. They turned and walked slowly back to their own table where they sat down. Soon another group of villagers made their way to the warriorís table and also said their thanks. They were greeted in kind as the warrior once more quietly replied, "Youíre welcome."

Others performed the same courtesy until Gabrielle guessed that almost everyone in the room had visited their table. Through it all, Xenaís face remained an emotionless mask. She extended a cold courtesy but made no other comment. Finally, Gabrielle pulled her up from the table and pushed her towards the door that led to their little room.

Once inside, they pulled on night shirts and collapsed into the warm bed. Gabrielle noted that someone had built up a fire for them in the fireplace and placed fruit and cheese on the small table. Both too tired to talk or eat, they fell immediately asleep; Gabrielle into a sound snore and Xena into a restless nightmare filled with bloody bodies and grim accusing faces.

Chapter 11

The two woman spent most of the next day working with Lendila over the wounded. Anthelis and another badly wounded boy lay close to death and required Xenaís constant care. By the end of the day, it was clear both would live. Xena had not lost a single patient. That night the two returned to the tavern for dinner and Gabrielle once more practiced her bardic craft.

The following day passed much the same. In between caring for the wounded, Xena lent her strength and building skills to the villagers who were patching the burned huts at the edge of town. As she hoisted beams and wove new thatch to replace the roofs, the other villagers continued to stare in amazement. It was not clear if her wonderful strength or helping hands caused more wonderment. Some even dared to approach the silent woman and greet her or speak of common things. To all she answered politely but with few words. Towards the end of the day, most of the mending was completed and the wounded were in good shape. The warrior began to pace. She strolled about town only to return to the healerís cottage and then back out again. Finally, Gabrielle and Lendila exchanged desperate glances.

"Xena," Gabrielle called to the warrior as she completed yet another circle. "Your driving us nuts. Go out and run Argo or something. Everything here is under control."

The warrior stopped as a rueful grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Guess Iím a little restless. Shows, huh?"

"A little," the bard laughed, rolling her eyes. "Get out of here."

Gabrielle shook her head laughing at the wide grin the warrior gave as she turned on her heels and bolted for the stables. "She really has a hard time sitting still. Thatís why sheís such a lousy patient when sheís hurt."

Lendila watched the retreating warrior and then turned serious eyes on the bard. "Gabrielle, with Anthelis feeling better today, the town council has decided to meet tomorrow about Xena."

Gabrielleís face turned grim as her eyes searched the healers. "What do you think theyíll do?"

"Iím going to petition the council to pardon her. I think I have enough evidence just from what she has done for us to make a good case."

Gabrielleís eyebrows arched as hope crossed her face. "Do you think they will listen to you?"

"Oh, yes. By the gods, they will listen and hear me out. But Gabrielle, I donít think it will do much good. They have found her guilty and sentenced her to death by beheading. They wonít back down on that even with my say so."

Gabrielleís head dropped as she clasped her hands together. "What should we do?"

Lendila rose, walked to the bard and knelt down in front of her. She grabbed both of Gabrielleís hands in her own. "Make her leave. The whole village would be so relieved if she would just go. No one would try to stop her or send anyone after her. Not after what she has done for us."

Gabrielle raised her eyes to the healerís and shook her head. "I know her, Lendila. She wonít go."

"Then sheíll die."

"I accused her of wanting just that. She just looked at me. Itís not the same anymore with her and me. We use to know each other, trust each other, talk to each other, now thatís all changed." The bardís voice had gone heavy with sorrow and a single tear crept down her cheek.

"Loving a warrior like Xena isnít easy, is it?"

Gabrielle jerked her head up and stared at the healer. "What do you mean? Xena is the most wonderful..."

"Hey, you donít have to sell me," interrupted Lendila. "Remember, Iíve seen her do some amazing things. I just mean you are so different and I can see that you both are in pain."

"Weíve caused too much pain for each other. I donít know if we can go on together."

"You can," the healer said firmly, "If you have the will and heart to work at it. Itís not easy to keep any relationship going. The one youíve chosen is even tougher. Xena can be hard and cruel. The darkness and anger surrounds her. With that cold icy stare of hers, she intimidates the Hades out of everyone. The only time I have ever seen her face light up is when she looks at you. Did you know that?"

"There is another side to her, Lendila. She can be funny and kind. She has a quick wit and a wicked sense of humor. No one loves a practical joke better than the warrior princess." An inadvertent smile crossed the bardís face as she remembered the time Xena had placed a tree frog down her back. After squirming and screeching, she had grabbed the warrior and both of them had ended up in a nearby pound.

"Then what is wrong between you? Why the sadness? Why wonít she leave this place and live for you?"

"She promised me she wouldnít die again. Yet she wonít run. Lendila, she can be so stubborn. No matter how much it hurts her or us, she will do what she thinks is right. Sheíll march up to that chopping block and let this town execute her because she thinks that itís justice."

"It is."

"No. It canít be justice to kill someone who is doing good for so many." Gabrielle rose and walked to the entrance of the small cottage. "I donít have any answers but I have a feeling that one way or another Iím going to lose her soon and be all alone." The bard stared off in the distance. The healer put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Iím going to fight for her, Gabrielle. I promise you that."

Gabrielle gave Lendila a small smile. "I know you will. Thank you. If you can forgive her for what she cost you, maybe you can persuade them. Itís worth a try."

The sun was dipping behind the western mountains when Gabrielle spotted Xena returning on Argo. What a magnificent picture they made, horse and rider moving perfectly as one. Argo danced and pranced, clearly enjoying the workout with her mistress. As they approached, Gabrielle noticed that Xenaís face was a stoic mask her eyes shadowed as she glanced down at her.

"Whatís wrong?" she asked immediately.

The warrior shook her head and guided the warhorse towards the stable. Gabrielle followed along behind with an uneasy feeling in her gut and silent alarm bells going off in her head.

As Xena curried her horse and tended to her needs, Gabrielle related the status of the wounded. The warrior made no comment. She finished with a pat to Argoís neck and turned to leave the stable. Gabrielle stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"Xena, the town council is going to meet tomorrow to decide how to proceed with your punishment. Lendila said she will petition them for a pardon."

The warrior glanced down at her best friend with cold eyes and an inscrutable expression on her face. "For the last time, will you take Argo and leave?"

"No. Remember, friends stick by friends. Good times and bad."

"Yeah, I remember." Slowly, the warriorís cold set expression softened. She suddenly reached for the bard and took her up in a desperate embrace. She whispered softly into the bardís ash blond hair, "All right,...friend." Xena held her close another moment, turned without meeting her eyes and rapidly strolled into the darkening night.

Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. She knew something big time was up. She also knew her soulmate well enough to know she wasnít going to tell her anytime soon. She followed the warrior into the tavern. The evening passed as it had on previous nights. Lendila and Inda joined them for supper and afterwards Gabrielle told heroic tales of Xenaís goodness. Once the bard finished to rousing applause, the two retired to their small room.

Gabrielle watched as Xena seemed to spend even more time than usual carefully sharpening all her weapons and checking her armor. Satisfied after a final critical inspection, she put down her sharpening stone and padded to the bed she shared with Gabrielle. The bard laid down the parchment she was writing on and stared up at her friend. "Are you going to tell me whatís going on with you?"

The warriorís gaze dropped to the floor. "No, Gabrielle. Donít ask."

The bard sighed and turned to face the wall away from the warrior. Xena climbed into the bed and snuffed out the candle. No more words were exchanged between the two friends as the cold iciness descended around the two woman, not caused by the weather or lack of a fire.

Chapter 12

Gabrielleís eyes flew open and she swung immediately out of bed. A glance at the small window told her that the morning was far advanced from dawn. She scanned the room and noted Xena was gone as was her weapons and armor. Quickly, she pulled on her clothes, laced up her boots and started for the door. A deep voice whispering in her mind made her stop and turn to grab her staff. As she bolted through the door into the outer tavern, she noticed that it was empty except for the girl that helped the old proprietor and actually did most of the cooking.

"Did you see Xena leave this morning?" Gabrielle called to her as she rapidly approached.

The girl looked up smiling shyly. "Oh yes, long before dawn. I was just starting the fire when she came out. I asked if she wanted something to eat. She took some bread, a hunk of cheese and left."

Gabrielle knew it was useless to ask if the warrior had said anything.

"Do you want some breakfast?"

"Later," Gabrielle called back over her shoulder as she strolled rapidly out the door of the tavern and down the street to the stables. She noticed that there were no villagers on the street and wondered if the town council meeting had already begun. The bard looked inside the roomy barn and was not surprised to find Argo gone. She turned and slowly walked back to the tavern. Once inside she ate her breakfast but had no idea what it was. Her attention was turned inward, lost in thought. She weighed the possibilities of what Xena might be doing. If she really had decided to just leave, Gabrielle knew she wouldnít have left her behind, not without a goodbye. No, she was doing something out there that she knew Gabrielle couldnít condone. Maybe, she just doesnít trust me anymore, the bard pondered. Not only does she have to worry about keeping me alive, she has to make sure I donít kill. She just canít have me around when thereís trouble. Iím no good to her. She canít trust me to fight and canít even trust me not to betray her. Iíve almost got her killed in battle and now for the second time, sheís facing execution because of me. No wonder she doesnít want me around.

The bard buried her head in her hands. What a mess! Lendilaís words came back to her about their relationship. She could see no way to work through this. Perhaps after tomorrow, it would end anyway. Gabrielle shook her head and straightened up. She would stay by the warriorís side through this. After that, remaining together one way or another seemed almost impossible.

She got up and went back to the little room she shared with her soulmate. She sat down and tried to write but nothing came to her. Finally, the tears fell, tears of sorrow for Xena, for herself and for the loss of something so wonderful, so special,.... the loss of their bond.

As the day wore on, Gabrielle again left the room and walked the deserted streets of the little village. She stayed away from Lendilaís cottage as she knew the town council was meeting there. It was better if Lendila pleaded Xenaís case alone. The bard had been pleading it every night in the tavern with her tales. Now there was little more she could add. Gabrielle returned to the village square and sat down on the stone platform next to the tree stump with the old rusty battle ax buried into it. As Gabrielle gazed over at the smooth round surface, she noted the number of rings etched there. It certainly had been an old tree. Suddenly, it occurred to her that the stump had no other marks in it other than where the ax cut the surface. She wondered if the villagers had ever executed someone before in this manner and decided they probably had not. Tomorrow wasnít going to be easy for anyone.

She looked away, watching the road that led away from the village, wishing with all her heart to see a gold colored horse and rider appear. Finally, as dusk shadowed the village, Lendila appeared from around a corner and walked slowly toward the bard. From the expression of sorrow on her face, Gabrielle knew the results of the council meeting and hung her head.

"Iím so sorry. I tried. They listened and Xena actually had a lot of supporters. But then those that had lost love ones so long ago spoke and demanded justice. I tried to explain that the Xena who they wanted to execute was all ready dead and this would be murder. No one saw it that way. The sentence stands, tomorrow at noon."

Gabrielle looked up and smiled through misty eyes, "Thank you so much for trying. Youíve been a good friend."

Lendila searched the face of the bard. "She wonít leave?"

Gabrielle shook her head.

"Perhaps, we can come up with something to save her. If we use force, no one in this town will rise to stop us. In fact, they are all still at my cottage arguing about who will execute her. So far all who have been asked refused." Lendilaís eyes snapped fire as she straightened up with determination.

Gabrielle again shook her head and placed a restraining hand on the healerís arm. "No, donít go there. Xena would never permit it. You canít risk your friends and neighbors. Once weíve gone, youíll have to live here, raise your daughter here. Thatís not the answer. The only way to truly save Xena is for her to ask for forgiveness and mercy. These villagers must forgive her and replace their hate with love. Nothing short of that will solve this."

Lendila stared at the bard a moment and then hugged her tightly. "You are a very special person, Gabrielle. I will pray to the gods that this happens. If they kill her, then we all lose some more of our humanity. Itís a price too high to pay for the little satisfaction that revenge brings." She walked slowly away.

Gabrielle sighed and turned back towards the road leading away from town. She narrowed her eyes squinting harder. In the waning light, she could just make out a shadowy spec. She jumped up and walked rapidly to the edge of the village, staring so hard that tears came to her straining eyes. Yes, it was a shape of a horse and rider traveling slowly towards her. As they became clearer, Gabrielle made out the familiar form of Xena and Argo. The mare was shuffling along, with her lowered head wearily bobbing. Gabrielle raised her eyes to the warrior. Xena still rode the horse gracefully but the slight incline of her head and the limp left arm dangling at her side told the bard all she needed to know. The warrior was exhausted and hurt.

Xena pulled Argo to a stop in front of the bard as their eyes locked. Gabrielle put a gentle hand on the horseís damp neck as she studied the warrior. Xena was covered in dusty dark grime, her raven black hair flying about in disarray. The side of the warriorís face was beginning to show a dark bruise that started below her right eye and continued down to her angular jaw. It was clear that she had been brutally kicked. Bright patches of red and rust brown colored blood covered most of her. Gabrielle dropped her eyes to Xenaís arm and noticed a steady red stream flowing down it dripping on the ground below. Xenaís eyes traveled Gabrielleís gaze to her arm. She gave a slight shrug. "Itís just a scratch."

"Ahuh," was all the bard said as she reached up and grabbed Argoís bridle. She walked the horse to the stable. Once inside, she watched as the warrior slowly swung down from the saddle. She pushed Xena away from her horse towards a bale of hay that lay against the stall and shoved her down to a sitting position on it. She turned back to the horse, quickly unsaddled her and gave her a measure of oats. While Argo munched Gabrielle rapidly curried the animal knowing full well that Xena would not have herself tended until her horse was cared for. The warrior watched Gabrielleís actions silently.

Finally, with her tasks completed, the bard turned back to her friend. Xena had laid her head back against the stall, weariness showing on her face. "Here, drink," the bard said with a cold voice handing the warrior the water skin which she had removed from the saddle.

After the warrior complied, Gabrielle moved over to her, unlaced the gantlet of her left hand and slipped the bracer down to her wrist. She unclipped the armor and slipped it down off Xenaís left shoulder. Finally visible was a large tear in her skin. "Needs stitches. Whereís your healerís pouch?"

"Lendilaís."

"Well, thatís just great, Xena. You go off to do battle and leave your pouch behind. Címon." She pulled the warrior to her feet roughly and pushed her out the stable door. As they slowly walked towards the healers cottage, Gabrielle stopped the warrior with a hand on her arm. "You going to tell me what you did or just let it come out as a surprise." The anger and hurt in Gabrielleís voice stopped the warrior cold. She turned soft pained eyes towards her friend.

"I saw the tracks yesterday of men and horses massing near here. I figured that it might be some of those thugs who attacked this village so today I had a closer look."

"You knew you were going to fight them, didnít you? You planned to. Why did you leave me behind, Xena? Why didnít you tell me? You couldnít trust me to hold up my end could you?" The bitterness almost hatred in Gabrielleís voice shook the warrior to the core.

"No, this was not about trust. I didnít want you hurt."

"Thought we got beyond that a couple of years ago."

."Iíve never doubted you." Xena spoke these last words with firm conviction as her eyes snapped cold fire.

The bard searched the beloved face of her friend as a slow dawning thought caused her to pause. "You didnít plan to come back, did you? You thought theyíd kill you."

The warrior grabbed the bardís shoulders in a hard grip. "I never go into a fight planning to lose."

"If you had died today Xena, would you have considered that a loss or a victory?"

When the warrior remained silent, Gabrielle turned her head away wearily and grabbed Xenaís hand in her own. "Come on. Got to get you sewed up before you bleed to death right here."

She pulled the warrior forward. When she seemed to stumble, Gabrielle swept her arm around Xenaís waist to steady her. "Hades," she mumbled under her breath as she moved the warrior into Lendilaís cottage. "Youíre hurt worse than youíre telling me. No, donít say a word, just move."

Lendila rose, concern on her face as Gabrielle helped Xena to the bench by the fire. She quickly removed the unlaced gantlet and then the armor that still hung by one shoulder clip. She undid the strap that held Xenaís leathers and began to pull them off. The warrior noticeably flinched. The bard looked questioningly at her friend. "Ribs?"

Xena nodded.

"Gods, do we cut the leathers off?"

"No leave it. Itís in a place where wrapping wonít do much good."

Lendila and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "All right. Lean forward."

As the warrior moved forward on the bench, Lendila handed Gabrielle a clean cloth soaked in warm water. Carefully Gabrielle began to clean the wound. While she worked the healer got a needle and thread ready. Gabrielle once more showed her skills as she made small and careful stitches. Her thoughts went back to the first time she had performed this service for the warrior. She had shaken like a leaf and done a very poor job. The result had been a long jagged scar on Xenaís thigh still highly visible till this day. She was much more practiced now.

As Gabrielle bandaged the wound, Lendila made a herb tea which would fight infection and handed it to Xena who accepted it gratefully. As she carefully sipped the warm brew, Gabrielle glanced up and saw the facial bruise was darkening and swelling.

"Lendila, do you have a small metal container you can fill with cold water?"

The healer nodded and disappeared. While the healer was gone, Gabrielle took the cloth and carefully wiped the warriorís face. "This looks bad. Does it hurt."

"Yeah, a little," the warrior admitted.

Lendila returned with a small filled metal flask and handed it to Gabrielle. She gently pressed it against Xenaís battered cheek. The warrior flinched momentarily as the cold sent a shock wave of pain through her entire head.

Gabrielle kept the cold flask pressed against Xenaís face for a few minutes and then took it away much to the relief of the silent warrior.

"All right Xena. Any place else on you need mending?"

"No, think you got it all."

"Good. Now I want you to tell me just what happened today. And Xena, I want the long story not the I had a fight and you should see the other guy version. Okay?"

The warrior looked up into fiery sea green eyes and noticeably sighed. Lendila shook her head in amazement. Xena might be the most feared warrior in the civilized world but it was clear that she was a pussy cat in the hands of the bard.

"Well, I found the raiders camped a couple of hours from here. They had more than doubled their number and while I watched, two more scum came and joined right up. I figured it wouldnít be too long before they came back for another crack at Thorbis since this village is the only one around. After tomorrow, there wouldnít be anything to stop them. So,....I walked into their camp and suggested they leave."

"Xena, no more lies. Remember?" The warrior raised weary eyes to face the bardís cold countenance. Her eyes traveled to Lendilaís face and rested their a moment before she dropped her gaze to her hands in front of her.

"I gave my warrior cry and attacked them on the spot. I was able to deal with the first group before the others came back from the river. Then it got pretty hot and heavy. They had me down for awhile but I was able to break free and finish them."

"How many were there? Tell me, Xena."

"I donít know maybe ten or so."

"Xena, how many? Upwards of twenty maybe?"

"Sort of."

"Right, sort of. You attacked over twenty armed raiders alone? Good plan, Xena. Go on, tell me the rest."

The warrior raised cold icy eyes to meet Gabrielleís stare a moment and then again lowered her gaze. "The others took to their horses and ran. I gave chase. Took awhile but I finally got them all."

"You killed them all?" Gabrielle asked in a horrified whisper.

The warrior nodded raising her head to face Gabrielle directly. "I couldnít take a chance on them coming back here. There would be no one left to defend the village....afterwards."

"Xena, you could think of no other action but to kill all of them?"

The warrior lowered her head and shook it slowly. The room was silent except for the cracking of the fire as the bard and the healer stared at the warrior before them. Finally, the healer stood and looked down at the warrior. "Thank you, Xena. You have saved us again. I donít know why you have done this for tomorrow we are going to reward you by taking your life. Iím going to go tell Anthelis what happened but understand, it will make no difference. Noon tomorrow, Xena. For the last time, donít be here!" The healer turned on her heels and left the cottage.

Gabrielle rose with a slow finality. She moved to the warriorís side and took the cup from her hand. "I donít know whatís going on with you anymore. I donít know you anymore."

The warrior made no comment with her head bowed and her eyes closed. For a long moment, silence filled the small room.

"Time to get you to bed," Gabrielle said at last in a resigned voice. She helped Xena to her feet and arm and arm they made their way back to the tavern. The large main room was totally empty. Gabrielle didnít know if the villagers were still at their town meeting or if they had not the courage to face them. Either way, it didnít matter. Nothing mattered anymore except that tomorrow would come.

She moved Xena into their little room and watched as she gingerly climbed into the bed they shared. The bard sat down at the little table and faced the reclining warrior. "I have a last request of you. It will be the final promise between us. Will you agree to my last wish?"

Xena turned and faced the bard, her piercing eyes softening with love and pain. "What is it?" she whispered.

"Tomorrow, when you face these villagers I want you to beg their forgiveness and ask for mercy. Xena, I want you to promise me youíll do this last thing, for yourself and for me. Will you?"

"Oh Gabrielle. I keep telling you it wonít matter."

"I donít care. Will you do it?"

The warrior closed her weary eyes. For a moment Gabrielle thought she had fallen asleep. Finally, in a low voice softly musical and deep Gabrielle heard the magic words, "I promise."

Chapter 13

The night passed slowly. Gabrielle was up several times checking on Xena as the warrior slept fitfully. Twice she applied a damp cloth to Xenaís forehead as she felt the first signs of fever. Both times the warrior woke and gave a slight smile as her thanks. By daylight, Xenaís amazing recuperative powers were evident. Stiff and sore, she was still able to get out of bed and dress. The bruise on her face had lost the puffy angry look and her shoulder wound was healing nicely. Ribs were just what they were and as the warrior had told the bard many times, nothing could be done for such an injury except to endure the pain. The bard had long ago given up the argument that rest might help. She knew her restless warrior all too well.

Neither spoke as the morning wore on. It seemed as if they were both beyond words, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Gabrielle left the little room and the warrior who was reclining on the bed her head propped up against the base board. She returned with two steaming bowls of gruel.

"This might go down a little easier. You donít look like you want to do a lot of heavy chewing."

Xena rubbed the side of her jaw as a rueful grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. "You have a point."

They made short work of breakfast. Gabrielle turned to the small fire in the fireplace and placed a pot of water on it to seep herb tea. The two women watched the fire as the silence between them became heavier as the morning dragged on.

Finally, glancing out the small window, Xena slowly stood up. "Itís time."

Gabrielle watched as the warrior padded over to the small table and reached for her armor. The bard was instantly at her side lifting the heavy pieces over her head and shoulder, fitting the buckles and clips. She reached over for the arm bracers and gauntlets lacing them in place.

"Thanks," Xena said in a low voice as she shoved her sword into the back sheath and attached her chakram to her side.

She stood straight at attention for inspection her head inclined to one side. Gabrielle put her hand to her mouth and dropped her eyes that were beginning to fill. "You look terrific."

"Hey." The warrior reached out a hesitant hand lifting the bardís chin up so their eyes would meet. "Why donít you stay here?"

Gabrielle pulled her face away, shook her head and grabbed her staff. The warrior took a deep breath and strolled out the door with the bard at her heels.

They marched together down the dusty village road to the town square. There were no people visible anywhere. Finally, as they turned the corner they came upon the entire multitude assembled around the stone platform and oak stump that still had the ax buried in its center.

The warrior stopped, took in the scene before her and turned to her soulmate. "Guess this is it."

"Shhhhh," she whispered as she wiped the tears that were falling freely from Gabrielleís sea green eyes. "Not like this." She paused and then lowered her head to give Gabrielle a warm kiss. "Iím sorry for all the pain Iíve caused you, now and before. I never meant to. I love you."

Gabrielle grabbed her friend in a tight embrace, her head buried against the warriorís broad shoulders. "I love you. Remember your promise," she whispered.

"Iíll remember," the warrior replied in a low musical voice. "Goodbye, my love." The warrior straightened up and turned to stride forward once more. Gabrielle watched her walk towards the platform, dark head held high, swagger in her step, the cold warrior mask firmly in place. It was just the way she knew Xena would walk to her death. She followed behind with dragging steps and heavy heart.

Anthelis stood on the platform with his arms crossed clearly not in the least happy to see the woman strolling towards him. The crowd parted as she moved through them until finally she reached the edge of the stand. Gabrielle took up a place right behind her next to Lendila who draped a comforting arm around her shoulder.

"So..." Anthelis rumbled in an authoritative tone.

"Iíve come as directed," Xena stated as she climbed onto the platform to stand facing the elder.

"Ah yes, so you have."

Xena turned and grabbed the rusty ax, jerking it from the wooden tree stump with one quick pull. As she turned back to the elder, he involuntarily took a step back as the crowd gasped. She held the weapon in both hands parallel to her body and with one twist snapped it in half. She threw the two pieces down, disgustedly and faced the elder. "Youíll be hacking at me all day with that thing." She drew her own sword with one quick movement as the crowd collectively held its breath. She flashed it about her head in a silver whirl. She finished the movement by turning it so that the hilt end came up extended towards the elder. "Use this and save us both a lot of trouble."

"Ah...yes." The elder cleared his throat and turned to the strapping blacksmith who was standing behind him. "Theo."

The black bearded villager took a hesitant step forward and placed his hand gingerly on the hilt. His eyes met the warriors with a look of regret as he grabbed the weapon in both hands.

All three now turned to face the crowd before them. "Xena, of Amphipolis, you have been charged, found guilty and convicted of cold blooded murder, looting, theft and the burning of homes in this village seven winters ago. Do you wish to challenge this judgment?"

"No, I am guilty as charged," the warrior replied in a clear steady voice. Her face was stern and cold, her eyes piercing as she faced the crowd before her.

"Then it is by the power that the good people of Thorbis have invested in me that I sentence you to death by beheading for your crimes against this village." His stern voice carried over the silent crowd and settled like a heavy mantle across Gabrielleís shoulders. She lifted her eyes to the warriorís as their gazes locked.

"Do you have any last words?" The elder ended his sentence hopefully turning to the still silent warrior beside him. In a hushed whisper meant only for her ears he added, "Please."

She turned her head to look at him, surprise on her face as he nodded encouragingly at her. She drew a deep breath and turned back to the crowd, searching for one beloved face. Once she found it, her eyes locked onto her soulmateís. Then she started to speak in a clear yet low tone that carried out to the very edge of the assembled villagers.

"I Xena of Amphipolis am guilty and I accept the punishment you have decreed as just and fair. I will submit to your judgment. I have one last request." Her crystal blue eyes never wavered from the bardís as she continued. "I want to beg forgiveness for my crimes from each of you and to ask you for mercy by sparing my life. If you so decide, I pledge to continue to try to atone for my past by helping the innocent and fighting evil for the rest of my days. A warrior like me does not grow old. Another foe; bigger, stronger, faster will eventually carry out your judgment. I know beyond doubt that my final resting place no matter what, will be Tartarus for all eternity. The choice of when is yours. I am sorry for the pain and suffering I have caused you."

She broke her riveting stare with the bard abruptly by turning to the elder and whispered softly, "Iím ready." She turned and knelt down before the tree stump. Turning away from the crowd, she laid the side of her head against the smooth wood. She said a silent prayer to any of the gods who might be listening that the blacksmith could handle a sword. Xena closed her eyes and waited for the smooth blade to find her neck. Her last thought was a silent goodbye to Gabrielle and a plea for her forgiveness for breaking her promise.

The blacksmith took a step forward to stand over the warrior and brought the sword up. He looked at the elder waiting for the sign to proceed.

Anthelis turned away from the scene before him to stare at the crowd of villagers. He saw the faces of his friends, kinsman and neighbors, some that he had known since he himself was a boy. Finally, he spoke.

"Since Xena has come among us, she has saved our daughters from harm. Twice she saved this village from raiders that would have killed us all. I believe that if we pardon her, she will keep her pledge. I believe that she will never harm the innocent again. I also believe that to take her life now would rob others of her protection and help. Nothing she or any of us can do will bring back our loved ones or take away the pain and suffering she has caused us. She has asked us to let her live to continue her atonement and I believe that is the right thing to do. So...I hereby move that we pardon Xena of Amphipolis her crimes against the village of Thorbis. This is subject to the provision that she never murders in cold blood or in any way harms any innocent villagers ever again. All those that agree signify by saying aye."

For a brief moment as Gabrielle held he breath, stillness surrounded the assembled villagers. Suddenly, with a loud roar the crowd chimed in with a ringing "Aye."

"All those opposed."

A few grumbling nays were heard among the villagers and then a woman shrieked. "You canít be thinking of letting this monster go free. She killed my husband and brother in cold blood with a laugh." As the woman wailed, two villagers one on either side drew her away from the crowd as she broke down and wept. Anthelis watched her leave and then turned back to the villagers before him.

"The motion is carried." He turned to the kneeling warrior and gently pulled her to her feet.

"Xena of Amphipolis, you are hereby pardoned of the crimes you committed against the townspeople of Thorbis seven winters ago. Remember your pledge, for we will hold you to it. Go with the gods."

The warrior turned a very startled expression towards the elder as Gabrielle and Lendila hugged in a fierce embrace. The blacksmith grinned as he pushed the sword he was holding into Xenaís back sheath with a sigh of relief. The elder also smiled and grabbed the warriorís arm as he tottered slightly.

Xena immediately became alarmed and turned to help the old man off the platform. "Get to bed, old timer," she admonished him. "You need rest." As he nodded, Lendila came up to give him a hand. Xena whispered into his ear, "Thank you." He turned back to the warrior and extended his hand which she gripped warrior style. "Itís been a pleasure Xena. You are always welcome here."

"Send for me if you need anything."

The elder nodded tottering towards his small cottage at the edge of the village. Others crowded around Xena and Gabrielle to share their gladness. Both smiled and thanked the villagers but never faced each other directly. Finally, Xena moved off and whispered in the bardís ear. "Any objection to getting out of here now?"

"No, sooner the better."

"Iíll saddle up Argo, if youíll get our things."

"Xena, you okay to travel. Another dayís rest might...." Xena gave her the stern warrior look which stopped her in mid-sentence. "Right, Iíll get our stuff."

They met at the town square and turned towards Lendilaís cottage to say goodbye. The healer and her daughter were out front waiting for them. With warm hugs, the healer turned to the bard and whispered, "Take care of her, Gabrielle. Please. She needs you."

Gabrielle smiled through misted eyes. The warrior grabbed Inda in a tight bear hug and then pushed her away with a stern look. "Remember what I told you. Be safe for yourself and your mother. Promise?"

Inda smiled and nodded, "I promise. But I donít promise to stay forever in this village. I want to be a traveling bard just like Gabrielle."

The warrior rolled her eyes as they all laughed. "Not sure the world is ready for two of you out on the road."

"Hey," the bard admonished slapping Xenaís midsection.

"Hey yourself." The two turned and waved goodbye to their friends. Soon they left the small village far behind.

Chapter 14

Once more out on the road, the familiar movements took over as they traveled closer and closer to their homeland. The camp under the stars and the chores so routine occupied their actions but not their minds. Each remained in their own worlds, driven by their own thoughts and emotions. Nothing of the dayís events or of recent actions was shared between them. Once more the silence grew and deepened. Gabrielle could almost see the dark shadow hovering over their heads as they walked towards the setting sun. Time was running out on their bond and their friendship. All that they had been through seemed to drive a stronger wedge between them more clearly defining their differences and opposing life choices. As the days passed, Gabrielle became more and more certain that she could not go on this way with the woman at her side who had become almost a stranger.

She was now convinced that Xena would always choose to kill when confronted with a threatening situation. In many ways, the warrior remained the dark souled avenger resorting to blood letting she had first met. If she continued to travel with the warrior, she was a liability, a risk to Xenaís life. Her softer better instincts, her reverence for life, might once more betray her friend or get her killed. Gabrielle was sure she could take a life to protect her friend but she now knew that Xena would die trying to prevent that from occurring. Gabrielle also suspected, although the warrior kept on denying it, that Xena no longer trusted her in a fight. Perhaps she no longer trusted her at all.

As she walked next to her silent traveling companion, Gabrielleís heart ached with dread. She knew her own inner turmoil and guilt was causing much of their estrangement but could not bring herself to speak openly. The warrior had pulled back into her shell, silent cold waiting for the inevitable. With no danger lurking or others around to deflect or occupy their thoughts, their inner pain and doubts ate at the closeness the two once shared. As the days wore on, they became more distant each with a protective wall up against the pain the other could so easily inflict. It was easier to hide within the dark silence. The villagers of Thorbis had forgiven Xena for the past but Gabrielle was sure the warrior had never really forgiven her. Gabrielle was also sure she never would.

Days of travel first west and then south had finally brought the two woman to the crest of the high ridge

overlooking Greece. Below lay flat fertile fields as small villages dotted the horizon. The green Arcadian highlands rose on either side. Just below them lay the well-worn wagon rutted Thessalian road that stretched to the forks and beyond to Athens.

The two gazed long in silence at their homeland stretching out below them. So much had happened to them and between them since they had left. As Gabrielle turned to the warrior, Xena suddenly stiffened and turned back towards the road they had just traveled. She drew her sword and stood listening silently. Finally, Gabrielle could hear the distant thump of hoof beats. Then from a dip in the road, a company of mounted horseman became visible rapidly approaching them.

"What now?" Xena muttered through clenched teeth as she noted the number of the advancing force. If they attacked, the two woman stood little chance of survival.

As they drew closer, Gabrielle recognized their banners and style of armor. "Theyíre from the Kingdom of Chin. Thatís the green dragon insignia on their chest. They must have been sent by Ming Tien."

She turned to her friend who nodded slightly and moved forward, sword still extended. Gabrielle took her defensive posture with her staff and waited as the horsemen drew near.

The group stopped in front of the two women as their leader raised his hand in the air. "Xena, weíve been searching for you."

"Well, you found me. Now what?"

"Wait. We didnít come here to do battle. Iíve been ordered by the families of Lao and Tien to bring you back to Chin. They want you to rule their joined clans."

"I have no desire to ever go back to the Kingdom of Chin."

"Xena, as emperor, great riches await you. Please, the people want you as their leader. I have been asked to convince you to come and conduct you back safely."

"Pick a ruler from your own kind, one who is fair and just. This is your chance to make a better life for your people. Chose wisely." The warrior had not lowered her sword but she stiffened as Gabrielle drew closer to her.

"What happened to your emperor, Ming Tien?"

The leader of the mounted troops turned to the bard with a surprised look on his face. "Thatís why we are here. Since Xena killed him, she earned the right to be emperor in his place. Her refusal is not acceptable."

Gabrielle turned a stricken face to the woman at her side. "Is it true? You killed him?"

Xena glanced down at the bard, closed her eyes for a moment and slowly nodded.

The bardís eyes blazed as she spat out, "You lied to me, you said you made him small. Killing him is not making him small, its...its....Oh Xena, how could you after all that happened?" Gabrielle straightened up with cold hard eyes she bore into Xenaís soul. "You murdered him after all. You are a monster. By the gods, I canít do this anymore. I canít be with you anymore. All along I believed in your goodness, in you. I was a naïve fool, wasnít I, Xena? Youíll never change."

Gabrielle turned abruptly. With a firm rapid step, she walked away from the warrior, crested the ridge and was quickly lost from sight. Xena watched her go and then turned back to the mounted troops in front of her. With a cold inscrutable gaze she barked at them, "Once and for all, Iím not coming with you. Leave and go find your ruler among yourselves." She raised her sword in defiance and waited their next move.

Confusion registered on the leaderís face. Finally, he slowly turned his mount around. They road off back down the road they had just traveled. Xena watched them until they were a distant blur on the horizon. With a ragged sigh, she mounted the golden warhorse. She loped her up the hill and down the other side towards the retreating figure of her friend.

Xena caught up to the rapidly striding bard quickly and rode along side of her in silence. Finally, the forks of Thessalian road loomed before them. The bard stopped there and looked up at the stricken warrior.

"Xena, Iím through. Weíre through. Iíve got to leave." Gabrielleís voice was cold and emotionless as she stared up into the older womanís face.

"I know," came back the resigned voice heavy with a mixture of pain and weariness. "Where are you headed?"

"I donít know, Athens I think. Maybe, Iíll spend a little time at the academy."

The warrior studied her hands in front of her, not facing Gabrielle. The thought crossed her mind that this was the second time that she had parted company with the bard at the Thessalian forks never intending to see her again.

"The cut off is the shortest way, a couple of days up the road."

"I know, Xena," Gabrielle replied impatiently.

"Yes,... well then.... I guess this is it." The warrior had not raised her eyes as she pulled Argo around. "Gabrielle, take care of yourself....and if you ever need anything..." Her voice trailed off as she looked up to see the emotionless mask on the young womanís face. How far weíve come she thought bitterly to herself. The once sunny open bard now looked like a stern warrior, hiding her feelings, anger controlling her actions. And Iíve just continued to be the bloody monster of old. Atonement, what a joke. Now Gabrielle sees me for what I really am and my darkness has infected her.

The warriorís head drooped as she moved Argo off the road towards the Arcadian highlands. She didnít look back at the bard who had turned and was once more striding down the rutted road. She moved Argo into the trees near a small stream and dismounted. Mindlessly, she unsaddled her horse and cared for her. She set up camp with automatic motions and built a small fire. Later she would set up snares but for now, there was no need for she was not hunger. Xena leaned back against a downed tree and stared into space. She sat and she waited.

Chapter 15

It had taken several hours of steady walking but finally Gabrielleís anger had evaporated. It was replaced with a terrible sickness in her soul and an ache in her heart so severe it felt like a knife wound. The tears had come then, silent sobs that had racked the bard to the point where she had to stop along side the road to catch her breath. Once these had passed, the aching loneliness had set in. It was with dragging steps that she finally reached the outskirts of a small village. She recognized it immediately as Norbia, a friendly town that Xena and she had passed through on more than one occasion. They had spent relaxing nights in the local tavern that also served as an inn.

It was market day, and although the afternoon was far advanced, the peddlers were still trying to persuade late comers of the bargains still to be had. Gabrielle strolled silently from stall to stall. First she spied a hair clip that would look great in Xenaís dark tresses. Then she found a leather belt that Xena could use to replace the worn often repaired one around her waist. Finally, Gabrielle stopped at a small stall and picked up a breast dagger thinking about the one Xena had lost in the fight with the slavers. She almost started to bargain with the eager merchant until she realized what she was doing and threw the knife down. She turned away dejectedly. Why buy a knife for a person she would never see again?

She knew Xena well. Even if their paths might cross someday, the warrior would stay hidden, out of sight. She had wounded her once too often. Gabrielle squirmed at the thought of her last bitter words. Calling her best friend and soulmate a monster, the very thing she feared, stepped over the line and she knew it. The warrior would never seek her out or come to her.

Gabrielle shook her head and stared at her feet. She had done terrible harm. She remembered Lendilaís caution as her words came back to her inflecting yet more pain. Yes, Xena had lied to her, but what of her own lies to Xena? Were they any less terrible? Tears threatened the corners of her eyes as she continued to berate herself. Iím suppose to be the sensitive one, the one thatís good with words. So how much sharing have I done? In fact, the warrior had made more attempts at conversation than the bard. Gabrielle looked honestly within herself. She acknowledged that the reason for this was she was afraid to talk and even more afraid to listen. If Xena had told her the truth, told her of the pain the bardís betrayal had caused, Gabrielle would have been devastated. Gabrielle saw the truth for what it was, her own failure of her best friend. She couldnít face what she had done. Instead she hid behind the silence that had developed between them. It was easier to run and hide than admit her own failure. It was also easier to blame Xenaís past or her violent nature than to blame herself. What had happened to her softer better instincts in regards to her soulmate? They had failed her when she needed them the most. As a result she had abandoned her best friend.

With heavy heart, Gabrielle entered the small tavern and greeted the rotund owner. "Hello, Fibus. Been awhile"

"Gabrielle, how are you? You be needing a room?"

The bard nodded and sat down heavily at a dark wooden table.

"You want something to eat? Guess I donít have to ask that. Got some beef cooking on the fire." The jolly booming voice of the tavern owner echoed off the log walls of the establishment.

"No thanks, Fibus. Just a glass of cider if you have it."

"What, no dinner Gabrielle? You sick?"

"No, Iím fine. Just a little tired."

The kindly proprietor studied the young bard more closely with a worried frown. "Hey, whatís up?" He looked around tentatively and then back to the bard searching her face. "Whereís Xena?" he asked softly.

"Gone."

"Gone, as in dead?" Fibus asked with a hint of fear in his voice.

"No, sheís fine. Weíre just not traveling together." The bard stared at her hands not facing the kindly owner.

"Oh," was his only reply as he disappeared only to return with a mug of cinder which he sat down in front of the bard. "Will you tell stories tonight? You know how everyone loves to hear them."

Gabrielle almost declined and then looked up into the kindly face in front of her. She nodded taking a small sip of her drink. Fibus grinned widely and bolted out the door to spread the word.

Gabrielle sighed. She didnít feel like doing anything but curling up into a ball somewhere and dying but she knew that wasnít much of an option. She was going to have to start getting use to being on her own, alone. She was also going to have to start getting use to carrying around a load of guilt, something a certain warrior princess was really good at.

Fibus came back shortly and showed Gabrielle her small but comfortable room up the stairs to the back. A pang struck her heart as she recognized the room she and Xena had often shared. As the proprietor turned to leave he grinned. "Theyíll be quite a crowd tonight. There is a big caravan in town headed for Athens. Theyíll be leaving in the morning."

"For Athens, do you think they would let me go with them?"

"Sure, donít see why not. Gabrielle, if youíre headed that way it would be a good idea. You know there is always safety in numbers." He gave her a knowing look and left. Gabrielle sat down on the small bed. True she thought. I donít have Xena around for protection anymore. She sighed and stared at the walls in front of her.

That night she told rousing tales of the warrior princess and reaped a lot of applause and dinars for her efforts. The next morning Gabrielle was up early. She watched the caravan pull out into the dawn chill. She just couldnít make herself join the group and watched them as they turned into small dots traveling the dusty road to Athens.

The bard spent the day wandering aimlessly about town. As the long afternoon finally dragged into dusk she returned to the tavern for a dinner she hardly touched. She packed up her things in her pouch and came down the stairs intending to leave but not having a clue where to go. Fibus saw her and grabbed her arm gently. "Gabrielle, its too late to set out now. The roads are not safe. Tell some more tales tonight and leave in the morning. Please."

The bard heard a soft deep whisper in her mind tell her that traveling any road after dark was asking for trouble. She smiled at the tavern owner and nodded.

Chapter 16

The large crowded common room of the inn was deathly silent. The dark stained log walls trapped the heat and suspense inside. The close ripe smell of warm bodies, ale and a smoky fire had not driven a sole towards the large oak door and the cold, dark, damp air outside. Every bench and stool was taken and rough clad men lined the back walls. They leaned against the wooden planks, mugs in hand, hardly daring to breathe least they miss a word of the story the young bard was telling. Her voice rose and fell dramatically, weaving the tale around the emotions of her audience, binding them to her in rapt anticipation as the climax approached.

Suddenly, the bard stopped speaking in mid-sentence, sea green eyes starring out above her audienceís heads as if she actually saw the battle she was describing. The crowded audience seemed to catch and hold their breath as one, waiting for the bard to continue.

"With an impossible kick high into the air that left her body parallel to the ground, Xena delivered the telling blow to the evil warlord Draco. He fell backwards off the shoulders of the villagers and onto the ground. With a forward flip and mighty leap, Xena landed right on the chest of the warlord who lay quietly on the straw matted floor." As the bard described these final events, her body crouched, twisted and sprung forward, giving her audience a visual representation of the tale.

"Xena demanded that Drago leave never to attack or harm the villagers again. Defeated, he agreed and was never again seen in that valley." As she finished, the bardís arms rose dramatically and then fell, giving her audience a winning smile.

A cheer and large roar of approval rose up from the crowded room as the rapt audience clapped their hands together and pounded their mugs on the wooded tables.

Gabrielle grinned and bowed low as the applause and cheering continued long and loudly. Finally, holding up her hands for quiet, the ash blond haired woman smiled and thanked her audience. A plate was passed from hand to hand. The clinking sound of it filling with dinars gave the bard a warm glow.

Suddenly, above the buzz and movement of the crowd a voice rang out. "Bard, do you really understand what youíre doing?"

Gabrielle turned towards the caller and spotted a tall, weathered farmer dressed in tattered shirt and faded blue trousers.

"Do you?" he demanded insistently, his voice echoing over the stilling room.

The bard smiled uncertainly and shook her head. "Iím not sure what you mean."

The caller pulled his bent frame up into a straight defiant stance and pointed at the bard. "It is always the same with you story tellers. You glorify the scum and evil of this world and call them heroes. Long after they are mercifully dead and no longer a menace or threat to decent people, you bards go around keeping their memories alive with rubbish about how great and exciting their lives were. You glorify their blood letting and paint a picture of epic deeds and glorious adventures. In fact, they are just killers and bullies who should never be remembered except in scorn or as an example of evil to be avoided. Xena was the worst of the worst. She was no hero. She was a killer and robber of innocent villagers. I can name you dozens of towns looted and burned by her own hand starting with mine."

"That was a long time ago," Gabrielle quietly replied. A pained sorrowful expression crossed her beautiful face, strangely aging and lining it.

"Long ago. Does that matter? Does that change what actually happened? Let me tell you, it was not some heroic tale. Xena and her army swept into my village, killed, pillaged and then moved on to the next town. My two brothers and my father were murdered without mercy defending their homes. Their families suffered, I suffered. I wanted to go after that piece of dung and send her to Hades but my wife stopped me. She pointed out that I would probably be killed and no one would be left to help the woman and children who needed food and fuel to survive the winter." He spat and crossed his arms in front of him. "She was so arrogant, riding in front of her men, sword flashing, killing anything that moved. The world doesnít need or want any hero like her and you should not be telling the stories you do. She is not a role model for our young and you glorifying her adventures is wrong."

Gabrielleís head dropped as she starred at the floor in front of her. The old farmerís words flayed her like a whip as a deep pain coursed through her. "Xena would be the first to agree with you," she began slowly. She raised her head and stared straight into the eyes of her accuser.

"She never saw herself as a hero. In fact, she was tormented by guilt brought by memories of her past deeds. She would see the faces of those she had harmed in the orange coals of the dying camp fire. Night after night terrible nightmares robbed her of any real rest or peace." The bard paused a moment in thought and then continued. "I know, you see, because I use to travel with her." The bardís voice had taken on a lower sad quality but vibrated with the strength of pride.

"She was the best friend a person could ever hope to have in this life. She was kind to a fault, never thinking of herself or her needs, always putting mine and otherís first. She never complained even when her body was racked with terrible pain. She never refused a request for help and risked her life countless times to help anyone who was in need." The bard pulled her eyes from the face of the farmer and gazed out above the heads of her silent audience.

The bard continued to speak, her voice growing stronger and louder with each sentence. "She had wonderful, truly remarkable skills she put to use to help others. She could somersault through the air, doing flips and spins effortlessly almost as if not bound to earth like the rest of us. She was of course a skilled fighter with all weapons but you may not know she also was a skilled healer. Countless wounded and injured people all over this land owe their lives to her healing knowledge and gentle care."

"She had an amazing sense of humor and a quick wit. When she smiled, her whole face took on a glow. And of course there were her eyes, the most magnificent shade of blue. They could be icy and sharp. They could be warm and glowing. But most of all, they could be shadowed and veiled, truly the windows to her troubled soul. You see, she was a contradiction. She possessed a soul so dark and passionate, Ares tried to own it over and over again. And yet at the same time, a soul so loving, kind and self sacrificing she would do anything, give up everything to save her friend, family or even perfect strangers from harm."

"You talk of role models. She was a wonderful role model for me, self confident and strong in her determination to do what was right. She never backed down and never flinched even when doing the right thing caused her terrible pain."

The crowd was silent, waiting for the bard to continue. Gabrielle turned her face back to the farmer. "You have every right to despise the warrior princess. She caused you terrible pain and loss that no words or tears can ever wash away. Just remember, she was not a god or a myth. She was a person, a woman who made mistakes and performed terrible acts of evil. To her credit, she saw what she was and changed herself. Most of us could never look at ourselves with the kind of cold honest scrutiny that Xena turned on herself. Most of us wouldnít have the courage. She lives her life trying to atone for her past, knowing that Tartarus will be her end and never backing down from that final judgment."

The bardís eloquence had no effect on the farmerís pain. He shook his dark head in bitterness and replied, "I hope her torment in Tartarus matches the pain she caused here on earth."

Gabrielle dropped her head again and closed her eyes sadly. "I am sorry for you, not for your loss as much as for your inability to forgive. Itís by forgiving that you finally can mend yourself and come to terms with your grief. You live in as much darkness as Xena does. If itís any consolation, she never forgave herself either."

The bard raised her head, squared her shoulders and stepped off the slightly raised platform where she had delivered her stories. She passed through the quiet crowd, reached for her long Amazon staff and small pouch resting against the wall by the broad door. As she pulled the door handle to let herself out, a gentle hand reached over and held her arm stopping her motion. She turned to see Fibus, the burly tavern owner with tears in his eyes, lift a filled bag of dinars and place them in her hand. She smiled at him and slipped out of the tavern into the cold night.

Some distance away, the dark night air closed in around a lone figure sitting silently before the dying camp fire. No sounds cut the silence that surrounded the woman and the purple orange coals of the once large blaze. A sword was grasped in her right hand, pointed towards the earth and a sharpening stone was in her left. However, stone did not meet blade as the woman warrior stared into the fire lost in her own thoughts.

"How much longer must this go on? So much death and horror. Even now I see their faces before me in the coals. Faces that have not troubled me for a long time have returned." With these dark thoughts, the warrior placed the stone on the ground, grabbed the hilt of the sword with both hands and leaned closer towards the dying fire.

A dark depression settled over her shoulders just as the night air had done. She bowed her head. "So much to regret and no act or deeds able to blot the past away. All of this is taking me nowhere but in useless circles, causing yet more pain, more suffering. So much blood, death still caused by my hand. And for what? I kill scum to help strangers who hate me and may not be any better or more worthy than those I destroy. Who am I to judge? I am a warrior that has violated all warriorís codes, betrayed an entire army, my own kind and killed so many. All of this done in the name of atonement."

As the warrior starred into the ashes, her dark shadowed eyes took on a strange and unnatural resolve. She shifted the sword hilt to her right hand and turned the blade tip upward from the ground towards her own midsection. "How easy it would be. So simple to stop all of this useless struggling. Just a quick thrust and then only eternal Tartarus. No one else hurt, no one need know. Easy enough to finish this charade, this farce of a life. In the end, the final blood shed will be my own. How perfect! Of all the blood on my hands, my own will end it. She even told me to end it this way. Better I do it than another."

With a thin cruel smile, the warrior brought the tip closer to her body. Suddenly before the unblinking stare of the warrior, a face appeared, sweet and pure filled with love and sorrow. Gabrielle. The vision shook her head slowly and softly accused, "You promised me, remember?"

The warriorís arm trembled and her hand shook as the sword tip wavered. "Leave me be," the warrior hissed through clenched teeth. "You and I are through. I wonít cause you any more sorrow and you wonít cause me more pain. Itís at an end." Yet the vision would not vanish but remained with soft loving eyes and sweet smile. The warrior screwed her eyes shut and blinked rapidly hoping to dispel the face before her. When she opened her eyes again, it was gone and only the soft glow of the fire remained. The warrior eased out a ragged breath bringing the sword point closer to its final destination.

Gabrielle started to run. She wasnít sure why but she felt driven beyond any normal thought. She had to get back and somehow find Xena. That was all she knew. Everything was clear to her now. She saw her own folly and she understood the pain they had caused each other. It couldnít be too late but some strange feeling in her gut told her to hurry. She had no idea where to look for the warrior. She knew running down the Thessalian road in the middle of night with only a full moon to guide her was foolish. She could hear the tongue lashing she would get from a certain warrior princess. Yet none of it mattered. She had to find Xena.

Somehow once she saw her face, the words would come. She could sense her nearby, could almost smell the warriorís tangy leathers, feel the firm solid muscles of her arm as she hugged her close. But Iíve got to hurry. The words played in her mind over and over as a mantra. Iíve got to hurry. Please Xena, she voiced a silent plea. Wait for me.

Chapter 17

It was still an hour before dawn with the full moon lowered in the night sky when one very tried bard finally reached the forks in the Thessalian road. Now where? Gabrielle looked to the left then right. Something drove her through the trees to the right, towards the water she could hear rushing over uneven boulders. As she moved into a sheltered cove she could barely see the outline of a horse who turned a head towards her and gently nickered. Argo!

Gabrielle rushed forward, then stopped cold. She could make out a dying camp fire and a form slumped against a fallen tree. As she drew closer, the form took the shape of the warrior lying back with her head resting against the tree, her sword buried in the thick trunk. Dark tresses covered a still pale face, strangely eerie in the dying campfire light. Gabrielle squinted into the darkness. The warrior should have heard her by now. "Xena?"

As she knelt down next to the still form, two crystal blue eyes stared up at her. "Hi."

Gabrielle gently touched the warriorís cheek. "Hi yourself. Didnít go very far, did you?"

Xena sat up slightly and searched her friendís face. "Didnít have any place to go. Waiting here was as good as anywhere else."

Gabrielle leaned back. "So you knew Iíd come back."

"No," Xena whispered. "I knew you wouldnít."

"Then what were you waiting for?"

"I donít know."

"Xena, Iíve done a lot of thinking since I left. I realized I was running away from you, from myself, from us. I couldnít handle the pain anymore. I guess I was trying to hide from the truth ever since we left the Kingdom of Chin."

"Before then," Xena supplied in a soft voice.

"Yes, before then." The bard paused and then continued in a low voice choked with emotion. "Iíve been the cause of all of this and I want to ask you one last time to forgive me. Xena, I have to know you will."

The warrior was silent a long minute and then wrapped her long muscular arms around the bard as she drew her close. "Oh, Gabrielle. This isnít about my forgiveness. Iíve forgiven you long ago. You know when, in the dudgeon. I beg you to forgive me for lying to you and for all the pain Iíve caused you, but none of that matters. You have to forgive yourself or we wonít be able to go on together. The guilt and the self-hatred are eating you up. Remember, Iím an expert on this sort of thing. Donít follow my lead. Please."

Tears streamed down the bardís face as she lifted her head to gaze into Xenaís eyes. "I canít. Iíve betrayed your trust. How can that be forgiven?"

Gently the warrior traced the cheek of the bard with a long finger that wiped the tears away. "Simple. I forgive you, you forgive me and now you must forgive yourself. Just do it. Remember, no more lies, no more secrets, just you and me living each day as best we can, trusting each other, loving each other. The past is gone, we live from now on."

When the bard was silent the warrior drew in a jagged breath and hugged the bard closer to her. "Any pain you caused me in the Kingdom of Chin is nothing compared to the pain of losing you. Donít you understand? I canít go on without you. I just sat here because I couldnít think of where else to go. It was the last place Iíd seen you. So I stayed."

Xena pulled the bard back and looked deeply into her eyes. "My soul was ripped apart. Do you understand now? I need you. I love you."

The bard searched the blue windows into the warriorís soul and saw the truth shinning through. She grabbed Xena and held on as if she would never let her go again. The warrior returned the embrace. They lay in each otherís arms and watched the dawn break over the Arcadian highlands. The reds, yellows and purples lit up the sky in an amazing display. "Red sky in morning, sailor take warning," Xena mused.

"What does that mean?"

"Oh, its just an old saying we used when I was at sea. Red sky at night, sailors delight, red sky in morning sailor take warning."

"Was it usually true?"

"Yeah, actually it was. The morning red sky meant a storm and high seas were coming."

"Then we better batten down the hatches and get some breakfast."

Xena laughed. "You hungry, what a surprise." She studied the bard for a moment and then hugged her close. "Guess I just want to make sure youíre real. You came to me in a vision last night."

"I did. What did I say?" The smile on Gabrielleís face evaporated when she saw the pained look in Xenaís eyes. "What?"

Xena dropped her gaze as she shook her head slightly.

"Xena, remember no lies, no secrets. Itís about this trust thing. I trust you, you trust me and we do the very best we can not to hurt each other."

The warrior nodded as she studied her hands and whispered, "You told me to remember my promise." She paused a moment and then added, "So I did and shoved my sword into this tree."

The catch in Gabrielleís throat almost choked her as her heart beat wildly. "I knew it. Somehow I knew I had to get back to you for your sake but mostly for mine. Oh, Xena. Thank you for waiting for me." She threw herself back into the warriorís arms and held her close as she felt Xena take a deep breath. She looked up and wiped away a tear that was trickling down the angular cheek of the warrior.

"Xena, Iím so sorry for all the pain Iíve caused you. No, donít say it. This is my apology. You can have yours later."

Xena arched an eyebrow and then laughed outright. It had been a very long time since Gabrielle had heard that musical sound. She grinned widely. She knew that they were a long way from healed. The road ahead would have rough spots. Still working at her relationship with one tough warrior princess was infinitely better than living alone and worrying about her all day long.

"You take a nap my adventurous bard while I go scare up something for breakfast. Then you and I are going to have a chat about the dangers of these roads at night and how you are never going to travel them after dark again. Okay?"

Gabrielle looked into the eyes of her best friend and grinned. "I knew Iíd hear about that."

Epilogue

The plump red squirrel chattered disapprovingly at the two humans below his perch in the broad oak tree. The thump, swish and knock of metal meeting wood had disturbed his winterís sleep and he angrily protested this interruption. His concerns were ignored by the tall muscular warrior who swiftly swung her broad sword downwards. The flashing bladeís motion was abruptly halted by a sturdy wooden staff welded by the fair haired bard.

The ash blond beauty followed the block with a quick whip of her staff to the side that would have caught the warrior square in the jaw if she had remained in the same location. However, as sword met wood, the warrior had spun. With a gravity defying leap, she flipped over her opponent smacking her on her rear with the flat of her blade. She then ducked and rolled away from the swinging staff that would have knocked her unconscious if it had connected with her beautiful dark haired head.

"Nice move, Gabrielle," the warrior noted, grinning widely. She leaped high into the air as the staff swept harmlessly beneath her feet. "I think Iíll start calling you warrior bard."

The Amazon was to busy concentrating and gasping for breath to reply as beads of sweat flowed from her forehead. Again she whirled swinging her staff with a level stroke that the warrior blocked with a side swipe of her sword. She grabbed the staff with her left hand and tried to disarm the bard but Gabrielle held tightly onto her weapon. She flipped the staff around bringing it square against the shoulder armor of her tall opponent. The blow glanced off harmlessly as the dark warrior turned and with a swipe of her leg tripped her opponent. Gabrielle tried but could not keep her balance and would have fallen heavily to one side if the warrior had not flashed a quick hand out and caught her by the arm.

"Hades Xena, no fair tripping." Before Gabrielle could protest further, she found herself swung around, disarmed and hosted into the air. With a gleeful laugh that always meant trouble, the warrior dropped her sword, strengthened her grip on the bard and began to run pell mell towards the quiet lake that rested a few yards away. "Uh oh, when will I learn to keep my mouth shut."

With a piercing undulating cry, "YaYaYaYaYa," the warrior snatched a whip from a rock, snapped it onto a limb and swung out over the edge of the lake with Gabrielle still in her arms. She let go of the whip when they were clear of the bank and both splashed nosily into the cold emerald colored water. They sank below the surface then rose sputtering and splashing. The resulting water fight left both woman laughing hysterically and gasping for breath.

"Enough, I give, I give," choked the warrior. "Iíve swallowed half this lake and Iím freezing to death. You win!"

Gabrielle eyed her best friend suspiciously looking for some hidden trick. Xena never gave up. But then the dark souled warrior was not behaving anything close to normal. These last few weeks had been very different and unusual for both of them. Perhaps, at last they were back from the Kingdom of Chin. No, Gabrielle thought as she followed the dripping warrior out of the cold lake. They were not just back, they had moved ahead.

 

THE END-or make that the beginning


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