Convert This Page to Pilot DOC FormatConvert this page to Pilot DOC Format

CHAPTER 3

Just as they had expected, Varanis launched his forces on the village shortly after sunrise. There was little strategy in his attack; he simply headed straight into the town in full force, trusting that his superstitions would ensure his victory. Unfortunately for him, Xena didnít believe in superstitions.

The defenses that Gabrielle had organized reduced his army by one fourth before he even reached the town. In addition, a sizable number of those who were left were so hampered by the rest of the traps, that only about half of Varanisí original force could effectively carry the battle into the village. Still, that left a fighting force of more than 30 very determined men, led by a leader who was fanatical in his belief that he could not be defeated.

As the soldiers swept into the town, the villagers fought back alongside their three heroes. Cor wasted no time jumping into the thick of battle and soon he was dodging and parrying a steady stream of opponents. He knocked them unconscious when possible but did not hesitate to kill them when necessary. He was relieved to see that Gabrielle was extremely skilled with her staff. Of course, when he thought about it, he realized that anyone who traveled with Xena would be likely to get plenty of opportunities to hone their fighting skills.

Cor fought hard and could soon tell that the battle, though still far from over, was definitely going in their favor. It was just as he realized that victory was likely, that he tripped over the body of a soldier he had struck down earlier. He stepped forward quickly and struggled to stay on his feet. Instead of regaining his balance, however, he stepped in a pool of blood and his feet slipped out from under him. He fell to the ground, losing his grip on his weapon. Looking up, he saw a sword flashing towards his neck, and he knew with utter certainty that he had no chance of avoiding the blow. He just prayed that death would be quick.

However, instead of feeling the bite of the blade in his neck, he heard the crack of metal hitting wood. As he tried to figure out what had happened, he realized that Gabrielle was standing over him, giving him the chance to retrieve his sword, while she protected him from his attackerís vicious blows and slashes. Scrambling forward, he grabbed his blade and rolled to his feet. As he did, Gabrielle disarmed the soldier who had been ready to kill Cor, knocking him to the ground. There he lay moaning in pain, all the fight driven out of him.

Gabrielle, for her part, was fighting well, but she was finding it harder and harder to focus on the battle. She was concerned about Xena and would have greatly preferred to be fighting at her side. At least that way she would know how her friend was doing. While she efficiently dealt with yet another of the endless attackers, she strained to see Xena, catching a brief glimpse of her friend fighting two soldiers at the same time. Relieved that she was doing well, Gabrielle relaxed slightly. At that moment, she was hit hard on her left temple. Pain exploded through her skull and she cursed herself for letting down her guard. Dazed and hurting, she tried to bring her staff up to defend herself, but everything was out of focus. She felt like she was moving in slow motion as she stumbled and fell to one knee. Frantically trying to clear her head and her vision, she struggled helplessly as a tall, filthy soldier grabbed her by the throat and took careful aim, preparing to plunge his sword into her body. As she gathered herself for one last futile attempt at escape, the soldier suddenly loosened his grip and stared down at her in utter amazement. Dropping his sword, he reached around his back, desperately grasping for something she couldnít see. As he slowly fell forward, she saw a large dagger protruding from his back. Looking up, she saw Cor swiftly advancing towards her. Reaching down, he retrieved his dagger from the manís back, before quickly assuring himself that Gabrielle was relatively unharmed. Reaching down to pick up her staff, Gabrielle watched as Cor rapidly dispatched a soldier that had rushed to attack them. Smiling ruefully, she tightened her grip on her weapon and turned to stand back to back with Cor, ready to take on the next soldier that thought the two of them would be an easy target.

Xena had managed to avoid close contact with most of the soldiers she had fought, knowing that her wound would eventually betray her if she wasnít careful. Letting herself feel the battle lust that always overcame her when she fought, she cut a wide path of destruction through Varanisí army, determined to find the warlord as soon as possible. By the time she reached him, she had taken a few blows to her injured side and was struggling not to favor it. She grinned confidently when she saw the fear in his eyes, as he watched her advance towards him. Slowly and deliberately she twirled her sword in tighter and tighter circles.

"Give up Varanis," she said, as she smiled at him mirthlessly. "Weíve shredded your army. Itís only a matter of time before the rest of your men fall as well."

"Hah! You have no chance Xena. I canít be defeated during the morning hours!"

"Uh huh...and you got this assurance from who? Ares...Zeus...the Fates?" She chuckled as she feinted with her sword, watching him completely overreact to her attack.

"Well no...I had a vision...in a dream. Iím lucky during these hours." Growing more agitated, he lunged forward, hoping to gain a quick victory.

Xena easily parried his attack and followed it up by slashing his shoulder. "Lucky huh? Sorry, I believe in making my own luck. Donít be a fool Varanis. Give up while you still have the chance."

"NEVER!" he screamed, knowing that he couldnít be beaten by Xena, or anyone else, before midday. Charging the warrior, he was able to get in close enough to slam into her. He knocked her to the ground, falling with her so that, when he landed, he lay on top of the Warrior Princess. Seeing the way she jerked in pain, he could tell that Xena had been hurt earlier. He suddenly realized that his luck was indeed still holding. He dove for his sword, which was luckily lying just within reach, and in one fluid motion he turned to plunge his sword into Xenaís heart. It was a nearly perfect move. In fact, the only thing that foiled his maneuver was Xena plunging her sword into him. He stared down in confusion at the blade buried in his chest, not understanding how Xena could possibly have defeated him. He made one feeble attempt to pull the weapon out, certain that things couldnít really have turned out like this, before he slumped to the ground.

Without their leader, and having already suffered heavy losses, the remaining soldiers lost all that remained of their resolve. They had given up all thoughts of attacking the village and, before long, the battle was over and the rout was on. A few of the attackers managed to escape during the ensuing confusion, but most either surrendered or were captured, and the villagers were soon able to begin moving their wounded into the makeshift hospital they set up in the temple.

Walking carefully to avoid any more pain than was necessary, Xena moved through the village, searching for Gabrielle and Cor and finally finding them near the inn. She smiled with relief when she saw them, but her throat constricted when she noticed the large bruise on the side of Gabrielleís face. All thoughts of her own pain vanished as she rushed to her friendís side.

Gabrielle smiled when she saw Xena coming towards them, but the warriorís expression instantly wiped that smile from her face. "Gabrielle, what happened?" Xena blurted out, as she immediately moved to inspect her friendís injury.

Gabrielle almost laughed out loud. She had forgotten that sheíd been hit, the emotions of the battle having blocked out the pain. "Iím fine Xena, I just got whacked in the head. Maybe it knocked a little sense into me," she teased, trying to lighten the mood.

Her efforts were lost on the warrior. "Stand still and let me take a look." Xena carefully examined the bruise and the swelling, before finally sighing in relief. "Okay, it doesnít look too bad but we need to get it cleaned up as soon as possible." Stepping back to look at her friend for a moment, Xena forced herself to relax. "So how did it happen?"

"I guess I just got careless...must be catching huh?" the bard said, as she grinned at her friend, being rewarded this time with a small smile in return. "Anyway I donít know who or what hit me, all I know is that it really hurt." Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, knowing that admitting what she had to say next to Xena was always a dangerous thing. The warrior, however, was still waiting expectantly to hear the rest of the story. "So...uh...anyway while I was still dazed, one of the soldiers grabbed me and...and was about to kill me, when Cor stopped him," she finished in a rush, trying to avoid her friendís stunned expression. Turning to look at Cor, she smiled in gratitude. "By the way, I donít think Iíve thanked you for that yet have I?"

"No...but then again, I havenít thanked you yet for saving my life either," he said, as he grinned back at her. Seeing the surprised look on Xenaís face, Cor nodded his head. "She saved my life long before I had a chance to return the favor. If it hadnít been for her, Iíd be on Charonís boat right now." Flexing uncomfortably, he rubbed his shoulder, which had taken a brutal blow from a club during the battle. "All right, Iím going to go see what I can do to help out those who were hurt," he said, as he sheathed his sword and began walking towards the village temple.

Xena nodded. "Weíll join you as soon as I take care of Gabrielle." Placing a hand on her friendís shoulder, she guided the bard into the inn. Gabrielle sat down at one of the tables, while Xena got what she needed to clean the wound. There had been very little bleeding, but the young woman was going to have an angry bruise for the next several days. The bard tried to protest that Xena didnít need to go to all this trouble over her but, as she felt her friendís gentle hands carefully tending her injury, she decided that maybe a little personal attention from the Warrior Princess would be a good thing after all. She sighed to herself when she felt Xena lightly caress her cheek as she examined the bruise and, when Gabrielle turned to look at the warrior, their eyes caught and held, each lost in her own thoughts. Finally, Xena exhaled softly. "I guess weíd better go see about assisting Cor," she said quietly, as she helped Gabrielle to rise. The young woman nodded and began to follow Xena out of the inn, stopping short to avoid running into the warrior when she paused in the doorway. "Gabrielle, I want you to promise me that if your head starts to bother you, youíll let me know right away. And I donít want you going to sleep anytime soon either. Head wounds are tricky. You need to stay awake for awhile. Okay?"

Gabrielle nodded. "All right Iíll stay awake...and Iíll let you know if my head starts to bother me."

"Good, now letís go find Cor."

**************************************************

The tavern was full that evening as people crowded in, eager to celebrate the defeat of the soldiers who had been terrorizing them. Word soon spread that one of their saviors was an honest to goodness bard and, before long, Gabrielle was deluged with requests for her to tell her stories. After a bit of coaxing, she agreed, and a hush fell over the tavern as people got caught up in her tales. Xena watched her with a smile on her face, impressed as always by her friendís ability to capture the imagination of her audience. ĎShe really is good at this,í she thought. ĎAnd for once sheís telling stories that donít feature me and some exaggerated account of my exploits.í Each time the young woman finished a story or poem, the crowd begged for another, enjoying the chance to hear stories about people they would never meet and places they would never see. As time wore on, however, the warrior noticed that her friend was growing tired and was beginning to struggle a bit with her tales. As the bard finished yet another story and the villagers began clamoring for more, Xena rose from her chair and crossed over to her friend. Taking her arm, she smiled as she spoke softly into the younger womanís ear. "Gabrielle, when I told you earlier I didnít want you going to sleep anytime soon, I didnít mean that you had to stay up for the next five days. Go to bed before you fall asleep in the middle of one of your own stories."

Smiling sheepishly at her friend, Gabrielle nodded. "Okay, youíre right. But what about you? You havenít exactly had a relaxing day either."

"Iíll be up soon. I want to talk to Cor a bit more and then go check on a couple of the villagers."

Gabrielle nodded and then turned to face the people who were looking at her hopefully. "Iím sorry but Iíve got to get some sleep before I drop." She smiled gratefully when she heard the disappointed sighs and accepted the dinars that several people pressed into her hands. Waving to the crowd, she looked across the room to where Cor was sitting and smiled at him. "Tell Cor goodnight for me," she said, before she turned and went upstairs.

Pushing her way through the crowd that was now milling around, Xena returned to her table and sat down. "Gabrielle said Ďgoodnight,í" she said, as she reached for her mug.

"Sheís really a talented storyteller," Cor said, "One of the best Iíve ever heard. Itís a good thing you stopped her, though. Otherwise these people would have begged for just one more story until she collapsed." Cor grinned. "Iím glad sheís finally convinced that Iím not some demon from Tartarus. Itís hard to have someone like her thinking of you like that."

Xena smirked at him. "Give her time. Once she gets a taste of your warped sense of humor, she may change her mind about you again."

Cor laughed out loud. "Ahh Xena, I hope not. I like her."

Xena smiled. "Itís hard not to," she said softly.

Surprised at the sudden change in his friend, Cor looked at her more closely. This was not the Xena he remembered at all. "You really care about her, donít you?" he asked quietly.

"Yes I do. She means everything to me. If I ever lost her I...." Xena stopped speaking abruptly, as fear gripped her heart at the thought of losing Gabrielle. Taking a deep breath, she got her emotions under control. Looking directly into Corís eyes, she spoke as steadily as she could. "I owe you Coriath, more than youíll ever know. Thank you," she finished, not trusting herself to speak any further.

Stunned by Xenaís attitude, Cor was momentarily speechless. He had heard Xenaís voice nearly crack when sheíd been speaking and he realized that, somewhere along the line, Xena really had changed. Not certain what to say, he decided to change the subject. "The villagers are having a party tomorrow night to celebrate their victory and honor the loved ones they lost. Tobin asked me to ask if you would stay. I know theyíd love the chance to hear more stories from Gabrielle."

Xena considered the offer. They were in no particular hurry to get anywhere and their planned "rest" in the village had, so far, been a bit lacking. Gabrielle would get a chance to tell her tales to an audience again and it would be good to catch up with Cor some more. "All right, weíll stay a bit longer. Right now though, I think Iíd better go check on the villagers in the temple and then go to bed," she said, as she rose from the table.

Cor stood up as well. "Iíll look in on them for you Xena. You go on up to bed and Iíll see you tomorrow."

"Bad move Cor. Iím going to take you up on that offer. Night." Clasping his forearm briefly, she turned and walked up to her room, as Cor headed out of the tavern, both of them lost in their own thoughts.

CHAPTER 4

Gabrielle woke to feel the warmth of the sun streaming down onto her face. Looking around groggily, she saw that Xena had already risen and left the room, and realized that the Warrior Princess was probably down getting Argo ready to leave. She couldnít really complain, though. It was actually pretty amazing that Xena had let her sleep in like this. Getting dressed, she wandered downstairs to see about getting something to eat. When she reached the main room, she was startled to see Xena sitting at a table eating breakfast. Walking over to join her, Gabrielle caught Tobinís eye and asked for a cup of tea. "Good morning," she said, as she pulled out a chair and sat down next to her friend.

"Morning. Sleep well?" Xena asked, as she took a sip of her tea.

"Just fine. And you?" Gabrielle asked, a bit confused by Xenaís actions. She certainly didnít appear to be getting ready to leave the village.

"Yup. Mmmm. Thanks," Xena said, as Tobin brought some hot biscuits to them.

Still trying to figure out what was going on, Gabrielle asked, "So, were you planning on leaving today?"

"Actually no. The villagers are having a party tonight...figured we might as well stay for it."

Gabrielle looked at her in astonishment. She couldnít believe that Xena was voluntarily hanging around for a celebration. She was always anxious to get back on the road as soon as possible. "Weíre staying?" she asked, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice.

Xena grinned at her. "I assume thatís all right. If I remember correctly, you wanted a chance to rest and tell a few stories. Besides, this way, I can help with the people who were wounded yesterday and Cor and I can catch up a little more."

"Uh, sure Xena, sounds good," she managed to say, hiding the momentary flash of unease sheíd felt when the warrior had mentioned catching up with Cor. After all, there wasnít any reason that should bother her. It was only logical that Xena would want to reminisce with an old friend.

"Good. Iím going to head over to the temple to check on some folks. I should be back by the time youíre done eating," Xena said, as she rose to her feet and walked out the door.

**************************************************

Gabrielle had nearly finished eating breakfast when Xena returned with Cor. Smiling broadly when he saw the bard, he sat down beside her as Xena nodded to her briefly and then headed upstairs. "Morning Gabrielle. Iím glad you two are sticking around. Iím looking forward to hearing more of your stories."

Corís grin was infectious and Gabrielle couldnít help smiling back. "Well, I have to admit that Iím a bit surprised that Xena was willing to stay. Usually sheís ready to move on almost as soon as we get somewhere."

Cor nodded knowingly. "Sheís always been like that, never wanting to stay anywhere long, always on the move. Guess that makes her a good companion for a bard though, huh? Oh, that reminds me, the folks over in the temple were hoping you could stop by and tell a few stories."

"Sure, how are they doing anyway?"

"Pretty good actually. They should all pull through, although several of them are going to be on the mend for quite awhile." Looking up, he saw Xena returning with a small bag. "Excuse me Gabrielle, Iíll be back in a minute."

Gabrielle watched as Cor headed upstairs. Xena reached the table but didnít sit down. "Whatís up?" the young woman asked curiously.

"Cor and I are going hunting. Maybe weíll set some snares. I figured as long as there was going to be a celebration tonight we might as well try to catch some fresh game."

"Oh, well, have fun," Gabrielle said lamely, not certain what else to say.

Xena looked at her friend curiously. "Something wrong?"

"Hmmm? Oh, no, I was just thinking about what stories I should tell the people over in the temple." ĎThis is ridiculous,í she told herself. ĎThereís no reason for me to feel so left out. I donít even like hunting.í

"Ahh, well Iím sure whatever ones you choose will be perfect." She smiled at Cor when he returned carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. "Ready?"

"You bet, letís go. See you later Gabrielle."

"Sure thing. And good luck," she said, as Xena and Cor grinned and left the tavern.

**************************************************

The hours passed quickly for Gabrielle while she visited with the villagers. She took the opportunity to learn as much as she could about Trezine and its people. The wounded villagers in the temple were grateful to see her, having heard from numerous others about the wonderful stories the little bard could tell. She had told a few stories and recited a few poems, when she looked up to see that Xena and Cor had returned. As she finished the poem that she was currently reciting, Cor began checking on the patients and Xena came over to where she was standing. "Looks like youíve kept yourself busy," she said with a smile.

Gabrielle smiled in return. "Yeah, and although I could really use a drink, for the record I have not been talking the entire time youíve been gone."

"Well then letís do something about that thirst of yours shall we?" Xena laid a friendly arm over Gabrielleís shoulders and began to guide her out of the temple.

Surprised at Xenaís actions, the bard allowed herself to be led to the tavern. ĎWell,í Gabrielle thought, ĎSheís certainly in a good mood. I donít remember the last time I saw her like this.í When they reached the inn, Xena ordered drinks for them both while Gabrielle found a table. As the two sat together talking, Gabrielle continued to wonder about the warriorís strange behavior. This simply wasnít like her. First she wanted to stick around the village for a while. Now she was sitting in a tavern chatting. She was actually answering the bard with more than single words; she was even using complete sentences.

Gabrielle and Xena continued to sit and talk for quite awhile, before several people approached the table, requesting that the young bard tell more of her stories. Grinning broadly at her friend, Xena rocked back in her chair and nodded at the young woman. "Go on Gabrielle. You know you want to."

Blushing slightly, Gabrielle stood and moved to the same spot she had occupied the night before, and launched into a tale about Hercules and his labors. Xena chuckled to herself while she listened to the story; those labors got more and more impressive every time she heard about them. Still, there was no denying it. Gabrielle was good at this. When she finished the story, the villagers began immediately begging for another. Taking a drink, Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment to think, then smiled as she decided upon a story. "I sing of Xena, Warrior Princess," she began.

Xena groaned inwardly, more than a little irritated with the bard. ĎDamn it,í she thought to herself. ĎShe knows I hate it when she starts talking about me.í Xena glared hard at Gabrielle, who was deliberately ignoring her gaze, before looking up to notice that Cor had just arrived. Rising to her feet, she moved as quietly as possible to the door to join him. "How Ďbout going for a walk?" she asked him. "Iím more than familiar with this story."

"Sure," he answered, a bit surprised but more than willing to talk with his friend.

Gabrielle watched them leave, trying not to show how hurt she was by Xenaís abrupt departure. She tried to convince herself that Xena just didnít want to hear stories about herself, but part of her wondered if she just didnít prefer to spend time with Cor.

**************************************************

Cor and Xena wandered around the village for quite awhile, talking about old times, reliving the good memories. By tacit agreement, they avoided talking about the darker memories; of the things they had done that they regretted. Eventually though, the conversation began to turn to Corís departure from Xenaís army. "I have to admit Cor, I never really thought you would leave."

Cor was silent for several seconds before responding. "I never would have if it hadnít been for Sairen. But when you love someone like that, it...it gives you the strength to do what you know is right."

Xena smiled at the memory. "I remember when the two of you came and confronted me. You both looked so much in love. I was furious, but no matter how mad I was, I couldnít deny you your chance to be with the one you loved; not after everything you had done for me."

Cor smiled. "You know, Gabrielle reminds me a lot of Sairen."

Laughing, Xena said, "Because sheís short, blond, and talks endlessly?"

"That and the fact that she uses a staff. You know, despite the fact that sheís obviously very skilled with it, she never struck a fatal blow yesterday. Does she have a thing about not killing too?"

"Gabrielle has never killed anyone," Xena said softly. "And I pray the gods grant she never does."

**************************************************

Gabrielle finished her story and, despite the requests of the villagers, she begged off telling another one, promising to tell more later. Leaving the inn, she began wandering through the village looking for Xena and Cor. After several minutes, she saw them standing off alone, deep in conversation. She approached quietly, hesitant to disturb them but at the same time not wanting to be left out. As she drew closer, however, she stopped in her tracks, surprised by the tone of their conversation.

"I just wish the two of you could have gotten along better."

"You know Cor, itís not as if Sairen and I hated one another, but itís a little hard to be friends with someone when youíre both competing for the same man." Xena smiled gently and placed her hand on his arm. "I admit it took a long time for me to forgive Sairen for stealing you away from me Cor, but I was truly sorry when I heard the news. You deserved to live a long life together. To die so young...I know that was hard for you."

"It was hard Xena, but the passing of time helps. I think Iím almost ready to try again. A part of me will always love Sairen, but I think itís time for me to move on. Itís what Sairen would have wanted for me."

With a guilty start, Gabrielle realized that she was eavesdropping on what had turned out to be an extremely personal conversation. Deliberately making noise as she moved forward, she called out to the two friends in a cheery voice, and was gratified to see that they looked happy to see her.

"Gabrielle," Cor said, "Iím sorry I missed your story, but some people just canít stand to let me have any fun." He glared at Xena momentarily, before breaking into a grin. "However, I was thinking that maybe youíd like to learn a few moves with the staff that might come in handy. I uh...used to know someone who used a staff and we practiced together quite a bit. If youíd like, I could show you some of the moves we worked out."

"Sure Cor, that would be great. Thatís really nice of you." The bard had overcome her initial distrust of Cor and the two were fast becoming friends, despite the fact that his relationship with Xena made her feel rather uncomfortable at times. Still, he was fun to be around, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to believe he had ever been a member of Xenaís army. He simply seemed too open and friendly to have been part of Xenaís life as a warlord. "By the way, I didnít get a chance to ask before. Did you get anything when you were out hunting?"

Xena nodded. "Yeah we got...."

"I got."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Yes, Cor got a deer. Now if you two are going to spend your time practicing, I think Iíll go check on the snares."

"Hah, Iíll bet you a dinar that my snares caught more than yours Xena."

Grinning at Cor, Xena replied, "Youíre on Cor." Turning to Gabrielle, she winked. "Make sure you knock him around good a couple times. Itís the only way to deal with that massive ego of his."

**************************************************

The feast that night was loud and joyous. Even those who had been recuperating in the temple earlier were moved to where a huge bonfire was burning, determined they wouldnít miss the chance to celebrate their good fortune and to honor and thank the three heroes who had come to their aid. As the evening wore on, Gabrielle and her stories became the center of attention once again. Xena smiled while she listened to Gabrielle weave her tales, however, as the bard inevitably began to talk of Xena and her exploits, the warrior became distinctly uncomfortable. When the bard started her second story featuring Xena and her grand adventures, the warrior rose to leave, unable to listen any longer, as the constant attention of the villagers became focused on her. Moving to the back of the crowd, she took several deep breaths. Once she was no longer drawing the villagersí stares, she felt the tension, which always accompanied that kind of attention, slowly flow away.

"You never have been good at that, have you?" Cor teased, as he approached her. "You never could stand to talk about yourself or hear others talk about you."

"It wouldnít be so bad if sheíd just tell them the facts about what happened. But after she gets hold of a story, sometimes I barely recognize the events as something that I was involved in." She shook her head and frowned. "Besides, there are enough stories about me as it is."

Cor saw the pain that flashed across Xenaís face and knew she was remembering something from her past that she regretted. Reaching out to place his hand on her shoulder, he gave it a comforting squeeze. "Maybe thatís why she tells these stories. So that people will know the person you are today."

"Maybe," she replied, but it was clear to Cor that she wasnít completely convinced. Before he could say anything else, however, Xena shook her head as if clearing her thoughts, and smiled at him. "Maybe I should just tell her some stories about you that she could tell. As I recall, you always loved hearing the bards talk about your adventures."

"Ahh Xena, I really have missed you," Cor chuckled as they sat down, far enough away not to disturb those listening to Gabrielle, but still close enough to watch her. They sat together quietly, enjoying the chance to simply sit and relax without having to worry about the past or the future. After several minutes had passed, Cor spoke once again. "You know Xena, at first your friendship with Gabrielle struck me as pretty strange."

"Oh?" she asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Yeah, but after spending more time with her, I understand. Thereís something about her thatís just...I donít know, itís just good to be around. The way she looks at the world. Itís hard to describe, but...."

"But youíre right. Itís hard to define, but thereís something about her that just makes you want to keep her around. And I canít explain it any better than you can," she said, grinning crookedly.

Cor glanced again at the bard, before turning back to Xena. "So? How exactly did you hook up with her? I assume she was never in your army."

Xenaís thoughts wandered back to when she had first met Gabrielle. "Her village had been attacked and she and several others had been captured by slavers. I rescued them and returned them to the village. Gabrielle decided to join me, even though I told her I didnít want her along. She followed me after I left her village. Eventually she caught up with me and convinced me to let her stay. Weíve been together ever since." She shrugged her shoulders. "Not much more to it than that."

Cor scoffed when he heard Xenaís last comment and he wondered whom she was trying to fool, him, or herself. "Thatís it huh? That simple?"

Xena heard the mocking tone of his questions. Glancing at him briefly, she realized that it would do no good to use the "hardened warrior" routine with Cor. He had always seen through it as easily as Gabrielle had. "No, youíre right. It wasnít that simple. I did my best to drive her away but she...she saw something in me...had faith in me...even when no one else did." She looked to where Gabrielle was standing, her affection for the young woman showing clearly on her face.

"Not even you?" At Xenaís quizzical look he repeated the question, even though he already knew the answer. "When even you didnít have faith in yourself?"

Xena nodded, not trusting herself to speak, as her feelings overwhelmed her. Several seconds passed before she spoke, and even then it was so quietly that Cor had to strain to hear her. "Sometimes I wonder what she can possibly see in me...why she would ever want to stay with me. Sheíd be so much better off if sheíd just walk away."

Amazed once again by the difference in his friend, Cor could think of nothing to say. Instead, he simply wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, smiling when Xena briefly rested her head against his shoulder. This was one more change he was going to have to get used to, he realized. Xena never used to be able to stand affectionate physical contact of any sort. Gabrielle had definitely made a difference in her life. "Xena, I think youíre being a little hard on yourself....," he began gently.

Xena laughed grimly and pulled away from him, turning slightly so that he wouldnít be able to see the tears in her eyes that were threatening to fall. "Hardly. Gabrielle has already lost too much because of me. Her family...her innocence...her husband...."

"Husband?" Cor blurted out in amazement. "Gabrielle was married?"

"Yeah. Why does that surprise you?" Xena replied, unable to understand her friendís reaction.

"Uh...I donít know. I guess she just...seems a little young to have been married," Cor managed to stammer out, knowing that his explanation sounded more than a bit foolish. This news, however, was completely unexpected. He realized that he could be mistaken about Xena and Gabrielleís relationship, but he had been certain that they were much more than friends.

Xena shrugged. "Sheís not that young. Lots of women are married when they are even younger than she was."

"Yeah, I...I guess so," Cor admitted, struggling to digest this new information. "When did this happen? She wasnít married when the two of you first met was she?"

"No, although she was betrothed to him." Seeing the expectant expression on Corís face, she sighed, realizing that he wasnít going to let the matter drop until he knew the whole story. In as few words as possible, she told him about Gabrielle leaving Perdicus to follow her, only to end up meeting him later in Troy. She told him how, months later, Perdicus had asked Gabrielle to marry him and how, after getting married, he had been killed the next day by Callisto. Unfortunately, her "few words" werenít enough for Cor and he began to ask her endless questions about Perdicus and Gabrielle. He wanted to know all about what had happened at Troy, and about when Perdicus had shown up again later. He even asked about their lives before Xena and Gabrielle had met. Noticing that Cor was looking at her with the oddest of expressions, and completely fed up with answering questions about such a painful topic, Xena finally cut off him off. "Why are you asking me all these questions Cor? Why does this matter so much?" she asked harshly.

Realizing that his friend had been pushed to her limits, Cor wisely backed off. Shrugging, he answered noncommittally, "I guess Iím just curious about Gabrielle. I like her and Iíd just like to know more about her."

Xena stared at him for several moments before grudgingly accepting his answer. "Well anyway, as you can see, I was right. Gabrielle has already lost way too much because of me. If she had any sense she would get as far away from me as possible." Xena looked off into the darkness, struggling with her thoughts.

Cor sighed inwardly while he considered what Xena had just told him. As much as sheíd tried to hide it, he had heard the pain in her voice when she talked about Gabrielle getting married and leaving her. He was certain that it must have nearly killed her when it had happened. He had seen the way she had been watching Gabrielle, and the way Gabrielle had been watching her for that matter, and he knew that the two of them cared deeply for one another. Unfortunately, he suspected that neither of them had any idea how much the other cared. Unable to think of anything that would ease the pain that Xena was obviously feeling, and knowing better than to try to push his luck much further, he placed his hand on the warriorís shoulder, drawing her attention back to him. "Come on. I think Gabrielle is finishing her story. You should be safe from your adoring fans once more," he said with a smile.

Shoving him away with a grin, Xena watched as he stood and dusted himself off before offering his hand to help her rise. Winding through the crowd, they made their way to where Gabrielle was standing after having finished her tale. As they approached, Xena noticed that Gabrielle was looking at her rather oddly. "Something wrong?" she asked.

"No, nothingís wrong. Why do you ask?" Gabrielle replied a bit stiffly.

"Uh, no reason. You just looked like something was bothering you." ĎSheís probably mad that I walked away during her story again,í Xena thought. ĎItís her own fault though. She knows I hate hearing about myself and, after all, I did sit through all the other stories.í The warrior frowned slightly as loud music began to play and the villagers began to dance. Trying to ease the tension that seemed to be forming around them, she smiled and tried to lighten the mood. "Why donít we head over to the inn where itís a little quieter and we can actually hear each other? Iíll buy you both a drink."

"Sounds good. I need to talk to someone briefly, so Iíll meet you two there in a few minutes," Cor replied, as he hurried to catch up with one of the villagers.

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, confused by her continued silence. The bard shrugged carelessly and nodded for Xena to lead the way. Knowing that the young woman would eventually get around to admitting what was bothering her, the warrior decided to just give her some space. After all, the past couple of days had been hard on them both.

They easily found a place to sit in the tavern, since most people were still outside crowded around the bonfire. Xena ordered for them all and, by the time their drinks had reached their table, Cor had arrived. Taking a long drink, he sat back in his chair with a happy grin. "This is more like it. It was just too noisy out there to really enjoy yourself...too many distractions."

As Cor stretched out his long arms, Xena noticed a large bruise on his right forearm that she hadnít seen before. "What happened to your arm, Cor? That bruise is recent isnít it?"

Cor grinned at her sheepishly. "Actually, I got that this afternoon from a young bard. I was trying to trick her into dropping her guard to prove a point and she ended up clobbering me instead."

Xena laughed out loud and saw Gabrielle smile as well. "I told you she was good, Cor. Itís your own fault for not listening to me."

"Next time Iíll be ready," he said, grinning ferociously at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle felt her earlier anger fading away, despite her best intentions to stay mad. She had been hurt when Xena had walked out on her earlier to spend time with Cor again and, as much as she hated to admit it, she was jealous of Corís easy friendship with Xena. Sheíd been working for over a year and a half to get to the point where Xena would accept her touches without jerking away, and now, every time she turned around, Cor had his hands all over her friend. It wasnít that she didnít want Xena to have other friends, it was just that...that...heck she didnít even know what her problem was. Cor was a nice guy and if Xena wanted to spend time with someone she hadnít seen in years, then Gabrielle knew that she should be a little more understanding.

The three of them spent the next couple of hours talking. Gabrielle was relieved that she was included in the conversation, although on several occasions either Cor or Xena would make a reference to something that was obviously from their past and they would chuckle over it, but only rarely explain it. Still, she knew it wasnít intentional, and on more than one occasion, Cor encouraged her to tell one of the stories that he had missed earlier, but had heard the villagers talking about. Finally, though, Gabrielle decided to retire for the night. She was feeling tired and it seemed to her that the two warriors wanted to speak with each other in private.

Xena and Cor watched Gabrielle leave, both of them sorely missing the young womanís presence as soon as she was gone. They were silent for several moments before Cor finally took a drink and rocked back in his chair to study Xena. "Youíve changed so much since we saw each other last Xena. You were always focused and determined but now...you seem to have finally found some measure of peace as well."

"Yeah, I guess I have," Xena said thoughtfully, as her eyes went involuntarily towards the stairs Gabrielle had recently climbed.

The two friends sat in companionable silence for several minutes, both lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Cor broke the silence. "Where are you headed next?"

"We were headed north before we got sidetracked here in Trezine. We heard rumors that slavers were getting more active up that way so we figured weíd check it out. What about you Cor?"

Cor shrugged carelessly. "Hadnít really thought about it to tell you the truth. I guess it actually doesnít really matter much to me." He paused briefly, before continuing. "Ever since I lost Sairen, Iíve just been wandering around from place to place, not really fitting in anywhere. I suppose Iím just looking for someone or something to give my life purpose again." He stared at the stairs where he had last seen Gabrielle. "I envy you, Xena. You have someone to care about, someone to care about you. Maybe thatís what Iím needing." His voice trailed off as he became lost in his thoughts once again.

"Sorry Cor, but Gabrielleís taken. I need her a little too much to loan her to you." Xena smiled as she gently teased her friend, hoping to draw him out of the state of melancholy he was beginning to fall into.

Hearing Xenaís words, Cor grinned as he focused on the present once again. "Well, if I canít have Gabrielle, how about I take both of you?"

"What are you saying?" Xena asked, frowning as she tried to understand what Cor was suggesting.

"Iím saying that you and I made a good team once, and I think the three of us made a pretty good team here the past couple of days. Why donít I just tag along with you tomorrow? Weíre basically doing the same thing anyway. Weíd be more effective if we joined together."

Xena carefully considered Corís words. He was a good warrior and a trusted friend and having him around would certainly make things easier when they ran up against forces like the one they had had to deal with the day before. His skills complemented her own nicely and he was certainly one of the best choices around to further train Gabrielle with her staff. He and Gabrielle were certainly getting along better, so there shouldnít be a problem there. She knew this wasnít what he really wanted. He would never be happy traveling around for months, or possibly years, at a time. Still, maybe this would help him find out who or what it was that he was searching for. "Cor, are you sure this is what you really want? Gabrielle and I donít usually spend much time in any one place. Heck, we donít usually even stay at inns for that matter."

"Itís what I want Xena. And before you try to figure out how to ask the next question, yes, Iím willing to follow your lead. If youíll remember, I never did care much for command, and I know better than to try to start telling you what to do now." He grinned as he said the last part.

"All right. Iíll think about it and then talk to Gabrielle about it in the morning. Iíll decide then okay?" Xena couldnít think of any reason why Gabrielle would object, but she still figured that it would be better to mention it to her first before agreeing.

"Sounds good Xena. Iíll see you in the morning."

**************************************************

Gabrielle woke to the sounds of Xena packing their gear. "Morning," she said, as she wiped the last bit of sleep from her eyes.

Xena smiled at her friend. "Morning. Did you sleep well?" As Gabrielle nodded, she grinned, "Good, Ďcause that may be the last time you get to sleep in a bed for quite awhile."

Gabrielle smiled back. "Iíll survive. Do you need help packing?"

"No, but now that youíre awake, I do need to talk to you about something."

"Sure Xena, whatís up?"

Xena turned to face her friend. "Well itís about Cor actually. After you went to bed we got to talking and he asked if he could join us. He wants to go along with us when we leave here." Xena gave her a crooked grin. "I didnít think youíd have any objections, but I figured I should mention it to you before I tell him yes."

"Why does he want to join us?" Gabrielle asked in as normal a voice as she could manage, trying to hide the uneasiness she had felt ever since Xena had mentioned Corís name.

Xena shrugged. "Probably because heís lonely. Heís searching for something and he needs help finding it."

Gabrielle was certain that Cor had already found what he was looking for: Xena. She just couldnít believe that the Warrior Princess couldnít see that for herself. "So how long are we talking about?"

Xena looked at her with a confused expression. "Whatís wrong Gabrielle? I thought you liked Cor."

"I do."

"Then whatís the problem? Itís not like itís the first time someone has worked with us for awhile. Marcus did, Iolaus and Hercules did. Joxerís joined up with us more times than I care to recall. Heck, if you remember, I even thought for a little while that Perdicus might join us after Troy." Seeing Gabrielle nodding, she continued. "So...do I tell Cor that itís okay for him to come with us or not?"

Gabrielle knew that she was overreacting. She and Xena were friends and Xena wasnít trying to replace her. "Yeah itís fine. I guess the idea just threw me a bit. Iím fine with having Cor join us," she said, lying through her teeth.

"Good. Iíll go find him and tell him the news," Xena said, as she smiled and walked out of the room.

CHAPTER 5

The three of them quickly fell into a comfortable routine. Early in the morning, Xena would leave on Argo to scout for a couple of hours, before returning to walk with Gabrielle and Cor. While they walked, Gabrielle found Cor was an extremely receptive audience for her tales and, once they had stopped for the day, he proved to be an able instructor for her staff lessons. His skills didnít stop there. While Xena hunted, he would do all the evening scouting, always bringing back plenty of wood for the fire. He even began to take over the cooking as well. In fact, he quickly started taking care of the majority of Gabrielleís "duties," leaving her with little to do and feeling a bit useless. She knew that it was silly to feel that way, and logically she realized that he was just trying to fit in. At the same time, however, it left her more than a little unsettled when she saw how easy it would be for someone to take her place.

For several days, things were uneventful, but it wasnít long before the peace was rudely shattered. Late one morning, they rounded a bend and stumbled across a bloody scene: seven men ransacking a wagon, while two bodies could be seen lying on the ground. Without a momentís hesitation, Xena drew her sword and charged into battle, with Cor and Gabrielle close on her heels. The bandits turned in surprise when they heard Xenaís war cry, and paused momentarily in confusion. The delay cost two of them dearly, as Xena was on them instantly and had knocked them both unconscious before they knew what was happening. Grinning widely, she turned to face her next opponent, who had finally managed to draw his weapon. Calmly twirling her sword in circles, she stalked him. Concerned about the possibility that one or both of the victims might still be alive, Xena was determined not to drag the fight out any longer than she had to. Easily dodging her attackerís clumsy thrust, she kicked the sword out of his hand before punching him hard across the face with the hilt of her own sword. As she half turned, she saw one of the bandits rushing her from behind. Waiting until the last second, she dropped down low to the ground, avoiding his attack. As he started to trip over her, she punched him hard in the midsection with her right hand, while she reached out to grab his sword arm with her left. Twisting his wrist as hard as she could, she heard him scream out in pain, before he dropped his sword and clutched his arm to his chest. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness, was Xenaís fist coming directly towards his face.

Gabrielle had followed Xena in, determined to at least try to carry her weight and do her part. She saw Xena engage the main group of men, while Cor headed towards two others who were standing off to one side. Seeing one other man unaccounted for, she headed towards the opposite side of the wagon where he was standing. He came forward to meet her, waving his sword towards her as he laughed at the young woman who would dare to threaten him with a stick. Gabrielle could see that he wasnít particularly skilled, but she watched him carefully while she looked for an opening. Striking forward, she hit him with several rapid blows, nearly disarming him in the process. Enraged, he swung his sword at her viciously, but she easily ducked forward under his attack to come up behind him. Unfortunately, as she began to spin around to hit him again, she tripped over a large rock that was lying on the ground. She fell down heavily, still holding up her staff. As she started to scramble to her feet, the bandit suddenly froze, gasping in pain. As he dropped to the ground, she saw Xena standing behind him grinning. "You okay?" the warrior asked, a slight note of concern in her voice.

Gabrielle felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. She had had to fight only one man and she still had ended up needing Xenaís help. "Iím fine," she mumbled, as she looked around to see what had happened to Cor. She finally saw him leaning over the body of one of the men that the raiders had attacked.

Xena nodded before going to check the other body. It belonged to a young man and it was quickly apparent that he had already passed over to the other side. Knowing that there was nothing she could do for him, Xena went to see if she could help Cor with the other man.

"He has a good chance of making it," Cor told her as she drew near. "Get my pack for me, I want to sew up this wound in his side before I do anything else." Xena quickly retrieved Corís backpack and walked back over to join him. She pulled out the needle and thread that he needed and handed it to him. Since Cor had the situation under control, she looked around to make certain that there werenít any other survivors. At that moment, she realized that Gabrielle had yet to move from where she had last seen her.

"Gabrielle?" she called loudly, as she moved towards where her friend was still sitting. As she approached, she noticed that the bard was very, very still and was staring at something out of Xenaís field of vision. "Gabrielle?" she called again, this time more softly. When she still got no reaction out of her friend, she moved forward to see what Gabrielle was looking at. When she saw what had caught the bardís attention, Xena gasped involuntarily. Lying behind the wagon was the body of a child and, even from this distance, Xena could instantly tell that there was no point in checking to see if he or she was still alive. Unlike the other two bodies, which had been attacked but otherwise left alone, this one had been viciously hacked at with a sword until it was barely recognizable as human. There was blood and gore everywhere and, even as accustomed to the sights of death and destruction as Xena was, she found the vision extremely unnerving. For someone like Gabrielle, she could only imagine what a horrific sight it must be.

Xena shook herself from her momentary shock and moved to place herself between Gabrielle and the corpse, blocking the bardís view with her own body. Reaching out to grab her arms, Xena could feel the young woman shaking. To her growing dismay, Gabrielle didnít even seem aware of her touch, and continued to stare straight ahead as if the warrior wasnít even there.

"Gabrielle...Gabrielle look at me," Xena ordered gently. Getting no response, she tried again. "Come on Gabrielle, look at me." Growing more worried, she placed a hand under her friendís chin and lifted the bardís head to meet her gaze. Blank, unseeing eyes stared back at her, and she felt a chill run down her spine. "Gabrielle, itís me, Xena. Gabrielle focus on me, on my voice. Itís going to be okay, but I need you to focus on me right now, okay?"

The warrior pleaded softly with her friend for several more minutes, before she finally began to get a response. Slowly, Gabrielle began to return to normal and her shaking subsided. "Xena?" she finally whispered as she began to cry.

Sighing with relief, Xena took her in her arms and held her, rocking her gently and stroking her hair. After several long moments, she eased away to look down at her friend once again. "Come on. Letís get you out of here," she said softly, as she wiped the tears from the bardís face.

Gabrielle nodded silently, before allowing Xena to help her rise. Pain shot through her left ankle as she stood up, and she fell heavily against Xena. "My ankle," she managed to gasp through clenched teeth.

Without another word, Xena swept her up into her arms and carried her over to where Argo was standing. Carefully setting Gabrielle down with her back to a tree, Xena leaned over her friend to remove her boot so that she could examine her ankle. "Gabrielle, I need to know what hurts and what doesnít." The bard gritted her teeth and nodded. Carefully, Xena began to rotate her friendís ankle, watching the young womanís face intently as she did so. Seeing her friend struggling to hold in the pain, Xena smiled at her comfortingly. "Gabrielle, if you want to yell, then yell. Thereís no one around to hear you. Make all the noise you want."

Xena considered their options briefly, before coming to a decision. Standing up, she moved to get several long strips of cloth from one of Argoís saddlebags and then knelt in front of the bard again. "Iíll bind your ankle for now to help keep it immobile. Thereís a river a couple of miles from here. Weíll head that way so that you can soak it in cold water."

"Is it bad?" Gabrielle asked worriedly, as she watched Xena expertly wrap her ankle.

"Not too bad, although thereíll be no dancing for you for awhile," Xena reassured her with a grin. "Just stay off of it as much as possible and, in a day or two, youíll be as good as new." She sat back to look up at Gabrielle as she finished binding the bardís ankle.

"Promise?" Gabrielle asked, giving Xena a weak smile.

Xena reached out and took Gabrielleís hand in her own. "I promise," she said softly, before giving the young womanís hand a comforting squeeze.

"Thanks," Gabrielle said quietly. Suddenly, she found herself caught by Xenaís eyes. She felt herself being drawn in, drowning in that sea of blue, unable to pull her gaze away. Time seemed to stand still, and all she was aware of was this gentle woman kneeling in front of her.

The sound of horses and peopleís voices broke them both out of the spell. Looking up, Xena saw a couple dozen people making their way quickly down the road towards them. About a third of them were on horseback and appeared to be wearing some armor as well. Xena moved to stand protectively in front of Gabrielle, but she kept her sword in her sheath while she carefully watched the crowd approach. The group slowed as they drew closer and caught sight of Xena, who held up her hands to show that she was unarmed. Anxious to avoid any confusion, she called out to the townspeople, "My friends and I fought the bandits that attacked this wagon. One of the victims still lives and needs medical attention." She pointed towards where Cor was now standing.

One of the men on horseback, who was apparently the leader, ordered several of the others to bind the unconscious bandits, who were scattered around the area. He then directed most of the rest of his people to go back home. Swinging off his horse, he approached Xena, who moved forward to speak with him. "Iím sorry, but we were too late to save the other two...."

"Two?" he asked, looking around for the other body.

Xena nodded. "There is one other, a child, over behind the wagon. I need to warn you, though, itís a pretty gruesome sight. I donít know which one of these men did it, but I suspect it was him," she said, indicating the man Gabrielle had been fighting. "He was the one nearest the body when we arrived."

The man nodded. "We thank you for your help. I am Gamacles, leader of the local militia."

"Xena," she said simply, taking the hand he offered.

He looked at her appraisingly. "Xena. We have heard of you, both the bad and the good. You and your friends are welcome in our village. Itís just over the next few hills."

"Thank you, but no. I think it would be best if we moved on." Xena had no intention of remaining around here any longer than they needed to. The sooner they got away from here, the sooner Gabrielle could put all this behind her. "Cor?" she called out, as she turned to find him.

Cor looked up from his patient, who appeared to have regained consciousness. "Yeah?"

"Do you need to stay with that man longer or can you tell these people what needs to be done?"

Cor spoke briefly to the three people standing near him. "Heíll be fine. They have a skilled healer in their village and heíll be okay to travel the short distance to the town."

"Good, then letís get going." Before coming over to her, she watched as Cor said something to the injured man and then smiled at him and clasped his shoulder. "Good-bye Gamacles, and good luck," she said, before leading Argo over to Gabrielle. She waited until Cor reached them, before swinging onto the mareís back. Seeing the confused expression on Corís face as he looked at the bard, Xena answered his unspoken question. "Gabrielle twisted her ankle and needs to stay off it for awhile. Help her up here so that she can ride."

Understanding and compassion crossed Corís features when he heard Xenaís words. "Sorry Gabrielle. Are you okay?" he asked, while he knelt down and lifted her onto Argo to place her in front of Xena.

Gabrielle smiled at him. "Well, I was until you put me up here but I guess that canít be helped."

Cor smiled back. "Orders are orders. Let me grab your staff and my pack and weíll be off."

Xena shifted behind Gabrielle as she got comfortable, then wrapped an arm around her friendís waist, pulling the bard slightly closer to her in the process. "Weíll take it slow. I donít want to jostle that ankle any more than we have to. Let me know if it gets to be too much, though, okay?" she murmured into Gabrielleís ear.

Gabrielle felt a jolt of electricity course through her body when Xenaís arm slipped around her waist. It was followed by a surge of heat when she felt the warriorís warm breath against her cheek. Clearing her throat, she managed to respond, "Iíll be fine Xena. Letís just get out of here."

Cor returned, dismantling Gabrielleís staff as he did so. He stuck the weapon in one of the saddlebags and then looked up at the bard. "How Ďbout something for the pain?" Seeing her nod, he reached into his pack and brought out a small pouch. Reaching inside, he drew out several small leaves. "Chew on these. It will help," he said as he handed them to her.

Gabrielle gratefully took the leaves and began to chew on them. Relieved that they were mild in taste, she settled back against Xena, feeling safe and secure in her tight embrace. As they slowly moved away from the battle scene, she heard Xena begin to hum softly and she smiled and closed her eyes, content to rely on Xena to take care of her.

They traveled for several miles before they reached the river. It had been further than Xena had thought but, considering that it put extra distance between them and the scene of their earlier battle, the warrior figured it was just as well. Cor helped Gabrielle down from Argo and then carried her to the river, where he carefully unwrapped and examined her ankle, before gently placing it in the cold water. "It doesnít look too bad at all," he assured her. "All we need to do is keep the swelling down and youíll be fine before you know it. Howís the pain?"

"Not too bad," she replied. "Whatever it was that you gave me helped."

"Good. I have plenty, so let me know if the pain starts to bother you." Briefly glancing up at Xena as she approached, he grinned and turned back towards Gabrielle. "Donít be a fool and put on a big brave front like some kind of Ďwarrior princessí. Hiding your pain is vastly overrated!"

Rolling her eyes at his pathetic attempt at humor, Xena knelt down next to Gabrielle. "I think weíll call it a day and camp here. Thereís no reason to push it, unless you want to keep riding Argo?" she said, grinning at Gabrielle.

The bard pretended to consider the question. "No, as much as I enjoy riding Argo, youíre probably right," she agreed with mock reluctance. "Staying here is fine."

"Good, Iíll get Argo settled then," Xena said, as she rose to her feet. Glancing meaningfully at Cor, she turned to walk back to her horse.

Cor chuckled to himself. "Keep your ankle in the water Gabrielle. Iím going to figure out with Xena what she wants to do about scouting the area and getting supper."

Cor crossed the clearing to stand behind Xena. Several seconds passed before she turned to look directly into his eyes. "So, how is she?" the warrior asked in clipped tones.

Startled a bit by the question, as well as the intensity of her gaze, Cor hesitated for a few seconds before answering, noticing that his pause caused her to grow even more agitated. "Sheís fine Xena," he finally replied, his confusion showing in his voice. "Surely you could tell that for yourself couldnít you? I thought I was a better teacher than that," he teased, trying to lighten the mood.

Xena nodded while she looked over at Gabrielle. "You are. I was just worried I was fooling myself. Itís hard to be objective where Gabrielle is concerned," she admitted.

"Itís going to be sore for a day or two but then sheíll be fine. Xena relax. Gabrielle twisted her ankle. Itís not a big deal."

Looking at Cor in astonishment, Xena started to reply angrily, before realizing he didnít know what had happened back at the battle site. Taking a deep breath, she told him about what Gabrielle had seen and how she had reacted to it, while she continued to keep a close watch on the young woman.

Corís expression turned dark and angry before he regained control of his emotions. "Now I understand why you were so anxious to get out of there. I couldnít figure that one out at all." He looked over to where Gabrielle was sitting and felt his heart go out to her. "That canít have been easy for someone like her to see."

"No," Xena said tightly, "It wasnít, but still, Iím a little surprised that she reacted as strongly as she did. Unfortunately, sheís seen worse than that since hooking up with me, and itís never seemed to affect her like this before."

Cor shrugged his broad shoulders. "Gabrielleís had a lot to deal with over the past couple of months: your death, becoming the Amazon Queen, bringing you back to life, being hunted by a deranged god." Cor shook his head slowly. "Sheís a strong young woman, but everyone has their breaking point. When someone is as inherently good and decent as Gabrielle is, they can only take so much before they become horrified at the pain that people inflict on others. I think seeing that body today was just the last straw."

Xena looked at her friend with a touch of surprise. "I didnít know you knew about my death and all the rest of that stuff."

Cor shrugged once again. "Iíd heard rumors that youíd died, so I asked Gabrielle about it one morning when you were off scouting. Eventually, the whole story came out. It was pretty obvious that your death upset her deeply," he said quietly. "To be honest, Iím not certain that sheís accepted the fact that youíre really back in her life."

"So if that was really a breaking point, what do I do for her now?" Xena asked worriedly.

"Just help her through this," Cor replied. "Let her lean on you for awhile. Sheís going to be fine, she just needs a little time to work things out for herself first. Now," he said, changing the subject. "Why donít you tell me what you want to do about scouting and hunting? Or should I just take a guess?" he asked with a smile.

Xena chuckled softly. "You can do it. Iíll stay here with Gabrielle."

"I thought that might be your plan." He cast another glance at Gabrielle, before turning to face Xena again. "All right, I assume you have something to give her for the pain?" Seeing Xena nod, he continued, "Fine. Iíll scout around and bring some wood back before I go hunting. Iíll see you in a bit," he said, before picking up his pack and heading into the surrounding trees.

Xena dealt with Argo as quickly as she could, deciding that she would leave the saddle on until Cor returned to say the area was secure. Grabbing the saddlebag that contained most of their food, she walked back over to Gabrielle and sat down next to her. "How are you doing?" she asked, troubled by the strained expression on her friendís face.

"Fine. My ankleís getting pretty numb though," she replied tonelessly.

"Weíll leave it in for a little longer and then Iíll wrap it again." Seeing Gabrielleís absent nod, she tried a different tactic. "Hungry?"

Gabrielle shrugged indifferently, before taking the bread Xena offered her. She ate slowly, not paying any real attention to what she was eating and barely focusing on what Xena was saying and doing. The warrior began to grow more and more concerned about her friend, but was unsure what to do for her. Deciding to focus on her ankle first, since she knew how to handle that problem, she carefully removed Gabrielleís ankle from the water and dried it, before beginning to wrap it once again. She worked as quickly as she could, knowing that the feeling would soon return now that the ankle was out of the cold water. As she finished, she could feel Gabrielle staring at her. Looking up, she saw her friend watching her with pain-filled eyes. "Why?" the bard whispered, the anguish in her voice tearing at Xenaís heart. "Why would anyone do that to a child?" she asked, as tears filled her eyes.

Xena was at her side instantly, taking Gabrielle into her arms. "I donít know Gabrielle. I donít know." Desperately wishing she could erase the image from her friendís mind, she tightened her embrace and began to slowly rock the bard in her arms, humming gently to her. "Itís going to be okay Gabrielle. I promise you," she whispered.

"Iím just so tired," the bard mumbled against her friendís chest, as silent tears trailed down her cheeks. "So tired of meaningless, senseless deaths...Everyday we see it over and over again, always present, always reminding me...Iím so afraid...." Her voice trailed off as she tightened her grip on the warrior and began to cry in earnest.

"I wonít let anything happen to you Gabrielle," Xena swore, as she did her best to pull her friend closer still.

"No," Gabrielle choked out. "No, Iím not worried about me," she whimpered. Lifting her tear stained face to look up at her friend, she drew in a ragged breath. "Iím worried about you. Iím afraid that Iíll have to watch them place your body on a funeral pyre again someday...Iím scared of losing you again," she whispered.

"Youíll never lose me, Gabrielle," Xena said fiercely, as she cradled the bard in her arms and rested her cheek against the top of the young womanís head.

"But...."

"But nothing," the warrior said, silencing her friend. "I already came back from Hadesí realm once just to be with you. Do you think Iíd let anything keep me from your side after all the trouble we went through to get me back here again?" she said with a tender smile.

Gabrielle shook her head weakly and then allowed herself to relax against her friendís body, letting the fear and worry slowly drain from her as she cried unashamedly. She sat in Xenaís arms for what seemed like hours, before her sobs finally began to subside, realizing as they did that she actually felt better than she had before. Wiping a hand across her eyes, she took in a shuddering breath and then burrowed further into the warriorís embrace. "Thanks," she murmured with a shaky laugh. "I guess I needed that."

"No problem," Xena said in a soft, low voice. "Feeling better?"

"Almost human," Gabrielle replied. "Give me a few moments and I think Iíll even be able to move."

Xena shook her head and tightened her grip on the young woman. "Thereís no hurry," she said. "Take all the time you need." Slowly, the warrior began to once again rock her friend gently in her arms, humming softly as she soothed the young womanís tattered nerves. As she continued to hold her, she felt Gabrielleís body begin to relax and eventually the bard began to drift off to sleep. Xena held her for several more precious minutes, before carefully gathering the young woman into her arms and moving to where she had tossed their bedrolls earlier. Laying Gabrielle down on top of the blankets, she knelt beside her for several long minutes, wanting to make certain that she had truly fallen asleep. Finally convinced, she stood and began to set up the rest of the camp, keeping one eye on her friend at all times.

Gabrielle was still sleeping when Cor returned to the camp. After confirming that the area was safe and dropping off the wood he had collected, he left again to find something to eat and to look for medicines to restock his supplies. Xena finished removing the rest of Argoís tack and then gave the mare a good brushing, something she hadnít had a chance to do in quite awhile. She let Gabrielle sleep as long as possible but eventually decided to wake her up so that they could soak her ankle again.

"Gabrielle...Gabrielle wake up," she said, as she shook her friend gently. Slowly, the young woman opened her eyes and, much to Xenaís relief, the bard smiled when she looked up at her. "How are you feeling?" she asked hesitantly, as she used her knuckles to lightly caress the young womanís cheek.

"Better," Gabrielle replied honestly, her eyes briefly drifting shut as she savored the feeling of Xenaís gentle touch. "How long have I been asleep?"

"A few hours. I want to get some cold water on that ankle and I figured youíd rather wake up this way instead of from the shock of the cold water," Xena replied, as she smiled at her friend. "Let me carry you. It will be easier," she said, and then scooped Gabrielle into her arms and walked to the river. Standing at the edge, she slowly lowered the bard to the ground, before taking her ankle and removing the wrap. She placed Gabrielleís ankle into the water gently, chuckling when she heard the young woman gasp from the cold. "Donít think about how cold it is," she instructed her friend. "Tell me a story instead."

Gabrielle looked at her in surprise. "You want to hear one of my stories?" she asked in disbelief.

Xena laughed. "Donít act so surprised. Iím not that bad am I?"

Gabrielle smiled wryly. "Well maybe not, but I certainly get a lot more Ďnot now Gabrielleí than Ďtell me a storyí."

Xena looked away for a moment, unable to meet Gabrielleís eyes. "Iím sorry. I guess Iím not always the best audience, am I?" she asked quietly.

Gabrielle looked at Xena in astonishment, surprised by the apology and the warriorís sudden change of mood. "Youíre a great audience Xena. How many other people would be willing to spend 24 hours a day with a bard?" she teased.

Xena turned back around to gaze directly into the young womanís eyes. "Anyone who knew you would be willing, Gabrielle. Itís not exactly a hardship to spend time with you," she said softly.

Touched by the sincerity in Xenaís voice, Gabrielle swallowed hard, collecting her thoughts. Trying to smile casually, she attempted to lighten the mood. "A story it is then," she said, before launching into a folk tale she had picked up in Trezine.

Xena leaned back against a rock, as she listened to Gabrielleís story, enjoying the chance to relax and spend time with her friend. When Gabrielle finished, she encouraged her to tell another, and soon she was hearing about Theseus and his battle against the Minotaur. When Gabrielle finished her tale, Xena helped her to remove her ankle from the cold water and then wrapped it again, before lifting the bard into her arms. As Xena carried Gabrielle back to her bedroll, the young woman sighed and put her arms around her neck, leaning her head against Xenaís shoulder. Xenaís arms tightened reflexively around the bard and she suddenly found herself on unsteady legs, as a strange warmth began to spread through her body. Forcing herself to concentrate on walking, she somehow managed to deposit Gabrielle safely on her bedroll without dropping her on the hard ground. Rummaging through the saddlebags, she found the medicine she wanted and made some tea. "This will help ease the pain," Xena said, as she handed the mug to her friend and then sat down across from her.

Nodding, Gabrielle took the drink from her and took a small sip. Surprised that, for once, Xena hadnít given her some vile tasting concoction, she smiled and downed the rest of the tea. "Thanks," she said, as she handed the mug back to the warrior.

"No problem. Can I get you anything else?"

Gabrielle thought for a second before grinning at her impishly. "Sure, how about a story?"

Amazed, Xena just looked at her for a moment. "A story?"

"Yeah, a story. Tell me a story."

"Gabrielle, Iím not a bard, and Iíve told you before I donít know any stories," Xena protested.

"Then tell me a story about you." Seeing the look on Xenaís face, she hurried on. "I know, I know, you donít like talking about yourself. Okay, tell me a story about Cor."

Xena thought for a moment before shrugging her shoulders. "Did you want to know something in particular about him?"

What did she want to know about Cor? For starters, she wanted to know if he and Xena had been in love when they had known each other before. Even more important though, was the question as to whether or not Xena was in love with him now. Startled by the direction of her thoughts and the chill that ran through her at the idea that Xena might be in love with Cor, Gabrielle paused for several seconds before replying. Realizing that Xena had begun to look at her rather strangely, she blurted out the first thing that came into her mind. "You said Cor could beat you in combat, that youíd be hesitant to face him in battle. Is he really better than you?"

Surprised by Gabrielleís question, Xena thought about her answer before replying. "Yes and no," she said, smiling at the expression on her friendís face. "Cor is stronger than me. As a matter of fact, with the exception of Hercules, heís stronger than any man Iíve ever known. On the other hand, Iím faster; a lot faster. Iím better with a sword than he is, but heís better with a staff than I am. As far as unarmed combat....," she paused, weighing various factors. "It would depend on whether a particular situation favored strength or speed I guess, although the one big advantage I have over him there is mobility. Itís a little hard to do the kind of leaps and flips that I can do when youíre as big as Cor."

"Have the two of you ever actually fought one another?"

Xena nodded. "I assume you mean besides simple sparring? Yes, twice."

"Why did you fight...and who won?"

Xena was quiet for a moment, while her mind traveled back to the first time she had ever faced off against Cor. "The first time we fought was before he joined my army. I was impressed with his intelligence and his skill, so I disabled him using pressure points and asked him to join me." She chuckled before continuing. "Pressure points depend on speed, not strength, and Cor had never seen anyone use them before. He wasnít prepared for that kind of attack."

"And was that when he joined you?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena nodded. "Yes it was, although Iíd have probably let him go even if he had refused. As for the second time we fought...that was after we had been together for awhile. We had a...a Ďdisagreementí about the best way to handle a situation. Cor considered the issue a matter of honor, and eventually he challenged me over it. His challenge was a personal thing, just between the two of us, and we settled it in private. I defeated him again, mainly because of Corís other weakness. He tends to be a pretty conservative fighter, fairly predictable once you know him. We had been sparring together for months by that time and I could anticipate nearly all his moves before he could act on them. Afterwards, I made him swear that, as long as he was in my army, he would never raise a hand against me again." She grinned wryly. "Then I agreed he was right in the first place and we handled the situation his way. Now...will that count as a story?"

Gabrielle smiled. "I suppose Iíll have to accept it. I doubt thereís much chance of getting another one out of you, is there?"

"Nope," Xena replied with a grin, before rising to rinse out Gabrielleís mug and put it away, feeling her heart soar when she heard the bardís soft laugh.

"How about we just talk then?" Gabrielle asked with a smile

Knowing that talking would help keep her friendís mind off what she had seen earlier, Xena agreed. She did her best to keep up her side of the conversation, although Gabrielle often had to carry much of the momentum. While they talked, Xena collected kindling for the nightís fire and laid out the other bedrolls, placing hers as close to Gabrielleís as she dared. Finally, as the sun began to dip low towards the horizon, Xena started the fire, knowing that Cor would soon return.

It was almost dark when Cor walked into the camp with his arms full, looking tired but happy. "Hope everyoneís hungry for quail," he said, as he began dropping all the items he was carrying.

"ĎBout time you got back, I was getting ready to go fishing," Xena drawled.

"Fishing hmmm? Well youíve always been good at that, havenít you?" he replied innocently, but Gabrielle couldnít miss the wicked gleam in his eyes. To her amazement, she thought she saw Xena blush. "I donít suppose thereís any chance youíll be cooking supper tonight, is there? No...I guess not," he sighed mournfully, when he saw her expression. "Poor Cor; work work work. All he ever does is work."

Trying not to smile at his feeble play for sympathy, Xena relented somewhat. "Iíll tell you what Cor. If you cook supper, Iíll start drying those plants you collected...provided that you give me some of them when Iím done."

"Deal! Hah, I knew I could sucker you in," he said with a grin, as he began to prepare their dinner.

Xena just shook her head and began gathering everything he had dropped earlier. To Gabrielleís surprise, the warrior then carried everything over to sit beside her. Smiling at the bard while she sat down, Xena began arranging the bundles in front of her. "I thought you might like to learn what these plants do and how to prepare them for use."

Gabrielle nodded. She was always happy to learn about things like this, but she was even happier to have Xena there beside her. As she listened to her friend describe the uses for all of the items Cor had collected, Gabrielle found herself constantly staring at Xena, captivated by her beauty. She had to keep reminding herself to focus on her friendís words. Several times, Xena leaned across her to pick up one of the bundles that was just out of her reach and Gabrielle found herself mesmerized by the intoxicating scent that was distinctly Xena. As she handed one of the bundles to her, their fingers briefly touched and the young woman felt her heart begin to race from the momentary contact.

Noticing her friendís startled expression, Xena grew worried. "Gabrielle, is something wrong?"

"No, nothingís wrong Xena," Gabrielle said brightly, forcing a smile onto her face.

Still watching her friend with more than a little concern, Xena hesitated, not convinced that everything was truly all right. Placing a gentle hand on Gabrielleís shoulder, she tried again. "Are you sure? Is your ankle bothering you?" she asked, fervently hoping that, in her mind, Gabrielle wasnít reliving the scene from earlier in the day.

Gabrielle swallowed hard, as she fought to control the sensations that Xenaís simple touch were causing to build within her. "Iím fine, just a little tired I guess," she managed to say, amazed that her voice hadnít cracked.

Xena nodded. "We can finish this later if you want. Why donít you lay down until supper is ready and get some rest?"

"Okay, I think I will," Gabrielle agreed, although sending the other woman away was exactly the opposite of what she wanted to do. She watched while Xena gathered everything up and then smiled at the warrior, before stretching out on her side and closing her eyes, determined to force everything that had just happened out of her mind.

Xena quickly finished preparing the plants she had already started on. She decided to leave the ones she hadnít had a chance to discuss with Gabrielle until later, in case the bard wanted to learn about them as well. Since supper still wasnít finished, she went to check on Argo and then began to collect more firewood. By the time she returned to their camp, dinner was ready. Knowing that the young woman would not want to miss a meal, Xena went to wake her up.

Gabrielle heard Xena approaching, but feigned sleep while she tried to relax. Her mind was still racing from her earlier reaction to Xenaís closeness. As she felt Xenaís hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her, and heard the warriorís soft voice calling her name, she rolled over and pretended to yawn. Inhaling deeply, she smiled up at her friend. "Smells like dinner must be ready."

Xena nodded. "Do you want to eat here or closer to the fire?" she asked

"The fire would be better," she replied and stretched out her hand, waiting for Xena to help her rise.

To her surprise, the warrior reached down and gathered her up into her arms. Seeing the flustered expression on her friendís face, Xena chuckled. "I told you, itís easier this way," she said, as she carried Gabrielle over to the fire, before setting her down again.

Cor grinned at Gabrielle and then handed her dinner to her. "Looks like you have her well trained," he quipped. "I could never get her to carry me like that when my ankle was hurt."

Xena rolled her eyes while Gabrielle laughed. "I notice you donít get my dinner for me, and that weighs a lot less than either you or Gabrielle," she said dryly, as she got something for herself to eat and then sat down next to the bard.

Cor held his hands up in mock surrender, before settling down with his own food. Dinner passed quickly and quietly, with a minimum of conversation. Afterwards, Cor examined Gabrielleís ankle and, much to her relief, he assured her that she would likely be able to walk on it by the next day, although he wanted to put cold water on it one last time. As he carefully picked her up and began carrying her to the river, he saw Xena watching him intently and he grinned to himself at the fleeting expression of jealousy he saw cross her face.

The water was unbelievably cold against her skin. Gabrielle was relieved when Cor was finally helping her to remove her ankle from the icy river and was carrying her back to the fire. There she found Xena waiting for her with a warm blanket. The Warrior Princess smiled at her as she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, before leaning in close to ask if Gabrielle needed anything else. Wanting more than anything to just have Xena sit beside her, Gabrielle shook her head, unable to find the words to ask for what she most desired.

As Xena slowly rose to her feet, she noticed that Cor was watching her with a strange smile. Arching an eyebrow, she waited to see if he would enlighten her as to what he found so entertaining, but he merely grinned at her innocently. Shrugging her shoulders, Xena walked over to retrieve her sword, before coming back to the fire to sit near Gabrielle. As she sharpened the blade, she relaxed and talked about inconsequential matters with Cor. After several minutes had passed, she realized that Gabrielle was being much too quiet and, looking at her, Xena saw that she was still shivering. Putting her sword down, she moved to her friendís side. "Cold?" she asked gently, as she lightly caressed the bardís cheek with the back of her hand.

Looking into Xenaís eyes, Gabrielle swallowed hard at the concern that she saw there. Nodding her head, she attempted to smile. "Yeah a little," she said, trying to keep her teeth from chattering.

Xena hesitated for a moment, before removing her breastplate and setting it carefully to the side. Lifting the blanket from around the bardís shoulders, she moved in to sit behind her. Extending her long legs out along both sides of her friend, she carefully pulled Gabrielle back against her chest as she wrapped the blanket around the both of them. Holding the young woman securely in her embrace, she leaned forward to talk softly into her ear. "This should help. If it doesnít, weíll make Cor build the biggest fire in all of Greece."

Gabrielle sighed with contentment when she felt Xenaís strong arms around her, and settled back against her friend to get more comfortable. Already she could feel Xenaís warmth penetrating her skin and she couldnít remember the last time she had felt so happy and so safe.

Cor rose to get his own sword, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile. He returned to the fire and began to sharpen the blade, ignoring the suspicious looks that Xena was giving him. Noticing that Gabrielle seemed to be feeling much better, he asked her to tell a story. Soon they were listening to a tale about Persephone and Hades, and the sadness of Demeter at the loss of her daughter. Gabrielle told the tale well, but it was obvious that she was growing tired. When she finished, Cor decided to opt for a different kind of entertainment. Reaching into his pack, he brought out a small wooden flute and, to Gabrielleís delight, he began to expertly play a tune upon it.

As he finished, Gabrielle applauded. "I didnít know you could play like that Cor. Youíre really very good."

Grinning roguishly, he winked at her. "I have many skills."

Laughing, she looked up at Xena, who was glaring at Cor with mock ferocity. Seeing Gabrielleís smiling face, the Warrior Princess felt happier than she had in weeks and had to fight the urge to hold the bard even tighter. Smiling back down at her friend, she mentally thanked Cor for what he had done for Gabrielle. Shifting the bard within her embrace, she brought the young woman even closer to her in the process.

Gabrielle turned back to Cor. "Do you sing too?" she asked. She felt, rather than heard, Xena begin to laugh.

An abashed expression stole over Corís features. "Ahh, no. Singing is not one of my talents.

Xena snickered. "A shame too. Someone who loves the sound of his own voice as much as Cor does, should really have a better singing voice."

Cor turned slightly red with embarrassment as both Gabrielle and Xena laughed. "Fine, keep it up and I wonít play another song for you," he finally threatened with a grin. Seeing that they were going to behave, he thought for a moment before beginning to play once more, this time choosing a peaceful little tune that soothed the nerves and calmed the soul.

As they listened to Cor play, Xena could feel Gabrielle begin to relax against her and knew that the little bard was drifting off to sleep. She held her friend securely, not wanting to lose this moment and the overwhelming feelings of peace and joy that this simple pleasure held for her. Eventually Cor finished playing and Xena could tell that Gabrielle was sound asleep, but she resisted the impulse to release her friend. Finally, she sighed and carefully pulled away from Gabrielle, before reaching down to lift her into her arms and carry her to her bedroll. Placing her on the blankets, Xena found herself unable to walk away. Smoothing Gabrielleís hair back away from her face, Xena sat for several long moments just gazing upon her, before pulling the blankets up around her and moving to sit at the fire with Cor.

Without a word, Xena picked up her sword again and resumed sharpening it. Despite her best efforts, her thoughts centered on Gabrielle. The warriorís heart twisted in her chest as she looked over at her friend. Lying there on her bedroll, the bard seemed incredibly fragile and vulnerable.

ĎThis should never have happened,í Xena thought angrily. ĎShe should never have had to see something like that!í Unfortunately, she wasnít entirely certain if she was angry with the man who had committed the atrocity that Gabrielle had witnessed, or with herself for exposing Gabrielle to it. Taking a deep breath, she laid her sword aside but her eyes never left the sleeping bard. ĎGods above, there was a moment earlier today when I thought I had lost her. The expression on her face....How long until thereís nothing left of the idealistic girl from Poteidaia? How long until she loses the rest of her innocence?í "Another piece gone....," Xena whispered.

"What?" Cor asked, surprised by her sudden words.

Xena looked at him with confusion, not aware at first that she had spoken aloud. Realizing what she had said, she shrugged as she said lifelessly, "I said Ďanother piece gone.í Gabrielle lost another piece of her innocence today, because Iím too selfish to do whatís best for her and send her away." Xena closed her eyes as pain flooded through her. "How can I let her stay with me Cor? Itís going to destroy her eventually if she doesnít leave. Why canít she see that and get away from me before itís too late?"

Cor regarded Xena silently. Sighing deeply, he looked at her with sympathetic eyes. "I canít help you with all your questions my friend, but I can answer one of them for you. Gabrielle stays with you because itís where she wants to be. She cares for you very much you know."

Xena nodded, not really wanting to contradict him. A voice deep inside, though, screamed out that Cor was wrong, completely and utterly wrong. ĎGabrielle stays because she has no place better to go,í the voice said. ĎWhen she had the chance to leave you for Perdicus, she certainly took it quickly enough!í

Cor realized that Xena was still not completely satisfied but he had no clue as to what he could say that would convince her. Helplessly, he said what should have been obvious to her. "Gabrielle isnít a child Xena. Sheís a grown woman capable of making her own decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions. The sooner you accept that, the better off youíll both be."

"So youíre saying that I should just let her get hurt and do nothing to stop it?" Xena shot back angrily.

"No, Iím saying that you canít protect her all the time and that if you try, youíre just going to alienate her." Exasperated with her self-pity, he tried another tack. "Look, you seem to forget that people get hurt all the time, even when youíre not around. Accidents happen. Villagers trip and injure themselves. People fall into rivers and drown. Riders...riders get thrown from their horses. Things happen," Cor said, his voice cracking as he said the last part. Taking a slow, deep breath, he composed himself and continued. "You canít prevent her from getting hurt, but you can help her to deal with it and to accept it, and you can learn to enjoy the time you have together, because the gods only know how much time that will be!"

Xena just glared at him, knowing that he was right and momentarily hating him for it. Cor, however, refused to back down and simply glared back at her. Finally, Xena cracked a wry smile and shook her head, her anger gone as quickly as it had arisen. "Maybe youíre right Cor," she grudgingly conceded, "But that doesnít make it any easier."

"Uh huh, and since when have you ever chosen the easy route?" he asked, grinning at her. Rising to his feet, he moved to his bedroll, carefully placing his sword where it would be close at hand.

Feeling utterly exhausted and emotionally drained, Xena tossed another log onto the fire and moved to her own bedroll. She remove the rest of her armor and then placed her sword and chakram beside her sleeping mat. As she settled down next to Gabrielle, she heard the young bard start to cry out in her sleep and saw her begin to shake. Xena quickly rolled over to wake her from her nightmare but, as she leaned across her friend, Gabrielle immediately curled into her arms, instinctively seeking out the strength and security of the warriorís embrace. Xena was stunned at the sensations that shot through her when she felt Gabrielle press up against her body, and she had to struggle to contain her emotions as they threatened to race out of control. Looking at Gabrielle, Xena felt her heart start to pound and had to forcibly resist the urge to lean down and kiss her friend. Knowing that she would be infinitely better off if she put some distance between them, she started to ease out of the bardís arms while she still had the strength to do so. As she moved away, though, Gabrielle began to whimper and the sound nearly tore Xenaís heart in two. Gritting her teeth, she moved back to hold Gabrielle, knowing that this was the only way her friend would be able to sleep. As she placed a protective arm around the bard and drew her closer, Xena knew that there would be very little sleep for her that night.

To be continued.