The Chosen

by B.S. Barber

I'm sure by now, you all know the drill. "Xena:; et all belong to them, my stories are all mine mine mine.
Yes, there's violence - we still live in dangerous times.
Yes, there's subtext, maintext, etc., though nothing tooooo graphic. If love between two women offends you, I'm sorry. But this world needs all the love it can get.
Any comments sent my way are read, but take warning, I do bite back and you may not want to here my response if you get too ugly.


Chapter One

They shoved Gabriel in a cell already filled with other women. Luckily, most of them ignored her, despite her size and dress, returning to whatever they were doing before the guards came. But she could feel eyes boring into her back and laughed nervously at her self. Some of Xena's battlefield paranoia must be rubbing off on her, she hoped, turning slowly to take in the cell and its occupants. One seemed to draw her, though the woman made no move, simply hunched in a corner, back to the wall, watching.

She was dressed in dark leather trousers, legs tucked into boots of the same color that reached to her knees. An open leather vest covered her soiled and torn shirt. Dark blond hair cut raggedly short in back, hung down over gray eyes far too old to be in that young face. In the dim light, it was hard to tell bruises from dirt, but Gabriel judged her to be no more than a year or two younger than Xena.

Something about her reminded Gabriel of her friend, whom she desperately missed right then, for more reasons than the obvious. And who was probably going to kill her, if she managed to get out of this in one piece. But, by the Gods, the woman drove her nuts sometimes! She was so stubborn and hard headed and.... Gabriel sighed deeply.

It had been a stupid fight. She knew Xena was worn out and on the edge, even if the warrior in her wouldn't let her admit it. But she'd pushed anyway. If Xena wouldn't take care of herself on her own, then Gabriel would just do it for her. Not being used to having anyone do anything for her, Xena had blown up at Gabriel's constant attention.

The young bard had fled into the woods before allowing Xena to see the tears. And ran right into the patrol that had mistaken her for one of the rebels they were hunting. The fact that she clobbered a few of them with the staff she'd automatically grabbed as she ran from the camp, before they took her down, hadn't helped her case any.

She sighed again, glancing around at the cramped prison for a place to rest. She had a feeling she wasn't going anywhere for awhile. Unfortunately, her first step ran her into a woman at least twice the size of Xena.

"Sorry," Gabriel muttered, back stepping as she bounced off her.

"Watch where yer goin, runt," the woman snarled, pushing Gabriel back even farther. And into someone who pushed her right back into the huge woman.

Gabriel landed with a soft "ooff", then felt her feet leave the floor as the woman lifted her for a straight-on shot with a massive fist.

‘This is gonna hurt,' Gabriel thought fleetingly, fascinated by size of those hairy knuckles aimed at her face.

"Leave her alone, Geta." The soft voice froze the woman.

"What's it to you, Zandra. Got eyes on her for yourself." The big woman sneered, but lowered her fist, and Gabriel.

"Maybe I do."

Gabriel felt the other woman behind her and somehow knew it was the one she'd noticed earlier hunched in the corner. Just like she knew when Xena was standing protectively behind her.

Space had suddenly cleared all around them and Gabriel was tossed aside as the two women confronted each other. Zandra turned her head to make sure Gabriel was alright and their eyes met for the first time. Gabriel felt her breath catch. Even in the dim torchlight of the prison cell, she could feel their intensity, like thunderclouds massing for a violent storm. A brief smile ghosted across Zandra's face as she acknowledged the contact, then turned her attention back to Geta

"You know what'll happen if you mess with me Zandra," Geta warned.

Zandra stood loose and relaxed, a different kind of smile on her face know. "Yeah. But you'll be dead before that happens."

From some hidden resource in her great bulk, Geta pulled a knife, flashing it wickedly in Zandra's face. Zandra's smile got bigger, just before she struck. It was then Gabriel noticed the manacles on her wrists, as she used them to deflect the blade aimed at her chest.

The crowd surged as the fight progressed, blocking Gabriel's view of the two combatants, but parted as several guards cleared a path for their leader. Gabriel caught a glimpse of Zandra straddling Geta's limp form just before the guard leader clubbed her in the head. Four others pounced on her before she could gain her feet.

One of the guards knelt to examine Geta. "This one's dead," he announced to the leader.

"What started it this time," the leader asked Zandra, who stood panting lightly, silent, glaring at him. He backhanded her across the face.

"What started this," he demanded. No one spoke.

"Take her," he ordered, shoving Zandra from him. "Throw this one in the pit." He nudged Geta's body with the toe of his boot

Gabriel elbowed her way to the cell bars, trying to see where they were taking Zandra. They didn't go far. A large chain hung from the ceiling with a metal hook attached to the end. The guards placed Zandra's manacles over the hook, stretching her out where only her toes touched the ground. They peeled her leather vest over her arms.

Gabriel pressed her face tightly against the bars as the silence was broken by a whistle cutting the air and the crack of the whip as it struck Zandra's back with enough force to drive the held breath from her lungs. Gabriel was horrified, but didn't turn away. Each new blow drew a tear from her eyes. This was her fault. Gods, if it was Xena up there... A shudder rocked Gabriel at the thought. No, if Xena had been here, it never would have gone this far.

Zandra took the beating in silence. Even when the guards threw her back into the cell, she landed without a sound escaping her. Gabriel knelt by her side, reaching to help her.

"No," Zandra snarled at her, leveraging herself up to her hands and knees, head hanging down. The eyes that locked on Gabriel were bright with pain, and something else. "I have to do this myself," she half apologized to Gabriel.

Very familiar with stubborn warrior pride and the belief that showing pain was a sign of weakness, Gabriel backed off a little, staying in arms reach just in case.

Zandra struggled to her feet, making her way to her corner by sheer willpower alone. Gabriel stayed by her side.

Chapter Two

Xena sat poking at the fire, worry creasing her forehead. She shouldn't have let Gabriel go off like that, by herself. She'd seen the tears start up in her bards eyes at the harsh words she'd aimed at her.

‘Why do I do that,' Xena berated herself savagely. Knowing Gabriel like she did, it was easy for her to chose words that cut the younger woman like a knife. She was supposed to be the quiet one, why couldn't she have just kept quiet then. She'd regretted the words as soon as they came out, but the warlord in her wouldn't let her take them back, or apologize.

What was it about her that made her strike out whenever someone got too close. Had Caesar left that deep a wound? Gabriel would never do something like that. Couldn't do something like that, it just wasn't in her. She'd made mistakes, they both had. But Gabriel never meant to deliberately hurt her. And that was in the past.

Xena pursed her lips together, jaw clenched in a combination of exasperation and frustration. At Gabriel and at herself. Mostly at herself. Gabriel had done nothing to deserve the fury the warrior had unleashed at her.

Xena ground the heels of her hands into tired eyes. She was tired, yes, but that was no excuse. It was just that, she'd been taken completely off guard by the flood of emotions that had washed over her at Gabriel's gentle touch. The softness of her bards hand on her cheek, the fire that had raced through her generated from those fingertips, the intensity of her desire for it to never stop. And Gabriel didn't have a clue.

A crooked smile found its way to Xena's face at the memory of that touch and she closed her eyes bringing it into sharp focus. If nothing else, at least she'd have that. And a thousand other memories. But damn the girl, where was she! She'd been gone way too long. Xena set the campfire so there would be enough light for Gabriel to find her way back to it, yet leave no danger of it burning out of control. She went looking for her friend.

Chapter Three

"Why," Gabriel asked Zandra once the woman's ragged breathing had evened out.
Zandra looked at her as though she didn't understand the question. ‘Gods, she's got beautiful eyes,' Zandra thought, losing herself in them to ease the pain.

"This is what Geta was talking about, isn't it." Gabriel's soft voice penetrated Zandra's haze. "You knew this was going to happen and you did it anyway. Why?"

"Such beautiful eyes. Just like.." Zandra realized she was speaking aloud and stopped abruptly. "Who says I did it for you," she continued, banishing those other thoughts.

Now it was Gabriel's turn to look confused. "What...I."

Zandra waved her to silence. "I got rid of an enemy and gained a means of escape." She showed Gabriel the knife she'd taken from Geta. "I think that's a fair price for a little pain."

"A little pain," Gabriel remarked with raised eyebrows.

"I'm getting used to it," Zandra explained, holding up her manacled wrists. "Why do you think I have these things on? They got tired of having to fight me every time they broke me and Geta up, so they just decided to leave them on all the time."

"And you think that knife is going to make the difference in getting you out of here." This one's as crazy as Xena, was Gabriel's unspoken thought.

"Yup," Zandra responded with a grin. "Watch."

She began working at the lock mechanism on her manacles with the point of the thin bladed knife till she heard a soft click and the metal cuff fell open. With a grateful sigh, she massaged the raw skin of her wrist, flexing life back into stiff fingers, then started working on the other cuff.

"Was it day or night when they brought you in," Zandra asked. "I've kinda lost track of time," she explained. There were no windows in the prison, the only light coming from torches set into the surrounding wall.

"It was just after sunset," Gabriel replied, puzzled.

"Well, I guess now is as good a time as any then."

"For what," Gabriel asked suspiciously. With Xena, words like that were usually followed by trouble.

"You want to get out of here, don't you." Zandra rose, flashing a lopsided grin at Gabriel.

Gabriel reached out a hand to steady her. Zandra jerked as though she'd been burned when Gabriel's hand touched her arm.

"Gods! Not another one," Gabriel groaned. "What is it with you warrior types. Can't any of you handle being touched?" She didn't really expect an answer.

Zandra just looked at her, amazed that this young beauty could be so innocent as to not know what kind of affect she had on people. Zandra shook her head, more to clear it than in answer to Gabriel's question. There was something about how the torches brought out golden shimmers of flame from the bard's long hair. Zandra shook her head again, making her way to the cell door, Gabriel right behind her. She tried to focus on her mission.

"Keep watch," Zandra whispered, easing the knife into the door's keyhole. A few minutes, a low chuckle and the door opened. Zandra swung it wide and headed for the stairs.

Several of the rougher looking women rushed for the torches, snatching them from the wall before joining her. Zandra hesitated, searching for the fair-haired woman, making sure she was ok in the press of bodies around the cell door. Once found, she motioned her to the stairs, and her side, while she hushed the others to silence. Twenty women ghosted up the stairs behind them.

Close to the top, Zandra waved the others to a halt, drew back her hand, let the knife fly and stormed the room.

Chapter Four

Xena found the signs of a struggle, along with Gabriel's staff. Cursing herself for every fault she ever had, she quickly returned to camp for Argo. The trail was visible to her, even in the pale light of the half moon. And she was determined to retrieve her bard, at any cost.

It wasn't much of a fight. Zandra's throw had placed her knife in the throat of one guard and the other women had quickly overwhelmed the remaining four. Zandra silently claimed the slain guard's knife and her own, but Gabriel noticed she shied away from the whip hanging from his belt. With a wolfish grin, Zandra snatched food from his plate, stuffing it into her mouth with a raised eyebrow and a shrug, half apology, half explanation, at Gabriel. Sticking Geta's knife in her belt, Zandra grabbed Gabriel by the arm, pulling her near.

"Stay close," she advised as they moved into the courtyard.


Xena had been watching the small fort for some time, noting the comings and goings of its inhabitants. Though she'd seen no sign of Gabriel, she knew her bard was in there. She could feel her nearness. After all they'd been through, nearly three years of constantly being together, when they were apart Xena's world seemed strangely out of balance, lacking in Gabriel's steadying influence.

Xena came instantly back into focus at a brief flicker of movement in the shadows of the courtyard. A grin of relief split her face as she recognized Gabriel's form amongst the moving shadows. The grin changed as soldiers entered the courtyard from the opposite direction and she sprinted from her place of concealment.

Knives flashed in the moonlight as Zandra parried the sword thrust at her. A flip of her wrist, a role of her body and a booted foot knocked away the sword aimed at Gabriel.

"Damn," Zandra muttered. There were too many of them and her companions were too poorly armed. She felt the slice of a blade across her arm and knew she had but one option left if any of them were to escape.

"Whatever happens, don't get in front of me," she yelled warning to Gabriel.

In the darkness, Gabriel felt the change come over the young warrior and briefly wondered if this was what Xena had first been like.

As if summoned by her thought, a piercing war cry shattered the night, causing Gabriel to jerk violently in response. Turning swiftly towards the sound, she almost forgot Zandra's warning in her need to find the source of that call.

Zandra jerked at the sound also, her blood roaring in answer to that challenge cast upon the winds. She allowed the battle lust to wash over her, losing herself in a sea of red. She knew, in this mode, she would fight till none stood before her, or she no longer stood. That was her last active thought as battle-honed reflexes took over.

All obstacles fell before the Warrior Princess as she savagely fought her way to Gabriel, till only one stood between them. Knives poised for the attack, a feral grin on the face and eyes fever bright confronted her. Xena recognized it for what it was and slowed her approach. She'd seen it before, been it before, and knew well the dangers in confronting someone caught up in a berserker rage.

"Xena," Gabriel cried as she started to move around Zandra's protective form.

Zandra's body tensed even further, whether at the naming, or Gabriel's movement, Xena was unsure. She didn't want to take any chances and motioned Gabriel to stillness, though her arms ached just to hold her safe within them. But she wouldn't wait long. She couldn't. As long as they stayed here, Gabriel was in danger.

"Zandra," Gabriel called softly, understanding Xena's unspoken concern. "It's ok. She's my friend."

Xena could see the change in the young warrior at Gabriel's soft voice. She'd felt the pull of that voice more than once herself and knew its affect. The haze cleared from the eyes, though they still held wary sparks deep within them. The arm now holding the knife in a defensive position, lowered slowly, the weight shifting from the balls of the feet to settle more firmly on the earth.

"She's your friend?" Zandra's words came out low and husky, rough with momentarily stilled rage.

"Yes," Gabriel reassured her, placing her hand gently on Zandra's arm, forcing those gray eyes to meet hers.

Xena felt a hot flash of jealousy rip through her, followed by a cold chill of inevitability at the look in Zandra's eyes as she focused on Gabriel.

‘Well, what did you expect,' she silently berated herself. ‘For her to wait around the rest of her life waiting for you to make the first move?'

‘Yes,' was her heart's reply.

Zandra turned to Xena, trying to read the other woman in the dark. What she saw there snapped her wariness back into place.

"Get her out of here," she growled at Xena.

"What?" Xena exclaimed, surprised, not sure if the statement was aimed at her or Gabriel.

Zandra pushed the bard into Xena, who was forced to put her arms around the smaller woman to keep her from falling down.

"What is this, ‘bounce the bard' day or something," Gabriel muttered angrily as she tried to keep her balance.

Xena tightened her grip.

"Get her out of here," Zandra repeated. "You do know how to use that thing, don't you " She indicated the sword held loosely in Xena's hand. "Then, if you care about her, get her out of here while I cover your backs."

Zandra picked up a sword from one of the fallen soldiers, not waiting for Xena's reply.

The concern for her bard's safety won out over Xena's urge to backhand this young pup and she gave a curt nod of agreement to Zandra. Gabriel started to protest as Xena began dragging here through the courtyard, but the expression on the warrior's face silenced her.

With Gabriel in tow, Xena stalked through whatever got in the way till they reached the safety of the woods. She didn't stop there, but continued to haul Gabriel along all the way to where she'd left Argo.

In one swift motion, Xena threw Gabriel in the saddle, jabbed a finger in the startled face and, grim lipped commanded "Stay here."

Without waiting for a response, the Warrior Princess spun on her heal and stalked off, cursing under her breath and muttering about a good example of why warriors had such short life expectancies. She was over half way back to the fort when she met Zandra.

"Oh, it's you," the warrior addressed her, lowering her weapons. "Good."

Xena caught her easily before she hit the ground, somehow expecting it. She did a quick field check to make sure the woman wasn't in any danger of dying real soon and with an exasperated sigh, hoisted the limp form onto her shoulder and headed back to Gabriel.

The annoyance she felt towards this young warrior surprised Xena. After all, she'd just risked her life to save Gabriel. She should feel grateful. But that was what bothered her. Always looking for the hidden agenda, Xena couldn't understand why this woman was so protective of her bard.

She banished the thought from her mind. It didn't matter. Gabriel was safe and this Zandra had made that happen. She owed her.

Chapter Five

It took awhile to find a spot Xena thought was safe enough to build a fire. She'd felt the sticky wetness of drying blood on Zandra's clothes and figured there were wounds to go with it that would need cleaning and bandaging. She needed light and hot water for that.

The concerned looks Gabriel was shooting at Zandra did nothing to improve Xena's foul mood. She kept telling herself that that was just the way Gabriel was and there was nothing different to it. It wasn't working.

Once the fire was going, Xena insisted on checking Gabriel for injuries, overriding the bards protests that she was fine. Assured that Gabriel was indeed alright, Xena sent her after water while she undressed Zandra. Breath hissed through clenched teeth when she saw Zandra's back. Fresh welts, many of them bloody, crisscrossed over older ones half healed.

"They whipped her," Gabriel announced softly.

"Yeah, I know," Xena replied just as softly, briefly glancing at the whip coiled neatly on Argo's saddle.

"Because of me."

Xena glanced up at Gabriel, rose quickly at the look on her face and sat her down on a log by the fire.

"What happened," she demanded flatly, still holding Gabriel's shoulders.

Gabriel told her, never taking eyes from Zandra. Xena was the only person that had ever done anything like that for her and she was still a little shaken by the experience.

Xena fluctuated between anger and gratitude. Anger at Zandra for doing what she should have done, and at herself for placing Gabriel in that position in the first place. And an immense gratitude. If anything had happened to Gabriel, she'd have.... She sighed, letting the anger go. She hadn't forgotten the promise she'd made to Gabriel so very long ago.

Xena put these thoughts aside and began expertly cleaning Zandra's wounds. She could feel Gabriel cringe with each low moan that escaped the woman. And visibly flinch when Zandra gasped and dug her fingers into the bedding at one point as though trying to crawl away from the pain.

"She's going to be alright Gabriel," Xena shot at her, a little too roughly. And immediately regretted it as a hurt look masked Gabriel's face.

‘Gods, woman, get a grip,' Xena admonished herself. ‘Hasn't she been through enough already without you jumping on her again for no reason.'

"Gabriel," she called softly. "I've done what I can for her. She may be in some pain, but she's not going to die. Why don't you try to get some rest. You look like you've had a pretty rough time yourself."

Xena's heart skipped a beat at Gabriel's grateful smile.

Xena moved quietly about the camp, checking on Argo, gathering more wood for the fire. Anything to keep from having to lay there, thinking. Thinking about Gabriel. The way she looked at Zandra. And what those looks were doing to her. She had a hard enough time around Gabriel these days without this.... jealousy??

Gabriel whimpered softly in her sleep and Xena was at her side instantly. She tenderly brushed stray hairs from her bard's face, her hand trembling slightly as she continued the gesture, running gentle fingers down that soft cheek.

Gabriel, still asleep, captured Xena's hand in her own, drawing it down to her chest, cuddling it there like it was a treasured possession. Xena swallowed, hard. After a few minutes, she even remembered to breathe. A few minutes more and she made her first attempt at retrieving her hand and her wits. That one, and each one after that, was met with the same results; Gabriel would whimper softly, tighten her grip pressing the warrior's hand closer to her breast, blowing away Xena's resolve and effectively ending the battle.

Xena finally gave up, lying next to Gabriel with her arm draped across the bards waist. Gabriel snuggled closer with a contented sigh, still holding her prize. Xena slept less than usual that night.

Zandra also slept little that night, even though the Goddess soothed her aches.

"I do not like this game you play," Zandra softly advised the Goddess.

"Since when did you object to a little pain," The Goddess returned with a wicked grin. "Or is it because I didn't warn you of the beauty of my Queen."

"No. Because you didn't tell me she was in love with the warrior."

"What difference does it make," was the angry reply. "You're here to protect my Queen, not Xena."

"And you don't think Xena's death will hurt her?"

"Not yet. She hasn't declared herself to the warrior, nor does she know that Xena is in love with her. Best to let it end now, before the bond grows too strong."

"You know I'll do your bidding, Goddess, but for your Queen's sake, I beg you look again at the threads of their lives. I think they are far deeper joined than you believe."

Gabriel woke the next morning to something warm and soft under her hand. Blinking sleepily, she started to snuggle closer, glancing up into piercing blue eyes. Not being a morning person, it took a few seconds for it to sink in that this wasn't a dream and she really was cuddled up with Xena. Then she realized that her leg and arm were draped over Xena's body. And exactly what that soft object was under her hand. She blushed furiously, jerked her hand back, stammered an incoherent apology and tried to stand up, all at the same time.

Xena caught her when she tripped, holding her steady till she gained her footing.

"Oh Xena. I... I....," Gabriel couldn't seem to get her thoughts together enough to complete a sentence. At that point, she wasn't even sure what it was she was trying to say. She only knew she couldn't look in Xena's face for fear of seeing what was there.

"It's ok, Gabriel," Xena assured her, though her voice sounded a little strained.

Gabriel did look up, finally, into those eyes that had haunted her dreams for so long. A shockwave went through her at the look in them. Part laughter, part concern, part something else, confusing Gabriel even more.

‘How can she still care, after all I've done to her,' Gabriel wondered. Without realizing what she was doing, she put her hands around Xena's neck, drawing the warrior to her kiss.

She panicked at the response the touch of those tender lips evoked in her.

"Oh gods," Gabriel whispered, breaking from Xena and running blindly for the woods.

Xena tried to call after her, but there was no breath in her lungs to force the words out. The fear that Gabriel thought the kiss had been a mistake, kept her from going after the bard. That, and the pain in her heart at the look of panic on Gabriel's face when she realized what she'd done.

Xena heard Argo whinny softly and some of the tightness left her chest. At least Gabriel hadn't run far. She busied herself around the camp, waiting for her bard to return.

Gabriel buried her face in Argo's mane till the weakness left her knees and her heart calmed down enough to let her think. She groaned into the mare's neck.

"Argo, I can't believe I just did that. Gods, what she must be thinking. What was I thinking!"

Argo snorted softly in response.

"You're right, I wasn't thinking." She'd gotten so lost in those eyes, it had seemed like the most natural thing at the time. A good morning kiss for the one she loved.

That's where the problem came in, that "love" word. She wasn't sure she really knew what the word meant any more. She'd thought she was in love with Perdicus, even if their wedding night hadn't been all she'd expected. But what she'd felt at his death was nothing compared to the emotions that had rocked her at Xena's. That trip down the mountain with Xena's body had been the most difficult thing she'd ever done.

And now, through her own stupidity, she was on the verge of losing her again.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," she mumbled to Argo.

Argo whinnied in reply.

"You don't have to agree with me," Gabriel growled back.

Well, stupid or not, she couldn't hide out here the rest of her life. She'd just have to - what, tell Xena the truth? Yeah, right. Then it'd be Xena running for her life. Not that she thought the warrior was incapable of being in love, even if everyone else did. Just not with her. Not the way Gabriel so desperately wanted her to be. With a deep sigh, she squared her shoulders.

Ok. She'd just go right in there, tell Xena that she loved her and fall dead at the warrior's feet when she laughed at her. She made it all of three steps before her nerve gave out.

"Aren't you going after her?"

Xena turned to the voice. "What?"

"Aren't you going after her," Zandra repeated. "You are Xena, aren't you? The Warrior Princess. The one who makes grown men tremble in fear and grown women tremble in other ways."

"What are you talking about," Xena replied, a low warning in her voice Zandra either didn't hear, or chose to ignore.

Zandra laughed. "Looked to me like you were the one doing the trembling just then."

Xena stiffened, holding back her rising anger.

Zandra laughed again, even softer than before. "Take care, Warrior, lest someone else winds up with what you want most. There are others who would gladly love her as she needs, if you won't."

Xena was unaware that the misery those words caused her heart was also visible in her eyes. Nor was she aware that Zandra saw it. She was all too aware of the truth in those words, however. That was part of what kept her from telling Gabriel how she really felt, knowing that there were others who had so much more to offer than she did. That Gabriel's life wouldn't be put in danger every day just because they cared for her.

"Xena. We need to talk."

Xena whirled, launching herself at Gabriel, knocking the young bard off her feet in order to catch the arrow aimed at her back. The second one grazed Xena's arm. The third was knocked off course by Zandra's thrown knife. Xena rolled to her feet, sword drawn and murder in her eyes. Zandra was at her back an instant later, Gabriel between them still on the ground.

Zandra, having grabbed Gabriel's staff to replace her knife, quickly exchanged weapons as soon as the bard regained her feet. Though she was proficient in most forms of fighting, Zandra preferred the keen edge of a blade. Her own weapons had been taken from her when she was captured, but the metal of the guards knife was of good quality and would have to do till she could find better. It didn't take long.

Back to back to back, the three women faced the onslaught of soldiers into their camp. Xena fought with a controlled fury. These dogs had tried to put an arrow in her bard's back and for that, they would pay. Gabriel also fought in anger. Just when she'd finally gotten up the nerve to tell Xena how she really felt, these idiots had to come along. Now there was no telling when she'd get another chance. Zandra just fought. Her grin and her knives flashed wickedly with the rising sun. It seemed she'd been doing that most of her life. Now, every thing just shut down automatically, her coldness the exact opposite of Xena's fire.

Between the three of them, it didn't take long to send what few soldiers remained standing back into the woods, running for their lives.

Xena wasted no time. "Zandra, can you ride," she shot over her shoulder as she grabbed Argo's saddle. "Zandra," she repeated, turning when she got no response.

Zandra was sprinting across the small clearing in pursuit of the fleeing soldiers.

"Great," Xena growled, throwing the saddle down. "Stay here," she barked at Gabriel.

Before she could take off after Zandra, the younger warrior appeared on horseback.

"Thought we might need another mount," she grinned, reining the animal to a halt inches from Xena and sliding easily from the saddle. "I prefer riding to walking."

Xena glared at the ground. "I'm not going to kill her," she muttered under her breath, very deliberately picking up the saddle and stalking over to Argo.

"Do you have a death wish or something," Gabriel asked quietly, coming up behind Zandra.

Zandra just gave her a mischievous grin and went to pick out a couple of weapons from the many now littering their camp. Gabriel stared after her a few minutes, then started packing up their things, shaking her head over the impossibility of figuring out the minds of female warriors.

Zandra knew she was pushing it with the Warrior Princess, but she'd been riding the edge for so long now, she couldn't help herself. The need for that adrenaline rush found only in battle, had become like an addiction to her and lately, could only be satisfied when she knew there was a good chance she might actually die. Being Artemis' dark avenger, that chance had been coming more frequently. Artemis chose her to go where those of fiery righteousness could not, for she was still linked to the darkness in her soul. Artemis, the goddess of wild things, had seen through to the wildness in Zandra, accepting and nurturing that part of her chosen warrior as a necessity for the things she needed her warrior to do.

Zandra'd been hearing stories of the Warrior Princess for years, of how she'd changed and was supposed to be doing good now. She doubted if Xena remembered the one time they'd met. They had both been so much younger, but Xena was good even then. She'd laughed at Zandra's challenge, telling her to come back when she was big enough to weald the sword she'd taken from her brother's dead hands. Well, she was bigger now, and better. But she'd also learned that Xena wasn't the one responsible for her brother's death, that the warrior had in fact, tried to prevent it.

Despite Artemis' reminder that Gabriel was her sole concern, Zandra still felt drawn to the Warrior Princess, wanting to protect her, too. Trouble seemed to follow Xena around like a pet. And her green eyed companion had definitely sparked an interest she shouldn't have. Zandra chuckled. Now that would really be riding the edge.

Xena brought Argo into camp and finished loading their gear. Gabriel noticed that her whip wasn't tied to the saddle and smiled inwardly. When Xena vaulted onto Argo's back, then held her hand down for Gabriel, the smile almost became visible.

Zandra's low chuckle as she rode ahead of them brought a strange look to Xena's eyes.

"Hold on," Xena advised the bard as she swung her easily up behind her. Gabriel settled into position, wrapping her arms around Xena's waist.

She remembered the first time Xena had hauled her up on Argo to ride behind her. She'd been surprised by the strength in that arm and by the comforting feeling she got from having the warrior so close. Xena had been surprising her ever since.

Chapter Six

Xena knew where the rebel stronghold was located and felt honor bound to escort Zandra to it's safety. The young warrior seemed to have recovered quickly from her injuries, which left Xena with an uneasy, feeling even though it lightened the worry in Gabriel's eyes. For that matter, everything about this woman made Xena uneasy. But she wasn't sure if that was her gut, or her heart reacting.

They rode hard and fast, as though the two warriors were determined to push each other to the limits of their endurance. Fortunately for Xena, that left little possibility of any kind of conversation between her and Gabriel. She knew they had to talk about what had happened that morning, but every time she thought of those soft lips on hers, and the explosion that had erupted deep inside her at that contact, all other thoughts just seemed to disappear. She couldn't trust herself not to say the wrong thing. She was never good with words, anyway.

In some kind of non-verbal exchange Gabriel couldn't figure out, they called a halt to rest the horses and munch on trail rations. Zandra quickly vanished into the woods, mumbling something about taking care of some business.

Xena busied herself fussing with Argo while Gabriel dug out their lunch. She could feel the young bard watching her, but pretended not to notice.

Gabriel was having problems of her own. She was glad they'd called a halt. It'd been quit a struggle to keep the hands clasped around Xena's stomach from wandering. Only the constant reminder that she would fall if she gave in, made them behave. But now, sooner or later, she was going to come face to face with the woman she'd finally admitted she loved more than anything, or anyone. And she knew she wouldn't be able to hide it from her much longer.

Xena was trying to calm the fire in her that the feel of Gabriel's hands splayed against her stomach had sent raging almost out of control. She had to keep telling herself that Gabriel had been through a lot lately. They both had. And that it had been nothing more than a good morning kiss and a thank you. Between friends. Good friends. Very good friends. That's when the fire started building up again.

‘Stop it!' Xena barked at herself. ‘Just stop it right now.' They were definitely going to have to talk.

"Gabriel," Xena began, approaching the bard with some trepidation. "Where's Zandra?" She asked sharply, noticing the younger warrior hadn't returned yet.

"She went in the woods that way. Why?"

Xena's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I just wanted to ask her something is all. I'll be right back." And she disappeared into the woods.

Xena found the warrior in a small clearing, seemingly talking to herself.

"I won't do it. I can't. Haven't you seen the love in her eyes? How can you ask me to be a party to its destruction?"

Zandra's body went stiff, muscles standing out as though she strained against some bond. "No," she forced out through tightly clenched jaws.

Her whole body jerked, eyes squeezing shut in pain as an eerie glow momentarily covered her from head to toe. With the release of that covering, she fell to one knee, gasping for air, her body shaking. "No," she said again, low and harsh.

The glow surrounded her again, driving her to her hands and knees. She shook her head and the glow increased in intensity. As she curled into a tight ball, low animal noises of pain escaped her. When the glow brightened even further, a ragged scream was torn from her that set Xena's neck hairs on end and sent her charging to the warrior's aid. The glow vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving Zandra huddled on the ground. Xena reached out to touch her.

"No," Zandra growled.

"It's ok, you're all right now, I gotcha," Xena tried to reassure the younger woman.

Zandra jerked back. "No! Don't touch me." She struggled to her feet, took two halting steps and collapsed.

Xena reached for her again, then yanked her hand back as a burst of fire surged up her arm, leaving it tingling.

"Told ya," Zandra smirked groggily.

"Yeah, yeah. Gabriel! Bring me a blanket," Xena yelled at the fast approaching footsteps. "How long does it take to wear off?"

"Depends." Zandra's voice was so weak, Xena had to lean close to hear her. "This one, awhile."

Gabriel raced up with the blanket. "What happened?"

"I'm not sure, yet," Xena answered, brows drawn in thought. "Careful. Don't touch her."

Xena wrapped the warrior in the blanket and gently carried her back to their makeshift camp. Gabriel quickly threw bedding together for Xena to lay her on.

"Next time, I carry you," Zandra grunted after Xena let go. "I'm ok. Just need to rest some," she whispered, fading off.

"What's going on, Xena," Gabriel asked, concern in her voice.

Xena told her what she'd seen.

"Offhand, I'd say she's in trouble with a God," she finished, deliberately leaving out what she'd heard. She had an idea who the conversation was about, wasn't sure she wanted to know what love the warrior meant, but knew she had to find out before Gabriel got hurt.

"Ares," Gabriel questioned.

"I don't think so," Xena responded. "Not his style."

"Artemis," came Zandra's soft answer.

Both women stared at her. Gabriel was the first to break the silence.

"Artemis," she repeated. "What has Artemis got against you?"

Zandra gave a dry chuckle. "This time? Cause I won't do what she wants me to."

"And that is," Xena prompted.

Zandra looked from Xena to Gabriel the back to Xena, letting out a deep sigh before she continued.

"I am Zandra, Chosen of Artemis and I have been sent here to guard the Amazon Queen Gabriel."

"Against what," Xena demanded sharply when Zandra again hesitated.

Zandra pinned the Warrior Princess with smoky gray eyes gone hard. "Seems once again, you've managed to get Ares a little ticked off at you, Xena. And a couple of the other Gods are a bit worried that Gabriel is going to get caught in the crossfire this time. Artemis is one of them."

"And you're so afraid of Ares that you refuse to protect Gabriel from him," Xena fixed her own icy stare on Zandra.

"Xena." Gabriel was shocked at the allegation of cowardice her friend had just directed at the younger warrior.

"Stay out of this Gabriel," Xena warned. "Answer the question," she growled at Zandra, her voice as cold as her eyes.

"Actually, it's because I refuse to stand by and watch you be killed," Zandra answered calmly.

"What," Xena and Gabriel asked at the same time.

‘Am I the only one that sees this,' Zandra wondered, shaking her head.

"Ares planned that little raid this morning. Since Geta failed him in the prison, he figured his plans for you would work just as well if Gabriel died in a raid instead. He assumed that you'd be so torn up by her death, that you'd take over the rebel force and use them to exact revenge against the soldiers that killed her. That way, he'd get rid of Gabriel, get a war and get you."

"Xena would never do that." Gabriel defended her warrior automatically. Xena had promised her.

The look in Xena's eyes Gabriel didn't see, said Xena wasn't as sure. That promise had been made before she realized just how much her bard meant to her.

"That still doesn't explain why Artemis is mad at you," Xena prompted, trying to dodge her own thoughts.

Zandra did laugh, then, a soft, sardonic chuckle. "Artemis hates to admit when she's wrong. Especially when it screws up plans she's made for the safety of her chosen Queen."

"What was she wrong about." It was Gabriel's turn to question the warrior. This was almost as bad as trying to get a straight answer out of Xena.

Zandra looked at Gabriel in amazement. Then looked at Xena the same way. She fell back on the blanket with a deep exasperated sigh. Gods! They didn't have a clue. How, in all that was sacred, could two people who so obviously loved each other deeply, be so oblivious to the fact that they both felt the same way. Zandra sat up shaking her head in disbelief. "You two," she finally got out. "Once again, they all underestimated the bond the two of you share."

She had to stop in order to control the laughter threatening to escape her at the crimson blush creeping up Gabriel's cheeks and the contrasting glare directed at her by Xena.

"That little kiss this morning kinda blew everyone's plans to Hades."

"Oh Gods," Gabriel moaned, turning even redder. She'd completely forgotten Zandra's presence during that little scene.

"Now, I can understand Xena's reluctance to admit her true feelings. Everyone she's shown any love to has been hurt because of it, or hurt her in return. But you're a bard, Gabriel. Where are the words? Artemis refuses to acknowledge the bond between you because she says you haven't committed to it yet. Until you do, I go against her wishes in protecting Xena, even though I know what it could do to you if she dies."

Xena went rock still, waiting for Gabriel's response. No matter how much she wanted to hear the words, she would do nothing to sway Gabriel's decision, one way or the other. She wouldn't even look at the bard.

Gabriel's mind raced frantically till it locked on to one thought. Zandra had used the words "Xena" and "love" in the same sentence. And it had been directed at her. As in "Xena loves you". She looked at Xena, noticing the extreme tenseness in the warrior and knew the wrong words could shatter her into a million pieces.

"I, uh umm," Gabriel stumbled over her words, trying to get a coherent thought to come out. She looked up into Xena's face, eyes coming to rest on brilliant blue orbs filled with pained love. And fear.

"Xena," Gabriel choked out.

"Enough!" a male voice roared. Ares suddenly appeared, striding purposefully towards Zandra, rage covering his handsome features. "You've meddled in my affairs once too often," he snarled, throwing an energy bolt at Zandra as she tried to roll out of the way.

She thrust her own hand into the air and a sword materialized in her grasp. With it, she managed to block the sword Ares sent crashing down on her.

"Ares!" Xena called challenge to the God of War, hoping to distract him long enough for Zandra to get free of the blanket wrapped around her.

"Ares!" Another voice roared out of the stillness. "You dare attack my Chosen!"

Artemis stood in raging glory, an arrow nocked and aimed at Ares' chest.

"Or mine." Athena appeared beside Artemis, sword drawn, her armor gleaming in the sun.

Ares turned on them with a snarl.

"And you know how I feel about them, bro." Aphrodite's sweet voice joined the others.

Ares' knuckles went white as the grip on his sword tightened. It took all he had not to finish the killing stroke aimed at Zandra. Seconds ticked as no-one moved.

With a frustrated growl, Ares slammed his sword home. "This isn't over," he promised, glaring at Zandra, then vanishing in a flash of light.

"Looking forward to it," Zandra replied to empty air.

"Well, go on, Gabriel. You were about to tell Xena something."

"Aphrodite," Athena admonished the Goddess of Love.

"Well," Aphrodite returned defensively.

Zandra went to stand beside Artemis, an "I told you so" grin plastered on her face.

"All right, all right." Artemis conceded, giving Zandra a knowing look. "I'll see you later," she rumbled, planting a searing kiss on Zandra's smirking lips.

"Definitely looking forward to that," Zandra responded once she'd caught her breathe.

With a soft "pop", Artemis vanished, a wicked grin on her face at Zandra's remark.

Athena quickly followed.

"Aphrodite." A disembodied voice disturbed the quiet.

"Oh all right," Aphrodite grumbled before also disappearing.

Xena and Gabriel were both staring at Zandra.

"I didn't realize you were so well connected," Xena finally said to the warrior.

Zandra laughed. "Oh, they weren't here for me." She smiled at Gabriel. "I don't think you have to worry about Ares for awhile. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for you," she warned Xena. "Though, if I didn't know better, I'd almost swear you enjoy these little "contests" with him. Too bad I can't stick around and find out."

The sword had vanished along with Artemis and she had no other possessions with her, so Zandra carelessly swung into the saddle in preparation for leaving. She turned once more to face Xena.

"Remember what I said, Warrior. There are always others who would gladly take your place." With a wink and a grin, she spurred her horse to a gallop, laughter following in her wake at Xena's parting glare.

Xena and Gabriel were suddenly aware they were alone, both unsure what to do next.

Gabriel moved closer to Xena, placing her hand gently on her warrior's face.
"Now, where was I? Oh yeah." She slowly drew Xena to her in a heart swelling kiss.

The End

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