The Hunter

By Jennifer Lawson


Disclaimer: The characters that appear on the show Xena Warrior Princess (Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Salmoneus, & others made mention of from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Hercules, Iolaus & Autolycus) are the copyright of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The other characters and the original story idea, are my own and I reserve the rights to them. If you like some of my original characters and would like to use them in one of your stories, that would be great, but please do not do so without my permission. This story was written for the sheer joy of creating a story that everyone could enjoy and because I am a big fan of Xena Warrior Princess, but mostly it was written for my sister, Sam, who is an even bigger fan than I am.

Content: Could be classified as a Hurt/Comfort story. Moderate language. The story centers around a war/battle and does contain what some may consider extreme violence (PG-13), but it is not described in graphic detail. There is a level of subtext in this story, but I’ve tried to be as faithful to the series as possible, so there is no more subtext than what you would see on the show.

Spoiler Warning: Takes place between "The Debt I & II" and "Maternal Instincts" episodes of Xena Warrior Princess. You may want to watch the "The Deliverer," "Gabrielle’s Hope" and "The Debt I & II" episodes if you have not already seen them, since several aspects of these episodes are directly dealt with.

Acknowledgements: This story would never have been possible without the help of my sister, Sam, whose thankless job (at least, that’s what she thinks) it was to advise me in the ways of the Xenaverse. Since I am not as well scripted as she in all those simple little quirks of Xena and Gabrielle’s, she chose to stick her nose in and nit-pick my entire story. But, if truth be told, if Ididn’t have her to nit-pick my story, to urge me on and to be there when I call late at night just to ask: "Sam, does this sound right?" "Sam, do you think Xena would do this?", I wouldn’t have a story to begin with. So, I need to take a moment here just to say: "Thanks, Sam." I would also like to thank my Dad, who is an excellent writer in his own right, for his great editing work and ideas that really pulled my story together and made it work.

I would love to hear from all Xena fans out there and am willing to take a little objective criticism, but please take into consideration that I am quite fragile and could crack under pressure. Drop me a line at

Part I: Xena Warrior PrincessSoulmates


i’m going hunting

i’m the hunter

i’ll bring back the goods

-- "Hunter", Bjork

Chapter One

A Beautiful Day

"It’s such a beautiful day! Don’t you think so, Xena?" Gabrielle said, as the couple walked along through a wooded path. "The sun is bright and warm, a cool breeze is rustling in the trees, birds are singing. It's so refreshing." Gabrielle's happy smile was radiant as she walked with her staff in hand, strawberry-blond hair blowing about in the breeze, taking in the clean scent of the air. Xena's expression, as usual, lacked Gabrielle’s enthusiasm. Unlike Gabrielle, whose senses were tuned in to the beauty around her, Xena’s keen senses were always more in tune to the potential of danger around her: the: the snapping of a twig, rustling of the bushes or the stench of a swarthy stranger. . Her horse Argo, being gently led by the reins showed about as much interest as Xena who answered Gabrielle’s praises of the day with a bored grunt.

Gabrielle was accustomed to Xena’s boredom with the mediocre, but she wasn’t known as ‘the irritating blond’ for nothing. She intended to be heard. . So, as she continued to walk ahead, she said with exaggerated gestures, "Xena, the sun is shining! A cool breeze is blowing through the trees! The birds are singing." When she heard no reply, she turned to find Xena had stopped and appeared annoyed, maybe even a little angry. Why would it annoy her to hear the day being complimented on, for Gaia’s sake? ? "What is wrong with you this morning? Is it the time of your cycle or something?" " However, after a second look, Gabrielle realized that it was not her babbling that had captured Xena’s attention.

Xena’s eyes shifted from what had caught her attention to actually fixing on Gabrielle. Then, a frown creased Xena’s face and she asked, "What?" She seemed surprised and kind of annoyed by Gabrielle’s question.

This was not the first time Xena’s keen senses had picked up on something to which Gabrielle was totally unaware. On the other hand, if Xena would pay attention to her on occasion, maybe she could get a point across …. oOccasionally. "Okay, fine, I get the picture…" Gabrielle said indulgently.

"Gabrielle…" Xena said absently, looking past her again.

Paying no attention to the direction of Xena’s gaze, Gabrielle said, "No, no. If you don’t want to listen to me, don’t, that’s just fine, but listen to the sounds around you, Xena…"

"Gabrielle!" Xena interrupted, a little more irritated.

But, Gabrielle chattered on, "…Listen to the birds, Xena. Smell that wonderful smell in the air."

"Gabrielle," Xena almost shouted. "That wonderful smell is the smell of smoke."

"Huh?" Gabrielle said.

Xena walked up to Gabrielle, took her by the shoulders and spun her around, pointing over her shoulder at thick, black smoke rising above the treetops. . Gabrielle’s eyes widened in surprise as she turned to Xena and asked, "What do you think it is?", as the adrenaline rush to which she had become accustomed to from traveling with Xena quickly spread through her body.

"I think its smoke," Xena said sarcastically.

With an exasperated smirk, Gabrielle said, "Funny. Is this serious or not?"

"I don’t know. Let’s find out," Xena said, leading Argo in the direction of the smoke. Gabrielle had to trot to keep up.

"You know, it could just be travelers…with a big fire," she said, as she leveled her pace with Xena’s.

"Could be, but I don’t think so. Smell the smoke, Gabrielle. It doesn’t smell like a big bon-fire. It’s stronger, acrid."

Gabrielle began to have a sense of foreboding. At the same time, however, she felt the excitement these encounters always brought her. Xena looked tense, but naturally on full alert. . Her stride and the look in her eyes said in short, that she was ready for battle. . In response, Gabrielle no longer used her staff for walking. She held it in both hands, ready for the unexpected.

A rustling in the bushes behind them brought them to a halt. Xena whipped around and moved Argo behind her. She took her sword from the scabbard strapped to her back and carefully advanced holding an open hand behind her, informing Gabrielle to stay behind. There were times when Gabrielle knew not to protest. . Anything could come at them from within that brush. . Though she stood at full alert with her sword ready, Xena did not seem overly surprised to see a hand emerge from the bush. Still, as she moved toward it, her sword was ready. Then a man emerged from the bushes, dragging his torn and bleeding body onto the dirt road before them. Xena stopped and eyed him carefully.

The blood drained from Gabrielle’s face as she beheld the tattered man. She took a hasty step backwards and nearly dropped her staff. Xena lowered her sword as soon as it was evident that the man was not a threat and watched him drag himself out onto the open road, leaving behind a trail of blood. He managed to crawl to the middle of the road before collapsing. Xena replaced her sword to its sheath and quickly knelt beside him, lifting a near lifeless body into her arms. . Her face was a mask of compassion as she beheld the extent of his damaged body. She could scarcely believe he was still alive. Though one eye had been torn from his face, he looked at them in fear with the other.

Following behind Xena, Gabrielle knelt and took one of the man’s bloody hands between hers and said, "Don’t worry. We’re here to help." UnfortuantelyUnfortunately, her words didn’t change his pained, fearful expression.

Xena was inspecting him, looking to see how badly he was hurt. He had been stabbed several times and both his legs were broken. This was not a mere case of being cut down in battle. It was a savage assault, the intent being to purposely mutilate and humiliate this man. . Why would one human do something like this to another? Were they trying to force out of him some sort of information? Was the man a traitor? Did he break some law that warranted this kind of brutal punishment? "What happened to you?" Xena asked.

In a harsh and guttural voice the man managed to say, "Dead … all … dead."

"Who’s dead?" Xena asked.

"Everyone … men ... women ... cchildren … even our livestock."

"Who did this?"

"A man … black armor … an army … they came … no warning … everyone dead …" he sobbed, blood oozing from his mouth and nose.

"Where did this happen?" Gabrielle asked, her tender concern for this wretched soul showing in her troubled eyes. He painfully pointed back in the direction he had come, the direction of the smoke that still rose over the treetops. Suddenly, clutching at Xena’s armor, he lifted himself partly up and looked directly at her with his one eye, his bloody face creasing with one last look of determination. "Stop him … you must stop him … or he’ll kill everyone … please, stop him." His grip on Xena loosened, but his eye never left hers. Slowly he slipped back down and died in Xena’s arms. His dead eye still pleaded with her to stop the man whose army had murdered everyone in his village.

Gabrielle reached over and closed his eye. Xena could only stare down at the man. She did not even know his name. His condition recalled haunting memories she did not even want to remember. How many men had she and her army killed? How much suffering had she caused to poor people like this? Of course, she and her army had been satisfied to kill and plunder. Maiming and mutilating had not been her style, nor had she allowed it. In this instance, it seemed someone much worse than she had ever been was doing the killing. Gabrielle sensed what Xena was feeling and understood. They had discussed it many times. Sensitive to Xena’s feelings she reached over and touched her arm, "Xena?" she said softly.

Looking up into Gabrielle’s concerned eyes, Xena felt fear and worry for her, as well as love and appreciation for so dear a friend. Despite the apparent danger, she was, as always, concerned for more than just her own safety. She touched her fingers to Gabrielle’s hand and said appreciatively, "I’m okay Gabrielle. Help me get him onto Argo. We have to find that village."

As they lifted the dead man’s mangled body onto Argo, shethe horse snorted and shifted beneath the weight. She found the whole idea distasteful, but even in her simple mind she understood the futility of neighing about it, so she just followed obediently as Xena conducted them through the brush. . Xena was hoping it was the quickest route to the dead man’s village.

It appeared that in his flight the man had been trying to remain undetected, because following the trail of the man’s blood kept them for the most part in heavy brush. Finally however, they broke through the brush and found themselves looking out onto a large clearing. To their disgusted horror the man’s dying words had been vindicated. . Bodies were everywhere littering the entire area. Burned bodies lay inside their smoldering huts. A woman lay dead near her hut, underneath a line of laundry she had obviously been hanging as she when she was killedwas cut down. Her small child lay dead next to her.

"By the gods," Gabrielle said, her voice only a whisper.

As they walked into the small village, Xena examined the hoof prints on the ground. T as the makeshift huts still burned around them, sending up the thick, black smoke that they had seen from the road. Up ahead, at the edge of the clearing, a group of children lay on the ground. One still held a large piece of parchment in his hand. They had been had been cut down mercilessly while playing a game. The fresh blood still flowing from their bodiess and the many bodiesothers strewn about told Xena that the perpetrator of this horrendous crime had not been gone very long. It must have happened earlier that morning.

Farther up ahead, towards the edge of the clearing, they found a set of unmistakable chariot tracks. There had been only one chariot, the rest of the army was either on foot or on horseback,horseback and from the number of hoof prints, the army had been large, perhaps numbering in the hundreds. Xena knelt down and examined the tracks the chariot had made. It had come from points unknown, west of the clearing, and had stopped here for a while, the occupant apparently watching the slaughter,. T then together with the army, they had continued on eastward.

If a killing rampage were the quest of this army, other villages in the area would surely be threatened. To the best of Xena’s knowledge there was a village about a half days ride from there to the North. . That could possibly be their next target. Xena knew the area to the north was heavily wooded and the army would have to go around, if in fact, that was their intention. They could not be very far off. Maybe she and Gabrielle could get there first. While Xena studied the tracks, Gabrielle was taking the clothing from the laundry on the dead woman’s line and covering up as many bodies as she could. Through tear stained eyes she asked in a fragile voice, "Xena, who would do something like this?"

Xena stood and faced her stricken friend. "I don’t know, Gabrielle," she said, seeing the pain on Gabrielle’s face for the death of people she did not even know. "But it was a large army," she went on. . "The leader was in the chariot, the rest on foot and horseback. They came. They killed. And they left."

"Why? What could these people have possibly done?"

"My guess is nothing. They were just an easy target, and anyone else they come across will get the same." Xena knew what she would have to do. She just wasn’t sure if she wanted Gabrielle along for the trip. These warriors were ruthless killers. They seemed to be killing anything in their path. She needed to get directly in their path, and find a way to divert them.

"Gabrielle," she said pointedly, drawing a knowing look from her friend. "This army will continue to attack more villages unless something is done to stop them. You know what I have to do."

Gabrielle stood up from where she knelt to cover a body and added forcefully, "What we have to do, Xena."


"No.," she said, walking over to where Xena stood. " I’m not going to let you do this alone. We stick together."

"This could get very dangerous. I know people like this, Gabrielle. They won’t care who they kill. I think you would be safer…"

"Xena, believe it or not, I know what you’re feeling. I know what this is bringing back for you. And you’re not sure if the goodness that’s in your heart now can keep you from reverting to what you were. But, it doesn’t matter. We’ve been here for each other through a lot of rough times lately. I’m not going to back out on you now. We’ll need each other to get through this."

With a growing smile Xena said, "You’re right. We stick together. But, we do this my way, okay? If things get too dangerous, I want you to get yourself out of harm’s way. I’ve brought you into too many dangerous situations already, and we’ve paid the price for them. Promise me, if anything happens, you’ll leave. You’ll go and get help. Promise me, Gabrielle."

"I promise," Gabrielle answered reluctantly, downshifting her eyes. Xena knew Gabrielle didn’t like the idea and that, in a pinch, she could not be trusted to keep her word. She would do what she thought was best at the moment. But, she had promised, so there was little Xena could do but accept her word for all it was worth. What a dear and wonderful friend she had proven to be. Taking Gabrielle in her arms she held her closely, then turned to survey the damage once more.

"There’s not much we can do here now, Gabrielle.," she said with a sigh. "We’ll have to get help and come back to care for the dead." As they turned to leave, Xena noticed something glinting in the sunlight near the chariot tracks. Gabrielle followed her curious stare and saw the glint as well.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, as Xena knelt and picked up a small metal stick from the ground. It took a careful examination, before it dawned on her what she was holding. Her thoughtful, wondering expression enhanced Gabrielle’s questioning eyes.

"It’s a lock-pick," Xena said with a frown. "Like Autolycus would use."

"Autolycus? Do you think he was here?"

"I hope not," she said, starining at the pick. After a moment she stood and placed the pick behind her breastplate and turned toward the woods to the north saying, "Let’s get out of here. There’s a village not far from here. It could be this army’s next target. We need to warn them."


That evening, just as the sun was going down, the trio emerged from the woods just outside the nnorthern village, looking up at its large wooden gate.down on its large wooden gate. Thankfully, they had beaten the army there, but Xena had a feeling that if tthey were, in fact, intending to attack this village they could not be far away, though she doubted they would attack at night. Fortunately, the town was well fortified. The large gate and the high walls of huge hewn stones, probably imported from some mountain range, provided a solid defense. They must have seen their share of battles and felt the need to better protect their town and their people. Xena was impressed but wondered how their city would fare against this new foe.

Gaining entrance through the gate, they were greeted by a lively crowd. Banners were up pronouncing the beginning of the Harvest Festival the next day. People were out in the streets preparing for the festival, visiting the taverns that were still open, and just having a good time and being happy. Gabrielle tried to feel their happiness, but she could not shake her feeling of foreboding.

"Oh, my backside is killing me," Gabrielle said, rubbing her butt as she dismounted. Gabrielle, of course, disliked riding the horse, but Xena had insisted they would get there faster if they rode. . Walking would have probably delayed them until mid-morning.

"Sorry, Argo was our only chance of getting here in time," Xena said, looking around, trying to find someone or someplace she could go to inform the town leaders of the danger they were in. That was when she noticed aA man wearing a big smile began walking towards them. "Gabrielle."

"What?" she asked.

"Stop rubbing your butt. Somebody’s coming."

Gabrielle quickly removed her hands from her backside and folded them neatly in front of her in a lady-like manner.

"Good evening," the man said as he, bowinged in a gesture of greeting. . "Welcome to Phestia. My name is Minion {pronounced Minnie-un, not minyun}. Have you come for the Harvest Festival?"

"No.," Xena told him. "My friend Gabrielle and I have come to seek an audience with your town leaders."

"The Magistrates?" Minion asked curiously.

"Yes. It’s very important."

"I’m sorry," Minion said, trying to maintain his smile, "but that won’t be possible tonight. The Magistrates are celebrating the eve of the festival with their families."

"Listen, Minion," Xena said impatiently. "Do me a favor? I want you to go to each of your Magistrates and tell them that Xena has something very important to tell them. And if they don’t listen to what I have to say, they just might not have a festival to celebrate tomorrow."

Minion’s expression suddenly changed from smiling to concern and then to fear. "Z-Z-Xena? The W-w-w-warrior P-p-princess?"

"That’s her," Gabrielle said proudly.

Minion stepped back and swallowed deeply. "Yes, ma’am. Right away, ma’am," he said, as he turned and hurried into the city.

"We’ll be waiting in the tavern," Xena called to him as he moved away.

The tavern, it turned out, was one of the first buildings in town. Leaving Argo tied to the hitching post, Xena turned toward the tavern door, but Gabrielle stepped in front of her, bowing as Minion had and opened the door for her. "After you, ma’am," she teased.

"Don’t you start," Xena warned, playfully pointing her finger.

Gabrielle chuckledlaughed and followed her inside where they encountered boisterous laughter and merriment.

"What can I get you?" the bartender asked as they seating themselves at the bar.

"Ale,." Xena answered. When the bartender turned his attention to Gabrielle she said, "Oh gods, I’m dying of thirst. I think I’ll have a cider, thank you."

As Gabrielle received her cider, Xena was savoring her first taste of the sparkling brew with obvious delight. There was a large group of people gathered around one corner of the tavern. They seemed to be bidding on something, haggling for prices.

One huge, burly man, in somewhat tattered clothes, called out, "Three dinars." " Another, more dignified looking gentleman, bid, "Five dinars."

The person obviously in charge answered saying, "I heard three, now five. Do I hear ten dinars?" After a moment of silence he said, "Eight dinars?"

Gabrielle turned to Xena with a smirk and asked, "Does that sound like who I think it sounds like?"

"If it sounds like Salmoneus, yes," Xena said.

"That’s great," Gabrielle said lamentably. Not only would she have Xena to be concerned about, but now with Salmoneus in town, her concerns would be centered on him as well. "What’s he doing here?"

"Oh, come on, people. This is quality stuff!" Salmoneus said.

Then as a man from another table, who had been watching the bidding, stood and called to the bidders, "If I were you, I wouldn’t buy anything from this man!"

Muffled voices could be heard sayingsaying, "Who’s that?" and "What’s he talking about?"

"He’s a liar and a cheat!" the man said angrily. . "He sold some of his ‘stuff’ to me two days ago and it wasn’t worth the money I paid for it."

One of the biggest and burliest of the men grabbed Salmoneus by the collar and pulled him close, demanding, "Is this true?"

Salmoneus, obviously repulsed by the man’s bad breath, answered defensively, "Of course, not! I don’t even know that … that … kind gentleman over there!"

"Liar!" the accuser shouted, his eyes blazing with anger. Shouts and accusations flew around the room. Xena looked at Gabrielle, shrugged her shoulders with amused tolerance, then got up and approached the group, pushing two men aside.

"What’s going on here?" she demanded.

"Xena!" Salmoneus exclaimed, his face brightening.

"What?" said the big man, quickly releasing Salmoneus’ collar.

"Oh, I’m sorry, Atreaus.," Salmoneus said confidently. "Have you met my very good friend, Xena? You know, the Warrior Princess?"

"Uh, no, no, I haven’t," Atreaus said, caution apparent in his voice. "It’s a p-pleasure to meet you."

Offering him her famous steely gaze with a raised eyebrow, she said, "Same here. Now, what’s going on, Salmoneus?"

"Nothing. I’m just trying to make an honest dinar here."

"Honest? Ha!" the accusing man said in disgust.

Xena offered him the same gaze then turned back to Salmoneus. . "What is this ‘stuff’ you’re trying to sell?" she asked, moving past him without waiting for an answer. There were several large sacks on the table. One of them had been sliced open showing a thick, white powder inside. She took a pinch of it and rubbed it between her two fingers.

"Salmoneus?" she asked suspiciously, with a tolerant expression.

"What! It’s flour!"

With a distrusting "yeah right" expression, Xena sniffed the powder, then tasted a bit on the tip of her tongue. it for quality.

"See. I told you," Salmoneus said defensively.

"It’s rotten," the accusing man shouted. "The stuff doesn’t even rise!"

Egged on by their numbers, the men began shouting and hollering again. Salmoneus cowered behind Xena as they threaten all sorts of things.

"All right! All right! Quiet down!" Xena said in a commanding tone. "I’m sure we can find a way to settle this."

Gabrielle, who had been standing next to Xena the whole time, stepped up and tasted the flour as well. Making a disgusted face she complained., "He’s right, Salmoneus! This flour is rotten!" This, of course, only incited the shouting once again.

"See what I told you? See!" the accuser said with determination.

"Thanks a lot, Gabrielle," Xena said, turning to herGabrielle.

"Sorry, Xena," she responded, with a smile of regret on her face.

At least three of the men lifted sacks above their heads, shouting, "Let’s get him!" Xena and Gabrielle managed to back away before the flour began to fly. Salmoneus was not so lucky. Shielding his face with his hands, he cried out, "NOOOOOO!"

A few seconds later, Xena and Gabrielle made their way outside the tavern, snickering to themselves, and waited for Salmoneus’ hasty retreat. From just inside the tavern, they could hear him saying, with a sarcasm typical of Salmoneus, "Oh no, really. I can show myself out. It was nice meeting all of you,. eEnjoyed the hospitality. Have a nice evening." In the next moment, Salmoneus’ ghostly figure exited the tavern. Gabrielle felt a mite responsible and, therefore, tried hard not to laugh, but failed miserably. Xena swatted her on the arm, but could barely keep a straight face herself.

"Xena," Salmoneus said, smiling insincerely through the flour. . "I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for not getting involved. A true businessman must always be ready to accept the anger of an unsatisfied customer."

Xena’s composure failed her when she saidand she chuckled, "Well, we’ve got you covered."

With that theyshe and Gabrielle both lost it and doubled over in laughter. It felt good to laugh after a day such as this.

"Go ahead. . Laugh, I deserve it.," heSalmoneus said, licking flour from his upper lip. His expression displayinged disgust similar to Gabrielle’s. "Ugh. It really does taste rotten!"

Just then, Minion returned with a wavering smile and outstretched arms. . "Miss Xena. Miss Gabrielle," he exclaimed as he approached.

Still laughing they both answered, "Yeah."

"The Magistrates will see you now. Right this way," he said, bowing again.

"Right this way, Miss Xena," Gabrielle teased, bowing down, as Minion had, with an outstretched arm...

Repeating Gabrielle’s gesture, Xena said, "Oh no, after you, Miss Gabrielle."

They laughed again and walked together after Minion. Salmoneus followed close behind dusting flour. After a few steps he asked, "So, we’re going see the Magistrates. What for?"

"We’ll explain it to you when we get back," Xena said, then stopped and said to Salmoneus over her shoulder. "Actually, you should leave Phestia while you still can."

"Why?" he asked, curiously.

The laughter had left Xena’s eyes. They were now deadly serious. "The next couple of days are going to be really bad."

Salmoneus watched them walk away, with curiosity and concern in his eyes.


Chapter Two

Meeting The MagistratesThe Magistrates

Minion led them into a large building that could only have been their courts. Five older men sat at a long table and wore robes that assigned them some sort of position. The man seated in the middle stood and looked them over curiously. He was tall and heavy set, bald and heavily bearded. He said, "I am High Magistrate Nallos. Which one of you is Xena, The Warrior Princess?"

"I am, High Magistrate," Xena said, stepping forward. . "I’m sorry if I’ve interrupted your celebration…"

"Yes, you have interrupted our celebration," Nallos retorted. "My family and I were just about to sit down and have our Harvest supper when Minion came to me with this threat of yours…"

"It wasn’t a threat, High Magistrate," Xena said, struggling to maintain her composure. The pompous attitude of people in power was a source of irritation to her. "It was a warning," she went on. "I have reason to believe a very deadly army may soon attack your village. Just this morning, my friend and I came across a large clearing about a half days ride south of here riddled with dead bodies that were victims of this army."

"You must be referring to the nomads. Every year around this time, they settle down in that area. The soil is rich there. They plant, they harvest and they move on."

"Well, they won’t be moving on this year."

"What do you mean?"

Gabrielle spoke up. "Everyone there was killed, Sir. Man, woman…and child. Even their livestock was slaughtered."

Nallos stared at her wide eyedwide-eyed, contemplating her statement, then sat back down, his face twisted in concern. The other Magistrates whispered amongst themselves.

Xena’s frustration had waned some but her eyes widened in disbelief when he said, "I can’t believe this. Who could do such a thing?" " Obviously the man was still not listening seriously. . Had the concern she saw in his eyes been more for his celebration than for the danger?

With a sigh, Xena answered, "We don’t know who did it, but there were unmistakable tracks left by a war chariot and the ground was littered with hoof prints. It was a large and deadly army."

"By the gods. And on Harvest Eve." Nallos shook his head in sad disgust. "So, you think an army of warriors did this?"

"The dead were all over the place. The men could have possibly held their own if it had been a small band. All the evidence points to a large and ruthless army of merciless killers."

Skeptically Nallos asked, "But, why those people? They’ve never harmed anybodyne. What could they possibly have gained by killing nomads?"

"An army like this is in the killing business. I don’t think it mattered to them who the people were. They were there, in their path. Nothing else mattered. An army that will kill women and children do not concern themselves with identity. They just kill. And from the direction they were traveling, I believe your village could be the next one in their path."

Sitting up and leaning forward, Nallos faced Xena squarely and asked, "How can you know for sure that they’re coming here?"

"I can’t, not positively. But are you willing to bet your life and the lives of the people in this village on the possibility that I could be wrong?"

Unfortunately, Xena was dealing with an office and a title. Her frustration was making her aggressive and the man’s pride was being offended. Gabrielle could see where this was heading so she spoke up saying, "High Magistrate Nallos, I’ve been traveling with Xena for several years now and I know when to trust her instincts. She wouldn’t come to you now if she didn’t think the lives of your people were in danger."

"I realize that, and I appreciate your concern. But, did you not see how well fortified the village of Phestia is? We have been through battle after battle and always our gate and our walls have kept us safe."

"I’m sure they have," Xena said, frustration showing in her face. This man just did not seem willing to take her seriously. "But just to be on the safe side you should evacuate some of your citizens, at least the women, children and the elderly to safety."

"Evacuate them to where may I ask?"

"Into the woods. I know of some caves near here."

"Caves!" Nallos said, incredulously. "By the gods, woman! Have you lost your mind? My people would not agree to spending any time in caves just because you think we might be attacked!"

"Oh, I see," Xena said, her upper lip curling in angry frustration. "I guess they’d be more agreeable to being six feet under the dirt than spending a couple of days in a cave. You and your family included!"

"Now, look here!" Nallos said, standing back up in anger and staring with hooded eyes.

Xena met his stance with a cold stare, walked up to the long table and slammed her palms down with a bang. "NO! You look here! I didn’t come all this way just to here you say thanks but no thanks! I came back here to save your miserable life and the lives of the people in your village."

"We are quite capable of taking care of ourselves," Nallos said, leaning across the table. "We have our own soldiers, our own weapons and our own strength! We do not need yours! Now, in case you have forgotten, we are holding our annual Harvest Festival. People come from all over the land every year. Imagine what would happen if I canceled the festival over one woman’s claims."

"They are not claims, they are fact! Those people are dead, just like you and your village will bemay soon be if you do not take action to protect yourselves! You are placing this ridiculous festival over the lives of your people!"

Nallos stared down at Xena in haughty disregard. "This festival is not only a celebration of the harvest time, but it is a festival to the gods for all the bounty they’ve brought us. I fear a worse fate would befall us if we did not continue the festival. The gods will protect us."

"You pathetic old fool, the gods don’t care about you. All they care about is their own interest. When are you people gonna wise up?"

"How dare you speak to me that way!"

Gabrielle could see that things were getting out of hand, so she walked up and gently tugged at Xena’s arm. In her anger, Xena had not seen Gabrielle approaching and whipped around defensively, but calminged quickly onwhen she recognizeding who it was.

"Let’s go," Gabrielle said, tugging at her arm again. "There’s no point in arguing. They’re not going to believe you."

"That’s right!" Nallos said angrily. "Go. Leave Phestia and do not dare to return."

Xena shrugged Gabrielle’s hand off her arm and leaned across the table herself meeting Nallos angry stare. In a threatening tone she said, "Either you’re going to call off this ridiculous festival and warn your people, or I will!"

"You will do nothing of the kind. Guards!"

Two guards standing at the entrance of the building came quickly to the long table. "Arrest this woman!" Nallos demanded.

"No! Wait! You can’t do this!" Gabrielle said in indignation. The two guards grabbed Xena, and Gabrielle readied herself to join the battle, but Xena did not resist. In any normal situation, Xena would have fought and easily freed herself of just two guards. She had something in mind, Gabrielle was sure, a plan of some sort. This situation, however, did not seem to be lending to a successful mission.

"Stop this!" she demanded as the guards began to take Xena away. "You have no right to do this!"

"I have every right as High Magistrate! I accuse her of ‘Inciting violence’ and ‘Disturbing the peace’."

"That’s crazy! She was trying to help you!"

"Do you wish to join her?" he warned.

Gabrielle could again see where this was going, so she said nothing. . Both of them in jail could not serve any useful purpose. She silently backed away and scolded the Magistrate with her piercing stare.

"That’s what I thought. Now, if you behave yourself, I will allow you to stay in Phestia until her trial is over. You might get a chance to enjoy the festival tomorrow. Minion, show her out."

"Yes, High Magistrate." Minion obeyed, attempting to take Gabrielle by the arm.

Snatching her arm away she said angrily, "Get your hands off me! I can find my own way out." With that, she stormed from the building, fuming.

Salmoneus, now having dusted most of the flour from his clothing, had been waiting for them outside the building. . He was mildly surprised when Gabrielle came storming out all by herself. When he called out to her she met him with an angry stare.

"Whoa, what’s wrong with you?" he said defensively. "And where’s Xena?"

"Those idiots in there arrested her!"

"Arrested her? What for?"

"Come on," Gabrielle said, grabbing Salmoneus’ arm. "I’ll explain it to you on the way."

"On the way to where?"

"I have to get in the jail to see her. I’ve got to talk to her."

On the way, Gabrielle told Salmoneus about the nomad settlement and the possible threat. Knowing Xena as he did, he did not, like Nallos, shrug off her wisdom in matters such as these. However, being a man of limited fighting ability himself, this posed a serious threat to him, so he asked in a worried tone, "When are they supposed to attack?"

"I don’t know. But, I do know that Xena wanted to start evacuating the village as soon as possible. Nallos just wouldn’t listen. His festival is more important."

Salmoneus groaned and wiped sweat from his brow. "Why is it every time I get around you guys or Hercules and Iolaus something bad always happens?" Gabrielle did not grace that question with an answer. "Oh," Salmoneus moaned, picturing himself cut and bleeding. . "I knew I should have listened to Xena when she told me to get lost. . But, no, I had to be curious."

"Don’t even think about leaving, Salmoneus," Gabrielle demanded. "I’m going to need your help."

"How did I know you were going to say that?" he said with a pained expression.

At the jailhouse, Gabrielle banged loudly, and long enough on the door to get a guard’s attention. "I need to see Xena," she demanded when he stepped out.

Inside, Xena sat in her cell, devising a plan in her mind. When she heard the familiar sound of Gabrielle’s voice, she quickly stood up and walked to the metal bars that caged her.

"Sorry, but you’ll have to come back in the morning," the guard said to the blonde-haired girl disinterestedly. "Visiting hours are over."

"No, I need to see her tonight. It’s very important."

"Yeah? Well, so is my supper. Now, come back in the morning!"

"Look, you big … oaf!" Gabrielle said, making ready her staff.

Laughing nervously, Salmoneus took her by the shoulders, restraining her forward advance and in an attempt to calm things said, "Now, now, darling. Let’s not make the big man upset. You’ll have to forgive her. She’s got quite a temper. In fact, she’s been known to cause serious injuries in some instances when she doesn’t get what she wants."

Gabrielle recognized Salmoneus’ tactic and her face took on a darker, more deadly look. "I want to see Xena!" she growled.

An open window on the far side of the cell house drew Xena’s attention and she listened closely. Xena smiled, picturing the look on Gabrielle’s face as she began this crazy woman act.

"Well, you have to get through me little girl," the guard said in a show of superiority.

Salmoneus, laying it on thick, stood in front of Gabrielle as though holding her back and said to the guard, "Oh, no. Don’t say that. The last time somebody told her that…she went clean through him."

These tactics were taking her acting ability to a bit of an extreme and she wished she could tell him to calm it down some but, she clenched her teeth and growled like a crazed woman to make the claims more believable. "Let me at him!" she demanded straining to reach past Salmoneus. "I’ll rip him to pieces! I’ll rip off his head and spit down his neck!"

Xena’s stomach was in stitches, trying to hold back from laughing out loud.

"Please, let her see Xena!" Salmoneus pleaded. "I don’t want to be held responsible for another massacre."

The guard observed this display of insanity with growing concern and took note of the word, "Massacre?"

His nervous expression enhanced Gabrielle’s determination. . Screeching like a banshee she reached past Salmoneus saying, "I want to see Xena! ! Xena, Xena! Do you hear me! I want to see her NOW!"

By this time, Xena was in tears and so weak with laughter she had to hold onto the bars of her cell to support herself. Outside, p

People were starting to stick their heads out of doors, some stopping on the street to see what all the commotion was about.

Disruptions in and about the jail when he was on duty could result in serious repercussions from the Magistrates. So, to keep from causing a scene, the guard gave in. "All right! All right! Just make it quick," he said, moving back to let them in.

"May the gods bless you. You won’t regret this. I promise," Salmoneus said smiling. Gabrielle growled and barked at the guard as they passed, a couple of times yelping Xena’s name. The guard stuck his head out and checked up and down the street, hoping the spectacle would be quickly forgotten, then shut the door behind them. . Since Gabrielle was still faking threat of injury, he decided not to go in with them, but rather instructed Salmoneus, "Let me know if you need help."

"Oh, don’t worry about me. I can handle her. Just keep that door closed. You don’t want her getting loose."

"Okay, right!" he said apprehensively, and quickly closed and locked the door. Gabrielle dropped the dog act as the door closed and began searching the cells for Xena. All the cells where empty except for one.

"Gabrielle," Xena said looking out from behind the bars and smiling. As Gabrielle drew near, Xena shook her head and laughed. "Nice dog act."

"Salmoneus’ idea," Gabrielle said, rolling her eyes.

As he watched the door, Salmoneus said, "She was pretty good, huh?"

"Oh, it was a work of art," Xena smirked. "I knew "I didn’t think it wouldn’t take you long to work your way in here. Are you okay?"

Gabrielle, though, was serious as she reached just beyond the bars and took Xena’s hand. "I’m not the one in jail, Xena." She said, marveling at the depth of her friend’s love. Most other people would have been worried about themselves. "Xena, wWhy did you let them do this?" she asked with tender scolding.

"It wasn’t my original plan, but getting kicked out of the city won’t help these people. We won’t be any good to theseCan’t warn people from outside of the village."

"But, Xena, what good are you going to do locked up in here?"

"Staying in jail isn’t part of the plan, Gabrielle," Xena smiled.

"What about staying in Phestia?" Salmoneus asked concerned. "If this army is going to attack like you say, shouldn’t we just get out of here?"

"We can’t abandon these people, Salmoneus. Not yet."

"I knew you were going to say that," Salmoneus said, his expression drooping.

"I need a favor of the two of you."

"A favor," Salmoneus said. "Why does that make me feel very uneasy?"

"Anything," Gabrielle spoke up, ignoring Salmoneus. "Just name it."

"Stay in Phestia."

Breaking into a sweat, Salmoneus answered his own question. "Oh, that’s why.," Salmoneus said, breaking into a sweat. " Stay in Phestia?! ! Xena, are you crazy?"

They both gave Salmoneus a look of annoyance, then turned back to each other. "You want us to stay here in the village?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes. You need to let the people know that their lives are in danger. Tell as many people as you can, but do it discreetly. You don’t want the Magistrates to get wind of it. If they do they’ll either lock you up or throw you out of town."

Gabrielle could sense what direction this was heading. With concern in her eyes, she broke in, "Wait a minute. Are you leaving?"

"Gabrielle, I have to. If that army is camped somewhere out there waiting to strike, I have to find them and try to stop them."

"Then, let me come with you. You can’t face an entire army on your own. You could get killed."

"I need you here, Gabrielle. If I can at least slow them up, that will give you and Salmoneus more time to get people out of here."

"We’re supposed to stick together, remember?"

"I remember. But this is the only way."

"Xena," Gabrielle moaned, recognizing Xena’s strategy. "What if you don’t come back?" The guard called through the little trap in the door warning them that their time was almost up.

Xena glanced at the door, but her eyes quickly returned to Gabrielle. "If they attack before I come back, don’t stay here... Take who you can and bring them to safety. Don’t spend time on someone who resists you. If we can save a handful, we’ll be doing good." Xena could see the worry in Gabrielle’s eyes and wished there was some way to reassure her, but she was going to have to trust GabrielleXena’s instincts on this one.

"All right. I don’t like it, but I’ll do it," Gabrielle said reluctantly.

Xena brushed her knuckles across Gabrielle’s cheek and gave her a smile. "Be brave."

"I will be. You just make sure you come back."

Xena generally considered her chances better than average when in battle, but this time she had a lower expectation for obvious reasons. Gabrielle could read that in her eyes, and it served to deepen the feeling of foreboding she had been having since this all began. She glanced at Salmoneus as he called for the guard, then whispered to Xena, "Be careful." " They looked at each for a long moment, and then Gabrielle slowly turned away.

Xena’s eyes trailed after Gabrielle as she followed Salmoneus back outside. Gabrielle flashed one more glance at Xena before she went through the doorway and Xena tried to smile encouragingly for her sake. But, Xena’s smiled disappeared along with Gabrielle. "Goodbye, Gabrielle," Xena said in an undertone, knowing it was a distinct possibility.

As Gabrielle and Salmoneus exited the jailhouse, Gabrielle hugged herself against the chilled night air. The bright and beautiful day she had felt so moved to brag about was not only gone but had turned ominous. . Xena was only trying to protect her and Gabrielle knew it, but that didn’t still her irritation. She hated being left behind, not to mention that she was worried near to tears. She didn’t doubt Xena’s ability to take care of herself, of course. . That had been demonstrated too many times. However, this time, sheXena would be one against an army.

"So, what do we do now?" Salmoneus asked.

"We do just what Xena told us to do. We start warning the people."

"Gabrielle, you know, that sounds real nice, but how are the two of us going to warn a village of hundreds and still go unnoticed by the Magistrates?"

"Well, we definitely can’t shout it from the roof tops. But, if we can convince enough people of the danger and then get them to help, the word can be spread easily."

Salmoneus’ expression became thoughtful as a smile spread across his face. Taking Gabrielle by the arm he said with a confident smile, "And I know just the person to talk to. Come on." Working their way through the merriment in the darkening street as the evening became twilight, Salmoneus lead Gabrielle to another tavern. It seemed somewhat more secluded and less bustling than had the other one. Here, the men seemed to be more intent in their interest toward the women and the women were much more scantly clad. It took only a moment for Gabrielle to realize she was in a brothel.

"Salmoneus!" she said uncomfortably. "This is a…a…by the gods! ! What are we doing here?!"

"You said you needed someone who could persuade the people to listen, didn’t you?"

"Yeah, but not here!

"The person you’re looking for works here. Trust me, Gabrielle. I know what I’m doing."

"That remains to be seen," she said, noticing a drunk man stumbling toward them, eyeing Gabrielle with unconcealed lust. Only the gods knew how long it had been since this wretched man’s last bath, if in fact he had ever had one. Reeking of liquor, sweat and other indignities, he was glaring at Gabrielle with a toothless grin.

Speaking to Salmoneus the drunk man asked, "Is she yours or are ya sharin’? I’ll pay whatever you’re askin’."

"She’s not for sale," Salmoneus said, standing between them.

This walking heap of garbage, obviously not terribly appalled by his own filth, reached to touch her blonde hair with his dirty fingers only to experience her wrath. In repulsion, Gabrielle hissed, "Keep your disgusting hands off me!" She whacked him to the ground with one swing of her staff. Always ready to enjoy a good fight, this drew the attention of the crowd, but the incident iwas already over.

From within the crowd a woman stood up and eyed them with surprise. She was an older, but still attractive woman with curly red hair and a big smile, though showing the ware and tare of a hard life.

"Sal, honey!" she called out, running toward them.

"’Honey’?" Gabrielle teased.

With a slight blush, Salmoneus said, "We’re good friends."

"I bet you are."

"Salea, how are you?" Salmoneus said with a smile, as she hugged and kissed him.

"Oh, it’s so good to see you," she said, the delight showing in her eyes. "How long has it been?"

"A long time," Salmoneus answered.

"And who’s this pretty young lady with you? She’s not your girlfriend, is she, Sal?" Salea said, a bit of mischief in her tone.

"No," he answered, with a nervous laugh.

"Not hardly," Gabrielle said, tolerantly. "We’re just friends. I’m Gabrielle." She extended her hand to Salea, thinking this was a good-natured woman she couldn’t help but like. She possessed a personality that could challenge Gabrielle’s wit and humor. It was an anticipation Gabrielle relished.

"Well, it’s just a pleasure to meet you, Gabrielle. Any friend of Sal’s is a friend of mine."

"Actually, Salea," Salmoneus said. "We came to talk to you. We need your help."

"You need my help? Whatever for?"

"If we could talk someplace a little more private," Gabrielle said, gesturing toward the crowd. "I’d be more than happy to explain it to you."

"Oh, sure. Let’s get out of this rotten old place." Salea led them from the bustling pub out into the equally bustling city streets, through the crowds and into the shadows of the night. Soon they were in one of the more secluded areas of Phestia, standing before a temple dedicated to Ares, the god of war.

As they entered, Salmoneus was eyedeing the surroundings, his eyes wide with foreboding. . "My, what a great place to hold a private meeting," he said with a nervous smile.

"Well, you wanted to talk privately," Salea said. "This is the one place in Phestia were people don’t come. The Magistrates have actually been talking of tearing it down."

"They want to tear down a temple to Ares? That’s not good," Gabrielle said allowing her eyes to survey the area. From past experience she half expected to see Ares flicker into existence before them.

Actually he did, but not visibly. He was more interested in eavesdropping. "No, it’s not good," he spoke in a determined voice though they couldn’t hear him.

"I guess they figure they don’t need him much anymore," Salea said in a matter of fact tone.

"Oh, they don’t?" Ares said, his brows had drawn together in a scowl. . "They’re gonna wish they did."

"The Magistrates are all idiots anyway," Salea chuckled. "Between the five of them they share a brain the size of a pea."

Ares chuckled with her. This was an opinion he heartily shared.

Salea sat on the edge of a large pedestal long devoid of any statue and asked, "So what did you want to talk to me about?"

"The Magistrates are what I want to talk to you about," Gabrielle said. "I come to you with a message from Xena…"

"Xena?" Salea exclaimed with widening eyes. . "You mean Xena, the Warrior Princess?"

"Yes," Gabrielle and Ares both answered tolerantly.

"Oh my gods, I’ve always wanted to meet her. I aspire to be like her."

"Really," Gabrielle said surprised. "I’m sure she’d be glad to hear that."

"Oh my gods, is she here somewhere? Is she in Phestia?"

"Well, sort of," Gabrielle answered with a sheepish smile.

Not thinking, Salmoneus blurted out, "She’s in jail."

Ares and Salea both exclaimed, "She’s in jail!"

"Let me explain," Gabrielle said, gesturing for silence with both hands. ‘Why does it feel so crowded in here?’, she thought to herself, then went on. "This morning Xena and I came across a settlement that had been completely devastated. It was awful. An unknown army raided the settlement and killed every man, woman and child."

Ares makes a curious face as if this were news to him. In fact, it is. For the god of war to not know that a war was being waged was not good news. He was suddenly very interested in this army and its purpose, not to mention angry at having been kept in the dark about it all.

"According to High Magistrate Nallos," Gabrielle continued, "they were nomads."

Salea’s eyes widened in horror. . "I know those people," she whispered. Her fingertips covered her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. "I had friends among them. Were there any left at all?"

Gabrielle shook her head in dismay and said, "I’m sorry." She rested a sympathetic hand on Salea’s shoulder.

"Move on, Gabrielle," Ares said impatiently.

"Anyway, it appeared to Xena from the way this army was moving eastward that Phestia may be their next target."

"Phestia? They’re coming here?" Salea said, her face paling.

"That’s what Xena believes," Gabrielle continued. "We came here to warn your people, but the Magistrates refused to listen to us."

Salmoneus spoke up saying, "They are more worried about their festival going off without a hitch and raking in the dinars. They think the gods will protect them."

"Well, they better think again," Ares said with a serious look in his eyes.

"The only reason Xena allowed herself to be taken to jail," Gabrielle interjected, "is because the Magistrates threatened to throw us out of the village. She knew we would not be able to help any of you like that. So, she sent Salmoneus and I to try to find someone who would listen and help us."

"But, what about Xena?" Salea questioned with worry. "What’s she going to do?"

Gabrielle was heartsick when she said, "Xena plans on breaking out tonight. She’s going to find this army and try to stop them."

"All by herself? Is she crazy?"

"That’s my Xena," a proud Ares said with a look of reminisencereminiscence.

"I tried to convince her that it wasn’t a good idea," Gabrielle said with a hopeless shrug, "but she had already made up her mind. When Xena’s made up her mind, you can’t change it."

"Well, what do you need from me?" Salea asked.

"Help us to warn your people. If we can convince enough people that their lives and the lives of their families are in danger, we can get a lot of people out of here before they attack."

Grimacing uncomfortably, Salea slowly responded with a shake of her head, "That’s not going to be easy."

"Why not?" Salmoneus asked.

"Because, most of the people here think just like their Magistrates. You’ll be hard pressed to convince these people that they’re not safe right here in these walls." Salea watched Gabrielle face change as it took on a look of deep concentration. She could almost see the wheels of thought turning inside her head.

Gabrielle’s eyes searched the floor for something that wasn’t there, her finger tapping absentmindedly at her lower lip. "There has to be something we can do," she said with a sigh, an irritation growing inside her. Pride, apathy and ignorance were threatening these people by preventing them from acting rationally. . There had to be a way. She did not relish the idea of seeing more people slaughtered. "How many people are there like you, Salea? People who don’t put their entire trust in the magistrates?"

"I can think of a lot of people, but I can guarantee you that the middle and upper class won’t put much trust in them."

"Why do you say that?" Gabrielle asked curiously.

"Because, they are lower class just like me," Salea responded sadly. "Do you really think an upper class person would listen to what a prostitute has to say? Believe me, our considerations come last."

Gabrielle looked at Salea for a moment as her words began to sink in. "I’m sorry," she shooakes her head, frowning. "I forget sometimes that not everybody thinks the way I do." Gabrielle always saw people as equals. Just because one person had more knowledge or money than another didn’t make them any better or worse in her mind. So, the thought of class distinctions didn’t even cross her mind. Gabrielle paced the room for a minute, thinking. By the Gods, she could be walking in blood up to her ankles soon if something wasn’t done, and fast. . Turning back to Salea and Salmoneus after a moment she said, "Go to these people and bring them back here to the temple. Tell them that their families’ lives depend upon them being here tonight. Even if you can only get a handful of people. We’ll start small and work our way from there. We may only have until dawn. We have to spread the word tonight and deal with the consequences tomorrow."

Salea nodded, but she didn’t seem in a hurry. Actually, her mind seemed to be on something else. "You know, Gabrielle, there is someone who might be willing to listen to what you have to say. It’s hard to say exactly how he’d react to all this, because sometimes he can be a real ass. But, he’s a good man. He might be of some use to you."

"Who?" Gabrielle asked curiously, hope in her eyes.

"’Who’ is the problem. He’s the General of Phestia’s army. The bad thing is he takes his orders directly from the Magistrates."

Gabrielle’s hopes were quickly dashed. She shook her head and said, "As much as I’d like the help, Salea, I don’t think we should deal with anyone that close to the Magistrates. Xena said we should do this discreetly. If just one whiff of this were to get out…"

Salea nodded in understanding and said, "I know, honey. Don’t worry.

"We’ll do our best,." said Salea. Turning to Salmoneus, she grabbed his arm and said, "Come on, Sal. Let’s get to work." Salmoneus followed reluctantly.

Gabrielle stood in the doorway watching their shadowy figures disappear into the night. There was a determination on her face. How many times had Xena bragged that Gabrielle never gave up on anything.? Yet, beneath it all she felt fearful. What would happen if she failed? How could she live with herself?

Ares stepped up to her and looked with interest at her sober expression. It wasn’t hard to read. An evil smile crossed his face. He was enjoying her pain, a reaction born of a cold heart. Like most of the gods, he was petty and cruel. "Not scared, are you, Gabrielle?" he said with a wicked grin, though he knew she couldn’t hear himheard it not. . "You’re taking on a big responsibility…without help from Xena. She just throws you into this and expects you to handle it. How does that make you feel?"

Though she didn’t realize it, the thoughts were transmitting into her mind. It was a huge responsibility, having the lives of an entire village placed on her shoulders. An anger unbecoming of her shown in Gabrielle’s eyes and Ares could see the she was trembling. Suddenly she stamped her staff down on the stone floor in frustration. Ares smiled wickedly at her reaction. However, his own pettiness made him fail to realize Gabrielle’s strong willed dedication to her principles. Taking a deep breath and gesturing a command that she should calm down, she walked away from the anger, tucking it away for later.

Ares watched as Gabrielle walked away from him, an amused smile crossing his face. . "I think I’m going to stick around for a while. This ought to be interesting."


Xena, in the meantime, was busy picking the cell door lock with the pick they had found on the road. She wiggled it in the lock until she heard a click. Once she heard it, she opened the door a notch just to be sure,; a sly smile spreading across her face as she pulled it closed again. She then returned the pick behind her breastplate and called to the guard. From the other room, the guard, bored senseless by his monotonous job, snapsped to attention from a near slumber at the sound of her voice. He’d been having nightmares about a blonde-haired girl who barksed and droolsed like a dog just before she ripsped off your head off and spiats down your neck. Standing, he stretched, yawned and wiped his eyes as he leansed into the door.

"What do you want in there?" he barked, trying to sound dangerous.

Xena called out, "Hey! I need some help. There’s a big rat in here! Could you come and kill it before it gets into my cell!"

The guard began to laugh as the entered the room. "So, the great Warrior Princess is afraid of rats, huh?"

Looking meek and embarrassed, Xena blushed and said, "Yeah, I’m sacred to death of’em. I hate’em."

Approaching the cell, he eyed Xena and surveyed the cell with a teasing smirk. "They’re more afraid of you than you are of them, believe me. Besides, I don’t see any rat."

"I guess he must have run off when he saw you coming?" Xena said with a mesmerizing look in her eyes.

The guard looked Xena up and down lustfully, allowing his stare to linger on her cleavage. . "What else are you afraid of?" he asked, not attempting to conceal the roving of his eyes.

"I’m ... sometimes .... afraid of myself ... when I’m around big, strong men, like you. . Makes me shiver," she said in childish yet seductive tone.

Off course, he knew she was not afraid of him. Stories of the Warrior Princess were not in short demand. But, he was thinking there might be an invitation in this little game aimed at getting him to help her escape. He moved a little closer to the cell door and met her eyes. "I have been know to make a few ladies shiver," he said suggestively. . He would, of course, never allow her to escape but was more than would be willing to take what he could get from her if she tried it if she thought so.

Putting on her best set of bedroom eyes she said seductively, "I’m not surprised." Her grip on the bars of the cell door were more to hold it closed rather than cling to it as it seemed. She watched him fumble to remove the keys from his belt and begin searching for the right one. ‘Wait for the right moment, then make your move,’ she thought to herself. The guard found his key and reached to insert it into the lock. "So," he said, thinking of Gabrielle’s visit. "What did dog-girl have to say?"

With a snearsneer, Xena’s voice lowered to a menacing tone. "Woof," was the answer he heard just before the door slammed into his face crashing him against the cell across the hall where he crumbled to the floor unconscious. Stepping out she lifted the guard by his collar and locked him in the cell. Moving quickly down the hall and into the other room, she locked that door behind her, as well and retrieved her sword and chakram. As she turned to leave the unconscious guard’s relief stepped into the jailhouse office. Instinctively suspicious, he drew his sword and demanded, "What do you think you’re doing? Where’s Philipi?"

"He’s taking a nap," Xena said with a meanacingmenacing smile, her sword drawn and ready. With a snarl and a growl, the guard attacked, angrily wielding his sword. Xena met his sword blow for blow, the clang of the metal ringing until she flung his weapon from his hand and over his shoulder. Though surprised, the guard was not stupid enough to turn his back on any one with a sword just to regain his own. The only defense he now had werewas his own two hands. So, the guard balled up his fists and danced about like a boxer in a ring.

"What’s the matter warrior princess?" he asked, leering. "Afraid to fight without your weapons?"

Frustrated and already behind in her escape, Xena returned her sword to it’s sheath and her chakram at her belt, rolling her eyes at the ‘dancing’ guard. ‘I don’t have time for this,’ she thought. With a cry, Xena back flipped, her foot making contact with the guard’s face. He stumbled back, hitting the wall. As Xena’s feet touched the ground, the angry guard rebounded off the wall and came at Xena again. He’s a lot tougher than he looks, she thought. With all her strength, Xena growled and threw a right punch too quickly for the guard to react. The punch knocked him over the officer’s desk, to the other side in a heap. Xena shook her right hand in a effort to shake off the pain from her contact with the guard’s skull, then with a sigh, she moved to the back of the desk and grabbed at the guard’s lapels.

So, it didn’t take Xena very long to take him down a coulpe of punches and a kick after that. Not wanting him to alert the city of her escape, she druagged him down the hall and locked him in the cell with his buddy. . Cautiously, she exited the jailhouse watching for signs of any other guards.

Avoiding the crowds at the front gate, she used her chakram and her whip to get herself over the high wall where she did one of her famous big flips to the other side, only without the usual war cry. On the ground she searched the darkness with cat- like eyes and attentive ears. . The adrenaline pumped fiercely through her veins as she ran off into the night, leaving the sound of the harvest celebrations behind her.


Later that evening, once most of the celebrating had begun to die down and most people were in bed, Gabrielle, Salea and Salmoneus were convening a meeting with fifteen men and women of the city. The warning that had summoned them had them mumbling and questioning each other. Salea was known, if not respected, among them, but they were wondering about the young woman and the ominous news she claimed to have. . Gabrielle could well understand the uncertainty and fear in the people’s eyes. They were, of course, interested in protecting their families, if indeed, a real threat existed.

"Okay, everybody, listen up," Salea called out, quieting the mumbling. "This is the young woman I told you about. Her name is Gabrielle."

"What is this all about?" one man said, stepping forward from the crowd. "You said we are in danger. In danger of what?"

"Yeah." "That’s right, what?" the crowd demanded. It was apparent that the crowd had a tendency to be hostile about having their festival interrupted.

Gabrielle began her oration with an apprehensive sigh. "I’ve asked you all here tonight to warn you. There is a very deadly army encamped somewhere outside the your village. We have reason to believe that they could be planning to attack Phestia."

"Army? What army?" werearmy?" was among the murmurs that came from among the crowd as their uneasiness intensified. The gentlemanman who had spoken first and who seemed to be a leader or at lease be a spokesman for the people asked, "How do you know this? Have you seen them?"

"No, not the army themselves, but I have seen what they do," Gabrielle said deploying her best bard talents. . This brought the crowd to silence. Just what had she seen? She had called this a ‘deadly army’. Just what were they facing?

"You’re familiar with the nomads that come to your providence during the harvest each year?" Gabrielle said gesturing toward the south. A numberSeveral of the people present nodded, their attention becoming more riveted on Gabrielle’s words. "Well, we came upon their settlement this morning. Every man, woman and child were dead …..., mercilessly slaughtered." Alarm began to show in the faces of the crowd. If this was true it definitely posed a serious threat. Yet, they still seemed skeptical. . It’s strange how people seem to think ignoring something will make it go away. . Gabrielle didn’t want this to happen so she spoke with greater urgency. "This is a real army. They seem to have come from the west and left the clearing heading east. . If they circle the forest, your village will be directly in their path. You must not brush this off! There is a very good chance that they will attack you!"

"Why didn’t you go to the Magistrates with this news?" asked the first gentleman.

"They did!" Salmoneus spoke up. "That’s why we’ve called you here! The Magistrates will not listen."

An older woman with graying hair and peasant garb spoke up and asked, "What do you mean ‘they won’t listen’? They would not be so foolish." A mumble of agreement rose from the crowd.

Gabrielle raised her hands to quiet them saying, "Xena and I came here directly from the nomad camp and went to the magistrates about this." " This draews more murmuring. She could hear them repeating Xena’s name. The reputation of the warrior princess was something many people had reason to fear. Going on, Gabrielle said, "Xena told them everything that I’ve told you here. That the nomads were slaughtered like animals and their killers are very likely headed in this direction. If they attack Phestia it will be to do the same thing to you and your families. But your High Magistrate Nallos refused to take any action to warn you or to prepare the village for an attack."

"Why?" "Why would he do that?" "Does he not care?" were the irritated questions she received.

"I’m sure he does care and has your best interest at heart, but he is blinded by the large walls and the heavy gate that enclose your village. He has not seen first hand what devastation this army is capable of. He didn’t see the many hoof prints on the ground or smell the burning huts or see the dead children lying in the streets like garbage." The horror of what she was saying, as well as the anger and anguish in her voice brought the crowd to silence as an intense sadness overshadowed the entire room. Salmoneus could not recall ever seeing Gabrielle this way, so intense, so bold, so much in command.

"These bastards are determined to destroy everything in their path. They won’t care if you are a man, a woman, a child or a dog. Xena and I are committed to helping you as much as we can but I hope we are not still inside these walls if and when they attack. I don’t believe the walls and gates will stop them."

Genuine fear began to show in the faces of the crowd. The spokesmanleader spoke up over the murmuring and asked, "You said you were with Xena. Where is she? Is she going to help us?"

"Xena has gone to try to stop the army from ever reaching Phestia. If anyone can do it she can and I know she’ll. She will be back," she said, trying more to convince herself than the audience.

"And what are we supposed to do in the meantime?" another man said. "Wait around to be slaughtered as well?"

The crown roared, "Yeah!" "What will we do?" "What about our children?"

"Xena is doing the best she can but we can’t wait for her to come back. We have to prepare ourselves now."

The spokesmanleader spoke again, "And how do you expect us to do that? The bunch of us are gonna take on a whole army?"

"Marcus, where’s your brains?" Salea said, hands on her hips. . "Did you leave’em at home?" " There was nervous laughter in the crowd though they really didn’t have a lot to laugh about. . "Of course, we’re not going to take on the whole army. What we have to do is start walkin’ and talkin’. We’ve gotta take on a whole city and make them understand what’s going to be happening here real soon."

"We have to spread the message," Gabrielle said. "Go to everyone you know, everyone you think will listen to you and warn them. Make sure they all hear it. Not just the adults, but the children as well. Their safety is the most important of anyone’s."

Salea spoke again saying, "We have to get the town stirred up before the Magistrates hear of it or they may try to stop us. They’re thinking profits from the festival and closing their eyes."

"And we start evacuating tonight," Gabrielle said in a commanding tone.

"Evacuating?" Marcus exclaimed.

"Yes, as many people as we can, but mostly the women, children and the elderly. I can already tell that most of you don’t like the idea, but we have no other choice. If you stay in Phestia, tomorrow’s daylight may be the last you’ll ever see. We have to tell this to everyone. Convince them any way you can that they must evacuate their families if they want them to live."

"Evacuate to where?" another woman asked.

"There are some caves several miles from here. I’ll lead the first group out and from then on Salmoneus will take charge of the evacuation."

"I will?" he said, his expression questioning her, but the look on her face said she wanted no arguments. "I will," he agreed with a weak smile.

Marcus asked, "When do we start doing this?"

"Right now," Gabrielle forcefully responded. "We don’t have a moment to loose. They may strike at dawn. How many of you are with us on this?" The people look from one to the other. They obviously want to, but are reasonably afraid.

Salea stood up on a chair and stared out over the crowd. "Hey!" she said in a determined voice. "How long have we lived in this village together? Don’t we take care of one another here? Come on, let’s see some hands out there." One timid hand after another rioses until each of the villagers hasd their hands raised their hands.

"Thank you," Gabrielle said with an appreciative smile.

One man stepsped forward, his expression determined and said, "My name is Zantus. I’m a simple farmer, not a warrior like Xena, but I’m not hiding in any caves. I’m gonna fight. I’ve lived in this village my whole life and won’t see it destroyed in one day. I’ll do what you ask, Gabrielle. . I’ll warn everyone I can but I’m also gonna find those who want to stay and fight to defend our village."

Gabrielle didn’t know this man very well, but she immediately liked him. His brave heart and determination reminded her of her now deceaceddeceased husband, Perdicus. Moved with compassion for him and for the ones she knoews willould join his effort, Gabrielle drew back her shoulders and spoke as determined as he had. . "Then you’ve just found your first recruit, Zantus," and held out her staff in both hands to the people. "I stay and fight with the people of Phestia." Xena’s words rang in her ears: ‘Don’t Stay’, but as usual she followed her heart rather than her head.

Zantus grabbed Gabrielle’s staff as if sealing an agreement between the two of them. The rest of the people hesitate for just a moment, eyeing each other, then together with Salea, reach out to grab the staff. . Salmoneus was a bit more reluctant than the others were, but then even he felt compelled to join the effort. Once all that needed to be evacuated were safe they would defend this village to the last man.


His boots crunched in grass that was fast collecting dew. It was late, but he did not feel tired. His mind was on the conquest ahead of him and on his master plan so intricately formulated in his head. He felt unstoppable. He felt like a god. No, he knew he was a god. Not like the fanciful gods that these Greeks had created in their heads. He was more than that a. And when his plans had come to fruition, he would be more powerful than all gods put together. No one would be able to stop him then.

But for now, he would have to make do with the powers he had. The powers that made even his bravest warriors cower in fear of him—the ability to peer into a person’s mind and read their thoughts, to see their memories, and manipulate their mind. His senses were so attuned to the people around him, that he could sense every waking thought and sleeping dream of his warriors. It is this very power that caused him to pause in his reverie. He felt a chill work its way down his spine. He could sense someone—someone other than his warriors. It was a woman. She was so close he could almost feel her.

He continued walking as though unaware but he could feel that the woman was very close. She was watching from above. . She could see him walking. There was an intense hatred in her. He found the feeling exhilarating, like absorbing a drug, and smiled wickedly. He sensed her vision of his handiwork as she watched him. . She was here to stop him and she was a formidable foe. . Who was she? He tuned his mind to hers. Xena, yes, that was her name. "Xena," he said aloud, just to get a feel for it. He could not wait to meet her.

Xena crouched on the tree branch peering into the army’s encampment. There was not much to see. It was a small open area housing about a hundred men and their horses. Two tents had been erected in the center of the clearing. A war chariot stood near it. There were guards posted here and there, mostly by the tents. But, most of the men were asleep. Except for one man who was walking calmly through the grass, his hands clasped behind his back. Something about his stance and demeanor told Xena that he had to be the leader. He was the monster ordering the death of innocent children. He was the one she had to kill in order to stop the forward progress of this killer army. . She could take his head from here with her chakram but, no, that would be too easy. She flipped off the tree and onto the ground without a sound. Never had her army had been so terrible as to do the things this one was doing. She was going to have to come up with a plan . that would deal a blow to more than just one man since his subordinates could easily pick up the endeavor in his wake.


He walked slowly back to the tent. He was in no rush, because he knew Xena’s plan and he already had his own in the working. He walked up to one of the guards by the tent and said to him as if making conversation: "We have an intruder."

"Sir?" the guard asked, not changing his position.

"You heard me," he said in threatening tone.

"Yes, Lord Gaelen. We have an intruder. Do you want me to take care of him?"

"No. You stay right where you are. Don’t worry, she’ll be coming soon enough."

"She, sir?"

"Yes, Xena. Perhaps you’ve heard of her."

"Yes, sir," the guard said daring to shoot a worried look in his superior officer’s direction. "Everyone knows who Xena is."

"I don’t," Gaelen said smiling. "But, I will."

Xena had quietly made the circle around the encampment, her adrenaline pumping faster and faster keeping her senses keen and her mind alert. Sneaking in through the back of the encampment the horses were at first startled by her presence, but soothing horses was among her many skills. . The smell of horseflesh madekes her wish she had not left Argo behind with Gabrielle. They didn’t really get along very well.

Just beyond the horses was a field full of sleeping soldiers, but she is not intimidated. . Walking quietly between them, and she reached the two tents unscathed. . Her mission was to kill the leader. If she killed him, the men may not be so willing to continue oncontinue with this senseless killing. In which tent though might he be found? The one on her right seemed to draw her so she decided to check it out first.

Slipping underneath the tent wall into the pitch-black interior, she hesitated a moment to allow her eyes a chance to adjust to the dark. Crouching just inside the tent, Xena gradually made out a figure lying on a cot. The person’s legs were crossed and his hands were behind his head. Unsheathing her sword, she stood and crossed the distance to the cot in three big steps. . Not even sure of who she was about to kill, she raised her sword high into the air. It did not matter who died. After what they had done, they all deserved to die.

"I wouldn’t do that if I were you," came a voice from behind.

Surprised by the voice, Xena halted the descent of her sword. Instantly, her chakram was in hand and was directed towards the sound behind her. . It was not her intention for it to come back. She had delivered a killing blow. True to her desire the chakram did not return …, but the voice doesid. In the darkness, Xena could hear him laughing. There was a flash of light as the man lit a lantern to brighten the small tent. A tall, thin stranger met her stare with dark, forbidding eyes. Instinct tellolds her that thise was the evil behind this killing spree. . A scar wound its way down his face from just above his right eyebrow. His hair was cropped close to his scalp and a goatee framed his mouth. In his right hand, he held Xena’s chakram.

"Interesting weapon you have.," the man said, regarding the chakram closely. He looked back up at Xena. "I’ve never seen it’s kind before."

Xena stared at him in disbelieving awe. The only other person that ever caught her chakram in motion was Callisto, but that had been outside in the sunlight. This man had caught it in the pitch-blackness of the tent and at close range. She was awed and frightened of him at the same time.

"You came all this way to kill," Gaelen said amused. "Are you not even slightly interested to know who you were going to murder?"

Turning back to the cot, Xena looksed down on a frail-looking teenage girl bound with her legs crossed and her hands behind her head. She was gagged and her eyes, held wide open in fear, were flowing with fresh tears. Xena felt complete horror for what she had been about to do. She knew in that instant that she had been set up. Somehow, he knew she was coming and had planned all this.

"Go ahead, Xena," Gaelen said nonchalantly, testing the sharpness of her chakram with his thumb. . "Bring your sword down upon her. Pierce her heart. Feel the lifeblood pour from her young body. . With all the blood on your hands what difference would it make? Do it now before she has the chance to grow up and become just like you."

Xena turned from the poor girl, seething with anger and hatred, facing this man who seemed to somehow peer into her soul. She screamed with rage and moved to attack him, her sword ready to pierce his heart. But, the man did not move from where his was standing. He simply reached his hand out. Xena’s sword suddenly leapt from her hand as if it had a life of its own and flew into his own.

"I’ll take that, thank you," he said, grinning wickedly with Xena’s sword and chakram in his hands. Though openly surprised, Xena quickly responded by clenching her hands into tight fists and backhanding him with all her power. Strangely however, he again did not move. He actually allowed her to hit him square in the jaw. Judging from what he had done with her sword and chakram, Xena half expected her blows to pass through him, but he stumbled back and looked up at Xena with a split bloody lip. . The lack of surprise or concern in his expression was a mite unnerving, but Xena was not yet finished with him. She did a roundhouse and slammed her foot into the side of his face, this time sending him to the ground in a heap.

With that, Xena thought she had him beaten, but then she heard his insanely arrogant laughing again. . A bruise was beginning to set in around his eye where her foot had connected, but it did not seem to be bothering him. The cut on his lip splitting even wider as he laughed.

Spitting blood to the ground, he regained his feet and said, "You’re good. You’re very good." HBut holding up her weapons he added, "But, you don’t have these." Xena had to duck one swing of her own sword and jump over another, but as she leaped she kicked out and connected with his chin. . He again stumbled back falling to the ground, only now there was some irritation to read in his expression. . "Okay, now you’re pissing me off," he said yellinged. "GUARDS!" Five armored men with swords came rushing in. "Attack her, but don’t kill her! I want her alive!"

His face was full of arrogant confidence, but of course, Gaelen was underestimating Xena by expecting only five men to best her. Xena’s open palm rammed up against the nose of the first attacker sending him to the ground writhing in pain. . The sword of the next assailant was caught in mid-air between her hands and before he could even think to react, she kicked him in the stomach, snatched the sword from his hand and used the blunt end on top of his head. She then hurled the sword at Gaelen, in effect telling him that she did not need a weapon to fight. With her attention diverted by the other attackers, she failed to see the anger that crossed his face or his movement.

Another soldier came at Xena, but she kicked him out of her way. The last two charge at once. Xena did a flip into the air sounding her war cry, and delivered a foot to the face of each, sending them both to the ground unconscious. The one she had kicked out of her way was attempting to charge her from behind, but a fist in the face over her shoulder put him down for the count once again.

"Xena!" Gaelen called in a teasing yet menacing voice. She spun around to find him standing at the other side of the tent holding the girl in front of him by the hair with Xena‘s chakram at her throat. . She was still bound and gagged, but strangely the tears were starting to dry from her eyes. She stared off blankly into space as if oblivious to the danger she was in.

"No! Don’t hurt her," Xena" Xena said, gesturing with both hands.

"Ah, she speaks," Gaelen said, sarcastically. "I was beginning to wonder if you could."

"Let her go. It’s me you want, not her. She’s just a child."

"Yes, she is. But, you all die the same. I can kill her as easily as I killed her mother and father…and her little brother."

"What do you want?" she asked, straining to conceal the intense hatred she was feeling.

"You," Gaelen said, matter- of- factly. "Surrender yourself to me unconditionally and I’ll spare the child’s life."

Xena was not unaccustomed to lusty stares or roving eyes despite her reputation as a warrior and the many tales told of her conquest in battle. Surrender yourself unconditionally generally would mean one thing coming from most men. She didn’t necessarily see that in this man but still she had to question his motives. "Surrender?" she asked, her eyes examining his.

Gaelen rolled his eyes and sighed tolerantly. . "You’re a beautiful woman, Xena, but I have no such need of you. There are other things I have in mind for you. That, however, is a subject for another time. For now, what do you say? Should I slit her throat … or not?"

Xena had no doubt that he would kill that poor girl if she defied him. She couldn’t let that happen. Besides, whatever he had in mind for her, perhaps could be used to her advantage. She must find a way to stall his plans for Phestia and give her a chance to somehow severely damage his army and free herself, and this girl. She could only hope that Gabrielle was readying the people.

Her defiant expression was thus no longer serving her purpose. It was time for a little diplomacy to be employed, so she allowed her eyes to slowly downshift into a seeming expression of defeat. . Smiling smugly, Gaelen released the girl only to have her fall onto the ground because her legs were still bound. Looking at the girl, Xena noticed, that through all of this, the girl showed no emotion at all.

Gaelen, triumph in his expression, stepped up to and circled around her as if inspecting merchandise. From behind, he kicked the back of her knee, forcing her to kneel, then moved to face her without breaking his stride. Lacing his fingers together he looked her over with lifted brows, seeming curious as though awaiting a reaction, but she deliberately avoided his eyes. She wanted him to believe he had her under his full control. Of course, she did not realize that he could sense everything she was thinking. Though he knew what kind of control he had over Xena for the moment, he also knew what she was capable of, and yet, she did nothing. From his way of thinking that seemed unbelievable. That she would now sacrifice herself for this scrawny child, who only minutes ago she was ready to kill without a second thought, was a challenge to his reasoning. Making her regret this decision would, however, be a source of great satisfaction. She wanted to make him think he had control.? Well, she would soon know just how much control he actually had. Placing two fingers beneath Xena’s chin, he lifted her face to him. Only then did Xena look into his eyes. Like the girl, she showed no emotion.

"This is only a taste of what you have to look forward to," he said, delivering a vicious backhand to her cheek in retaliation. She had twice kicked him in the face so he spun around and returned that favor alsofavor before kneeling to be at eye level with her. "How does that feel?" he asked, his eyes as cold as death.

Xena wiped the blood from her lip and eyed him tolerantlymenacingly. "Is that all you’ve got?" she said through clenched teeth.

"Oh? ? You want more?" he asked, his mouth curling into a sneer. "Here, feel this." And he snapped two fingers to either side of her temples until his fingers practically dug into her head. Xena’s head was suddenly racked with the most excruciating pain she had ever felt. Her head felt like it was going to explode. The last time she had felt pain like this was when M’Lila had put the pinch on her. Her screams of anguish only served Gaelen’s delight, relishing the pain he was causing her. Xena could sense that this had nothing to do with revenge or even anger. This horrendous man simply enjoyed torturing people.

When she could take no more, Xena drew up enough strength to knock his arms away and rammed the heel of her palm into his face. He fell backwards, but so did Xena from exhaustion. Whatever he had done to her had completely wiped her out. Her head was still in pain and she could not raise herself.

Gaelen rose to his feet and begin delivering a barrage of kicks to Xena’s stomach, back,back and finally her head, knocking her unconscious. Breathing heavily, he looked down on her with a disgusted smile, again relishing the mess he had made of Xena, the mighty warrior princess.

Turning his attention back to the girl watching from her place on the ground, he motioned toward the battered figure lying before him and said, "She’s fascinating, isn’t she? There’s so much hate in her I can taste it. Yet, she won’t fight me. And it’s all for you, someone she doesn’t even know. I should kill you now, just to see her reaction when she wakes up to see it was all for nothing." It seemed at first an intriguing idea, as he paced and deliberated it, but then he said, "No, I won’t do that. At least, not now. There are other things I want to do first."

The soldiers Xena had vanquished were still unconscious, so Gaelen began kicking them awake, shouting, "Wake up, you idiots!"

As they stumbled to their feet, the soldiers attempted to shake off their dizziness and attain some semblance of dignity as they stand weakly at attention. . Gaelen points at the seemingly lifeless body of Xena on the ground before them.

"Look at the mighty Xena. Take a good look. I did this to her. I finished what the five of you could not even start! I should execute every single one of you, but unfortunately you’re more valuable alive. However, I will leave you with this warning…" he said, reaching out a hand to one of the soldiers without actually touching him. Gaelen slowly began to clench his hand into a fist. As he did, the other soldiers watched as their fellow soldier began to choke. He clawed at his neck and fell to his knees. Blood began to flow from his mouth and nose. His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed to the ground dead. Without the slightest remorse, Gaelen scanned the eyes of the others and said, "I hope I’ve made myself clear."

"Yes, sir!" they answered in unison, obviously terrified of this mad man.

"Now, get rid of his worthless body and take Xena and the girl into the other tent. Make sure you chain them both extremely well. If either one of them escapes all four of you will suffer deaths worse than his." Needless to say, the soldiers carry out the order promptly, leaving Gaelen alone in his tent.

Close to dawn, Barleus, Gaelen’s second in command, stood at the entrance of Gaelen’s tent requesting permission to enter. Gaelen was bent over a worktable, going over their plan of attack on Phestia.

"Lord Gaelen," Barleus said, standing at full attention. . "It’s almost dawn. Should I assemble the men?"


"But, sir, I thought we were to attack…"

"We will, but not this morning. It will have to wait." Turning from his work he met Barleus’ eyes accusingly. "Last night, we had an intruder."

"Intruder, Ssir?"

"Yes, Xena, the warrior princess. You’ve heard of her?"

The look in Gaelen’s eyes sent a cold chill down Barleus’ spine. He knew his commander to be an exacting and demanding man. An intruder managing to enter the camp would fall mainly on his shoulders. With a deep sigh of apprehension he said, "Yes, Ssir, I’ve heard of Xena?. Her ability to break and enter is legendary, Sir. I had no idea she was in the area, Ssir, or I would have…"

"Enough! ! It’s not your fault. I allowed her to intrude and now she’s my captive."

"You captured Xena?" he asked, incredulously.

Gaelen lifted anone eyebrow tolerantly and said, "If you don’t believe me, go into the next tent. You’ll see what the real warrior princess is made of…nothing."

"Begging your pardon, Lord Gaelen," Barleus stammered. "I didn’t mean to imply …"imply…"

"Enough, I said. Go tell the men that we attack tonight just after sunset. And send a small brigade—about fifty men—to camp just outside the walls. I want the people of Phestia to know that they are all getting ready to die."

"Yes, sir," he answered and turned to leave.

"And Barleus …, when you return, I’ll give you the honor of assisting me in Xena’s torture."

"Thank you, sir. I would appreciate that," Barleus said, his chest swelling in pride. Even a share in killing the warrior princess would mean fame. As he took his leave, Gaelen smiled and returned to his plans.

He didn’t see the flicker of light that flashed behind him as Ares, god of war appeared, his arms crossed over his chest. Curiously, he sized up the man at the table, who seemed to have no need of the god of war, just like the people of Phestia. Well this would have to be dealt with also, but before making any decisions on Gaelen’s fate, Ares wanted to know just what he was up to.

"So, you’ve captured the mighty Xena?" Ares said, startling Gaelen.

There was another presence in the room but heGaelen had not sensed it. There were no thoughts to read. It was as if he were not even there. He spun around to face a tall man dressed in black warrior’s garb. His hair was shoulder length and his sideburns met his goatee in thin strips. He had full lips that smilinged arrogantly, light-brown eyes that seemed unimpressed with the power he obviously knew Gaelen propossessedcessed.

"What’s the matter, Gaelen?" Ares taunted. . "Can’t read my mind? Well…" Ares said, opening his hand. A gold coin suddenly appeared in his hand, which he tossed at Gaelen with a chuckle. "Here’s a dinar for your thoughts, anyway."

Gaelen recoiled, fearing to even touch it and let it fall at his feet. "Who are you and how did you get in here?" Gaelen demanded, wary of this strange man who seemed not at all wary of him.

"I am Ares, god of war. I guess I should have known better than to expect you to know who I am. How do you expect to wage war without the god of war?"

Gaelen’s wariness became impudence as he stood and eyed his rival with disdain. "Oh, please. I’m supposed to believe you are the god of war?"

"Such arrogance,." Ares chuckled laughed for a moment before allowing his face to become serious. "I usually like that in my warriors. But with you it just irritates me."

Gaelen’s irritation was more appparentapparent on his face when he said, "I have no intentions of standing here arguing with an idiot. If you won’t leave of your own accord, I’ll just have to dispose of you." Gaelen reached out a hand as he had toward his soldier and Ares found himself in a choke holdchokehold. He began clawing at his neck. This man was possessed of an unusual power. As Gaelen’s hand tightened into a fist, Ares grabbed at the power or essence that was choking him, as if pulling fingers from his neck. Gaelen watched his hand begin to open on its own and put more force into it, but to no avail. . This strange man who claimed to be a god was over powering him. He could scarcely believe it. Not only was he being over powered, but when finally the man succeeded in releasing Gaelen’s power from him it felt as though his own arm had been ripped from his body and he screamed out in pain.

With hatred burning in Ares’ eyes, he took the power in his hands and rolled it into a ball of fire, turning Gaelen’s power into his own.

"I don’t know where you got this power of yours," he said, rubbing his throat, "but unless you want to feel the force of it combined with my own, I suggest you start talking."

Gaelen still hadid not intentionsd toof takinge orders from this so-called god, but Ares’ had incapacitated him in a most humiliating and painful way, so he called for his guards in desperation despite knowing his power was greater than theirs. As he suspected, Ares turned from Gaelen momentarily and held out an open palm towards the tent door. Two guards came running, but when they reached the tent door it was as if they hit a brick wall. They bounced back and hit the ground. The other guards approached much more cautiously.

With Ares attention diverted, Gaelen reached behind him, and carefully picked up a dagger from the table and in front of him, hurlinged it at the big, leather-clad man standing before him. The dagger found its mark and buried itself into Ares’ stomach, doubling him up, but he doesid not let go of the fireball.

Gaelen stared in awe when Ares straightened himself and pulled the dagger from his stomach, the only look on his face being one of annoyance. He looked at the dagger and threw it down on the ground at Gaelen’s feet along with the coin. "You forgot the Hind’s blood," Ares said.

"What are you?"

"I though we discussed this already. I am the god of war."

"I don’t believe in any god, especially the Greek gods. They come from the imagination of weak minds. But, if the ‘god of war’ is what you insist upon calling yourself, then I’d like to know what makes you think you can walk into my encampment and question me?"

"It makes no difference to me whether you believe in the existence of the gods or not, but war is my domain and you just stepped in it. You want to wage war,; you talk to me first. Otherwise, you don’t wage a thing."

"I don’t need you or any of you so-called gods to fight my battles.," Gaelen said in derision, regaining his strength, working his arm free of the pain there.

"Really? Then why do you need Xena? I watched the entire scene last night. You’re setting her up for something and I want to know what it is."

Gaelen realized that this man could not actually read his mind or he would have the answers he was requesting. He seemed to have some sort of visual contact and knew much of what was going on. However, his inability to read this intruder’s mind (‘If he has one,’ Gaelen thought) was really upsetting. It placed him at a disadvantage to which he was not accustomed. The element of fore knowledge was a boon he did not enjoy being without.

"I have my own purpose, my own plans for the warrior princess. I don’t have to tell you anything."

Ares looked down at the fireball in his hand, then eyed Gaelen from under his brows. "No, you don’t," he said confidently. "You’re a free mortal on this earth. You don’t have to say a thing." With that, he allowed his expression to harden before saying, "Unless I make you."

Gaelen was not used to feeling threatened. He was usually the one doing the threatening. However, the prospect of having that fireball, containing his own power and the power of a man who calls himself the god of war, thrown at him did little to enhance his confidence.

"Let me put it this way," Ares said, bouncing the fireball in his hand. "Either I fight with you … or I fight against you. Now, that’s entirely your decision to make. But, if I were you, I’d think hard about the consequences of going against me."

Gaelen gave himself several seconds to mill the offer over in his mind, though knowing, much to his distaste, that he was being forced to accept. However, if this ‘god of war’ wanted to swap wits, so be it. At least, for the time being he would fake compliance and tell him only what was necessary, offering nothing voluntarily. Perhaps the combination of powers could prove to be an advantage. If Ares turned out to be a nuisance, he would have time to discover a way to discard him as easily as he would discard one of his soldiers.

"Very well, ‘war god’. I want Xena as part of my army. I could use her skill as a fighter, and a killer. I find everything about her fascinating."

Ares smiled. He took Gaelen’s words to mean that not only was he attracted to the warrior side of Xena, but the woman as well. In this instance, he was wrong. Gaelen’s only interest in Xena is her warrior side. He was not moved sexually to any degree.

Ares smiled and closed his hand over the fireball, making it disappear. "Yes, she is fascinating, isn’t she?" he asked lustfully. "Of course, she is what I made her. She wouldn’t be who she is today if not for me."

"Even the part of her that wants to help people?"

"I molded the warrior…not the do-gooder," Ares said, offended. "That was my brother’s fault."

"Yes, what ridiculous ideals they both share. Especially when Xena is capable of so much more. You did an excellent job. I’ll give you that. But, like you said, you only made the warrior. I intend to make the monster."

"Monster?" Ares repeated, curious but not sure if he was going to like the idea.

"Yes. I’m going to take what’s good in her and make her hate it. Her memories…and her emotions will become her bitter enemies. I will twist her mind so that she doesn’t even remember what it was like to be good. She will remember only the hate, the anger. When I’m through with her, she will kill anyone who stands in my way. Be it family, friend or child."

"You’re forgetting one thing, Gaelen."

"And what might that be?"

"Xena is mine. I created her. She belongs to me. And I can take her from you at any time."

"What are you saying?" Gaelen asked suspiciously.

"I’m saying I have a vested interest in Xena. I don’t intend to interfere, if that’s what you’re thinking. But nothing is to be done to Xena without first consulting with me."

"What are you? Her father?"

Ares viewed Gaelen with a glint in his eye that evoked considerable curiosity, and was a mite hesitant before saying, "What I am to Xena is not your concern. Just don’t you forget what I said. And one final warning. I’ll be watching you at all times. If you come within even a hairsbreadth of trying to kill her, I’ll drop you so quick you won’t even know it happened."

"Your threats don’t frighten me," Gaelen said, trying to seem indifferent as he turned back to the plans strewn over his table.

"No?" Ares said, causing the fireball to reappear in his hand. "But I know this does. I’ll keep this in hand, just in case you ever try to cross me."

"I’ll try to remember that. I hope this means you’re going to leave now. I’m tiring of this conversation."

"Oh no. I’m not finished with you. I still haven’t heard why you’re here."

"What exactly do you want to know?" Gaelen asked tolerantly civilly, playing along.

"Everything. From beginning to end. And if you keep anything from me, don’t think for a minute that I won’t find out."

Gaelen turned his back, fingering his chin and considered this request for a moment. "Everything, huh? Well…prepare yourself."


The Next Morning

Xena’s eyes suddenly snapped open only to find that she was chained and practically hanging from two metal posts. The pain in her wrists was agonizing. Her legs touched the ground where she knelt, but the rest of her hung from the posts. All of her armor had been removed including her boots, leaving her only in her leathers. . Her face and her body still hurt from when the man, whose name she didn’t even know, had kicked her. But, she had gotten in a few good licks herself and hopefully he was suffering some discomfort as well. Adding to her agony, her stomach growled for food. She hadn’t eaten since the morning before. She ignored it, though. It wasn’t the first time she’d gone without food and she was sure that this wouldn’t be the last.

Across from her in the dimly lit tent was the girl, her hands and feet still bound, lying on the cold ground. Her eyes were unblinking, connected with nothing. She seemed to be somewhere else in her mind, perhaps somewhere safe. Xena longed to reach out to her and comfort her, but her chains would not permit it. Maybe if she spoke to her in Gabrielle’s soothing manner she might be able to draw her from her shell.

"Hey, what’s your name?" she asked in just more than a whisper. The girl did not answer or indicated that she had even heard. "My name’s Xena. We’re kind’a in the same mess, huh?" Xena said, trying to sound encouraging. "Oh, what do I say, Gabrielle?!," she cried out in her mind. Sweet Gabrielle, so unaware of just how powerful she was in cases like this. What would she say to the girl if she were here?

"I know you must be really scared. Who can blame you.? That monster told me about your mother and father…and your little brother. I know how alone you must feel without them. But I promise you I won’t let him hurt you again." She remembered the child that was Callisto and wondered what kind of person she might have been had Xena not been responsible for the death of her parents. By the same token, what kind of person would this child turn out to be? Would she become a monster like Callisto because of the horrible things that she witnessed and experienced? A tear worked its way down Xena’s cheek as she looked at the girl. Her heart went out to this young person. How could she comfort her? How could she ease the pain?

"I knew a girl like you once," Xena said softly. "She was just about your age. Her family was killed by a vicious warlord, too." Xena paused and swallowed a lump in her throat, vivid memories flooding her mind. Several seconds passed by before she was finally able to say, "…Me. My army raided her village and her family was killed in a fire. She lost her soul that day and all she gained was hatred, hatred for me, because of what I did to her family. She became a monster worse than I was because of the hate in her. It was the only thing she could feel, because she never allowed herself to feel anything else. She locked up the pain, the anguish, the heartbreak,heartbreak and the sadness and let the hate overtake her. Then, no one’s life mattered to her anymore, not even her own. I’m telling you this because I don’t want to see you end up the same way. It’s okay to cry. . It’s okay to feel the pain and anger screaming inside you. Don’t hold those feelings in. Let them out or they’ll destroy you."

Xena was almost pleading with her, when she noticed the girl’s bottom lip begin to quiver and a tear of her own began to work its way down her cheek. It wasn’t much, but at least it appeared she’d gotten through to her. It had been some time since Xena had felt such deep emotion for someone she didn’t even know, even a child like this. "That’s it. Don’t hold back. I promise you, you’ll get through this no matter what happens. We both will."

As she sat watching the girl react to the moment, the hair on the back of her neck began to tingle. There was a very familiar presence in the room. Drawing a deep tolerant breath, Xena sighed heavily and she said, "You can come out now, Ares. I know you’re there."

Flashing into visibility, Ares clapped his hands. "That was just beautiful, Xena," he said with a wicked smile. "I’m sure Callisto would have appreciated it…if she were here."

"Callisto is where she belongs and you know it."

"That may very well be," he laughedsaid. L looking her over curiously, Ares laughed. "You know, I like you in this position. Kneeling before a god, like you should be."

"What do you want, Ares? If all you came here for was to gloat, you can leave."

"Gloat? Oh no, Xena. I only wish I could take the credit for this one."

"Why not? ? Are you losing control of your warriors," she said accusingly.

Ares expression changed from one of amusement to anger and irritation as he squarely met Xena’s stare.

"That’s where you’re wrong, Xena. Gaelen is no loyal subject of mine," he said hotly, offering no explanation of his cryptic comment.

To Xena it posed a troubling thought, however. She had assumed the man was working for Ares. Ares was no prize by any means, but in his own twisted way she knew he cared about her, and for this reason she had a measure of control over him. But, if Ares had no control over this dangerous man, then there was no telling what she could expect.

"That’s why I’m here Xena," he said, kneeling on one knee before her and lifting his hand onto hers. "In a few minutes, Gaelen will come walking through that door, and what he has planned for you, no normal human being could live through. You’ve felt the kind of pain he can inflict." It was a rare expression of tenderness and feeling that Xena was seeing in his eyes, the odd affection that made him vulnerable. For the most part he kept it well hidden, but she knew it was there and now it was showing. With intensity in his eyes he said, "He wants to turn you into a monster, Xena, a killing machine with no conscience and no feeling, killing anything in your sight. I don’t want to see that happen because that isn’t you, Xena. That isn’t the warrior that I created."

Xena eyed him from beneath her brows, the hint of a smile on her lips. "You don’t want to see that happen because you’re afraid I’ll come and kill you, too."

Ares sat back on his haunches and questioned her with his eyes. This was no ordinary woman. She had lethal fighting skills and had no need to make idle threats. The only man that had ever bested her was his do-gooder brother and even he had not found her to be an easy conquest. Being on her list of victims was not an envious place to be. Fingering the hair on his chin he asked, "Meaning?"

"You know that if I were to become cold and heartless enough, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you the same as anyone else. I want you to get one thing straight, Ares. You don’t own me! Neither you or that sorry excuse for a man you call … what was it? ? … … Gaelen? I refuse to be either one of your creations. I am what I’ve made of myself and what good people like Hercules and Gabrielle have helped me to become. I am very much in control of my own life. So, if I choose to face my own torture, then I will. And if this Gaelen thinks he can make me into a monster, he is free to try. But, I will not be beaten into whatever shape either of you want. So, whatever it is you came to say, Ares, save it and get lost. I can do this on my own."

Ares was left speechless by Xena’s ‘I-am-woman-hear-me-roar’ speechoration. Nothing he could ever do would humble her even slightly. He stood, stared angrily at her for a moment, then disappeared just as Gaelen entered the tent. The bright morning sunlight jumped through the open flap of the tent and met Xena’s eyes like a slap in the face, making her have to squint as it pierced the darkness. It dilated the lenses of her eyes enough that it took a few moments to see that another man was with him wearing the armor of a soldier.

"Have a pleasant evening?" Gaelen asked, sarcastically.

"I have nothing to say to you," she said, her lip curled in disgust.

"That’s a pity. Ares gets a lecture, but I don’t," he laughed, his companion joining in. This surprised her. He knew that she had been speaking to Ares, yet he had not been in the tent. There was something beyond the norm about this man.

"How did you know?" she said, fishing for an explanation.

"I am aware of many things that would surprise you. . For instance, I know you saw what I left of the nomads’ little settlement and I also know that you left someone behind in Phestia to warn the people of my arrival. What was her name again? Ah yes, Gabrielle. Your best friend."

Xena’s stomach turned at the mention of Gabrielle’s name, but he was correct about one thing, he had surprised her. How did he know about Gabrielle? Had he sent spies into the village? Was Gabrielle not being as cautious as she should be? With the experienced of a warrior, Xena kept the fear from showing on her face, only allowing the anger and hatred to surface. And she didn’t give him the satisfaction of responding to his obvious threat to Gabrielle.

"How do you think she will react when she sees me with your sword and chakram? Perhaps she’ll think I killed you. I’ll bet you’re imagining, right now, the look of horror on her pretty face, knowing her as you do. It would be like ramming a knife right through her heart, or maybe your sword would be better. Actually, that’s a good idea. Your sword right through her heart. Don’t you think so, Barleus?"

"Yes, sir."

Gaelen paced slowly before Xena, saying as he walked, "When I attack Phestia tonight, I’ll find your precious Gabrielle and kill her with your sword. What an honor that should be for her, to be killed by the sword of her best friend. Yes, I like it. I’ll run your sword through her heart. Of course, I hate to think of you losing your friend completely, so to keep you from being all alone after she’s dead, I’ll bring you her head." Kneeling on one knee and drawing his face close to hers, he gestured behind him and said, "I’ll sit it right across from you on the ground, and each time you open your eyes you’ll be able to see her."

Every fiber of Xena’s being was straining to maintain control. The mental visions she saw from his description ripped at her heart like the claws of a lion. A scream of rage was just inside her lips, but thisat would please this savage person and she willould not give him that. She had not yet comprehended that he was aware of her feelings and thoughts, or that the anger and hatred emitting from her were enough for him. He drank in her emotions and fed off ofoff them like a blood-sucking insect. Standing before her again, he smiled wickedly and said, "You know, Xena, it’s amazing how much alike the two of us are. We are both relentless in the pursuit of what we want. Neither of us would allow anything to stand in our way, not even a life. Yes, you’re a cold-blooded killer just like me."

"I am nothing like you," Xena said through clenched teeth.

"Oh but you are, Xena. That’s why I like you so much. Your skills as a fighter and a killer are like none I’ve ever seen before. Why would you want to fight against me, Xena, when you could fight with me? Your so-called god of war has decided to fight with me, why not you? Then you would not have to suffer this way, and your friend would not have to die. You could lead my army to victory with your friend at your side…"

Barleus, hearing that Xena could possibly take his position if she accepted this offer dared to say, "Lead, sir?"

"Did I ask you to speak?" Gaelen looked up and asked in a menacing tone.

"No, sir," the injured officer answered impassively. Yet when Gaelen turned back to Xena, Barleus eyed Xena with an intense hatred and a heart full of jealousy. ‘No damn woman, even if she is a warrior princess, is going to lead this army’, Barleus thought. ‘I have no intentions of leaving her well enough to lead any army to victory.’

Gaelen, of course, was aware of Barleus’ feelings, but he was also aware that Xena would refuse him, so he felt no concern. Still kneeling before her he asked, "So, what do you say, Xena? Lead my army, save your friend and save yourself a lot of pain."

Xena’s reaction was one of repulsion and disgust. Unable to conceal what she felt for this man she inhaled deeply and spat directly in his face. It was a sudden, instinctive reaction requiring almost no thought, so Gaelen didn’t expect it. Not only had he been caught completely off guard, he had been assaulted in a most disgusting manner. Stumbling backward, he stared at her in shock for a moment as the rage exploded within him. . "You bitch!" he shouted, slammingdriving his foot into the side of her faceforehead with all his power. Wiping the spit from his face as he regained his feet, he said seething, "You’ve made your choice, so I hope you’re prepared to accept the consequences." Xena was still reeling from the blow to her head when he stepped forward and kicked her in the stomach, forcing all the wind from her lungs. Yet still she eyed him with loathing and hatred.

Gaelen stepped back and, with a gesture, offered Barleus the pleasure of joining in the fun, which he readily accepted. Xena shifted her eyes to the soldier, as he approached, readying his hammering fist. She braced herself for a very long and painful day, but gave the soldier an evil look that promised him a future taste of her revenge. The last good thing that passed through Xena’s mind was Gabrielle, hoping that she was safe as Barleus crushing blow enshrouded her in darkness.


Chapter Three

Gabrielle’s Big Day

Slumped against an observation post in the wall, Gabrielle awakened with a start. Her waking thought became a word: "Xena!" A deep sense of dread passed through her. She tried to pass it off as pre-battle jitters, but the feeling would not go away.

Gabrielle figured that she must have dozed off in the wait, since she and their village army had stayed up most of the night waiting for some sign of the army. The night before, Zantus had been able to gather a large group of men. Most were simple citizens who did not want to see their village brought to ruins. But, there were some Phestian soldiers that Zantus had been able to convince to join them. Gabrielle had been worried that they would report to their General, the man Salea had told her about, who would in turn give word of what was going on to the Magistrates. But, the soldiers had given their word. Some of them, like Salea, said that their General would fight with them, but Gabrielle did not want to chance it.

Salmoneus and Salea had gotten almost all of the people out of Phestia and to the caves. . Argo had been teemed up with the other horses to transport the older people and what goods they could manage to get into the wagons. The only ones left in town were some of the more affluent families, such as the families of the Magistrates. Gabrielle had deliberately kept the alarm from them for fear of interference. . Almost all of the lower class families had been able to evacuate. Of course, there were still a few who refused to listen, and one who’d said he intended to go to the Magistrates about what they were doing. Fortunately, he was not allowed to see them until morning and by then Gabrielle had been able to move all who were willing to evacuate.

Zantus and a few other soldiers were standing at the lookout positions located at the top of the heavy, stone wall near the large gate. Gabrielle stood and scanned the area. Most of the soldiers were still sleeping. Yet, Zantus and those with him seemed quite intent as they peered into the distance. That was when she understood the reason for her dread. Xena was no where to be seen. With a knot in her stomach, she quickly walked toward the gate for an update.

At that moment, Nallos was rising from his bed, wondering at the strange quietness he was hearing. He expected to wake to the sounds of people continuing to celebrate the Harvest Festival. Clad in nightclothes, he walked over to the open window and savored the cool morning breeze. The serenity was short lived, however, as he stared in amazement at deserted streets and soldiers posted at observation posts around the wall, a thing not seen in Phestia for many years. His mind cleared quickly and he knew exactly what was going on. . "Xena!" he said, pounding his fists down on the window sillwindowsill. . He dressed quickly and left to gather the other Magistrates for an emergency meeting.

"Good morning, Gabrielle," Zantus said somberly as Gabrielle climbed the steps to the lookout post.

"Good morning, Zantus. Have you seen anything?"

"Nothing so far. I’ve been up all night and haven’t seen hide nor hair of any army." There was a bit of skepticism in his voice.

"Has Xena come back?" Gabrielle asked, scanning the area nervously.

Zantus glanced over heris shoulder and noted the worry in her eyes. There was no mistaking the bond between theose two. "No," he said sympathetically. "I haven’t seen her and no one’s reported her to me." He felt truly sorry for this energetic young woman trying so hard to be brave in a potentially dangerous situation. ‘Potentially’, however, was the word worrying him. With the coming of daylight, would be the presence of the magistrates. "I sure hope we’re not making a big mistake here, Gabrielle," he said nervously.

"Mistake?" she asked.

"If there’s no army, we have to face the magistrates."

"That’s true, but then, which enemy would you prefer?" she teased.

Zantus eyed her with a growing smile. "I suppose you do have a point."

Gabrielle rested a hand on his shoulder and forced a smile. "Well, if I’m wrong, we’ll just consider this a drill. If there is no army, we’ll have a real reason to be celebrating."

Zantus could tell the smile was forced. She believed this to be a real threat. All things considered, he, he hoped she was wrong.

"If you do happen to see Xena, I want to be the first to know."

"Of course. I’ll keep an eye out for her."

"Thank you."

In their most pompous finery, the four Magistrates descended upon the empty streets of Phestia headed toward the jailhouse. Nallos, as head mMagistrate, held a key to the guardhouse since he fully suspected he would need it. . Not at all surprised, he used it to unlock the door allowing the other mMagistrates to proceed him inside, where he scanned the room with squinted eyes. So far all of his suspicions had become reality. "Where are the guards?" he asked, more as a statement than a question. His companions could only shrug and mumble in reply. Banging and hollering from the cells suddenly caught their attention. Unlocking the connecting door, Nallos and the other Magistrates enter to find their two guards locked behind bars.

"What happened?" he demanded.

One guard stammered, "I’m sorry, sir. It was Xena. She’s escaped."

"You let her escape, you fool!"

Realizing he was in a heap of trouble but fearing to lie, he, he said. "She said there was … a rat … in her cell … she was afraid …"afraid…"

"You idiot! Xena isn’t afraid of anything!"

"I tried to stop her, but…"," the second guard said.

"I’ll have you both demoted for this! You’ll be cleaning these cells instead of guarding them!" Handing the keys to one of the other Magistrates so he could release the two guards, Nallos walked out in a huff. He was going to find this meddling Xena woman and remove her from his village.

Gabrielle was descending the last steps of the lookout as a deep frown creased her face in her worry for Xena. She should have been back by now. It was possible, though, that Xena had found a way to stop the army, which would make sense, because they had not attacked. . But, the dread Gabrielle had felt in the pit of her stomach when she awakened hadn’t gone away either. If anything, it was growing.

Up ahead, Gabrielle caught sight of High Magistrate Nallos and his companions. They were nudging the sleeping soldiers to their feet and demanding to know what was going on and where ‘the woman named Xena’ was. With them were three other soldiers, including one that looked and acted like the General the soldiers and Salea had told her about. He was tall, with long sun-bleached hair. His beard was similar in color. Gabrielle thought he would have been cute if it was not for the angry scowl that, over time, had creased his face into fine lines.

Nallos was in a rage, throwing too many confusing questions at the soldiers before they could answer. In a surprising display of authority, the General put a rough hand on Nallos’ shoulder and carefully moved him aside. The High Magistrate seemed a mite taken aback by the gesture, and ceased his questioning, eyeing the General in dismay. Gabrielle would have been moved to laugh if not for the General’s gruff expression.

The nervous soldiers were still jabbering away trying to answer Nallos’ questions when the general called to them. "Attention! Quiet down! Now I want some answers! Where have all the people gone?"

"To the caves where they’ll be safe," Gabrielle said as she approached. It was a spontaneous answer, characteristic of her personality, to which she attached little thought before speaking. The General turned a tolerant look in her direction, being unaware of her presence. Unaccustomed to having anyone speak to him in such a straightforward manner, the look on his face is not a pleasant one.

"She’s one of them!" Nallos shouted, pointing. . "She was with that Xena woman."

"Who in Tartarus are you?" the gGeneral demanded

Gabrielle smiled a sweet, nervous smile at the General, hoping it would cool his anger. . It didn’t, unfortunately, but she smiled anyway and held out a hand to the General. . "Hi, it’s nice to meet you…I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name."

"It’s General Greeger. We didn’t get to who you are, yet?"

"You’re absolutely right. Where are my manners? My name is Gabrielle. I’m a good friend of Xena’s. I’m sure you’ve heard of her," Gabrielle said, phrasing the last sentence in pride.

"I fought against her army years ago. Of course, I’ve heard of her." An old anger blazed in his eyes and Gabrielle began to feel uneasy.

"Really?" Gabrielle said, clearing, clearing her throat. "Well, that was a long time ago and Xena is a different person now. She came to Phestia to help you and your people, not to fight against you."

"I’ll tell you, young lady, what I told her," Nallos blurted out. "We don’t need your help! We have one of the finest armies in the land…"

Greeger put his hands on his hips and rolled his eyes in irritation, as if he had heard the speech a thousand times.

"…and a fortress which has withstood many sieges. We are well protected from any attack."

"Attack?" Greeger said drawing his brows together as he turned to Nallos. "You didn’t tell me anything about an attack!"

"That’s because there won’t be one."

"If there isn’t an attack, Nallos," Gabrielle said hotly, "it will be because Xena has already stopped their army."

"What army?" Greeger demanded. "Would somebody talk to me here?"

"We don’t know who they are, General, but they destroyed the nomad settlement yesterday morning, and killed everyone there, even the children. Xena believes that they are headed this way."

Greeger again turned his attention to Nallos and asked in an accusing tone, "Why wasn’t I told about this?"

"Well…,…" Nallos began arrogantly.

Gabrielle spoke up, not allowing him to finish. "Xena and I came here to Phestia last night and warned him, but the Magistrates refused to do anything because of the festival. When Xena tried to force the issue and demanded that something be done, he locked her up."

Greeger stood erect and stared down at Nallos in stern reserve. "You are warned of a possible attack and you tell me nothing?"

Nallos outranked Greetger, of course, but in truth he had no plausible answer, so he said nothing. He crossed his arms across his chest defiantly and let his eyes warn the general to be cautious. On the other hand, Greeger knew that Nallos could not replace him or even began to do his job so he felt no need to be concerned.

Dismissing Nallos, Greeger turned back to Gabrielle and asked, "Where’s Xena now?"

"She broke out of jail last night and told me she was going to stop them."

"Stop them? An entire army? I always knew she was crazy, but I didn’t think she was stupid," he said, stirring an angry reply in Gabrielle that she decided to swallow. "I’m assuming she hasn’t returned."

"No. I haven’t seen or heard from her," Gabrielle said, hoping her worry wasn’t showing.

"Well, did she tell you anything about this army?"

"Just that there seem to be about a hundred of them, maybe more. When they attacked the nomads’ settlement, quite a few were on horseback and one rode in a chariot."

"Then they’re not renegade. Someone is commanding this army. What kind of a madman would murder a village full of farmers? Those people didn’t have a soldier among them." Greeger paused for a second, giving Gabrielle’s story some thought. "What makes Xena think that they’re headed for Phestia, anyway?"

"They’re not exactly headed for Phestia," Gabrielle continued grimly. "They’re headed east and Phestia just happens to be in the way."

Greeger took in that information with a heavy sigh. That didn’t sound good at all. Then, his thoughts shifted to Gabrielle’s first words to him. HeGreeger eyed Gabrielle curiously, and askedthe hint of a smile on his face. "So, you brought all the people to the caves, huh? How did you know to do that?"

"Well, it was actually Xena’s idea…but I did organize the move." Gabrielle watched

Greeger shaooke his head, but it was not in anger. He actually looked amazed.

"What?" Gabrielle asked.

"I made those caves for the very purpose of evacuating people should the need ever arise. You know, when I fought against Xena all those years ago, she always knew when and how to counteract every move I made. I used to think she could read my mind and I hated her for it. Now, she’s doing it again."

"At least this time she’s on your side," Gabrielle said with a relieved smile.

"Yeah, I guess you’re right," Greeger said, grumbling skeptically. "So, you got everybody out?"

"Not everybody. Some families refused to go and we couldn’t get to most of the more affluent people, like the Magistrates’ families."

Greeger sighed. "We have to start getting them moved out as well, then."

"In protest to this ridiculous affair," Nallos said haughtily. "My family refuses to go anywhere, neither do the other families."

"You’ll go if I say go," Greeger said sternly.

Concerned for his own family, one of the other mMagistrates said, "High Magistrate Nallos, I don’t think we should argue with General Greeger. If he thinks we should leave, then I’m sure he has his reasons."

"Go if you want to go, you coward, but my family stays here."

Greeger eyed Nallos impatiently, his mouth set in a thin, white line. "If I’ve got to bind you, your wife and children in chains and haul you off like common criminals, I will, Nallos. Now get your family ready."

Nallos looked at Greeger appalled. But, Greeger ignored him and turned to call two of his soldiers. "You two gather the rest of the families in the square. I want them ready to leave within the hour." Turning back to Nallos and the other Magistrates he said, "That includes you fourive. Go get your families ready to leave."

There was a stern protest on Nallos’ lips but he knew that in a military conflict the general outranked him and that he had the authority to carry out his threats. Pointing a finger at the general he said, "There will be reprisals for this undermining of my authority should this be the hoax I suspect it is, General. You can be sure." He then turned with a huff and began to obeyed the order.

"When they’re ready to go, Gabrielle," Greeger said. "I want you to lead them to the caves. Make sure…"

"Hey, wait.," sheGabrielle protested, lifting her staff and placing it carefully at Greeger’s chest. . "I promised the people that I would stay and fight to defend their village."

Greeger looked down at her staff with his usual scowl, then looked back up at Gabrielle and grinned. The smile almost broke her resolve. It turned his scowling face into a very handsome one. She wondered why he didn’t smile more often. She was nearly disposed to give in and say ‘Okay, whatever you say,’ until his next words broke the mood.

"Listen, little girl…" he said, moving the staff from his chest.

Gabrielle returned the staff to his chest with more force and said angrily. . "I am not a ‘little girl’. You can send one of your soldiers to lead the rest of the people, but I’m staying here."

Annoyed, Greeger asked, "You’re staying here to fight in a battle, while I send one of my soldiers on a mission of mercy?"

"Yes," she said flatly. She didn’t see why he shwould have a problem with thisat.

"You and your little stick," he said, condescendingly.

Placing a hand on her hip, Gabrielle said with a huff, "It’s called an Amazon fighting staff, for your information. If you have any qualms about my ability to fight with it, not only do I have the skill of the Amazons, I also learned from Xena."

Greeger laughed heartily, encouraging his soldiers to join in. Gabrielle could not believe it. They had backed her ever since last night, and now all of a sudden, they were laughing at her.

"Oooh, Xena taught you how to fight," Greeger laughed. Suddenly, Greeger had his sword drawn and swung it in Gabrielle’s direction.

Instinctively, she blocked his blow with her staff, surprised and suddenly fearful. "What are you doing?!" she exclaimed in dismay.

"Defend yourself!" Greeger shouted, wielding another blow. She blocked his sword once more and sidestepped another causing Greeger to have to change his position. The man’s blows were powerful and steady. It took all the skill she had to keep them from connecting. Gabrielle ducked under one blow aimed at her head and claimed the opportunity to jab the edge of her staff into his stomach with devastating force as she had been taught. She could hear Xena saying, "Fighting is no game, Gabrielle. If you’re going to fight, give it your best. Fight to win." But, fighting had not been her aim in coming here. At least not fighting with the townsfolk, and not with their general. Yet this man seemed to be seriously trying to kill her. Of course, she was wise enough to realize that this could also be a test. He would kill her if he could because she had defied him in the face of his men, or he would use her in the fight against the army if she proved herself worthy. Her determination enhanced by that last thought, Gabrielle sidestepped another blow and jabbed her staff into his midriff, doubling him up with a loud "oooff" and then used her staff to knock his sword from his hand. With a spin, she swung the staff to the back of his legs and knocked his feet out from under him. He was on the ground in seconds. Quickly, Gabrielle was over him and was prepared to deliver a crushing blow to his face. It would take only a second to end it unless he surrendered. Greeger was reasonably shocked. He had admired the girl’s courage but surely had not expected to be bested by her. Instinctively, he covered his face with his hands hoping to fend off the blow somehow, but it didn’t happen. This girl was a fighter but obviously not a killer. He looked up to see not the staff, but Gabrielle’s hand outstretched to help him up. He took it reluctantly realizing that a woman had defeated him in the face of his men. It was humiliating but it also afforded him the opportunity to show himself a man of integrity and humility despite his rank and authority.

He quickly regained his feet and stepped over to his sword. As he lifted it, Gabrielle readied herself for another assault. Dusting himself off he met her eyes with his scowl plastered to his face and she fully expected him to attack again. Slowly, however, the scowl melted from his face and was replaced with the handsome smile Gabrielle had appreciated earlier. Gabrielle smiled in return. She had assessed him accurately. It was a test. How she loved being right.

"Okay, you can stay," he said breaking into a laugh.

"That’s more like it," she said, standing at attention as was appropriate to a man of his rank. " Thank you, Greeger," she said with a nod of her head.

Stepping close enough to whisper he said, "Around the men it’s General Greeger. Okay?"

"Oh. Thank you, ‘General’ Greeger," she said, granting him a beautiful smile that he was able to appreciate as much as she had appreciated his.

Greeger then called over one of the younger soldiers. "Doophus!" he said to the lad.

"Yes, sir, General Greeger, sir!"

"You know how to get to the caves, right?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Good. When the families are ready, I want you to escort them." Greeger clapped a hand on Doophus’ shoulder, goodnaturedlygood-naturedly, causing the boy obvious pain.

"Yes, sir!" the lad said, trying to maintain a soldier’s stance, then turned to leave.

"Please tell me that’s not his real name," Gabrielle stated with disbelief.

"His mother never liked him much."

"Oh, that’s so sad. I can’t believe a mother would name her child that."

The General broke into a hardy laugh and buddy punched her on the shoulder like he would one of his soldiers. Gabrielle looked up at him curiously.

"That’s his nickname! You are so gullible. This is going to be fun…even if we do go into battle," he said, laughing even more. Gabrielle failed to see the humor in even a nickname such as that, and triesd to laugh with him, but she could not go beyond a bland smile. Suddenly, they heard a yell and turned to see Zantus waving at some of the men below to open the gate.

"Hey! What in Tartarus do you think you’re doing?!" Greeger said running toward them. "Don’t open that gate!" But, his cries fall on deaf ears. The heavy wooden bars were lifted and the large gate slowly swung open. Before the doors were completely opened a woman on horseback practically flew in through the gate. For a moment, Gabrielle thought her prayers had been answered and that Xena had returned, but no, it was Salea who jumped from the horse as soon as it was at a standstill and ran towards them.

"Salea!" Gabrielle called to her.

"Close the gate! Close the gate! They’re coming!" Salea yelled in a near panic.

"Close the gate!" Greeger called out and ran to help the men at the gate. The few moments it took to close the big and heavy doors seemed like an eternity considering the urgency in Salea’s voice and Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when two men dropped the heavy wooden bars back into place. Greeger, his armor rattling, ran to the stairs that brought him to the lookouts. Gabrielle and Salea followed. From above, they watched the cavalry of horses that rode up to the walls. A formation broke and many of the men on horses began to circle the city.

"They’re surrounding us," Greeger said, obviously assessing the situation and planning his defense.

"Are you all right, Salea?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yeah. I came back just to make sure there were no stragglers and I practically ran into them. I didn’t stop ‘till I got here."

"You were right, Gabrielle," Greeger said, resting an appreciative hand on her shoulder. "Thank the gods you reacted as quickly as you did."

"Don’t thank the gods. They had nothing to do with it. It’s Xena you should be thanking…" she said, suddenly realizing that if they were attacking, then Xena was not successful in stopping them. If Xena was not successful, that must mean that Xena was …. No! She was not going to let herself think like that. . Xena was fine. She would make it back in time and save them all.

"Where’s Xena?" Salea asked looking around. "Did she ever come back?"

Gabrielle lightly chewed her bottom lip and shook her head sadly.

By then most of the horses had surrounded the walled city, leaving a small line poised in front. One horse moved forward and it’s rider looked up at them.

Greeger looked down at him then allowed his eyes to scan the area. "This isn’t the whole army," he said, thoughtfully. . "There’s no more than about fifty or so men out there. They’re here simply to stir up trouble and panic the people."

"And keep us in our place," Gabrielle inserted. "We won’t be able to evacuate the rest of the people now."

Greeger noted a deep sadness in Gabrielle’s voice, but wasn’t sure if it was for the people or for Xena since he had heard Salea’s question and saw Gabrielle’s reaction. Perhaps it was for both. He could tell she had a kind heart when she spoke of the deaths of those nomads. Her being here also indicated that her heart had reached out to the people of Phestia as well.

The rider below raised himself up in his stirrups and called out: "People of Phestia! I come in the name of Gaelen, The Destroyer! He has come to claim your land, your city and its people!"

Greeger extended his sword toward the man and called back, "You tell Gaelen we will surrender to no one!"

"Fight or surrender, it doesn’t matter! Either way, your city is now Gaelen’s!"

"He’ll have to take my head, before I let him take this city!"

"So be it!" the warrior said, commanding with a gesture. With amazing swiftness, two other warriors raised bows and released arrows, barely giving Greeger time to shout out a warning when two of the men on the highest position just above the gates were taken out. One was dead when he hit the deck; the other fell over the side. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut before he hit the ground. Amazingly, he was not dead. He squirmed and tried to get up, but one of Gaelen’s warriors walked up to him with his sword drawn. Gabrielle had to turn away as the soldier raised his sword and took the soldier’s head.

Greeger watched them take his soldier’s head and hold it high into the air, roaring and cheering over their small victory.

Again the warrior called out, "We’ll take your heads one by one if we have to!"

Greeger watched them take his soldier’s head and hold it high into the air, roaring and cheering over their small victory. "You bastards!!!" Greeger screamed. The warriors continued to cheer themselves on and more bows were raised up to the lookouts.

"Get down!" Greeger shouted. Attuned to the danger now, the men ducked behind the wall and the arrows flew uselessly overhead. Greeger turned to Gabrielle and Salea saying, "You two get out of here. I’ll meet you below in a second."

"Come on, Gabrielle," Salea said leading Gabrielle down the stairs. Most of the townspeople were filing out into the streets by then, their faces full of fear and concern. Outside the walls, the army continued to cheer and sound war cries filling the hearts of the people with dread. A few stragglers were only now poking their heads out of doors or windows in fear and curiosity.

High Magistrate Nallos walked up to Gabrielle and placed shaky hands on her arms. "What is that? What is that sound?" he asked wide eyedwide-eyed.

She could only look into the man’s eyes sadly. "They’re here," she said, knowing what must be going through his mind.

Nallos looked at her in horror. He had ignored the warning and had not protected his people from this threat. Now, they all were in danger because of his pride and stupidity.

"You have to get my family out of here. Please," he pleaded.

Salea blurted out angrily, "It’s a little late now, Nallos. We’re stuck. You should have listened to Xena when you had the chance."

"The army has surrounded the city," Gabrielle said a bit more gently. "We can’t leave now." Nallos suddenly looked much older than his years and, despite all, Gabrielle felt pity for him. How many pompous men such as this had she seen brought to their knees this way in her time with Xena? When would they ever learn?

Back at the lookout, Greeger grabbed the shoulder of a young man and turned him about. "Zantus, is that you?"

"Yes, General."

"What are you doing up here? I thought you were a farmer. Didn’t you tell me a couple of years ago that you had no interest in being a soldier?"

"That was before today, sir."

"Well, … thanks. I can use all the men I can get right now. Have you been manning the lookouts all night?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then you’ll need a relief. See to the body of our soldier up there and help man the rest of the lookouts around the village. Once your done, have Milos relieve you. You’ll need to rest up." He turned to leave, but stopped and looked back over his shoulder. . "After today, Zantus, you go back to your fields. Understood?"

Smiling, Zantus said, "Yes, sir."

Greeger left the lookouts and met Gabrielle and Salea below as a crowd of people began to gather. Most of them were the people that had not evacuated. Others were the soldiers who hadn’t been told of the impending attack and who’d woke up to a surprise. They all looked to Greeger for answers.

Speaking to everyone he said, "In case any of you haven’t figured it out already, we are under attack. An army is here to take our village. They’re just the first wave. More of them will be coming. With them making their move this morning, I expect them to make their final attack sometime tonight, most likely at dusk. So, we have to prepare ourselves."

A rich man with expensive robes walked forward with his child in his arms. "What about us? We’re not soldiers! How will we protect our children?" he said desperately.

"Don’t worry," Gabrielle said, touching the child’s hand. "We’ll find someplace to hide you. You’ll be safe. Right?" She addressed the question to Greeger.

He knew and understood what she was doing and though there was uncertainty in his eyes, his voice did not betray her confidence.

"That’s right. My soldiers and I will make sure that you and your children are well protected. High Magistrate Nallos," he said, locating him in the group. "Perhaps you could take the people into the courthouse. You’ll be safe there, for now."

Nallos, seizing the opportunity to feel important again, nodded and led the group of citizens with him into the courthouse. Free to speak now, Gabrielle approached Greeger and said, "You certainly sound confident, Greeger, but your eyes say something else."

"Are you always this outspoken?" Greeger said, annoyed.

"Pretty much, yeah." After a beat, she continued, "So, how do you plan on protecting these people from that bloodthirsty mob out there?"

"I have a plan, Gabrielle…I don’t know how well it’s going to work…"

"Well, at least he has a plan," Salea remarked sarcastically and without any respect for his station. Gabrielle looked at Salea curiously. She couldn’t believe that Salea had just spoken to General Greeger that way. She was only a citizen and a prostitute at that.

"And you?" he demanded of Salea. "What are you doing here?"

Salea stepped back, put her hands on her hips and gave Greeger a derisive up and down look. "I don’t recall needing your permission," she said in an icy tone.

Ignoring her disrespect, Greeger said angrily, "You know, you could have gotten yourself killed back there. What in Tartarus were you thinking?" There was an obvious tone of concern in his voice and it changed her attitude from nasty to seductive.

Gabrielle was standing in between them, when she suddenly realized these two no longer saw her. They walked closer to each other, locked in one another’s gaze. Salea reached out, grabbed at Greeger’s armor and drew him to her. Gabrielle was forced to jump out of the way so as not to risk being sandwiched between the two obvious lovebirds. In a tone of voice worthy of her profession, Salea peered into hisGreeger’s eyes and said, "Only about you." She then pressed her lips to his in a lingering kiss that held some interesting promises.

"I guess you two must know each other?" Gabrielle grinned.

Some of Greeger’s men were making cat callscatcalls and chanting: "Go, Greeger, go!"

When they broke from the kiss, Greeger was grinning from ear to ear. In answer to Gabrielle’s question Greeger said huskily, "I’m a regular customer."

"Yeah, I can see that," Gabrielle said, averting her eyes.

"Not regular enough, if you ask me," Salea stated matter- of- factly.

Gabrielle was getting embarrassed so she said, "Okay. Let’s not go into that conversation."

"Good idea," Greeger agreed. To Salea, he added, "Besides you still haven’t answered my question."

Salea backed away from Greeger and placed her hands on her hips defiantly. "Oh, really? What question would that be?"

"’What are you doing here?’" Greeger repeated his question more forcefully. "You should be at the caves with the rest of the people."

"Like I told Gabrielle, I came back for stragglers when I ran into that brigade."

Greeger took that statement with a grain of salt as his skeptical frown indicated. . He knew Salea was not one to cower when there wa’s a fight. "Stragglers? ? Is that the only reason you came back?" he said.

"Now, you know me, Greeger," she said in a patienta patient tone. "I’m not the kind to huddle in a cave like a barefoot and pregnant woman waiting for her man to come back. You know I can fight. I’ve fought by your side many times." This came as news to Gabrielle. Her image of Salea suddenly shifted track and Gabrielle began to think of her in a different way. She wondered if Salmoneus was aware of this. Would it even matter? All the same, it was interesting.

"If I weren’t so pressed for time and if I really didn’t need the help, you’d go back to the caves in a heartbeat. Even if I had to drag you all the way back myself."

"You don’t own me, Greeger," she said defiantly. . "I just give you a cheap thrill every now and then. I can go where I please."

The couple stood glaring at each other for a moment and it appeared a confrontation was possible, so trying to change the subject, Gabrielle cleared her throat and said, "So, what was that plan you were talking about, General Greeger?"

Greeger held his stance before Salea for a moment more, before turning to Gabrielle. "We’ll talk about it later. I have troops to organize," he said as he turned to leave, but after a couple of steps he stopped and turned back to them. "Oh and see about getting these people something to eat."

Gabrielle was the designated cook in her alliance with Xena. She had hoped for more recognition in this situation. . "When did we get relegated to cooking duties?" she asked defiantly.

Greeger smiled and said, "Just now." " And he walked away chuckling.

"Great!" Gabrielle said, stamping her staff on the ground. "I came here to fight and now I have to cook."

Salea had been down that road more times than she cared to remember and it amused her to see someone else getting the treatment. "Well, they have to eat, don’t they?" she said teasing. Gabrielle huffed and puffed to burn away some of her frustration, but after a moment followed when Salea said, "Come on."

As they walked along, Gabrielle’s mind was in it’s normal state of high velocity momentum, allowing her thinking to dwell on more than what was eminently at hand. She was curious about a man of his standing being so closely attached to someone like Salea. After a moment, she teasingly said, "I get this feeling you and Greeger sort of like each other."

Responding to her joke in like manner, Salea asked, "Whatever would make you think that?"

"I can sense those sorts of things," she continued, sarcastically. "It’s a gift I have. But, I can’t figure out what you see in him."

Salea looked at her with a frown. "Are you crazy or just ill?"

"Don’t get me wrong. He seems like a really nice guy and that smile of his would melt a heart of stone."

"Don’t I know it," Salea said, nodding in understanding.

"I just get the sense that he has a low opinion of women."

"Low opinion? Not for a minute. No, Greeger is the kind that says one thing, but means another. Try never to take him seriously unless he’s being military. You can always tell if he likes you, when he starts picking at you."

"And those are the qualities you look for in a man?" Gabrielle laughed.

"I admit, he can be a jackass sometimes. But, when he puts on the charm, honey, watch out! It’s not just his five dinars I’m looking for when he comes around."

"That’s shameful, Salea."

"Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it honey, and don’t try it if you don’t have too. They’re not all as much fun as Greeger."

Greeger was readying his men and trying to get them mentally ready for a tough battle. They outnumbered the force outside the city at present, but he had a feeling that the arrival of the rest of their army would change that little advantage. Out numbered, it would take more than fighting men, so he set about making booby traps. Once Gabrielle was finished with her cooking and feeding, she assisted him in making the traps. He thought he was well adept in trap making until she showed him some of the ones Xena had taught her. He was more than happy to use them. A lot of frenzied work went into building and setting these traps. . Logs were hung from the walls on rope slings that could be released from above. . Men stood ready with hot boiling watertar in large containers just above the gate. Covered trenches with sharp spears and wooden spikes inside were dug and prepared several feet inside the gate. Firebombs were prepared. Archers were placed in crucial locations so they could pick off any that managed to breach the wall.

Gabrielle and Salea listened intently to the plan of defense, as Greeger explained it to his men. Gabrielle threw in a few ideas that Xena had used in other battles they had shared. Greeger was somewhat irritated by her interruptions, but he couldn’t deny the wisdom he was hearing from such a young woman. He accepted and implemented each idea eagerly.

By mid afternoon, all plans were completed,; all except one. Greeger took Gabrielle and Salea off to the side and speaking to them in hushed tones, said in a whisper, "Now, about that plan I talked about…"

"Why are we whispering?" Gabrielle asked, inching her face a little closer to his.

"Because, no one knows about this but me, and I’d like to keep it that way. So, you have to promise you won’t breathe a word."

"Okay, I promise," Gabrielle assured him.

"Just get on with it, Greeger," Salea said impatiently

Ignoring Salea, he continued, "I have another way to take the rest of the citizens to the caves."

"You do? How do you expect to get them all out without the soldiers seeing?"

"After the caves were built, I had an underground tunnel constructed that runs directly to them for emergency situations like this."

"That’s perfect!" Gabrielle said elated. "We can get the rest of the people out and use it to escape ourselves if we have to."

"There is a slight problem," he said, sheepishly.

Salea sighed and shook her head. "First it’s a plan, now it’s a problem. I hope it’s a problem we can fix real easy?"

"Maybe…" he said, lifting their hopes. "Maybe not," he added, dashing their hopes with two simple words. Fidgeting uneasily he said, "tThe construction was never completed. The designer died suddenly in a house fire in the middle of construction. All his building plans burned with him. I had asked him to hold them for safe keeping."

"How not finished is it?" Gabrielle asked fearing the answer.

Without answering, Greeger turned and led Gabrielle and Salea to his own humble abode and showed them a trap door hidden underneath a rug and a chair. He knelt to open the trap door, but stopped and looked up thoughtfully at the two women. . "Uh, I guess you better back up. I haven’t opened this door in a long time. The gods only know what could have decided to take up residence."

"That’s doesn’t sound very reassuring," Gabrielle said to Salea with a wrinkled nose. As they backed away, Greeger lifted the trap door to reveal an overgrowth of weeds, roots and moss. They could just barely make out that there was a hole in the earth at all. It was just large enough to accommodate one person at a time.

Greeger grunted as he pulled at the moss and weeds.

"I had a ladder down here," Greeger said, searching through the maze of growth. . "Ah-ha! There it is," he said, pulling it up from the hole.

Suddenly, a frightened rat jumped from the ladder onto the floor, skittering right in Gabrielle and Salea’s direction. They, of course, scattered, screaming girlishly,; Gabrielle onto a chair and Salea onto the bed. Greeger rolled back on his butt laughing as he watched them both seek higher ground. . The rat, unimpressed, scampered through the open door and out to safety. One would think it should be the more frightened one, but Greeger wasn’t sure. He was still roaring with laughter, especially since they were hesitating to come down off their perch for fear of another such intruder. After a moment, they both returned to the floor cautiously, embarrassed by his laughing.

"Oh, that was funny. Hades himself would have laughed at that one! You want to battle an army and are afraid of a rat. . This is priceless," he said wiping tears from his eyes.

"Oh, shut up!" Salea demanded. T

The laddtter was old looking and did not appear to be very sturdy. Greeger tried to press his thumb into it to test for rot and crumbling.

"It seems useable…sort of.," Hhe said with shallow conviction. Still chuckling and shaking his head, Greeger lit three lanterns and handed one to each of them saying, "Well, ladies, are we ready to descend into the pit of Tartarus?"

"Let’s just get this over with," Gabrielle said, attempting to regain the status of her bravery by stepping up to the hole, ready to enter.

Greeger descended into the pitch-black darkness of the tunnel first. Gabrielle took a deep breath and followed him, her eyes wary for any more rats. The climb down was longer than she expected. It seemed she would never find bottom. Inside, their lanterns gleamed upon the rocky surface of the tunnel walls. From lack of use and upkeep, roots had begun to burrow through the rock. They hung from the ceiling in long strips like lifeless snakes,; an idea that did not ease Gabrielle’s nerves any. She could hear skittering and slithering sounds that echoed just out of reach of the lantern’s lights. Water was trickling somewhere in the distance.

"How long has it been since anyone’s been down here?" Gabrielle asked, her, her voice echoing from the walls.

"Oh its been a year or so," Greeger responded.

Gabrielle looked around her in dismay at the crumbling tunnel walls. "Are you sure this is a safe place for people to cross to the caves?"

"I don’t know, but it’ll sure beat running through a hail of arrows."

At the bottom of the ladder they were standing in a large open area, perhaps forty or more feet across. It was large enough to accommodate quite a few people and the opening of the tunnel was directly across. Moving across, Greeger shined his lantern inside the entrance to the tunnel. It was covered with the same kind of hanging roots and moss. "We built the tunnel right inside the underlying bedrock, so that it would be sturdy and easy to maintain. I never would have guessed it’d end up in this bad condition. I’m going to have to go farther in and check it out. There may have been cave-ins." He looked up and around him. "Another thing. People are going to want to bring torches to light their way. All the roots and moss will catch fire for sure. We’re going to have to cut it all down."

Salea spoke up saying, "I have a better idea. Why don’t you go and get some of them rich, young men with the gold hanging off their fingers to come cut down your little roots? They didn’t want to listen to us when we told them how they could get out the easy way, so let them see what it’s like to get out the hard way."

"That’s a damn good idea! Why don’t you two go back up top and bring back every male of that bunch. Make sure they each have swords, knives, hoes, shovels or whatever in Tartarus they can get their hands on to cut this stuff with."

"And what are you going to do while we’re gone?" Gabrielle asked.

"I’ll check for cave-ins, like I said."

"Alone? Are you sure that’s wise?"

"He’s a big boy," Salea said, taking Gabrielle’s arm. "He can take care of himself."

"Gabrielle!" Greeger said as they turned to leave. "I want reports every half hour. Let me know the minute they change their routine out there."

Gabrielle realized that Greeger was choosing her has his right-hand-man … well … right-hand-woman. She felt a keen sense of pride at his trust in her. The same kind of pride she had felt when Xena trusted her abilities enough to allow her to fight on her own. She could remember telling her sister the night she left,left that farm life was not what she was cut out for. This, she thought proudly, was what she had been referring to. . Smiling brightly she said, "Yes sir, General Greeger."

As the glow of Greeger’s lantern faded into the tunnel, the ladies worked their way back up the ladder and headed for the courthouse. As they approached, Gabrielle stopped and examined the sky.

"What is it?" Salea asked.

"Nothing. I’m just checking the position of the sun. We only have about five good hours of daylight left."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"Not necessarily. It all depends on how much we can get done in five hours. Come on."

Salea started toward the courthouse, but stopped again because Gabrielle had not followed her. Gabrielle’s eyes were centered on the horizon, her face creased with worry. . The same sense of dread she had felt when awakening that morning had returned to grip her heart. Because of the busy day preparing for the battle, she had forced any and all thoughts of Xena to the back of her mind. Tonight, she would have to do the same. Constant worrying would only cloud her judgement. But, for now, she allowed herself this brief moment to feel the utter despair inside her. She closed her eyes against the pain she felt and choked back her tears. If Xena was going to return, she would have done so by now. She remembered Xena’s final warning to her: "If they attack before I come back, don’t stay here." She had gone against that warning. Even thoughAlthough she felt guilty for it, she knew it was the right thing to do. She just hoped that Xena was still around later to be angry because of it. ‘Xena, please come back to me,’ she thought. She then took a deep breath and turned her mind back to the task at hand.


Chapter Four

Making the Monster


It was the only definition for what Xena was feeling—peaceful. ‘That's ridiculous!’ she thought. Xena, the mighty warrior, at peace? Was this some inane joke of Aphrodite’s? Possibly, but the feeling was real. Was this the inner peace that Gabrielle so often talked about? She remembered the times when Gabrielle would try to get her to listen to the ocean or listen to the sound of birds. She had seemed desperate for Xena to feel the soothing calm that came with being at peace with yourself, with what you are … and with what you were. Gabrielle would be so proud of her. She’d finally found it. At last!

She felt so light, like she was floating on a cool, calm lake. And when she opened her eyes, she found it to be true. The cool water was all around her. It flowed through her hair, over her skin. She smiled at how wonderful it was. Above her, the stars twinkled in the silent night. She looked at them in a different light for the first time and saw their true beauty. Their light was so bright and pure, like Gabrielle. As she watched, the stars seemed to shift and move until they slowly began to take the shape of Gabrielle’s smiling face. They radiated Gabrielle’s goodness and purity, bringing a smile to Xena’s lips.

"Gabrielle," she called out to her. "I’ve found it. I’ve finally found peace. It’s as wonderful as you’ve told me." Yet, Gabrielle’s face suddenly took on a sad, worried look. "Xena," she said from what seemed like a million miles away, "please come back to me."

"I’m here," she said, dreamily reaching her hand up to touch Gabrielle’s star-filled face. "I’m here, Gabrielle." But, just as her hand seemed to meet Gabrielle’s gleaming cheek, the face disappeared and the stars moved back into their places. Desperately, Xena searched the sky for her friend. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle, where are you?"

Suddenly, the brilliantly shining stars turned into blood red balls of fire. "Gabrielle!!!" she screamed. . In one swift moment, that lovely feeling of peace left her and she boiled with rage. "NOOOO!!!" she cried out, her, her voice seeming to echo from the distance. The cool, calm lake that had floated her gently on its surface, suddenly engulfed her. She sank below its surface, fighting with everything in her to get back. But, the more she fought, the lower she sank until there was nothing but blackness around her. It was as if two strong hands were dragging her down and would not let go. Her lungs screamed for air, but to no avail. Finally, she gave up, took the water into her lungs and hoped that her death would be quick. Maybe then she could feel that wonderful feeling of peace again. Her body began to turn in the water and she began to sink face down … into the open arms of Gaelen. He smiled as her lifeless body floated down to him. She wanted to scream ,scream, but her body was dead to her. She knew what he wanted, but could not find the strength to fight him. In her head, she could hear his voice telling her, "Come to me, Xena. Come to me. Together, we can find the beast that’s in your heart…."

Xena came awake with a gasp, as though she had actually been fighting for air. Realizing that she iwas still in chains, she instinctively fouights against them, but her body violently protested the sudden movement. Though she had, in her unconsciousness, managed to relax from the pummeling she had taken, now every inch of her was awash in fresh pain. It hurt like Tartarus to move or even to breathe, leaving her breath quick and raspy. New bruises were welted across her legs, arms, stomach, back and chest. Bruises and deep cuts transform Xena’s face, taking away the look of the strong, proud warrior. Her lip was swollen and bloody; bruises covered her cheeks and chin. There was a gash above her right eyebrow allowing blood to run down the side of her face.

During most of the day, Xena had gone through some of the worst pain imaginable. Barleus, whose fist struck with the force of a sledgehammer, had done most of the physical damage to her. . But, his only real strength came from the fact that Xena was chained and unable to defend herself. If he were to ever meet her on the battlefield, he would be no match for the Warrior Princess. His big fist may have hurt her, but she did not fear him. No. Gaelen was the one she feared.

Gaelen was the one who watched the whole thing, the one who ordered up the various forms of torture personally prepared for her. Yet, it wasn’t his means of physical torture that made her fear him. It was the way he tortured her mind. He seemed able to read her thoughts and dig into her memory in a way that she couldn’t fathom. . This ability of his, brought up thoughts of Alti and her powers. Xena believed Alti to be much more powerful, but Gaelen iwas still strong, nevertheless. He made her see some of her most horrible deeds, replaying them in her mind again and againrepeatedly. The good she had done he twisted, making it seem that it had been done for her own glory, to fulfill her own selfish needs. The things he accused her of were things only she or Gabrielle would know. He even knew about the lie she had told Gabrielle…the lie she had led Gabrielle to believe. That she had allowed Ming T’ien to live in shame. Gaelen was able to conjure up all the evil in Xena’s life and bring it back to her with startling reality. He wanted her to relive it. He wanted her to believe in it again. He wanted to reclaim the old Xena, perhaps a worse one, and this undoubtedly was for his own demented objective.

Through it all, though, Xena did not speak or respond to his taunts or even acknowledged her pain. She refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her anger and her hate…or seeing that part deep inside her that somehow craved the evil that Gaelen wanted to replace within her. She felt herself wanting to succumb to that evil by breaking free of her chains and killing Barleus. She imagined the kind of satisfaction slitting his throat would have brought her. But, she was still Xena. She was still a mighty warrior. She would not allow herself to be conquered even mentally. So,, so she Xena pushed, punched and kicked those thoughts out of her mind. Instead, she remembered her dream and pondered it. She remembered that wonderful feeling of peace and she realized what it meant. ‘Gabrielle brings peace to me,’ Xena thought. ‘She is the only one who can calm the "beast" inside me.’ Gaelen invaded that dream and took Gabrielle away from her. That was when the peace disappeared and the rage had taken over. And that was when Gaelen had welcomed her with open arms.

Despite her best efforts, however, the dream kept fading away and the rage kept burning. She could feel Gaelen slowly taking control of her feelings. This could not be allowed to continue. If she had to kill herself to stop him from turning her into the monster he wanted her to be, she would. First, though, she had to find a way to save the young girl. Xena’s promise was not a thing she took lightly. However, anything she might do to help the girl escape would have to happen after dark, and from the looks of things outside, the sun was beginning to go down. The problem would be to get Autolycus’ lock-pick out of her breast platebreastplate.

Suddenly, a soft hand on her shoulder broke her from her reverie. "Gabrielle, what are you doing here?" she said frantically, surprised to be looking into Gabrielle’s tear filled eyes and trembling lips..

Gabrielle was staring down at her with tear filled eyes and trembling lips. SheGabrielle looked down at Xena’s battered face and body as tears streamed down her face. "Xena, what have they done to you?" she said, removing a cloth from her bag to wipe the blood from Xena’s face,.

Yet but Xena pulled away, her eyes filleding with terror and concern.

"Gabrielle, you shouldn’t be here. Do you know what he would do to you if he found you here? You have to leave."

"No," Gabrielle said sternly. "I came here for you and I’m not leaving without you."

"I can take care of myself, Gabrielle. If you want to help someone, help her," Xena said pointing to the girl huddled in the corner.

"Who is she?"

Surprised that Gabrielle didn’t jump to attend to the girl, Xena said, "I don’t know. I think she’s one of the nomads. Just help her, Gabrielle. Get her out of here."

"No," was the calm answer.


"You want me to rescue her just so that the two of us can be slaughtered in Phestia? I don’t think so, Xena. I put my life in danger to help you, not anyone else. Besides, she’ll be dead soon anyway. Look at her. She hasn’t eaten.," Gabrielle said nonchalantly as if she were the voice of reason.

Dumbfounded by Gabrielle’s callus words, Xena’s voice became a harsh whisper when she said, "What’s wrong with you?"

Without answering, Gabrielle stared at Xena with a blank expression. She then reached into the breast platebreastplate of Xena’s armor and pulled out Autolycus’ lock-pick and began to unlock Xena’s feet from their chains. There was something strange about the way she was acting. "Nothing’s wrong with me, Xena," Gabrielle said, her voice taking on a more serious tone. "Something’s wrong with you. If I didn’t know better, I’d believe you want to stay here."

Xena’s eyes hooded over and her lip began to curl into a sneer at Gabrielle’s accusation. "My concern is for the girl’s safety first. You know that."

Releasing the lock from Xena’s feet Gabrielle looked up, her expression pained and said, "All I know is that you left and you didn’t come back. You said you would come back and you lied to me."

"What?" Xena said, shocked. She could scarcely believe the way Gabrielle was talking. She had never told Gabrielle that she would come back. "Gabrielle, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never lied to you."

"No? What about Ming Tien?" Gabrielle said as she reached up and began unlocking the chain from Xena’s left hand.

Xena looked up at Gabrielle in shock. How could she have known? It was impossible! She began to search her mind for a time she may have told Gabrielle that Ming Tien was dead when they walked away from him. It was not a thing she wanted anyone to know. Even his evil would not allow her to condone his death. Rather than try to explain it she had allowed Gabrielle to believe they were leaving him alive, sitting on his throne. Now she was throwing it up in Xena's face. "How?" she asked in confusion. "No … Yyou couldn’t have … there’s no way."

"I’m not as stupid as you often think I am, Xena," Gabrielle said with an angry scowl. "I figured it out all by myself. He killed your precious Lao Ma, so you had to have your revenge, no matter what it cost anyone else. It didn’t matter if you left me behind or lied to me. What Xena wanted was all that mattered to you!"

"No, Gabrielle," Xena pleaded. "You’re wrong."

With an expression bordering on pitycontempt Gabrielle said, "Do you really expect me to believe you, Xena?" She unlocked the last lock on Xena’s right hand and simply allowed her to crumble to the ground with no attempt to cushion the fall. Weak as she was, Xena hadn’t the strength to hold herself up and she hit the ground with a thud. Her entire body was racked with horrible pain, but she didn’t cry out. Her head swam with dizziness,; not only from the physical pain, but also from the way Gabrielle was treating her and the cruel look in her eyes as she let her fall. . From the position she had fallen she could not look directly at Gabrielle, so she tried to shift her position, feeling an inner desperation she didn’t yet understand.

"Gabrielle," she strained to say. "Please, let me explain." DumbfoundedOverwhelmed by Gabrielle’s icy coldness, she felt a desperate need to set things straight, but the voice that answered was strangely different and seemed sad rather than cruel.

"How can you possibly explain what you’ve done, Xena?" the voice said with a whimper. Finally, she managed to shift her position on the ground and look into the face of a teary-eyed girl that was not Gabrielle. At first she didn’t recognize the girl but she seemed strangely familiar. Her youthful appearance and trembling lips had thrown Xena for a moment, but recognition came as she peered into the cold hate filled eyes of a teenage … Callisto. The child who’d just watched her parents die at the hand of Xena’s army.

"Callisto," Xena breathed in shock.

"Why? Why did you have to kill my family?" the girl said through broken sobs. Xena managed to rest herself on her elbows and looked up at the sad-faced girl. Despite all, she knew there was no way she could support herself on her legs at this point. She was at this child’s mercy, a child with a deadly, intense hatred. But, how could Callisto be here in this place and time? Could this be a dream? Was this some trick of the gods? Did Gaelen give her something to make her hallucinate?

"Callisto," she said, coughing through her pain. "Even at my worst I was never a killer of women and children. My men were acting against my orders. I never meant to harm your family. For what it’s worth, I am so sorry for what happened."

"I don’t want your apology," the child said, her tone becoming colder than Gabrielle’s had been. "Do you think it’s supposed to make me feel better? Well, it doesn’t."

Lowering her head in shame, Xena asked, "Then what do you want?"

"I want you to feel my pain," was the answer, but the voice had a much more familiar tone. Xena looked up long enough to see her old leather-clad enemy swing a kick that made contact with her face, flipping her over onto her back. Looking up she expected to see Callisto’s evil smile and a sword held high over her head, ready to deliver a deathblow. But again, it was the young Callisto standing over her with her ever present sad, lost expression. How could she be changing so quickly from one time period to another? Xena allowed her head to rest against the ground for a moment, her mind reeling, trying to figure out what was the meaning of all of this.

"I want you to feel my anger," said the voice of the older Callisto again as she slammed her foot into Xena’s stomach. Xena doubled up into a fetal position, cradling her wounded abdomen.

"I want you to feel my hate!" With a fearsome war cry, Callisto flipped into the air and brought both feet down into Xena’s left sside, cracking a rib. Despite efforts to avoid it, this time Xena cried out from the pain. Struggling for breath, Xena again looked up at the young Callisto, who now knelt beside her. Tears stung Xena’s eyes from the pain in her side and breathing was difficult at best.

"You’re a butcher, Xena," the girl said in venomous tone. "It’s in your nature. That is what you will always be. You say you don’t hurt women and children, but what do you think you’re doing when you murder husbands and fathers.? You destroy their families’ lives. You take away their happiness and hope. That is why I don’t want your apology. There’s nothing you can ever do that will make up for the horrible things you’ve done. The ‘good’ you ‘try’ to do amounts to nothing. You are still a butcher."

The words cut at Xena’s heart because they were the same inner emotions she had been fighting against for so long. If the girl was lying, if she had never done such things, perhaps she could feel differently, but everything was true. She had done all the terrible things of witch she was being accused. It sounded so true that she could never accomplish enough good to balance the scales of justice. Yet, young or older, the words were coming from Callisto and were born of an unforgiving hate. Xena strained to close her eyes and mind to these charges. She could not allow herself to dwell on them, because something deep inside believed them. The higher, moral part of herself that Hercules and Gabrielle had helped to create told her, as Gabrielle would have, that she had risen above it all. It told her that she was good and worked to help people now instead of hurt them. But, the more primal part of herself that existed in the deepest, darkest regions of her soul,soul ate Callisto’s words like candy. ‘You’re a butcher…good amounts to nothing…it’s in your nature.’

"She’s right, Xena," said a new voice outside of her mind. Xena opened her eyes to see her mother standing over her. The look on her mother’s face was not a friendly one. . Once when she had gone to defend her mother’s village from Draco and had seen her mother for the first time in many years, she had been met with theis same anger and defiance she was seeing now. It was heart rending. Was there to be no comforter for her in this ordeal?

"You know she is, don’t you?" her mother said. Xena tried to speak out the word "Mother",," but could only mouth it.

"I’m not your mother.," Cyrene quickly answered. "I gave birth to a sweet, innocent child with only love in her eyes. You are a beast, a monster. . You know in your heart, Xena, it is the only thing you can be. Why deny it? Why do you pretend to be something you are not? It was you who took my daughter and changed her into this beast I see before me, you who brought shame upon my kinsmen; and you who killed my son, Lyceus!"

Xena could scarcely believe the hatred she was seeing in her mother’s eyes. They had been through all this before. Her mother had forgiven her. Why was she bringing it up again, and with so much hatred? Something about this wasn’t right. . Cyrene’s face was red and she was shaking with anger, obviously building to some tremendous outburst. Xena could only stare at her mother in disbelief.

"I should have known long ago what you are," Cyrene said, kneeling down and leaning closer to be sure she was heard. "Atrius did. That’s why he came home so drunk that night, wanting to sacrifice you to the god of war. Oh, if I had known he was only trying to return you from where you came."

The words rang in Xena’s head like cymbals, ‘return you from where you came!’ The implication was mind boggling. Staring with wild eyes at her mother, Xena overcame her pain long enough to say, "What…what are you talking about?"

"You were never our daughter, Xena! You are the spawn of Ares!!!"

The statement had jolted her into near insanity. She wanted to scream in protest, but the pain in her side wouldn’t let her. She could only wheeze out a forceful "Noooo!"! while shaking her head in denial. Cyrene had to be lying. The thought of being the daughter of Ares was more painful than the pain in her body. Ares could not be her father!

"You are a mistake that should never have happened, Xena. Atrius was just trying to correct that mistake and I never understood … until now." Cyrene suddenly produced a dagger from behind her back. "I’ve come to finish what he started," she said with curled lips, raising the dagger high over Xena’s battered body and bringingought it down with all of her might.

Instinctively, Xena grabbed her mother’s arm and twisted the dagger from her hand. Despite the intense pain she was in, Xena was able to yank her mother over her and onto the ground beside her. Forcing herself up onto her knees over her mother, she quickly snatched the dagger from off the ground and placed it at the nape of … Gabrielle’s neck?

She stared in shocked disbelief. What had happened to her mother? Something was definitely wrong here. Her mind, always alert and rational, strained to make sense of the strange things happening, but there was no time to draw any useful conclusions. To make things worse, Gabrielle was staring up at her with the most evil eyes she had ever seen, her face twisted into a wickedly evil smile

"Go ahead, Xena." she taunted hatefully. "Kill me. Slit my throat. You know you want to. It’s what you’re good at. It’s what you love to do."

Xena sat back and stared slack jaw at the strange creature she had pinned down. She threw the dagger back to the ground and forced herself to back away from this evil version of Gabrielle, even though her side exploded in pain. "You’re not Gabrielle," she said in a breathless, raspy voice.

Gabrielle got up onto her knees and shuffled over to Xena’s side. Her voice and her expressions were soft and gentle like the Gabrielle Xena knew and loved. "Yes, I am." she said as though surprised. . "Look at me, Xena. Don’t I have her face, her eyes, her hair, her smile." She took Xena’s face between her hands and looked deeply into her eyes. "It’s me, Xena."

Xena backed away, wanting to free her face of those icy cold hands that didn’t belong to Gabrielle. Gabrielle’s eyes suddenly fill with anger and hate again. She roughly jabbed her fingers into Xena’s throbbing ribs sending searing pain throughout her body. She would have collapsed, but for Gabrielle catching her and holding her up as she gasped for air, nearly helpless. Gabrielle lifted up Xena’s face and smiled. Again her expression was sweet and gentle as she ran soft, yet cold fingers down Xena’s face, from her forehead to the edge of her jaw.

"I love you, Xena. But I hate you," she said. Gabrielle seemed to stare off as if in thought. "It’s so strange how that is. Don’t you think? I’ve suffered so much because of you that I hate you. But, I could never leave, because I love you. And I know you love me, Xena. That’s why I also know that I can make you suffer as well." " Her expression again changed from sweet innocence to horribly evil in a moment. The same hand that had softly caressed Xena’s face now tightly grasped her forehead with clamping fingers, digging into her temples. She felt the terrible pain in her head once again and screamed out in anguish. Only now it was more than just the pain. This time, her mind began to come alive with visions and memories of the past. They jumbled together and jumped about in her head like a torrential thunderstorm. The lightening flashed, the wind blew and the rain fell.

"…I will make you the destroyer of nations…" Vivid memories of Xena slicing and dicing race through her mind. She saw people running for their lives, villages burning, her sword burying itself into men’s chests, slicing across faces. She heard her warriors shouting, "…Hail Xena! Hail Xena!…Kill’em all!!! …Hail Xena! Hail Xena!…Kill’em all!!!! …" She saw herself with the Horde’s weapon of choice raised in the air. "I bet you know a lot about conquest…Don’t be ashamed of your past, Xena…As a villain you were awesome…It’s made you the great woman you are today…As a hero you are a sentimental fool…This is war!…Yes, I love it. . Pursuing the enemy…What did you expect? Glamour!…breaking down his defenses, cutting off his only path of retreat…There are no good choices, only lesser degrees of evil…and then closing for the kill…They were killed by Xena, the Warrior Princess…I’m good. . As good as you, and why not? ? You made me…She came down out of the sky in a chariot, throwing thunderbolts and breathing fire…Help me, Xena!…Tell Hades to prepare himself…You can’t just let me die, Xena!…You’ve got to take me with you and teach me everything you know…Teach me! ! Again! ! Teach me how to kill her, Xena!…Wisdom before weapons, Gabrielle. . The moment you pick up a sword, you become a target…You can’t leave me here…and the moment you kill…I killed her. . I killed her, Xena…No, Gabrielle, you couldn’t…No, I did. . I just stabbed her…Accidentally…No, I stabbed her. . Xena, I murdered her…The moment you kill, what?…Everything changes, everything…It hurts inside. . Everything’s changed, everything…A new Xena is born tonight…I’m gonna kill her, Xena!…With a new purpose in life…I’m gonna cut her open and watch her bleed!…Death…"

Xena roared like a wild animal from the anguish building inside her. The pain in her side was all but forgotten as a boiling rage was built up within her. She felt an intense hate for this Gabrielle-thing that had control of her thoughts and feelings. She wanted to kill it. Reaching up she wrenched the small hand from her head despite its attempt to maintain control. In her rage, Xena had regained her power. Growling through clenched teeth, she backhanded this thing with her other hand sending it to the ground with a shocked expression and a bloody lip. Yet the expression was temporary, blending into a snarl.

"That’s it, Xena!" the Gabrielle-thing taunted. "Feel your hate. Let it flow through your veins."

They got to their feet simultaneously. Though Xena’s legs were week and wobbly she no longer felt the pain. She could only feel the anger and hate that Gabrielle seemed to want. She looked at Gabrielle through hooded, evil eyes, her mouth curled into a snarl.

"You want to kill me, don’t you, Xena?" Gabrielle said, enjoying the reaction. She saw Xena’s snarl reshape into a wicked grin and knew she was poised to attack. "Then, come on. Attack me," she taunted, motioning her forward with her fingers.

Xena was overcome with rage and made the move to attack, but just as she did, Gabrielle made the mistake of smiling sweetly, and bringing to mind all the memories of the sweet, innocent Gabrielle she knew and loved. She stopped abruptly halting in her attack. Gabrielle’s smile faded, not sure what was happening. In a second she turned evil again. "Don’t just stand there!" she screamed. "Attack me! Attack me, Xena!"

Even Gabrielle’s hateful eyes could not invoke the hatred she desired to see in Xena’s eyes. Enraged, Gabrielle stepped up and slapped Xena dead in the face. "Attack me, Xena!" sShe screamed again. Xena stood her ground and refused to submit. Gabrielle delivered another stinging slap. "Attack me, I said!"

Xena turned the other cheek and looked away, straining to maintain her control. The rage still boiled inside, but she would not hurt Gabrielle, not even this one. Suddenly, a powerful hand grabbed her face and turned it forward. Setting her face to resist this torture, she looked back, but now into the insane face of Callisto.

"Then attack Me, Xena!"

There was no love lost for this evil creature as Xena’s rage boiled out of control. . She attacked Callisto with a vengeance knocking her to the floor and falling upon her before she could get up. They rolled around on the floor, fighting. Xena managed to get on Callisto’s back and began smashing her face into the floor and punching her in the back of the head. Callisto could not break the hold and was soon subdued. . Xena grabbed at one of the leg shackles that had bound her and wound the chain around Callisto’s neck, pulling it tight, choking off her air. She pulled tighter and felt Callisto’s windpipe crush underneath the force of the chains. Tasting victory she snarled and smiled at once, pulling the chain back in one quick, forceful jerk that snapped Callisto’s neck. Xena almost drooled at the pleasure of finally putting an end to this pathetic creature. Xena moved off of Callisto’s body and turned her over only to look down on the contorted face of … f - Gabrielle.

This was not Gabrielle, nor had it been Callisto. It could only be a cruel and hateful trick. Yet looking down at Gabrielle’s face with bulging eyes and dangling tongue tore at Xena’s heart like nothing she could ever remember. In horror, she collapsed back on the floor next to the dead body, burying her face in her arms. She couldn’t believe she had been induced to perform such a deed. After a moment she sat up and removed the chain from around thiser body’s badly bruised and misshapen neck. It looked so much like Gabrielle. In a moment of uncontrolled anguish she picked the body up and cuddled it in her arms. "No, no! ! Gabrielle, no! I’m so sorry," she cried pitifully. . Tears flooded her eyes as her anguished scream reverberated throughout the camp.

Xena’s breath caught with a start, however, when she felt the body move, hopefulness showing in her eyes. But, her hopeful delight faded when she looked down into an evil smile that broke into insane laughter. The eyes were no longer bulging. They now held an evil malice so profound that Xena dropped the body to the ground and backed away snarling. The Gabrielle-thing got up onto its knees and leaned toward her with an evil smirk. "You did it, Xena! I knew you could. Now, for the final test."

Completely stunned, Xena was unable to move. She could not even resist as Gabrielle delivered a crushing blow to Xena’s head with a force beyond Gabrielle’s capability, sending Xena to the floor unconscious. As this thing stood over Xena’s seemingly lifeless body, it began to shift and contort itself until it wore the black battle armor of a warrior. The hair shortened and a beard appeared on the face, until finally, Gaelen was standing over Xena. He twisted and turned his neck until it snapped back into place with a sickening click.

"Yes, Xena, you did it. You’re mine now." He laughed quietly to himself and left the tent. On his way to to prepare for battle, he ordered a guard to secure Xena once again in chains. In the corner of the tent, a young girl pretended to sleep. Just as Gaelen left, she opened her eyes and stared at Xena. She was very much afraid.


Salmoneus, a jug of water in one hand and empty plate in the other, sat down at the edge of a jutting rock in the back of the cave and heaved a heavy sigh. Why, why, why had Gabrielle given him this job? Sure it was better than facing a pack of warriors armed with swords intent on killing him. But, he’d just about had enough of the crying babies, whining adults and the complaining. . "I’m hungry." "When can we go home?" " They were driving him crazy!

He was tired, bushed and completely wiped out. All night and all day he had been running back and forth, back and forth. It only got worse after Salea left, saying something about going back for stragglers. He knew why she was going back and it was not stragglers. Trying to get anyone to help after that was nearly impossible, but he continued to work, harder than he’d worked in his life, trying to keep these people happy. If even one of them failed to appreciate the seriousness of this situation, or felt that hiding in this cave all day long wasn’t necessary, they could break down the morale and go running back to the village, possibly to their death. Gabrielle would kill him for certain if he let that happen, but the ungratefulness of these people was practically unbearable. All of them, Xena, himself, Gabrielle, and Salea and General Greeger were all doing their best to keep these people alive and all they could do is complain. Salmoneus had not heard a ‘thank you’, yet.

One older man walked up to Salmoneus and grabbed the jug of water from his hand. "Gimme that water," he demanded hatefully.

Salmoneus eyed him tolerantly, shaking his head and said with a sigh, "Your welcome." Presently, a little boy began walking his way. He could not have been any more than about four or five. He was looking at Salmoneus curiously. . "And what do you want? Not food I hope," he said displaying his empty plate. "Because I don’t have any."

"No. I don’t want no food. I ain’t hungry."

"Well, I hope it isn’t water, because mine just got stolen."

"Nope. I don’t want water neither."

"Look, kid, I’m tired. What do you want? Spit it out or go away."

The lad looked at him with a childish frown., "I just wanna help, Salmoneus."

"Help? How can you help?"

"I’m gonna help you fight the bad guys. I’m gonna get a sword and cut’em in half!"

Salmoneus smiled and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders, a mite disturbed at this four-year-old wanting to kill. "Now, now, you don’t really want to do that. Do you?"

"But, bad guys like to be killed!" the lad said confidently.

Salmoneus covered a smile with his hand. ‘Kids’, he thought. "Oh, don’t I wish they did." He knew better, of course, but thinking back to some of the fights he’d seen Xena or Hercules engaged in, he nodded and said through a grin, "But, it certainly seems that way sometimes, doesn’t it?" The boy nodded his head. "What’s your name, son?"

"Kyleus. I really can help you fight the bad guys if you want."

"You really want to help me?"


"Well, before the bad guys get here, you can start by helping me hand out water and food."

Kyleus folded his arms in a stubborn stance. This was definitely not what he hand in mind. Salmoneus chuckled and ruffled the boy’s hair. "Hey, come on. War isn’t all about fighting. We have to protect the people too. Don’t you think?"

"Yeah, I guess so," he said reluctantly. "But, when the bad guys get here I’m gonna beat’em up."

"I have no doubt at all, Kyleus. Come on." " Chuckling, Salmoneus stood. As he directed the boy towards the food and water station he heard a sound from behind him. He stopped in his tracks, listened and slowly turned around.

"Did-did you hear that?" he asked with a gulp.

"It’s the bad guys! Let’s go get’em!" Kyleus cried out gleefully in a shout that carried through the rest of the cave. Suddenly, everyone was quiet. Kyleus made a break in the direction of the sound with Salmoneus grabbing at his shirt. In the darkness, beyond the reach of the torchlight, the sound became louder.

"Let go, Salmoneus! I’m gonna get’em!" Kyleus wrenched himself from Salmoneus’ grasp, picked up a stick and ran into the darkness.

"Kyleus, no!" he said moving to catch him, but stopped when he heard a short scuffle and then…"Ooowww!!!"," then "Hey, put me down!"." Out of the darkness, came a man with a beard and long sun-bleached hair, covered in moss and spider webs. He held Kyleus under his arms, a scowl creasing his face.

"Okay, who’s this brat belong to?" Greeger asked as he stepped into the light. The crowd released a heavy sigh when they saw their armored General. One woman came running up to claim Kyleus, who was smiling brightly.

"I got him, Mom! I’m big and strong like Hercules!" He lifted up the sleeve of his shirt and flexed his small biceps. "See!"

Salmoneus felt his heartbeat slowly beginning to return to normal. Relieved, he said, "Ah, General Greeger, it is good to see you!" and shook Greeger’s hand generously.

"Salmoneus," the general said, returning the gesture. Actually, he was not greeting Salmoneus with the same enthusiasm. In truth, he was not very fond of Salmoneus. He had never liked the friendship between him and Salea. . Salmoneus was vaguely aware of this, but had a way of ignoring unpleasantness. . When Salea had left earlier he knew that Greeger was the reason. And now he was here and she was there, what irony. ‘Wait a minute,’ Salmoneus thought. ‘How did he get in here? Though he was still wearing his favorite fake smile, his voice betrayed concern as the thoughts became words. "Uh, how did you get in here?"

Pointing behind him Greeger said, "An old tunnel we built between the cave and the village a while back. We’re evacuating the rest of the villagers through it. They should be arriving shortly."

"You’re sending more people?" Salmoneus groaned.

Seeing the stressed etched on Salmoneus’ face, he added, "And a couple of soldiers to help out."

"Oh, thank the gods," Salmoneus said, then whispered, "You have no idea how difficult these people have been."

Just then a man stepped up to speak for the crowd. "Has there been an attack like we were told?" he asked.

"No. But there is a small brigade encamped outside of the village," Greeger said, drawing a murmur from the crowd. "I don’t expect the attack until nightfall. Don’t worry. We’ll be ready for them."

"Is everyone all right over there? Gabrielle, Salea," Salmoneus asked.

"They’re okay," Greeger said, leading him away to speak privately. "They’ve killed two of my soldiers so far. I won’t say their names. I don’t want it getting out right now, so keep it under your…" he looked Salmoneus up and down then added, "…toga. Actually, right now I’m worried about Xena."

"Xena? What’s wrong?"

"She hasn’t come back since she left last night. You haven’t seen her, have you?"

"Me?" he asked, his brows drooping. "No, she hasn’t come here. Do you think she could be…"

"No, I don’t," Greeger said, somewhat half hearted. "If they tried, they’re not the first. I even tried to kill her myself years ago. It’ll be a miracle of the gods if anyone succeeds in killing that woman. What I’m worried about is her changing sides on us. For all we know, she’ll be the one at the head of that army when it comes."

"Then, you don’t know Xena very well. I do. She went out there to stop them and you can be sure that she’s doing all she can."

Greeger didn’t seem very convinced, but he, of course, wanted to believe it so he said, "Well, I hope you’re right. But, I’ll believe it when I see it. Anyway, when my men get here, give them all the assistance you can. It’s possible that the army may need to use the tunnels as a means of escape later on. Help them to figure out a way to block the hole behind us, just in case anyone else were to follow us through."


"Oh, and keep an eye on that kid, before he gets himself into trouble."

"He just wants to fight the bad guys," Salmoneus laughed.

"I hope he doesn’t get the chance," Greeger said thoughtfully. "Keep him with his mother."

"Sure. What are you going to do?"

"I’ve got to get back. Get yourself ready. You’ll have fifty or more evacuees arrivingevacuees arriving soon, so make some room." With that he disappeared into the darkness.

Salmoneus sighed heavily. He was tired. He did not want to have to deal with these people anymore, and now he had more coming. Since there was no recourse, he turned back to the people and clapped his hands for attention. "Okay, everybody. We need to make some room. We’ve got lots more coming." They grumbled and complained about the situation. "Come on, show a little consideration and help me out here. If you do that, I promise next Harvest Festival I won’t even show up. How’s that?"

He hadn’t expected such a positive reaction to that, and he was a mite taken back by it, but at least it worked. They got busy making room with a lot less complaining.


Gabrielle knelt on the floor in Greeger’s house, as she held an older woman’s hand and helped her get onto the ladder. She was the last person to descend the ladder into the underground tunnel.

"Don’t worry, it’ll be okay. You’ll be safe in the caves," Gabrielle said as the woman disappeared into the hole.

Salea walked through the open door and stood beside her. "Is that the last one?" she asked.

"Yes," Gabrielle answered eyeing Salea curiously. "Are you going with them?"

"Are you?" was the testing answer.

"Xena told me that if she didn’t come back, I should go with the villagers. That I should stay with them in the caves. But, I’m staying here. It’s what Xena would do if she were here."

"Gabrielle, honey, maybe she’s right. You could get hurt or killed. I’m sure Xena is just trying to protect you."

"I know she is, but Xena can be a little over-protective at times. I’ll be fine. I know we can win this. That army will run away wishing they’d never heard of Phestia." Gabrielle smiled confidently at Salea.

Just then, the sound of someone ascending the ladder drew their attention. They watched as Greeger pulled himself up out of the hole, still covered in moss and spider webs. Having overheard them, Greeger said, "Now, that’s the kind of confidence I like to hear in my soldiers."

"I’m not exactly a soldier."

"Of course you are!" he laughed, slapping her roughly on the back. She tried to smile but actually wished he’d stop hitting her. Her shoulder still hurt from the last time.

"My, you look lovely. When’s the last time you’ve had a bath?" Salea teased.

"Bath? We don’t have time for baths," he said, removing spider webs from his hair and clothes. "We have an army to defeat. But, I promise you, sweetheart, when this is all over you can take me out to the river and give me the washin’ my mother never did."

Salea looked at Gabrielle with raised eyebrows, making Gabrielle laugh. "You’re on, big boy," she grinned. Gabrielle could see that these two were so obviously in love it was sickening, though she doubted they knew it themselves.

"So soldier, what’s the report?" Greeger asked Gabrielle, managing to tear his eyes away from Salea for a moment. She opened her mouth to tell him that not much had changed since he left and that all his men were ready, but the words never had time to escape her lips. The deep, bellowing sound of a horn signaled the first wave of attack was beginning. Greeger quickly slammed the trap door shut and threw the rug and chair back over it.

"It’s time, ladies. Are we ready?" Two serious, but worried faces were his only reply. No one was ever ready for a war.

Each of them raced towards the center of the city armed with their own weapon. The sound of cheering warriors outside the city walls grew louder and the pounding sound of hoof beats filled the square. Phestian soldiers ran this way and that, manning their battle stations. Several rows of soldiers were stationed just beyond the large gate; their first defense against Gaelen’s army should they break through. . Gabrielle looked off into the horizon and watched the sun disappear behind a row of hills. If thoughts of leaving had ever entered her mind before, it was too late to high tail it and run now.

Greeger ascended the stairs with Gabrielle and Salea close behind. They separated at the top, Gabrielle going off to the left wall and Salea going to the right wall, to help command those areas. Greeger was surprised by the look of fear on his soldiers’ faces when he reached the wall’s edge. Looking out over the wall, he and felt his blood run cold. They were facing a greater force than he had expected—on foot and on horseback. Immediately, his eyes focused on the one in the chariot. The warrior wore polished black armor with a black metal helmet to match. The fading sunlight glinted gold and orange off the black metal and Greeger swore he could see the man’s cold, black eyes peering directly out at him through that helmet. This was obviously the leader, the man named Gaelen that the warrior had announcedtold him of earlier that morning.

As he watched, Gaelen gave his first command, which Greeger could barely make out over the roaring of the massive army below him, and through the crowd of warriors came men hefting a huge battering ram. They run and smash into the heavy wooden gate with tremendous force, shaking even the walls beneath their feet. As the warriors back up for another run, Greeger commanded his archers to shoot. Following their command, the soldiers began to pick off warriors here and there along the battering ram, but the ones they shot were quickly replaced.

Gaelen’s warriors tried to scale the walls on all sides. All of these positions are manned and rigged with the traps that Greeger and Gabrielle had come up with. Gabrielle, as did Salea on her own side, helped the soldiers to fight off a barrage of warriors scaling the walls. Gabrielle beat them off with her staff while the soldiers stabbed and sliced. Despite their best efforts, warriors were beginning to make it over the walls, fighting, killing and being killed. Gabrielle decided to unleash the trap.

"Give the signal!" she shouted as an opposing warrior appeared next to her, all clad in leather with an ugly smile that showed rotten teeth. He brought his sword down but Gabrielle blocked it with her staff. They held in this position for several seconds until Gabrielle was finally able to shove him off. She chose that split second, in which the warrior was off balance, to shatter those rotten teeth with one blow from the end of her staff.

Zantus suddenly appeared and pushed the brute off the side of the wall. Turning to Gabrielle, he asked with concern, "Gabrielle, are you all right?"

"I’m fine." She turned back to the soldier she’d just spoken to, and shouted again with more force, "Give the signal to release the traps!"

He nodded and sent one flaming arrow into the air. Salea and the other commanders along the walls saw it and shouted in unison, "Release the traps!"

Along each wall, a soldier brought down a sword with all his might, slicing through a thick rope. A huge heavy log hanging from long ropes was released sending the log into a long sweeping arc that wiped out the scaling warriors like a windshield wiper. Gabrielle watched with a sick feeling in her stomach as the log hit these men, shattering their bodies. . She recalled a time when Xena had been killed by a swinging log similar to this one. Remembering it gave Gabrielle a shutter. It had taken a miracle to bring her back. Too good for her own good, Gabrielle hoped they only suffered from broken bones.

At the front, the battering ram was beginning to make headway, despite the marksman’s aim. Gaelen seemed to have an endless supply of martyrs. These men stepped over the bodies of the fallen ones to continue hammering at the gate. Greeger ran to the edge of the wall and looked out over at the gate. He could see that the heavy wooden bar holding the gate closed was beginning to split. Before long they would be smashing through that gate and there was little he could do.

Gaelen shouted another order. . Greeger and his men watched as hundreds of flaming arrows were raised into the air and released, along with a flaming ball of fire released from a catapult.

"GET DOWN!" he shouted. From within the midst of the men, the horn signaling an incoming attack was blown again. Gabrielle turned long enough to watch the flaming arrows and the one fireball flying into the city. It struck a nearby house, going off like a small bomb. . The arrows struck other structures and some of the soldiers standing just inside the gate. Buildings began to burn, lighting up the night. Gabrielle, though, had more something more immediate to contend with. More warriors began scaling the walls, intensifying the soldiers efforts to resist them. Unfortunately, their defenses were starting to grow weak. It wouldn’t be long before they surged through the city.

All Greeger could do at the moment was to continue in the first defensive, to keep shooting their arrows into the warriors below. The real fighting would begin once Gaelen and his men were inside Phestia’s walls, which he could tell wouldn’t be much longer by the split in the wooden bar. It had grown wider in only minutes. Greeger returned his attention to the crazed warriors below him and saw that Gaelen had commanded another barrage of flaming arrows and another fireball. The fiery weapons flew over their heads into the city, igniting more buildings. Greeger turned to see this city, his home now for ten years, being obliterated before his very eyes, though Gaelen’s army had not yet entered the city. He could still hear the pounding of the battering ram at the gate.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that one of Gaelen’s warriors had made it over the wall and was battling his way to the stairway. "You’ll have to go through me," he said in an undertone. Taking out his sword he faced the warrior charging in his direction. Their swords met in a clash of sparks, their clanging being heard for several minutes, Greeger, of course, getting the upper hand in the end. The warrior made one wrong move and took Greeger’s sword directly through the heart. Feeling a sudden fury, Greeger sheathed his sword and lifted the dead warrior onto his shoulder. Shouting as loud as he could above the roar below, Greeger made sure he was heard when he said, "Gaelen! This is what happens to your warrior scum when they cross my walls!" In a display of his strength, he lifted the dead body above his head and hurled it to the foot of Gaelen’s chariot.

A sudden silence surrounded the chariot and the men at the front gate. Only the sounds of the crackling of the burning buildings, the fighting behind them and the continuing pounding of the battering ram were to be heard. Gaelen looked down at the body before him, then up at Greeger. Greeger couldn’t see his face, so he couldn’t read his expression, but he got the feeling that Gaelen felt nothing at all for this man who had given his life for Gaelen’s quest. There seemed to be no anger, no rage, no emotion in the killing of one of his men.

When no response came from the forces below, Greeger’s men cheered their General’s seeming victory. It seemed to give them a greater confidence. Greeger, however, did not feel confident. They perceived remorse from this commander, but Greeger felt sure that if he could hear him he would hear laughter. As the roar of the warriors started up again, Greeger watched Gaelen lean over the edge of his chariot and speak to one of his men. As the warrior ran off to perform an unknown duty, Greeger turned his eyes back only to find Gaelen’s cold eyes staring intently back at him. This was a warrior with no heart or compassion, only a lust for blood.

They had fashioned some ingenious firebombs out of old bottles, some lamp oil and strips of clothing for wicks. He ordered his soldiers to open fire with the homemade firebombs and they began throwing them over the walls at the warriors below. The idea spread to the other soldiers along the wall until fires were blazing not only inside the city, but all around the city as well.

From her vantage pointvantagepoint on the wall, Gabrielle watched warriors fleeing from the approaching firebombs, some being blown through the air by the force of the blast. Still others ran screaming with their clothes and hair burning. Gabrielle was troubled by the look of pure hatred on the faces of Greeger’s men as they threw these firebombs upon their attackers. True, it was kill or be killed, but they seemed to feel no regret, no concern for the lives of fellow humans. She began to feel a strong sense of guilt about what she was doing. Before, it had felt right to be here fighting for the peoples’ freedom and lives. Now, all she could see was death and suffering on both sides. . Gabrielle suddenly felt nauseous and she didn’t want to be there anymore.

A loud cracking sound caught her attention and she swirled around to see the heavy wooden bar holding the gate snap. . Their defense had finally been breached. The heavy gate doors swung open, banging with tremendous force on the heavy walls. Gabrielle felt the tremor run up her spine.

To the misfortune of the attacking warriors, traps that Gabrielle had helped to engineer lay waiting for them. She watched with horror as the large vat of hot boiling tar, released by the opening of the gate, tipped over on the charging warriors below. . Even from her distance away, Gabrielle could hear their screams of pain.

The next wave of warriors charged even as their comrades were dying and writhing in pain at the foot of the gate. They suffered a fate just as terrible. Just in front of the defensive line of Phestian soldiers, a camouflaged trench had been dug. Just beneath the camouflage were razor sharp spears rigged to stand on end. The warriors, oblivious to anything save the soldiers in their path, kept charging until they fell to their deaths in the trenches. The next wave, however, knew what to expect. These warriors would be the soldiers’ real test. They were outnumbered and most probably would not last the night, but they stood their ground and faced their attackers bravely.

As Gabrielle watched General Greeger descend the stairs to help defend his home, her attention was diverted by a sound on the other side of the wall. There was a rumbling coming from deep in the woods, but she could see nothing in the dark. Dead, burning bodies still littered the ground, yet the command of one warrior caused the others to stand aside.

Zantus suddenly appeared at Gabrielle’s side. "What’s going on in the name of the Gods was that?" he asked, his, his eyes full of fear.

"I don’t know, but I have a feeling it’s not good." Gabrielle suddenly wished she had listened to Xena. How could she possibly have been so stupid to want to stay here and fight in a war of all things? What was she thinking? Deep inside, Gabrielle realized what had driven her. It was anger, pure and simple. Xena had left her holding the reigns while she went off to do her heroics. It had made her angry. So, she had felt the need to show Xena that she could be heroic, too. And now look where she was. In the middle of a war, outnumbered and about to be killed. All she’d shown Xena was how stupid she could be, and Xena wasn’t even here to see it. Thank the gods! she thought.

"Look!" Zantus exclaimed. "What in Tartarus is that?!"

A huge contraption was being rolled out in the small clearing that the warriors had made. It wasn’t a catapult. ItThis wasn’t the first of such weapons Gabrielle had seen, but thisat one was different. Four large wheels supported a long floor tilted on a pivot. A long steeple shaped derrick of thick wooden posts extended beyond the back of the floor. It took a dozen of Gaelen’s men, pulling on a two wheeled block, to lift the derrick into an upright position and attach it to the floor. The top of the derrick was also fitted with a large wheel supporting a rope. The rope was attached to a chain sling holding a huge boulder. With a makeshift wench, they were able to lift the bolder a foot or so above the floor and secure it. By standing on extensions at the four corners of the floor, they were able to set the derrick to swaying which caused the bolder to swing. It took several warriors applying their weight, but they began to make the big boulder swing back and forth. That’s when Gabrielle and everyone else on the wall realized what they were doing, but too late. There was no time to react.

The boulder hit the wall with such tremendous force that it was felt and heard all around the city. Greeger stopped in his fighting long enough to notice a large crack split across the section of wall Gabrielle was commanding. He hadn’t seen the contraption and didn’t know what was going on, but he knew that Gabrielle was in terrible danger. "Gabrielle!" he shouted as the butt of his sword smashed into the scull of the man he was fighting.

Those who had not been thrown from the wall by the blow from the large boulder were scrambling for the exits. The closest exit was the stairwell at the front entrance, but Gabrielle knew they would not make it in time. The boulder was once again swinging in the direction of the wall and this time it would crumble it. Zantus could see this also. He had to think fast and could see no other way out but to leap onto the straw roofs of the buildings below them. It was their only chance at survival. He grabbed Gabrielle, still clinging to her staff, and rolled both their bodies over the edge. There was no time for Gabrielle to wonder why. Before she knew it, they were crashing through the straw roof and the wall was crumbling behind them.

Greeger watched in horror as Gabrielle plummeted to her death. A deep rage built up inside him and he bellowed like a wild animal. . Suddenly, however, he heard a horse and chariot ride into his city, and turned to see the hooded, dark warrior, who called himself Gaelen, getting down from his chariot, brandishing a sword. He avoided the trenches without even looking at them and walked over the dead, his own and Greeger’s, as if they were not even there. At that moment, every one of Gaelen’s warriors backed away from Greeger. . It was as if, by his actions, Gaelen had told them ‘This one is mine.’ Greeger accepted his challenge with a battle cry and he charged forward to meet Gaelen’s sword with his own.

Several minutes passed before Gabrielle came-to inside what used to be a tavern. In fact, it was the very tavern where they’d ran into Salmoneus the night before. It was completely destroyed now, and not only from their falling through the roof, but huge chunks of what was left of the wall had fallen through as well. . It was dark here and she could barely make out her surroundings, save for the fact that she knew she was in the tavern. But, she couldn’t find Zantus, who had jumped with her in his arms. Her eyes searched the darkness, but no one was there except for the bodies that she could see here and there half-buried underneath a mound of rubble. Gabrielle wondered how many had died when the wall crumbled to the ground. Fearing that Zantus may have been among the dead, she called out for him.

"Zantus…" She" She sat up and tried to move herself, screaming as a terrible pain shot up her right leg making her collapse back on the ground.

Her scream awakened Zantus a short distance away. He felt light-headed and winced from a pain in his head. Blood oozed from a wide gash in his forehead. He heard Gabrielle again, moaning in pain. "Gabrielle, is that you?"

"Yes. Help me. I’m hurt. It’s my leg."

Zantus stood as quickly as the dizziness in his head would allow and went to Gabrielle’s side. She was bleeding from several cuts to herself as well. What looked bad was the small mound of rocks and other debris that covered her legs.

"Lie still. I’ll get you out," he said, beginning to remove the heavy rocks and debris from Gabrielle’s legs. When he was finally able to uncover them, it didn’t look good. Seeing the condition her legs were in seemed to make the pain worse. Either from the fall itself or from the falling rocks, Gabrielle’s right leg was crushed. It turned inward at an odd angle and a piece of bone stuck out from her leg where blood was flowing profusely. . "Oh gods, it hurts," she said, tears stinging her eyes.

The building began to shudder and Zantus and Gabrielle looked up to see more rocks falling from above. Zantus immediately covered Gabrielle with his own body to shield her. "Come on. We’ve got to get you out of here," he said, quickly grabbing Gabrielle’s arm and slinging it over his shoulder.

She cried out in pain as he stood her up, warm blood flowing down her leg and dripping onto the ground. She felt light-headed, either from the pain or from the loss of blood, she couldn’t be sure which. "Wait." She pointed to the ground. "My staff."

Zantus saw her staff at his feet on the ground. Since bending down and picking it up would be impossible without causing Gabrielle more pain, he decided he’d better try another way. He hooked the end of the staff with his foot, then kicked it up into the air so that Gabrielle could grab it.

"That was pretty good," she managed to say.

"I learned that working in the fields. That’s how I pick up my garden tools when my hands are full. I can’t wait to get back to that once this is all over."

"We’ll be okay, if we can make it to the tunnel," Gabrielle said, trying, trying to be reassuring. They could hear the fighting still going on outside. It seemed to be picking up momentum. Their chances of surviving out there weren‘t much more than inside the crumbling building, but it was better than nothing. The groaning of the building was getting worse and it wouldn’t be long before it completely collapsed, so Zantus moved Gabrielle and himself out of there as quickly as he could, practically picking Gabrielle up off the ground as he did so. They had cleared it just a couple of feet when the building collapsed to the ground. They turned around to see the large gap in the wall that the boulder had created and marveled at the height from which they fell. It was a miracle that either of them was still alive.

Unfortunately, they had no time to wonder at their good fortune. A battle was raging before them. Several warriors were coming their way to pick out the two wounded. They would have to fight. Gabrielle had no choice, even though she was beginning to feel weaker. She quickly placed all her weight on her left leg and used her staff to keep her balance until she had to use it.

As the first warrior came at her, Gabrielle balanced herself on her left leg and fought the oncoming attacker with her staff. Her right leg dangled in the air, causing her tremendous pain and splattering blood everywhere. Several times her right foot touched ground and sent lightening bolts of pain up her leg and through her spine. Gabrielle felt like she would pass out, but she kept her strength and defeated her enemy.

Zantus had picked up a dead soldier’s sword and left his attacker dead on the ground with his intestines exposed. He turned to aid Gabrielle, when he saw another warrior coming up from behind her. Zantus rammed his sword and dropped a warrior coming up from behind her by the sword directly into the warrior’s gut.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, was watching in the distance as Greeger fought a dark-hooded warrior. They were an equal match and it seemed as if the battle between them had been going on for some time. She was understandably concerned for Greeger since a matched battle could go either way. She felt Zantus take hold of her arm. "He can take care of himself. Come on, we have to go!" Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Zantus’ shoulder once more and they headed for the entrance of the tunnel in Greeger’s home.

In the middle of battling Greeger, Gaelen suddenly sensed Gabrielle’s presence. She was nearby. He had come into the village for the specific reason of finding her and he wasn’t going to leave without her. This, however, was nearly his undoing for it let Greeger get the better of him. With one quick, heavy swipe of his sword to Gaelen’s helmeted head, Greeger knocked him to the ground and sent his helmet flying through the air. Taking the advantage, Greeger lifted his sword high into the air with the intention of slicing it directly through Gaelen’s cold heart, but Gaelen rolled out of the way just barely in time and kicked out a foot that sent Greeger flying. This time, when Gaelen got to his feet, he stood over Greeger with his sword at the base of Greeger’s throat. Greeger looked up into Gaelen’s face for the first time and saw an evil that made him shutter.

"Understand this, Greeger," Gaelen said, the look on his face deadly. This left Greeger to wonder how Gaelen knew his name, but he had no time to voice it. "You will never defeat me," Gaelen continued confidently. "I will always win."

"I wouldn’t count on that," Greeger growled.

"Oh, I would. You are a low form of life that scurries about on this planet with no purpose to your pathetic existence. That’s why I’m going to do you all a favor and exterminate every one of you." Gaelen looked up in time to see a man taking a limping Gabrielle away from his line of sight. He was running out of time. "You see, I didn’t need to take your head before I took your city, but if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll take your head anyway." Raising Xena’s sword in an arc above Greeger, Gaelen was into his swing when something big slammed into the back of the head. For a second, the world swam and he stumbled, off balance. He could feel the blood running down the back of his neck.

Salea had thrown a stone, almost beyond her ability to lift, at Gaelen, giving Greeger the chance he needed to get back on his feet and out from the path of the sword. Gaelen knew who had thrown the stone before he even saw her. He had been too intent on his battle to concentrate on others while fighting, but now her thoughts were coming through clearly. Her name was Salea and she was Greeger’s woman. He’d already seen her in the General’s mind. She would pay for her attack on him.

Salea, already over confident, called out defiantly, "You think you’re a big warrior man?! Let’s see how you handle a woman!"

"Salea, back off! He’s mine!" Greeger yelled, having regained his sword.

Gaelen looked at Salea with pure disgust. . "You’re not a woman, Salea! You are a cheap whore!" There was, of course, nothing to be gained by insulting a woman of her station, but because he could read deep in her mind and knew that was what she really thought of herself, he used it against her to gain the upper hand.

That only succeeded in pissing Salea off, which was, of course, Gaelen’s plan in the first place. In anger, she threw another rock, but this time Gaelen caught it bare-handedbarehanded. Salea’s anger turned to sudden fearrealized that he is a formidable opponent and her anger turned to sudden fear. With no time to react, Greeger could only watch as Gaelen returned the rock to Salea with much more force than he had received it.

The rock made contact with her head, sending her to the ground, unconscious. With eyes ablaze, Greeger charged once again coming at Gaelen with his sword, but Gaelen had no more time for this. With one hand, he produced Xena’s chakram from the folds of his black cape and sent it flying in Gabrielle’s direction. The other hand was extended open-palmed in Greeger’s direction, which sent him flying backwards as if someone had just released him from a catapult. Greeger flew far enough to slam against the wall with tremendous force and slid down slipping into consciousness. Gaelen hadn’t wanted to use his power out here in the open, but he had no more time to deal with Greeger. He had other business to tend to.

Gabrielle and Zantus were just about to turn a corner down one of the city streets toward Greeger’s home. Warriors and soldiers ran this way and that, slicing and killing each other. Zantus just wanted to avoid them, but it wasn’t easy. He had to stop several times to beat off crazed warriors. One came at them, and Gabrielle hefted her staff long enough to knock him off his feet. She was lucky she was able to hold onto her staff. She was getting so weak,; her vision was beginning to blur.

"Come on, Gabrielle. We’re almost—UH!" Gabrielle looked over at Zantus in shock, not believing what she was seeing. His eyes and mouth were both opened wide in surprise and pain. He looked into her eyes and began to slowly sink to the ground.

"Zantus! ! Oh no! ! Zantus!" she cried out, her bad leg forcing her to sink to the ground with him, as his eyes became lifeless. . Gabrielle screamed in pain as her right leg hit the ground and collapsed with Zantus landing in her lap. The pain was horrendous causing her to slip in and out of consciousness for several minutes before she finally could open her eyes and keep them open. The death of this good man and her own pain brought a flood of tears to her eyes and she sobbed pitifully. When she forced herself to sit up, the sob died in her throat. Gabrielle stared down at Zantus’ back in horrified disbelief. She had assumed it was an arrow that had taken him down, but what she saw protruding from his back was not an arrow. It was the other half of Xena’s chakram. Gabrielle felt her blood run cold and a shiver run itself up her spine. Was this Xena’s doing? And if so, what could possibly be her reason? The last time she’d felt this way about Xena was when Xena had hunted her down trying to kill her daughter, Hope.

A shadow, back-lit by the roaring fires, fell across her and Zantus’ body. Gabrielle fully expected to look up and see Xena standing over her, her eyes closed to half slits, an evil sneer creasing her mouth and an expression of pleasure on her face, having made her kill. She did not expect the man who stood there, though the expression on his face was the same she had imagined on Xena’s. She felt herself go cold all over in fear of him. She had never seen a truer expression of evil on anyone’s face … except for perhaps Callisto. She didn’t exactly know why, but she somehow knew that this man, with the winding scar down his face, was Gaelen.

"Gabrielle," he said, his evil eyes flickering in the firelight. "I’ve seen so much about you. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you." His smile was cold, embracing only his lips, not reaching his eyes. Taking hold of the chakram wedged firmly in Zantus’ back, he lifted his dead body off Gabrielle. Using his foot to brace himself, Gaelen pulled the chakram from Zantus’ back and let the body fall to the ground. Gabrielle could only stare at the chakram and the blood that dripped from it, expecting Gaelen to use it on her next. She was frozen in fear and it seemed there was no one to help her.

Gaelen stared into her frightened eyes and smiled with pleasure. No, he would not kill her. There was so much more he could do. Simply killing her would not be enough. No. Something more was required of Gabrielle to further separate Xena from herself and he needed a willing subject. Smiling, Gaelen reached over to the body and wiped the blood off the chakram onto Zantus’ shirt, then replaced it at his waist as Xena wore it. His smile still had not wavered as he kneeled next to Gabrielle.

"Don’t be afraid, Gabrielle. I didn’t want to kill your friend, but he was about to take you away and it was the only way I could stop him. You have to understand. I only want to help you."

Shaking her head, Gabrielle whispered in a quivering voice, "I don’t believe you." Gaelen’s smile faded and Gabrielle’s felt a moment of abstract fear.

"Then, I’ll make you believe," he said, in a voice much softer than his expression. . He grabbed her broken leg in such a fearsome grip that blood gushed from the wound. Her scream resounded above all the noise of the battle as she collapsed back onto the ground, pain throbbing through her entire body. Yet, through the pain she felt an energy pass between them. It tingled and throbbed as though tiny bugs had come to life in her limbs for a few seconds and then the pain was suddenly gone like a bad dream. The next thing she knew, Gaelen had grabbed her arm and was bringing her to her feet. Gabrielle looked down at her leg and boot, still covered in blood, and flexed her foot searching for the pain. She could stand on it, support herself on it and there was no pain at all. It was healed, completely healed. She looked up into Gaelen’s face in disbelief.

"How—how did you…?" Her question trailed off.

"How I did it is not important. All you need to remember is that I did. You see, I could have killed you if I wanted to…but like I said, I only want to help you."

It was frightening to realize just how easily he could have kill her, and equally frightening that he wanted to help her. She didn’t believe it for a minute. This had something to do with Xena. This man, who had strange powers beyond what Gabrielle could understand, was carrying with him Xena’s chakram and sword. The only way anyone could take Xena’s chakram was to kill her, a thought that filled Gabrielle’s heart with a new pain and her eyes with fresh tears.

Believing now that Xena was dead, Gabrielle recalled the times Xena had told her to be strong if ever something happened to her. Yeah sure! She must face this horrid person and whatever he had in mind for her all alone and still be strong. Ha! What a laugh! "Why did you leave me Xena!", she screamed in her mind. "You should be here with me! Don’t you know I need you?" Her voice began to break, because she believed that Xena was dead; but she strained to keep a measure of forcefulness in her voice as she asked, "Then, tell me what you did to Xena. You have her chakram. There’s only one way you could have gotten it. Did you kill her?"

Gaelen brushed his knuckles across her wet cheek, leaving traces of her own blood. "Gabrielle," he said, smiling again. "I promise you that Xena is very much alive."

"You’re lying," she sobbed, fresh tears stinging her eyes. All around her, the sounds of the battle were dying out. Gaelen’s warriors were going around setting fire to all the buildings in town. They had lost. The city was gone. Their proud stance had ended in defeat. How humiliating. Now this fiend had killed Xena and was lying about it.

"I have no reason to lie to you, Gabrielle," he said reassuringly. "Your friend is alive."

"Then, how did you get her chakram?"

"You could say it’s on loan to me…for the time being."

"No!" Gabrielle exclaimed, shaking her head through her tears. "Xena would never allow anyone to use her chakram, especially someone as blood thirsty and monstrous as you!"

Getting a mite irritated with Gabrielle he said, "She didn’t have much of a choice, okay. Now, would you like to see her again or not?"

"Yes.," she said in small voice.

"Then, come with me and I’ll take you to her."

Gabrielle stooped and picked up her staff from off the ground, holding it between them. "No. I’m not going anywhere with you. You stay away from me," she said determined, backing away from him.

Gaelen was pleasantly surprised at her spunk, but equally taken back by her naivete. He turned around and lifted his arms in amazement. "Gabrielle, look around you," he said, eyeing her as one would a child. "You and your pathetic little army have lost. I have won! I took the nomads’ village and now I’ve taken Phestia. All your friends are dead!. The General and his whore are dead! ! You have no where else to go. Come with me and I will bring you to Xena." He held out one hand to his chariot, the other to Gabrielle. "My chariot awaits you, Gabrielle."

"No, I said. I don’t trust you," she answered, screaming inside at the news of her friends.

"And I don’t blame you," he said patiently. "But I give you my word that I will never harm you … if, that is, you come with me, now." Because she still hesitated, he hardened his expression and demanded, "Get into the chariot, Gabrielle, or get dragged behind it. Make your decision?."

Nervously, Gabrielle took Gaelen’s gloved hand. She had no choice. Gaelen took her staff from her other hand and gave it to one of his warriors, then he led her towards the chariot. She tried not to look at the dead on the ground, but her eyes finally found their way to Salea’s body. Blood oozed from a huge gash on her forehead. She didn’t see Greeger’s body, but she knew it had to be around here somewhere. Gabrielle felt sick to her stomach and more light-headed than she had from the pain of her broken leg. Gaelen led her onto the chariot and chained her hands to it so that she couldn’t get away.

With a thoughtful smile he said, "Huh…this reminds me of something I did to a friend of yours." He didn’t offer any elaboration, so Gabrielle didn’t ask, but she wondered if he was referring to Xena.

"Barleus!" he called to one of his men. An armored warrior ran up to the chariot. He removed his helmet and looked briefly at Gabrielle, but his eyes moved quickly to his commander. "Yes, sir!"

"I want this place burned to the ground just like the nomad’s village. If your men feel like plundering the village for their own pleasure, let them, but be quick about it. I don’t want you here all night long."

"Of course, sir! What of the dead, sir?"

"Make sure they’re all dead and leave their bodies to cook in the morning sun. Let the beasts finish off this festival."

"Yes, sir," Barleus said smiling. This would save him a lot of work.

"Oh, and Barleus, one more thing," he said smiling, turning his evil his eyes directly at Gabrielle as he spooke. "There are caves not far north of here. The families have taken refuge there." He watched Gabrielle’s eyes widen in terror, shaking her head fiercely. He could sense her emotions as the realization of what he was planning hit her. "I want you to send a small platoon with orders to kill them all," he said sadistically.

"NO! Don’t do it!" she pleaded tearfully. "There are children there! Please!!!"

Turning back to Barleus he said coldly, "You have your orders."

Barleus nodded and backed away, no expression of regret on his face. He was no better than this horrid man who now commanded his obedience. . "You can’t do this," she cried, pulling at the chains, her heart overflowing with agony. "No … please … don’t do this! ! You can’t just slaughter innocent children, it’s inhuman!"

"Yes," he said with a satisfied smile. "It is." Ignoring Gabrielle’s pleas, Gaelen turned his horses toward the open gate. That they were bouncing over dead bodies to make their exit seemed to bother Gaelen not at all. Gabrielle fell to her knees and cried. All of their fighting had been for nothing.

Barleus walked through Phestia’s square trying, unlike his commander, to avoid stepping on the bodies. Gaelen had stepped over bodies to get to that general as though he hadn’t even seen them. Barleus had not encountered a leader quite like Gaelen in all his military experience. The strange powers he seemed to have were fear inspiring. Barleus hungered to know what this man was all about but he dared not question his commander. He knew better than to do something like that. Even thinking about questioning him wasn’t a good idea. He had seen plenty evidence of Gaelen’s power to read a person’s thoughts. Besides, Gaelen was a cold-hearted bastard with no regard for any form of life save his own. Although Barleus was his second in command and the only one of his men allowed to speak to him directly, Barleus knew he held no special regard in his commander’s eyes. Gaelen would just as soon kill him as look at him. He was only useful as long as he commanded Gaelen’s army.

Thus, he dared not consider failing to following his commander’s orders to send a small platoon of warriors to kill the rest of the Phestians hiding out in the caves. He had not allowed Gabrielle’s cry of "There are children there!" to affect him. He was a hardened soldier trained to kill on command. It didn’t matter to him anyway. They had to die sooner or latereventually, if not by Gaelen’s hand then in some other way. What difference did it make if they died now? Besides, if he disobeyed a direct order from Gaelen, he would be the one to die.

Tameon, the third in command, jumped to attention when Barleus called, jumping over a few bodies to get to him. "Yes, sir!" he said in a purely perfunctory manner. He didn’t like being commanded by anyone, but had not yet worked his way up to full command as of yet. He found it humiliating that he was not allowed to speak to the Commander directly as though he was so far beneath him. However, Tameon was aware of Gaelen’s powers also. He had been thinking along these lines once during an inspection. Gaelen had stopped directly before him and leaned close to his ear, saying, "Your day will come, Tameon, if you don’t lose your head worrying about it." It had been both an assurance and a threat, causing Tameon to walk on eggshells since.

"Lord Gaelen has commanded that the rest of the villagers must die," Barleus said to him as he approached.

Surprised, Tameon asked with lifted brows, "What villagers, Sir?, Sir? There are only a few of their army left and we’ll have them down soon."

"I’ll deal with them. They are no longer your concern. You take a dozen men and find the caves to the north. . The families of these men are hiding out in them. . Lord Gaelen wants them dead before daylight." Tameon was a bit hesitant. . "Do you have a problem with that, soldier?"

"No, sir! It will be done!" he said without further hesitation.

"That’s what I wanted to hear," Barleus said, wearing a smile of warning as Tameon turned to the task at hand.

On the ground behind Barleus, Greeger watched the grim scene through barely opened his eyes. He had been conscious for some time, but was playing dead, and had heard everything. Something had to be done. He had to get to the caves first. The question was how to move without being detected. It was a difficult situation and it suddenly got worse.

Speaking loudly to the rest of his army within earshot, the leader said, "Check the bodies! Make sure they’re all dead! Lord Gaelen does not want any wounded."

One warrior turned and looked at him with surprise. "We have wounded on our side, as well, sir," he said, questioning the meaning of the order. "What of them?"

"What? Are you deaf? Gaelen wants no wounded. Kill them!"

"Sir?" the man asked, obviously distressed by the command.

"You heard me. I said kill them!"

Greeger watched from his position on the ground. The dejected warrior was standing next to one of his wounded comrades, already down and moaning in pain. By the look on his face, the warrior had no desire to carry out this command. It was senseless and repulsive to him. Greeger agreed, he would never condone the killing of wounded soldiers, enemy or otherwise. He had the feeling that, left to his own determination, this leader wouldn’t either. However, he was also under orders from one that seemed totally merciless. As a commander himself, Greeger understood what happened next though it sickened him to see it. Never allow a subordinate to question your authority or you will quickly have none. When the warrior continued hesitating to carry out the order the leader removed a small dagger from his waist and hurled it at the wounded man. Greeger closed his eyes in disgust as the dagger made contact with his forehead. The moaning stopped.

"Do you know where that dagger would be if Gaelen was here?" the leader asked the startled warrior.

"Yes, sir," he answered with a gulp.

"Now, I’d suggest you do as you were commanded," he ordered. . The warrior turned abruptly, as Barleus called out to the others, "Check them all! Leave no one alive!" Joining the effort, Barleus began checking bodies himself. Against a wall behind him he spotted the body of the General of this fare city, the man who called himself Greeger. Barleus had watched his commander make quick work of the General, but he thought he’d better check and make sure he’d finished him off…just in case.

Greeger heard the sound of the sword being drawn and waited for his moment. As the footsteps approached, he heard the sound of the sword as it sliced through the air. The sword descended, but Greeger rolled quickly to the side grabbing at a handful of rocks as he did and threw them with force into his assailant’s face. . Barleus shielded his face from the rocks in surprise, and Greeger used that chance to kick his legs out from under him. Leaping to his feet, he took Barleus’ sword from his hand. . He wanted to take his life as well, but couldn’t bring himself to kill an unarmed man even though he was the scum of the earth. So, instead, he humiliated him by knocking him unconscious with a swift kick to the face. Greeger looked up to see armored warriors coming his way yelling, "Look! The General’s still alive!" "Let’s get him!" "Kill him!"

Greeger didn’t have time to mess with these guys. He had to get to Salea and make sure she was still alive. There was no way he was going to leave her here. Unfortunately, he had no choice but to face the three warriors who came at him. As he fought one with his sword, he kicked at another, sending him sprawling. His sword met again with the first one and he shoved him back, spun around with his sword to take out the man behind him, then came back around and thrust his sword through the first one’s heart. The one he’d kicked out of his way charged at him. Greeger waited for him to get close enough, then he sidestepped and tripped him with an outstretched leg, at the same time slicing open his belly. The warrior fell to the ground dead.

At a distance, he saw Salea still sprawled on the ground with one of the warriors standing over her, ready to carry out his orders and run her through. Greeger pulled a tiny dagger from his armor and threw it at the warrior. It hit his neck, striking the jugular. Blood spewed and he fell to the ground trying unsuccessfully to scream. Moving quickly to Salea’s side before the next attack, he knelt beside her and checked for a pulse. She was still alive! He grabbed her shoulders and began to shake her.

"Salea! Wake up!" he said, frantically as the warriors drew closer. He shook her harder. "Wake up!!!" Her eyes started to blink and she squirmed, wincing at the pain in her head. He turned to look again and the warriors were almost upon them. . The rocks she’d been using to hurl at Gaelen were on the ground at Salea’s side. It was a long shot, but he was desperate,. S so he hurled the rocks with deadly precision, taking out three and sending them back against their comradscomrades. That ought to hold them for a while, he thought.

Salea was still slightly out of it, so Greeger picked her up and began running towards his only avenue of escape—the tunnel. He just hoped that the fires weren’t raging through his home at the moment. Warriors gave chase and he fled into the city streets with Salea in his arms. As he ran through the streets, several of his fellow soldiers, who were hiding out from Gaelen’s warriors, came running out when they saw their General.

"Follow me! I’ll get us out of here!"

They flanked their General to protect him, as he held the woman in his arms. They met plenty resistance along the way and by the time they got to Greeger’s home, which was starting to catch fire, many of Gaelen’s warriors were following. Greeger almost smiled when one of his men said, "Sir, with all due respect, I don’t think being holed up in your house is going to do us any good!"

But, the time wasn’t right for smiling, so he kicked the door open and tumbled in as the fire began to spread. "Just shut up and get your ass in here!" he said to the puzzled soldier as they tumbled inside. The door was slammed shut and the locking bar slipped into place just as the warriors surrounded the building. The battle began as they beat on the door and walls, breaking windows and trying to get in. Some of Greeger’s men hacked and sliced at the ones trying to climb in through the windows, while others beat at the fire that began to spread across the room. Greeger kicked at the chair and rug that covered the trap door to the tunnel. Salea chose that moment to wake up. Struggling in his arms she growled, "Put me down, you overgrown ox!"

He had a feeling she was asking for more than she could handle, but he had no time to argue. Still weak from the blow she took to her head, she almost fell. Greeger caught her before she fell and all he got for his trouble was a slap in the face.

"Hey!" he hollered, his cheek stinging. " We do not have time for this!"

"How dare you let that bastard hit me…" She got dizzy again. "…you pathetic… excuse for a man, you…", you…"

"I’ll let you know as soon as I’m sure we’re not dead!"

As Greeger knelt to open the trap door, Salea’s head began to clear and she saw for the first time where they were and what was happening. She saw the warriors trying to get into Greeger’s home and saw the fire licking at the curtains and spreading across the ceiling. She had no time to see more, for Greeger grabbed her arm and forced her into the hole. As soon as she was down, he had his men begin to follow. However, as the men descended into the hole the defenses were weakened and Gaelen’s men began making it in.

When there was just Greeger and one other soldierman left, Greeger ordered him into the hole. . The soldier was holding the door shut with his back as it splintered behind him.

"In the hole! Now!" heGreeger commanded.

Bracing the door with a chair, the soldier turned to fight a warrior who got in through the window. "You go, sir! I’ll hold them off!"

"Soldier, I said get down here now!!!" Greeger barked, but as he spoke Gaelen’s warrior ripped open the soldier’s chest and sent him to the floor just as the door burst open under the weight of several of Gaelen’s warriors. Disappearing down the hole, Greeger closed the trap door over him and locked it shut by hooking the leather strap that was used to close the trap door from the inside, to a large, bent nail. . He knew it wouldn’t hold long, but hopefully it would long enough for them to get a good head start. However, only halfway down the ladder, he felt pieces of wood striking him from above. They had already broken open the trap door.

"Run! Get to the tunnel and run!" Greeger practically slid the rest of the way down and met Salea at the bottom. One soldier was still left trying to urge Salea to follow him. Greeger grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the tunnel. "Come on!" he commanded.

"Wait!" she said scanning the clearing. "Where’s Gabrielle?!"

"She didn’t make it! We aren’t going to make it ourselves if we don’t get going!" he said forcing her to run ahead of him down the tunnel after their soldiers. The last soldier followed behind them to watch their back.

Neither the soldier nor Greeger and Salea saw the light that flashed at the entrance to the tunnel behind them. Nor do the warriors who finally make it down the ladder to chase after their quarry. What they did see was one man, clad in black leather with long, wavy dark hair and beard, standing at the entrance to an underground tunnel.

"Hello, boys!" Ares said, forcing a smile.

The warriors quaked before him lowering their weapons.

"It’s Lord Ares! ! Our victory is assured!" one of them exclaimed.

Ares began to pace, fingering his beard and eyeing the men from under hooded brows, though his words held a note of pride. "My favorite warriors assembled before me. You are already victorious!" Ares pride turned quickly to anger and it showed in his voice when he said, "You must be very proud of yourselves. You gained your victory without the god of war."

They could hear the disdain in his voice and were suddenly fearful. Some kneeled in supplication before their god.

"Lord Ares," the same man said. "We could not have been so victorious without you. You are the one to whom our thanks and praise goes."

"That was eloquently put, Tithonus, but the fact remains, you turned to a mortal for your victory. A mortal named Gaelen, who I will destroy."

With his heart in his throat, the soldier knelt and lowered his head. Fearing to offend either of his masters, the man said, "Lord Ares, Gaelen is our general and commander. You are our god. We present ourselves to you as your servants. Lead us in our victory."

"Oh, I’ll lead you," he" he said with a sneer. "I’ll lead you all…straight to Tartarus!" With that, he shot lightening bolts from his fingers to the ceiling, smashing it to smithereens. The ceiling and the building above came crashing down as Ares watched from just inside the tunnel. As he gazed upon the mangled figures beneath the rubble, he felt regret for having to kill them all. They were, after all, dedicated followers. "Take good care of my warriors, Hades," he said with a sigh and disappeared into a spectrum of light.

When Barleus regained consciousness, he sat up and touched the side of his head where Greeger had kicked him. He felt a large lump forming. Shaking his head to clear his mind, he looked up and around in time to see Greeger running off with someone in his arms. His warriors were pursuing so he scrambled to his feet and followed. By the time he was finally able to catch up, they had broken into a building that Greeger had obviously occupied and were probably, at the moment, finishing him off. Yet, as he approached, the ground literally fell out from under his feet. He had to scramble backwards to avoid falling in the large hole that formed. When the debris stopped clattering to the bottom, he peered inside carefully at a handful of Gaelen’s warriors dead beneath the rubble. . They were chasing Greeger and his left over soldiers. . He could only guess at what caused the cave-in, but, if they were dead, then that must mean that Greeger and the rest of his soldiers were dead as well. Barleus smiled. Gaelen will be pleased.

Gabrielle estimated that the village of Phestia was at least thirty to forty minutes away from Gaelen’s camp by the time they arrived. . She wondered and worried about the people hiding out in the caves. What chance did they have now? Were the warriors in there now killing them, or were they already dead? The thought of Salmoneus with a sword in his stomach made her sick. She and Xena often found him to be irritatingirritating and troublesome, but they still considered him to be aa close friend and he didn’t deserve to die like that. If Xena really was alive, as Gaelen claimed, Gabrielle did not expect her to be very proud. Not only had she failed to follow Xena’s warning, she had almost lost her life in the process. Everything had gone wrong. They’d lost…horribly.

Gabrielle sat in the chariot, her hands raised above her head, still chained. She stared off into nothing, willing herself to feel empty so that she didn’t have to feel the pain in her heart. It was useless. She was responsible for those peoples’ lives and now they would all die. Maybe not by her hand, but to Gabrielle, it was the same thing. The tears fell from her eyes unhindered.

The chariot came to a sudden halt and Gabrielle could hear the sound of several feet approaching. Gruff voices said, "Lord Gaelen." She assumed it was a greeting. In any event, Gaelen said nothing in return. He turned and released Gabrielle from her chains, then roughly helped her to her feet by a firm grip on her forearm. The fight was all gone. Gabrielle offered no resistance,; she could see no point.

Gaelen eyed her curiously and smiled. . "She doesn’t put up a fight. That’s good. I’m glad. I wouldn’t want to have to kill you…at least not yet." He turned and jerked on her arm. "This way," he said, dragging her along. Gabrielle nearly fell as she stumbled off the chariot. So intense had been the pain in her leg, she was still treating it with sensitivity and was grateful that it was no longer broken. One of two tents just ahead seemed to be their destination, as Gaelen strode toward them. Although Gabrielle was tired and defeated, she kept up with him and she didn’t forget the promise he’d made to her.

"Where’s Xena? You promised you’d take me to her."

"All in good time, my dear. All in good time. I haven’t broken my promise to you," Gaelen reassured her.

Two armed guards stood to each side of the first tent’s entrance. Gabrielle expected to be taken into this tent so she could be guarded, but instead they moved past that one and entered the one without any guards. ItThat left a strong possibility that. Xena was in the other one. She was under guard, a prisoner. Why? SheGabrielle had never known Xena to be taken unless she permitted it for a reason, and if she was, it usually didn’t last long. What was she up too? Was there a reason she had not freed herself in time to help the people of Phestia? She broke out of their prison, why not this one? Gabrielle trembled inside as a flurry of horrible ideas ran through her head. It was fruitless to allow her mind to speculate this way and she tried to push them out, but couldn’t.

Gaelen sensed Gabrielle’s worry for Xena, but he sensed nothing from Xena and that worried him. He thought of sounding an alarm, but … no, not just yet. . Whatever the reason for her silence he would discover soon enough. For now, he was more interested in Gabrielle.

Inside the tent,

The tent it was dark. He sat her on the cot, then moved around casually lighting candles but said nothing. Gabrielle’s eyes followed him around the tent warily. She could only sit and wonder what he was going to do. He hadn’t brought her here simply for her conversational ability. He wanted something, something that had to do with Xena. She was sure of it. But, the question was — what?

"When do I get to see Xena?" was Gabrielle’s persistent question.

Gaelen turned around and looked at her, but said nothing. He grabbed a chair, turned it backwards and sat down, placing his elbows on the back. His dark eyes pierced into Gabrielle’s very soul.

"You love her, don’t you?" he asked in a cold, careless voice that frightened her.

"Yes, I do," she said in just slightly more than a whisper. "She’s like a sister to me."

Gaelen looked deeply into Gabrielle’s eyes and saw another truth. "No. You are more than sisters—s

Soulmates.. I sense that about the two of you. You were meant to walk the Earth together. Do you believe that?"

"Yes," Gabrielle answered softly, an amazed expression on her face. Actually, it was a thought she had often entertained. There were times, in the wee hours of the morning as Xena slept soundly beside her, when she would wonder why they shared such a close bond. Gabrielle’s life had been so plain, so normal before she first met Xena, but after she hadn’t wanted to be anywhere else except at Xena’s side. She’d always felt it was her destiny and she still did. Deep in her heart, she’d always known that her relationship with Xena was special.. "I wouldn’t be the person I am today, if it weren’t for Xena. She has changed me in so many ways."

"For the better? Or for worse?"

"I believe the change in my life is for the better," she said defensively. "If it were for the worse I wouldn’t be with Xena."

"Oh no, of course not.," Gaelen said wryly. " I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. It’s just that…so many things have happened in your life that never would have happened, had you not left your home to travel with Xena."

"You know nothing about my life.," Gabrielle challenged.

Gaelen’s black eyes squinted and a strange ‘guess what’ smile slowly spread across his lips. His words were piercing as he said with quiet reserve, "I know more than you think."

Gabrielle felt a chill run through her as she watched Gaelen get to his feet and return the chair from where he’d gotten it. She had no idea what he meant by that comment, but it had scared her. There was something very strange about this man. ‘How did he know about the time I left home to be with Xena? Had he tortured Xena into telling him that? And how would he know the extent to which my life has changed?’ She wanted to question him but thought better of it. He probably wouldn’t answer her anyway.

"I should check on my other guest," Gaelen said to her, heading for the exit. "She’s much too quiet. Perhaps you should rest a while. It may be a long night."

"What makes you think I can sleep?"

Gaelen stopped in the doorway and looked over his shoulder, seeming annoyed. "I suggest you give it a try," he said, turning again to leave, but turned back momentarily. "I suppose I should bind you … but, no. If I happen to come back and you’re not here…" He waved his hand nonchalantly. "…I’ll kill Xena." He turned from her for the last time and left the tent.

"Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere," she said in a defeated tone. When he was gone, she laid down on the cot, but didn’t close her eyes. She refused to go to sleep. Xena was in trouble, perhaps the worse she had ever encountered. Gabrielle had to keep awake and keep her senses if she could even hope to help her.

Gaelen inquired of the guards watching the other tent, "How’s our guest? I sense a change in her."

"You’re right, sir, there has been a change. She’s acting strangely. Don’t quite know what to make of it, sir," the guard answered. This news made him uneasy, but curious. ‘What could Xena be up to?’ Gaelen parted the curtains and entered the tent. Something was amiss because he could no longer sense her thoughts or feelings. . She was once again chained to the metal posts her knees, arms dangling in chains above her head, but this time there was something different about her. Xena hands folded in her lap rockeding back and forth on her knees. . She seemed to be awake, sort of. He noticed the nomad girl watching Xena with fear in her eyes as she huddled in the corner of the tent. He moved closer, but cautiously. Xena was a crafty opponent, and may just be playing some sort of trick since he could not read her thoughts. He would not be surprised if she had unlocked the chains in his absence and was poised for an attack to have her attack at any moment just as soon as he got close. So, Gaelen inched closer to her cautiously to test her chains. He found nothing amiss except Xena herself. He was close enough

He got close enough to see that her eyes were just barely opened and that her mouth was moving slightly as if reciting some chant he could not manage to read.

"How long has she been like this?" he asked the guard who had followed him inside.

"Most of the night, sir. She started up not long after you and the rest of the men left. I think she’s gone mad."

"I do not recall asking you what you thought," Gaelen said angrily, eyeing the man from under his brows.

"No, Lord Gaelen. My apology, sir."

Gaelen thought a moment, then turned to the guard and said, ""Unchain her, then lLeave us."

"Yes, Lord Gaelen.." The guard quickly obeyed his commander’s orders, then left the tent.

Still cautious, Gaelen knelt before Xena. . Once freed of her chains, Xena remained on her knees, rocking back and forth, her hands folded in her lap. She seemed no more than an empty shell with no depth, no feeling. Her bruised and beaten face, covered in dried blood was totally void of emotion. Had she actually gone mad and lost her mind? ? Was she insane? Gaelen considered it a possibility, but doubted it. A mad person at least hasd some feelings or thoughts. Xena, on the other hand, had neither of these. For the first time since he’d come to this place, Gaelen felt fear. It was not a pleasant emotion and it made him angry, being forced to feel it.

"Xena, where are you?" he asked in a strained voice. Her only response was to rock back and forth, back and forth, chanting silently. Gaelen experienced the agony of not knowing what his opponent was thinking for the first time and could feel his fear growing inside him. It forced him to react. He grabbed Xena’s arms fiercely to stop her rocking.

"Xena? Answer me. Speak!" He shook her violently, and when no other response came, he threw her to the ground. A spark of feeling pricked at his senses and her face formed the hint of a frown. It was a vague emotion, perhaps the outer fringes of a growing rage. His warped mind was excited by the possible challenge.

Xena continued the silent chanting, but the emotion was still there. She was trying to force it back, to go back into her trance-like state. Gaelen watched her eyes roll back into her head. "Oh no, you don’t," he said with a sneer, but Xena continued to drift away. He looked around for a blunt object hoping to stun her back in to consciousness and his eye crossed the girl cowering in the corner of the tent. . With an evil eye he looked back. "If this doesn’t bring you out, nothing will." He got to his feet and moved toward the young girl, from whom he could now sense tremendous emotion. She cringed in terror as he approached and tried to force herself into a small ball as if, in doing so, she might hide.

Gaelen roughly grabbed her arm and threw her over to Xena’s side, growling in rage. The girl began to whimper. He removed Xena’s sword from his scabbard and held the point at the girl’s throat as he stood over her. Fully intending a display of his ruthless power, he raised the sword in the air sneering, "Now, Xena, let’s see if this girl’s blood will bring you back to me," and brought it down towards her heart.

With a suddenness that caught him off guard, Xena’s hands suddenly shot out and caught the blade between her palms only inches from the girl’s heart. . Gaelen stared back at Xena’s bloody face in shock. Her mouth was curled into a sneer, like he had seen earlier that evening when tormenting her mind. Only this time, the sneer was directed at him and not at what she thought was Gabrielle. With the same swiftness, Xena jerked the butt-end of her sword back into Gaelen’s face and slammed him squarely in the nose. He fell backwards onto his back, nursing his bloody nose. Xena took the handle of her sword and slowly got to her knees again.

Wiping at the blood coming from his nose, Gaelen sat up and peered into her eyes. . "I thought that might work," he said, daring to show the hint of a smile. "What are you going to do now? Kill me? Because I tried to kill that scrawny child?"

Xena stared at him through hooded eyes, but Gaelen still could sense no emotions from her, except for that lingering scent of emotion that played at his senses. Perhaps she really had gone mad and lost all feeling. If she had, he could definitely use that to his advantage.

"I won’t give you the satisfaction of killing her," Xena said, her voice a sinister whisper.

‘No such luck,’ Gaelen thought. Perhaps Xena’s good side had combated her evil side and he had been premature in thinking he had won her over since she was gathering the girl into her arms and comforting her. . The girl looked up to her for safety and looked back at Gaelen in fear. Xena stroked the back of the girl’s head to calm her.

"And how do you expect to stop me?" he asked, sarcastically.

Xena’s sneer widened and sick pleasure spread across her face as she said, "Because the satisfaction is all mine." In a flash, Xena reached out and grabbed the girl’s chin. With her hand still on the back of the girl’s head, she twisted her head around so quickly that Gaelen hadn’t any idea what had happened until he heard the pop of the girl’s neck. The girl’s body slid down Xena’s side until she landed on the ground … dead.

Though his nose still hurt and blood still poured from it, Gaelen smiled widely. He couldn’t believe it. But, it was true. Xena had just killed the girl, the same one she’d tried to protect the night before. He watched his Xena smile in return, even though he still could not sense any feeling from her beyond the spark. But, he was immensely proud of himself. He’d done it in only a day. He’d created his monster.


Chapter Five

When All’s Said and Done…

Hours had passed since Salmoneus had last seen General Greeger. Since then, he’d helped the soldiers in preparing a defense in case any of Gaelen’s warriors were to make it through the tunnel. Well, oversee is more the term, perhaps, since the soldiers did all the work. Salmoneus, with help from his new found friend, little Kyleus and with the help of High Magistrate Nallos, had assisted in keeping the crowds of people out of the way as the soldiers worked.

They arranged for one guard to keep watch on the tunnel’s exit, while the other soldiers worked on a way to plug up the tunnel hole for protection. They didn’t have much to work with save a large log stump they hoped would suffice as a plug. But, until such time as it was needed, they covered the hole with heavy tree branches and stones.

That evening, Salmoneus paced nervously just inside the cave’s entrance, looking off into the distance with worried eyes. Several of the soldiers had left the relative safety of the cave to see if they could spy on the village and get some idea of what was happening. Even from that distance, Salmoneus could hear the sounds of war. There was a bright orange light off in the distance, which he felt could only be fire. If he tried hard enough, he could smell smoke. He worried incessantly for Gabrielle and Salea’s safety, and his mind kept returning to the fact that Xena never returned from her mission. It could only mean that she had not been successful at stopping Gaelen’s army. It could even mean …. nNo, he didn’t even want to think about it. Much better to believe she had come up with some other plan. Maybe she had gone for help once she noticed the insurmountable odds against her, and was even now planning a counterattack. It was a good story, one for the scrolls. Salmoneus only hoped it was true.

"Hey, what’s the matter with you?" someone said behind him. Salmoneus jumped and spun around to find Kyleus, arms akimbo displaying his childish power.

"Awh, kid! Don’t sneak up on me like that!" he said holding his heart. "You should be asleep anyway. Why aren’t you with your mother?"

"I wanted to come see you."

"Well, you can come see me inside." He turned the boy around and walked back inside the cave. "Come on. You shouldn’t be out here., Iit’s dangerous out here."

He stopped when he heard someone approaching and eyed the direction of the sound with widening eyes. To his relief, though, it was only the soldiers returning from their scouting mission.

"So, what’s happening over there?" he inquired hopefully.

"What do you think’s happening over there, old man?" one soldier said. . Salmoneus scornfully mouthed the words ‘Old man?’ but the soldier didn’t give him time to protest. "It’s all out war. Our men are getting slaughtered over there while we baby-sit."

"Hey, you!" little Kyleus said looking up at the soldier. "You better watch out how you talk to Salmoneus. He’s bigger and tougher than you and he said he can beat you up."

Not at all intimidated by the child, the soldier did turn a serious eye toward Salmoneus, who was laughing nervously. "Oh, really?" he asked in a challenging tone.

"Kids," Salmoneus said, displaying his famous weak smile. "They say the darndest things." Always quick with words, Salmoneus suddenly had an inspiration. "Oooh, that’s a good idea. It could be a traveling show. At each village you stop, pick a group of kids, ask’emask ‘em questions and get’em to say ‘the darndest things’. It’s comedy! People would pay to see that!" In another sudden brainstorm he said, "Especially if it’s their children! I love it! They’ll love it! This is the best…."

"Awh, save it, old man!" the soldier said forgetting all about the insult. "People paying to hear own kids talk! They listen to that all day long as it is. What makes you think they’d hand over their dinars to hear more of it."

"You’re underestimating a proud parent, sir. What might irritate them at home will make them beam with pride if it impresses someone else."

"Well, I’d have to see it to believe it."

"Ah, your probably right," Salmoneus agreed. Experience had told him that it was a waste of time to try selling anything to someone with a closed mine. "Oh well, it was a good idea while it lasted," he said, storing the idea in his mind for a later time, at least relieved that it had deflected the soldier’s attention away from Kyleus’ cute little comment.

At that moment, loud voices could be heard from the back of the cave, startling all the sleeping families. Not completely sure of what was happening they began to stumble about checking on their families and mumbling nervously.

"It’s the bad guys, again!" the fearless Kyleus said trying to run in that direction.

But, this time Salmoneus grabbed him and picked him up. "Oh no, you don’t. Not this time." The soldier that had been talking with Salmoneus quickly ran to the back of the cave. Salmoneus followed close behind him, but not so fearful because he recognized the gruff voice of General Greeger. . The soldiers were removing the last couple of branches from the opening to the tunnel when they arrived. To his relief, the first head Salmoneus saw poke from the hole was Salea’s. He put little Kyleus down and called out to her, "Salea!" She stepped out of the tunnel and into his arms. "I’m glad you’re okay," he said. Salea clung to him in desperation but said nothing. That was not like her. Leaning back he looked into her face. The bright and cheery Salea that he knew was not to be found. Her face was gaunt and tired, and there was a nasty wound on her forehead. "Are you all right? What’s wrong?" he implored of her, but again she didn’t answer. She simply lowered her head onto Salmoneus’ shoulder and started to cry.

Greeger was the next one out of the tunnel, followed by the rest of his soldiers. Even in the dark Salmoneus could see the deep scowl on his face. When he saw Salea crying on Salmoneus’ shoulder, his scowl grew.

The soldier who had been speaking to Salmoneus asked, "What happened, sir?"

Anger and frustration crease the General’s face as he turned to the hapless soldier who was wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. "What do you think happened, soldier?" It was the same question Salmoneus had asked and he had given much the same response. Now, he was on the receiving end.

"We lost!" the General growled. "They trampled over our army like we weren’t even there! They broke through every defense! They killed almost every man! And they completely destroyed Phestia!!! You might as well take it off the maps."

Salmoneus on the other hand had another concern. "Where’s Gabrielle?" he asked Salea, but she could not look up or respond.

"She’s dead!" Greeger shouted in anger, his voice echoing across the cave. He turned from the soldier to the owner of the other voice he heard and only then did he realize who it was he’d hollered at.

"Dead?" Salmoneus said dumbfounded, his mind not comprehending those two simple words.

As he stared at Salmoneus’ shocked face, Greeger understood the reason for his anger and frustration, and why he’d spoken so harshly and so quickly without thinking. It was Gabrielle’s death. He hadn’t realized how much her loss meant to him until that very moment. He only wished he could take back his angry outburst. Looking past Salmoneus, he looked around at the faces of the people that he’d told only hours ago ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be ready for them.’ He saw the hope and trust drain from their faces. Their beloved city was destroyed and on the day of the festival. He could see the questions in their eyes. Where would they go? What would they do? How would they take care of their families? Greeger lowered his head in shame. He had failed to protect his city.

Suddenly, Salmoneus’ legs would no longer hold him and Salea had to help him find a place to sit. She tried to comfort him despite her own pain, but they ended up crying together. "Gabrielle can’t be dead. She just can’t…" he sobbed.

"She is," Greeger said, sadly. "I watched her fall from the wall."

Salmoneus’ face crumbled and fell into his hands as he began to sob. Little Kyleus came up to him and patted him on the back. "Don’t cry, Salmoneus. It’ll be okay," he said in his simple childish logic.

High Magistrate Nallos walked up to Greeger, who’swhose head was still lowered in shame, and laid a hand on his shoulder. . "The city is gone." Nallos didn’t question Greeger’s word. If he said it, it had to be a statement of fact.

Looking haggard and dejected, Greeger reported in a low voice, "They were burning Phestia to ashes as we escaped. We barely made it. I’m sorry, High Magistrate. I failed the people."

"No, you didn’t," Nallos said, gripping the General’s shoulder tightly in a show of confidence. "You saved them. Look at all the people who are alive because you listened to the warnings. I did not. If I had had things my way, all these good people would be burning with the city. Our lives are more important than Phestia. Phestia we can rebuild. When a life is gone, it is gone for good."

Nallos’ words calmed the General some, but nothing could lift the weight of this great loss. Not to mention Gabrielle, a person he hadn’t had time to get to know very well, but had respected and admired. He felt like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Yet, as much as he hated to drop more terror on these poor people’s heads, the night’s fighting was not over. There was still the platoon Gaelen had sent out that had to be dealt with.

"Well, it’s not over yet. We still have a problem."

"Oh?" Nallos said, concern in his voice. "What problem is that?"

Greeger rounded up the rest of his soldiers, about thirty men, and gathered them in a crowd before Nallos and himself for a briefing. Salea and Salmoneus, who were both still looking haggard from the news of Gabrielle’s death, joined in as well. It was a time for action. Mourning would have to take place later.

"Gaelen knows about the caves," Greeger began, drawing dejected responses from the people around him. "I don’t know how he found out but he has sent some men this way to take care of the rest of us. They’re probably headed this way now. The bloodthirsty bastard isn’t satisfied with just torching the city. H he wants everyone dead. I want to get to them, before they get to us. Now, I’ll need to station two of you here in case some sneak by us in the dark…"

"No," Salea said, standing beside the gGeneral. "You’re going to need all the men you can take with you. Salmoneus and I will take care of the sneaky ones."

"We will?" Salmoneus said, skeptically.

Greeger was skeptical as well, his expression making it only too clear. "Only if you’re sure you can handle it," he said seriously. "I don’t want a single one of the those bastards to get in here."

"Hey, rock chunking didn’t hurt me," she said displaying her head wound, and lifted a frying pan from the ashes of an old fire. "I don’t guess a little pan slinging will either." " Salea grinned past her pain of heart. "Now you boys go take care of the bad guys."

Greeger smiled, happy to see that Salea was back to her old butt-kicking self. "Okay, men, the Mistress of the house has spoken. Let’s move!" As difficult as it was to believe, the soldiers laugh as they leave to do battle again.

As they filed out, Salea grabbed Greeger by the arm and looked him in the eye. "Oh, and by the way, my mistress-ing days are over."

Greeger’s serious General-face slowly gave way to a big smile, and he gave in to his feelings momentarily to hug her. "Be careful," he whispered in her ear.

"I’m always careful."

Salmoneus stepped up and cleared his throat. . "Shouldn’t we make sure that no one’s going to get in through there first?" he asked, pointing toward the tunnel.

"No," Greeger responded. "That’s the one good news of the night. The tunnel caved in behind us. Anyone that tried to follow is buried under several feet of rubble." With one quick look in each of Salea’s eyes, Greeger left to follow his soldiers.

"So, now what do we do?" High Magistrate Nallos asked as Greeger and his men disappeared into the night.

Salea eyed him curiously for a few seconds, not sure if he was really talking to her, a prostitute he would not have wasted his spit on earlier in the day. But, he was looking her directly in the eye, waiting for an answer. It took her by surprise and, at first, she didn’t know what she should say.

"Uh…Well," she stammered. "The first thing we need to do is move everyone to the back of the cave. That way, if any of those guys do get in here, they’ll have to go through us before they can get to any of you."

Nallos smiled, patted her on the shoulder and said, "Sounds like a excellent idea. I’ll get started right away."

"All right," she said, amazed. She could scarcely believe it. Nallos’ actually seemed proud of her. After all it had taken to get things done behind his back such a short time ago, now he was so willing to cooperate. As she watched Nallos turn from her to get started, she saw, for the first time, that there were no classes of people here now. It was a shame that it took war to do it, but here it was. The biggest evidence of it was when the High Magistrate had asked the local prostitute what they should do next. She was flabbergasted.

None of them had noticed the small boy that had been listening to the entire conversation. As eager to fight as the soldiers had been, Kyleus said with big bright eyes, "Can I help you fight the bad guys, too?"

Salea looked to Salmoneus questioningly. . "It’s an inside joke," he said with a small smile.

General Greeger and his soldiers traversed through the dark woods with far better ease than did Gaelen’s warriors. They knew these woods like the back of their hands. Many of them played and hunted in them since childhood. That was their first advantage. Their second advantage came from knowing exactly where their adversaries were, because several of them were carrying torches. Greeger figured these warriors were not quite as bright as their commander, so he came up with a plan. Stealthily they moved through the dark woods, slowly encircling their enemy.

The group’s leader, Tameon, stopped in mid-stride, holding up a closed fist that told his warriors to halt. He’d heard a sound—a rustling of bushes, the cracking of twigs. Though he listened for several seconds, no other sound was heard, so he passed it off as an animal or the breeze and continued his warriors’ march to the caves once more.

Greeger was waiting for just such a mistake, when their defenses were down and they expected nothing. He gave the signal for attack and Greeger and his men descended upon the unsuspecting warriors ferociously. Their anger at having lost their city and their fellow soldiers made their attack a deadly one. Outnumbering Gaelen’s men two to one, it didn’t take long to bring their deadly quest to an end. However, in the activity and the darkness, they failed to see two warriors slip past the battle, and fearful of Gaelen, continue, continue to make their way to the caves.

Greeger had said that the other end of the tunnel had caved in, so at Salea’s suggestion, Nallos had moved everyone inside it each one with whatever weapon they could find. Salea and Salmoneus waited on either side of the entrance with frying pans in their hands. Salea was primed and ready to fight. Salmoneus cowered across from her, his frying pan shaking in his hands.

"What are we supposed to do if they come?" he asked, a mite totoo loud.

"Shh. You whack’em over the head, that’s what you do."

"But, what if they get back up?"

"Then, you whack’em again. Salmoneus, don’t be such a chicken. You can do this," she said hoping to give him confidence.

"You’re right. I can do this. I’ve done it before. When it comes to fighting, frying pans are my specialty." He smiled nervously, his attitude belying his confident words. With a shaky sigh, Salmoneus shook his head sadly and said softly to himself, "I sure wish Gabrielle was here." A shuffling behind him caught his attention. It was little Kyleus holding his own frying pan. "What are you doing over here?" Salmoneus whispered angirlyangrily.

"I told you," the" the lad said as if Salmoneus decided not to use his brain today. "I’m gonna help you fight the bad guys."

"Kyleus, you’re going to be the death of me."

Salea shushed them both, pointing outside the cave on their side. Salmoneus’ legs felt like they were turning to jelly, but he kept his cool. He quickly moved Kyleus behind him, slapping a hand over his mouth to make sure he stayed quiet. Fortunately, the little boy was smart enough to understand that one of the "bad guys" was coming and that he had to be very quiet. So, he held his pan up high, ready to do battle. Salmoneus could hear the sound of someone walking through dew covered grass drawing ever closer and closer.

When the approaching warriors realized that they had finally found the entrance to the cave they separated and came at it from different angles. . They moved quietly and before long one warrior was able to look into the darkened cave. , bUnfortunately, heut couldn’t see or hear nothing. Nor could he hear a nything. According to Tameon, who by now was probably dead, there were supposed to be villagers hiding out in these caves, but he could barely see two feet in front of his face let alone a whole slew of frightened villagers. His partner had told him not to light a torch until he was ready for him to follow, but he had no choice. . He mumbled something under his breath and lit the torch. He wasn’t going in that cave if he couldn’t see anything. Once the torch was lit, he shown it inside but still saw nothing, so he took several steps inside sending an eerie, shadowy illumination into the cave.

Putting on his best tough warrior voice, he called out., " Hello? Anybody home?" The next thing he knew, an explosion went off in his head and then there was only blackness.

As he fell, Salmoneus stood over him with a large smile on his face and slightly dented frying pan in his hand. "I did it!" he laughed, Kyleus jumping and mimicking him.

"Check him. Make sure he’s out," Salea said in a loud whisper.

Salmoneus bent over to check him and just as he did a sword swung over his head, burying itself into the cave wall. When he spun around in horror, the torch on the ground illuminated pieces of his hair buried in the wall with the sword. Then, he looked up into the angry face of another warrior. Salmoneus’ eyes rolled back in his head and he fell over.

As the warrior was trying to remove his sword from the cave wall, little Kyleus ran up to him and smashed his knee with his frying pan. The warrior cried out in pain, cursing the child, but his curse was short-lived when Salea’s frying pan landed on top of his head. He fell to the ground, forgetting all about his sword and his knee.

"I did a good job, huh?" Kyleus said, looking up at Salea.

"You sure did, little man!" she said, smiling down at the cute little boy. "You’re the toughest kid I’ve ever seen!"

"Yep, I sure am!" he said proudly, flexing his biceps.

Salea laughed with him, rubbing the top of his head, as Nallos approached them. "Is Salmoneus all right?" he asked with concern.

"He’s fine," Salea responded. "Just passed out. Could you do me a favor?"

"Of course."

"Get a couple of men and tie these two up. I don’t want them getting loose."

"Right. But, be careful. More may come."

Kyleus pulled on Nallos’ skirt as he turned to leave. "Did you see me beat up that bad guy?" he asked, grinning.

"Yes, I saw. You were very brave, young man. Now, come with me. I’ll take you back to your mother."

"But I wanna stay here."

"That’s enough fighting for tonight. Your mother’s worried about you."

"Oh, man!" the lad protested.

Salea smiled as they faded into the darkness, but was serious again as she returned to the task at hand. . Salmoneus had been taken back into the cave with the two warriors, just in case any more happened to sneak in. But, to her relief, the next person she saw was Greeger. He and the rest of the soldiers had come back victorious. She was happy to see the look of defeat gone from his face. But, it was a silent victory. No one would know of it. They were going to be hidden away here for quite some time, before they were sure it was safe enough to go back to the city.


Gabrielle ran as fast as she could up the rocky slope. She held the small bundle in her arms, desperate to get away from her relentless pursuer. If she let the pursuerher catch up to her now, she would realize what she’d done. She couldn’t let her know, not now, not ever. The pursuer called out to her. "Gabrielle! That thing you’re holding is a monster! It has to be destroyed!"

Bounding up with a start, she sat up on the edge of the cot trembling. She could still feel her heart racing. It took a number of long, deep breaths to finally calm herself. She wiped the perspiration from her face, trying to forget that ever-recurring nightmare.

"Bad dreams?"

Gabrielle looked up, startled by Gaelen’s voice. He was seated behind a long table with a map spread across it. Obviously, he was preparing for his next attack. The last thing she remembered, he was walking out of the tent to check on ‘his guest’. Gabrielle had told him that she did not want to sleep. Apparently, her body knew what she needed more than she did, but the nightmare had not helped any. .

"Yes," she said sadly.

"They are vile things, aren’t they, nightmares? I’ve noticed that nightmares are only our own inner demons come to haunt us with our mistakes…our regrets…our lies." He stared at her for several seconds, seeing and sensing her inner turmoil. He’d already seen her memory of her daughter Hope and that she’d lied to Xena to protect the child. She’d had nightmares about it before. It wasn’t something she dwelt on often, but when she allowed herself to, it tortured her. Gaelen enjoyed the sensations he received from her. "What do you think?" he asked her.

"I … I don’t know." Gabrielle lowered her eyes, afraid to meet his intense gaze. When he looked at her, she felt vulnerable, open,open and naked, as though all the feelings in her heart were laid bare before him. And even though she was usually a very open person, someone who would talk to you about anything, she didn’t like this feeling that his eyes were probing her very soul.

She was right. Gaelen was probing her soul, her thoughts and her memories. What he found was disconcerting to him. With Xena, even from the first moment he sensed her, hate had seemed to radiate off of her. But, there were no such feelings coming from Gabrielle. He’d told Gabrielle before that he sensed she and Xena were soulmates, but he couldn’t understand their relationship. Xena was a warrior, a killer, whereas Gabrielle was practically an innocent to those ways and, in fact, despised them. Of course, he knew of the one time Gabrielle had shed blood and he could sense that she still carried an immense amount of guilt and remorse in her heart. And he knew of the one time where a complete hatred had filled her heart for the one who had murdered her husband. The same one he’d first seen in Xena’s memories—Callisto. But, what he could not understand, what seemed an impossibility to him, was that Gabrielle felt no anger or hatred towards him. What he sensed from her was…acceptance. She only accepted what was happening around her and knew she couldn’t change it. Intriguing as it was, acceptance That wasn’t what he wanted her to feel. He wanted her to feel hate. The same kind or even worse than the hate she’d felt for Callisto. He knew she was capable. Why wouldn’t she just give in to it?

"Did you see Xena?" she asked, staring at her hands laying in her lap.

"I saw her, yes." Anticipating her next question, he added, "She’s well. Quiet well, in fact. I’ve seen to that." It was not a comforting answer. In fact, it was rather frightening. She didn’t dare ask him what he meant by that, afraid of the answer.

No, Gabrielle,’ Gaelen thought, ‘you don’t want to know, Gabrielle.’ He remembered the look on Xena’s face when she snapped the girl’s neck. She had enjoyed it. So had he, but he was still disappointed in his warrior princess. Not long after, she had gone back to her trance-like state and silent chanting. He had not been able to bring her back out of it. So, he had a couple of warriors dump the girl’s body outside the camp. . After a while, he gave up and went back to his tent to find Gabrielle fast asleep and dreaming. During that time, he’d thought about his plans for the morning. If Xena was still in her trance by morning, he might just be angry enough to kill her. He had been working on a plan that involved not only Xena, but Gabrielle as well. All he needed to do to complete the picture was to get Gabrielle to give in to the hatred he knew was inside her, and the stage would be set. However, if Xena was still in her trance, it would ruin everything he had planned.

Gaelen stood and walked around the table to stand in front of Gabrielle. "There’s something I don’t understand about you, Gabrielle. You feel no anger, no hate for me. Why?"

Gabrielle forced herself to look up at him, as confused about his question as he was about her. But, he was right. She hadn’t thought about it until he asked. Strangely, those feeling were not in her. Even in the realization of it, she could not bring herself to hate this killer.

"Should I?" she asked blankly.

"Well, let’s see. I attacked and destroyed the small nomads’ village, killing everything that breathed. Then, I attacked Phestia and stomped Greeger and his men into the ground. I’ve ordered the death of innocent women and children only to show them that they can never escape me. I would think you’d want to see me dead."

"Is that what you want? You want me to hate you?"

"It has nothing to do with what I want. Humans are emotional beings. And I know you’ve felt that kind of hate before."

"How could you know what I’ve felt? You have no idea what its like to have feelings, because you have none. You’re cold and heartless."

"Yes, I am. But, I know hate when I see it and I don’t see it in your eyes. Show me, Gabrielle, the kind of hate you felt when Callisto killed your husband."

Gabrielle’s eyes open wide in shock. How could he have known about that? The look in his eyes made her grow cold with fear.

Slowly, Gaelen brought his face closer to Gabrielle’s as he said, "Tell me, when you watched her sword plunge into his heart and you heard her laugh with pleasure, how did it make you feel?"

She quickly stood up and pushed him back so hard he nearly fell to the ground. "Stop it!" she shouted, but his growing smile stopped her cold. She had played right into his hands and allowed him to manipulate her. She felt herself shaking with rage, and nearly drove her nails into the palms of her hands trying to regain control. "If I feel anger right now, it isn’t towards you! I will always have this anger in me, that will never change."

"You’re right, it is an anger you carry with you, but I brought it to the fore and I can do it again. I know exactly how to turn your feelings against you."

Gabrielle took a deep breath, closed her eyes and Gaelen felt her anger quickly die away. After a moment, she shook her head and looked at him with sad eyes. Gaelen’s smile of pleasure turned into an angry frown when he began to sense pity from Gabrielle .Gabrielle. It sickened him. Of all the emotions he wanted her to feel, pity was the last.

"What happened to you?" she asked.

"What are you talking about?" he asked with a disgusted expression.

"I’m trying to understand what makes you what you are. Something happened to you. No child is born with the evil that’s inside you." " She watched his expression change to sadness. She’d obviously hit a nerve.

He turned his back to her; his voice iwas still cold, but softer now. "I watched my father kill my mother when I was a boy. He would beat the two of us. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t hear my mother scream or feel the back of his hand across my cheek. But, after he killed my mother, I vowed he wouldn’t lay another hand on me. As he lay one night passed out from one of his drunken stupors, I bashed his head in with a sledgehammer."

Gabrielle listened to his story with a sadness of her own. No child should have to grow up like that. It had turned him into the monster he now was. Maybe, just maybe it wasn’t too late for him. "Because of what happened to you as a boy," she said, employing her most skillful tenderness, "you feel you have to hurt others? Why?"

"I’ve killed the bastard everyday since. Every time I kill, I’m killing him again. It’s a release for all my hate and anger. It makes me feel better…for a while."

"That’s the key, Gaelen. The reason it only lasts for a while is because you’re really bottling that hate and anger inside yourself. You’re not really letting it out." Carefully, she touched his arm and turned him to face her. "Let me help you, Gaelen. Things don’t have to be like this."

Gabrielle saw a fleeting emotion, a wanting in his eyes as he gazed intently at her, but his expression suddenly changed and he began to laugh. It was a cold, arrogant laugh thatA cold, arrogant laugh made her back away from him in disgust. It had all been an act. He had successfully toyed with her emotions again.

Through his laughter he said, "Greeger was right. You are gullible." Now, he could feel her anger.

Gabrielle’s eye s were furrowed together in an angry frown, but she decided to press the issue, for what it was worth. "You can laugh and try to hide it all you want to, Gaelen, but I’m not as stupid as you think. I still say, no one is born with evil in their heart. Not even you."

Gaelen stopped laughing and said with patronizing politeness, "Sweet, caring Gabrielle, I do not need nor do I want your pity." " He turned and walked back to his desk.

Gabrielle, however, true to her nature, refused to give up. "You were a boy when it happened, weren’t you? That’s it, isn’t it? Why else would you have mentioned it? You needed a starting point for your little story. What really happened to you?"

He stopped short at the corner of the table, but did not turn around. With a bit of a growl in his voice he said, "If you know what’s good for you, you’ll silence your tongue. Or I’ll cut it out for you."

"Was it really your mother who was killed? Or was it your father? Maybe it was both."

Just as the words left her mouth, Gaelen spun on her. In a flash, one hand grabbed a wad of her hair and the other fiercely gripped her throat. The adrenaline was pumping in him and it took everything he had not to choke the life out of her. . He had the ability, the opportunity and the desire to use his powers on her, but strangely he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Opposing emotions unfamiliar to him were raging inside. It disgusted him to feel weak.

Gabrielle could feel the pressure of his hand closing around her throat. She could not breathe. She looked at the cold hatred in his dark eyes and for the first time since she’d met him, she was afraid for her life.

"A little pressure is all it would take for me to destroy your vocal chords," he snarled. "You’d never speak again. A little more pressure and you’d never breathe again."

Even though he had promised Gabrielle that he wouldn’t hurt her, she could tell that he was on the verge of choking her to death. Gaelen’s seething face was curling into an angry sneer. Then, just as suddenly as he attacked her, he let her go and shoved her to the ground. She coughed and choked, resting her forehead on the ground as she massaged her bruised throat.

Gaelen turned from her once again, trying to calm himself. The girl was good; he had to give her that. She’d taken his own tactic and used it against him. Though he would never admit it to her, Gabrielle had come closer to the truth about him than anyone. She was a lot smarter than he originally took her to be. Smarter than Xena, anyway. She was not as susceptible to manipulation as Xena had been. There was something about her that was different. She saw people differently from the way Xena did. Xena saw people in black and white, good and evil. To Gabrielle people were different shades, different colors and there were varying degrees of good and of evil in people. It was almost as if she had sensing abilities like his own, though he knew better. She could read people like a book…or in her case, a scroll. Maybe I should shut up while I’m ahead, Gaelen thought. I sound like I’m starting to respect her.

Behind him, Gaelen heard Gabrielle rise to her feet. He felt fear from her, but underneath it was a trace of guilt. Guilt of what? he asked himself. Then it came to him … Gabrielle felt guilt for goading him into anger, forcing him to feel things he didn’t want to feel. But, aA thought came from her mind to him as clearly as if she had spoken it. ‘At least now heyou understands how I felt.,’’ was Gabrielle’s thought. He turned to respond to that feeble attempt to cover up her guilt, when he heard the sound of horses. It was the men returning to camp. Just seconds later, there was a voice at the entrance to the tent. "It’s Barleus, sir. May I come in?"

Quickly, Gaelen grabbed Gabrielle by the arm and moved her back to her sitting position on the cot. He gave her one good threatening glance before calling Barleus in. Barleus entered the tent, glancing at Gabrielle briefly before standing at attention before his commander. In that small glance, he noticed the bruise around her neck. There had obviously been some sort altercation, but he wasn’t on such friendly terms with Gaelen to just ask. So, he put it out of his mind.

"I’m assuming you’ve come with a report," Gaelen said, taking his place behind his table.

"Yes, sir. Phestia is destroyed. The men took what they wanted and we burned the rest, just as you commanded."

"And what of the rest of the villagers?"

"On your orders, sir, I sent Tameon with a platoon of men to take care of them. I haven’t heard from them yet, but I believe they should be returning soon. I can give you a full report on that when they do. And you’ll be pleased to know, sir, that General Greeger and the rest of his soldiers are dead."

Gabrielle was shocked to hear this, but tried not to let it show. According to what Gaelen had told her earlier that evening, Greeger was already dead. Had she missed something or was this man unaware that Gaelen already knew that?

Barleus continued, "Our men cornered him and some stragglers in a burning building. I’m afraid we lost everyone though, sir, our men and theirs. It was strange, sir, everything caved-in under them. . It was like the ground just gave way. I just barely avoided falling in myself."

"What a pity that would have been," was Gaelen’s uncaring reply. "Are you saying Greeger was not dead when I left him?"

"I went to him to double check as you commanded, sir. Being it was you he had battled with I didn’t expect him to be alive, but he threw gravel in my face and knocked me out when I was off guard. Had he battled with anyone else, Lord Gaelen, I would have been more care …"care…"

"Enough! Are you sure he was in the building when it collapsed?"

"Yes, sir. No one survived."

Gabrielle’s mind was working feverishly. Gaelen hadn’t killed Greeger after all. She wasn’t surprised. If the burning building was his home then they were trying to reach the tunnel. What in the world could have made the earth beneath his floor collapse? Only the god’s knew, but it wouldn’t surprise her if he had evaded their attempts to kill him again.

"Did we loose many men?" Gaelen asked.

"I didn’t take an exact count, sir, but on the whole, it was probably about thirty to forty. Less than half. I’m sure they can be replace easy enough."

"I’m sure they can," he said, turning a cold stare in Barleus’ direction. "As a matter of fact, I found your replacement this evening."

A feeling of grim foreboding fell over Barleus. He knew quite well to whom Gaelen was referring, but hadn’t expected it so soon. "Sir?" he said, faking surprise.

"First thing tomorrow morning, you will report immediately to Xena," Gaelen said, amused to sense the reactions he suspected, anger from one and alarm from the other.

"I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t understand," Barleus said, his face blushing anger as he strained not to display it. That could easily cost him not only is position, but his life as well.

Gabrielle could only stare at Gaelen, wondering what insanity he was dreaming up now. Why would he tell Barleus that? There was no way that Xena had sided with Gaelen. She couldn’t have. Gaelen was the epitome of all the evil that she used to be. And even if she had, she would never agree to leadinglead another man’s army, being second in the chain of command. Gabrielle’s inquisitive nature and abhorrence of the idea screamed for answers.

"You understand perfectly well, Barleus. As of now, you are no longer in command of my army. Consider it a career change. Xena will lead my army and you will follow her command. Is that understood?"

Barleus, obviously and understandably aghast, hesitated to answer. His anger was overtaking him but he didn’t want to say anything he’d regret later. . Gaelen’s brows drew together into a scowl at the hesitation. "Perhaps I should make you understand," he said, his eyes menacing in their glare.

"No, sir, you don’t have to do that. I understand perfectly, sir," he said promptly. "Xena will lead your army…and I will follow her command."

"Good. Now, that you understand, you can leave." Tight lipped and serious, Barleus nodded and turned to leave. . "Oh, and Barleus." Barleus turned back momentarily and Gaelen added, "Sleep well." " Gaelen laughed as Barleus exited the tent without another word. The curses he sensed swimming throughswimming through Barleus’ head were amusing. Eventually, he would pay for them one way or the other. He looked over at Gabrielle, saw the concerned look in her eyes, and heard the questions in her mind.

Her voice was still a little scratchy from his choke-holdchokehold but she could not remain silent. "I don’t understand what it is that you’re planning, but you’re crazy if you think Xena is going to lead your army. You might as well call Barleus back in and tell him he has his job back."

"You lack faith in me, Gabrielle. Trust me, Xena is ready to go back into the business of war."

"That part of Xena’s life is over. Ares can’t even get her to go back to that way of life, and he’s the god of war. To the gods, you’re nothing more than a piddling mortal. What makes you think you can do any better than a god?"

"Where this Ares is concerned, I believe we are of the same mind. He’s an idiot. In case you hadn’t noticed, Xena’s ability to make war is not all that interests him. His desires lead him to think more like a ‘piddling mortal’, than he would a god. I, on the other hand, have no such interest in her, besides her skill as a warrior."

That, as a man, he had no interest in Xena as a woman Gabrielle found rather surprising. . "Really?" she asked. "Huh … it doesn’t matter, anyway. Xena would never follow you. And even if she were to, eventually, she would kill you and take over your army."

Gaelen couldn’t argue the point and conceded with a nod. "You may lack faith in me, but your faith in Xena is unwavering. It’s admirable, if admiration means anything, which to me, by the way, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, Gabrielle, come morning you will see that I speak the truth, and your faith in Xena will shatter."

"That will never happen," she said matter- of- factly with a shake of her head.

Gaelen stared at her intently for a few seconds, then rose from his seat, walked around the table and sat next to Gabrielle on the cot. He didn’t seem to be in a dangerous mood at the moment but it still made her very uncomfortable. "You know, Gabrielle, I like you," he said in a tone that was almost friendly. "You’re nothing like Xena. I had thought she would be my greatest challenge and now I find that is what you’ve become. That’s why this is going to be so difficult."

"What is?"

"Having to rip into the seams of your perfectly ordered little world and just making one hell of a mess."

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," she said uneasily.

"Do you remember Chin, Gabrielle?" he asked rather slyly.

Of course, Gabrielle remembered Chin. In an attempt to keep Xena from doing something she considered deplorable, she had betrayed her best friend,. B but Xena had forgiven her. What did he think he was holding over her head? More important though: How did he know about Chin? What did he know about it? And why would he ask such a question? ? The more she came to know of this man, the less she understood and trusted him. "I don’t understand. You seem to know so much about me. How? Xena didn’t tell you .… dDid she?"

"No. She’s never even spoken your name to me." Gabrielle’s eyes questioned him, so he answered. "It is a gift that I have. I see people like you do, only deeper. That’s why I know about how your husband died; about the first time you took a life; about your union with a dark force and the child it created. I know about Chin, Gabrielle."

These were things no stranger should knowNo stranger should know these things. They were not a topic of public conversation. She began to fear even her thoughts in his presence. "Whatever gift it is that you think you have," she said, staunchly refusing to let down her guard, "there’s nothing you can tell me about Chin that I don’t already know."

"No? Obviously, your utter faith in Xena has blinded you to the truth. Let me show you what you do not know." Gaelen reached to touch her face. . She drew back apprehensively for obvious reasons. "Relax, Gabrielle. I promised I wouldn’t hurt you and I haven’t. I don’t intend to do so now." To himself, he thought, That’s Xena’s job.

Gabrielle relinquished to his touch and allowed Gaelen to touch his thumb and middle finger to her temples. With his free hand, he softly drew her eyes closed. She trembled in fear and distrust. . Then, to her amazement, her mind suddenly became alive with images and sounds that were at first foreign to her. It was a blur of light and sound that slowly came into focus until she saw herself inside a nearly demolished building that was once a beautiful palace. Xena stood next to her in tattered rags. Dark rings rimmed her eyes as she stared at a young Chin man who was covered in dust. It was then that Gabrielle realized where she was.

"Let’s go," Gabrielle heard herself tell Xena. She heard the urgency in her own voice, not wanting a confrontation between Xena and the young Chin man who called himself Ming T’ien.

"Xena!" T’ien called out to her. "I have something to tell you."

Xena turned to her and said, "Gabrielle, make sure everyone gets clear of the building. It’ll collapse at any moment."

"Are you—" Gabrielle began. She grabbed hold of Xena’s arm, concerned that Xena would do something rash in anger.

"I’m fine. Don’t worry. As far as I’m concerned this is all over."

Gabrielle remembered, that even though she was still concerned, she’d listened to Xena and left at that point. But nowNow, it was as if she had gone back in time and was watching through a window. She was expecting to continue to see herself as she helped people to get away from the building, but instead she only saw herself leave Xena behind with Ming T’ien. She watched Xena approach him, her face twisted in hatred.

"Say it," she hissed.

"You made me, Xena. You made me to be the monster I am."

"I know. It’s part of the reason I’m here. I’ve learned to clean up after myself."

As Gabrielle watched, she was suddenly fearful that Xena’s hatred would overtake her and she would finish what she’d started.

"Is that all?" she hissed at him again. But, instead of attacking him, as Gabrielle was afraid she might, Xena only gave Ming T’ien one more angry look, and to Gabrielle’s relief, turned to leave. The fear in Gabrielle’s heart lifted, until…

"One other thing," she heard T’ien say and Xena turned back to face him. "You probably heard I had Lao Ma executed."

There was pain mixed in with her hatred as she stared at him. Gabrielle could see it clearly in her eyes. "Yes," was all she said.

"But I just wanted you to know. It’s not true."

A hopefulness began to grow in Xena’s eyes. Could he be saying that Lao Ma may still be alive? "Really?" she asked, letting the emotion show.

But, T’ien shattered those hopes with one word. "No." Smiling, he added, "I did it myself."

Pure hatred filled Xena’s eyes as she said, "I have something to tell you, Ming T’ien."

"What’s that?"

"Lao Ma was your Mother!" Gabrielle heard Xena’s voice break as she voiced this revelation.

But, T’ien was not affected by her sorrow. He gave Xena a smug smile and voiced a revelation of his own. "I knew that the whole time!" Xena stared at him in shock, her eyes filling with tears.

Ming T’ien continued. "That’s why I did the execution myself. I knew she wouldn’t use her powers to hurt her ‘little boy’‘little boy’." He said the last two words with such derision that Gabrielle could feel his hate for his own mother emitting from him. She saw Ming T’ien reach into the sash at his waist and take something from it. "I think this belongs to you," he said, and tossed the object to her. It was an oriental hair clip that obviously had sentimental value to Xena from the way she held it in her hands with familiarity and sadness.

Ming T’ien was not moved. He seemed to be getting sadistic pleasure from Xena’s pain. "Her last request was that it was returned to you." He sneered, "Turns out that she was just a sentimental fool." Anger returned to Xena’s face at the harsh words he spoke of Lao Ma. T’ien reached into the rubble on the floor and picked up a heavy book. "Remember this? Mother’s book of wisdom. It failed her in the end. That philosophical sense of peace fell apart! She cried like a baby."

Gabrielle was moved to tears by the horrified look in Xena’s eyes. How she must have loved this woman.

"She even cried on after I had torn her heart from her body!" Ming T’ien cried, disgust clearly written on his face. He threw Lao Ma’s book of wisdom to the floor like so much garbage.

The horror in Xena’s eyes suddenly went cold and the look on her face grew deadly. Her lip curled into a sneer, her eyes were hooded and her grip on the hair clip tightened. With deadly precision, Xena sent the hair clip slicing silently throughraised her arm into the air…air…

"NO!" Gabrielle screamed, braking free of Gaelen’s grip on her and of the vision in her head. Quickly, she stood up and got as far away from Gaelen as she could. "No, that did not happen! I don’t know how you’re doing this, but you’re a liar! You’re making me see things that aren’t true! Xena didn’t kill him."

"Is that what she told you or just what you assumed?"

"She said she made him small again and that she didn’t have to resolve her anger with murder."

"Xena lied to you."


Gaelen rose to his feet and faced her. . "Where’s your faith now, Gabrielle? Where’s your trust? By tomorrow, it won’t even exist." Now Gaelen could feel hatred coming off her like waves of heat. Walking over to her, Gaelen stood face to face with her. Gabrielle attempted to turn away from him, but Gaelen, grabbed her head with both of his hands when she attempted to turn away and forced her to look up at him. His grip was so forceful, she was afraid he’d crush her skull.

"Your faith and trust in Xena is grossly misplaced, Gabrielle. You have no idea what she is really like."

"Stop it!" she cried out, trying to break free but he was too strong for her.

"Or what she’s is capable of doing to people when her rage motivates her. "

"Shut up! I don’t have to listen to you!"

"No, you don’t. You need only to see."

Suddenly, Gabrielle’s mind became a flurry of images. She saw Xena…hate and coldness in her eyes. She saw the fierce warlord that was Xena, the one that was there long before Gabrielle had ever met her. Gaelen continued the vision of Xena and Ming T’ien and showed Gabrielle the moment she’d tried to avoid seeing, when Xena had murdered him. Then, other visions flew though her mind. Visions of Xena slicing and dicing her way through entire nations; visions of Xena killing innocent people, men who were only trying to defend their homelands; visions of Xena torturing those who didn’t live by her code, who didn’t follow her rule. Gabrielle had heard of this Xena from Xena herself, but she never wanted to see it. That Xena was never more real to her than it was in that instant. She’d never truly believed in that Xena until now. Gabrielle screamed. There was no worse torture in the world for her.


Just After Midnight

Greeger stood at the entrance to the cave, staring out at the night sky. For the first time that evening, Greeger experienced the peace of absolute silence. But, there was no silence from within. Inside he was screaming. He screamed for the loss of Phestia and his people’s way of life. He screamed for the loss of his fellow soldiers. He screamed for the loss of Gabrielle. True, they had won the battle against the soldiers coming to kill them all, but they lost the war. Their lives were irrevocably changed, never to be the same. What moved people to do things like this? What made one person consider themselfthemselves so much better than others that they could just murder them and take what was theirs? He wished there was something he could do, some way to pay Gaelen back for all the suffering he’d brought on these people and all the suffering they would have to endure in the days to come.

Lost in his thoughts, Greeger was startled when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Salea standing behind him, a soft smile on her face, but concern in her eyes. "Why are you still awake?" she asked quietly.

"Can’t sleep," he said, turning back to the darkness outside.

"Still beating yourself up?"

He sighed heavily, but did not to answer.

"Nallos was right," she continued when he didn’t answer. "These people are alive because of you."

"These people are still alive because of Gabrielle, not me."

"Greeger, listen to me. You had the wisdom to listenedlisten to Gabrielle instead of Nallos. Where would any of us be if you hadn’t?" He did not answer. "But, you did listen to her and these people are alive now. We may not have a city to go back to, but we have our lives."

"And we cost Gabrielle hers," he added in anger. "I should never have let her stay."

"You don’t really think you could have made her leave? She made her decision to stay, Greeger, and she knew what was at stake when she did. She wouldn’t want you to blame yourself." She gave him a moment to the let the words sink in, allowing him to take her in his arms. From the way he held her she could tell he was drawing comfort from her. She stood there for a long moment scratching his back gently and snuggling against him. Presently she said, "Come on. . You need to rest. We all do after today."

Greeger nodded, kissed her forehead, her nose,nose and then claimed her lips tenderly. She responded willingly and hugged him tightly as their lips parted. "You go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute," he whispered. She nodded, smiled and turned back into the cave.

Greeger closed his eyes and sighed heavily. He wished he could make himself believe what Salea was telling him. Unfortunately, by virtue of his position, he was compelled to take the blame. He was in charge; he was responsible for preserving their city, their lives and their way of life.

Only one other time had Greeger failed this miserably—the time he brought his army up against Xena’s. She had begun taking smaller villages that surrounded her homeland of Amphipolis. Greeger’s village, where he had been born and raised, was in her path of destruction. He was much younger then, but his skill as a warrior granted him the position of General. He had accepted her challenge with the firm intention of sending her and her army straight to Tartarus, but everything went wrong. He underestimated the woman that people were beginning to refer to as the Warrior Princess. She’d slaughtered his army just as Gaelen had. By some miracle, Greeger had been spared her wrath. He had been severely injured and taken for dead. A kindly old man had pulled his nearly lifeless body from the battlefield, cared for him and nursed him back to health. When he finally returned to his home village, he found that there was not much left to return to. Only the women and children had been left alive. The men had been shown no mercy. He saw all this from a distance, though. He never entered the village, ashamed that he had allowed that to happen. That day was the last day that he ever saw his home village. Now, it was as if those days were replaying themselves. It was all happening again. Only this time, he wasn’t walking away.

Just then, a voice interrupted his thoughts in the quiet night. "I can give you your glory back, Greeger. I can give you your revenge." Greeger looked up to see a figure standing outside the cave. In the darkness of the night, he could not make out who it was. Instinctively, Greeger drew his sword. Not wanting to draw the attention of the sleeping people, he walked out of the cave towards the figure.

"Who are you? What do you want here?" he demanded.

"You know who I am, Greeger. I’m the god you abandoned so many years ago." In the night sky, the clouds parted, allowing the light from the moon to shine down on this person before him. But, Greeger did not need the light to know who it was.

"Ares," he said, with anger and disgust in his voice, holding out his sword towards Ares’ chest. He knew there was no way he could hurt or kill the god of war, but that wasn’t his intention. It was a sign of disrespect, a sign that Ares could read very well. "Get out of here, you son of a Bacchae. We don’t want your kind here."

"I would suggest you remove your sword, before I make you eat it," Ares said, with a dangerous look in his eyes. "If ‘my kind’ weren’t here, you’d all be dead right now. I did you a favor."

"What favor was that? ? When you and the rest of the gods turned your backs while Gaelen destroyed our city?"

"For centuries, I protected Phestia in return for their worship and their respect. The army of Phestia had become a thing of legend. There wasn’t a war or a battle that could penetrate those walls. Until the day you walked into town and slowly started to turn everyone against me. I didn’t turn my back until you and the people of Phestia turned yours. You chose your own fate."

"I lost all respect for the god of war the day he chose to make Xena his victorious warrior. I prayed and I sacrificed to you to help me to defend my village those ‘many years ago’. You talk about abandonment. You abandoned me that day on the battlefield and I’ve hated you ever since."

"Then, your own hatred destroyed Phestia. If the people had stayed faithful, maybe I would have and we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Instead, I watched my temple empty day by day over the last ten years. And I watched my glorious Festival of War turn into a despicable festival of the harvest!"

"Being a farmer is a much more noble profession. I wish I had been one, instead of slaving for you."

"You may yet be, unless…"

"Unless what? What could you possibly expect me to do for you?"

"Go up against Gaelen one more time and I’ll ensure your victory."

"Are you insane?" he laughed sarcastically. " Oh, I forgot, you’re the god of war. Of course, you’re insane."

"This isn’t a joke, Greeger. I’m deadly serious."

"So am I! You are insane!" He pointed off into the distance to where he assumed Gaelen was camped. "At least he still has something of an army. I probably couldn’t even call what I have left a platoon. And you want me to go back up against Gaelen? Even if you could ensure our victory, I don’t trust you within an inch of my life!"

"Whether you trust me or not is not the issue. The issue is the future of humanity," Ares said with a look of warning in his eye.

"When did the god of war ever care about the future of humanity? The only interest you ever show in humans is what you can get out of them."

"I’m not going to stand here and argue with you on the finer points of my godship and how I decide to use it. You have no idea how powerful Gaelen is. He has to be stopped and I can’t do it alone."

That was a revelation Greeger had not expected. He was surprised, but intrigued as well and hoped he could use it to his advantage "Are you asking me for … help?" he asked, almost smiling.

"If that’s the word you choose to use … then … yes … I’m asking for your help," Ares said, his annoyance showing in his face and his voice.

"I’d rather watch you rot in Tartarus, you bastard. Good, brave warriors died out there tonight and you come to me for help?! Where were you when they could have used your help?"

"I was busy caving-in an underground tunnel, killing some of my best warriors so that you and your soldiers could get free in one piece!"

Greeger finally lowered his sword and stared at the wargod, dumbfounded. After all his years of cursing Ares, Greeger could not believe that he had actually done something so selfless. Of course, it was a short livedshort-lived sentiment. "Don’t flatter yourself, Greeger. I didn’t do it for you. I did it because I still need you alive. If you’re dead, you’re not much help to me."

"Then you might as well kill me, Ares, because there’s nothing you can do or say that will convince me to go back up against Gaelen."

"I can’t fight him alone. I need the strength of an army to fight him. You don’t know this man’s powers. You experienced only a taste of them on the battlefield. He’s capable of much more."

Greeger remembered how Gaelen had lifted and thrown him several feet off the ground without so much as a touch. He hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on that memory until now. Ares could see that he still had not convinced Greeger, so he tried something else, something that might just catch his attention. "What if I told you Gaelen was holding Xena … and Gabrielle captive?"

He smiled at this new tactic of Ares’ and shook his head. "I’d say you’re a liar. I watched Gabrielle fall to her death from the stone wall. There’s no way she could have survived that. And as for that black-hearted bitch, Xena, she joined up with Gaelen the first chance she got. Not even Gabrielle could convince me that Xena left Phestia to try to stop that army. The whole idea is so farfetched it’s ridiculous and I never took Xena to be that stupid."

"If my word isn’t good enough for you, then, perhaps this will be." With a slow swiping arc of his arm, Ares created an image in the air.

Greeger stared transfixed, for within the image he saw Xena chained and beaten. Blood and bruises covered her face and body. If what he was seeing was true, there went his first theory. Then, the image changed and he saw Gaelen choking Gabrielle. Pained to his heart by the vision, he reached forward to help her, but the image vanished. Greeger looked at Ares, questions in his eyes.

"Now do you believe?" Ares asked.

"If that bastard…"

"The little brat is fine. She just made him angry. Don’t worry, he doesn’t have any intentions of hurting her."

"Then, what are his intentions?"

"That’s been the question of the day. I don’t really know."

"I thought you were the god of war…"

"I am! But, not even the god of war knows everything. The most I know is that he’s moving east. I don’t know much about his future plans except for the fact that Xena figures highly in it."

"What does he want with Xena?"

"He wants a killing machine. He wants to take away the warrior in her and turn her into a monster."

"I though she already was one."

"Oh no. What you came across before was only the warrior. You cannot imagine the kind of devastation Xena would cause if she became a monster. With her at his side, Gaelen would rule the known world in no time. Believe me, I almost did."

"If all he wants is Xena, what does he need Gabrielle for?"

"The monster is not truly a monster until its first kill."

Greeger grew cold at the thought. If Gabrielle was truly alive and in Gaelen’s clutches, he had no choice but to assist Ares. "Okay, I’ll lead my few soldiers back into battle, but I want you to know this. I do this for Gabrielle. Not for you and certainly not for Xena. She can rot right beside you in Tartarus for all I care. If you want to save Xena’s hide, you can do it yourself, because I won’t help you."

"You’re overlooking something, Greeger. If you go in only for Gabrielle, she’ll fight you tooth and nail before she’ll let you leave Xena behind." " Greeger’s shoulders drooped. He hung his head and sighed irritably. Understanding Greeger’s reaction, Ares added, "I know, I know. I haven’t the slightest idea what those two see in each other either, but they’re inseparable."

Irritation showing clearly on his face, Greeger, nevertheless, got down to business. "What’s the plan of attack?"

"I’ll scout out the area, but we wait until dawn."

"Why dawn? Why don’t we get this over with now?"

"Because, Gaelen doesn’t intend to implement his plan until dawn. He won’t be expecting an attack and most of his troops will be unarmed. We catch him when his guard is down. One other thing you should know about him."

"What’s that?"

"Gaelen has a very powerful mind. He has the ability to read the mind of other mortals. For some reason, he can’t read my mind."

‘Probably because you don’t have one,’ Greeger thought, unintentionally mirroring the thoughts of Gaelen from the day before.

"It probably has something to do with my godhood.," Ares said thoughtfully. "Anyway, I believe I can shield the mind of you and your soldiers from him, but I haven’t tested this theory yet. Tomorrow will tell."

"And if you can’t, he’ll know we’re coming. He’ll slaughter us all and Gabrielle while he’s at it. Then, he’ll have his monster."

Ares stepped forward and stood face to face with Greeger. "I said I would ensure our victory and I will. Gaelen may think he’s powerful, but he’s nothing without me."

Greeger had Ares’ determination, but he did not have his confidence. He knew that Gaelen wanted more than just to rule the known world. He wanted to destroy it. Greeger remembered the words that Gaelen had spoken to him: "You are a low form of life that scurries about on this planet with no purpose to your pathetic existence. That’s why I’m going to do you all a favor and exterminate every one of you." Gaelen had spoken to him as if he were a higher form of life and stood in a position to judge them, to decide whether or not they had the right to life. Obviously, Gaelen had decided they should all die, or be exterminated, as he put it. But, besides loosing his warrior princess, Greeger could not understand why it was so important to Ares to defeat Gaelen. He knew it had nothing to do with the ‘future of humanity’. Ares cared little for humanity other than what he could get out of them. Perhaps tomorrow’s events would answer some of his questions. That is, if he lived long enough to ask them. Just then, the crackling of twigs and rustling of bushes drew Greeger and Ares attention to the woods around them. Greeger raised his sword and Ares drew his own.

"Someone’s coming," Greeger whispered.

"Whoever it is better be ready to fight," Ares said readying himself.

Ares and Greeger watched with apprehension as a figure emerged from the forest that surrounded the cave. The clouds parted once again, lighting the figure as it approached. To their complete surprise, the figure was no warrior waiting in the forest to deal one last deathblow. They both lowered their swords and breathed a sigh of relief as they stared upon the figure of a young child.


Gabrielle awoke to the rushing of a cool breeze across her face. She took a deep breath, smelling the cool, clean air that blew in from the open tent. Despite all, it promised to be another beautiful day. . She wiped away new tears that fell from the corners of her eyes and sat up on the cot to stare out at the beginnings of a new day. Gaelen was no where in sight, but that was all right. After last night, if she never saw him again it would be to soon. Her head still hurt. Gabrielle rubbed at her temples, unaware of the bruises that had formed there. She tried to rub the pain away but, try as she might, she could not rub away the images in her mind. All night she tried to clear her mind of what Gaelen had shown her. She barely slept.

There were some images in her mind thatSome images in her mind were so disturbing they wouldn’t leave. Her mind kept returning to them again and againrepeatedly. Gaelen had forced her to watch through her mind’s eyes as Xena murdered a band of Amazon warriors. It was something that had happened long ago, Gabrielle knew that. In her mind was the vision of some woman named Alti. She had somehow influenced Xena to kill them, but it didn’t take away the horror Gabrielle felt watching Xena do it.

Nevertheless, Gaelen had gotten what he wanted. He had drawn up feelings of anger and hate from deep inside Gabrielle. She hated that Xena for what she was and for the things she had done. She was incensed at Gaelen for making her see, in vivid detail, many of the horrible things Xena had done in her life. His plan, however, had not been a total success for she now understood Xena’s shame. Hearing Xena’s stories of her old life had made an impression on her, but actually seeing them had given them greater reality and meaning. That Xena had the strength to turn away from all that, to become a better person, made Gabrielle love her all the more.

There was only one drawback—Ming T’ien. . Gabrielle had always believed that when Xena said she’d "made him small again", it meant she’d left him in disgrace. Gabrielle had responded to that belief, saying: "Your not killing him made you exactly what Lao Ma wanted you to be." Xena hadn’t said anything to dissuade her from believing that Ming T’ien was alive. She simply let her believe it to be so. Apparently, Xena couldn’t let Gabrielle know that she had disgraced herself. She had momentarily lapsed back into her hatred and allowed herself to be motivated by it. Gabrielle felt for Xena, and maybe even understood why Xena reacted in anger and killed Ming T’ien. But, she could not understand why Xena would lie to her. Why couldn’t she tell me the truth?,? Gabrielle thought. Just then, a shadow fell across her. Gabrielle looked up to see Gaelen enter the tent.

"Perhaps…this is simply my point of view; you don’t have to follow it if you don’t wish to…perhaps you could get the truth out of Xena, if you decided to tell the truth yourself. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘The truth shall set you free’? Think about it, Gabrielle. It just might."

Gabrielle knewunderstood exactly what he was talking about, but she was given no time to respond. Gaelen quickly grabbed her arm, yanked her to her feet and brought her outside the tent. Outside, Gabrielle saw that all of Gaelen’s troops had gathered around the two tents. They watched her with interest, as if she were about to put on a show for them. Barleus stood among them, anger written plainly across his face. Gabrielle remembered what Gaelen told Barleus the night before: "First thing tomorrow morning, you will report immediately to Xena." Did he bring her out here to witness this change of command? To show her that Xena really had returned to the business of war? Gabrielle would never believe it unless Xena told her to her face. Gaelen leaned over and whispered, "You wanted to see Xena so badly? Here she is." To the guards outside the tent, he commands: "Bring her out!"

As the two guards entered the tent, Gabrielle felt her stomach tighten nervously. She had no idea what to expect when they brought Xena out. Gaelen still held her arm tightly,; otherwise she would have run into the tent herself to stop this agonizing wait. If she could only be alone with Xena for a moment, maybe…

The words died in her mind and her stomach dropped when the guards emerged, dragging Xena by her arms into the open circle formed by the tents and the warriors. All her armor was gone and so were her boots. She had been savagely beaten, like nothing Gabrielle had ever seen before. The guards dropped her to the ground like a heap of garbage. She tried to get up, but couldn’t. Gabrielle’s eyes filled with tears at the sight of her best friend hurt so badly. With a desperate longing to rush to Xena’s side, she reached out, struggling against Gaelen’s grasp.

"Xena!" she called out. Then looking to Gaelen with pleading eyes, she said, "Let go! I have to go to her!"

Gaelen yanked on her arm and drew her close to him. "Not until it’s time," he hissed through clenched teeth. Gabrielle continued to fight, but Gaelen kept her in place. "Guards, help her up," he said disgustedly. Gaelen watched Xena closely, with his eyes and with his mind. So far, he’d sensed nothing from her besides a dull rage…and pain. She was hurting, that was obvious. But, he got the feeling she was still controlling a part of herself. Controlling her rage, maybe, to a certain extent? Trying to keep herself from loosing control over her emotions? That wasn’t what he needed. He needed those emotions to be exposed and raw.

The two guards returned to Xena’s side to help her to her feet. Though unsteady, she shoved them away, refusing their assistance any longer. She looked out at the crowd of warriors who stared back at her in silent curiosity.

"Men!" Gaelen said for everyone to hear. "Barleus has stepped obligingly down in rank to make room for your new commander. Xena! The Warrior Princess!"

His shout was followed not by warrior cries, but by murmurs. How could this beaten mess lead an army? Gaelen was not concerned. He expected this reaction from them. What he had in mind for Xena would bring them around soon enough.

High up above in the trees, no one saw…or even sensed…the two men concealed in the dense foliage. Actually, it was one man and one Olympian god. Greeger watched with concern the scene that was playing before him. He was happy to see that Gabrielle had been unharmed, but not so happy with the situation. He saw how worried she was for Xena. She was looking with a broken heart upon the battered body of her best friend. Greeger, on the other hand, only saw the same cold-hearted eyes he remembered from long ago. He could not imagine a Xena that had chosen a life of good, now using her warrior ways to help people. He knew, however, that Gabrielle believed this. "Xena is a different person now," she had told him the other day. "She came to Phestia to help you and your people, not to fight against you." Until Gabrielle saw the truth for herself, he would go with her instincts.

"Good. It’s working. He doesn’t sense any of you." Ares said, smiling.

"How can you be sure? Maybe he’s just bluffing," Greeger replyedreplied.

"I know when someone’s bluffing. My do-gooder brother is the King of Bluff. He’s so easy to read, it’s pathetic."

Watching the scene below intently, Greeger aaskedasked, "If that’s true, why do I always hear about Hercules kicking your ass?"

Ares took his eyes off the action below for a moment and turned dangerous eyes in Greeger’s direction. "What you hear is wrong. Stories of Hercules are always exaggerated."

Greeger was still intent on what was going on below and failed to see the boiling anger in Ares’ eyes, so he answered, "True, but the ones I hear about him kicking your ass are always pretty detailed." With angry eyes ablaze, Ares began to work up a ball of fire to hurl at Greeger for his insolence, when he was distracted by a shout.

Greeger recognized the man who had attempted to kill him while he was down. The man stepped forward from the crowd and entered the circle. Even from his vantage pointvantagepoint, Greeger could see the anger and frustration in the man’s eyes.

"Do you really want this to lead you?" Barleus shouted, pointing at Xena. "This bruised and beaten woman who can barely stand on her own two feet! Is that what you want?" Barleus was playing a dangerous game and he knew it, but if he must die let it be defending his honor rather than being made a laughing stock before the men he had commanded. The crowd of warriors shouted in unison: "NO!" Greeger and Ares both expected to see Gaelen cut him down, but strangely he did nothing.

Emboldened by this, Barleus walked over to Xena and grabbed her arm just above the elbow. "I say we show Lord Gaelen what we think of his new recruit! Death to Xena!" The warriors shouted in agreement.

"No!" Gabrielle screamed, straining against Gaelen, but his grip was too tight. . Barleus turned toward Xena, still holding her arm and took hold of his sword handle to draw it and perform the deed himself. In the blink of an eye, Xena twisted her left arm around his, snapped it at the elbow and slammed the heal of her right palm under his nose. With a shutter, Barleus crumbled to the ground unconscious. The warriors cheering him on were silenced. Xena stood before them now, her footing sure, her eyes clear and her face determined. The mightier of the two had been proven. One warrior stepped out from the crowd, and held his sword in the air and began shouting, the rest quickly following suit: "Xena! Xena! Xena! Xena!"

Gaelen laughed, knowing quite well that this show of strength would insight his warriors to recognize his wisdom and unite them under their new leader. Gabrielle still fought against him. The last time she heard that shouting of Xena’s name, Xena had reveled in it. It seemed somehow to ignite the flame of her warrior’s heart. Even now, Gabrielle could see a smile spreading across her bruised face.

Greeger had heard that familiar shouting once before, too. After she had defeated his army, he remembered lying injured and dying, hearing her warriors shout out her name. Ares, on the other hand, didn’t know how to feel. It had been a while since he’d heard warriors shouting Xena’s name with reverence. He felt pride in it, but at the same time, he felt jealously, because it was not at his hand that Xena earned the respect of the warriors.

Gaelen saw it also. He sensed pride coming from Xena and he saw it on her face as well. Now was the time for the final show down. It was time for Xena to decide what side she truly wanted to be on.

"Now it is time, Gabrielle!" he said above the shouting. Taking a step forward, he threw Gabrielle to the ground at Xena’s feet. The warriors’ chanting stopped. All watched with interest as the scene unfolded. Gabrielle looked up from her place on the ground into Xena’s battered face and wanted to cry. Her face was black and blue, covered in dried blood from a gash across her right eyebrow. Xena looked at Gabrielle through hooded eyes as if she didn’t even recognize her. The gods only knew what she had been through, that her mind could be in as bad a condition as her body. Recognizing the danger, Gabrielle got to her feet slowly, careful not to make any sudden moves. . "Xena, it’s me. It’s Gabrielle."

With that Gaelen stepped into the circle and asked, "Do you remember her, Xena?"

Xena looked between the two of them. She looked confused, as though she didn’t understand what was happening. In his gloved right hand, Gaelen held Xena’s sword, while the other hand rested on the handle of his own sword at his waist. "She’s your enemy, Xena."

Gabrielle watched Xena look at her in suspicion. . "Don’t listen to him, Xena. He’s lying."

Gaelen grabbed Xena’s hand and placed the handle of her sword in her palm. "She not your friend. She wants to keep you from fulfilling your destiny. Remember, you own this world. She wants to take it from you." Xena’s face hardened. "She wants to destroy you, Xena. Kill her."

Xena raised her sword and placed the tip of at Gabrielle’s throat, but Gabrielle refused to raise a hand in defense. She held in her heart utter faith in Xena and believed that she would never kill her. If she did, so be it. Life without her would be meaningless anyway.

As soon as Xena’s sword was raised, Greeger was ready to command the charge. He moved to get down from the tree, but Ares held out a hand, "No, not yet."

"Are you crazy? What’s it going to take, for Gabrielle to have her neck sliced open?"

"Gabrielle’s still alive. If Xena wanted her dead, she’d be dead already. Xena has to decide whether she’s going to be on Gaelen’s side or on ours. We don’t make a move until Xena does."

"And what if her move is towards Gabrielle?"

"Once again, Greeger, you’re underestimating Xena. The fact that she’s hesitating means that she doesn’t fully trust Gaelen."

"You still haven’t answered my question."

"Then, we kill them all. Xena included."

Gaelen watched the sword slightly tremble at Gabrielle’s neck. He looked over at Xena, and even though the look on her face was a deadly one, he sensed uncertainty in her. Her eyes danced between expressions of rage and concern.

"Why do you hesitate, Xena? If what you are feeling is anxiety over losing your friend, don’t bother. She doesn’t care about you."

Gabrielle, too, could see that Xena was unsure about what action to take, and that meant that the Xena she knew was in there somewhere. With the right words, Gabrielle knew she could bring her out. "I do care about you, Xena. You know I do. Just look in his eyes and you’ll see that he’s a liar."

"She calls me a liar, Xena, while she lies to your very face!" He walked up behind Gabrielle and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Every day of her life she lies to you, Xena, to make you forget the day that a child named Hope disappeared from your lives." Xena’s eyes look in confusion at Gabrielle, seeming unable to comprehend what Gaelen was trying to tell her. She did not remove the sword from Gabrielle’s throat.

"Shut up!" Gabrielle hissed at Gaelen, but tears filled her eyes as well as sadness & and guilt as she looked at Xena and shook her head. "Don’t listen to anything that comes out of his mouth, Xena. He’s trying to trick you!"

Gaelen was filled with a sudden sense of fear and it was coming from Xena, though it was quickly smothered over by rage. Although the rage showed clearly in her eyes, Gaelen was apprehensive. Fear and rage were not necessarily incompatible, but why the sudden mixture of these two powerful emotions?

Xena brought the sword closer to Gabrielle’s throat, lifting her head and watched a tear roll off Gabrielle’s cheek and onto the sword. It glinted in the light of the sun as it came up over the hills.

"She lied to you that day, Xena. Every word she spoke was a lie." Though apprehensive about what he’d sensed from Xena, Gaelen felt sure his next words would have the desired results. "Gabrielle never threw that child down the gorge. She did not kill her. Did you, Gabrielle?"

The look on Xena’s face was one of disbelief. She looked from Gabrielle to Gaelen for more answers. Gabrielle closed her eyes and tears ran freely down her face, but she refused to answer Gaelen.

"Why don’t you tell Xena what really happened. Tell her how you betrayed her trust in you."

"Get your hands off me!" she demanded shrugging Gaelen’s hands off her shoulders. He removed his hands at her request, but remained near watching Xena’s face harden as she stared back at a defiant Gabrielle. Gabrielle stood bravely with Xena’s sword dangerously at her throat, preparing to face Xena’s anger. She hadn’t wanted Xena to ever know what happened that day, but she realized that if she didn’t tell her, Gaelen would. She would not give him that satisfaction. "I only did what I had to, Xena. I had to protect her. So, I laid her in a basket of straw and grass, and floated her down the river." Gabrielle’s heart sank at the look on Xena’s face. There was disbelief, what she thought was a brief flickering of sadness,sadness and then anger. The look of rage in Xena’s eyes terrified her, but she stood her ground and kept telling herself that Xena would never hurt her. "I’m sorry if I lied to you, Xena, but I couldn’t let you hurt Hope. She was just a child, my child, even if she was capable of the things you said she was."

Gaelen could see the rage boiling in Xena eyes. With a growing smile he said, "She betrayed you, Xena. Kill her!" With a look of satisfaction he watched Xena’s blade move against Gabrielle’s throat, the point indenting her skin.

Still reaching for the right words to bring out her Xena, Gabrielle said, "Go ahead! Kill me, if that’s what you feel like you have to do, but don’t do it thinking I wanted to hurt you, Xena. You know that I would never deliberately try to hurt you. You’re my best friend, Xena, and I love you. No matter what happens here today, I always will." Gabrielle felt the sword leave her neck and for a moment she felt relief … until Xena’s face contorted into an ugly rage and her mouth opened in a warrior’s scream. Gabrielle suddenly felt her feet slip out from under her. Her butt landed on the ground ricocheting intense pain up her spine. As if in reaction, the back of her head hit the ground with such force that her vision began to swim and she felt dizzy. When she blinked her eyes clear, Xena was standing over her with her sword raised into the air, ready to send it ramming through her chest. Gabrielle’s eyes widened in horror.

Gaelen’s eyes widened in glee. He’d felt Xena’s rage take over her feelings for her friend. She reacted exactly as he knew she would. He’d watched her knock Gabrielle off her feet and then stand over her with only the instinct to kill. Gabrielle meant nothing to her now.

As fear set into Gabrielle’s heart, so did acceptance. If she was going to die, she would rather die by Xena’s hand, not anyone else’s. They would see each other again soon and then all would be made right. Gabrielle closed her eyes and prepared to meet her fate.

From their vantagepointvantage point in the tree, Greeger and Ares watched as the scene unfolded itself. Greeger had produced a bow and arrow just as Xena had turned on Gabrielle, but Xena was too quick for him and his aim unsteady. There was nothing either one of them could do.

Gaelen watched in fascination and pleasure as Xena’s sword descended lightening fast towards Gabrielle’s heart. That’s when he sensed a sudden change in emotions. She still felt the rage, but this time it was directed at him! It didn’t take long for him to figure out that she had deceived him. He could see into her mind clearly now and realized everything that she had done. He had barely enough time to react when Xena’s sword changed direction and came rocketing towards him. Just in time, he lifted his own sword to deflect the blow, the force of it nearly knocking him to his feet. Backing up with his sword outstretched before him he stammered, "How did you…"," wondering how it was possible that Xena had hidden all her thoughts from him.

"I have many skills!" she growled through clenched teeth. She came at him again and their swords met.

Sensing a sudden change, Gabrielle opened her eyes to see Xena attacking Gaelen. She smiled with relief and happiness, but was reserved. She knew she would still have to face the consequences afterward.

Ares smiled excitedly, as his warrior princess began to do battle with Gaelen. Greeger could only watch dumbfounded. It had happened so quickly, he was still trying to figure it out. Ares slapped Greeger’s arm, grinning. Greeger was still confused. . "You see, I, I told you!" Ares laughed aloud. "Never underestimate Xena! Now we attack!" He did a back flip off the tree and landed on both feet and yelled, "Attack!"

"Wait! What in Tartarus just happened?" Greeger grunted as he worked his way down from the tree, anxiously watching Gabrielle get back on her feet. The warriors around her were standing around in confusion, not sure if what was happening was supposed to happen. They knew their Lord Gaelen had something planned for them, but was it this.

As it turned out, the soldier to whom Gaelen had handed Gabrielle’s staff had liked the feel of it and decided to keep it. She caught sight of him standing near by and he was, of course, holding it plain as day in his left hand. At that moment, she heard a dozen or more cries of attack which added to the confusion. Taking advantage of the situation, Gabrielle grabbed her staff from the warrior’s hand to his surprise and he quickly tasted it’sits fury. . Gabrielle took him down with one swipe across the face.

Xena heard the approaching soldiers as well, but had no time to concern herself with them. She had two tasks before her. To kill Gaelen and get her chakram back. She swung the sword towards him and he blocked it. Xena felt the pain from her broken ribs shooting through her body, so she closed her mind off to it. She couldn’t fight Gaelen if she concentrated on her pain. It was a skill she’d taught herself many years ago.

Now that he could read every thought in her mind, Gaelen knew he had been tricked. He’d never wanted someone dead as much as he wanted Xena dead at that moment. He would take her head, chop the rest of her up into little pieces and feed her to the dogs. In his rage he decided to fight Xena on her terms, instead of using his power to dominate her. She was beaten down, weak and in pain. He would best her in no time.

If Ares had been around to hear those thoughts, he would have told Gaelen the same thing he told Greeger. That he was underestimating Xena. Instead, he was in the middle of running across a clearing with a band of soldiers, ready to make war. Greeger had caught up to him just as they met up with the sparsely armed warriors. The soldiers fought fiercely with the power of the god of war to back them up. Some of Gaelen’s warriors, when they realized they were fighting against Ares, fell to their knees to do obeisance to their god. Ares showed his former warriors no mercy when he beheaded them where they knelt.

Greeger fought through the warriors to get to where Gabrielle was fighting. She was being attacked from all sides, but was aptly fighting them off with her staff. He admired her skill with the staff, another attribute she creditedattributed to Xena. She had learned well though and that stick could become a deadly weapon in her hands. While Gabrielle’s back was turned to fight off one warrior, another was coming up from behind her. So, Greeger rushed to her side and quickly took care of the attacking warrior. Gabrielle turned when she heard someone behind her, only to see Greeger taking out another one. Gabrielle was elated when she saw him, because she thought he’d been killed. The last thing Gabrielle had seen of him was his battle with Gaelen. So happy were they to see each other that, in the middle of the battle, they found a moment to give each other a hug.

"Are you okay?" he hollered above the sounds of battle.

"I’m fine. I think…" she was about to say that Xena was the one who needed help, but she saw a warrior coming up from behind Greeger. At the same time, he saw one coming up from behind her. "Look out!" they warned each other, switching places to battle their attackers. . As they turn to face each other, Gabrielle sees Ares involved in the battle, but didn’t take the time to see who he was fighting.

"Ares!" she said with a sneer, raising her staff defiantly.

Greeger placed a hand on her staff and lowered it. "No, don’t," he said with a half smile. . "Believe it or not, he’s on our side."

"Ares? Yeah right. When Tartarus freezes over."

"It’s true. Just look who he’s fighting."

To her surprise he was actually fighting against Gaelen’s warriors and she saw what he did to those who realized that he was the god of war. So, he was on their side, yet by her standards beheading men knelt before him in worship was still cruel. Of course, even Ares couldn’t hold a candle to Gaelen’s black heart. Could it be that he came here to rescue her and Xena? Was there a heart underneath all that gusto for war and bloodlust after all?

Before he opened his eyes, Barleus heard the sounds of battle. Feet trampled by him. He felt blood trickling from his nose and tremendous pain in the arm Xena had broken. Hearing her war cry pierce through the morning air, he sat upright and saw her battling Gaelen. He couldn’t believe it when he saw Gaelen fighting her with a sword. Around the men, he’d always chosen to use his powers. Why didn’t he use them on her? He saw Gabrielle and that bastard Greeger next. They had turned in response to Xena’s war cry. Perhaps he couldn’t kill Xena, but he could definitely kill one of them.

Gabrielle and Greeger had turned when they heard Xena’s war cry. It split through the air like a lightening bolt. They watched as Xena flipped through the air over Gaelen and met him from behind. Gabrielle knew Xena was seriously hurt and that she may need the attentions of a healer, but there was no stopping this fight.

In the second that it took Xena to flip over Gaelen, he was ready for her when she landed behind him. Her thoughts had returned to him clearer than ever and he was able to counteract her every move. He brought his sword behind him and blocked the blow of her sword. Gaelen turned to swipe at her midsection and she jumped back. The next thing he knew, her fist was in his face. Gaelen stumbled backward, but came back with tremendous force. Their swords met and slid along each other as each fighter tried forcing the other to yield. Gaelen gained the upper hand by jabbing his hand into Xena’s broken ribs. The pain was more than she could block out of her mind and she fell to her knees. . His blow to her midriff knocked the wind out of her or she would have cried out from the piercing pain. She heard Gabrielle cry out to her.

Gabrielle tried to watch the fight between Xena and Gaelen, in between fighting his warriors. When she saw Xena go down, she quickly swiped her staff across the face of the warrior she battled with and called out Xena’s name. Greeger turned when he heard Gabrielle’s cry and saw Xena go down. He watched Gaelen kick Xena in the face just as she fell to her knees. This time she fell to the ground, but she wasn’t finished yet. Xena kicked her legs out, knocking Gaelen’s feet out from under him. He fell to the ground with a hard thud.

Xena was jumping back to her feet when Greeger noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Barleus was coming at him with a dagger. In one swift move, Greeger spun around, kicked the dagger from his hand,hand and came back around to land one armor-clad fist in his face. Barleus was once again down for the count. "That’ll teach you to sneak up on me, boy!" He picked up Barleus’ dagger from off the ground. "I’ll hold this for you ‘til you learn how to use it."

Barleus writhed in pain. . The fall had not only pined his broken right arm beneath him, but Greeger had punched him in the nose;, right in the same spot Xena had. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it was broken. He muttered incoherent curses at them both, but Greeger walked off laughing. At that moment Barleus felt Gaelen’s presence in his mind. Barleus could hear Gaelen’s voice in his head saying ‘Take command. You know the plan.’ Barleus looked up and saw Gaelen falling to the ground.

Xena jumped back up to her feet and stood over Gaelen. There was just one more thing she needed to do before hacking the bastard to pieces. He had something of hers that she wanted back, her chakram. With her foot, she took the chakram from his belt and flung it into the air, catching it with practiced skill. With a murderous sneer, she swung her arm up in an arc, ready to separate his head into two pieces with it. . "Xena! No!" she heard Gabrielle call to her. She wanted to ignore Gabrielle’s pleading voice and just start cutting this bastard to pieces, but she couldn’t. She was angry with Gabrielle at that moment, but she knew her for what she really was and in Gabrielle’s eyes this was a defenseless man. Her gentle heart could never condone killing anyone, not even Gaelen, under these circumstances. Xena’s vengeful heart, on the other hand, told her ‘Kill him! It doesn’t matter what Gabrielle thinks anymore. She lied to you! It would serve her right, after what she did.’ The chakram was raised, she was poised to kill and she wanted to kill him with all her being, but her love for Gabrielle won out. If Gabrielle considered it wrong to kill this scum, then she wouldn’t do it.

Gaelen continued to lay there and watch Xena. He could feel her fighting with her emotions. She wanted to kill him. She wanted to slit his stomach open and show him his entrails. He laughed because she couldn’t do it, even though she wanted to so badly. "What’s the matter Xena? Gabrielle’s conscience getting the better of you?" Xena looked down into his laughing face with disgust. "Why do you let her control you? You want to kill me, Xena. Do it! Don’t listen to her! Feel your rage and strike me down!" Xena knew he wanted her to attack him in anger and try to kill him. He would fight back, of course, and try to stop her…if he was fast enough. It would be enough for him, though, if she would just give in to her hatred. He was still trying to control her emotions and make the killer he wanted. But, Xena had fought him until now. She wasn’t about to give in to him just as his defeat was so close at hand.

Barleus, at that moment was getting to his feet unsteadily, cradling his broken arm. He called out to the warriors. "Retreat!" catching Xena’s attention and giving Gaelen the chance he needed. So, Xena didn’t want to kill an unarmed man? This might give her a little incentive. He raised up his legs and with both feet together, he rammed the soles of his boots into her stomach. Adding a little of his own power into the kick, Gaelen sent Xena flying.

Barleus’ call for retreat had caught Gabrielle’s attention, too. So, she didn’t see Xena flying through the air. Around her, Gaelen’s warriors were retreating. They broke off from the battle and ran into the surrounding wooded areas in all directions.

"That’s right! Run!" Ares called out to the retreating warriors. "Tell the rest of them what happens when they defy the god of war!" Ares raised his sword in the air and shouted: "To victory!" Greeger and the rest of his soldiers raised their swords and their voices in victory. However, the victory was oblivious to Gabrielle. . She saw Xena hit the ground on her back and heard her cry out in pain even above the sound of the shouting soldiers. "Xena!" she screamed.

Gaelen had regained his feet. He heard Gabrielle’s cry and saw her running towards her wounded friend, but the last thing he wanted was Gabrielle in his way. . However, killing her was not important to him anymore. He no longer wanted herdidn’t want her dead, at least not yet. What he really wanted was to kill Xena. Gabrielle would only hinder those plans. . So, Gaelen mustered up a little power, outstretched one hand in Gabrielle’s direction and sent her flying backwards in the other direction.

Gabrielle felt her feet lift off the ground and felt herself fly through the air. She didn’t know exactly how it happened, but here she was. Then suddenly, she stopped…in mid-air. She saw Gaelen, his arm outstretched, and realized in astonishment that it was he who’d sent her flying. She sawglanced at the confusion and fierce anger on hisGaelen’s face., h His eyes were directed on someone behind her. Looking back, she saw Ares. His eyes were shooting daggers in Gaelen’s direction. His arm is up in the air, as well, holding Gabrielle there with his own power. With a curled lip he said, "Leave the brat outta this! It’s time you deal with me."

This was the first time Gaelen had seen Ares since they’d spoken in the tent. He had no intention of being loyal to Ares and fully intended to betray him, even desrtoydestroy him. Ares however had beaten him to the punch. "Ares!" he hissed, but Ares simply disappeared before his eyes. Still not fully convinced that Ares is any kind of a god, Gaelen was surprised by this unusual vanishing act.

Ares disappearance,disappearance left Gabrielle to fall a half dozen or so feet to the ground. She barely noticed it because Xena was still her first concern. While Gaelen’s attention was diverted, she tried once again to run to Xena’s side.

"Where are you, Ares? Come out and fight," Gaelen said, looking all around, his sword ready. "Let’s see how quickly I can best a god." The next thing he knew, there was a tap at his shoulder. When he turned, the only thing he saw was Ares’ fist. It hit him square in the jaw and he stumbled backwards, but not down.

"Not doing too good so far." Ares laughed, and beckoneding Gaelen with both hands. "Come on. Let’s see what you’ve got."

"More than you think!" he responded in anger. . With a side stepping motion he penetrated Ares’ defenses and landed a punch dead in Ares’ face,face then kicked and sent him flying. Ares landed on the ground a few of feet away. Wiping his lip and realizing this is going to be a good fight, Ares got back up on his feet, ready for more. "Oh, so you want to play rough, huh? I’ll show you rough." Ares jumped and sent himself flying back through the air towards Gaelen. He tackled him to the ground and they began grappling with each other fiercely.

Gabrielle finally made it to Xena, who was just trying to sit up. She was obviously in pain and having difficulty breathing. She fell to her knees at Xena’s side and placed a careful arm across Xena’s shoulder.

"Xena!" she said breathlessly. "Are you okay?" " There was still anger in Xena’s eyes when she looked up at her, an anger that only deepened when she saw Ares fighting Gaelen. Her rise to her feet was obviously very painful for her, and even though Gabrielle felt she should remain still, this was not the time to argue about it.

"I’m fine," Xena said with a grimace. "Gabrielle, get my sword."

"Xena, no. I have to get you to a healer. You’re hurt. You’re in pain."

Xena turned a look so cold and angry toward her it sent a shiver through her body. "Gabrielle…I said get my sword," she commanded.

With that Gabrielle’s anger began to flare. "You’re already hurt, Xena," she said defiantly. "And badly, from what I can tell. If you go out there again, you’ll only make it worse. I won’t help you do that, Xena! If you want your sword, you’re going to have to go out there and get it yourself."

Xena’s face turned hard. She turned from Gabrielle, yanking her arm out of her grasp. Walking a couple of feet forward, she stopped when her sword was at her feet. With enormous effort, Xena bent over and picked it up, the pain she was fighting showing itself clearly on her face and body movements. However, she quickly blocked the pain and went back into battle without another look at Gabrielle. Gabrielle could only watch with tears in her eyes as Xena walked away from her. There was nothing she could do to stop her. She could only try to defend her if she got seriously hurt.

Ares and Gaelen were in the middle of trading punches, when out of nowhere there heard the Xena war cry. They looked up in time to see a pair of bare feet, o. One landing in Gaelen’s face, the other in Ares’. They both fell the ground, surprised.

"Xena!" Ares protested angrily, getting to his feet first. Gaelen rose to his feet as well, his gaze intense as he watched Xena closely.

"Stay out of this, Ares!" Xena shouted, her sword drawn, ready once again to do battle with Gaelen. . "I don’t want your help. This is my fight!"

"Good," Gaelen said with a satisfied grin. "Frankly, Ares was beginning to bore me."

"Pick up your sword, Gaelen," she demanded of him.

"Oh, that’s right," Gaelen said sarcastically, his eyes still on Xena as he stooped to pick up his sword. "We can’t be fighting an unarmed man, can we?" Xena almost didn’t allow Gaelen the chance to pick up his sword before she attacked, her sword meeting his with a clash.

"Fine," Ares said to Xena as he vanished from sight.

Xena spun around, never having heard or saw Ares exit, and caught Gaelen’s sword as he tried to undercut her. Everyone, including Greeger and his soldiers, watched the battle between Xena and Gaelen. Gabrielle returned to Greeger’s side and watched with him. He turned to see her sad, tearful expression and his heart went out to her. "Should we help her?" he asked.

"No. This is her fight. She’s on her own now."

Xena and Gaelen fought with swords for several minutes with Xena constantly gaining the upper hand in the fight, until finally Gaelen had had enough. With one swipe of his hand, Xena’s sword was gone. As it had the first time, the sword seemed to jump from her hand with a life of its own. Only this time, it flew through the air and landed several yards away. Xena turned back to him with her eyes wide. Seeing his arm swing out and thinking he was going to hit her, she attempted to duck, but didn’t get the chance. She suddenly felt his hand closing around her throat, cutting off her air supply. As she choked, she realized that his hand was no where near her throat.

Using his power Gaelen lifted Xena into the air. . She felt her feet leave the ground. Something had found its way into her throat and was constricting itself tighter and tighter. She clutched at her throat to fight it off but there was nothing there to fight. She was being hung by the neck by Aan unseen force was hanging her by the neck. She tried to stay focused and think of what to do, but she started to feel lightheaded.

Gabrielle watched with fear as Gaelen seemed to pick Xena up without even touching her. By the manner in which Xena was holding onto her neck, Gabrielle could tell that she was choking. Somehow, Gaelen was choking her to death. She didn’t know how, but she did know one thing. Having disappeared a while ago, Ares was obviously not going to interfere in any way, so Gabrielle realized she would have to stop him or Xena would die. Gabrielle raised her staff and threw it at Gaelen like a javelin. It caught him in the middle of the back and bounced off. Caught by surprise, it interrupted his control over Xena and she fell to the ground, gasping for air. Gaelen fell to the ground as well, his breath gone from him, pain shooting up and down his spine.

Xena got up onto her knees, grabbed her sword and shuffled over to Gaelen, who was still writhing. She was not going to let him live, no matter what Gabrielle thought of the way she killed him. Xena lifted the sword, but Gaelen unexpectedly stretched out a hand and shot Xena backwards as if she’d been shot from a cannon. Though in terrible pain that he knew had been caused by Gabrielle, Gaelen gotGetting to his feet, he grabbed her once again in mid-air and rocketed her towards the trees. Gabrielle watched in horror as Xena smacked right into a tree.. ("Watch out for that tree!") Gaelen picked her up again and threw her at another tree. Her side slammed up against this one and her ribs exploded with so much pain that Xena screamed. Again, Gaelen grabbed her and began to sling her towards the other side of the clearing when he heard …heard…"Gaelen!"

With Xena still in mid-air, Gaelen turned to see Ares just coming into view. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened when he saw what was in Ares’ hand. It was the power that Ares had stolen from him and combined with his own. His first time to experience abstract fear, Gaelen angrily screamed, "NO!"

"Catch!" Ares said, putting all his force into it and threw the fireball at Gaelen. It radiated a greenish-hue and crackled with mini-lightening bolts. . There was no outrunning it. It hit Gaelen directly in the chest, blowing him backward so fast and so hard, he was gone from where he had stood in less than a second. In that instant, his power over Xena was broken and she began to fall to the ground. Gaelen’s body rocketed back into his tent as though a stiff breeze had just blown in. Just before Xena hit the ground, Ares stopped her descent and laid her gently down, then he disappeared.

Gabrielle ran to her, tears in her eyes and fell on her knees next to Xena’s battered body and sobbed. She looked horrible. The gash over her eyes was bleeding again and fresh bruises had begun to form over the old ones. Gabrielle was not sure she was still alive, so she placed her hand on Xena’s chest to feel for the beating of her heart, and her cheek to her nose to see if Xena was still breathing. Thankfully, she was still alive, but she was still seriously injured. Xena needed a healer, but where would Gabrielle find one? Suddenly Xena opened her eyes and grabbed Gabrielle’s arm, trying to speak.

"Don’t try to speak right now, Xena," Gabrielle sniffled, smoothing the hair from her face. "You’ll be okay. I’ll take care of you." But, Xena continued trying to say something. Her voice barely reached a whisper and Gabrielle could not make it out. . So, she lowered her ear over Xena’s mouth. In a very low, harsh whisper, Gabrielle made out the words, "Make sure he’s dead." With that Xena passed out as Gabrielle stared down at her with troubled eyes.

Inside the tent, Ares flashed into existence. He stared down at the body on the ground and shook his head. "Tsk. Tsk. What a sorry end this is for you. And to think you thought you could best a god. I pity you. You and I together could have made a perfect team, an indestructible force. But, no, you thought you could gain that status on your own. Not here you can’t."

Ares stared down at the body on the floor, which could scarcely look back up at him. Gaelen couldn’t speak and could barely move. His body still crackled with electricity. Ares watched Gaelen’s hand, which had rested at his side, slowly work its way to his belt. He fumbled with a small triangular object finally working it free.

"That’s right," Ares" Ares said smugly. "Go back to where it is that you came from and don’t come back. If you do, you’ll have me to contend with. There’s enough filth on this earth without having deal with you as well. Have a nice trip." With that, Ares faded in a spectrum of light.

Gabrielle summoned Greeger and they both went to the tent. Cautiously, Greeger sidled up to the tent’s entrance with Gabrielle close behind, staff in hand. Greeger pulled the tent cloth aside and peeked inside. Instantly, and to Gabrielle’s surprise, Greeger pulled away and backed up. He looked white.

"What is it?" she asked nervously.

"See for yourself."

Gabrielle looked at the tent entrance, then back at Greeger. "Is it safe?"

"Perfectly," he said, the pale shock on his face slowly turning to anger and frustration. Still hesitant, Gabrielle pushed aside the tent cloths and entered the tent carefully. She stood stock-still at the sight before her. Gaelen was gone. Furniture was knocked around and there was a skid pattern on the ground, indicating where he had come to a complete stop, but he was nowhere to be seen. She heard Greeger enter behind her.

"He’s gone," she said, shocked.

"Yeah, I figured that one out all ready."

"But where? Where did he go? Where could he have gone?"

"All good questions, Gabrielle. Unfortunately, I can’t answer a one."

"Xena’s not going to like this," she said, with a grimmacegrimace.

"No, I can’t imagine anybody liking this. If he’s still alive…"

Gabrielle turned to him with wide eyes. "Don’t say that. He can’t be. Not after what we saw happen to him. No one could survive that."

"You’re forgetting, he’s not just anybody. He’s definitely not like you and me." With a huff he turned and walked out of the tent, leaving Gabrielle alone.

Gabrielle turned back to the tent and looked around. On the ground was the shape Gaelen’s body had made in the dirt floor. She remembered the last evening, when she had struck a nerve telling him that no child was born with the evil existing in his heart. . She’d implied that his mother and father had been killed, and causing him to feel such evil for other people. Something in what she said had clicked, made him remember some deep, dark part of his past that he desperately wanted to avoid bringing back to mind. Perhaps like Xena and Callisto, he’d suffered a troubled childhood, triggering his evil revenge. A part of her asked, "Why do you want to find cause for what he does? He’s evil. That’s all you need to know." Another part of her recalled what she had told Xena some time back, "If I believe that, how could I ever forgive him?" Gabrielle felt pain for herself, for Xena and she even felt pain for whatever may have happened to Gaelen at some point in his life. She knelt toand touched the ground where his body had been when a spark of leftover energy reached up from the ground and zapped at her hand, causing her to gasp and recoil in fear. The fear rose up into Gabrielle’s heart and she quickly left the tent.

One Week Later

A cold wind blew into the cave, making Gabrielle shiver. She propped herself up on one elbow and stared at the ashes left of their fire the night before. . Winter must be coming with cold air like that, she thought. But, she liked the way the air felt. It began a cycle that seemed to renew the earth. Things would die, but come spring everything could begin anew. She longed for that time, as the last couple of weeks had been very hard on her, and Xena. Speaking of Xena, Gabrielle turned to check on her. As she did, her mind began to review the last couple of days.

Xena had begun to do much better since yesterday morning. But, during the week, she’d suffered immensely with fevers, nausea and terrible headaches. Gabrielle had suffered right along with her. Thank the gods, though, that there was a healer among the Phestian people. Otherwise, Gabrielle didn’t think Xena would have made it. Xena had taught her some medicinal skills, but not enough to deal with Xena’s wounds.

Salmoneus had been ecstatic to see Gabrielle and Xena the afternoon they had returned to the cavesbrought Xena to the caves. More so Gabrielle, because apparently Greeger had apparently told everyone that she had died in the battle at Phestia. She could never remember being so excitedly received as she was by Salea and Salmoneus. It had been a tearful and joyous reunion followed by tales of the escapades they had encountered. Out of all the things that Gabrielle loved, she believed that homecomings were one of the best.

Xena had remained unconscious from the moment she passed out in the clearing to well into her healing process. . Only yesterday morning had she returned to what could be called "real" consciousness. The days before she had been in and out, her speech incoherent. That afternoon, Xena had been well looked after. Many of the people in the cave had a hand in getting her cleaned up aAfter the healer, named Hymenaus, had taken care of herXena’s most serious wounds, like her broken ribs and the gash above her eye, Gabrielle had wasted no time in getting her cleaned up. Though many of the people offered to help, GabrielleThe spent the rest of that afternoon looking after Xena herself,y carefully cleaneding the dried blood from herher face and the dirt from her body.

For some time, she had noticed aOne young girl sitting off to the side, simply watching as Gabrielle took care of Xena . At the time, Gabrielle had just assumed the girl was curious about the woman who many of the villagers were now praising for her actions on their behalf. However, when Gabrielle took a small break to get something to eat and drink, she returned to find the girlthat Gabrielle didn’t recognize a trying to wash the dirt and grime fromctually washed Xena’s hair. Gabrielle’s first instinct was to stop her, her mind thinking, on a more primal level, ‘Taking care of Xena is my job.’ She realized, only later, that what she felt at that moment was something akin to jealousy. She knew it was ridiculous to be jealous of the girl. She was only trying to help out, Gabrielle guessed. But, the girl was not the one who lied to Xena, was she? Because of Gaelen … no … because of herself, Gabrielle now had to face the possibility that Xena, in her anger, would turn against her. It was a real possibility that Gabrielle could barely stand to think on. Would Xena ignore Gabrielle and show more favor to this young girl, all because Gabrielle had been untruthful? It was hard to imagine. Hadn’t Xena forgiven her for her betrayal in Chin? If Xena could forgive her then, Xena would forgive her now. If not, then all they’d fought for was lost and Gaelen had won.

Gabrielle had knelt down next to the girl and tried to talk to her.

"Hello," she said softly. The girl, though, didn’t look at her or respond. It made Gabrielle feel very uneasy, but she pressed on. "My name is Gabrielle, what’s yours?" Her only response was to dip a cloth into the bucket of water Gabrielle had been using and use it to wash out the dirt from Xena’s long hair. It was as if the girl didn’t even see or hear her. Gabrielle placed a hand on the girl’s arm and asked, "Are you all right?" The girl cringed from Gabrielle’s touch, her face a mask of fear. Strangely, the girl still did not acknowledge her presence and Gabrielle quickly withdrew her hand. As if the danger had passed, the girl calmly went back to washing Xena’s hair.

Seeing Salea, Gabrielle went to her for answers. Gabrielle questioned Salea as to who the girl was.

"Salea, who is that girl?" Gabrielle asked, indicating to her where Xena lay unconscious. "I don’t think I’ve metever seen her before."

"Neither had I. I don’t believethink she’s from Phestia. From what I can gather, Greeger said he found her in the woods on the night after the battle. He said she looked dazed and he couldn’t get her to speak. Still hasn’t spoken a word since that night." Salea squinted her eyes and walked closer to the girl.

"I tried to talk to her," Gabrielle told Salea, "but I don’t think she heard me. It’s like she’s somewhere else. And she was terrified at my touch."

"Yeah," Salea said absentmindedly, watching the girl. "Yeah, she’s been like that ever since we found her. Won’t talk; won’t let nobody touch her. I don’t even know her name. So, I’ve been calling her Gabby."

Gabrielle smiledlaughed at the kind gesture, but said nothing and and continued to watching the girl.

Salea asked, "What’s she doing?"

"Washing Xena’s hair. "I don’t know what it is, but she seems to be quite taken with Xena."

"Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too," Salea said, smiling. "Hasn’t taken her eyes off her since they brought her in."

Afraid to frighten the girl, Gabrielle had let her"But who isn’t, huh?"

"Greeger," Salea said matter of factly. Gabrielle nodded in understanding, but said nothin stay and help. She had been quiet the whole time, but that hadn’t stopped Gabrielle from talking to her, though. She’d spent the rest of the afternoon telling the girl about her many adventures with Xena.g. Meticulous in her work, the girl had Xena’s hair gleaming by the end of that evening.

There was also a young boy, about the age of five, named Kyleus. According to Salmoneus, the lad had stuck to him like glue practically from the first moment he laid eyes on him. Kyleus seemed to annoy Salmoneus at times, but to Gabrielle he was a riot. She delighted in hearing his heroic tales of how he helped Salmoneus to "beat up the bad guys.". Salmoneus had introduced them soon after they arrived.

"He made me tell him all I know about you and Xena," Salmoneus laughed. "Now he can tell the stories better than me." Kyleus had impressed Gabrielle because of his genuine concern for Xena’s recovery. He’d given Xena a kiss on the cheek and told Gabrielle: "That’ll make her get better." He was a sweet boy and an interesting storyteller. Gabrielle thought that he would probably make an excellent bard someday.

Had Xena been conscious during all this, she probably wouldn’t have appreciated all the attention nor for so many people to see her so weak. However, these people appreciated what she had tried to do and what she had finally accomplished. Before long the people slowly began to leave and go back to their village. When news of Gaelen’s defeat had reached the caves, the people had cheered with happiness. Greeger had decided not to tell them of Gaelen’s disappearance, just that they had defeated Gaelen and his army had scattered. A day or two of checking and making sure that Phestia was safe had passed before they began gathering their belongings to start their pilgrimage back to their home. Salea and Salmoneus had offered to stay behind to help Gabrielle with Xena, but she declined. Hymenaus would stay with her for a while, until Xena was well enough on her own. Xena’s fever had finally broken the previous morning, and Hymenaus had decided to leave before sundown once he was sure that Xena’s fever was definitely gone. . Ever since then, Xena had been doing much better. Gabrielle marveled over Xena’s ability to heal so quickly. She just wondered how long it would take for Xena to heal herself emotionally.

Gabrielle sighed over those memories, as she turned over to check on Xena, glad now that it was all over. To her surprise, Xena was no longer beside her. In fact, she was no longer in the cave. Looking around, she saw that Xena clothes and armor were gone as well. Having an idea where Xena may have gone, Gabrielle grabbed a blanket and left the cave to find her. Working her way through the brush, she soon came to a small lake just a couple of miles from the caves. Just as she thought, Xena was there. Her clothes and armor were spread out on a couple of tree branches nearby. She was bathing, as if washing herself clean of the things that happened.

Relaxing in the cool water, Xena sensed a presencea presence behind her. Turning quickly, she noticed that it was only Gabrielle standing at the edge of the lake. Gabrielle smiled softly and said, "I woke up and you were gone. I figured you might have come here. I’ve been here a couple of times myself. How do you feel?"

Xena didn’t offer any smiles to Gabrielle, which hurt her. She guessed in a way she probably deserved it, but it didn’t stop it from hurting. "Better. Thanks," was all she said.

They were the first words she had spoken since the previous morning. She had regained consciousness for a short while but spoke only to inquire about Gaelen. Having passed out before it all happened she was still in the dark. It was hard for Gabrielle to have to tell her that Gaelen had simply disappeared and was nowhere to be found. She wasn’t sure if Xena heard or understood her correctly. She had seemed confused and then had slipped into unconsciousness again. "I brought you a blanket to towel off with when you’re ready to get out," Gabrielle said, but there was no response. "I’ll just leave it right here," she said, sadly and turnedgot up to leave.

"No, don’t go. I’m coming out," Xena said, turning toward the bank. Her wet hair was slicked back and clinging to her back as she stepped out of the water. She crossed her arms across her chest, shivering against the cold air. For the first time, Gabrielle saw the damage she had suffered. Though they were beginning to fade to a brownish-yellow color, bruises covered Xena’s body. Gabrielle covered her open mouth with her hand and looked in shock up into Xena’s eyes.

Xena froze at the look on Gabrielle’s face and suddenly felt very self-conscious, something she didn’t usually feel. "Stop staring at me, Gabrielle, and give me the blanket before I freeze to death," she said firmly.

"I’m sorry, Xena." Realizing what she had been doing, Gabrielle quickly wrapped the blanket around Xena’s shivering frame. "I didn’t realize how badly…I’m sorry…Are you sure you feel okay?"

"I’ll be fine. I guess I wasn’t expecting it to be so cold this morning." Xena’s legs felt weak, so she sat down on a downed tree log and wrapped the blanket tighter around her. Gabrielle sat down beside her. Xena looked over at her and saw that her expression hadn’t changed. Gabrielle was horrified at the sight of what Gaelen had done to her. Xena spoke reassuringly and said: "Gabrielle, I’ll be fine. They’re just bruises. They’ll go away."

Gabrielle softly touched Xena’s side where her ribs had been broken and asked, "What about your side? How does it feel?"

"It’s feeling much better. It’s just a couple of broken ribs, Gabrielle. They’ll heal. I’ll live. Stop making such a fuss over me. You know I can’t stand that."

"I’m sorry. I just want to make sure that you’re okay."

"You don’t have to be sorry," Xena said tolerantly, raising her eyebrow with a sideways glance at Gabrielle.

"Then you don’t hate me?"

Xena closed her eyes and hung her head. One sentence ran itself through her mind: "Gabrielle never threw that child down the gorge." She felt that old familiar anger ignite in her, so she tried to snuff it out. She wouldn’t respond to Gabrielle’s question, because it didn’t deserve an answer. Xena decided to stand up and walk a ways from her before she said something she would regret. She began toweling herself off with the blanket, then reached for her clothes.

Gabrielle didn’t know how to take her silence. That scared her. She had to have clarity. Silence would only drive her mad. "Xena…" she said imploringly.

Xena slipped on her tunic before putting on her leathers. "I don’t want to talk about it, Gabrielle. Drop the subject," she said briskly.

Xena wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle stood and said, "No, I will not drop the subject. We have to talk about this, Xena. There’s no point in bottling it up and acting like it never happened."

Turning to face her, Xena grabbed her leathers, met Gabrielle’s eyes and asked, "Why not? That’s what you did."

That felt like a slap in the face, but Gabrielle accepted it. "You’re right. That is what I did. I should have told you, Xena, instead of letting it go for so long. I know that. The gods only know what could have happened. But, I was afraid of losing you, Xena. I still am. The longer it went the harder it became to say anything. The possibility of having our friendship crumble because of grudges, anger and hatred was more than I could bare."

"I don’t hold a grudge against you, Gabrielle," Xena said with a sigh, the look on her face serious. "I heard what you said out there. You only did what you felt you had to do and I don’t resent you for that. It’s just that…" She turned away from Gabrielle, facing the lake.She had been trying desperately to hold back her emotions. Now, she could feel them coming out. She was tired of not being in control of herself, tired of this weak feeling inside. In an attempt to hide those things, Xena turned away from Gabrielle and faced the lake. "I trusted you and you lied to me." There was a trembling of emotion in her voice that Xena didn’t want to hear.

It was time for Gabrielle to hang her head. Gaelen was right. She had betrayed Xena’s trust in her. It was a horribly selfish thing to do and that wasn’t normally like her. "I’m sorry, Xena," she said with a quivering lip. "There’s nothing else I can say, but that I’m sorry. I know that no words can ever change what I’ve done or erase the hurt that I’ve caused you. I don’t expect them to." She couldn’t hold the tears back any longer. They rolled from her eyes and down her face. "I am so sorry," she sobbed.

Xena turned to face her and saw the tears streaming down her face, and the sadness in her eyes. The look on Gabrielle’s face jerked at Xena’s heart and she could feel tears forming in her own eyes. She recalled that day in Gaelen’s encampment when one of Gabrielle’s tears had rolled off of her face and onto Xena’s sword. . More than anything in the world, Xena knew that Gabrielle had never meant to hurt her. There wasn’t a vindictive or mean bone in Gabrielle’s body. . How could she not forgive her?

Holding out a hand to Gabrielle, Xena was relieved when she took Xena’s hand with both of her own. With compelling tenderness and compassion, Xena took Gabrielle into her arms and held her tighter than she ever had before. Hers were the eyes filled with tears now. Leave it to Gabrielle to bring out the sap in her. . Kissing the top of her head and dropping tears in her hair, Xena said tenderly, "Oh Gabrielle, I will never have a truer friend than you, you know that. I’m the one who should be asking for your forgiveness anyway."

Still holding onto Xena, Gabrielle sniffed back her sobs, looked up at her and asked, "Why do you say that?"

"Because if it weren’t for me, Gabrielle, you would never have had that child. Those things that happened to you would never have happened. And you would never have felt that you had to lie to me."

"You know, Gaelen tried to lay the same thing on me. He tried to tell me that all the bad things that happened in my life would never have happened if I hadn’t left my home to travel with you. Maybe…in a way…that is true, but I chose my own path, Xena. You didn’t choose it for me. I shudder to think what my life would be like if I hadn’t chosen to follow that path."

"Probably pretty boring, huh?" she smiled, always feeling a little awkward when Gabrielle became mushy.

"Yeah, Yyou can say that again," she agreed, smiling through her tears.

Xena’s expression once again became serious. . Gabrielle’s confession deserved a confession from Xena in return. Coming to that conclusion was easy,; it was going about it that was difficult. "That’s not the only reason I need your forgiveness, Gabrielle,." Xena said. Gabrielle watched Xena trying to formulate the words in her mind and form them on her tongue. "I stand here accusing you of betraying my trust … when I’ve done the same. Gabrielle … I … "

"You don’t have to do this, Xena. I know."

Xena’s mind suddenly flashed back to her ordeal with Gaelen that first night in the tent. He had filled her mind with visions that weren’t real. Gabrielle had been among those visions. Something Gabrielle had said now echoed in her mind: "I’m not as stupid as you often think I am, Xena. I figured it out all by myself."

"What do you mean, you know?" Xena asked, curiously. "Know what?"

"About Ming T’ien. I know what happened after I left."

Xena broke from Gabrielle’s embrace and backed up, suspicion in her eyes. Could this all be another vision, or the remnants of one? What was going on? "How do you know about that?" she demanded, her eyes full of suspicion, her expression hardening.

Gabrielle didn’t quite understand what to make of the strange expression on Xena’s face but she hoped to keep things calm by keeping her voice soft and compassionate. "It was Gaelen. I still don’t know how he did it, but he made me see things. He made me see in my own mind what happened."

Having experienced the visions Gaelen was capable of,of and knowing Gabrielle had also been under his power, she knew what she was about to hear. . Though her heart seemed to be melting within her, the expression on her face softened and she asked, "What did you see?"

Gabrielle cleared her throat, and said uneasily, "I saw you … kill … Ming T’ien." The look of shame on Xena’s face broke Gabrielle’s heart. She would rather have taken a beating worse than Xena’s than to see her humbled this way. Moved with compassion and wanting to ease the pain she was seeing, she said, "I think he thought showing me that would make me hate you. But, I could never hate you, Xena."

The shame on Xena’s face turned to anger. She remembered how Gaelen had used her own memories against her. He was able to read her mind, though she could not understand nor explain how. What kind of power did this man have that he could pick up even her past memories of what had actually happened between her and Ming T’ien and place them in Gabrielle’s mind. Xena shook her head in frustration and turned to slip on her leathers.

Gabrielle, unsure of what her silence meant asked, "Xena? Are you okay?"

"It just enrages me, Gabrielle. Why is he doing this? Every warlord I’ve ever been up against always wanted something. With Gaelen, there seems to be no reason for what he does. Why is he moving east and slaughtering villages on his way? He’s moving east for a reason. What’s his destination? What is he trying to accomplish? The real question is what does he want? What does he want from you and from me?"

"I asked myself the same questions," Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

"What he did to you is almost the same thing he did to me. He somehow read my mind and used my own memories against me. He made me relive all the horrible things that I’d done. Just like you, he made me see things. I still haven’t been able to figure out whether the whole thing was a dream or a halucinationhallucination or … I don’t know what. But, you were there, Gabrielle. You were trying to make me kill you, taunting me. There was such hatred in your eyes and in your words, it made my blood run cold. I realize now that it was Gaelen making me see those things, but it was so real. He wanted me to hate you…to kill you."

"Why?" Gabrielle asked Xena in confusion.

"He wanted a monster. Someone he could control to do his slaughtering for him. I guess he thought that if I could kill you at command, then I would kill anyone."

Gabrielle thought back to the night of the battle in Phestia. She hadn’t understood why, out of all the people there, had Gaelen singled her out to live to be his prisoner. Xena’s last sentence made her understand Gaelen’s game plan and how he expected things to play out.

Xena saw the perplexed look on Gabrielle’s face and asked, "What is it?"

"He knew everything about me before he even laid eyes on me…"

"From me,. A at least, from my mind. I never once spoke of you."

"He knew my name, Xena. He knew about Callisto, about Perdicus and about Hope. He kneows about how close we are. Xena, he said that he sensed we are soul mates and that we were meant to walk the earth together. That’s got to be why he wanted me to hate you, and why he wanted you to hate me. He knew that if he could break that bond between us, he could get you to kill me. I was his test subject. I was bait."

"Gabrielle, I don’t understand. Why does that surprise you? Didn’t you realize that’s what he was trying to do?"

"No. I mean I knew he was up to something—showing me those things about you, wanting you to live a life of war and death. And he scared me with those things, Xena. He terrified me. But…he reached out to me…" She saw confusion and suspicion in Xena’s eyes. "I know how it sounds, but it’s the only way I can think of to explain all the things that happened that night. He exposed a part of himself that I don’t think anyone has seen for a very long time."

It was so like Gabrielle to look beyond a person’s evil and try to find a reason behind it, but Xena could not see the point. The man was a cold-hearted murderer. What more could you possibly need to know? "Gabrielle, every word that comes out of his mouth is a lie. You shouldn’t believe anything he tells you."

"That’s just it, Xena. He told me nothing. It was the things that he did, not the things that he said. Did you know that he has the ability to heal?"

"Heal? ? What do you mean?"

"During the battle, I fell from the stone wall, through the roof of a building and broke my leg." Gabrielle watched Xena look at her legs in confusion. She could just image what was going through Xena’s mind. "It was badly broken. The bone had broken through the skin. I was bleeding. I know I would have lost my leg ,… but Gaelen healed it. All he did was touch my leg and he healed it completely."

Xena wasn’t one who believed in many of the fanciful tales that some people dreamed up. Not that she didn’t believe it was possible for someone to be healed in such ways. Lao Ma had proved that to her when she healed Xena’s damaged leg. Nevertheless, there was something about Gaelen and healing that just didn’t fit. On the other hand, who was telling this story? It was not a story Xena would have accepted from many people, but she knew this was not something Gabrielle would make up. Besides, tThe conviction in Gabrielle’s eyes was all too familiar. This wasn’t something she’d just make up. It was amazing though, considering the trouble Gaelen went through just to hurt people. "I’m sure it must have been an extraordinary experience, Gabrielle, but believe me, he didn’t do it to be kind. It was a means to his own ends."

"I know that. Except there was more. WIt happened when I could no longer feel anger towards him, and I began to pity him. That infuriated him. He did not want my pity. I tried to understand what could cause someone to have such evil in their heart, because I told him no child is born like that. Not even Callisto was born evil. She was eaten up with revenge and hate. I wondered if something similar had happened to him. He tried to trick me by telling me some sob story about killing his father when he was a boy because his father had killed his mother. But, behind his lie, a saw a truth. When I tried to push the issue, he lost control." As Gabrielle remembered, a shiver ran through her. " I thought he would kill me."

With concern Xenashe asked, "What did he do?"

"He tried to choked me to death. I really think he wanted to, but for some reason he couldn’t do it."

"He wouldn’t do it. Like you said, Gabrielle, you were bait. He couldn’t afford to kill you." Xena faked a deadly look, when she added: "And he knew that if he did, he wouldn’t have seen the morning."

Gabrielle smiled and was relieved when Xena smiled back at her. . "Well, whatever…I’m just glad to have you back." Gabrielle went to her and they hugged again.

"It’s good to have you back, too. You have no idea how hard it was trying not to think of you. That was worse than all the bruises and the broken ribs." They separated from their hug and smiled at each other. Xena turned and began putting on her armor. "It’s good to have my armor back, too! I’m assuming I have you to thank for that."

Gabrielle proudly holds her arms out in a gesture of presentation and said, "Who else?" Xena returned the gesture with a nod and a gracious smile that suddenly faded and became a deadly warrior’s glare. In a flash she had drawn her sword and made it ready.

In cold terror, Gabrielle spun around expecting to see Gaelen standing behind her. To her surprise and great relief, it was only Greeger.

"Oh, Greeger. . It’s you," she said, placing her hand over her heart. "For a moment there, I thought…..…" She stopped, puzzled by the look in his eyes. She had seen a look like that the day that she first met him, an old anger burning in his eyes. He’d never told her the details behind his hatred for Xena, only that she’d defeated his army many years ago. From the way they were glaring at each other Gabrielle feared that those old feelings may result in a confrontation between two people she cared very much about.

Considering what she had just been through, no one could blame Xena for being over cautious, but she didn’t know this man. ThoughBut obviously, Gabrielle did. She gave Gabrielle a quick sidwayssideways glance and asked, "Gabrielle, you know this man?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth to introduce them, but Greeger interrupted her. . "Of course, she knows me. The question is, do you?"

Xena looked curiously at the tall man standing before her, and no, she didn’t know him. Yet, she expected that somewhere along the way, she had touched his life like she had so many others. "Should I?" she asked.

"By your code? Perhaps you shouldn’t," he said, his voice cold. "My people were nothing more than an obstacle in your way, just like the people of Phestia were to Gaelen."

This had to be someone from a past battle, but she didn’t like the comparison. At her worst, she had never been as ruthless as Gaelen. "What are you talking about?" she sneered.

Gabrielle feared a confrontation, so she stepped up and laid a hand on Xena’s arm. "Xena, this is General Greeger of the Phestian army." She could see that Greeger’s statement had not gone over well with Xena and her sword was still raised in his general direction. So, she added, as she gently lowered Xena’s sword with her fingers: "And my friend."

Xena allowed Gabrielle to lower her sword, but not without first giving her a stern look of warning. There was a hatred in this man’s eyes that Gaelen would have relished, but it only made Xena angry … and sad. She’d seen that look in people’s eyes before, people she had hurt in so many ways. People like Iolaus, Callisto, her son Solan, Boadicea and now this man named Greeger.

"Does the name ring any bells?" he asked, contemptuously.

"I’ve battled with hundreds of Generals in my time," she said, sheathing her sword. "What makes you so special?"

"Maybe the name Lotheria will jog your memory."

Xena’s rigid expression softened. . She remembered that battle all too well, one of her most brutal raids on the villages surrounding her homeland of Amphipolis. It was at the time when Xena had begun to loose sight of the reason she had become a warrior in the first place. When she conquered simply to conquer, to gain the power and wealth that would enable her to move on to bigger and better conquests. Lotheria had been a small city, much smaller compared to Phestia, but they had an excellent and well-trained battalion of soldiers and they had fought well. Of course, in the end, Xena’s army had won out. She and her army had killed every man in the regiment. There wasn’t a man standing after it was over. At least, that’s what she had thought. "You commanded the Lotherian army?" she asked, though knowing what the answer would be.

Greeger nodded, pride gleaming behind the anger in his eyes.

"They were excellent warriors. They fought well."

"Yes, they did," Greeger said, his voice is quivering, barely containing his anger. "But you slaughtered them anyway."

Putting up her defenses again, she said through clenched teeth, "It was war."

Greeger didn’t buy it. He shook his head, disagreeing. "It was carnage," he said calmly, but his lips were in a sneer.

Xena pursed her lips together in anger. She wanted so much to respond and defend her herself against this accusation, but deep down she knew there was no excuse for the horrible things she had caused to occur that day. In frustration, Xena turned away from Greeger.

Gabrielle watched Xena with concern. She knew Xena felt remorse for all the horrible things that she’d done in her past, but Greeger didn’t know that. . Gabrielle didn’t expect Xena to plead her sorrow or beg forgiveness. . She reserved those moments for people she was extremely close to, like her mother and Gabrielle. But, if she didn’t say something, Greeger would never be able to accept her for who she was now, a good person who had risked her life for the lives of his people.

It had taken much courage for Greeger to approach them this way. A week ago, when the battle with Gaelen had finally ended and Xena had been carted unconscious to the cave, Greeger had kept his distance. He’d only gone back to the caves at Gabrielle’s insistence, not because he really wanted to. Back at the cave, Xena had been all anyone could talk about. It was Xena this, Xena that. They took care of her, looked after her,her and made a general fuss over her. He was lucky he got a plate of food that day. . So, it wasn’t long before he’d gathered up a couple of men and headed back for Phestia, telling Gabrielle he was going to survey the damage and begin taking care of the dead. What he couldn’t tell her, was that he could no longer stand sharing the same space with Xena. He could sense, though, from her expressive eyes, that she knew his real reasons. From that moment, he hadn’t set foot back in the cave. He’d come back mainly to check up on Gabrielle since the healer had returned to the village. He wasn’t sure of Xena’s progress, but he was determined in his heart to confront her. She had changed to some degree, that much was obvious. It wasn’t only Gabrielle’s words that made him believe, it was the things he’d seen and heard about her, what she’d done for his people. It was in the story of one young girl.

Xena couldn’t shake her hatred of being humiliated this way, but then she could not honestly deny any of it. Still she was a warrior and was suffering injured pride. That, of course, was a damaging attitude and no one knew it better then she. Giving way to stubbornness she spun around and faced Greeger. "So, what? You come all this way to kill me or something?"

"That was the idea…"," Greeger said, watching Gabrielle’s wide-eyed look in his direction, so he quickly amended his statement and added, "…at first. But, on the way over here, I decided it would probably be safer for me not to make an enemy out of Gabrielle." He watched Gabrielle’s look of shock quickly change to a half-smile and a ‘You-can-say-that-again’ expression. "So, I changed my mind."

"Well, if you didn’t come here to kill me, what did you come here for?" Xena asked angrily, hands on her hips.

"For years, Xena, I’ve hated you. I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to think of ways to hunt you down and kill you."

"Well, that’s good. I know a hundred more right behind ya’. Is that all you have to say?"

"No!" he said, his nostrils flaring in anger. "If you’d shut your trap long enough, I might be able to get the rest out!"

Xena’s eyes closed to half slits and she approached Greeger with deadly determination. Greeger didn’t flinch. There was no hint of fear as he met her steely gaze with his own fierce scowl. Gabrielle stepped forward and put a hand on each of their shoulders, calming them both with her fearful, concerned eyes. "Okay, you two," she said. "Stop this. You’ll never resolve your differences by fighting. You have to talk. Shouting, hollering and threatening each other is not be the best way to go about it." She glared at the two of them until Xena’s steely gaze and Greeger’s scowl began to melt away.

"Gabrielle’s right," Xena said, backing away. "Say what you have to say."

"Yes, Gabrielle is right. I’ve come to trust her like I would one of my best soldiers."

Xena could tell from their expressions that they shared a mutual respect and admiration for one another. It didn’t cause Xena to feel jealous, as if Greeger were taking her best friend away, and Xena didn’t sense any feelings of romantic love between the two. . Rather it seemed to Xena that Gabrielle had gained a big brother. If Gabrielle could trust and admired this man, then he must be a good man, a man Xena could trust as well.

After so many years of hating, Greeger found it hard to find right the words. "That’s why I believe her when she tells me that you’ve changed," he managed to say. "You’re not the blood-lusting warrior I knew twelve years ago. If you were, you would have killed me way before I ever had the chance to tell you to ‘shut your trap’. But, I admit, it ’has taken me some time to see that. That’s why I sort of felt the need to test your resolve first. The Xena I used to know would have rammed a dagger through my heart just for saying that, or at least tried too," he said with a teasing grin. Xena thought it best not to reply verbally. She knew her eyes were saying enough. Greeger continued, "I didn’t want to believe Gabrielle at first. I didn’t know her then as I do now. She told me you were here to help the people of Phestia, but when you disappeared I began to believe that you were working with Gaelen. I realize now that wasn’t true. I came here to say that I was wrong about you, Xena. Before, where I saw a murderer and a butcher, I now see a courageous warrior, willing to give her life for the sake of others."

Gabrielle smiled, happy that Greeger was able to put away the past and face Xena as his equal and not his enemy. Xena, on the other hand, seemed uncertain of how to react. She was cautious and reserved as she said, "So, you’ve suddenly had a change of heart, is that it?"

Greeger’s expression became serious again. . "Don’t misunderstand me, Xena," he said, meeting her eyes squarely. "I will never forget the day you wiped out my army. I still wake up in a cold sweat every now and then when I dream about it. I’m sorry, but I’ll never hold a special place in my heart for you; but I can put those days behind me and learn to respect you for who you are now. So, call it ‘a sudden change of heart’, if you will. Over the last several days, all I’ve done is try to begin rebuilding the city and think long and hard about you and what you did for Phestia and for its people. At first, all the praise you got from the people enraged me, because I had failed so miserably trying to protect the city. . I realized, of course, how pointless that was after a while. It suddenly hit me, that a womanwoman, who had once nearly taken my life, now saved it along with a hundred others. I owe you my life, Xena." Greeger pulled his sword from its scabbard and placed the blade in the ground at Xena’s feet. "Our fight with Gaelen is far from over. I would consider it an honor if you would allow me to stand with you and fight."

Xena looked down at the sword at her feet, then back up at Greeger. She was stunned at this man who had once hatred her enough to want to kill her, and now wanted to fight at her side. She was not one who easily put aside such feelings,; so she could not believe after all she’d done to him that he would want to have anything to do with her. She didn’t deserve this from him. She did not deserve this man’s respect. "Pick up your sword." She paused for a moment as Greeger retrieved his sword, a frown of concern sweeping across his face. "There are a lot of things in my past I’ve done that I’m not proud of. The battle at Lotheria is one of them. I know I can never bring back the lives of those men and that no words could ever replace them, but … I regret that it ever had to happen. I would have been honored to fight along side those brave men. They fought like true warriors."

Greeger nodded his head, silently accepting Xena’s apology for the incident. "Are you willing to accept my offer?" he asked.

"If Gaelen returns we will need all the help we can get. . He’ll use this disappearing act as a means to gather a stronger army together. I’ll need the force of an army to defeat him the next time we meet."

"I can gather enough men to make up the beginnings of an army, but we will need to recruit more."

"Once the word about Gaelen begins to spread, I’m sure the surrounding kingdoms will send in the recruits. But, for now this will have to do."

"So, what do we do now?" Gabrielle asked.

"Now, we help the Phestian’s bury their dead and start their lives over," Xena responded, as she looked at Greeger, a hint of apology in her voice.

Greeger nodded in acknowledgement. "We’ve taken care of most of our dead and some families are already starting to rebuild. The good thing is, we still have our crops. We’ll have plenty of food once winter sets in."

Gabrielle spoke up, "That’s wonderful. At least no one will go hungry."

"The only thing left to do is take care of the nomad village," Greeger added.

Gabrielle suddenly remembered the nomads. Their bodies were still lying out on the ground in their burned-out village. She felt terrible having left them like that, but she and Xena had been so rushed, at the time, to get to Phestia and warn the people that they didn’t have time. She remembered Xena saying that they would have to come back to take care of the dead. What a horrible task that was going to be.

"We can build a funeral pyre for them," Xena said.

"That reminds me of another reason I came, Xena," Greeger said. "There’s a young girl back in the city who has been asking to see you."

"She made it," Xena smiled.

"Yes. I found her myself, in the woods. It was the dead of night and I thought she was an intruder."

"Who?" Gabrielle asked.

"How is she?" Xena asked Greeger, temporarily ignoring Gabrielle’s question.

"She wasn’t talking for a while," Greeger said, "but you can’t shut her up now. I made the mistake of making some unsavory comments about you, and if her mouth had been a lethal weapon I’d be dead."

"Excuse me!" Gabrielle asked annoyed. "Who are we talking about?"

"Your nick-namesake," Greeger grinned.

"You mean the girl Salea was calling Gabby?" Gabrielle asked and Greeger nodded in response.

"Actually, her name is Tianna," Xena said, smiling.

Gabrielle looked at curiously and asked, "How do you know her?"

"I wasn’t the only one Gaelen was holding captive. She belonged to one of the nomad families. I don’t know why he took her or what he planned on doing with her. All I knew was that I had to get her out of there."

Gabrielle thought back once again to her first meeting with the girl … Tianna. That’s why she had connected with Xena so quickly. Xena had saved her life. "How did you free her?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena stared off into the distance as she remembered what she had to do that night. "I had to pretend to kill her by pinching a nerve that made her unconscious, at the same time, making it look as if I were breaking her neck." Xena saw the shocked look in their eyes and nodded her head. She’d hated even to have to pretendto pretend to kill a child. It disgusted her as much as it shocked them. "I know. It’s a lot easier to say than it was to do."

"Tianna will be okay now," Gabrielle said, placing a hand on Xena’s arm. "She’s with people who’ll love her and take care of her."

"But she’ll never have her family again," Xena said sadly.

"I wouldn’t worry about her," Greeger said coolly. "She shed her tears, but she’s strong ... and a big help. She’s been helping outhelping taking care of the children while the women work. They’ve readily accepted her into the community."

Xena nodded, but still felt sad for Tianna. She wished she could have gotten there in time to stop Gaelen. If only they had gotten up a couple of hours earlier. If only they had not decided to make that stop for breakfast that morning. If only. If only. So many if onlys.

"Well, I’ll lead the way back to Phestia, if you two are ready to go.," Greeger offered.

"Don’t worry about us," Xena said. "I can find the way. Gabrielle and I will be right behind you. I’m sure you’ll want to get started on the journey to the nomad’s village as soon as we get there."

"Okay, fine. Whatever. Just don’t be too long. Got somebody else over there who wants to meet you so bad, she can taste it."

Xena wondered, by the time they got there, if she wouldn’t have gobs of people crowding around just to meet her. Actually, it kind of worried her. She didn’t like that kind of attention. "Who?", Xena asked.

"Ah, just a friend of mine. Her name’s Salea." He heard Gabrielle snickering, so he asked curiously, "What are you laughing at?"

"Nothing," she grinned mischieviouslymischievously. Greeger eyed her suspiciously, not trusting her answer, but turned around anyway and left.

"What was all that about?" Xena asked, after Greeger had left.

The grin having not left her face she said, "Greeger and Salea are a lot more than friends. It just kills me the way they don’t admit it to each other. It’s all innuendo with those two."

"Huh … love," she said, shaking her head. Gabrielle smiled, but Xena could tell her mind was already on something else. Xena sat back down on the log to put her boots on. She looked up at Gabrielle and waited for the question.

"Xena? Can I ask you something?"

"Shoot," she said, smiling to herself.

"There’s something I just don’t understand. You told me Gaelen can read our minds. If that’s true, then how is it you were able to deceive him and make him think you were going to kill me, or make him believe you killed Tianna?" She pointed a stern finger at Xena. "And don’t say you have many skills!"

Xena laughed, then looked up at Gabrielle, her face sober. "It’s an old trick I learned from Lao Ma. The human mind can be a very powerful organ if we allow ourselves to use it to its fullest potential. Gaelen has a very powerful mind. I don’t know where he gained this power, but he knew nothing of Lao Ma’s techniques. She taught me how to clear my mind … to shut it off from everything and everyone. I simply closed my mind off to him."

"But what about Tianna? Couldn’t he have read her mind and realized that she wasn’t really dead?"

"I’m sure he could have, but she had basically shut her own mind down, in a way. And too, he was so centered and focused on me, on my mind being closed off to him, that I don’t think he even noticed. There were times when I could feel him trying to get back in, but I pushed him out. I guess I was lucky he never figured out what I was doing. I think if things had been allowed to go on long enough, he would have eventually figured it out. Despite his other rather obvious flaws, he has a remarkable mind. That’s why I know he’s not finished here. We’ll be seeing Gaelen again."

"If we do, I’m sure we’ll be ready for him next time," Gabrielle said confidenlyconfidently.

"I’m sure we will," she said with a small smile, trying to mirror Gabrielle’s confidence. Xena was quiet for a few seconds. Then she looked back up at Gabrielle, her face and eyes taking on more personal expressions. "Once this is all over, Gabrielle, we’re going to have to sit down and have a long talk."

Gabrielle nodded in understanding and said, "About Hope. I know. I know, Xena." Gabrielle was sad that it had to be brought back up, but she knew that Xena would eventually want to resolve the issue.

Slapping her hands on her knees, Xena rose to her feet, wincing a little at the pain in her side. It was almost as if that small bit of conversation had never happened. "Well, let’s get moving. There’s a lot to do before Gaelen does come back."

"When do you think that will be?"

Looking off in the distance as if looking for him, Xena said, "I wish I knew." She turned back to Gabrielle and smiled, "Come on. Let’s go to Phestia. We have a lot of cleaning up to do." They set out on foot back to the cave to gather their things, before heading back to Phestia. "Speaking of Phestia…I thought I told you to leave there before Gaelen’s army attacked."

Gabrielle smiled, nodded her head and wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist, "Yep, it is definitely good to have you back."

They walked along a wooded path spotted by dots of the brightly shining sun. A cool breeze blew through the trees and the birds sang. Gabrielle smiled happily as she walked with her staff in her left hand and her right hand at Xena’s waist, taking in the clean scent of the air.

"Are you going to answer my question or what?" Xena asked.

The End

For Now

Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship was not as badly damaged in the creation of this story.

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