Justice Satisfied

by R. D. Elliott

Disclaimers: Don't own the characters. No gain from this is intended. Yes, violence abounds like any good Xena episode. A little same gender interest. This happens as a possible alternative to Solan's death. After all, knowing Xena, can we say the Amazons weren't expecting retaliation? And knowing Gabrielle, wouldn't she have tried to right any wrongs and protect her people? I just think this is as possible as the story line they gave us in the series. Let me know what you think at rd2jaft@sat.net

Finished June 2002.

"She's coming!"

The warning echoed through the village, racing the sun itself, and bringing those still with Morpheus to life.

"Everyone into position now!" the Amazon Regent commanded. "We only have a few moments." She turned to the pale young woman beside her. "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"

"No," came the reply, "but it's the right thing to do."

A collective breath was held by all as the gates to the village were opened allowing the rider easy access. Thundering hooves could be heard now in the distance.

'She's not even slowing down,' the young woman thought, 'which only proves she's out of her mind with grief, holding only one thought: revenge.'

The golden war-horse seemed to explode into the center of the village, rearing high as the raven head whipped around looking for her target.

"Xena!" The blue piercing orbs locked onto green, causing the bard's breath to catch in her throat as she recognized the cold hate contained within. Steadying herself, she raised her voice for all to hear, praying it wouldn't crack. "Warrior, hear me out. I have a proposition for you."

"You're in no position to make deals," she growled as she moved the mare forward slowly.

"I think I am," she spoke quietly and finally the warrior noticed dozens of Amazon archers all trained on her. "I know you're good, Xena, but not even you can catch fifty arrows at once. Will you listen to me now?" The bard watched incredulous as the warrior took the time to consider. 'Please don't rush me. You know they'll protect me. Be smart.'


"Xena, an injustice has been done to you. The Amazon nation is prepared to turn over the perpetrator on two conditions." She paused trying to judge Xena's openness to the proposal. "You will give your word that no harm will come to the Amazons for having sheltered her."

Mockingly the dark woman asked, "And I suppose the second is that no harm will come to the traitor."

"No. You will be free to do as you please with your prisoner. The second condition is that you continue on your path of working for the greater good." This request surprised the warrior. "Do you accept?"

"You expect me to believe that the Amazons are going to actually let me do anything I wish with my prisoner and not interfere?"

The bard turned to her Regent. Quietly Ephiny pleaded with her. "Don't do this, please."

"Ephiny, we've been through this a hundred times. I lied to the Centaurs and their leader is dead. I lied to my people and put the children, including your own son Xenon, at risk. I lied to Xena who paid the ultimate price. I betrayed you all. If a stranger stood in my boots now, would you not demand justice? Xena has that same right and I will not put my people at further risk by allowing them to defend me out of misguided loyalty." She held the gaze of her friend who finally turned to face the tribe and Xena, giving declaration.

"As Regent of the Amazon Nation, I pledge that upon acceptance of the conditions, Xena, Warrior Princess, will be given Gabrielle, Bard of Potediea, to carry out justice for crimes committed against her and her son, Solan. Further more, no Amazon will interfere with any punishment until Xena is satisfied that justice has been served."

All stood quiet, waiting, watching. "And if I don't accept, I suppose I die."

"You are free to leave, but if you ever enter Amazon land again, you will be shot on sight."

Again silence, the large horse pacing back and forth for its mistress. "I accept."

Without a word Gabrielle turned to Ephiny, handing her the Queen's mask and her own staff. Though her arms felt like lead, she held the mask above her indicating its passage to her. "Archers, put down your bows on the ground. We have given our word, and so it shall be." Two of the Royal guards stepped forward to escort the small woman to the one who still towered in her saddle, then returned to their new Queen. Once they had backed up, the warrior slid from her perch with lightening speed, and struck the bard hard across the face sending her sprawling. Poised to strike, Xena looked to see who would retaliate, but all held their ground, though some barely in control.

"Get up." The young woman rose on shaky legs. "Put out your hands." She complied and found her hands quickly bound. As she dragged the smaller woman to a large post, she called out for all to hear. "I think it only fair that the Amazons get to see a portion of your punishment, traitor, since your lies put your own people in danger." Roughly she tied the bards hands to an iron ring high above her head, her feet barely able to touch the ground. "Wouldn't want this getting in the way," she said yanking up the long golden red hair. With one quick slash, the tresses fell to the earth. "Fitting." After ripping the top exposing the bard's back, she turned to Argo for her whip. "One lash for each year of my son's life!" and with that, the whip cracked fiercely against the tender skin. Before she could prepare herself, the lash fell again forcing a cry between her lips. Gabrielle, being a gentle soul, was in no way prepared to endure such cruelty. When it ended, tears streamed down her face, sobs racking her body. The warrior strode forward, releasing her from the ring, watching her fall in a heap to the ground.

Ephiny approached, keeping herself tightly in control. "Are you satisfied, warrior?"

They glared at one another. "Not by a long shot." Attaching a rope to the bard's still bound hands; she mounted Argo and tied it to the saddle horn. Without looking, she spoke to the shaking woman. "You can get up and walk or let Argo drag you. Your choice."

"Warrior! At least let us tend her back and cover her before you take her." Ephiny begged with as much dignity as possible.

She glanced briefly at the small beaten woman who looked at the ground in defeat. Voices argued in her head as she finally spat out, "Be quick."

With the greatest of speed, the healer stepped forward to give the wounds a cursory cleaning and treatment. Then Ephiny slipped a soft leather poncho over her friend's head, tying a sash around the waist to hold it closed. Before Gabrielle could whisper her thanks for this kindness, she felt herself pulled forward and out of the Amazons' lives forever.

* * * *

The sun was hot as they made their way down the road and Xena kept the pace brisk. Sweat slid down the bard's back causing the wounds to sting. At mid day the warrior finally pulled off the road and Gabrielle collapsed in a heap. Slipping from the saddle, she led Argo to a stream forcing the bard to struggle again to her feet. As the mare drank, the young woman crawled forward to quench her own thirst.

Xena sat separate, watching. She noted that blood dripped from the bound wrists and the leather poncho stuck to her back with small discolorations. Just as the bard began to doze off, the warrior mounted and kicked Argo into motion dragging the woman a few feet before she could get her legs under her. The bard almost cried out in protest, but caught herself in time. Any complaining would only make her situation worse she knew.

The day continued as it had begun, in silence, except for the heavy breathing of the woman trying to keep up with the war-horse. As the sun threatened to leave the sky, the brooding warrior finally halted their journey. Uniting the lead rope, she commanded, "Get wood. Make a fire." The young woman merely nodded and turned to her task though her hands were still bound. Once accomplished she turned automatically to the saddlebags, pulling out their pot to heat water for tea and stew. "What are you doing?" came the growl over her shoulder.

"I was going to make you supper. You haven't eaten all day," she spoke quietly, fearfully.

Xena could smell the fear coming off the bard. The Warlord inside her emerged thinking, 'Good. You better be afraid, little girl.' She turned away to care for Argo. "Continue."

As quickly as possible she finished preparing the meal, placing the bowl and mug before the dark woman. "Xena?" There was no acknowledgement. "I need to use the bushes ... please."

Slowly the blue steel gaze turned on her, holding her, making her squirm. "You try to run, I'll track you down. You can't escape me." The newly shorn head merely nodded. "Hurry up then." Like a cat hunting prey, she tracked the young woman's movements into the shadows and back again. Never breaking contact, she watched as the bard cleaned up after the supper, swallowing the small amount of food she had left behind. Then she laid out the bedrolls on opposite sides of the fire. For some reason this angered the warrior anew. 'We use to sleep side by side, but no more, not after your betrayal!' With the blood pounding in her head, she grabbed the lead rope and then the bard by the scruff of the poncho, ripping the scabs of the lash marks. Stifled whimpers met her ears, but she ignored them as she threw the young woman down against a tree and proceeded to tie her to it.

"Xena, you don't have to do this. I give you my word I won't go anywhere."

"Your word?! Like you gave me your word that your devil child was dead?!" She pulled tightly on the rope, forcing the tender back into the rough bark of the tree. Without another word, the warrior turned away throwing herself into her bedroll, blocking out the quiet sobs that drifted across the campsite.

* * * * *

The morning broke on two very tired travelers. Once released, Gabrielle moved quickly to pack their things when it was obvious that Xena was not interested in taking the time for breakfast. Timidly she handed the warrior trail biscuits for her to eat as she rode, then she handed over the lead rope. The tall woman stared down at the young girl who kept her face to the earth. Silence held them both still until Argo whinnied restlessly to be on their way. Quickly she tied the lead to the bound hands and leapt into the saddle. Today though, the bard noticed the pace was gentler.

'Is she actually taking it easy on me? Maybe she doesn't hate me completely.' Without warning a trail biscuit was tossed back at her which she ate gratefully. Again at mid-day, the warrior pulled them over for a short rest, but refused to look at or talk with her prisoner. The hardest part of the journey for both of them was being alone inside their heads while the other was just feet away.

Early evening found them approaching a large village. Xena found the local tavern and went inside for supplies leaving the bard tied to Argo's saddle horn outside. Needing time away from the small blonde, the warrior sat drinking mead to clear her head. Or dull it, she wasn't sure which.

"Hey! Who owns the wench outside?" came a loud coarse voice.

Piercing eyes looked over the rim of a mug. "Who wants to know?"

"If she's yours, I'll give you twenty dinars for her."

'That would certainly serve the little bitch right. And then I wouldn't have to look at her.' But the Warlord voice in her head warred with her as she sipped her mead. 'But then you wouldn't have the satisfaction of watching her suffer.' Setting her mug down and gathering her purchases, she spoke, "Sorry, friend, can't do that. She's a prisoner."

"Damn. Well then, how 'bout I give you five dinars just for a quick tumble then?"

"Now that offer has potential. One condition: I get to watch."

"Always did like an audience," he smirked.

Together they walked out of the tavern. The steely eyes bored through the young woman as the warrior grabbed the lead and tossed it to the man. Licking his lips and chuckling to himself, he began to pull the bewildered girl behind the building.

"Xena ...?" But she saw that Xena was following them, so she knew she wouldn't be alone. Then she saw the tall woman seat herself on a stump as if to enjoy some show. The man roughly whipped her around to face him. Grabbing her face in his large meaty hand, he kissed her fiercely while his other hand squeezed her breast. Her first reaction was to struggle and pull away from this foul smelling mountain of a man. "Stop!"

He grabbed her throat almost pulling her off her feet. "Be good little miss. I paid her for a good time and that's what I plan to have."

The bard looked at the stoic expression of the warrior. In that instant she knew she was despised and all hope left that there might ever be healing between them. In that same instant, the dark woman saw defeat, shame, and surrender flicker in the green eyes. The bard's struggles stopped as the man continued to paw her. The warrior's struggles began. The part of Xena that had loved Gabrielle, that still loved her, pushed forward to make her presence known, 'No one deserves this. You didn't allow your men to do it when you were a warlord. So why are you allowing it now? But the Warlord inside raged in answer, 'Why should she care that he's hurting her? She deserves it, damn it!' But the Friend would not be dismissed so easily, 'She's given you too much for you to let her be treated like this!'

Without realizing she had moved, she found herself pulling the bear of a man off the small woman. "Changed my mind. Here's your money back."

"Wait a minute now. I don't want my money. I want the girl."

Death filled her voice as she whispered, "I said I changed my mind. You have a problem with that?" The chakram pressed against the man's throat.

"No ... no, not at all," he squeaked. It almost made the warrior laugh. "Too skinny for my tastes anyway." He scrambled up, leaving as quickly as he could.

She turned to the figure still curled on the ground. The green eyes looked up fighting to control the tears. She wanted to smash that face. She wanted to comfort it. So she did the only thing she could, she grabbed the lead rope yanking the bard to follow.

* * * *

Instead of staying in the village, Xena took them to a small glen just on the outskirts. The thought of people around her was more than she could bear. If she could have been rid of the bard for one night, she would have. But the small woman was smart and staying out of her way, busying herself with setting the camp and cooking. Gabrielle noticed she hadn't yet tended to Argo. Timidly she approached the horse and began pulling at buckles, which wasn't easy with her hands still bound. She pulled out an apple for the large mare who nuzzled her in gratitude. 'At least someone doesn't hate me.' Grabbing the currycomb she hesitantly went towards the brooding warrior.

"Xena? Do you wish me to brush Argo or would you prefer to do it yourself?" The woman sat so still, the bard wondered if she'd heard her. "Xena?"

"Do it."

Nodding, she turned to her task grateful to be busy and away from the strong woman's dark mood. "I know I'm not as good at this as Xena, but I'll do my best, girl," she spoke softly to the horse. Without realizing it, she continued to talk to Argo and had soon fallen into telling a story. The melodic voice slowly sifted into Xena's mind carrying a momentary peace at its familiarity.

'What do you think you're doing, warrior? The Warlord voice railed at her. 'You enjoying the little bitch's story?' She became angry with herself for this lapse. "What in Tartarus are you doing?" she barked.

"I guess I was telling a story to Argo. I didn't even realize-"

"Well stop it and check the food."

"Sorry." Preparing a plate she placed it in front of the warrior, afraid to get too close right now. "Xena, may I go to the bushes please?" The dark head nodded in response. The bard made sure to be quick. Noting that the warrior had finished her food, Gabrielle began to scoop the small remainder out for her.

"You take it, then clean up."

"Thank you." Once she'd eaten and cleaned up, she sat out of the warrior's line of vision, unsure what to do next. Bracing herself, she ventured, "Xena, I want to thank you for earlier in the village."

"I didn't do it for you. I did it for me. It was without honor."

"I see ... well, thank you all the same." They sat in silence for awhile. Once more the bard braved, "Would you like me to tell you a story?" A glare was her only response so the bard made sure to find the campfire intriguing. So engrossed in becoming invisible, she was startled when Xena suddenly grabbed her arm and began uniting the leather strap. Tossing down the medicine pouch she simply said, "Clean yourself up."

Gabrielle stared at the retreating back in amazement. With pleasure she stretched her arms for the first time in two days. Gingerly she cleaned her wrists, applied salve, and wrapped them. Suddenly a shirt tunic landed in her lap. "Do your back." The bard didn't look forward to this. She knew the leather had once again attached to her back. Slowly she peeled the poncho off and could tell that several marks began to bleed again. Try as she might, she couldn't reach them all. She heard the crunch of footsteps and the warrior knelt in back of her. Taking the rag from her hand, the dark woman cleaned what couldn't be reached. The touch was anything but gentle, but at least there would be no infection.

"Couple of these need stitches," she said as she picked up the needle. The bard bit her lip to keep from crying out, so fierce were the warrior's ministrations. Finally she was finished and Gabrielle slipped the soft tunic over her in relief. The bard had no delusions that this small respite changed anything.

"Thank you," she said as she handed the leather strap to the warrior and held out her arms. She studied the bard's submission to her. Warlord: 'It's just a manipulation to make us feel guilty? She's in for a surprise.' Pulling manacles out of the saddlebags, she snapped them on the young woman's wrists. The warrior looked down expecting to see surprise on her face. Instead she saw gratitude. Xena: 'She really does accept this. She's actually happy to have that two-foot length of chain between her hands. Warlord: 'Good ... that's as it should be.' Again she reached into the saddlebag, producing a five-foot chain. One end she locked on the manacles, the other onto a ring on Argo's saddle. The young woman realized immediately she'd be able to lay down tonight and maybe even get a little sleep. "Thank you, Xena." A blanket thrown at her was the only response.

* * * *

Considering the circumstances, the next morning Gabrielle felt better than she had in days. She even managed to wake up with the warrior. Even Xena seemed more relaxed and allowed the bard to make her breakfast. The young woman wisely continued the routine of eating anything left behind by the dark woman.

The mood was still solemn and both soon became lost in their own torturous minds. Until they came across three large bandits pummeling an old man and his daughter. There was a smile on the warrior's face as she slid from the saddle slowly pulling her sword free. The men noticed her arrival and began to circle her.

'Why is she letting them get behind her? To make the fight a challenge or to get herself killed? It was obvious to the bard that Xena was taking her time, toying with them. She'd push and then give ground. The bard stood by anxiously still chained to Argo's saddle, wanting to be there protecting her warrior's back.

Xena soon had all three disarmed, but he warrior hadn't used enough energy and so laughingly tossed her own sword aside. The men hazarded baffled glimpses at each other before charging in mass. The warrior wanted to feel her fists pounding flesh; she even wanted to feel them hitting her. She was enjoying the physical contact. Physical pain she understood. Physical pain distracted her from her heart's pain.

However one of the men, realizing they had a crazed warrior on their hands, pulled a dagger from his boot in the hopes of evening the odds for them. The bard was instantly alert. "Come on, Argo, Xena's getting a hand whether she wants it or not," she said pulling the horse after her. Kicking up, she caught the man on the side of the head, then slammed her foot on his wrist efficiently breaking it. The warrior turned at the noise behind her, glaring at the interference. Turning back to the two remaining, she jumped high, kicking both in the chest and sending them to join their companion into unconsciousness. She growled once at the bard, then went to check on the two victims.

When she began to examine them, she felt a twinge of guilt. She should have ended the fight immediately so she could tend to their injuries. "Bard, come here." When Gabrielle approached, she unlocked her from the saddle so they both could help. "Look after the girl," she snapped as she turned her attention to the old man. The wounds were not life threatening if treated right away. She hoped she had not waited too long. Soon their wounds had been treated as well as possible on the road. "We need to get them to a healer." Luckily they had been riding in a small wagon. The warrior quickly rearranged the supplies in the back to make room for the father and daughter. Then she firmly bound the three battered men and tied them to the wagon to follow. Wanting to keep an eye on her prisoners, she turned to the bard. "You drive the wagon." Quickly Gabrielle climbed aboard and nudged the little horse forward. The warrior followed on Argo.

A candlemark later they reached the next village. The men were lead away to the local jail while the family was taken to the healer's. Before they could leave, the old man took Xena's arm. "Thank you for what you did. My child is the most precious thing in the world to me. I was willing to give those men everything I had, but they wanted her. There are supplies in my wagon, food, drink, blankets. Please take anything you want."

"That's not necessary, old man."

"Please, it's so little to give for the life of a child. May the Gods bless you on your way."

"Thank you," she whispered as she slipped outside. The warrior took a quick glance into the wagon, not really wishing to take anything, but also not wanting to offend the man. "Well, a flagon of wine might be nice," she said pulling out a large bottle. Returning to Argo, she saw that the bard had re-chained herself to the saddle and was leaning on the mare's neck talking to her again. 'Now she decides to get along with my horse. Ironic.'

As Xena approached, the bard finally got a good look at her. "Xena, you need tending yourself."

"Nothing serious. It can wait 'til we make camp."

Reaching out a hand to the warrior, she implored, "But you've always said-"

Grabbing the chain, the tall woman yanked the hand away from her. "I said later. What did you not understand?"

The smaller woman lowered her gaze to the ground. "Nothing. I'm ... I'm sorry."

The warrior was in the saddle in a heartbeat and they were off at the brisk pace again, Gabrielle struggling to keep up.

* * * * *

It was early evening by the time Xena found a spot suitable for camping. Gabrielle quickly set up camp while the warrior finally settled down to tend her wounds. She could tell the warrior was only giving herself a cursory cleaning. Once her duties were done, the bard determinedly placed herself in front of the warrior and wordlessly began removing the bracers, grieves, and armor. Neither made eye contact as the bard re-cleaned all the cuts, applying a healing ointment. After she'd finished, she placed a plate of food firmly in the warrior's hands with a command of her own, "Eat." An eyebrow shot up at her. "Please." The bard watched from the corner of her eye as the brooding woman picked at her food.

"You helped those people today," she ventured. Silence. "The father was very grateful. She's his only child." Silence. "It must have been difficult for you. The girl was fair like Solan-" She felt a hand gripping her throat in an instant as the warrior snarled closely in her face, "I told you once – never say his name. I won't tell you again." The bard tried to apologize but could get no words past the chokehold. Finally the warrior threw the smaller woman from her and she sucked in deep gulps of air. "S-s-sorry ... sorry."

The warrior reached for the wine bottle not bothering with a mug. The pain in her heart was flaring again, the voices in her mind screaming and she had to quiet them. The bard turned to Argo on the premise of brushing her out, but it was really for her own comfort. The night dragged on forever as Xena continued to drain the bottle. When it was empty, she threw it at a tree, smashing it in anger. Gabrielle jumped, putting herself on the other side of the great horse, hoping not to be noticed. The warrior strode to the tree and swung her sword. She kept whacking at the poor tree for at least half a candlemark. The last swing was so fierce, the sword became firmly wedged and try as she might, could not free it. But it didn't stop the warrior as she began to pound the helpless tree with her bare fists.

'Gods – she's going to break her hands if she keeps that up.' Bravely the bard ran forward trying to grab the wildly swinging arms. "Xena! Stop! You're only hurting yourself! Xena!" But the bard was shaken off without notice as the warrior continued to beat the tree. "Xena!" she cried trying once more and again landing in the dirt. 'Gods, protect me.' She thought as she placed herself between Xena and the tree. She tried to protect herself as she felt blows landing on her mid-section. "Xena, please, stop, please!" The fists kept coming but now the warrior was firmly focused on the bard. The woman slid to the ground unable to withstand any more. Xena knelt over her, grabbing the front of the tunic and pulling back for what surely would be a deathblow. But at that moment, visions of Solan took the place of the bard's face. She froze, stammering, "S-S-Solan?" The young woman dared not move. The warrior reached out patting Gabrielle's head still seeing her dead son. "My dear Solan." She wrapped her arms around the woman, leaned against the tree, and promptly passed out.

The bard carefully wiggled out of the warrior's strong arms. 'Tartarus, I feel like I was in the middle of a Centaur stampede.' She stumbled a little as she tried to right herself. 'Need to get Xena over by the fire.' She started to tug on the larger woman, but the pain in her side was too much, preventing her from succeeding. "Guess you're staying here tonight." She made her way to the blankets and then grabbed the medicine pouch on the way back. 'Damn it, Xena, your hands look like tenderized meat.' Gently she cleaned them both, applied ointment, and bandaged them carefully. Once done, she wrapped the blankets around the warrior tightly. 'That's one. My turn.' She looked down at her tunic covered in Xena's blood. 'Got to clean this out. Won't help for her to know what happened. With the little strength she had left, the bard cleaned the shirt as best as possible. Then she inspected herself and saw that from chest to stomach, she was one solid bruise. Tenderly she felt along her ribs. 'Thank the Gods, nothing's broken. Guess the wine pulled some of her punch.' Slowly she made her way to the saddle, re-chaining herself for the second time that day. 'No sense taking chances with her anger if she finds me free. My one consolation, warrior, is that you're going to feel like Tartarus tomorrow, too.' With that last thought, the bard gave in to her exhaustion falling immediately into Morpheus's arms.

* * * *

The sun came much too early to the little encampment. The warrior slowly lifted one eyelid and slammed it shut again quickly. 'Gods, who's hammering on my head?!' She groaned and pulled the blanket over her head.

"Xena? Xena ...."

"What?" she growled under the safety of the covers.

"You never sleep this late. Are you all right?"

"I will be when you stop shouting."

"I'm speaking very quietly, Xena."

"Then stop talking and make my hangover remedy."

"I can't until you release me."

'Damn. I have to move? Ok – which is the lesser of evils, hangover or moving?' She moved and found her stomach leaving. 'Ok, the hangover is good. I can be still 'til the Gods get tired of playing drums in my head.'


"Shut up!" she yelled causing her head to pound more. "Just give me a little time."

Gabrielle waited patiently for half a candlemark before the big strong warrior could bring herself to face the battle with her body. Tossing the key at the bard, she finally noticed her bandaged hands, "Hey, what happened?"

"You had a disagreement with that tree over there." The warrior looked back to see her sword wedged tightly in the trunk. "Damn." Slowly she made her way over to retrieve her sword while the bard brewed Xena's special tea. Approaching as silently as possible, the young woman held out the mug, whispering, "Xena, here's the remedy."

Grabbing the cup out of the young woman's hand, she gulped the concoction in one swallow. "Now let me be for a candlemark, and then we'll leave. Be ready."

That was fine with Gabrielle who settled herself down to rest knowing that it would be much longer before the warrior was able to move as she had also added just a little sleeping herb to the concoction.

* * * *

It was mid-day before the warrior stirred. She was still feeling less than herself and seemed to move in slow motion. Without a word she saddled Argo as Gabrielle packed their things and they were off. The bard felt elated not to be chained to the saddle. 'Of course I don't know if it's because she's starting to trust me or just plain forgot. Bet she still feels like Tartarus, she's moving so slow I could pass her up if I wasn't so sore from that beating last night.'

By early evening they arrived at a village and headed for the local inn. The warrior began to enter without a glance at the bard.

"Excuse me, Xena?" The woman turned to glare at her. "Do you wish me to stay with Argo or to come with you?" She considered a moment before nodding for the bard to follow. They entered the place, which bustled with all kinds of patrons. The warrior found an empty table by unseating a drunk. She sat as always with her back to the wall and able to see the entire room. Gabrielle turned to get food for the warrior not wanting her to wait for the serving girl to arrive. She knew Xena's mood was dark and hoped to avert bloodshed, returning with a bowl of stew, bread, and cider.

"What's this?" she growled slamming the mug on the table. "Get me some ale."

"I just thought since last night, you might want-"

"You thought wrong. You have no idea what I want, little girl, so better not try to guess."

"Sorry." The young woman went quickly to fetch the ale. Once Xena had been served, she wasn't quite sure what she should do so she just stood beside the woman ready to do what ever was wanted next. As she stood there, she looked at the patrons of the inn. There were several farmers and merchants, but there was also a table of mercenaries in the corner getting very drunk. They kept giving the young serving girl a hard time and it was evident the innkeeper was getting nervous. The noise became louder and soon mugs were being thrown and the girl was being shoved among them.

"Stop it now!" The men slowed their assault and looked at the dark warrior who had spoken to them from across the room. "I came in for some peace and quiet and you are disturbing that."

The men laughed and resumed their activities. Slowly the tall woman rose to her full height, stepping up to the ruffians in three smooth strides. She gripped the hand that held the girl, twisting it until the wrist snapped. The girl fled behind the bar for safety. "You gentlemen need help finding the door?" she snarled in their faces. Apparently they did, and she swiftly obliged.

"Thank you," the innkeeper spoke coming forward, "I was afraid there would be trouble. They've come in the past two nights and each time it's gotten worse. Your meal is on the house and if you should want a room for the night, it's yours."

The warrior considered his words. "In that case, I think I should make sure that the garbage isn't still in front of your door." She strode out with purpose. Grunts, punches, and kicks could be heard right outside, but slowly growing fainter as the men were steadily being thrown down the road. She returned moments later, a satisfied grin on her face. "I think it should be a quiet night now." Sitting back down at her table, she had Gabrielle fetch more ale. Though the fear of the mercenaries was gone, there was still tension in the room. The warrior looked at the patrons who eyed her nervously. "Bard, why don't you do your bard thing and put these good people at ease." Gabrielle glanced at the warrior in surprise. "But only the classics, none of your own tales, understand me?"

"Perfectly, Xena." She moved towards the hearth and began weaving one tale after another. The crowd was soon under the bard's spell; laughing, cheering, and clapping. One story after another for over two candlemarks. Xena could tell the bard wouldn't last much longer, her voice was getting raspy. Each time Gabrielle had tried to bring the telling to an end, Xena had commanded another story. The crowd was oblivious to the exchange and merely sat back reaping the benefits. But the innkeeper could see and had watched as the warrior became increasingly drunk. He began to worry that he had traded the small trouble he knew for an unknown terror he didn't. He'd heard stories of Xena having changed, but realized they might not be quite true. Coming forward, he handed a cup of cider to the young woman, then turned to his patrons.

"We've certainly had a treat tonight. I think it only right we pass the bowl for the bard and show her how much we've enjoyed her." There were more applause and cheering as the bowl made its way around the room. Happily the man presented the filled bowl to the bard who merely indicated that it should be given to Xena which he quickly did. "Thanks again for sharing your bard tonight, Xena."

She took the dinars and gave the innkeeper a small cut. "I think the bard has one last story in her to end the night with." The people cheered at this. Gabrielle swallowed her cider hoping to ease her throat. "Why don't you tell the tale of the traitor?" Blue eyes stared into green as the bard's face went pale. She struggled with herself. "By the Gods, she doesn't know what she's asking of me. We haven't even spoken of it and she wants me to turn it into a tale for a room of strangers?!' Her body shook in anger and shame. 'But maybe this is what Xena needs. She can't talk about it, but she needs to. Maybe if I tell the story for her, just maybe it will put her on the path to healing.'

Taking a deep breath, the bard began. "I tell a tale of friendship. I tell a tale of sorrow and shame. I tell you the tale of two friends who shared one soul. And I tell you of the betrayal of that friendship." The bard wove the story through Xena's eyes. She was harsh and unforgiving of her own actions, focused only on the loss of the centaurs, the loss of the Amazons, and the loss of the warrior before her. She painted a beautiful picture of a young boy who never had the opportunity to know his mother was only a heartbeat away. Silent tears ran down the woman's face as women sniffled and men fiercely wiped tears away before anyone could see. And when she was finished and the room sat spellbound by the tale, she finished by claiming it as her own story. Heads shot up startled.

"This is true?" someone asked.

"You did that to your friend?" another voice called.

"You should be ashamed!" came a voice accompanied by a tomato, which hit her squarely in the face.

More food was thrown as the innkeeper stepped forward to make peace. "All right, everyone, calm down! I think we've had enough trouble for the night. The girl is obviously paying for her crimes, so let's all go back to our food and drink, shall we?" He pulled the young woman to Xena. "Please, you're welcome to a room if you wish one, but I think it would be best to retire to it now."

Xena merely smiled, picked up her tankard of ale, and grabbed the chain to pull the bard after her up the stairs. Tears continued to escape the smaller woman's eyes but she kept herself as silent as possible. Once in their room, the sotted warrior collapsed on the bed. Gabrielle stood shaking for a moment, her back against the door. She wanted to run from the room, away from this woman she no longer knew. But this was her friend whom she had wronged. She owed her so much and if she could not help the warrior to heal, then she deserved whatever befell her. Slowly the bard moved to Xena, removing her armor, grieves, boots, and leathers. Then she reached for the medicine pouch and tended to the hands which had taken such a beating the night before. After the fight with the mercenaries, the bandages needed changing and several other bruises and cuts needed attention. With the gentlest of touches, the woman saw to the warrior. When she was finally finished, she covered her and turned to clean herself up. She hadn't been hurt by the food thrown at her, just humiliated as she was sure Xena intended. After cleaning herself, she lay down on the floor by the bed wishing to escape into sleep.

* * * * *

Why were mornings becoming so difficult the warrior wondered as she pulled herself up. It took a moment for the fog to clear from her mind, but when it did she immediately realized the bard was nowhere in sight. Warlord: 'I knew you couldn't trust that little bitch!' Ignoring the effects of last night's drunk, anger fueling her, she dressed in seconds. Yanking open the door, the bard stood there on the other side stepping back in surprise. The warrior's arm shot out to grab her around the throat, lifting her off her feet and dragging her back into the room. "Trying to run, traitor? I knew you couldn't be trusted and I promise you'll pay!" The rage flamed in the ice blue eyes and frantically the bard lifted up the steaming mug in front of Xena's face as her only defense. The dark woman's senses finally brought her to the mug as she smelled the familiar fragrance of her hangover remedy. Taking the cup she released the smaller woman who fell to the ground coughing and sputtering. As she drank, she turned and walked away from the prone figure.

"I'm .... sorry. I knew ... you'd want that ... when you woke .... I'm sorry."

Xena's emotions again warred within her. Friend: 'She didn't abandon you. You haven't been betrayed this time. The bard was attempting to care for you.' She noticed the fresh bandages on her hands and saw cuts from last night which had been tended. Then she remembered how she had woken, wrapped warmly in blankets, her armor and weapons polished and stacked neatly, ready for her. She'd been wrong, but there was no way she could apologize to this person who was responsible for her son's death. "Never leave without permission, " was all she could say.

"Yes, Xena. I'm sorry."

"Gather our things. We're leaving." The bard turned to her task without hesitation. For the first time Xena noticed the stiffness with which the young woman moved. "What's wrong with you?" she snapped.

"Nothing," she whispered as she continued her work.

"Liar," she said coldly as she approached the bard. Thinking that the lash marks might have become infected, she grabbed the shirt pulling it up and was surprised to see the mass of bruises covering the body? "When? How?"

"I got in the way of your argument with the tree."

"I didn't mean to do that," her voice neutral.

"I know, but at least justice was being served, right? Don't worry, I know it's not satisfied and probably never will be," she finished as she tugged her shirt back into place.

"You're not stupid, bard, how did you 'get in the way'?"

Worried for some reason that it might make the warrior angry again, she mumbled, "I was afraid you would break your hands if you kept it up. I tried to stop you and kept ending up in the dirt. I didn't know what else to do so I just got between you and the tree. I'm sorry. I won't let it slow you down when we travel."

"I could have killed you."

"Then justice would have been satisfied." She turned back to her packing. The warrior stood dumbfounded by the bard's response.

* * * * *

Soon they were on the road. Gabrielle noted that once again Xena had failed to chain her to the saddle. 'I wonder if it's her way of apologizing to me for almost taking my head off this morning. Guess I'll just enjoy it while it lasts.' The pace was leisurely and the bard wasn't sure if it was for her or the warrior who still struggled with aftereffects.

Today the warrior pulled them over for a mid-day meal and rest. As she headed for the stream, she heard the bard's stomach roar loudly. "When was the last time you ate?"

"Two days ago, breakfast," she shrugged.

"What happened to last night? I know I left food behind."

"After the last story, the innkeeper asked us to go to our room. Things were sort of getting out of hand."

Vaguely she recalled the response of the crowd to Gabrielle's story of betrayal. She winced inwardly remembering the bard being pelted with food. She continued to the stream and caught two big fat trout. When they were finished cooking, Xena threw one fish on each plate and motioned for the bard to eat now.

Looking warily at the warrior, she simply said "Thank you." She practically inhaled the trout almost causing the warrior to smile. When things had been cleaned and repacked, they set off again. Gabrielle could tell the warrior was deep in thought. 'If she doesn't let her feelings out, she's always going to be in pain.'

But the dark woman's thoughts were not only for her dear son, but for the emptiness she felt at the loss of her friend.

The rest of the day went without incident. The bard wondered if it might not have been better to run into a band of robbers just so the warrior could release some of her tension. After the meal and chores were done for the night, Xena settled into sharpening her sword.

The bard gathered her courage and approached the brooding woman. "Xena, I'm very concerned about you." An eyebrow arched in her direction. "I know you're not big on talking, but you really need to let your feelings out." The warrior merely glared at the bard. "Xena, whether you believe it or not, I care very much about you. You need to get past this. I know it will take time, but it will take even longer if you keep on the way you have. Please, Xena, I love you and-"

"Love me?!" she exploded. The bard realized her mistake immediately backing away fearfully watching the fury before her. "That's why you lied – out of love?" she sneered. "And that's why you continued to lie when you found that child of evil?! No - don't you dare say that to me! You don't love me and you're not my friend. In fact, I don't even want you to call me by my name. Now stay away from me, bard!"

The woman scooted out of her line of vision, put her arms around her knees and laid her head down to muffle her crying. 'Words are my gift, why do I keep messing up with Xena? Every time I open my mouth, I make things worse. Gods, please, help me to reach her.' Suddenly she felt a strong hand on her arm pulling her up. No words were spoken as the warrior secured the chain from the saddle to the manacles for the night.

The bard lay awake long into the night watching the warrior. The tall woman paced, tossed her dagger at a tree, groomed Argo, and finally wore herself out enough to throw herself in her bedroll. But it was not a dream of peace, but of nightmares that soon took hold. In her dreams, Xena stood by helplessly as Hope reached inside Solan's chest, seizing his heart, causing it to stop. She watched the agony on her son's face and heard the evil laughter coming from Hope. As she watched, Hope's child face grew into Gabrielle's mature one, still twisted in evil delight at the pain being caused. The warrior thrashed in her sleep, attempting to reach her son.

The bard woke and tentatively tried to soothe her. "Princess .... Warrior ... it's just a dream! Wake up! Princess!" 'Tartarus! This is getting us nowhere. I don't care what she said.' "Xena! Xena ... it's me, Gabrielle, you're having a bad dream. Wake up, Xena! Let it go and wake up. Xena! Xena!" Abruptly the warrior sat up, blinking her eyes. "Princess, it was a dream. You're safe. Everything is all right."

Slowly the warrior looked around her and mumbled, "No, it's not all right. It will never be right again."

* * * * *

They were on the road early as usual, Gabrielle having shoved trail biscuits into Xena's hands. The warrior looked coldly at the young woman. "Stay in my line of sight and make sure you keep up."

"Yes, Princess." The bard wondered what was going on in the warrior's mind, but could not see past her stoic mask. She trudged along beside the great war-horse grateful to be free of the lead chain. Sometime during mid-afternoon, the sounds of a skirmish could be heard. Heading for the noise, they came upon ten raiders gathering up young women who'd been at the stream washing clothes. A young man, who must have been their protection, lay on the ground unconscious. The old women were separated from the young and it was obvious they were planning on executing them.

Warrior and bard sprang into motion. Xena attacked those threatening the old women first. Gabrielle looked for a branch she could use as a club and was soon between a raider and the prone young man. Several bloody minutes later, the raiders realized this was no longer an easy catch and retreated into the forest.

"Free the women, I'll look after him," she said as she grabbed her medicine kit. The woman expressed their relief and gratitude to the bard and then gathered around the warrior. "No problem," was her only response. "We need to make a litter for the young man." The bard helped the women and soon they were on their way back to their village.

They were met with much enthusiasm and backslapping. Villagers attempted to shower them with gifts, but Xena refused. "At least let us give you a good hot meal and room for the night," ventured the tavern owner whose young daughter had been among the captives.

"That would be nice. And for your generosity, I'll have my bard entertain tonight. Spread the word." The bard looked up at the warrior and knew she was in for a repeat of the other night.

"Thank you, Xena, that would be wonderful. My son, Palin, will tend to your horse."

"Her name's Argo. Take good care of her. By the way, she likes apples."

"Yes, ma'am. I'll make sure she gets the royal treatment," he beamed at the warrior.

"This way, Xena," Torrin, the innkeeper gestured. "I can have my daughter prepare a bath for you if you like."

"That would be wonderful, Torrin, thank you."

"Stacia, see to all the warrior's needs."

"Gladly, father."

The young girl led them into a large room with fireplace and large tub. Then Stacia went to get hot water for the bath. Gabrielle was confused by Xena's acceptance of the room. She thought they would be on their way to catch the raiders.

"Excuse me, Princess? Aren't we going after the raiders?"

"Eventually. But right now I'm having a bath," she growled as she began unbuckling her armor. The bard stepped forward to help. "I've got it." She stepped away quickly afraid to anger the woman.

Stacia returned with buckets of water and with the bard's help soon had the tub filled and ready. The warrior lowered herself into the warm water, relaxing her head back against the rim and merely soaked. Gabrielle busied herself with cleaning the armor and leathers and laying everything out the way she knew Xena liked it. "Wash my back."

"Yes, Princess." The bard knelt behind her, taking a cloth and washing the strong back. Even though this was not the Xena she knew, she couldn't help admiring the body in front of her. Stacia entered at that moment with a platter of fruit and a pitcher of mead.

"Thought you might like a snack until this evening," she smiled at the warrior. Gabrielle noticed the young girl ogling the warrior's body. She bristled without knowing why.

"Thank you, Stacia. Very thoughtful of you," she smiled warmly.

'My gods, is Xena actually flirting with this little girl? What is going on with her? We have raiders to stop.' She scrubbed the back roughly to get the warrior's attention. The dark woman turned quickly grabbing her wrist and staring coldly. "That's quite enough. Get me a towel." The bard moved to retrieve a towel and when she turned back, the warrior had risen and stepped out of the tub. Water glistened on her tanned skin, trailing down her well-muscled body. Stacia stood spellbound and Xena returned the look with a small smirk. Quickly the bard moved forward to cover the tall woman, then she turned to Stacia taking the tray and pitcher from her. Reluctantly the young girl turned to leave.

Once alone, Xena turned to the bard, "You stink." The bard blinked in surprise. "Bathe." She reached for the manacle key in the saddlebags and released her. "Be quick."

"Yes, Princess." While the young woman bathed, the warrior dressed, then turned to the pitcher on the table. Sitting with her legs propped on the table, she leaned back enjoying the drink. The bard could feel the warrior's eyes on her. 'Gods, what is happening? I better make this fast. I don't have a good feeling about this with her just sitting there, drinking.' As quickly as possible she finished her bath and dressed in clean clothes.

"Re-wrap your wrists," she said tossing the medicine pouch at the bard. She complied without haste as Xena strode to her and pulled up her shirt to look at her back. "I'm going to pull out the stitches." The bard nodded and felt the tugs on her back. "Those bruises still look bad." Not knowing what to say, the bard merely shrugged and pulled her shirt back down. Turning to face the tall woman, she held out her arms and the manacles were snapped back into place. "Let's go."

As they entered the main room, villagers cheered and clapped for the warrior. Relaxed from her bath and mug of mead, she actually smiled and nodded at the crowd as she found a table. Stacia was quickly there with roast lamb and potatoes and another pitcher. Gabrielle frowned, worried this was about to become a very had habit. "Thank you, Stacia," the warrior smiled.

"Do you wish me to bring food out here for your slave or do you wish her to eat in the kitchen?" She smiled back.

The bard flinched at the word, realizing for the first time that's what had transpired over the last week, she had become Xena's slave. She barely heard the warrior's answer.

"Bring it out here. Some slaves are not to be trusted out of sight." Tears stung the bard's eyes, but she refused to let them fall. Stacia was back quickly with a less than full plate, but Gabrielle still took it gratefully. "Sit," came the voice as the eyes looked to the floor. The bard eased herself to the floor by the tall woman's side and ate quickly unsure whether the food would be taken away at any moment. The young woman noticed how often Stacia came by their table. While flirting with the serving girl, Xena actually patted the bard on the head like a dog. She bit her lip unwilling to bring attention to herself in the hopes the warrior would forget she had offered the bard's services for the night.

"Looks like the entire village turned out tonight, Stacia," she said looking around.

"They wanted to honor you for what you did. Also they were promised they'd get to hear a bard."

'Son of a Bacchae! No way out of it now.'

"I did promise. Bard, go."

Taking a deep breath, she rose and went to the hearth. She told one classic after another and the people responded warmly. For a brief time, the bard felt loved and safe in the telling of her tales. The warrior would call out tales and she would comply waiting for the moment when she knew Xena would demand the traitor's story. It came all too soon.

The warrior watched through glassy eyes as the bard steeled herself for the telling. She watched the bard tremble through the tale though she was sure no one else noticed. She saw the light leave the green eyes. She saw sorrow and shame fill them. She saw pain as green eyes looked directly into blue. But never did she see the woman deny her part in the events, never deny her responsibility of the outcome. Friend: 'Is it possible she feels as much pain as you do? Is it possible she misses you, too? Longs to go back? Warlord: 'What does it matter? It's done, we can't go back. She'll always be a traitor to us. Xena: 'How can I ever forgive her for the death of my son?' Tears began to fill the warrior's eyes as the bard's story drew to a close. There was complete silence in the tavern as people stared in disbelief. After all, this woman had helped the warrior to save their women. How could she also be the woman in the story? Slowly the people turned their backs on the bard and began departing, many going by the warrior to give comfort as they left.

Even when everyone had left, the bard remained where she was, tears silently crawling down her cheeks. The warrior stood a little unsteadily and Stacia was there to support her. They turned to make their way to the room while the bard followed. Behind the closed door, Stacia tried to comfort the warrior while the bard sat as far away as possible, her back to them. Ironically, Stacia's attempt to ply the warrior with drink and make her more open to seduction, only succeeded in giving her a warrior open to Morpheus. Soon she had passed out and was snoring loudly. The serving girl turned in frustration, leaving abruptly. Gabrielle couldn't help but smirk and began the task of readying the warrior for bed.

* * * *

The bard made sure to have the hangover remedy made and waiting on the bedside table for the warrior. Luckily, since there was a fireplace in the room, she hadn't had to leave and risk Xena finding her gone for the task. From her place on the floor, she heard the woman groan. "The remedy is on the table next to you, Princess," she made sure to whisper. Grabbing the mug, she downed it in one gulp, then lay back waiting for the pounding to stop. It took Xena longer than usual to gather herself together so they could be on their way and trailing the raiders. At least that's what Gabrielle presumed they would do, but she wasn't sure since the warrior's travel right now seemed haphazard.

"Princess ... we are going after the raiders, aren't we?" she ventured.

"What? Raiders? Tartarus, completely forgot about them. Yeah, yeah, of course ...son of a Bacchae, guess we have to go back to where they surprised the women so we can pick up their trail. Sorry, Argo, need to turn around and go back."

"Excuse me, Princess .... Uh, it was this way," she said fearfully. 'By the Gods, I'll be glad when all the drink is completely out of her system. This is too strange, me guiding her.'

The warrior might have been under the weather, but it didn't keep her from doing her job once she was focused on it. They tracked the raiders for the entire morning as it turned into mid-day. Finally they heard a combination of men yelling and women screaming, and knew they'd found their target. Xena spurred Argo forward, totally forgetting about the bard who ran after her.

The bard followed, the sounds of swords clanging echoed in her ears. Bursting through the brush, she took in the scene before her. Xena had obviously interrupted several of the raiders in taking their pleasure with one of the women. As Gabrielle dashed towards the young brunette lying on the ground, the warrior was in full battle mode, viciously cutting down her opponents. Seeing that the woman before her was merely bruised with minor cuts, the bard turned her full attention to the fight. One raider directly behind Xena was struggling to his feet, sword in hand. As if possessed by Hermes, the bard leapt forward swinging her chain around his neck. Crying out in surprise, he dropped his sword alerting the warrior who turned and ran him through without blinking. Gabrielle looked down, seeing the blade having missed her own body by inches. Had Xena been careful or had she merely been lucky? The sword withdrew and moved on in its bloody course. The body slumped against the bard almost knocking her over. Pulling her chain free from his neck, she continued to keep one eye on the fight while freeing the women. She could see that the warrior was fully caught up in her battle lust, aware of very little around her. Xena moved with a fierceness and speed beyond most mortals. In a terrifying way, it was beautiful to behold. And then it was over. The raiders lay lifeless at her feet as she moved slowly, covered fully in blood.

In gratitude, the brunette raced forward to thank their savior. But the bard recognized the glaze in those blue eyes. "No, don't! Stay away from her," she cried, rushing to stop her. She just managed to pull the woman away when the warrior turned to the figures at her side. Seeing only forms, she lashed out with the hilt of her sword sending the bard flying. The women gasped, stepping back and giving the warrior wide berth. Fighting unconsciousness, the bard called to them, "Stay still ... she's lost in the battle still ... don't go near her." Then she turned her attention back to the warrior, looking through blurred eyes, "Princess, it's over. The battle is over. You've won. Put your sword down. It's over, Princess." Slowly Gabrielle's soothing voice reached inside the warrior's mind, her eyes focused, and finally she sheathed her sword. Seeing that the women were safe, the bard gave in to oblivion.

Xena looked around her realizing she'd been lost for the moment in her battle rage. She approached gently, calling out, "Sorry about that. When you're fighting for your life, sometimes it's hard to see you can stop. Is everyone all right?"

The brunette bravely faced her, "Just minor cuts and scrapes, except for your companion there." Xena turned to see the bard crumpled on the ground, blood gushing from a wound at her temple. "I didn't realize the danger of approaching a warrior right after battle. She stepped between us." The raven head looked up at the woman's words, then back at the bard. She whistled for Argo who trotted over at her command. Taking the medicine bag, she saw to the seeping wound stitching it expertly.

"You, what's your name?" the warrior asked as she worked.


"I'm Xena. Tara, there's ointment in my bag. Why don't you see to anyone who needs some attention. As soon as I'm finished here, we'll start back for your village."

"Thank you, Xena. Please, could we go back first to the place we were captured?

"Why would you-?"

"They killed the ones with us that they didn't want. We'd like to take them home for a proper burial."

"Of course." 'Damn it. Why did I wait so long to go after these vermin? Why didn't I leave yesterday like the bard suggested? Just because she suggested it?' She turned to the woman lying at her feet and gently shook her. "Come on, bard, time to wake up." Splashing water on the young woman's face, she continued, "We've got to get moving. Wake up. We need to get these women back to their homes. Come on, you can do it."

The strawberry-blonde head turned and eyelids fluttered open. Sternly she asked, "You all right?"

Struggling to sit up, the bard replied simply, "Fine."

"Good. Let's go." She rose and turned away to prepare the war-horse. Tara came to Gabrielle's side to help her up and steady her.

"My name is Tara. I want to thank you for stepping in. I believe she would have killed me."

"It would have been an accident. She was just lost-"

"I understand now. Good thing for me, you understood then. What's your name?"


"Well, Gabrielle, you just lean on me, ok?"

"Thanks, Tara."

A candlemark later, the group arrived at the place where their companions had been left. Xena stared as the women gathered up three old women and two very young children. 'Their deaths are on my hands.' Soon litters had been made and the bodies placed on them to be carried back. It was a somber procession to the little village. When they arrived, joy and sorrow mixed together for daughters returned and mothers and children lost. The townsfolk tried to pay Xena for their rescue, but she wouldn't allow it.

Tara came forward with a bag of supplies, simple food and drink. "Please, take this at least. You did so much for us."

"It wasn't enough," she muttered as she walked away.

* * * *

That evening Gabrielle set up camp while Xena stayed with Argo brushing her over and over again. The care of her horse was like a meditation for the warrior. She spent so long on the brushing though that Argo began to fidget under her touch. "Sorry, girl, guess I got carried away. Go on, enjoy yourself," she said giving her a tender slap on the rump. She watched the great horse for a moment frolic and kick up her heels, then turned to the campsite.

Sitting down, she began to nibble at the food on her plate, but soon lost interest. "Here. Finish," she said tossing the plate at the bard. She went to the bags of supplies they'd been given and rummaged through them to see what was there. As she'd hoped, they'd included a skin of wine. She took a long draw on the skin hoping to silence the voices in her head. Turning back, she saw the bard sitting quietly, barely eating more than she had.

"What's your problem?" she hissed at the girl.

"Nothing, Princess."

Kneeling down, she took the bard's chin firmly in her hands, turning her face towards her. The warrior inspected the injury as she spoke. "You know better than to get near a warrior in the middle of battle rage."

"Yes, Princess, it was my fault." Then the young girl's brows knit in puzzlement. "How did you know ...?"

"Tara told me. You probably saved me from killing her."

"She didn't know any better."

"Why did you step in?" Firmly she held the face looking deeply into the green eyes. The bard looked back afraid as if to tell the truth would incur her wrath. "Well? I'm waiting."

"I was afraid for you."

"What do you mean? I was perfectly safe. It was the girl who was at risk."

"If you had hurt her, you never would have forgiven yourself even though it would have been an accident."

"And it was all right if I killed you?"

"I don't seem to be doing you any good alive, Princess. Maybe my death would bring you peace." There was such sorrow in those eyes, Xena felt she might drown in them. Pulling her walls tightly around herself, she shoved the young woman from her. Gabrielle could see her withdrawal. Things were only getting worse. The bard knew Xena was blaming herself for the lives that had been lost that day. It didn't matter to the warrior the ones she had saved. And yet, how could she argue with her. If they had left right away and tracked the raiders, things might have been so very different.

They sat in silence for awhile, the night playing it's usual melodies. The bard glanced at the dark woman staring into the fire. She thought she could actually see the warrior becoming smaller, darker, colder. Walls were going up around the walls already there. 'Will there ever be a way through now?' she wondered. "I know what you're feeling, Princess."

The eyes narrowed to a slit, "Do you?"

"You're blaming yourself for the deaths today."

"Don't you? If we'd trailed those raiders immediately, none of this would have happened."

"Did you notice there were more raiders at this site than what you first encountered?"


"Twice as many, Princess. Obviously they had split into groups. There's no way to know if tracking the first group would have led you to the second one in time."

"But I didn't even try," she grumbled.

"No, you didn't and so you'll always wonder. But it doesn't negate the good you did for the other women."

"I should have known."

"Not even the Gods know all things, Princess. As you've said to me many times; 'don't apologize, just improve'." The raven head turned toward the bard, the blue eyes almost black with the rage and loathing held in check. 'But is that loathing for me or herself?'

"Enough talk. Here, clean my leathers."

"Yes, Mistress."

An eyebrow arched at the way she'd been addressed. She looked at the young woman for some sign of disgust or sarcasm, but saw only acceptance. She took another swallow of wine, but now it tasted bitter. Corking it, she tossed it to the side and grabbed her sword to do drills. Two candlemarks later and covered in sweat, Xena went down to the stream to clean up.

When she'd finished, she watched the bard still working on her leathers. Certain realizations began to penetrate her thoughts as she continued to stare. The bard felt her gaze and timidly turned, "Have I done something wrong, Princess?"

"This afternoon when I charged at the raiders, I totally forgot about you."

"Yes, Princess?" she wondered what she was getting at.

"You could have run."

She merely shrugged as she continued the cleaning, "What would be the point?"

"Why didn't you?" Again a shrug. "I want to know," she commanded as she placed herself in front of the bard grabbing her face. The warrior noticed the wince of pain flash in the eyes. "Your head hurt?"

"It's nothing, Princess."

"Do you lie so I won't feel further guilt about today?"

"No, Princess, I'm not foolish enough to think I matter any more to you."

"So explain," her voice came hard.

Gathering her courage, she wondered if she just might be sealing her fate, "I'm afraid if I become a burden, you'll sell me."

Shock flicked on the warrior's face, but she brought her warrior's mask firmly back into place. "Though you're my prisoner, you're still a free person."

"No ... I'm not," she spoke to herself.

"What was that?" she snapped.

"Sorry, Princess, but I led to the death of your child and then I murdered my own in cold blood. I will never be free again. Except for the slim chance that I might be able to help you in your grief, I'm sorry you didn't kill me out right." This time the warrior couldn't hide her shock. The bard turned away, finished with her cleaning, "I'm done, Mistress, may I go to bed now?"

"What...? Yeah ... yeah, go ahead." She watched as the smaller woman laid out the leathers to dry and then walked to the saddle, clicking the lead chain onto her manacles. The warrior went to the medicine pouch, extracted herbs for pain, and began making a tea. When it was completed, she approached the bard and held out the mug. "Drink this. It'll help your head."

She looked up in surprise at the dark woman whose face was hidden in the shadows of the night. "Thank you, Princess." She took the offered mug and drank greedily. The warrior went back to the fire, sat, and stared at it throughout the night.

* * * * *

Dawn came and they were off. The road was dusty, the sun hot, and the silence heavy. The warrior took them by back ways avoiding humanity. Apollo took the sun across the sky with a slowness that rivaled the great tortoise. Finally they camped for the night, both looking forward to doing chores. The bard tried her best to engage the dark woman in conversation. Starting with inconsequential trivia, she managed to get a few grunts out of her. But as she tried to progress to feelings, the door slammed shut.

Nightmares, always present, became more intense, more violent. Gabrielle woke to Xena's cries. "Xena, it's just a nightmare." This was the only time she used the warrior's name knowing she was safe and knowing it was the only way she stood a chance of reaching her. "Xena, you're safe." Slowly she inched forward as the thrashing lessened. "Ssshhh, Xena, you're safe, let it go ... it's only a dream." Gently she stroked the warrior's head until she settled back into a dreamless sleep. 'At least I can still do this for her.' The bard continued stroking and talking for half the night to assure a restful night.

* * * * *

Days blended together with little to tell the difference. They rose early, traveled in silence, and ended with the bard trying to chip away at the warrior's walls. Then the bard spent half the night whispering to the woman as she struggled with her demons.

After a week of this, supplies were so low Xena had no choice but to head towards a village. As they arrived, they noticed the people scurrying out of their way and not meeting their eyes. The warrior paid it little attention as she made her way to a table.

Nervously the innkeeper approached, "We don't want any trouble, warrior."

She looked him up and down. "Don't worry, neither do I. Just a hot meal. I'll even let my bard entertain your customers. How's that?"

His eyes perked up a bit at that and he nodded enthusiastically. Meals were presented to them both and word was sent out as they ate. People poured in at the promised treat, but when they saw the warrior their pace slowed. The innkeeper assured them things were fine, but a tension hung in the air. As the bard began she couldn't help but notice that part of the attention stayed on the warrior in the back.

"You all seem a little wary of the warrior at the table," she addressed them. "But I tell you she is a warrior of honor, one who fights for the greater good. She is a modest woman, but if she will permit me, I will tell of one of her great adventures." The crowd turned, waiting expectantly. Finally she gave in and nodded her assent. "Thank you, Princess. I tell you the story of Prometheus and how Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess worked together to free him and save mankind."

When the story ended, the crowded clapped enthusiastically. They turned to smile at the warrior and cheer for her. Then they yelled for more tales. The bard asked for Xena's permission before continuing. She was surprised when the woman gave it. 'I wanted to tell the first story just to make everyone feel comfortable. But just maybe this is my opportunity to remind Xena of who she is. Ok, pick carefully, bard.' She made sure to recite the stories that showed Xena's compassion, her wisdom, and even her humor.

The dark woman sat perfectly still watching the bard weave one tail after another. Warlord: 'What does she think she's doing? Trying to flatter you? She knows you hate that. Trying to take you back to a time before the betrayal? Does she think you can forget that easily?' But as she watched Gabrielle's face she saw the bard's deep commitment to the person in those tales. Friend: 'Maybe ...just maybe she does still care.' Warlord: ...Damn it, warrior, what are you thinking? Friend: 'Leave her alone. There's nothing wrong in just listening.' She let the stories wash over her and calm her soul. Almost two candlemarks had passed since the bard began. The bowl had been passed and presented to the warrior. She finally realized the bard was about to tell her closing tale.

"And now I will tell a tale of friendship and betrayal-"

"No." All eyes turned to the warrior. She shifted under the crowd's gaze. "Not tonight." The bard was confused by the command. "Tell about Cupid's son. That's a good way to end the night."

"Yes, Princess, as you wish." Gabrielle sighed with relief at being spared the telling of her crime, and with joy she began the Comedy of Eros. The villagers were laughing so hard, they had tears in their eyes. She thought that just once she might have seen Xena almost smile. It was indeed a good way to end the evening.

So delighted was the innkeeper with the night, he offered a room free of charge, but Xena paid anyway, not wanting to take advantage. The room was clean with one very large bed, but no fireplace so there was a slight chill. Gabrielle pulled out the few things they'd need and then began to polish the warrior's armor.

"I didn't tell you to do that," the tall woman said evenly.

"I know, Princess, but I'd like to if that's all right."


Not looking at the figure that loomed over her, she quietly admitted, "To say thank you for not making me tell my crime."

"I didn't do it for you."

"I know, but I'm still grateful no matter the reason."

The warrior walked away preparing for bed and climbed under the warm covers. She watched as the bard laid a blanket on the floor. Friend: 'She's going to get cold tonight. Warlord: ' And why should she care? Even the bard knows she deserves everything she gets.' She stared at the woman as the debate continued in her head. Xena: 'And if she gets sick, I'm the one who'll be stuck taking care of her.' Damn, but she hated the constant warring in her head. "Bard, sleep at the foot of the bed."

"Pardon, Princess?"

"I don't need to be burdened with you getting sick, there's room at the foot."

Gabrielle was unsure of this arrangement. "But Princess, you know I'm a blanket hog. I wouldn't want to disturb you. I'm really fine here on the floor."

"Bed. Now," she commanded in a tone that said the subject was closed. Carefully the young woman slipped under the covers and curled herself in a tight ball as close to the edge as possible.

* * * * *

As they were getting ready to depart the next morning, Gabrielle gently questioned the innkeeper about the people's attitude when first seeing Xena. She found out a small band of mercenaries had been through only a few days before causing trouble and taking what they wanted. "Do you know which way they went from here?"

"Think they headed east."

"Thank you," she smiled at him. "Princess, did you hear what he said? They're only a few days ahead."

"And in the wrong direction," she snarled as she moved out and towards Argo.

"But I didn't think we had a specific destination..."

"No one was killed, there wasn't even much damage done, just a group of idiots flexing their muscles. These people here were afraid to stand up to a small band of bullies. The next village may not be so tolerant and if they are, they deserve to get sand kicked in their faces." With that she mounted the great war-horse and was off with the bard following quickly behind.

Again the warrior took the less traveled roads and the days once again blurred. Frustrated with her lack of progress, Gabrielle decided to try a different approach. Instead of waiting for the evening when the warrior often drank making communication impossible, maybe if she tried talking while they traveled, she could take the woman off guard. "Princess, may I ask a question?"

She heard the heavy sigh and could tell the eyes were rolling. "What is it?" she said through gritted teeth.

'At least she's going to let me ask. Please Gods, let me keep my head.' As sincerely and innocently as possible, the small woman ventured, "Am I telling the betrayal to your satisfaction?"

"What?" She had definitely not been prepared for that one.

"We've never talked about it, Princess, and I didn't know if I was telling it true from your point of view."

"You talk as if there's two sides to the story and which could be the truth," she threatened.

"I'm sorry. That's not what I meant to imply at all. But I know there were things that happened that I didn't witness personally. I've tried to piece it together. And you caught me by surprise the first time you had me tell it. I never thought I'd make that part of our lives into a story. So that's why I'm asking if you're satisfied."

The warrior sat silently on the mare for a moment as she thought. "Mostly."

"Mostly? Then I'm doing some part of it wrong. Could you tell me where?"

The warrior looked back at the bard suspiciously. 'What's she up to?' But she could see nothing in the earnest face except it's desire to please.

"Well ... for one thing," she began slowly, "I'd made the decision to tell Solan about me."

Gabrielle was surprised by this admission. "I'm so sorry, Princess. I didn't realize." They walked for awhile, each in their own thoughts. "Please, what else don't I know?"

She could hear the pain in the bard's voice, she didn't need to look. Without meaning to, the warrior began to tell bits and pieces of the story. But as the bard had hoped, the things the warrior spoke of were not about events but feelings. The rest of the afternoon the dark woman spoke from her heart unaware of everything around her. Occasionally the bard would oh so gently ask a question or give a supportive comment to keep the words flowing when she grew quiet. There reached a time though when the stoic warrior refused to talk further.

Stopping for the day, they set up camp with only Argo making conversation. As the strawberry blonde made the meal, she noticed the warrior sitting off a ways staring at the stream and drinking wine. 'Maybe getting her to talk wasn't as great an idea as I thought.' The warrior was definitely stuck in her head with thoughts that tore at her heart sending her deeper into despair. Gabrielle watched carefully seeing the mood darken and the wineskin drain. When the food was ready the bard brought it to the brooding woman. She knelt holding it out for her.

"Not hungry. Take it."

"Princess, you haven't eaten since breakfast. You need to keep your strength up."

"And you need to keep your mouth shut."

The bard took a deep breath. She knew she was taking her life in her hands by continuing. "Princess, I know you must be thinking about the things you talked about today on the road. I'm sure it was very hard, but it was also very necessary. By getting in touch with your grief you can heal."

"Heal so I can forgive you?" she snarled at the woman causing her to retreat a step.

"This isn't about me."

"Oh this is very much about you! You've been on my back ever since I took you. This was your plan all along wasn't it? Talk me to death! Or better yet, drive me crazy with your incessant chatter!"

"Princess, please, my only concern is you," she pleaded.

"You lost your child, so you made sure I'd lose mine!" she screamed as she towered over the woman.

"By the Gods, Princess, no!" Things were so out of control. Was this the wine or the pain? "Just try to calm down and listen to me-"

"No! I am through listening to you!" She grabbed the smaller woman by the shirt lifting her off the ground. "In fact I don't want to hear another word from you. You got that?! You say one more word and I swear on the name of Ares I will cut out your damn tongue!" Her eyes blazed as she threw the woman down. "And you will never talk again until justice is satisfied and you have been granted my forgiveness!" An evil grin twisted the warrior's face. Warlord: 'Yes, this is what you should have done in the beginning. All those pretty words of hers gone! She took a threatening step forward. "I think we can safely say your bardic days are over." Turning on her heel, wineskin in hand, the warrior walked back to the campfire.

Gabrielle sat in the dirt speechless. What had just happened? It seemed that the afternoon had been a positive thing for Xena. 'But I guess I pushed too hard. Too much, too soon. And now I've ruined any further chances to reach her if I can't talk. Damn that wine! If she hadn't been drinking, maybe she would have dealt with the pain instead of running away. Oh Gods, what do I do now? Sweet Artemis, I know I'm no longer your chosen, but if you could help Xena, I swear I will try to find a way to repay that help.'

Returning to the fire, the desolate woman sat opposite the warrior and for the first time felt truly helpless.

* * * * *

The first rays of light trickled into the encampment and touched the warrior, warming her cheek. 'Too damn early for that.' She groaned as she slowly disentangled herself from the bedroll. "Bard!" 'Son of a Bacchae! Must remember not to shout.' She grabbed her head in an effort to keep it from falling to pieces. Gabrielle looked up bleary eyed at the warrior. "Remedy, now." The bard shook the lead chain to get her attention. "Ah, Hades. Either I've got to get a longer lead chain or just give up on locking it after I drink. Now that I think about it, I don't think I did lock it.' She threw the key and lay back down watching the light filter through the leaves.

Silently the bard went about her morning chores and soon was handing the steaming mug over to Xena who gulped gratefully. As the morning progressed, she finally realized the bard had not uttered a word. "What's your problem?"

The bard turned to the woman perplexed. 'Could it be she doesn't remember last night? Oh great! This is going to be just great.' She shrugged hoping this would suffice.

"Bard, when I talk to you I expect an answer." Her eyes narrowed threateningly. Gabrielle looked at her wondering what to do next. She reached out for a stick to write in the dirt but the warrior grabbed her wrist, the headache still not subsided and making her very cranky. "I repeat, what is your problem? And I won't ask again." The shaking woman could only nod her head no. Without thought, the warrior struck her, sending her flying. "Do you dare defy me?!" She walked to the woman and as she reached for her again, she saw that the woman had written something in the dirt. 'You forbid me to talk.' "What?" The woman underlined the words already written. "What are you talking about? I mean ... just tell me what this is about. I give you permission to talk, all right?"

Again the woman shook her head no and wrote again. 'You swore by Ares – cut my tongue out if I talk.'

"Yeah, yeah, but now I give you permission ok?" the warrior said in exasperation.

Again the younger woman shook her head no and continued writing. 'Only when justice satisfied – when you forgive.' Looking at the words, the warrior sat back in surprise. "You're telling me that I actually swore by Ares' name I would cut out your tongue if you talked? And that you may never talk again unless I say justice is satisfied and that I forgive you?" The bard nodded relieved that the warrior finally understood. Xena stood over the woman thinking. 'I hit her because I thought she was giving me the silent treatment, trying to punish me. Friend: 'And it seems in your drunken stupor you condemned her to a life of silence. This isn't right. Warlord: Wrong! It's more than fitting.' Friend: 'You shouldn't be doing things to her when you're drunk.' She saw the blood still flowing from the split lip and went to get a cloth and water. "Come here." The woman rapidly scrambled to her feet to follow. "I didn't remember about last night or I never would have hit you," she stated flatly as she handed the wet cloth to the bard. "And don't worry. I made that oath drunk so let's just forget it, ok?"

Gabrielle turned frightened eyes on Xena and knelt to write again. 'Will Ares forget?'

"Probably not, but I can deal with him."

Determinedly she shook her head no. 'He will demand my tongue or demand something from you. And we both know what that would be.' Xena knew very well that Ares would take advantage of the situation to force her return to him if she broke her oath. The warrior nodded in agreement. "You're right. Guess we're stuck with this." She walked away to start breaking camp and the bard followed suit. "Bard, I didn't mean to do this to you. I was drunk. It's not right for you to be punished when I'm drunk."

Gabrielle looked at the tall woman who kept her eyes on her horse. 'Was that an apology? Is she actually sorry she did this? Sweet Artemis, is there really some possibility that I matter to her? That she might let me help her?' She moved to the horse to load the last few things then reached for the lead chain.

"No," the warrior interrupted her action. "It's not necessary. Just stay in my sight, ok?" The bard nodded quickly. "Let's go." As they traveled, the warrior became aware that the absence of the bard's voice was unsettling. She never allowed her to talk very much, but Gabrielle could never help herself and would come out with little comments here and there along the way that Xena found comforting. But now there was only this deafening silence that pushed the warrior further into her depression. The bard noticed the dark woman's withdrawal and ached that there was nothing she could do. Then an idea occurred to her and she tapped the warrior's leg for attention. Slowly the woman turned to look at her. The bard was pursing her lips together with a questioning look on her face. "Whistle? You want to know if you may whistle?" The bard nodded yes. "Well, it's not talking, so yeah, sure you can whistle." The smile flooded the young woman's face as she began to whistle a tune. The warrior felt a slight weight drop from the burden she carried as the whistling gave her comfort and helped to anchor her back to the world.

The bard was beside herself with joy. 'Yes! I can still reach her! I can still comfort her!' And she whistled all morning until her mouth was dry and she was forced to stop.

For the first time in several weeks they stopped for a mid-day meal. The warrior watched as the younger woman went about building a fire and cooking the fish she'd caught. It dawned on the woman that this little slip of a girl had been doing this for three seasons now. The bard had been looking out for her every need, caring for her, comforting her, always putting her first. 'Well ... ' she thought ironically, 'almost always. Warlord: 'The one time she doesn't put you first, your son ends up dead. Friend: 'And so does her daughter. And she killed her own child. I can't imagine that. Actually she lost her child twice. Xena: 'But it wasn't a natural child. Surely somewhere inside herself she knew that. Friend: 'But ... but it was still her child.'

The warrior's thoughts continued to do battle round and round in her head as she stared into the flames. Tears crept down her face without her knowledge. The bard turned and saw the pained expression of the warrior and the tears that silently fell. Her heart went out to this woman as she knelt beside her brushing away those tears. The warrior took no notice of the gentle caress and so the smaller woman dared to move behind her and wrap her in her arms rocking and humming to her. There was the briefest moment when the world went back in time and all was forgotten, except for the friendship holding them close. And then the warrior snapped back to the present aware of whose arms held her, aware of allowing herself to be comforted, aware of her own betrayal to her son. She flung the arms from her and walked away shaking. Gabrielle was startled at this sudden shift and had no idea how to react. The warrior paced obviously upset with herself and the bard. Finally she sprang onto her war-horse and rode out at full gallop leaving behind a very confused bard.

Xena had no idea where she was going, she just had to feel movement. With wild abandon she pushed Argo, relishing the feel of the horse beneath her. It felt like she was out racing the wind. If only she could out race her thoughts. Eventually she brought the great horse to a halt and slowly turned to head back. It was several candlemarks before she returned to camp. She almost hoped that the bard had taken this opportunity to run away, but knew she would find her waiting.

And she was, so busily writing she didn't hear the warrior's approach at first. When the bard looked up there was both relief and trepidation on her face. "You're still here." It was just a statement. The bard nodded and walked to the warrior. She pointed to them both then the camp. Again she pointed to them and then the road, finishing with a shrug of her shoulders. "You asking if we're going or staying?" The bard nodded. Xena looked at the sky. They had a good 3 candlemarks of light left. Argo was rested from the wild run as long as she didn't repeat it. And she herself would rather be moving than sitting around. "Let's go." The bard was quick to hand Xena her uneaten lunch as she broke camp. The warrior wasn't really hungry, but ate out of habit.

Three and a half candlemarks later they found themselves in a breathtaking valley complete with waterfall. While the bard set up camp for the night, the warrior headed for the water. She stayed under the pulsing water over half a candlemark letting it push the tension out of her muscles. When she returned everything was set as she liked it with stew simmering on the campfire. As she began to work on the bowl the bard handed her, she watched as Gabrielle wrote in the dirt. 'May I go to waterfall?' She looked the bard over and realized for the first time how dirty and disheveled the young woman was. "Go ahead." After quickly scribbling 'thank you' in the dirt, the bard turned to go. "Wait. Come back." The bard's shoulders sagged as she returned, sitting down and staring at the ground. Then the warrior was leaning over her, unlocking the manacles. "Can't bathe properly with your clothes on. Though it wouldn't hurt for them to get a washing, too."

The bard sat for several long moments feeling the freedom of movement. Gathering some fresh clothes, she turned first to the warrior to make sure it was all right. "They're your clothes, take them. Besides you can't very well put on wet ones."

The bard almost skipped to the lake, she was so happy. She took great care in washing the clothes she removed from her body and then even greater care in scrubbing every inch of herself. She finished by standing under the waterfall feeling the thundering water almost cleanse her very soul. Almost, but not quite. Emerging refreshed, she dressed quickly and hurried back, worried the warrior would be angry with her for taking so long. She found her sitting sharpening her sword, looking relaxed. Laying out the wet clothes to dry, she then went to the manacles and clicked them back onto her wrists. The warrior was aware of the bard's actions though she never looked. "There's stew left." The strawberry blonde nodded in thanks as she gulped down the food. Then the bard continued with cleaning up after supper and preparing the bedrolls. She returned to the warrior and wrote in the dirt, 'Anything you wish? Or may I go to bed?' "Go." Again she nodded her thanks and automatically clicked the lead chain on and settled in for the night. The warrior stared at the young woman. 'She does it every night herself.'

As the warrior sat working with her sword, she heard the bard humming a tune. It was comforting in the dark of the night listening to her whistling and humming for almost a candlemark before she drifted off to sleep.

** ** *

The next day the warrior finally took inventory of their supplies and realized she'd have to go to a town whether she wanted to or not. Of course the dinar pouch was pretty light also. Maybe something would come up since she couldn't rely on the bard's storytelling now for income. 'Funny. I've always thought of myself as the provider, the protector. Friend: 'Obviously she's been holding up her end and you never noticed.'

By mid-day they arrived at a sleepy little village. While Xena was calculating their needs against the amount in their purse, a man came running, shouting into the center of the village. "Help! Please someone, we need help!"

Several villagers came running out of different buildings to find out what the commotion was. "Joseph, what is it man? What's wrong?"

"My little girl, Tana, slipped down an air shaft of the old mine. I can't reach her."

The warrior broke through the crowd. "Take me there. I might be able to help." The warrior and bard as well as several villagers followed Joseph to the mine. "How old is the girl?"


The warrior looked grim not sure how much a five year old would be able to help in her own rescue. "Tana, can you hear me?" she called down the hole. "Joseph, she's scared I'm sure. Call to her."

"Tana, darling. It's Papa! Tana, answer me ... please, Tana."

A small little voice came up the hole, "Papa?" The crowd cheered that the girl was alive.

"Are you ok, Tana?"

"My arm hurts, Papa."

"Hang on, sweetie, we're going to get you out!" He turned to the warrior. "What do we do?"

"It won't do any good to lower a rope if she's hurt. The hole's not big enough for us. We can dig a parallel hole-"

"And what if we cause a cave in of the shaft?" a voice questioned.

"Or she falls further down?" asked another.

They all began debating the merits of the different ideas. Gabrielle came forward trying to get Xena's attention. She pointed at herself then the shaft. "Everyone quiet!" She looked back at the bard. "Are you sure? We'll have to lower you head first and you could get stuck further down." She nodded determinedly. "All right people, listen up. We'll lower the bard by the feet. She's small and hopefully can wiggle through to the girl and then we'll pull them both up." The warrior turned to the bard as she unlocked the manacles. "Since you can't talk, we'll decide on a set of whistles. For stop?" The bard gave one of the Amazon birdcalls. "Go?" Another whistle. "Pull up?" A third whistle. And then she did a fourth whistle. "What's that?" The bard leaned down and wrote in the earth 'Stuck – pull like Tartarus.' It almost got a grin from the warrior. "Be careful."

They tied a rope securely to her ankles, then several men held her upside down and began to lower her. The shaft was small even for the bard and she ended up scraping along the sides. At one point she almost become wedged and whistled for a stop. She dug at the sides to make the opening bigger. When she was satisfied, she whistled go and the descent began again. A quarter of a candle mark later she had reached the girl. She hummed to the girl who slowly looked up and whimpered at her.

"Are you a Goddess?" she cried.

The bard simply shook her head no, smiled as comfortingly as she could and held her arms out to the girl. Slowly little Tana inched forward, putting out her tiny hands. The bard clutched her tightly, then whistled for pull up. The rope began hauling them up, but they stopped in that same place where she had dug to make the shaft larger. She hadn't taken into consideration that by holding the girl, her arms and shoulders would take up more room. Whistling stop, the bard tried to see another way to safely hold the girl. But the child was frightened and clinging so fiercely, and there was no way to explain what she needed of the little girl. 'Damn, now what? I guess I take a chance and give a prayer to any God listening that the earth is soft enough to pull free and let me through. Please, for the sake of the child, let this work.' She whistled up and the rope began moving again. In seconds they were wedged. She wiggled as best she could and whistled up again. They moved a few hand spans and stopped again. Then she gave the whistle for pull like Tartarus. She gritted her teeth as she felt the rough pulling on her ankles and the scraping of her arms against the shaft, but she held tightly to the child. It felt like eternity that she endured the pull, but finally they pulled free with a force that made them bounce a little. The bard prayed they'd reach the top soon since her arms were torn and bleeding and it was becoming increasingly harder to maintain her grip.

At last fresh air greeted them along with the cheers of the villagers. The men laid them on the ground and it took a few moments to pull the child free of the bard's arms which had spasmed. The girl gleefully jumped into her father's arms. Xena checked the child over and assured Joseph the arm was not broken, only scraped and bruised. The warrior then turned her attention to the bard who had scrawled 'Child all right?'

"The girl's just fine. Better than you," she finished as she looked at the gashes in her arms. Let's get these tended." She pulled the bard up who immediately felt light-headed and fainted. The warrior caught her before she hit the ground.

"Is she all right?" Joseph called out in concern.

"She'll be fine."

"I'd like to pay you for helping us and risking your slave to save my little girl."

"That's all right." Then Xena remembered their financial predicament. "But if you could spare a few supplies?"

"Consider it done! Whatever you need," he said joyously.

"And if you'll come back to the inn, I'll be happy to give you a hot meal and put you up for the night. That little girl is my niece," Janos' big voice boomed. Gratefully the warrior followed the villagers back, still holding the unconscious bard in her arms.

At the tavern the villagers insisted on starting the celebration with the warrior right away. "Don't worry, Xena, my wife, Julianna, is a great healer and she'll look after your slave."

"Thank you. Her name's Gabrielle. She can't speak," she told the wife. "Take good care of her," she mumbled. Janos carried the bard upstairs, then left to attend the tavern.

Julianna expertly stitched and dressed the wounds ending up covering the bard's arms from shoulders to elbows in one solid bandage. Then she removed the woman's boots to find bruising around the ankles. The footwear had saved her skin from being torn but could not protect her from the pressure exerted. Applying salve, the healer then elevated the legs and laid cold compresses on them. She'd done what she could and decided to sit with the small woman until she awoke.

Soon the bard's eyelids fluttered open as she looked tentatively around trying to figure out where she was. The wife saw the movement and came to sit in her line of vision. "Hello, Gabrielle, my name is Julianna. I'm the innkeeper's wife and a bit of a healer. It was our niece you saved this afternoon. Thank you." Gabrielle smiled up at the woman even as pain reflected in her eyes. "Now that you're awake, I want you to drink this. It will help with the pain and make you sleep."

The bard looked around for Xena and not finding her, shook her head no. "What's wrong, little one? Are you looking for your mistress?" She nodded yes in reply. "Xena is downstairs celebrating with half the town. Don't worry, you're both staying the night. And she told me to take good care of you." Green eyes shot up questioningly. "Yes, it's true, so I think it will be all right with her if you drink this." The bard tried to reach for the mug but found it hurt too much to move. "Let me help, little one." Lifting the bard's head, she brought the drink to her lips. "Good girl, now are you hungry?" The bard swore her stomach had a mind of its own as it rumbled in response. "All right then, you rest and I'll be right back with something special." She noticed the young woman was shaking her head no again, but chose to ignore it.

Making her way through the crowd, she approached the warrior. "Xena, I've tended her wounds and I'd like to take her some food. What would you like me to serve your slave?"

The warrior struggled for a moment with her words. "She's not my slave. She's my prisoner."

"Prisoner?" Janos asked overhearing. "What did she do?"

Again she struggled, the words sticking in her throat, "She led to the death of a child."

"But she saved my little girl," Joseph said in awe.

"Perhaps to make some atonement for her deed. I don't know."

"Are you taking her to trial?" Janos' voice boomed in her ear. "Or is the trial over and you're escorting her to prison?"

What was Xena doing with the bard? The ale had relaxed her mind and the words bounced around inside echoing it seemed. "It was my child. She placed herself in my hands as jury and judge."

Julianna placed her hands on the warrior's shoulders in comfort. "I'm sorry for your loss. No parent should outlive their child."

"So what do you plan on doing with her? I mean, how will you exact justice for her crime?" surprisingly Janos' voice came very gently.

"I'm not sure. I've just been wandering ... not really thinking about it." The warrior couldn't believe she was actually letting some of her thoughts out to these strangers. "I gave her a lash for every year of my son's life."

"You're kinder than I would have been," Joseph's voice came coldly. "I'd have given one lash for every year not lived."

"She's a bard and I've forbidden her to ever speak again."

"That's a small price to pay for her deed."

"Xena," Julianna claimed the warrior's attention before a debate began, "do you wish the girl fed?"

"What? Yes, of course. She saved Tana. She risked her life for a stranger. Please feed her well. Oh, and Julianna ... if you have any nutbread, she really likes that. Thank you."

The wife turned to carry out her task as the villagers surrounding the warrior continued to ask questions and offer comfort. Several even made suggestions of appropriate punishment for such a crime. Others offered to have a trial right here and now. Xena fluctuated back and forth from laughing at the torments they suggested and wanting to scream that the little bard didn't deserve such treatment.

Meanwhile, Julianna had re-entered the room and put down a heaping tray on the table next to the bed. Gabrielle was sleepy but became more alert as smells tickled her senses. She looked at the food with surprise and her face lit up at the sight of the nutbread. An instant later her eyes clouded and she looked away.

"Gabrielle, it's all right. Xena told me to bring this to you. She was the one who told me you were fond of nutbread." The bard turned back to the gentle woman smiling her gratitude. Again she attempted to fend for herself, but her arms felt like heavy logs. "It's all right." And without another word, she began to feed her. Julianna was amazed at the small woman's appetite. Where was it all going? After she had devoured every last scrap, it was obvious the medicine was taking its effects and about to send her to Morpheus. Before drifting off, she looked quickly around the room, her eyes resting on the manacles. She looked from them to the matronly woman then to her wrists. "Little one, you're not going anywhere. I don't think Xena will mind if you sleep without. It will be better for your healing." The bard shook her head insistently, looking with pleading eyes. "You poor tortured soul. You wish to atone for your crime, don't you?"

Startled green eyes looked at her. "Yes, Xena told us what you did. Not everything. She doesn't speak much." The bard nodded in agreement as shame filled her eyes and tears followed. She looked once more at the manacles pleadingly. "All right, if that's what you wish," she replied as she went to fetch the chains.

But the warrior had been standing on the other side of the door. She had opened it a crack and watched the exchange through blurred vision. As Julianna was about to snap the cuffs around the wrists, the warrior strode in quickly, "Not tonight." Both wife and bard stopped as if frozen. "Thank you for your kindness, Julianna."

"It was my pleasure, Xena. If you should need anything, just let me know." And she slipped out the door closing it gently. The warrior looked over at the bard who was still staring at her in surprise. "Get some sleep. I want to leave tomorrow if you're able." Tears began flowing freely down her cheeks now. "Stop crying," she said roughly. It was not out of a lack of caring, but rather that it hurt her own heart to see the bard in such pain. Turning her back, she threw off her armor and clothes and dropped into the other bed across the room. The night still swirled in her mind as she sought to escape the turmoil and give herself over to sleep.

* * * *

Gabrielle was determined to be up before the warrior and show she was fit for travel. Though her ankles were sore, they weren't swollen so she slipped her boots on. Peeking outside the door, she succeeded in getting someone's attention and soon Julianna arrived. Handing her herbs and instructions, the wife smiled knowingly and left to make the hangover remedy for the warrior. Then she turned to the leathers and armor, cleaning and polishing while trying to be as quiet as possible. When all was finished and everything packed, she once again slipped the manacles on just as Julianna knocked on the door. Taking the mug, she smiled and bowed her head to the woman in thanks. She placed the drink on the table by the bed and simply sat down to wait.

She didn't have long to wait as a hand shot out grabbing the mug. Half a candle mark later they were on their way with full provisions compliments of Janos and Joseph. Somewhere around mid-morning, Xena began to feel human again and told the bard to whistle. She complied at once, but the warrior could tell there was no joy in the music. Not feeling like facing the bard, she pulled out two trail bars and tossed one to the younger woman as they continued on until evening.

Camp was set quickly and soon Xena had two rabbits roasting. She hadn't needed to hunt, but it gave her something to do. While the food cooked, the bard came forward and wrote in the earth, 'Thank you for letting me help in saving the child.' The warrior merely nodded so the bard moved away to tend the food. After supper and clean up, the older woman called to her, "Come and bring the medicine bag." She always obeyed quickly, but wondered what Xena could possibly need. "Sit. We need to change your bandages."

She wrote, 'You don't have to.'

"I know I don't have to. But it only makes good sense." She reached out and began to unwrap the cloth. "Julianna did a good job on your arms. I didn't realize how badly you'd been torn." She applied some ointment and then re-wrapped them both. "I'm going for a swim." She walked off.

The bard watched the retreating back, then pulled out parchment and began to write. By the time the warrior returned, Gabrielle had written out several questions and observations for her to read. Before Xena could reach for the wineskin, she handed her writing to the warrior.

Taking the scroll, she looked down and read, 'I want to make things better. I want to help you heal. I know I can't bring back your son or make up for his death. And yet I want to. I gave myself over to you so you could have justice or vengeance or whatever you want. I hoped by doing so, it would help you. Except for one whipping, you haven't really demanded anything of me in retribution. And what you're doing to yourself is worse. You're avoiding villages and drinking every chance you get. That's not you.'

She paused for a moment from her reading and looked at the bard, "How do you know what's me? I avoid villages because right now I can't stand to see happy little children running and playing. And a little drinking to quiet the ache in my heart and the voices in my head isn't going to hurt me."

The bard pointed back to the parchment. "We all deal with grief in our own way," she growled. Again the bard pointed and the warrior looked. 'You do nothing to work through your grief. If you would continue working for the greater good, it might help you. All I care about is you being healed.' The warrior turned steely eyes on her. "Sorry I'm not healing fast enough for you."

The young woman leaned forward scanning the scroll and then pointed to a section. 'You've been dragging me around the countryside for a moon. Why? Will making me your slave help you to deal with the death of your son? I fear my presence is only making things worse. I'm a constant reminder. I would rather you send me to prison or kill me than allow my very existence to hurt you more.'

The warrior threw down the parchment and got up to walk away, but the bard was determined. She picked up the discarded scroll and grabbed the tall woman. "Stop it!" she shouted. "Stop tormenting me!" She pulled out her dagger. For a second the bard was convinced she would now die. Instead she found herself being dragged to a tree, the chain lifted high over her head, and the dagger driven up to the hilt through one of the links. Then Xena turned, grabbed the wine, and walked off into the night. The bard struggled to get free but knew it was useless. She would be here until the warrior returned and decided to release her.

It was in the late hours of the night when the warrior stumbled back into camp, falling into her bedroll and passing out. The bard watched sighing and tried to will herself to sleep. When dawn came Xena slowly rolled out of her tangled blankets to see the bard's empty bedroll. Shakily she got to her feet and began to curse. "Damn you. I knew I couldn't trust you. I knew you'd leave me!" She whirled around to grab up her sword and saw the bard hanging from the tree unconscious. "Oh Gods, what have I done?"

Racing to the bard's side, Xena yanked the dagger from the tree and caught the fragile body before it hit the ground. The warrior searched for signs of injury but could find none. 'She's cold as ice. Son of a Bacchae! I remember pinning her to the tree. But then what? I was angry ... I got drunk ... and I forgot about her ... just left her hanging there all night. What's wrong with me?' She wrapped the bard tightly in a blanket and rubbed the arms to help bring circulation back. She could see little spots of red here and there on the bandages. 'Some of the stitches must have torn and she bled. But thankfully it was very little. Warlord: 'So no permanent damage was done. Friend: 'No ... just a simple night of torture.' Gently she rubbed the bard's neck and shoulders in an attempt to rouse her. "Come on, bard, time to wake up."

Slowly blonde lashes fluttered slightly, finally opening to take in her surroundings. She looked nervously at the warrior unsure of her mood. "How are you feeling?" The bard tried to assess the sensations her body was giving her. She felt like Tartarus, but what did it matter? She simply nodded a yes to indicate she was alive. "I didn't mean to leave you there all night. I ... I just wanted ... but I didn't mean ..." The warrior was at a total loss to explain her actions and she couldn't bring herself to apologize. The bard nodded again in understanding. "Ok, well ... if you're all right, I'm going to make us a quick breakfast and then we'll get moving."

Xena moved with precision around the encampment. Preparing a small meal for them both, she laid Gabrielle's beside her and stepped away to eat her own. The bard's arm shook as she turned on her side and brought the food to her mouth. She didn't have the strength to sit up and barely had the strength to control her trembling hand. She inched her way closer to the plate and ate directly from it. The warrior never looked, but knew what the bard had to do in order to eat. Rising, she hurriedly packed everything up then came over to the small woman. "You're riding today. I know you don't like it, but I want to make up for lost time so no fussing." The bard looked at her perplexed. 'As if I could complain? I'm not allowed to talk and I can barely move thanks to you leaving me strung up all night and you actually tell me not to fuss? And I can't even tell if you're sorry or just annoyed that you have to deal with me.'

The bard felt herself lifted onto Argo's saddle still wrapped in the blanket. Xena was behind her in one spring. Roughly she placed one arm around the bard to hold her in place. Both bodies were tense with the nearness of the other. Gabrielle hoped she'd be able to walk soon because this situation was too unnerving. It was going to be a very long day.

The warrior stopped for a mid-day meal and rest. When they resumed, the bard was able to convince her that she was capable of walking on her own. They traveled until nightfall and made camp as the sky darkened. The bard went about her usual chores while Xena brushed Argo. The night was almost still. Tonight there was no drinking, there was no writing, there was not even a gentle whistling to fill the void. Both women turned to their bedrolls, lost in despair, lost in pain, simply lost.

* * * *

Time drifted, playing with their senses. The monotony of the landscape did little for either woman's spirit. The sameness of the days only drove them deeper into themselves. A little after a week, they ran into a small band of thugs. Though the distraction was welcome it did little to change their moods.

As days ran to weeks, Xena again began drinking while Gabrielle wrote furiously. The bard knew better than to force the issue, so she would tear off little pieces of parchment writing down questions, fears, or thoughts and leave them for the warrior to discover privately. Sometimes the notes touched her deeply, sometimes they unleashed great anger. On the occasion that the warrior went into drunken rages and passed out, Gabrielle would take the wineskin and, if any was left, pour it out in the woods. Besides assuring a few sober nights, it forced Xena to a village if she wanted to replenish her supply.

One such time they hadn't yet reached a village, but it was obvious the brooding woman was agitated. Carefully the smaller woman came forward to write in the dirt, 'would you like to spar? It might help.' She glared at the red-blonde, but nodded consent. Looking for two sturdy straight branches to substitute for staves, she tossed one to the bard. They began slowly with standard moves and soon progressed to more intricate patterns. It was evident the bard was out of shape and out of practice as the warrior landed several blows she shouldn't have been able to. But the warrior herself was also having difficulty executing her usual proficiency. They sparred for nearly two candlemarks. The bard was growing weary and the warrior sloppy. With a last burst of energy, the bard swung at the warrior's head expecting to be blocked and instead dropped her on her butt. She was astonished to find herself standing above the fallen warrior who blinked back in surprise. Tossing her makeshift staff aside, she knelt to see if she'd caused any damage. Embarrassed, Xena shoved her away and walked off to the river to bathe. Grabbing a towel and clean shift, Gabrielle followed out of concern.

Waiting patiently by the river, the bard splashed water on herself having received no encouragement to join the warrior. As the tall woman emerged from the water, the bard held out the towel. Xena dried herself quickly and turned to find the small woman holding out the clean shift. Slipping it over her head, the warrior returned to the fire with the bard close behind. The stoic warrior turned to her sword and whetstone. The silent bard turned to her quill and parchment. The cold night eventually turned to dawn and warmth.

* * * * *

The next day found them on the road to the little village of Tyne. As they rode in from the south, they could just see a small band of soldiers exiting north, leaving behind a large crowd of villagers. The warrior rode up on her large war-horse to ask, "What's going on?"

They turned to see just another soldier to their eyes. "Great," the elder said sarcastically, "another one. Whatever you want, you'll have to fight Barticus' army to get it."

"What if I want to help?"

They looked up at her surprised and hopeful. "Do you mean that?" asked the elder, Tamos.

"Why don't you tell me what's going on and I'll see what I can do." Tamos quickly explained the demands of the small army outside their walls. By mid-day they were to have wagons loaded with supplies and riches waiting just outside the village or else suffer their wrath. "I've heard of Barticus. He's a small time wannabe warlord. Fifty men at best and not well trained. But even I can't take on fifty men alone. Together we can easily set up defenses that should discourage them."

The villagers looked at each other anxiously. Was it better to just give in or fight? Then Tamos spoke for all of them. "We're not warriors, but we're strong. You tell us what to do and we'll follow your lead." The warrior grinned as she dismounted. She was in her element now. She felt alive for the first time in months. Giving out orders and instructions, she soon had the whole village involved in their own defense. Children gathered stones, women boiled oil and water, and men dug trenches lined with an assortment of deterrents. The bard watched the warrior slip into warlord mode and wondered if she'd be able to call her back.

By the next morning, all was prepared. Xena took no chances and had scouts posted along the way in case the ragtag army decided to visit earlier. Sure enough the call was sounded, but the villagers were ready and sprang to their assigned stations. The children had all been gathered and sent into caves just east of Tyne. Those unable to fight went with them. Women gathered on rooftops to throw stones, men positioned themselves on the other side of trenches to lure the army into their trap, and Xena strode with confidence calling out reminders and last minute commands. The bard stayed closely by and was relieved when the warrior at last gave her a staff to fight with.

The soldiers attacked from several directions, as Xena knew they would, but they were in no way prepared to meet resistance. Rocks rained down on them, leaving several badly hurt or unconscious. Others felt the ground give way beneath them, landing on spikes or covered in oil with the threat of a torch to send them running in the opposite direction. Of course some broke through and the warrior led her farmers with shovels, axes, and pitchforks into battle. In a few hours she had taught these men enough about strategy to make them formidable. Those soldiers that could still stand, took off in a great hurry leaving their leader to whatever fate befell him. Barticus had barely managed to sneak away in the whirling swords, determined to take his revenge on the warrior princess later.

The little town cheered their victory watching them run for their lives. Those left behind were quickly gathered up and taken to their jailhouse. And all turned to thank and praise the warrior who had saved them all with her leadership. "Tonight we must celebrate, friends, and Xena shall be our guest of honor!" yelled Tamos above the crowd. We know you didn't ask for payment, but you shall have the finest room in our inn and supplies enough to burden your horse."

They laughed and talked excitedly as they made their way to the tavern. The bard watched the warrior carefully. She could tell by her strut and stance that the warrior still saw herself as commander with her troops around her and that the warrior was enjoying it. Gabrielle followed close behind and ended up sitting on the floor as Xena picked a table. Food was brought out and ale flowed non-stop. People took turns entertaining each other, playing the lute, singing, dancing, even story-telling. It was a celebration to rival the Amazons. And then Xena began to join in the festivities by telling her own tales. People gathered around the table to hear the war stories she related. The bard sat passively knowing the warrior was lost back in time in her head. As the warrior ate, she lowered some meat to the bard who began to take it from her hands. It was quickly withdrawn and for a moment, the bard wondered if this was meant as teasing or torture? She looked up into the ice blue eyes and realized she was looking at the warlord. The hand lowered again with the meat and this time she understood she was suppose to eat directly from her hand if she wanted food at all. 'So Xena's come up with another form of mind torture, but does it really matter? After what I did to her, am I really any better than a dog?' She ate without pleasure, she ate merely because she knew she had to. The tall woman continued to drink and regale the crowd with her exploits and occasionally feed the small woman at her feet.

All ignored her despite the fact she had fought along side them. The party went long into the night so that the young woman finally curled up in a ball at Xena's feet to sleep. Somewhere in the wee hours, the warrior stood, more sure on her feet than she had the right to be, and grabbed the bard up with her. Jeers and chuckles followed them up the stairs, making the strawberry blonde head turn to try to understand what they were snickering at.

Once inside their room, the bard turned to ready the warrior for bed when she noticed the heated look in her eye. She'd seen it before after a fight, battle lust Xena called it. The young woman backed away to busy herself elsewhere when she heard the warrior's voice, hard with desire, "Bard, come here." She complied, what else could she do? "Take off my armor." Carefully, trying to avoid physical contact, Gabrielle loosened buckles and pulled the breastplate free. Next she knelt to unfasten the leg guards. Each time careful to avoid contact. But she could feel the heat coming off the warrior. 'Oh Gods, she drank enough to fell an ox. Why is she still standing?'

Without warning, she felt herself yanked up against the larger woman. She tried to pull free, but Xena was too strong for her to fight. Roughly the warrior's mouth came down on hers, bruising, taking, invading. Somehow Gabrielle managed to wiggle down and away from the tall woman. But it was only a moment's reprieve. A low growl was emanating from the warrior's throat as she stalked the girl around the room. "What's the matter, little one? Isn't this what you really want? Not that I care. It only matters what I want and what I need." Quickly she grabbed the girl, throwing her on the bed, and then climbed on top to prevent escape. "You followed me and now you'll see what it really is to follow a warrior." Savagely she sucked and bit at the bard's neck while the young girl thrashed beneath her.

'I've got to stop her somehow. She'll hate it when she realizes what she's done. Or maybe she won't. I don't know her anymore.' Grabbing onto the chain between her manacles, she pushed it against Xena's throat in an effort to push her back. But Xena's strength was such that the chain began to bite into her neck. Howling in frustration, she pulled back and slapped the bard. "You want to fight? You think you can take me, little girl? We'll see who the master is!" Grabbing the bard's wrists, she pulled them behind her back and hooked the manacles together. Try as she might, Gabrielle couldn't figure out how to unhook them. She looked up into Xena's blazing blue eyes which were almost gone now behind black pupils. The warrior grinned in that way that scared grown men senseless. Ripping open the bard's top she lunged at the breasts, biting and leaving her mark. Again she claimed the helpless woman's mouth forcing her way in.

'All my life I've loved her. All my life I've wanted her to love me, but not like this. Please, Gods, not like this.' She continued to resist, which only seemed to excite the warrior more. 'I give up. If this is all that's left, so be it.' And with that she stopped her struggles. She even returned Xena's passion with her own. But not devouring like the warrior, but sweet and gentle and full of love. Without realizing the change that occurred, it calmed the lust in her warrior soul. Suddenly Xena broke all contact and looked down at her captive. She saw green eyes filled with love and sorrow and ...was that pity? Warlord: 'No! How dare she feel pity for you! You're the one in command! Xena: 'Stop looking at me like you actually love me! Damn you to Tartarus!' Her mind railed against what she saw and she struck out again. Warlord: 'Now let me see hate and fear in those eyes, but not love, never love, because that's just a lie!' She slapped her again and was rewarded with a look of fear, but not hate, not even anger. "You think you can comfort me?!" she screamed at the small woman beneath her. "You think you can make it all better?! You have stolen more from me than you'll ever know and I hate you for it!" With that last pronouncement, she threw the bard off the bed to land heavily on the hard wood floor. "And I better not hear any crying from you tonight! You have no right to tears." The bard lay very still shoving her face into the cold floor to stifle her sobbing. The warrior turned in the bed and shoved her face into cold pillows to stifle her own.

** * * *

The next day the warrior was awakened by a knocking on her door. "Got breakfast for you, Xena!" a hearty voice called out.

She was a morning person herself, but by the Gods, no one should be that cheerful in the morning. "Come in and put it on the table, thanks," she managed to groan.

Gently the door opened as the innkeeper entered. "Well ... looks like someone had fun last night," he chuckled as he set down the tray and slipped back out. Confused, the warrior looked around the room to see what he could possibly mean. Her eyes found the bard on the floor, arms behind her back, top torn away, bruises and bites covering her breasts and thighs.

Friend: You've finally done it. You raped your best friend. You didn't allow your soldiers to do that and now you've done it yourself.' She stared in shock at the curled up figure. Slowly the bard began to stir and turned toward the warrior showing a black eye and busted lip. Once the young woman had woken enough to realize her surroundings, she tried to sit up and turn away. Xena hoisted her up onto the bed, releasing the clasp that kept the manacles bound together. No words were spoken as the brooding woman took out her medicine kit. She cleaned the bites and scrapes and put ointment on each small wound with actual tenderness. Unlocking the manacles, she pulled away the torn top which could not be saved, giving the bard another to cover herself with. "I've never raped before. I've taken women and men, but they've always ended up begging me for it. Rape is without honor-" She saw the red-gold head shaking 'no' at her. Xena looked up. "You trying to tell me I didn't?" The bard nodded yes, then no. "I see the evidence, little girl. I know what I did." She turned away packing their things.

She was lost in her activities when a small hand gently touched her on the shoulder and held out a small note to her. 'You stopped. You did NOT rape me. You stopped.' The warrior looked at the words in relief. She couldn't face the young woman just yet, so merely nodded and continued her packing.

* * * * *

They were soon back on the road. The only noise was Argo's hooves and the jangling of the manacle chain. Usually the warrior enjoyed the silence, but today it weighed her down. Gabrielle looked at the shoulders that seemed to bear the weight of Gaia herself. Timidly she began to whistle. She stopped as the warrior turned to look at her. "Go on."

She continued her whistling through the morning and noticed as the muscles in the taught back slowly relaxed. Every tenth song she made sure to whistle a particular tune that was very soothing. The bard hoped it would sink into the warrior's mind as a way to reach her during nightmares.

After more than a candlemark, the bard's whistle dried up. She tapped the warrior pointing at the water skin. Xena handed it to her and moved on, letting her keep the water. 'Well ... I've finally been trusted with something.'

They traveled without incident for the rest of the day. As Apollo began to take the sun away, Xena found a cave to protect them against the rain that threatened to fall. Moments after setting up for the night, the downpour came. The blaze kept them warm, dancing on the cave walls and sending out strange shadows. The bard took care of all cooking and cleaning chores while the warrior tended Argo. Soon after, each woman was emersed in their own world of parchment and sword. The tall woman's strokes with the whetstone slowly drew to a stop as she stared out at the pouring rain. The bard had no idea what was going on in her head, but she knew better than to do anything without permission. Coming forward, she made one of the signs they'd come up with in order to communicate more easily.

The warrior glanced outside again. "I don't think it's going to stop anytime soon so I don't think you're going to want the bushes out there. Go back further in the cave, maybe you'll find a more friendly spot." The bard nodded and wandered off to explore. Once more the tall woman let the insistent drumming of the water take her to another place. Without realizing it, almost half a candlemark had passed before Xena noticed the bard had not returned. What caught her attention was a faint tapping of rock on rock. 'Great ...now what?'

Carefully the warrior moved towards the sound. The tunnel twisted and around the bend was a smaller opening off to her left. The tapping of the rock was louder and she could also hear the sound of running water. Kneeling down, she began to crawl through the small space. 'Damn it, bard, what have you gotten yourself into now?' When she emerged on the other side, it had opened into a big cavern partially illuminated by a strange moss on the rock walls. The water turned out to be a gently flowing stream through the mountain. Sensing no danger, she lit the torch she had brought with her. The small light couldn't begin to cover the large cavern, but Xena's eyes were keen and it was enough to help in finding the bard.

She heard the tapping coming from below her and slightly to the right. Feeling loose stone beneath her feet, she moved slowly coming to the edge of the bank that dropped about ten feet to the stream. As she looked over, she could make out the young woman alternating between tapping a rock and trying to pull her foot free from where it had become wedged. 'How does she manage to get into trouble where there is none?' Shaking her head, she slowly made her way down the side of the embankment to stand over the golden red head.

The bard turned nervously and made her sign for sorry. "What are you sorry about? Did you fall off the edge and get your foot stuck on purpose?" The small woman nodded no. "All right then. Now let's get you out of here." None too gently she grabbed the leg and, sliding her sword into a tight space, she managed to give just enough leverage to pull the foot free of the rock. "What made you come in here?" The bard pointed to the water then held her hand to her ear. "Heard the water. Good find. Soak your foot. I'm going back for a few things. Might as well take advantage of it. Be back in a bit."

The warrior returned shortly dropping the medicine kit and key by the bard as she went on to the stream. Stripping quickly, she dove cleanly into the water. As she resurfaced, she called out, "Might want to wash first before you tend those scrapes." Gratefully the bard shed her manacles and clothes, and slipped into the refreshing water.

After bathing she reluctantly began to leave the stream. "I don't care if you swim," the warrior called out flatly. Turning in her direction the bard offered a smile in thanks, but the warrior had already resumed her own activities. Gabrielle lazily floated, letting the water wash away the ache in her muscles. 'If only it could wash away the ache in my soul.'

Climbing onto the opposite bank to warm up a little, she watched the warrior's strong body slice through the water. Finding herself staring at the beautiful form, she pulled herself up to explore the cavern's formations. Then something caught her eye. 'Could it be?' She went closer and was rewarded with the sight of a natural hot springs pool. Clapping her hands to get Xena's attention, she motioned her over excitedly.

"This had better be good," the tall woman grumbled coming to her. Seeing the bubbling hot water, a small smile crept across the usually stoic face. "Nice," she said as she lowered herself into the soothing pool.

The bard watched as the warrior closed her eyes, letting her head lean back, and a peace settle over her face. 'Finally, I did something right. Wonder if she'd let me give her a backrub?' Tentatively she moved forward, placing her hands gently on the broad shoulders. She felt the woman tense, but not pull away. Taking it as a sign of acceptance, Gabrielle continued the massage.

After a bit, she heard the low alto voice address her. "Get in so you can reach better." Eagerly she slid into the warm waters. For a moment she was lost in the relaxation of her own muscles before she brought her attention back to the warrior. After kneading the knots in the larger woman's back, she began to work on the arms. Imperceptibly the warrior leaned back against the bard enjoying the sensations. Gabrielle hoped Xena wouldn't notice her own heart beat quickening. 'At least she won't be able to tell my body heat's rising since it's already so warm in here.' But the warrior did notice the smaller woman's heart rate. Xena: 'Fear or arousal? Friend: 'And how do I feel out that? Warlord: 'What does it matter anymore?' Easily she began to move out of the pool. "We'd better get out before we pass out from the heat."

They both dressed and gathered the few things Xena'd brought into the cavern. Gabrielle reached for the manacles, but the warrior picked them up. "It'll be easier to climb out of here without those. I don't want to have to go back for you." They made their way back to the warmth of their fire. Throwing more wood on, the bard then turned to lay out the bedrolls. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the warrior toss the manacles into one of the saddlebags.

'I wonder what that means. Either she's healing or she's thought of another way to mess with my mind. Strange ... I feel naked without them. I know I deserve them and it's such a small penance.' She kept an eye on the tall woman as she slipped under the covers and quickly followed suit under her own covers. The rain continued with no signs of letting up. The bard whistled them both to Morpheus' realm.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the thrashing began as dreams assaulted the warrior. Gabrielle was instantly awake and began whistling the soothing tune she'd drummed into the woman's head. Slowly she inched forward, continuing the song, and reached out to caress the raven head. As she stroked the black hair away from her face, the warrior's thrashing began to subside. The bard never stopped whistling and patting as she moved closer to the troubled woman. But eventually the nightmares ceased and Xena became still. The only problem was she had a death grip on the bard's hand. Eventually Gabrielle gave up trying to free herself and slipped back into sleep.

The next morning found both women wrapped together in a tangle of arms and legs. As the warrior began to stir, she realized that the warmth she felt was actually a body cradling her own. Quickly she bolted and looked down at the young woman who was jerked awake by the sudden motion. "What are you doing?" Rapidly the bard scrawled 'nightmare' in the dirt. "Yours or mine?" The bard pointed at the warrior. "Of course. It's not safe getting next to me during a nightmare." The bard whistled the soothing tune as answer. "Clever. You always were good at handling people." She rose and walked away. 'Was that a compliment or an accusation?' the young woman wondered.

Unfortunately the rain was still coming down holding the travelers imprisoned. Xena went to the cavern to drill and swim, then drill some more. Gabrielle followed taking parchment and writing furiously. 'She seems more relaxed, more at peace. Maybe she's ready to get back on the path of fighting for the greater good. Maybe she's ready to hear what I have to say.'

There were a few fish in the stream and the warrior soon had them sailing into the air. "Time for lunch," she called as she watched them arc and land on the bard's head. There was almost a smile as the warrior saw the bard wiping her face. "Didn't realize you were sitting so close." The bard didn't quite know what to do and the expression on her face caused the warrior to laugh out loud. The small woman slowly smiled seeing light in her friend's face for the first time in months. 'Keep laughing and I'll let you throw fish at me all you want.'

The laughs ceased abruptly as if the warrior had just caught herself doing something wrong. Sobering, she strode past the strawberry blonde woman, calling out, "Cook the fish. I'm going to check on Argo."

The mood had changed drastically and the continuing rain didn't help. After lunch, Xena returned to the cavern making sure the bard knew she wanted time to herself. Meanwhile, Gabrielle poured over all the different letters she'd been writing to the warrior still hoping to find those magic words that would touch her heart. The younger woman began to worry when the time grew late and closer to bedtime than supper. 'Once more into the jaws of Tartarus's hounds.'

Quietly she made her way to the cavern, not wanting to disturb, merely wanting to assure herself that the warrior was all right. Peering into the darkness, she could barely see the figure sitting on the bank absolutely still. 'At least she's still alive. Guess I better get out of here.' Of course it was at that moment that the bard's stomach made itself known and the warrior's keen ears heard the grumbling. Turning she growled at the small woman, "What do you want? I said I wanted time alone." She watched as the bard mimed sleeping. "Time for bed already?" The bard nodded, then mimed eating and pointed at the warrior. "Not hungry, but you can go ahead." She started to retreat back into the darkness, but heard clapping to get her attention. The bard was shaking her head no and pleading with her to come out of the cavern. "What's the matter? Is Argo all right?"

'Ok, this has possibilities. I'm sure I'll pay for it later.' The bard shrugged and again motioned to follow. 'See? Not an out and out lie. How would I know if Argo's all right? I'm not in the cave right now.' But the warrior was already bounding up the bank. "Damn it, bard, why didn't you say something right away?" she snapped as she ran past her.

Xena went over every inch of her horse reassuring herself that all was fine. Argo enjoyed the attention, constantly nuzzling her mistress, making the procedure more difficult. "She's fine. What did you think was the problem?" The steely gaze made the bard gulp and she bent to write, 'Something didn't seem right. Knew you wouldn't want to take chances.' 'Again, not a lie, but hopefully it will cover my ass and keep me from getting yelled at ... or worse.' The warrior stared a moment longer, then turned back to her horse. "You were right to get me. After all, she's all I have left."

The bard knew the remark had been intentional. But could she blame her? She pulled out some bread and cheese for the warrior and apples for Argo. Gently she tapped the warrior on the shoulder. "What?" The smaller woman pointed to herself then signed sleep. "Sure ... hey, did you eat?" Gabrielle shook her head and indicated she was not hungry ... not any more. Slipping into the blankets quickly, she turned from the warrior incase the tears could not be held at bay.

Nightmares crept into the warrior's slumber. Gabrielle woke to the woman's groans and whimpers. She began the soothing tune and slipped close enough to caress the troubled brow. This time she made sure not to let Xena capture a hand so there would be no risk of being trapped for the night. But these nightmares were relentless and the bard found herself up most of the night to keep them away, allowing the woman some measure of rest.

The next morning Xena awoke to Gabrielle's hand resting on her head. She could tell the bard had tried to keep her distance. Friend: 'She continues to look after you ... even trying to take care of you by not letting you know.' Glancing out she saw the rain had lightened, but it was still too wet for them to be moving on. Warlord: 'Damn be the Gods, I don't know how much longer I can stand this.' There was nothing to do, so she let the bard sleep while she gathered her sword and chakram and went to the cavern.

It was mid-morning before the strawberry blonde peeked out from under the covers. There was no sight of the warrior so Gabrielle assumed she'd taken herself to the cavern. Quickly she made tea and grabbed some biscuits knowing the warrior had probably not seen to her needs. Emerging from the small tunnel, she whistled to the warrior to announce her arrival. Ceasing her drills, the tall woman came over to accept the offered mug and food.

"Thanks." The bard nodded and waited patiently. "Rain stop yet?" She nodded no in reply. "It had lessened when I got up this morning." A nod in agreement. 'Is she trying to make small talk?' the bard wondered. Finished with her tea, she handed over the mug, "You can go back." The small shoulders slumped in disappointment. The warrior pretended not to notice, but watched the woman's slow departure wondering, 'What does she want from me?'

It was several candlemarks later before the warrior returned to the campsite. The bard had just started to retrieve the warrior and they slammed into each other, putting the smaller woman soundly on her butt. The tall woman looked down with a little smirk. "What's your hurry?" The redhead pointed to the cave entrance. Xena smiled fully and let out a happy sigh, "Finally!" She walked to the opening breathing in the still air. "I'm taking Argo out for a walk. I know we could both use it." The bard started to rise. "You can stay here." And she was gone while Gabrielle looked at her retreating back knowing she was not wanted.

Apollo was just taking the sun down when the warrior returned, refreshed from her outing. She was talking with Argo as she entered the cramped space and spied the bard trying to keep supper warm. "Smells good. Hopefully things will be dry enough by tomorrow so we can be on our way." She settled down and helped herself to the golden fish. Then she noticed some berries sitting on a leaf nearby. "You found berries? Great." She eyed the bard who sat so still. "You mad cause I didn't take you for a walk? Seems you went on one of your own anyway." The bard merely shook her head no and continued to stare at the fire. "Let's see ... red wine goes with fish, doesn't it?" Silently the bard rose and went to retrieve the wineskin for Xena. "Uh ... thanks." The warrior knew the little woman didn't like it when she drank so she was surprised by her submission. "While you're up, toss me the money pouch." Gabrielle complied then reseated herself by the fire. The warrior took a long swallow from the skin, then turned to see what was left in the little bag. "Running low. Too bad we can't rely on your stories anymore."

The bard's eyes shifted slightly to look at the warrior. 'Is she taunting me or blaming me?' Ignoring the look, the warrior continued to eat her food and drink her wine. The younger woman sat slipping deeper into her own private torture. 'I'll never reach her. She wants nothing to do with me. She has no idea how I feel ... how torn I was with my deception. I would give anything to go back and undo what I sowed that day. I so wish I could give my life for Solan's. Tartarus would be kinder than being with her knowing I've lost her forever.'

Both women stared as the flames danced gaily, one getting drunk on wine while the other got drunk on despair. As the wineskin grew dry, the warrior began to grumble. "Going to need to refill that for sure. Hey, maybe we could sell your scrolls for a dinar or two."

The bard's head snapped around at that. 'Sell my scrolls?! But that's all I have left!' The warrior noticed the quick motion and saw the fear-angered eyes. "What's the matter? You have a problem with that?" The bard remained frozen. "You can't tell your stories anymore. At least if we sell them, someone's still enjoying them, right? Thought you'd like that." Fiercely the younger woman shook her head no. "Why not? You can always write them down again. What's the big deal? You'd think I was selling your babies!" she growled becoming agitated by the woman's reaction. Then the thought slowly turned in her sodden brain. "You love those damned pieces of parchment more than life, don't you? That's all you really care about, isn't it? Words. Exciting words. Enticing words. Words of love and adventure and honor and truth! And you know what I think of your words? They're empty!" The warrior's voice was growing louder with each statement. "Without action, that's all they are – empty! Meaningless! But you love them. Because they're safe? Because they can't hurt you? Because you can control them? By the gods, your words mean nothing!!"

Abruptly the warrior rose and dug threw the saddlebags for the scribe's pouch. She pulled out a scroll and threw it on the fire. Then another. Gabrielle was reaching into the flames without thought to rescue the children of her mind. Watching her desperation enraged the warrior. 'Where was this caring when Solon needed it?' Turning back to the saddlebags, Xena reached for the parchment box. Without looking she had pulled it out upside down and all the scrolls within had fallen out into the saddlebags. Fumbling awkwardly with the box, she strode towards the bard. Anger seethed in her voice when she spoke, "May the fire take your damn precious words!" She raised the box to fling it into the hungry flames. In seconds the bard had tackled the warrior to the cave floor and ripped the precious cargo from her hands. Startled, but determined, Xena tried to recover the object and was met with a fury of fists. Swiftly she grabbed the offending hands and looked fiercely into crazed green eyes. "You fight for your scrolls. Why couldn't you fight for Solon? Why couldn't you fight for me?"

The accusation hung in the air and the younger woman froze in horror. She didn't know herself anymore. What kind of monster was she that cherished words over life? In that instant her soul screamed, her heart wept, and her mind shattered. With revulsion she picked up the once precious box and took it to the fire herself, tossing it in violently. The warrior sat up and stared in confusion. Frantically the smaller woman paced, tears streaming down her face as her fists hit her thighs. 'By the Gods, I think she's going mad before my eyes.' Her pacing took her to the saddle where she stumbled into it falling. Her hands landed on the whip and she picked it up without hesitation and stormed back to Xena.

For a moment the warrior believed the little woman was actually going to use it on her. Instead she found it tossed in her lap while the frantic woman returned to the saddlebags in search of something. Pulling out the manacles, she yanked off her top, then slapped them on. Again she paced, looking wildly for something, the warrior knew not what. Then she stopped in front of a portion of rock that jutted out from the wall. Reaching high she swung the chain up above her head until it caught in the crevice. She had had to jump to make it and now her feet were not even touching. Turning her head to look at the still stunned warrior, she gave the Amazon whistle for 'attack'.

Xena sat as her mind waded through the wine, "You want me to whip you?" Again the whistle came, stronger this time. "By the Gods, isn't this a funny twist. Well, no thank you, I don't think I will. Physical pain would feel too good to you right now." The bard was still but a moment then turned back to the rock and began to bang her head against it. "Stop that!" the warlord voice came out to command. But the bard was beyond such attempts of intimidation and only banged more fiercely. Scrambling up, the warrior let one lash fly in order to distract the bard. The smaller woman stopped instantly waiting for the next sting, but it didn't come. When she realized this was the only one, she resumed her attack on the rock wall with her head. "Damn it, bard, you're going to kill yourself if you keep at it!" Again she let the whip fly, once, twice, but careful not to break skin. Gabrielle momentarily ceased, expecting to finally receive the lashing she deserved. Instead, the warrior's wobbly legs brought her beside the hanging woman where she expertly applied a pinch that rendered her unconscious. "Son of a Bacchae, woman! You just made me waste a good drunk! I should leave you there all night," she rambled to the inert form. "With my luck, you'll come to just when my headache's getting good and make it worse." Clumsily she grappled with the stuck chain 'til she could lower the bard. She looked at the small woman in amazement. "Damn it, girl, what you've done to yourself." The raven head shook in disbelief as she went for the medicine pouch.

* * * * *

The bard woke the next morning to a mass of blurred images and muddled sounds, not to mention a head that felt like it was being kicked by a herd of centaurs. Try as she might, she couldn't open her eyes. Each time she tried, nausea swept over her, pain stabbing her eyes. The she felt a hand on her shoulder. "I'm guessing your head hurts like Tartarus. I want you to drink this."

Gabrielle struggled to sit up and take the offered mug, but was unable to make her body function. "You gave yourself a concussion last night. Take it easy." She felt a strong hand cradle her head and hold the drink to her lips. "Drink it all. I know it tastes like gorgon's dung, but it'll help. Good. Now lay back and rest." The bard peered through slit lids and mimed walking. "It won't hurt to give the ground another day to dry. Argo hates walking in mud." Xena noticed the barely perceptible nod and watched as the small woman succumbed to the healing herbs.

As the sun tiptoed into the cave the next day, it tickled the occupants into awareness. Gabrielle was quick to move with the warrior's first stirrings. Despite her headache, she packed efficiently and was ready to leave before Xena could finish her breakfast. One brow raised as she spoke, "You in a hurry?" Surprised, the bard shook her head no. "Good, we're changing your bandages before we start."

Grabbing the medicine kit, she knelt in front of the warrior. Tenderly Xena re-wrapped the wrists which had become bloody with her recent struggles in the manacles. Then she turned to Gabrielle's head. "Nice shade of purples and yellows," she observed as she applied more salve. "Think we need to leave it covered another day. Now let's take a look under your shirt." The strawberry blonde looked at her puzzled. "You don't remember." She pulled up the oversized tunic to reveal various cuts and scrapes on the front. As she applied ointment, she spoke, "You did that when you were trying to get me to whip you. Turn around. I had to give you a couple of lashes to distract you from attacking the cave wall. Ok – all done," she finished as she pulled the shirt back into place. "Guess we can move out." She noted that again the bard reached for the manacles like some sort of safety line.

The sun felt good on their backs as they set out. The warrior's spirits were definitely lifted being out and able to travel. As they made their way down the road, Xena called out, "How about a song?" The bard complied whistling with precision, but without passion. The warrior could tell the difference in the young woman's performance. She glanced back over her shoulder to see the strawberry blonde staring straight ahead and merely going through the motions.

They stopped at mid-day and Gabrielle busied herself with chores. She couldn't seem to sit still as she went from cooking to searching for herbs to cleaning to rearranging Argo's pack. "I stopped so you could rest. You're not a hundred percent yet so just sit." The younger woman obeyed immediately staring at the campfire. "Eat." Again she did as she was told. The warrior watched her automatic movements that were devoid of feelings. 'It doesn't feel like she's in there.' She watched awhile longer as the bard chewed absentmindedly. "Done? Let's go." Once more they were off with the hollowness reaching out to encompass the warrior, too.

The rest of the day went without incident. As they set up for the night, the bard was in constant motion. She polished armor, repaired leathers, and even cleaned Argo's tack and saddle. The warrior shook her head, finally speaking, "You're making me dizzy. Stop and eat."

Slowly the woman moved to eat with little enthusiasm. "What's the matter?" Xena queried. "You're the one who cooked it." Lifeless green eyes turned to the tall woman. She signed 'not hungry.' "That's too bad since you don't get dessert until you finish your plate." She gave the smaller woman a smirk, but was met with disinterest. 'By the Gods, where has she gone?' The warrior studied the bard as if seeing her for the first time and didn't recognize the woman before her. After eating, Gabrielle turned to cleaning all cookware, then went to gather more wood. She ended up by Argo, brushing out her tail. "You brush that tail any more and all her hair's going to fall out."

The bard stopped, looking for her next project. She began meticulously clearing the ground of every pebble, then raking the earth to soften it for the bedrolls. 'What is going on with her?' she wondered as she sharpened her blade. "Bard! Everything's fine. Why don't you relax and write on your parchment." Pained green eyes snapped up. "What? Oh ... I forgot ... you don't have any more. Well ... we can pick up some in the next town." The bard shook her head 'no' as she turned away to feed the fire. Finding nothing more to do, she came to the warrior signing 'me – sleep.' Xena merely nodded and waved her away. 'I've lost her. I already lost Solon and now I've lost her.'

* * * * * *

Xena relied on the birds for her music as they traveled the next day, unable to stand Gabrielle's emotionless whistling. Just before they were to stop for mid-day meal, a band of mercenaries made themselves known. A heavy sigh escaped the warrior's lips. "You really don't want to do this." Raucous laughter was their answer. "Have it your way."

Somersaulting off of Argo, the warrior's cry filled the air. The group of nine raced at her in mass figuring their numbers alone would overwhelm her. The bard watched as the men surrounded Xena, completely ignoring her. Their mistake, for the small woman was so filled with rage at herself that the sight of the warrior drowning under a sea of swords made the young woman snap. Charging at the nearest soldier, she slung the manacle chain over his head, pulling back on his neck so he tumbled to the earth. Once there the bard's foot sent him into the next realm. Once done, she turned to the next. Xena was by no means being over powered by the ragged group. The precision of her moves was taking out one opponent after another, sending some to Morpheus and others to Hades. Still even the unworthy can get lucky as a wiry little man slipped in behind the warrior who parried with four very large brutes.

Without thought, the bard opened her mouth to shout warning, but her voice hadn't been used in moons and failed her now. Determined she tossed aside the man in her way as she placed herself between the dagger and the warrior. Swinging fiercely she hit the man squarely in the jaw with her manacled wrists sending him flying. Feeling a twinge in her side, she bent over to catch her breath. Xena was just dispatching the last two mercenaries on their butts with a flourish. Turning to the bard, she asked gently, "You all right?" The bard nodded positively as she straightened up. "Let's get going then," she said as she vaulted onto Argo. With a quick glance back to make sure the bard was following, she headed down the road.

Gabrielle's adrenaline was still pumping strong and she felt a little lightheaded. 'Guess it's the excitement of the fight. Haven't had to do that in awhile. By the Gods, it's gotten hot,' she thought as she wiped the sweat that poured from her body. As she trailed the warrior, she realized Xena was pulling further ahead. 'Better catch up.' She attempted a quick jog but was stopped short by a stabbing pain in her side. Grabbing it, her hand felt very wet. 'What's the ...?' She looked down to see her hand covered in blood. 'That little weasel must have stuck me and I didn't even realize.' Looking up she attempted to whistle to Xena, but the sound was too faint and the warrior too far ahead. 'Ok, better hurry up then.' Holding her side firmly to stop the bleeding, she tried to pick up her pace. But she'd already unknowingly lost too much blood. Her vision began to blur and her feet shuffled in the dirt. After a few more steps her knees buckled and she found herself on all fours. Attempting to rise only brought her further down to taste the earth. 'This is not good. Get your ass up and moving, Gabrielle.' But though the desire was there, the strength was not and she tumbled into unconsciousness.

As the warrior rounded the bend, she was so lost in her own thoughts she'd been unaware that the bard had fallen behind. Not until Argo whinnied at her did it occur to her that the sounds had changed. She whirled the mighty war-horse around to see nothing. Warlord: 'Son of a Bacchae! She gave you the slip! Friend: 'That's ridiculous. The bard covered her back. She wouldn't leave us.' Xena: 'Something's wrong.' With a stern nudge she urged Argo back up the road to track the runaway. Racing around the turn the bard's body was plainly visible in a heap in the middle of the road. "Gabrielle?" Spurring the great mare forward, she jumped from the saddle before the horse had a chance to stop. As she turned the small woman over, the wound began to bleed anew. "Damn it, Bard, why didn't you tell me?!"

Ripping off a strip of the large tunic, Xena used it to bind the wound temporarily. Then scooping up the young woman, she remounted the war-horse in search of shelter. The Gods must have taken pity on the bard, for the warrior soon came across an old abandoned cabin. Pushing open the door with her back, she carried in her fragile package and laid her down. Returning to Argo for their things, Xena was soon back at the bard's side.

Removing the manacles first to get them out of her way, the older woman worked with precision as she cleaned, sutured, and re-bandaged the younger woman. Finished, she looked down at the woman who lay so helpless before her. Shaking herself into motion the warrior brewed tea to help prevent infection. Gently she tried to coax the bard to consciousness. "Come on, wake up. You need to drink this. You can do it, Bard, come on." Eyelids slowly raised, eyes bleary and confused. Slipping a hand to the woman's head, Xena supported her while she sipped the healing liquid. "That's good. All right, you just lie still. Try to sleep. I'm going to go take care of Argo, all right?" There was a weak nod in response.

The large mare greeted her as she exited the small shelter. The rough warrior gently caressed the large muzzle. "Thanks, girl. The bard and I owe you one. You're going to get the best brush out you've had in a long time. And I think I can come up with an apple or two." The horse snorted her pleasure at that promised treat.

It was several candlemarks later when the warrior finished caring for Argo and chopping wood for the fire. As she entered, she could see that Gabrielle was still asleep so she focused on cleaning out the small fireplace. Soon a roaring fire was going and a soup was simmering. 'She's going to need some protein. I better see about catching a rabbit. She should be fine while I'm gone.' Before she headed out she talked to her war-horse. "Argo, I'll just be gone a little while. Stay and protect, all right? Good girl."

It was an entire candlemark before she returned. She looked quickly to see the bard still asleep and turned to skinning and preparing the rabbits for dinner. The smell filled the small space and tickled the bard's nose causing her to wake. "Wondered when your stomach was going to get you up." After helping the strawberry blonde to sit up, she placed a cup of soup and a plate of rabbit on the cot. "I've already eaten so you get to work on this. I'm going to check on Argo and the perimeter one last time."

She was gone longer than she intended, having found a nearby stream and berry bush. It felt good to be clean and even better to be bringing back this treat for the bard. As she entered she could see that the young woman had eaten very little. "Hey, I know my cooking's not the best, but it's not that bad." Gabrielle smiled weakly and signed that she wasn't hungry. "It's important to eat right now. At least try to finish the soup," she replied in a no nonsense voice. The bard nodded and picked up the cup. Xena relaxed on an upturned crate to begin sharpening her blade and cleaning her leathers.

The stars were just coming out to dance in the night sky when the warrior's attention was drawn to the small woman who began to whimper and groan. Putting aside her things, Xena approached the tossing-turning figure. "Wake up. It's just a dream," she soothed as she put out her hand to shake her awake. "By the Gods, you're burning up." At that moment the bard's eyes flew open and it appeared like she was attempting to speak. Swiftly the warrior's hand covered the bard's mouth. "You can't speak, remember?" The young woman's eyes darted about rapidly in confusion and her hands tried to pry the one from her face. 'The fever must have her mind.' The woman's struggles became desperate. "Calm down, you're safe. You just mustn't talk. Gabrielle! Stop it!" All movement ceased as the eyes snapped onto the warrior then just as quickly rolled back and she was out. 'Well ... that takes care of the problem temporarily.' Picking up several pieces of cloth, the warrior addressed the unconscious form. "Sorry about this, but I can't take a chance you'll speak in your delirium," she explained as she gagged the small woman. "Ok, now to keep you from pulling it off." Loosely she tied the bard's wrists above her head to the frame of the cot. "I can't take the chance Ares would make me follow through on that foolish oath. Let's take a look at that wound." Pulling back the bandage, swollen red tissue greeted her. "Damn, it's become infected. I'll have to cut it open and drain it." The small woman moaned under the ministrations, but did not regain consciousness. Then she wet another cloth and bathed the bard's forehead hoping to cool it. "Better make some tea for the fever." Rummaging through the saddlebags in search of her herbs, she soon discovered something else. "What's this? By the Gods, her scrolls. They must have fallen out somehow." Pulling them out she laid them on the table, then turned to brew the tea. While it seeped she looked through the parchment. "Looks like most of them are here, little one. Wait ... what are these? Never saw this before." It was a thick stack of what looked like unfinished letters to Xena. She glanced at them, then forced herself to put them aside to aid the bard. Removing the gag, Xena cradled the woman in her arms and slowly let the tea flow down her throat. Reflexes took over and Gabrielle swallowed until it was gone. Tenderly the warrior wiped the woman's face before replacing the gag.

Then she looked at the stack of parchment. 'Since they're addressed to me I guess that means I can read them.' Gingerly she picked up the letters, looking at them with trepidation. 'What's the worse she can say? I brought it on myself? That she hates me? No news flash there.' But that was not what greeted the warrior's eyes. Instead she found sorrow, remorse, shame. She was surprised as she read the bard's words. 'How could I let you kill Hope? I was afraid I would hate you and I couldn't stand that. I'd rather give up my child than destroy our love. And yet, I've done just that. And worse, I destroyed your child. I was trying to protect you and I hurt you more than I could ever imagine.' 'Trying to protect me?' She turned to another page. 'I was a coward. I'm sorry. I tried to drink the poison after Hope, but I couldn't leave you. I see now it would have been better for you if I had.' 'I had no idea you tried to kill yourself, little one,' she thought as she glanced over at the still form. She continued reading one parchment after another. Some appeared finished, some were mere scraps, some sections were repeated, some pieces so scribbled through, it was impossible to read.

Long into the night the warrior continued to read until the silence was broken by the small woman's feverish agitation. She was at her side instantly. 'Damn, the fever's gotten worse.' Pulling aside the bandage, she shook her head as she looked at the angry wound. 'By the Gods, I'll have to drain it again.' The task completed, she picked up the bard and headed for the stream. "Need to get your fever down," she explained to the unconscious woman as she carried her into the water. There was the briefest of struggles as Xena lowered her charge into the river. Soon though the coolness calmed the bard, gently bringing her body temperature down. The tall woman sat patiently submerged herself as she supported the bard. She stayed in as long as Gabrielle needed though she herself was becoming quite cold. But the trick had worked and the fever had lessened and gratefully Xena returned to the warmth of their shelter.

Keeping one eye on the bard, Xena continued her reading until she'd finished every last scrap that had been written to her. She stared at the small woman who lay weakly on the pallet. Concern pulled at her as the night passed. "Damn it, Bard. Are you even trying to heal? You listen to me, I want you to fight. I want you better. You owe me and dying will not pay the debt." With that outburst she laid her head down on the cot and gave in to exhaustion.

* * * * *

She could hear someone yelling at her through the fog of her mind, but could make nothing out. Where was she? What was happening? Was she in the dream world or maybe she was dead? There was pain and it was hot, so incredibly hot. That's all she knew for certain. She must be in Tartarus. That would make sense. The heat continued to get worse. She wanted to run from it somehow, but felt herself bound, unable to move though she tried. Then unexpectedly she felt herself floating and it was cooler. She must be in water and someone was talking to her. The voice was kind and gentle and coaxing. Who was calling to her? It sounded like Xena, but that seemed impossible. If it was the warrior, then that proved it was all a dream. She drifted in this strange realm, occasionally aware of someone at her side, bathing her forehead, singing to her, helping her to drink. And she would talk to this light in her darkness. She would ask for Xena, ask for forgiveness, and ask for death.

It was during one of these times that her body shook uncontrollably and her heart hurt to bursting. Then all was still. There was no pain, no sound, no sensation, nothing at all, except for a small light so very far away. It grew brighter and closer and seemed to be coming right at her. She was afraid to look until she heard her name called. She was even more afraid after she heard the voice. "Solon?" she cried as she threw herself at his feet. "Solon, I'm so sorry .. sorry ... I never meant for anything to happen to you. I have no right to ask for your forgiveness, but please know how sorry I am."

She felt a soft child-like hand on her cheek and a voice equally soft speak. "Gabrielle, I would forgive you if I could. But I can't forgive you for something that isn't your fault." Fearfully the woman looked up into those blue eyes that were so much his mother's. "Do you hear me? It was not your fault. There is nothing to forgive. Everything you did, you did for love."

"But I killed you."

"No! No, you didn't kill me. Hope did. Hope is responsible for her own actions. Though our actions may be born out of love, they don't always get the desired results because we can't control the reactions of others. You know this."

"But it was because of me that all this came about. How can I ever make it up to you?" Tears freely flowed down the bard's face.

"There is nothing to make up for, but if it will help you, then I ask you to go back and take care of my mother."

"How did you know ...?"

"The dead can hear the thoughts of the living, remember? She needs you, Gabrielle. Don't leave her alone. She couldn't bear to lose us both."

"No, I bring her only pain."

"Right now that's all her heart can see, but with you by her side she will learn to see past it. I promise. Please, will you do this for me?"

"I would do anything for you, Solon."

"Then go back and love her."

* * * * * *

"Breathe!" The fist came down again hard on the bard's chest and in that instant the small body shook and gasped for air. Surprised, the warrior stared in shock for a moment, then gathered the limp form in her arms, crying in relief. "By the Gods, don't you ever do that to me again!" she whispered as she continued to rock and caress the small woman. Eyelids fluttered briefly open, green meeting blue. Xena smiled, kissed her forehead, and held the bard until she drifted off into a safe natural sleep.

* * * * * *

The sounds of the forest greeted her as she slowly exited the sweet land of Morpheus. Looking around for the warrior, she found herself alone. Gabrielle sat up wondering if she'd been left behind until she spied both their things neatly stacked in a corner. Then she saw something that amazed her, her scrolls. But she had burned them herself. Where had they come from? Slowly she pulled herself from the cot and shakily made her way to the table. Not only her scrolls were there, but also all the unfinished letters to Xena. 'Gods help me, she's read these.' Frantically she tried to think through the fog that still encompassed her brain. She gathered up all the writing and turned toward the fire.

"What in Tartarus do you think you're doing?!" snapped a stern voice from behind. "Put those down right now and get back into bed" Throwing the parchments down, she practically dove onto the little cot. Crossing to the fireplace, Xena put the rabbits on the spit before turning her attention to the bard. Gently she asked, "How are you feeling?" Gabrielle nodded positively. "Let me see how your wound's progressing." Lifting the bandage, the healer smiled to see the pink skin. "It looks great. You had me worried there for awhile." The bard eyed the great warrior cautiously as the woman reached her hand out to touch her forehead. "No fever at all," she sighed in relief. "I pronounce you officially well, but I still want you to take it easy, understand?" The reddish blonde head nodded, while the green eyes looked down. The warrior's eyes clouded as she observed the bard's distance. "I'll get you some tea." Taking the mug, Gabrielle made her sign for thank you. It was then that Xena realized the bard had no awareness of the last few days.

"Gabrielle?" The bard's eyes locked on the tall woman. This was the first time she'd heard Xena say her name since she'd surrendered herself. "Gabrielle..." the warrior paused gathering her thoughts. "Damn it, this is the third time now. You're going to make me work for this, aren't you?" The bard's eyes lowered again, unsure of what she'd done, but sure she'd done something wrong. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't tease right now." Again the eyes snapped up. "Yes, you heard right. I said I was sorry." Taking a deep breath, she began again, "I have to thank whatever God was watching out for you, that I didn't destroy your scrolls. They must have fallen out of the box into the saddlebags.

Gabrielle, I read your letters to me, all of them. I wish you had given them to me right away, but then maybe I wasn't ready to listen. Almost losing you got my attention I guess. You need to know that I consider justice satisfied and I forgave you two days ago. Although I feel silly saying it because I've come to realized there was never anything to forgive." The warrior took another deep breath to steady her nerves. "So you see, you can speak without fear. In fact we've already had a few short conversations though I can see now you don't remember." She looked into the green eyes that were filling with tears. "I know these many moons have been torture for you. And somehow I'll make it up to you as best I can." Tears flowed freely now and the warrior's heart broke to watch it. "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry for everything I've done to you. I hope that one day you can forgive me, too." Rising, she walked out, leaving the bard alone with her thoughts.

* * * * * *

Xena was outside brushing Argo, not that the horse needed it, but it gave the warrior something to do. She could hear the bard behind her in the doorway. Without turning, she spoke to the woman, "I'm not sure it's wise for you to be up so soon."

"I needed some air," she replied quietly.

The warrior turned and supported the young woman as she walked to a log to sit. "Do you need anything?"

"I'm fine. Thank you, Princess." Hurt flickered across the blue eyes before she could bring her warrior's mask into place. Gabrielle realized her mistake immediately. "You're the one who asked me not to call you by name."

Unable to look the woman in the eye, she mumbled, "I ordered you. And I wouldn't blame you at all if you never wanted to use my name again. I can't believe the way I treated you. But I couldn't allow myself to love you. I had to hate you. And you kept trying to help me, console me. I think I felt if I accepted anything from you, I'd be betraying Solon's memory."

"You were hurting. Losing a child is the most traumatic event in the world. I understand ... really. And I don't blame you for what your grief drove you to. I guess we need to do some talking, Xena."

The warrior turned to the small woman beside her, relief flooding her face. "Thank you for saying my name. It makes me feel like ... well ... like maybe you don't hate me."

It sounded like a lost child asking for forgiveness to the bard's ears. "I could never hate you, Xena. We just need some time to sort this out and I'd like to do that together."

"I'm just grateful for the chance. You know you died during that fever."


"Maybe I shouldn't tell you, but you did. I haven't been that scared since Thessaly. I breathed for you. I pounded on your chest. I screamed for you to come back. And then you did and I thanked every God alive."

The bard smiled to herself remembering what she thought had been a dream. "I think you should be thanking So- ... uh, thanking your son."

"What do you mean?"

"He came to me. He told me I had done nothing wrong." Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered his gentle voice and touch. "He asked me to go back to you. He seemed to think you needed me," she finished in hushed tones.

Gulping back tears, Xena nodded in agreement. "He's a smart boy. Gabrielle ... uh, please, you can say his name. I wish you would."

"Thank you. Xena, the dead can hear when the living think of them. Solon knows you're his mother and he loves you very much."

And with that the damn broke, tears flooding down the stoic warrior's face, sobs wracking her body. Strong arms slipped around the grieving woman and held her fast, rocking gently. Gabrielle's own tears mixed with her friend's and together they shared the pain.

Evening found the two women still in each other's arms though they had managed to move inside. Staring into the fire, Gabrielle talked, taking them both on an emotional journey. Before long the bard began to nod. "Think maybe you need to get to sleep," the warrior said as she helped the young woman up. Gently she helped her onto the pallet, pulling the blankets up around her.

"What about you, Xena?" the bard queried.

"I'll be fine on the floor. It's only fair," she smirked.

"I've missed that."


"That crooked half-smile of yours. Good night, Xena."

"Goodnight, Gabrielle."

* * * * * *

"Really, Xena, I'm fine. We can get back on the road. I know you hate to stay put too long in any one place."

"I don't want you over doing it."

"How about if I ride? That is ... if you don't mind."

"I'd insist on it."

She smiled up at the tall woman. "Then let's go." Tucked in front of the warrior, they headed down the road. Argo's loping gait soon rocked the bard to sleep. Mid-day the warrior pulled the great war-horse over to a small glade complete with gentle stream. "Gabrielle? We're stopping to eat all right?" The bard's stomach answered for her which caused both women to share their first chuckle.

Xena was in no hurry as she set up a fire and encouraged the bard to take a swim while she saw to lunch. Gabrielle floated lazily in the water letting all her muscles relax. The smell of Xena's cooking, or attempt, drifted over to her. Pulling herself out of the cool stream, the bard went to see if she could salvage anything. "Hey, I thought you weren't going to torture me anymore," she said teasingly. The tall woman smiled, but the younger woman noticed the smile didn't reach her eyes. Gently she lowered herself next to Xena. "I guess it's too soon for teasing, huh?"

"Don't be silly. You know I like a good joke."

"But not right now. I'm sorry. I guess I want so badly for things to be like they were. But it will take time before we both feel comfortable again." The warrior merely nodded as she threw out her culinary catastrophe. "I also think we could get to that feeling of comfort sooner if we talked."

"We talked last night."

"No, I talked, you grunted. Ahhh, there's that crooked smile."

"Ok, so what do you want to talk about?"

"How we feel. How you feel."

"Hungry. I just ruined our lunch."

"Make you a deal, oh warrior princess. I'll cook us up a great lunch if you'll go talk to your horse."


"Xena, I know when you're troubled, you often talk to Argo. It's all right, I understand. It's like me writing in my scrolls. So I want you to go talk to Argo ... just talk loud enough for me to listen in, all right?"

Unsure of this approach to the problem, the warrior shrugged and went to the mare. "Hey Argo, Gabrielle wants us to talk. So ... how are you doing?" The horse whinnied in response. "Gabrielle, this is silly-"

"Uh-uh, turn back around. Just ignore me and talk to yon faithful steed."

Shaking her head, Xena smiled, turned back and began to talk of silly things. She expected the young woman to interrupt her frivolous banter, but Gabrielle remained quiet. And so Xena kept talking and without realizing it, the dialogue changed in tone. Slowly her thoughts peeked out followed by fears and doubts and longings. She anointed Argo's neck with her silent tears. Everything had ceased to exist except herself and the horse. That is, until she felt gentle hands upon her shoulders lending strength. "How can you do that? How can you still be here for me?" she mumbled.

"Because I love you, Xena. You'll just have to accept it," came the tender reply.

Frozen by the words, the tall woman battled with herself. Finally she turned into the gentle embrace of the young woman.

"I promise you, Xena, somehow we'll find our way back to each other."

* * * *

As they traveled on after their revealing lunch break, Gabrielle began to wonder where they were headed exactly. "Back to the Amazons."

Wary of the warrior's reasoning, she asked, "Why?"

"We didn't leave under the best of circumstances. Thought you'd like to go back to show them you're all right ... for the most part. Then you can reclaim your Queen's mask."

"And ....?"

"And then you can decide if you'd rather stay with them ... or possibly go back to Poteidia ... or ... I don't know .... just to have a place of safety to decide what you want next."

"I see." Inside the bard shivered wondering if the warrior meant to leave her behind one final time. Perhaps too much damage had been done and could not be mended for her.

That night as they set up camp, both women tiptoed around each other, handling the other as if they were tending fragile glass. Gabrielle made a stew filled with spices to rival anything they might have in the Elysian Fields. "This is incredible, Gabrielle. I can never understand how you can do so much with so little."

"I have many skills," she grinned at her friend attempting to imitate Xena's infamous arched brow. The warrior laughed at the impersonation and the tension of the day dissipated. "Guess we should turn in." Reaching for their bedrolls, they bumped into each other, standing motionless in confusion. Trying to get out of each other's way they only succeeded in performing a little awkward dance back and forth. "This is silly. Where would you like me to lay my bedroll?"

"Where ever you're comfortable."

"Xena, you know what I mean. Before all of this, we'd lay our bedrolls side by side. But I don't know if you want that."

"I don't know if you do."

"So that's it. We're each scared to go first. Scared of rejection."

"Who's scared?"

"You are, you big dumb warrior. And so am I. So the truth is, I want to lay our bedrolls together like always. But I'll understand if-"

"I'd like that, too," the large woman interrupted quickly.

"Good. That wasn't too difficult." They smiled shyly as they spread the bedrolls and blankets and settled in for the night. Looking at the sky, they playfully argued about whether a star cluster was a bear or a dipper. Then silence fell and thoughts chased each other round and round inside the bard's brain. "All right, I have a doubt so I'm going to voice it and I would appreciate the truth." The warrior looked over at the young woman. "Are you doing this out of guilt? To make it up to me, as you said."

Without hesitation, she answered softly, "No. I want you beside me. You remember our first night together? I tied you to the tree?"

"Your anger came out of nowhere. I didn't know what I'd done."

"You laid your bedroll across the fire from mine. I felt so alone. I'd lost Solon and with that simple act, I realized I'd lost you, too."

"I'm so sorry. I just thought ... oh, Xena, you were never alone."

"I know that now." They listened to the night sounds for a moment, regrouping emotionally. "I guess this sharing feelings thing isn't too bad."

"It grows on you," the strawberry blonde smiled. "Xena ... would you hold me tonight?" Fear flickered in her eyes as she turned her face towards the raven head.

"I would be grateful for the opportunity not to be alone again."

And with that, they wrapped themselves in each other's arms and together went to Morpheus.

* * * * *

It took half a moon to reach the borders of Amazon land. During that time the pair strove to regain their sense of normalcy with each other. Gabrielle guided their path refusing to allow the warrior to hide any part of herself. And she opened her own heart with the same determination.

The fire crackled and the bard took one of her deep breaths that always signaled the beginning of one of those "sensitive" chats. Xena rolled her eyes knowing what was coming. "Gabrielle, what more could there be to talk about?" she asked with a grin.

"We promised no more secrets, right?"

Warily she answered, "I promise you, I've told you everything. I even told you about Ming Tein. You know everything I think and feel and wish."

"I know, Xena. And now it's my turn. There's one last thing I need to tell you."

"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?"

"It might not be that bad ... then again it could ruin everything." She took one last big breath, bracing herself, and blurted, "I love you."

"Yeah? Why else would you put up with me?"

"Ok, this is going to be harder than I thought," she mumbled to herself, then turned to the woman beside her, "I'll try again. Xena, look at me and listen carefully. I – love – you." She stared deeply into the crystalline blue eyes as understanding spread within.

"Oh," came a very timid gulp.

"I have for a long time. I felt it was important you know. And I also understand you don't feel the same so if you wish to leave me with the Amazons, it's all right. But if you can handle my feelings for you, I'll do my best to handle yours for me. I don't want to mess up this friendship that we've just barely put back together."

"What makes you say that?" sorrow mirrored in her eyes.

"Because I want to keep traveling with you. You're my family."

"No. I meant why did you say you know I don't feel the same?"

"You've certainly never given me any indication."

"I'm a stoic warrior, remember? What about you? How come I never realized?"

"I'm a bard and acting is part of it, remember?"

They simply sat staring at each other. The immensity of what the other had said was flooding them both.

"If this were one of my stories, we'd be kissing by now," she whispered. Together they leaned in, stopping a breath away, unsure of reality at this moment. Tenderly the bard reached up her fingers to caress the warrior's cheek and the distance fell away as their lips locked firmly. Parting regretfully to breathe, they leaned their foreheads together, bracing each other. "Wow," gasped the all expressive bard.

"I'll second that," the warrior agreed. Looking at each other they smiled a lifetime of smiles in that one instant.

"Can we try that again? Just to make sure we got it right?" the young woman queried.

"Gabrielle, are you sure about this?"

"Excuse me? Am I not the one who dared to face the big bad warrior and express my feelings first? I'd say I was sure."

"You're amazing you know that."

"I know, and you're about to find out just how amazing," she teased, her nose crinkling up at the beautiful woman before her.

And very gently, very slowly, very passionately, the warrior did find out.

* * * * * *

As they began the last few miles to the Amazonian border, Xena broached a topic which had been on her mind since they started back. "You know the Amazons are not going to be happy to see me."

"But you're the one bringing me back. Everything will be fine, don't worry."

"Gabrielle, I owe them an apology."

"You don't need to apologize for your grief."

"I owe them an apology."

"If it'll make you feel better."

"And I want your word you won't interfere."

The bard glanced sideways at the woman beside her. "What are you up to?" she asked suspiciously.

"Gabrielle ..."

"Fine. I promise."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

A candlemark later they stood at the border and waited as sentries came down from the trees. Masks slid back to reveal smiling faces. "Gabrielle!" Eponin shouted as she lunged forward, embracing the smaller woman in a back breaking hug. "I thought we'd never see you again! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Eponin, really."

The Amazon's eyes finally rested on the dark warrior. "Is justices satisfied, warrior?" her eyes dark and piercing.

"Yes, Eponin," she replied quietly.

"Thank you for returning her to her family," she said coldly. "Come, Gabrielle, Ephiny will be so glad to see you."

"Wait, Eponin," the bard interrupted, "Xena's coming, too."

The eyes clouded as she looked back. "She's not welcome."

"Eponin, please," she began laying a gentle hand on the Amazon's arm.

"I'll speak for myself, Gabrielle. Eponin, I'd like to apologize to the tribe as a whole."

"Words are easy, warrior," she said defiantly.

"Not for her," the bard teased trying to lesson the tension.

Nodding in acceptance, the sentries formed an honor guard around the young bard, forcing the warrior back. They entered the village to mixed responses. Women ran forward in joyous greeting, then would stop short at the sight of the dark figure trailing behind.

Gabrielle soon found herself in the arms of Queen Ephiny. "Gabrielle, Artemis heard my prayers! Welcome home." She turned to the warrior, steeling herself to be civilized in front of her people. "I understand you have something you wish to say to me."

"I'd like to speak to the whole tribe." Glare met glare, neither backing down.

"Please, Ephiny, could you call the tribe together ... for me?" the bard pleaded.

Facing the young woman, her smile spread again. "For you we will have the biggest feast to date! And before the party we will meet in the square so that the warrior may address the village, then leave," she finished pointedly. "Now come with me. We have much to discuss." Before Xena or Gabrielle could protest, the bard was whisked away in the company of her sisters, leaving the warrior to tend her horse and simply wait.

Just before the evening festivities were to begin, the entire tribe crowded into the square to hear what the warrior had to say to them. Curious whispers traveled the crowd as well as grumblings at her presence. Determined, the warrior took long strides forward to address the gathering.

"Amazons, I owe you all an apology. I took your Queen from you without just cause. Though it's true that Gabrielle lied about her child, I realize now that she did what any mother would do when the life of that child is threatened. To punish her for an act we would all commit without hesitation is not justice. And when she saw that her child was a force of evil and destruction, she took responsibility for that child. She could have asked any of us to stop Hope, but she didn't. She took on that pain herself. How many of us would have been able to end our child's life for the sake of others? By doing so, she avenged the Centaurs, she avenged the Amazons, and she avenged Solon. My grief wouldn't allow me to see that then, but I see it clearly now. And so I ask for Gabrielle's forgiveness and I ask for the Amazons' forgiveness." A rumbling went throughout the mass of women. "Eponin said that words are easy and she's right. Action is demanded to know the depth of a person's remorse such as Gabrielle's personal sacrifice. When I was here last I whipped your Queen in front of you all. I now offer to stand under the lash, mark for mark given to Gabrielle."

The bard turned in surprise at the woman, "Xena, no, I don't want that!"

Steel blue eyes held her, "You promised." Then she turned to Eponin who stood beside her friend. "Eponin, I don't think Gabrielle will be able to do it, so I ask you to carry this out in her place." Taken aback, the Amazon could only nod her willingness. "And I know I owe all the Amazons here, too, for forcing their Queen away and threatening the tribe. Every Amazon here may come forward to give one lash mark once Gabrielle's retribution is fulfilled."

"Xena, no! There's over two hundred Amazons here tonight!"

"Queen Ephiny, Gabrielle gave her word not to interfere. I hope you'll help her to keep that word." Then the warrior stripped herself of her armor, weapons, and leathers to stand in her simple shift which she lowered about her waist. "Eponin, I'm ready if you are," she finished, extending her arms for binding. The Amazon stepped forward to escort the warrior to the public whipping post.

"Xena, no! Stop this!" The bard tried to lunge forward to stop the procedure, but the Royal Guard had a firm hold on the young woman. As Eponin raised the whip to begin, Gabrielle cried out one last time. "Eponin! I order you to stop." The Amazon froze, accustomed to obeying the strawberry blonde. "If anyone is going to do this, it will be me. It's my right!" Xena looked at the blazing eyes of her friend. Maybe she had misjudged Gabrielle's forgiveness. Maybe this was exactly what the bard wanted. The warrior lowered her head in shame and closed her eyes in avoidance. She heard the soft footsteps stride with purpose behind her, heard the whip arc in the air, heard it hiss towards her. But she was not prepared for the very small bite it took from her back. 'Ok, it stings, but that's no proper lashing. Just what is Gabrielle trying to pull?'

"That is all the retribution I require," she said, facing the crowd. Then held out the whip for Eponin to take, and sat directly between Xena and the Amazons facing whoever would take the whip next. Eponin stepped forward first. Gabrielle was in no danger where she sat, but each woman would have to face her in order to wield the lash. Looking into the woman's eyes, then at the small bite on the warrior's back, she made her decision and let the whip fly. Xena was surprised to feel merely another bite.

One after another they came forward, looked at the face of the strong young woman, looked at the warrior, and gave the stinging bite. Gabrielle had refused to look behind her to see what damage might be being done. She knew she would hear no cries from her warrior no matter what was done, but she didn't hear her hold her breath and her breathing wasn't ragged. This hopefully meant that her sisters had followed her example. The process took quite awhile for two hundred warriors to go through. Xena ached and could feel blood running down her back, but knew she was not receiving the beating she had expected. When the last Amazon had taken her swing, Gabrielle rose gratefully to cut her friend free. The warrior's back was covered in blood, but it was also obvious that the tribe had done no more damage than she herself had. Walking rapidly to the post, she cut the tall woman down, anger barely held in check as she said, "I certainly hope that's out of your system." She freed the bound wrists and pulled the shift up to cover the woman. "Ephiny, is there a hut we may use?"

"Use your old one. Everything's as you left it. I didn't have the heart to give it to anyone."

"Thank you, my friend. Come on, my big dumb warrior, this will take a little tending."

"Gabrielle, the Amazons are throwing a party in your honor. You should go. I'll be just fine."

"Yes, you will because I'm going to take care of you. Ephiny, thank everyone for me. Especially for this," she finished as she glanced at Xena's back.

"We only followed our Queen," she said with a smile. "It looks like justice has finally been satisfied for all concerned." She left them to head for the hut while she went to join the festivities, which would probably go on through the night.

Gabrielle noticed their things had been set in the hut, so she pulled out the medicine pouch. With a feather light touch, she began to clean the warrior's broad back. Unable to contain herself any longer, she asked, "Xena, why did you do this?"

"Warriors need action, Gabrielle. If I hadn't given them the opportunity to confront me, they would have always resented me. And as a warrior, I needed it as much as they did."

The bard merely humphed in reply and went to get fresh water. As she turned around, she realized a design had been cut into Xena's back. "Oh Gods."

"What? What's wrong?"

"Uh ... Xena, your back ..."

"Honest, Gabrielle, it's fine."

"No, Xena, the Amazons cut a mark into it."


"All the little cuts together make one larger design."

Rolling her eyes, the warrior sighed. "Great. Should have known they'd find a way to make me remember this. So what is it? Artemis's moon?"

"No ... it's a 'G' with what looks like a quill under it. I had no idea that was going on. Oh, Xena, I'm really sorry."

A smile slowly played on the warrior's face. "I'm not. I'll wear it proudly."

"I'm sure with the right ointments, we can make it fade."

"No, I don't want it to fade. Many masters mark their slaves with their own personal symbol. I think your Amazons chose well."

"But, Xena, you don't belong to me."

The raven head turned to face the strawberry blonde, blue eyes piercing into her very depths. "Yes, I do, Gabrielle, heart and soul."

And as the last rays of the sun wisely left the two women alone, they began the passionate act of blending their hearts and souls together - forever.


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