By Jenbob
Copyright © 1997 Apr (Revised 1997 Fall)
All rights reserved


Gabrielle and Xena said their good-byes and left the Amazons early the next day. By mid-morning they had arrived at the centaur village across the river and Tyldus welcomed them gladly into the camp. They spent a few hours talking with the leader of the centaurs and, after sharing the midday meal with him, the two women were on their way once more. They quickly fell into the comfortable routine they had developed over the past year and a half of travel and the next couple of days went by quickly and without incident.

Three days after leaving the Amazon village, the pleasant traveling that Xena and Gabrielle had been enjoying, came to an abrupt end. Cresting a hill, the two women were greeted with a bloody and gruesome scene. Two wagons, which had obviously been ransacked, were blocking the road, while several lifeless bodies could be seen scattered around the area. Xena drew her sword and began to cautiously approach the wagons. As she drew closer, however, it became obvious that the attack had taken place days before and the men responsible had long since disappeared. Replacing her sword in its scabbard, she began checking the bodies for signs of life, knowing, before she even began, that it was a waste of time.

"Are they....?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

"Yeah," Xena replied, as she checked the last man.

"How long ago do you think it happened?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

Xena glanced around one last time before answering. "I'd guess at least three days ago, maybe four or five. Whoever did it is long gone," she said, a hint of frustration in her voice. "The ground around here is too rocky. No chance of following them."

Gabrielle nodded. "What about them?" she asked, indicating the bodies lying on the ground.

Xena sighed as she considered their options. The ground was too hard and too rocky to attempt to dig any graves and there was definitely not enough wood around to try to build funeral pyres. Looking at the wagons more closely, she reached a decision. "We'll put the bodies in the wagons and use them as makeshift pyres. It's the best we can do," she said, as she began walking towards the first body.

Gabrielle set her staff aside and went to help Xena move the corpses. As she reached the warrior's side, Xena looked at her kindly. "Gabrielle, you don't have to help with this. I can handle it by myself."

Gabrielle shook her head. "No I'll help," she said, trying not to notice the condition of the body she was leaning over. "Really, I'll be all right," she said, as she saw Xena hesitate. The warrior's face was masked by concern, as she looked her young friend over carefully.

Shrugging her shoulders, Xena accepted the young woman's help. They quickly carried all the bodies to the wagons and then gathered as much brush as they could find to pile underneath them. Lighting the fires, they stepped back and watched the flames consume the wagons and the men they contained. As they watched, Xena began singing her burial song. The sad, haunting melody tore at Gabrielle's soul and she shivered slightly. She'd wanted to hear Xena sing more often, but this was definitely not the song she'd had in mind.

The next couple of days passed by in a frustrating blur. Raiders had been active in the area recently, but everywhere Xena and Gabrielle went they arrived too late to do any good. The attacks had always taken place at least three or four days before they arrived. Those wounded in the attacks were either on their way to recovery or already dead. Xena and Gabrielle tried to help the villages rebuild their defenses, but they both knew that their efforts were futile at best. The villages were too small and the villagers lacked the weapons or the skills to defend themselves effectively. The next time that even a minor warlord came through the area, the people would be all but helpless.

After a few days of trying to get information on who the raiders were and where to find them, they came across a small farming community that once again showed the marks of a recent raid. As they approached, the farmers watched them warily, demanding to know their business. Xena assured them that they intended no harm and, after a brief conversation, asked if there was anything she and Gabrielle could do. The spokesman for the group admitted that several people had been wounded in the attack and asked if either of them had any knowledge of healing. Xena quickly volunteered to help, grateful for the chance to finally be useful, and was immediately ushered into a small building where the wounded were being treated.

It was immediately apparent that the majority of the people who were in the room were the ones who had sustained relatively minor injuries. Xena could only assume that those who had suffered more serious injuries were already dead. Few, if any, of the villagers present needed any additional aid from Xena. They simply needed time to recover. There was one man, though, who was in desperate need of help. It was this individual who became the focus of Xena's attention. His wounds were severe but somehow he had managed to keep a tentative hold on life. Xena threw everything she had into pulling him through. After several hours, however, she watched him quietly slip away, unable to do anything more to help him.

Xena stood up slowly and walked away from the man she'd tried to save. She knew that if she and Gabrielle had arrived sooner, she would have stood a good chance of saving the farmer. By the time they'd come upon the village, however, it had been too late. The man had lost too much blood, infection had set in, and he'd been in agony for days. She'd never had any real chance of saving his life.

Xena quietly washed the man's blood from her hands, as she tried to control her anger. This wasn't supposed to be how things went. For days now she'd been arriving too late to do anything to help. She'd tried to track down the men responsible for the raids but it wasn't some organized group. There were simply several small bands of thieves and cutthroats in the area and they happened to be moving just ahead of her, just out of her reach.

Shaking her head, she ordered herself to relax but her thoughts kept betraying her. Small bands like the raiders that had attacked these farmers were a dinar a dozen. Eventually she and Gabrielle were bound to catch up with some of them, but what then? Another band would simply come along to fill the empty space left by the one they got rid of. What difference did it really make in the long run who the bandits were that attacked a village. Did a child really care if the man that killed his father had been named Kylos instead of Graylin? Why was she even...

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly, interrupting the warrior's train of thought.

Closing her eyes, Xena sighed heavily before turning to face her friend. "Yeah?"

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked, placing a hand on the warrior's arm.

"I'm fine," Xena replied, trying to convince herself as much as Gabrielle. "We might as well be leaving though. You ready to go?"

Gabrielle looked her friend over carefully, certain that something was troubling the warrior. "Sure," she said after a brief pause. "We can leave whenever you want."

"Okay. Let's go. There's nothing else for us to do here," Xena said quietly, as she grabbed the saddlebag she had brought in with her and walked out to find Argo, Gabrielle trailing silently behind.

Xena and Gabrielle continued to move through the area, never actually catching sight of any of the bandits, but occasionally getting word of an attack that had occurred days before. After another couple of days, they began hearing about fewer attacks and they started to wonder if the raiders had moved on to another area. They kept their eyes and ears open, though, hoping that somehow they would manage to catch up with some of the men responsible for the raids.

Late one morning, they caught sight of a wagon moving towards them. Drawing closer, they saw that the driver was a young man who appeared to be alone. As they approached, the man looked them over suspiciously, his hand moving to rest near a crossbow that was sitting beside him.

Holding up her hands, Xena stopped where she was. "We don't want any trouble. We're just travelers."

The man nodded his head and moved his hand away from his weapon. He remained alert, however, and it was obvious that he was ready to defend himself if necessary. "Sorry," he said. "But there's been a lot of trouble in these parts lately. A man can't be too careful when he meets strangers, especially when one of them is wearing armor and carrying a sword."

Xena nodded as she dropped her hands to her sides, taking care to keep them in plain sight. "We understand. Actually, we're trying to track down any of those raiders who we can find. Do you know anything about them?"

The young man thought for a moment before shaking his head. "Not really. I just know that there's been quite a few of them running around these parts lately. Small bands, not enough to bother a village of any real size, but big enough to cause problems for travelers and the smaller farming communities. We're just fortunate that the army that was moving through here awhile back, has finally left."

Xena looked at the man curiously. "Army?"

"Yup, an army led by the warlord Martakas. Ever heard of him?"

Xena thought about the name for several seconds, before giving a half shrug. "Once or twice," she finally said. Thinking for a few moments longer, she tried to remember what she knew about the man. "From what I've heard, he's pretty erratic but more or less a butcher. Sometimes he'll spare a village if they'll just agree to provide his troops with supplies, other times he'll lay waste to it no matter how much they agree to pay. He'll spare women and children some days, other days he tortures half the villagers just for the fun of it."

The merchant nodded his head. "That follows with what I've heard about him. He apparently was in a good mood when he moved through here. At least I didn't hear that he was particularly vicious or bloodthirsty. Several of the villages really took a beating though...Gralias, Baraliam, Tr...."

"Baraliam?" Xena demanded abruptly, as Gabrielle's eyes widened in shock. "Baraliam was attacked?"

"Well...yeah," he answered nervously, startled by her reaction. "Are you from there?"

"No...I just know someone who lives there," Xena answered, her voice clearly showing her agitation and worry. "How long ago did this happen?"

"I don't really know," the man admitted. "At least a couple of weeks ago I'd guess."

Xena nodded. "Come on," she said to Gabrielle, as she swung up onto Argo and then reached down to pull the young woman up behind her. "It's not far. We can be there before the end of the day."


"We'll talk when we get there Gabrielle," Xena said, cutting her off as she kicked Argo into a slow canter, leaving the man staring after them in astonishment at their sudden departure.

Xena pushed Argo as hard as she dared, desperate to reach Baraliam. She needed to see Ishalia; she needed to know that she was all right. It was late in the afternoon by the time they finally reached the village, and Xena's heart lurched painfully as they rode into town. Despite the fact that the attack had occurred a couple of weeks earlier, Baraliam still showed the all too familiar effects of having been attacked by an army.

As they rode down the main road of the village, Gabrielle caught sight of a familiar face. "Fellia," she called out, as Xena brought Argo to a stop and helped her down.

The woman looked up at Gabrielle in surprise. "Gabrielle! I didn't expect to see you two back so soon."

"We heard about the attack and came as fast as we could," Gabrielle replied.

Fellia nodded. "It was over two weeks ago," she said sorrowfully. "But we still haven't had time to even start to recover. There were so many...."

"What about Ishalia?" Xena demanded brusquely, interrupting the woman.

Before she spoke, however, the look in Fellia's eyes answered Xena's question. "I'm sorry. Ishalia was killed during the raid." She paused to look at Gabrielle, before turning her attention back to Xena. "I know you both got close to her while you were here last. She spoke of you both....," she said softly, not certain what to say to ease the awkwardness of the situation.

"How did it happen?" Xena asked quietly.

"We don't know exactly. Apparently she was killed by one of the soldiers. We found her body inside her home after the attack was over."

"And the attack?" Xena asked dispassionately, ignoring the worried look that Gabrielle was giving her. "What happened with Martakas?"

Fellia shrugged. "He came through a couple of weeks after you two left. He killed quite a few people, looted the town, and burned several of the buildings. It was a fairly large army, maybe 60 or so men. They stayed for a couple of days and then moved on after they'd had their fun." Fellia looked at Gabrielle sadly. "We'd thought we were so lucky, being spared during the previous attack. But there always seems to be another warlord just waiting to take the place of the ones that fail."

Xena stared at her silently, her face a mask that completely hid what she was thinking and feeling. "I'll be right back," she finally said calmly, as she handed Argo's reins to Gabrielle and began walking away.

"Xena....," Gabrielle began, the concern in her voice obvious.

"I'll be right back Gabrielle," Xena replied evenly, as she continued to walk towards Ishalia's home.

Quickly reaching Ishalia's house, Xena pushed the door open and stepped inside. The house was quiet and had a sense of emptiness that went far beyond the fact that Xena was the only person inside it. Walking into the living room, she gazed around, remembering the many pleasant evenings she had spent here, just talking to Ishalia while holding Gabrielle in her arms. The warm, comforting feeling she had experienced before, however, was gone. Looking around, she saw dried blood stains covering the furniture, floors and walls, and she ground her teeth angrily. There was only one way that there could possibly be so much blood splattered around in here. The man who had killed Ishalia had to have done so in the most violent way possible. He'd probably hacked at her body while she'd begged for mercy and laughed at the pain he was inflicting on a woman who'd never done him any harm and whose death meant no profit for him, only pleasure.

As Xena continued to move through the room, her foot stumbled over an object lying on the floor. Cursing softly, she glanced down to see what she had tripped over. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw Ishalia's lyre lying at her feet. Reaching down, she carefully picked the instrument up, her hands shaking when she saw that it was covered with blood. She felt her breathing growing shallow and irregular, while she struggled for control over the rage and frustration building up inside her. The man responsible had long since moved on and there wasn't a single thing she could do about this. There was nothing she could do to bring Ishalia back and there was no one to vent her anger upon. Once again, she was too late to do anything, except stand around and look at the destruction that had been caused by one of the countless bands of raiders that roamed the countryside.

Xena held the lyre tightly, as waves of pain rolled over her, and she felt herself beginning to drown in their wake. This was like losing Riash all over again. No, she corrected herself, it was worse. When she had saved Ishalia, it was almost like she'd somehow managed to save a part of Riash as well. But she'd just been kidding herself. She hadn't been able to save Riash and she hadn't done anything for Ishalia but delay the inevitable. She'd been a fool to think she'd actually made any difference. And now, not only had she lost Ishalia, she also felt like she'd lost Riash all over again.

"Xena?" she heard Gabrielle's hesitant voice ask from behind her.

"Yeah?" Xena replied tonelessly, as she kept her back to the young bard.

"I talked to Fellia. She told me the inn was pretty much spared in the attack and that we were welcome to stay there tonight...free of charge. Do you want me to take care of...."

"We're not staying," Xena said flatly.

Gabrielle took a deep breath as she looked at her friend. "Xena, Argo's tired and it will be dark...."

"We're not staying," Xena repeated. Her voice betrayed no emotion as she spoke. "We'll walk; Argo will be fine. Tell Fellia 'thanks' if you want, but we're leaving. I'm ready to go now as a matter of fact," she finished, as she turned and faced her friend for the first time.

Gabrielle looked at the woman standing in front of her, sighing as she saw that "the warrior" had returned in full force. It had been well over a month since Gabrielle had seen this part of her friend and she realized suddenly what a wonderful month it had been. What she was seeing now was the side of Xena that refused to allow anyone close to her, the side that held everyone, even Gabrielle, at arm's length. This was the part of Xena that Gabrielle constantly fought against, as she struggled to break down the walls that her lover always seemed to be building between them, especially when she was hurting. Gabrielle studied her friend carefully for several seconds, as she tried to decide the best way to handle the situation. More than anything, she wanted to take Xena into her arms and hold her tightly. She wanted Xena to lean on her. She wanted Xena to tell her that she needed her. She wanted "the warrior" to go away and never come between them again.

Gabrielle sighed more, as she admitted to herself that none of those things were going to happen anytime soon. The warrior was a part of Xena and most likely always would be. The sooner she learned to accept that, the better off she'd be. The only thing she could do was to try and make certain that Xena the warrior made as few appearances as possible and that Xena the lover was the one that she got to see the most often.

Now, however, was not the time or the place to push Xena about how she was feeling. Knowing it would do no good to argue with the warrior when she was like this, Gabrielle gave in. "All right," she said quietly. "I'll get Argo for you and meet you at the east gate."

Xena nodded silently as she watched Gabrielle turn and leave. Moving across the room, she placed the lyre back on the shelf where it belonged. "I'm sorry Ishalia," she said quietly, fighting back the tears that were threatening to fall. "I know that you can hear my thoughts. I just want you to know how much you meant to me, how special our time together was for me. I just want you to know...I just want you to know that I love you," she finished as her voice broke. She remained where she was for several minutes, standing as still as a statue, her hands gripping the shelf tightly, afraid to let go of the only solid thing in her life at the moment. Breathing in deeply, she slowly brought her emotions back under control, before setting her mask firmly into place once more. Taking one last look around, she walked out the front door, shutting it firmly behind her as she went to meet Gabrielle.

Gabrielle and Xena walked in silence for an hour or so until it finally began getting dark. Xena abruptly moved off the road and into the surrounding woods and, after walking a short distance, she pulled up and began unloading their gear from Argo. A few minutes later, she left to scout the area around them, still without saying a word.

Gabrielle sighed as she watched her friend walk away. Xena was obviously hurting over the loss of Ishalia but, as usual, she was choosing to deal with her pain by shutting down her emotions. Gabrielle had no idea what to do to help her. If the situation were reversed, Gabrielle would want to talk about how she was feeling but Xena, on the other hand, appeared to be planning on remaining silent indefinitely.

The bard had genuinely liked Ishalia and she was truly saddened by her death. However, she hadn't actually gotten that close to the older woman. The bard had spent much of their time in Baraliam in the tavern telling her stories. It was really only during the evenings that she had seen much of Ishalia and, even then, she'd often just listened while Xena and the older woman had talked. For once, it had been Xena who had opened her heart and allowed herself to get attached to someone they had met. As a result, Xena was now suffering greatly over the death of someone she had learned to care for deeply.

Xena eventually wandered back to the campsite and sat down quietly. Seeing that the warrior had returned empty handed, Gabrielle began pulling out some of their food supplies and started preparing dinner. Xena watched her in silence for several minutes, before rising and leaving once again. A short time later, she returned with an armful of wood. She continued to bring wood for the fire until she had enough to last for the next several days. Finally, she stopped and went to check on Argo, silently brushing the mare out and checking to make certain the day's exertions hadn't done the horse any harm.

Gabrielle shook her head, as she continued to watch her friend. She couldn't remember the last time that Xena had returned empty handed after scouting the area, and she always talked to Argo while she cared for the mare. She began to see that Xena was hurting far worse than she had originally thought and that it was more than the loss of Ishalia that was upsetting her. It seemed that the frustrations of the past week were beginning to weigh heavily on her as well.

They ate dinner quietly. The bard made a few comments to her friend, but eventually gave up when Xena ignored them all. Gabrielle took care of the after-dinner cleanup and then watched as Xena settled down with her back to a large log and prepared to sharpen her sword. With a small sigh, Gabrielle went to get a needle and thread from one of the saddlebags and began repairing a rip in one of her extra shifts. She sat quietly, trying to focus her attention on the task at hand, but her thoughts kept wandering back to Xena, as she tried to figure out the best way to help her friend. She honestly wasn't certain whether pressing Xena about her feelings was the right thing to do. On the one hand, Gabrielle knew that until her friend finally opened up and began talking about what was bothering her, she was never going to get past this. On the other hand, Xena's emotions were raw and barely controlled at the moment. Pressing her too hard about how she was feeling, might result in the warrior unleashing those emotions, with devastating results.

As she continued to work, Gabrielle suddenly realized that something was wrong. She looked around carefully, trying to figure out what it was that had caught her attention. She saw Xena sitting silently across from her, saw the campfire burning steadily and saw Argo standing quietly off to one side. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but then it hit her; Xena wasn't sharpening her sword. That was one activity that the warrior could always manage to do but now, Xena was simply sitting there, her sword lying on the ground beside her, apparently forgotten.

Deciding that this had gone on for long enough, Gabrielle dropped the shift to the ground, walked over to where her friend was sitting and sat down beside her. The vacant, lifeless expression in the warrior's eyes sent a chill down her spine and she had to swallow hard before she was able to speak. "Xena?" she said softly. Getting no response, she tried again, placing her hand gently on the warrior's arm as she tried to reach her. "Xena, do you want to talk about it?"

Xena remained silent for a few seconds. "What?" she finally asked.

Gabrielle sighed softly. "The past week. Those merchants. That farmer. Ish...."

"No," Xena said bluntly. "I don't want to talk about it."

Gabrielle shook her head helplessly while she watched her friend. Finally, she reached down to take Xena's hand, holding it tightly as she tried to decide what to do next.

"Not enough," Xena murmured quietly.

"Hmmm?" Gabrielle asked softly, a little unsure whether Xena had actually said something.

"Not enough," Xena repeated a little more loudly. "No matter how hard I try, no matter what I do, it's not enough," she said wearily.

"To make up for your past?" Gabrielle asked, not certain what Xena was actually trying to say.

Xena shook her head violently. "No. To make a difference in the present." Xena took a deep breath while she gathered her thoughts. "I always say 'act, don't react,' but that's all it feels like I've been doing lately. I run in and try to help after the fact but it's not enough. I keep arriving too late to do anyone any good. Those merchants, the villagers, that farmer....," her voice trailed off as she looked down at her hands.

Gabrielle moved closer, as Xena tightened her grip on the young woman's hand, knowing that, even if she couldn't admit it, Xena needed her close by. She also knew, even though Xena hadn't mentioned their names, that along with Ishalia, she was including Riash and Kaylana in the group of people she'd been too late to save.

After a short pause, Xena began speaking once again. "And even when I do get there in time, what difference does it make? There's always someone else waiting to come along to destroy what I tried to save. What good did I do Ishalia or any of the others I've tried to help? All I did was postpone the inevitable," she finished savagely.

Gabrielle hesitated for several seconds before speaking. "Xena, you're being too hard on yourself. You're doing all anyone could. No one could possibly do more."

"Maybe that's the problem. I'm just fooling myself to think I can make any difference on my own."

Gabrielle looked at her in shock. "I wasn't aware you were on your own," she finally said tightly, obviously hurt by Xena's words.

Xena gave herself a mental kick for her thoughtless comment. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. It's just that, even with your help, the odds are always against me. Fighting 50 to 2 odds starts getting old after awhile. Sometimes I just feel like I'm trying to hold back the tide, using nothing but my bare hands."

"'Like trying to stop a fire with the moisture from a kiss'?" Gabrielle said softly.

"What?" Xena asked, confused by Gabrielle's comment.

Looking at her friend, Gabrielle smiled. "I'm sorry. That's just a line from a poem...Would you like to hear it?" she asked, after a brief hesitation.

Xena shrugged, not really caring one way or the other, and then watched as Gabrielle moved slightly to get comfortable before beginning.

One hand
Reaches out
And pulls a lost soul from harm
While a thousand more
Go unspoken for
They say what good have you done
By saving just this one
It's like whispering a prayer
In the fury of a storm.
But this heart
Still believes
That love and mercy still exist
While all the hatreds rage, and so many say
That love is all but pointless in madness such as this
It's like trying to stop a fire
With the moisture from a kiss
But as long as one heart still holds on
Then hope is never really gone
And I hear them saying you'll never change things
And no matter what you do it's still the same thing
But it's not the world that I am changing
I do this so this world we know
Never changes me

Xena sat quietly for several moments after Gabrielle finished, staring into the campfire. "That's nice," she finally said. "But are you saying I have to try because otherwise I'll change back into the monster?" she asked, needing to know the answer but fearing what it might be.

"No," Gabrielle said softly. "I'm saying that we all have to try, because when we don't, when we allow ourselves to lose hope, then that's when the people like Martakas win and we lose." Gabrielle sighed, as she tried to come up with something to say that would help Xena understand how important she was. Finally giving up, she looked at her friend and said simply, "You do make a difference, Xena. I wish you could see that for yourself."

Xena shrugged and reached down to pick up her sword. Examining it carefully, she slid it back into its scabbard and then tossed the whetstone towards their packs, as she set the scabbard down beside her. Turning to face Gabrielle, she started to speak and then stopped, uncertain what to say.

Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the look in Xena's eyes. She knew that the warrior was gone and her lover had returned and was ready to accept her help, even if she wasn't quite able to ask for it yet. Moving closer, Gabrielle held Xena tightly, smiling when she felt Xena's arms wrap around her to hold her close. "It'll be all right," she said softly, as she felt Xena shudder slightly in her embrace. "I promise it will be all right."

Two days more passed yet Xena's mood didn't change. She remained silent and brooding for long periods of time, barely listening to Gabrielle as they traveled along. Gabrielle had tried everything she could think of to draw Xena out of the darkness she had fallen into but nothing was working and the young bard was rapidly running out of ideas. She knew that Xena was frustrated and depressed by what had been happening lately. Everywhere they went they continued to arrive too late to do any good and the warrior was still questioning whether or not she was really making any difference at all.

As they drew near the village of Hadrilis, Gabrielle tried to decide whether being around other people was the last thing in the world Xena needed at the moment or the best possible cure. Finally deciding that it wasn't likely to make a difference either way, she waited to hear what Xena wanted to do. It didn't take long to find out.

"We need some supplies. Might as well get them here," Xena said, speaking for the first time that morning.

Gabrielle nodded and continued to walk alongside her friend, deciding to wait until they left town before she tried telling another story. Once they reached the main street, she and Xena rapidly divided up the shopping list and their money and then went their separate ways to speed the process along.

Xena quickly finished getting her share of what they needed and returned to Argo without further ado. She'd just finished putting her purchases into the saddlebags, when she heard a soft gasp from behind her. Whirling around, she saw a woman staring at her in wide-eyed shock. "You're Xena, the Warrior Princess, aren't you?" she demanded.

"Yes I am," Xena responded carefully.

"You're the murdering bitch that destroyed my village," the woman spat out angrily. "You killed my husband," she said shrilly.

Noticing the gathering crowd, Xena held her hands up slowly. "I'm sorry...I...."

"You're sorry? Sorry? What good does that do me now? It's too late for an apology. My husband and my friends are dead. Can you return them to me?"

"No I can't," Xena said quietly, as she looked around for Gabrielle, knowing that they needed to get out of this town as soon as possible. She moved away from the woman to walk a short distance down the road, hoping to catch sight of her friend. She could hear the sounds of people beginning to gather around her, as she continued to look for Gabrielle, and she realized that, at any moment, things could turn ugly.

"Look, I don't want any trouble. I'll just find my friend and we'll be on our way," she said, hoping to head off the storm that was rapidly building around her.

"No trouble?" she heard her accuser ask with a mocking laugh. "We're supposed to believe that you'll just leave us alone? Your kind never changes and you can't be trusted. You're a murderer and a thief and you always will be. And it's time for you to pay for your crimes," she said, as she picked up a large rock that was resting by her foot.

Xena saw the crowd surrounding her, saw that they were all holding large rocks, and realized that they were waiting to gather the courage to throw the first one. She knew she could easily get away from these people. After all, they were nothing more than peasants and it would be a simple matter to push past them to get to Argo. But she found herself unable to move, the woman's accusations holding her more firmly than any chains ever could, because they had been the truth. Xena was a murderer and a thief. She had more blood on her hands than she would ever be able to wash off, no matter how many years she spent trying to atone for her past. She'd changed too late to do this woman any good and she wasn't doing anyone else any good now either. She watched dispassionately as the villagers worked themselves up to finally let fly with the first stone, quickly followed by several others. She felt the stones strike her, but she still didn't move. It didn't matter anymore; she didn't care.

The villagers threw several more stones, hitting Xena and drawing blood. They were confused by her lack of reaction, however, so instead of a wild frenzy, they remained cautious as they threw rocks at the woman who simply stood passively in front of them. A flurry of movement, though, caused them to stop what they were doing for a moment. To their surprise, they saw a young woman suddenly standing between them and the warrior, holding up her arms as she tried to shield them both. "What's going on here?" she demanded.

The villagers stood in silence for several seconds, as they tried to understand what was happening. "That's Xena," one of them finally said, as if that explained everything.

"Yes I know...but why are you doing this?" Gabrielle demanded again.

"She's a murdering harpy...she deserves to be punished," came a voice from the back.

Gabrielle turned to her friend, confused as to why Xena was being so quiet, why she wasn't defending herself. The empty, desolated look in the warrior's eyes caused her to shiver involuntarily. "Xena?" she asked softly, as she placed a hand on her lover's arm. Getting no response, she turned back to the crowd, which at the moment was the bigger problem. "You're wrong. She's changed. Please...don't do this," she pleaded.

"People like her don't change. Now get out of the way or you'll get the same as her!"

Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not moving," she replied, as she started to turn to her friend once again.

"Fine," Gabrielle heard a voice say harshly, just before a rock hit her hard in the shoulder. Astonished that they were actually throwing rocks at her too, Gabrielle turned to look back at the crowd. Before she had time to react, a rock struck her forehead drawing blood, while another smashed into her arm causing her to yelp in pain.

Suddenly, Gabrielle heard a low, inhuman growl coming from behind her, as Xena sprang into action. Reaching around Gabrielle, she caught two stones that had been aimed for the bard's face, before grabbing her friend and twisting her body around to shield her from the rest of the rocks headed their way. Gabrielle heard the stones hit Xena's back and saw the warrior grimace in pain, before she reached around to draw her sword. "Get back," she hissed angrily, as she twirled the sword above her head and slashed violently at those closest to them, causing them to scramble out of her way. Half-carrying, half-dragging her lover, Xena ran to Argo and tossed Gabrielle up on the mare, before sheathing her sword and leaping up behind her. Kicking the horse into a gallop, they raced out of town, Xena holding Gabrielle tightly in front of her.

They rode for several minutes until Xena was certain they'd put enough distance between them and the village. Finally pulling Argo up, she hopped down from the mare and then helped Gabrielle dismount as well. Grabbing a waterskin and a clean cloth, she led her friend to a small log and pointed for her to sit down. Amazed by the sudden change in her friend, Gabrielle did so, watching Xena carefully as the warrior began to clean the cut on her forehead. "That didn't work out nearly as well as it did the last time I tried it," she said with a smile, trying to lighten the mood.

"It was a stupid move," Xena said in clipped tones.

"As opposed to your brilliant move, which was to just stand there and get pelted?" Gabrielle asked sarcastically.

Despite herself, Xena smiled and, as Gabrielle looked at her friend, she realized that it was the first time she'd seen that expression in days. As Xena finished cleaning Gabrielle's cuts, the bard held out her hand silently. With a shrug, Xena handed her the cloth and the waterskin, before moving to get more comfortable, as she waited for Gabrielle to tend to her wounds.

Gabrielle carefully began cleaning the cut on Xena's upper arm. "So, why didn't you try to get away?" she asked quietly. She waited for several seconds before she realized that the warrior wasn't going to answer her question. Gabrielle shook her head. "You thought you deserved it, didn't you?"

Gabrielle sighed when Xena kept her eyes downcast and continued to refuse to answer her questions. Dropping the cloth she was using, she reached out to place her hand underneath Xena's chin and then tilted it upwards, forcing the warrior's gaze to meet her own. "No more Xena," she said firmly. "I mean it...don't do this again. You've changed...and you do make a difference...You're making people's lives better." Seeing that Xena was about to protest, Gabrielle quickly raised her hand to stop her. "Maybe it doesn't always work out as well as you wanted...but you are making people's lives better. You're important. The world needs people like you, Xena," she said softly, as she moved into the warrior's arms. "And I need you too," she whispered, as she leaned in to kiss her.

Xena returned the kiss before pulling Gabrielle to her tightly, cradling the bard's head against her chest. "I don't deserve you," she said unsteadily.

Gabrielle pulled back slightly to look directly into her lover's eyes. "Probably not," she agreed, a teasing glint in her eyes. "But you're stuck with me, so you'll just have to learn to get used to it," she said, before pulling Xena to her to cover her lips with a soft kiss.


Xena's mood improved steadily over the next several days. It was clear to Gabrielle, though, that Ishalia's murder was still bothering her deeply. Xena continued to be reluctant to talk about Ishalia's death and was even more reluctant to talk about the woman herself. Slowly, however, Gabrielle's patient efforts were rewarded and Xena began to finally talk about how she was feeling. Gabrielle knew they still had a long way to go and she also knew that it would be some time before Xena managed to bounce back completely from the loss. She was relieved, though, that at least her friend was finally dealing with her pain and anger, rather than trying to keep it all bottled up inside of her until it inevitably came out at the worst possible time.

As they continued to travel through the countryside, they heard fewer and fewer reports of raiders and even managed to rescue one traveling merchant who had been attacked by a small band of thieves. Xena was in markedly better spirits afterwards; she had finally managed to do something to make herself feel useful. Eventually they drew near the village of Nalimore. Xena appeared to be ready to pass by the village completely, until Gabrielle reached out a hand to grab the warrior's arm and stop her. "Xena, how 'bout we stop here for the rest of the day?"

"Why?" Xena asked, a look of mild surprise on her face.

"Well, I have a couple stories I've been working on for awhile now and I'd like to try them out on an audience."

"I don't know, Gabrielle," Xena said hesitantly. "It seems like all we've done over the past couple of months is stay in one place or another. I'd really like to keep moving."

Gabrielle nodded. "I know, but you've been pushing yourself pretty hard over the past week. I was just thinking it might be nice to take a little breather, just for the rest of the day."

Xena sighed as she looked down at Gabrielle's hopeful face. "And these stories you want to tell. What are they about?"

Gabrielle gave her an embarrassed grin. "Well, you actually," she admitted. "But there are only two of them. You could just make yourself scarce while I was telling them."

"All right," Xena finally relented. "But we're only staying one night. Agreed?"


Xena and Gabrielle quickly managed to find the local inn. It was clean and well cared for and it looked like the perfect place to relax and take a break for the rest of the day. They got a room for the night and then Xena began carrying their gear up to it, while Gabrielle began to negotiate with the innkeeper about the details of a performance for that evening.

Xena had nearly finished checking out the room and placing their things where they would be handy, when Gabrielle finally showed up. "All set?" she asked the young woman, as she examined the window to make certain it was secure.

"Yup. I'm up after dinner," Gabrielle replied. "And I even got him to throw in dinner in our room for free," she said with a grin.

"Not bad," Xena said, as she finally turned to face her young friend. "I'm going down to get Argo settled in," she added, changing the subject. "Do you want to come with me?"

"Sure. And how about afterwards we take a little tour of the town?"

Xena smiled wryly. "Well, okay. But from what I saw on the way in, I don't think there's much in this town worth touring," she said, as she led the way down to the stables.

In no time at all, Xena had checked on Argo and made certain that the mare was being well cared for. Turning to her friend, she motioned for Gabrielle to lead the way and they began wandering around the town. Soon, however, Gabrielle was forced to admit that Xena's original assessment was correct. Although Nalimore couldn't really be considered a small village, it was obvious that the stores that were present were mainly geared to meeting the simple needs of the local residents, and they held little of interest for either woman. Xena stopped briefly in a store that sold weapons but the items for sale, although of decent quality, were nothing special. The warrior quickly lost interest and moved on.

Soon Gabrielle and Xena made their way back to the inn and up to their room. They still had several hours before dinner and nothing pressing to do, so they spent the rest of the afternoon in each other's arms, talking, making love, and holding each other close. When supper finally arrived, they enjoyed a quiet meal, occasionally feeding each other small bites of food and stopping often to touch and kiss.

Eventually, Gabrielle had to get ready to go downstairs for the evening's performance. Sighing softly, she reluctantly rolled out of the bed and went to get dressed. As she finished, she turned to face her lover, fighting the urge to join her on the bed once again. "How do I look?" she asked, trying not to notice the fact that Xena was still not wearing any clothes.

"Perfect," Xena said softly. "Good luck, even though I know you don't need it."

"You're right," Gabrielle said with a grin. "With material like this, how can I possibly miss?" Looking around one last time to make certain she wasn't forgetting anything, Gabrielle paused before walking towards the door. "Why don't you come down in a little while. We'll have a drink together."

Xena looked at her skeptically. "How will I know when you're done?"

"Just come down after awhile. If you still hear me talking about you, you'll have plenty of time to flee back to the safety of the room," Gabrielle said with an evil grin.

Xena rolled her eyes at her friend's attempt at humor. "All right," she finally said. "I'll see you later. But you're buying."

"Of course Warrior. Don't I always?" Gabrielle replied, as she smiled and walked out the door.

After Gabrielle left, Xena spent her time polishing and repairing her armor and cleaning her weapons. After she finally finished, she decided to go downstairs to see if Gabrielle was through with her stories. As she approached the main room, she could hear Gabrielle's voice and she hesitated momentarily. As Xena continued to listen, however, she realized that the bard was nearly finished with her story, so she decided to go ahead and enter the room.

The tavern was crowded, and all attention was focused on Gabrielle. Xena smiled as she watched her friend skillfully weave her tale, before looking around for an available table. Finally, she saw a vacant one in the corner and carefully began maneuvering in that direction. Gabrielle finished her story just as Xena reached the table and the room was filled with the sound of cheers and applause. Pausing for a moment to look back at her friend, Xena watched as several of the patrons began pressing dinars into the bard's hands. Xena waited for a few more seconds until Gabrielle looked up and nodded at her, before finally sitting down to wait for her friend.

"You just missed an amazing performance."

Xena looked up in surprise. Turning towards the direction of the voice, she saw an older man regarding her with a pleasant smile. "What?" she asked absently.

"The bard," he said, nodding towards Gabrielle. "She was fantastic, one of the best I've heard in ages, but you missed her performance."

"Oh," Xena said as she looked over and watched Gabrielle make her way to the bar. "You liked her stories?" she asked, as she turned back to the man.

The man nodded. "They were great, but it was really the bard's ability that made the difference. She....," he stopped speaking abruptly as Gabrielle appeared at Xena's table with two mugs and sat down beside her.

"Hey there," Gabrielle said with a warm smile as she handed Xena a mug.

"Hey there yourself," Xena replied. As Gabrielle moved slightly closer to her, Xena reached underneath the table to take the young woman's hand and squeezed it gently. "Looks like it went well."

Gabrielle nodded, as she held Xena's hand tightly in her own. "I still think I need to work on one of them a little bit but overall I'm pretty happy with them both."

Xena looked up at the man sitting at the table beside them and tried not to laugh at the embarrassed look on his face. "Well, I know of at least one person here who enjoyed your stories," she said with a smile.

The man gave her a sheepish grin. "I didn't realize you two were friends. I guess you already know how good she is," he said.

"Yup," Xena answered, as she squeezed Gabrielle's hand once again. Looking directly into her lover's eyes, Xena smiled wickedly. "I know exactly how good she is."

Gabrielle nearly choked on her drink, as she struggled not to laugh out loud. Regaining her composure, she turned to the man and smiled winningly. "That's right, Xena prefers private performances to public ones, but I do my best to keep her satisfied."

The man smiled. "Lucky her," he said, missing the double meanings completely. "So have you been to the Academy at Athens?" he asked curiously.

"Well, I was there for a little while, but I didn't stay long. I decided I'd rather be traveling around than spend the next several years at the Academy."

The man looked at her with new respect. "Wow. I was certain you had to be Academy-trained," he said sincerely. Suddenly realizing he had yet to introduce himself, he smiled and shook his head ruefully. "I'm sorry. I don't know where my manners are. My name is Hrothgar," he said, extending his hand to the young woman.

"Nice to meet you Hrothgar. I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena," she said, as she shook his hand.

Hrothgar's eyes widened slightly. "This is Xena? The one from your story?" he asked in surprise. "You certainly appear to lead an exciting life," he said, looking the warrior over more carefully.

Xena shrugged carelessly. "I guess," she said noncommittally, before turning her attention to her drink.

Gabrielle hid a smile, as she realized Xena was growing uncomfortable under Hrothgar's continued attention, and drew the older man into a discussion about the stories she had just told. She asked him about the parts that he had liked the best, the parts that had seemed the most effective, and anything that had seemed awkward or confusing about the performance. Throughout the entire conversation, she continued to hold hands with Xena under the table, smiling occasionally when she felt Xena's thumb lightly caressing her hand.

As the hour began to grow late, Gabrielle felt her friend starting to grow restless. Taking a break from her conversation with Hrothgar, she turned to find Xena watching her. "Ready to call it a night?" she asked the warrior quietly.

"Yeah, I want to get an early start tomorrow," Xena replied.

Gabrielle nodded and started to rise, telling Hrothgar that she had enjoyed their conversation and wishing him a good night. Before she could take more than a couple of steps, however, she saw the innkeeper approaching. "Please miss," he asked hopefully. "Several of the customers have asked me if you could possibly be convinced to tell one more story before you left."

Gabrielle hesitated and then looked at Xena. "If I tell one that does not mention you, will you stay?"

Xena chuckled ruefully. "All right. I'll stay," she said, as she settled back into her chair. "But you're just telling one, right?"

Gabrielle grinned. "Just one," she agreed, before turning and walking back to the makeshift stage.

The people in the tavern quickly quieted down when they saw that the young bard was getting ready to tell another story. Gabrielle paused for several seconds, while she focused her thoughts, and then smiled and launched into her tale.

"On the slopes of the Phrygian hills, two oak trees grow side by side...."

Xena smiled when she recognized Gabrielle's story. It was one of the first ones the bard had ever told her, the story of Baucis and Philemon. She listened as Gabrielle told how Zeus and Hermes had come down from Olympus to walk the realms disguised as mortals. The two gods had gone from home to home, requesting shelter from the elements, but had been turned away at every one until at last they came to the home of Baucis and Philemon, the poorest of them all. The couple had welcomed the gods into their home and fed them, holding nothing back in their efforts to offer comfort to their guests.

Glancing around the room, Xena noticed that everyone was completely captivated by the bard's tale. She wasn't particularly surprised. The very first time she'd heard Gabrielle tell a story, Xena had recognized that she was a good bard and somehow she'd managed to become even better during the course of their travels together. This story was a perfect example. The differences in Gabrielle's style were subtle, but they were still there, and the result was a story that captured the imagination of even the most hardened soul. Hrothgar was right. Gabrielle had the ability of an Academy-trained bard and Xena had heard few others who could even begin to compare with her young friend.

Looking back at Gabrielle, Xena began listening to the story once more. Eventually, the couple had realized that their guests were more than mere mortals, and they had hurried to capture their only goose, intending to sacrifice it for their guests. Zeus and Hermes forbade the sacrifice, revealing to the couple that they were gods. The surrounding homes that had turned the "strangers" away would pay for their evilness, but Baucis and Philemon would be spared. Zeus and Hermes led them to a hill overlooking the village and, as the couple looked down from their vantage point, they saw the entire village sinking into a marsh. Their house alone was spared and, while they watched, it was transformed into a beautiful temple. Zeus then turned to the couple and asked what he could do to reward them for their hospitality. They asked to be Zeus' priests and to be allowed to guard the shrine, a wish the god willingly granted.

Gabrielle focused on different members of the audience as she told her story, but when she reached the second request of the couple, she turned to face Xena, speaking directly to her alone. "Then Philemon asked Zeus for a second favor. 'For as long as I can remember I have loved only Baucis, and she has lived only for me. Let the selfsame hour take us both away together. Let me never see the tomb of my wife; nor let her suffer the misery of mourning my passing.'"

"The gods willingly granted both wishes, and gave Philemon and Baucis youth and strength as well. They lived for many years, serving as guardians of the temple for the rest of their lives. And when, at last, old age began to overtake them, they were standing in front of their temple when Baucis turned and saw Philemon sprouting leaves. And Philemon, as he felt himself rooted to the ground, saw his beloved wife turning into a tree as well. They reached for one another as bark began to cover their bodies, and with their last breath of life they cried out in unison, 'Good-bye, dear love,' as their faces disappeared behind green foliage."

"And so, to this day, if you visit the spot, you will see the two oaks growing together, their branches intertwined."

Xena stared at her friend as the room was filled with the sounds of cheers and applause once more. She remembered her reaction to that story the first time the bard had told it to her; she'd made a snide remark about people building boats out of the trees. When Gabrielle had pressed her further, saying that she thought that someday everyone would find their tree in the forest, the warrior had stated that the strongest trees in the forest stood alone.

When Gabrielle finally reached her side once again, Xena silently rose to her feet. "Ready to go?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

Xena nodded, her throat suddenly tight with emotion. She waited while Gabrielle said goodnight to Hrothgar once again and then followed the bard up to their room. Once they had entered, Xena made a quick check to ensure that their things hadn't been disturbed while they'd been gone, and then sat down to remove her armor. Gabrielle was instantly at her side to help her.

After the last pieces of Xena's armor had been removed, Gabrielle began gently massaging the warrior's shoulders. "Do you remember the first time I told you that story?" she asked softly.

"Yes I do. It was right after we started traveling together. And even though you told it well back then, you've definitely improved. I hadn't realized just how good you'd gotten at this, but Hrothgar was right. You could compete with the best the Academy has to offer."

Gabrielle smiled when she heard Xena's words, before moving around to kneel in front of her friend. Placing her hands over Xena's, she looked up at her lover's face searchingly. "And do you still believe what you told me back then? Do you still believe the strongest trees stand alone?"

Xena was quiet for several long moments before responding. "I don't know anymore," she finally confessed. "But I do know that you're my tree in the forest. I know that I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And I know that if I was given the chance, I would make the same request of the gods that Philemon did; that neither of us would ever have to know the pain of losing the other one again."

Gabrielle nodded. "So would I Warrior. I've lost you too many times already," she said, as she squeezed Xena's hands gently.

Xena smiled, as she rose from her chair, drawing Gabrielle up to stand in front of her. Leaning down, she brushed her lips across her lover's, before sweeping the bard up into her arms. Grinning at the young woman's startled expression, she said, "Well my Queen...."

Gabrielle quickly placed her fingers over Xena's lips to silence her. "No," she said, "Not tonight." Seeing the warrior's confused expression, she smiled before continuing. "No 'my Queen'. Tonight, there's no Amazon Queen, no Warrior Princess. Tonight there's just Gabrielle and Xena, two women who love each other."

Xena smiled when she heard her lover's words. "All right, Gabrielle," she said huskily, as she turned and began carrying the young woman towards the bed.

Xena gently placed Gabrielle down on the mattress and then immediately stretched out beside her, her mouth moving to cover the bard's in a deep, passionate kiss. Breaking away, Xena gazed down on her lover silently, her heart overflowing with love for the young woman. Slowly the lovers began undressing each other, lips and hands moving to explore the other's body as each piece of clothing was removed. When the last item was finally tossed aside, Xena rolled over onto her back and pulled Gabrielle to lie on top of her, her fingers lightly caressing the younger woman's body.

Gabrielle shifted positions to straddle the warrior, groaning when she felt Xena's wetness rubbing against her own. Pressing her hips against Xena's, Gabrielle leaned down to kiss her lover, sighing softly when she felt the warrior's hands moving across her body. Time seemed to stand still while the two continued to move against one another, hands stroking and caressing, as lips blazed fiery trails across each other's skin. A fine sheen covered both their bodies, and they were both moaning softly as their desire began to slowly consume them.

Xena looked up at the young woman poised above her. Framing Gabrielle's face in her hands, she swallowed several times as she struggled to speak. "Tell me what you want," she finally murmured softly. Pulling the younger woman down to her, Xena kissed her gently, before leaning back once again. "Tell me," she repeated, as she locked her gaze with Gabrielle's.

Gabrielle's heart pounded furiously in her chest when she saw the love in Xena's eyes. Reaching up, she lightly caressed the warrior's cheek with her fingertips. "Just love me," she said quietly. "That's all I ever want," she said, before leaning down to kiss her lover once more.

Xena placed her hands on the young woman's hips and pulled Gabrielle hard against her, grinding her sex against the bard's, as their kiss deepened. She continued to slowly thrust her hips against her lover's for several minutes, before finally urging Gabrielle forwards. She sighed in satisfaction, as she brought the young woman's breasts to her eager lips. Xena's tongue flicked out to just brush the bard's nipple, and she smiled when she saw it harden instantly at her touch. She continued to tease the sensitive tip, while she listened to Gabrielle whimpering softly, her hands holding the bard's hips firmly against her stomach. Finally, Xena leaned up to capture Gabrielle's breast between her lips, sucking hard against the tender flesh, as the younger woman began to writhe against her.

Xena continued the sweet torment until they both began to need more. Applying pressure to Gabrielle's hips once again, Xena moved her forward until the bard's knees were planted on either side of her head. Wrapping her arms around the younger woman's thighs, Xena pulled her lover down to her hungry mouth, her tongue eagerly parting the labia to move through Gabrielle's wetness.

Gabrielle groaned loudly when she felt Xena's tongue start to caress her tender flesh. Clutching the headboard, she pressed her hips against the warrior's mouth, her breath coming in short pants as she momentarily surrendered to the sensations flowing through her body. "So good," she muttered thickly, as she felt Xena's tongue moving against her. "That feels so good," she continued, as she began slowly rocking her hips in rhythm to the movement of her lover's tongue. Gabrielle reached down to grab Xena's hands and brought them up to cover her breasts, moaning with pleasure when the warrior's fingers began to stroke them firmly, squeezing the nipples and then tugging on them, before moving back to caress her entire breasts with her palms.

The young bard continued to straddle her lover for several more minutes, groaning softly as a steady warmth began flowing through her veins. Finally she found the strength to move away and, with a low moan, she lifted her hips away from Xena's questing mouth. Seeing the look of bewilderment on the other woman's face, Gabrielle gave her a shaky grin before turning around to face the foot of the bed. Hearing the warrior's sigh of contentment, Gabrielle lowered her hips to her friend's waiting lips once again, before leaning down to reach Xena's heated center.

As she felt Xena's tongue plunge into her, Gabrielle struggled to stay focused. Inhaling deeply, she wrapped her arms around her lover's thighs to pull them apart and then lightly touched the warrior with her tongue. Xena's hips bucked upwards when she felt Gabrielle's caress, and the warrior groaned loudly against her lover's skin. Pressing harder against Xena's mouth, Gabrielle moved her own tongue firmly against her lover, dipping deep into the cleft as she thoroughly explored the warrior, savoring the taste that was uniquely Xena. Slowly, Gabrielle pushed her tongue into her lover, as she began matching the rhythm of Xena's tongue as it thrust into her. The sound of the warrior's muffled cries of pleasure filled her ears, sending a bolt of electricity through her system that excited every nerve ending in her body, causing her to quiver with pleasure everywhere that Xena touched.

Gabrielle moved up to nibble Xena's clitoris, before sucking hard on the swollen bundle of nerves. She smiled when she heard Xena moan softly, then gasped loudly when she felt the warrior's lips move to apply the same treatment to her. Desperately trying to focus on anything other than the throbbing pulse that was emanating from between her legs, she shifted positions slightly to bring her hand up to stroke her lover. Swirling her tongue over Xena's clit, she carefully used her fingers to enter the warrior.

Xena choked back a sob, as she felt Gabrielle's fingers thrust into her, and she frantically fought back the urge to give in to the feelings threatening to overwhelm her. Parting Gabrielle's thighs even further, Xena slipped her fingers inside her young lover as well, shuddering when she felt the muscles within clench her fingers tightly.

The two women strained against one another, as they both sought to bring the other to the edge. Soft, incoherent sounds of ecstasy were wrung from their lips, while their sweat covered bodies moved against one another. They each groaned softly when they felt the delicious friction of their bodies rubbing together. They sucked and lapped at the other's wetness, lightly and then harder, slower and then faster, striving to make the moment last as long as possible, both wanting to climax at the same moment in time.

With a low groan, Gabrielle finally gave in to the waves of pleasure that were flowing through her body. She buried her face in Xena's soft curls to muffle the cry that was torn from her lips. The bard somehow managed to thrust her fingers into her lover a few last times, before the feelings crashing through her body overwhelmed her completely. Clutching her lover tightly, she pressed her hips hard against Xena's mouth, as she shuddered uncontrollably above her.

Moaning loudly, Xena allowed herself slip over the edge as well, her body arching off the bed as she climaxed. She finally collapsed back against the mattress and struggled to catch her breath. As her breathing slowly began to return to normal, she felt Gabrielle's tongue moving against her once again and she eagerly returned the favor. They quickly brought each other back to the pinnacle once more and, with a hoarse cry, Xena gave into the ecstasy that was coursing through her body. Arching against her lover once again, her body trembled and shook from the intensity of her orgasm.

When she felt Xena's release smash through her, Gabrielle's breath escaped from her in a shuddering sob and she allowed herself to fall once again. Writhing against her lover, the incredible sensations of pure pleasure flowed over her. She clung to the warrior until the last of the aftershocks had finally passed and then slowly turned around and crawled up beside her. She snuggled into Xena's embrace and laid her head on the warrior's shoulder, smiling when she felt Xena's arms tighten around her.

The two lay quietly in each other's embrace for several minutes, before Gabrielle finally leaned up to look at her lover. She slowly traced the outline of Xena's face, a look of absolute wonder in her eyes, as she thought about the amazing tenderness that the powerful warrior had within her soul.

Gabrielle smiled, as Xena reached up to capture her hand and kiss it softly. Intertwining her fingers with Gabrielle's, Xena held the young woman's hand securely in her grasp, as she looked up at her lover. "I love you, Gabrielle," she said softly, while she gently stroked her lover's back.

"And I love you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered softly. She dropped her head back down to rest against Xena's chest and hugged the warrior tightly. "I think I always have and I know I always will."

"And I'll always love you," Xena whispered, as she pulled Gabrielle closer and pressed her cheek to the top of Gabrielle's head. "I can't believe it took me so long to realize what was right in front of me all the time."

"We were both fools," Gabrielle said softly as she lightly caressed Xena's arm, before raising up slightly to look at her lover. "I just thank the gods we're finally together now," she said, before leaning in to kiss Xena once more.

"Gabrielle...Gabrielle wake up," Xena said urgently, as she shook the bard's shoulder.

"Hmmm?" the young woman asked sleepily.

"Gabrielle wake up," Xena repeated, shaking her lover's shoulder once again.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked in a bewildered voice. Finally managing to open her eyes, she looked up at her friend. Seeing that Xena was already dressed and wearing her weapons, Gabrielle began to worry. "What's wrong?" she asked anxiously.

Forcing a smile onto her face, Xena placed a reassuring hand on the bard's shoulder. "It's okay. We're not under attack. I just need to talk to you real quick. A rider just came looking for me with a message from an old friend of mine. My friend's wife and son have been kidnapped, and he doesn't think the man responsible will return them alive no matter how much ransom he pays. He wants me to help get them back."

Gabrielle nodded her head and started to get out of bed. "Okay. I'll get dressed...."

Xena stopped her from rising, pushing her back down while she shook her head. "No Gabrielle. I'm going to have to go alone." Seeing the bard getting ready to protest, she hurriedly continued. "I'm going to have to push Argo hard just to get there in two days. There's no time to waste here. There are lives on the line,"

Gabrielle considered Xena's words and then nodded grudgingly. "All right. I'll follow on foot. It will take me a little longer but I'll get there."

Xena thought about Gabrielle's suggestion and then shook her head. "No. You should stay here."

"Xena....," Gabrielle began angrily.

Xena quickly held up her hand. "Gabrielle listen to me. It's not that I don't want you with me, because I do. And it's not that I don't think you'd be able to follow me there on your own, because I know you could. And it's not that you wouldn't be a help to me, because you would. But I have no idea where I'm going to be going after I get to my friend's home. By the time you get there, I could be so far away it would take you another week to catch up to me. You'd most likely just end up waiting around for me at my friend's and you can do that here, just as well as there. It doesn't make sense for you to follow me this time," Xena finished, willing the bard to see the logic of what she was saying.

Gabrielle listened to Xena carefully, before finally shaking her head. "No. The last time you rode off on your own because someone said they needed your help it was a trap and I almost lost you. And now you expect me to just sit here while you do the exact same thing again?"

"This is different Gabrielle. I know this man. He's a friend. I can trust him."

"Do you know the messenger?" Gabrielle demanded.

"No," Xena admitted. "But the scroll he was carrying bore my friend's seal, and the message made references to things only my friend would know. The request is real. Please Gabrielle," she said, taking a deep breath. "I have to go. I can't be 'too late' to help again," she finished quietly.

Gabrielle looked at her friend silently, wanting to tell her not to go but knowing that Xena had to leave. "All right," she said finally. "But only if you promise me that you'll come back here safe and in one piece."

Xena let out the breath she had been holding, as she reached forward to take Gabrielle into her arms. "I promise that I'll be back before you've even had a chance to miss me," she said with a smile.

"Not possible Warrior," Gabrielle replied softly. "Because I'm going to start missing you the second you walk out the door. How long will you be gone?"

Xena hesitated before responding. "I'm not sure. A week at least, maybe two...Will you be okay here?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I'll be fine. The innkeeper wanted me to stay longer anyway, so I doubt there'll be any problem making an arrangement with him. But if you aren't going to be back within two weeks, then send word. Otherwise I may just get the entire Amazon tribe and come after you," she said with a slight smile.

Xena smiled at her words, before pulling the young woman to her to kiss her. Breaking the kiss, she reached up to cup Gabrielle's cheeks with her palms. Rubbing her thumbs across them, she gazed quietly into her lover's eyes, her own eyes filled with tenderness. "I love you," she said softly, before leaning forward to kiss Gabrielle once again.

After gently caressing Gabrielle's face one last time, she rose to leave. The young bard reached up and captured one of her hands. Closing her eyes, she brought Xena's hand to her lips to kiss it, before rubbing it softly against her cheek once more. Opening her eyes, she looked at the warrior, love shining from her eyes. "I love you too. Be safe," she said quietly.

Xena nodded, as she squeezed Gabrielle's hand and moved away, wishing they had more time to say good-bye properly. Taking a deep breath, she turned to look at her lover one last time. "I left the scroll with all the information on the table," she said quietly. "It has my friend's name and the location of his home, but you won't need it. I'll be back soon. I promise," she vowed. "After all," she said with a crooked smile, "What choice do I have? You hold my heart."

"And you hold my soul," Gabrielle said softly, as she watched Xena turn and walk out the door.

Part 5

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