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


Bulartha yawned sleepily, as she wandered through her tavern. Dawn was just breaking and she had to get her worthless slave to work. This would be much easier if she could just break the young woman's spirit but, unfortunately, Bulartha hadn't been able to manage to do so, no matter how many times she had raised her hand to the slave. She'd had to resort to not only chaining the girl up at night but had also been forced to keep the shackles on her legs during the day. The girl was definitely a runaway risk and the innkeeper was well aware of the fact that only the collar she wore around her neck prevented her from attempting an escape. That collar clearly identified the young woman as a slave and she would never be able to get out of the city while it was still around her neck. Perhaps, though, she was really going to too much trouble over this young girl. There had been several men who had expressed an interest in buying Bulartha's slave and a couple of them had even made her an offer. If she could just get one of them to come up with a little more money, then maybe she would simply sell this troublesome slave and buy herself a new one.

Bulartha was still considering this option, as she unlocked the door to the storeroom. Her musings were brought to an abrupt end, however, when she entered the room and was struck hard in the side of the head with a piece of wood. She staggered for a second and desperately reached out for something to support herself with, but there was nothing close at hand to stop her fall. The last thing Bulartha saw before she lost consciousness was a smile of utter satisfaction on Gabrielle's face as she stood over her, breathing heavily and holding a cracked broom handle in her hands.

Gabrielle hastily pulled the door shut and then leaned back against it weakly. By the gods, she'd actually done it. After days of painstaking effort, she had finally been able to get the collar off of her neck and, last night, she had succeeded in picking the lock on her manacles as well. Now all she had to do was get out of this god-cursed town and as far away as possible before Bulartha was able to send someone after her.

Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle rapidly began rolling, pushing and dragging the tavernkeeper across the room until she reached the far wall. By the time she had managed to get the woman close enough to fasten the manacles around her wrists and ankles, Gabrielle was sweating profusely. Shrugging off the momentary dizziness that washed over her, she quickly locked her former owner to the wall and then used a piece of cloth to gag her to keep her quiet. Quickly searching the woman's pockets, Gabrielle found the keys to the chains and took them from her. "I'll just hang on to these for a while, if that's okay with you," she muttered quietly.

Gabrielle paused once again to catch her breath and then moved back across the room to lift up a loose floor board and pull out the clothes she had hidden underneath it. Collar or no collar, no guard would believe she was anything but a slave while she was dressed the way she was. In no time at all, she had changed into the clothes she had stolen from a guest the week before and made her way to the main room. She sighed in relief when she saw that the place was still empty and then immediately entered the kitchen. She cleaned up as best she could, knowing that she needed to look as natural as possible if she was going to fool the gate guards, and then slipped out the back door to head to the stables.

Entering the stables, Gabrielle looked the horses over carefully. The last thing in the world she needed at the moment was some hyperactive animal that was going to throw her the second she tried to ride him. After a minute or so, she finally found one that looked at least vaguely gentle and she quickly saddled him and led him outside. Murmuring soft words of encouragement, she carefully mounted the animal, saying a quiet 'thank you' to the gods when the animal continued to behave calmly. Urging the horse forward, she began slowly riding towards the city gate, praying that they would pay no attention to her; that they would simply assume she was a traveler to their city.

As she approached the gate, the guards looked her over carefully. No one was allowed in or out of the city during the night-time hours and, even though the gates had been opened back up a short time ago, it was still rather early for anyone to be trying to leave the town. Knowing that appearances and confidence were what counted at the moment, Gabrielle smiled easily at the guard as he approached. "Good morning," she said cheerfully.

The guard nodded. "Good morning," he replied. His tone was cautious but not particularly suspicious. "What are you doing leaving the city so early?" he asked, wasting no time with trivialities.

Gabrielle flushed and gave him a demure smile. "Well, I'm supposed to be meeting a 'friend' of mine for a ride. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't late."

The guard grinned as he looked up at her. "Going for a ride with a friend huh? Sounds like fun."

Gabrielle did her best to continue to blush, as she tried to give him a bashful look. "Well I hope so anyway," she said, with a charming little grin.

The guard studied her carefully. She looked just like what she said she was, a pretty young woman heading off for a rendezvous with her boyfriend. She was a little skinny for his tastes, but she was attractive enough. He couldn't recall ever seeing her before but that didn't mean much. After all, the town was fairly large and he couldn't be expected to know everyone and, besides, there were plenty of travelers passing through the city at the moment. He glanced over at the other man standing watch with him who shrugged his shoulders, not seeing anything wrong with the girl or the situation. Glancing back at Gabrielle, he grinned and waved his hand towards the gate. "All right. Enjoy your 'ride'," he said, with a slightly suggestive tone to his voice.

Gabrielle smiled warmly at the two men. "Oh I will," she said happily, as she urged the horse forward through the gate and on towards freedom.

Gabrielle rode slowly from the village for a couple of minutes, not wanting to give the guards any cause for suspicion. As soon as she had passed out of sight, however, she immediately urged the horse into a gallop, desperate to put as much distance between herself and the village as she could. She had no destination in mind; she wasn't entirely certain where she was anyway. She only knew that her survival depended on getting as far away from the village as possible.

After she had ridden for a few miles, she decided to move off the road into the surrounding forest. It would slow her down, but it would provide considerably more cover and would reduce the chances of running into someone who recognized her as a slave. As soon as she entered the forest, she pulled the horse up and jumped down. She spent a few minutes searching the area around her, until she finally found what she was looking for: a thick walking stick. Pulling off the excess branches and leaves, she twirled the staff around her body for a few minutes as she accustomed herself to its weight and feel. Finally satisfied with her efforts, she climbed back onto the horse, feeling infinitely safer now that she was armed once again.

Gabrielle continued to ride for several more minutes, as she tried to decide what to do next. She had gotten out of the village but was still far from safe. Both Bulartha and the owner of this horse would soon be looking for her and, after the last month or so of abuse, her body was far from being in top condition. She was already exhausted from her exertions and, unlike Xena who could literally sleep in the saddle, Gabrielle knew full well that it was going to take all of her meager skills just to stay on the back of this animal. She briefly considered abandoning the horse and continuing on foot but almost immediately discarded the idea. Speed was of the essence here and she was far too weak at the moment to get very far on her own.

She had just resigned herself to the fact that she would have to ride the horse, when two men leapt towards her from the surrounding trees. The sudden appearance of the brigands startled the horse who reared slightly, throwing Gabrielle from the saddle. Gabrielle landed on the hard ground with a painful thud and lay still for several seconds, momentarily dazed as she gasped for breath.

One of the men grabbed the reins of the horse, while the other approached the young woman lying helpless on the ground. He stood over her for a few seconds, laughing loudly. "Looks like we got ourselves two prizes, Nayrilos. A horse and a pretty young girl," he said to his friend. "You can have the horse...I'll take her," he added with a leer, as he began to reach towards his intended victim.

Overwhelming anger rose up within Gabrielle when she heard his comments. She had been through too much to simply let this filthy son of a cyclops take away her chance for freedom. She waited until the last possible second and then swung her staff upwards into his groin. Her position on the ground restricted her movements somewhat and the blow lacked the full force it would normally have had, but it was still more than effective. The man howled in agony and stumbled backwards, giving Gabrielle the opportunity to scramble to her feet. Her head and her knee were both throbbing with pain and she swayed slightly as she faced the man in front of her. She knew, however, that if he managed to get a hold of her it would all be over, so she summoned the last of her reserves and calmly waited for his next more.

She didn't have long to wait. With an angry growl, he drew his sword and attacked. She parried his thrust easily and managed to disarm him, sending his sword flying through the air. Not wasting any time, she swept his feet out from under him and smashed her staff into the side of his head, rendering him unconscious. She lurched away from him on wobbly legs, catching sight of his partner charging towards her at the last possible second. Spinning to the side, she deflected most of his thrust, but he still managed to slash her thigh with his blade as he made the pass. The wound wasn't deep but it was painful, and Gabrielle knew that one more hit like that and she wouldn't be able to defend herself against him any longer. Taking a deep breath, she parried his next attack and then managed to drive her staff into his midsection, causing him to double over in pain. Immediately she brought her staff upwards, catching him in the chin and snapping his head backwards. Dazed and confused, he made an awkward stabbing motion towards her as he tried to regain the upperhand. Gabrielle brought her staff down hard across his wrist, causing him to drop his sword, and then landed several more blows to his body before finally knocking him out cold.

Gabrielle stumbled away from her two attackers, as she struggled to maintain her balance. Breathing heavily, she fought to clear her head, knowing that she had to get away from the area as quickly as possible. Her strength was gone, however, and clear thought was impossible at the moment. She settled for simply focusing on the horse and, with a deep breath, she began to force herself to walk in that direction, telling herself that she'd figure out how to get back up on the animal when she finally got there.

Before she had managed to take more than a couple of steps, however, a third man came crashing out of the forest. He stopped and stared in confusion at the battered and bloodied woman limping slowly towards the horse. After a couple of seconds, however, a look of concern came over his features and he began moving towards Gabrielle once again.

Gabrielle quickly brought her staff up in a defensive position. She was well aware of the fact that she had essentially no chance against the latest arrival. All her reserves had gone on fighting off the previous two attackers and she had nothing left to use against this newest threat. However, she refused to go down without a fight. "Stay back!" she ordered as firmly as she could, knowing that her voice lacked the strength to give any real force to her words.

The man quickly stopped where he was and held his hands up carefully. "I don't want to hurt you," he said hastily, his voice soothing and gentle. "I came to help."

Gabrielle teetered back and forth on unsteady legs, as she studied the man in front of her. He was wearing a uniform that looked vaguely familiar, but he was definitely not one of the soldiers from the town she had just escaped. "Why should I believe you? How do I know you aren't here to attack me too?" she asked weakly.

"Because I would never allow someone who would attack an innocent person to be a part of my army," she heard a deep, familiar voice say from behind her. "Especially when that person is one of my friends."

Turning around in astonishment, Gabrielle saw a tall, muscular man with long black hair and green eyes standing before her, grinning at her widely. "Cor?" she gasped softly. "By the gods Cor, is it really you?" she asked in shock, unable to believe that the man who had once been one of Xena's most trusted allies, and who was now a dear friend to them both, was actually here with her.

Cor's grin faded quickly, when he saw the condition that Gabrielle was in and, in a few quick steps, he was at her side, wrapping a strong arm around the young bard and carefully easing her to the ground. "It's really me Gabrielle," he said gently. "Gods above, what's happened to you? Where's Xena?" he asked, as he motioned for the soldier with him to approach.

Gabrielle shut her eyes momentarily, as she leaned into her friend's comforting embrace. "I was captured and sold into slavery...I just escaped this morning. Xena...Xena is leading an army again," she choked out, as tears began welling up in her eyes.

Cor ordered the soldier with him to go retrieve his saddlebags and then turned back to the young woman in his arms. "Xena is leading an army?" Cor asked in disbelief. "Why? I can't believe she would just abandon you like that."

Gabrielle shook her head, wincing slightly at the pain the motion caused. "She didn't abandon me. Ares tricked her into thinking I was dead so that he could get her back and, apparently, it worked."

Cor whistled silently as he realized the implications of what Gabrielle had just told him. He knew, better than most, exactly what Xena was capable of, and Xena riding at the head of an army was the last thing the world needed at the moment, especially when she was probably seeking vengeance for the death of the woman she loved. Cor shook his head, clearing his thoughts. Xena would have to be dealt with later. Right now, Gabrielle needed his help.

He paused for a few seconds to organize his thoughts, and then leaned back to look down at the young bard. "Okay," he said softly. "First things first. You're hurt and we need to deal with that before we do anything else." Quickly and expertly, Cor's fingers moved across Gabrielle's body, pausing for several seconds as he examined the wound on the side of her head that was still bleeding slightly, and then pausing for considerably longer as he examined the injury to her thigh. As Cor was finishing with his examination, the soldier who was with him returned with both of their horses and handed Cor his saddlebags. Cor thanked him and then ordered the soldier to see to the two men who had attacked Gabrielle, telling him to make certain that they were securely bound once he'd finished checking their injuries.

Cor quickly rummaged through his bags until he found several clean cloths and a needle and thread. "I want to put a couple stitches in this one," he told Gabrielle softly, pointing to her thigh, while he gave her something to eat to help ease the pain. Gabrielle nodded and then leaned back on her hands, before Cor shook his head and gently pushed her backwards until she was lying down. "Rest, Gabrielle," he said softly. "You'll be more comfortable if you lie down."

In no time at all, Cor had finished with her leg and was helping her to sit back up. As he moved around to her side and began to clean the wound on her head, the young soldier with him came back over and asked if there was anything else he could do to help. Cor considered his request thoughtfully, as he continued to attend to Gabrielle, and then nodded.

"Gabrielle, you said you were a slave. Where were you a slave?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I think the name of the town was Prost but I'm not entirely certain. It's several miles east of here though."

Cor nodded. "That's Prost. Who owned you?"

"The innkeeper. Her name was Bulartha."

"And the horse? Where did you get him?"

"From the stables. He belonged to one of the guests."

"All right." Cor removed a pouch from his side and tossed it to the soldier. "Zerlos, take the horse back to the inn and return it to its owner, with apologies from the Captain of the Uthranis Guards. Tell him the horse was needed urgently and use the money in that pouch to pay to have it groomed, fed, and watered. Then take the rest of the money and give it to Bulartha. Tell her that I'm buying her slave from her, so there's no reason to consider Gabrielle a runaway."

The soldier nodded and then opened the pouch. He frowned slightly and then hesitated before speaking. "I don't think this will be enough, sir. I'm certain that Gabrielle is worth at least five times what will be left after I pay to have the animal cared for."

Cor shook his head. "No, she's worth a thousand times that. But tell Bulartha that she should accept that and be happy. Tell her that the woman she has been keeping as her slave is not only a personal friend of both the leader and Captain of the Guard of Uthranis, but that she's also a personal friend of Xena, the Warrior Princess. If that doesn't make enough of an impact, inform her that Gabrielle is also the Queen of the Amazons. Point out to dear Bulartha that none of us are very tolerant of people who treat Gabrielle badly and that if she wants to keep her head on her shoulders, it would be a wise decision to simply accept the price I'm offering."

Zerlos smiled broadly. "Yes sir. Anything else?"

"Yeah. After you get done with that, I want you to head to Uthranis and tell Kieros I'll be delayed for awhile."

"Delayed? For how long?" Zerlos asked, knowing that the leader of Uthranis would want specific information about when Cor was returning.

Cor shrugged. "For a week or so. Tell Kieros that I ran into Gabrielle and that she needed my help getting home. He'll understand why I'm not returning right away."

"Cor you don't have to do this," Gabrielle protested. "I could just go with you to Uthranis. I know you must be anxious to get back to Kieros," she said wistfully. Kieros was not only the leader of Uthranis, he was also Cor's lover and she couldn't help but be a bit envious of her friend at the moment. Sooner or later, Cor would be back with the person he loved, while she had most likely lost Xena forever.

"I am," Cor admitted. "But Uthranis is well over a week from here. I can have you home in a few days and you need to rest and recover from all of this. Besides, you know Kieros likes you and he'd be furious with me if I didn't do what was best for you. I see no reason to put myself through that kind of torment for no reason," he said with a grin.

Giving Gabrielle's shoulder a friendly squeeze, Cor rose to his feet and walked over to talk quietly with Zerlos. The young soldier listened to his leader intently, before nodding in agreement. Glancing back at Gabrielle, Zerlos smiled warmly and waved, before taking the reins of the horse Gabrielle had used. Mounting his own beast, he quickly rode towards Prost, the borrowed animal trailing behind him.

Cor watched the young man leave, before turning around and walking back to Gabrielle's side. Gabrielle watched his approach with a smile. "So I guess this means you'll own me now, huh?" she said ruefully.

"Yup. But I'm a kind and decent master who will allow you to work off your debt and buy your freedom," he said grinning widely.

"Oh?" she asked archly. "And what will I be required to do?"

"Well Gabrielle, there's only one thing I want from you," Cor said with a smile. "I will require stories while we travel and three scrolls filled with poems before I leave you. I have to have something to give to Kieros to prove that I was really with you."

Gabrielle laughed softly. "I think I can manage that," she agreed, as she started to rise to her feet.

Cor quickly reached out and stopped her progress. "Gabrielle, I do want to get going, but I need to know if you have any other injuries that I should be concerned about. I can see that Bulartha was beating you and you look half starved, but is there anything else?"

Gabrielle sighed softly. "Nothing that needs to be dealt with right at the moment, Cor, and I really want to get moving again." Seeing the worried look on his face, Gabrielle smiled reassuringly. "My knee got twisted around when I fell from the horse, I have quite a few lash marks on my back, and there isn't a part of my body that doesn't ache. But there's nothing that we have to deal with right now, and there's nothing that won't get better with a little time, attention and good food."

Cor nodded his head. "All right. Wait here for a second," he said, before rising and walking over to his horse. Quickly securing the saddlebags to the rest of his gear, Cor gave his horse a reassuring pat and then led him to where Gabrielle was still sitting. Leaning down, he gently picked the young woman up in his arms and placed her on the horse, before climbing up behind her. "Let me know if the pace gets to be too much and we'll take a break," he said quietly.

Gabrielle nodded and then leaned back gingerly against his chest, grateful to finally be able to simply relax and let someone else take care of things for a change. As she looked around the clearing, she caught sight of the men who had attacked her, still bound and unconscious and lying on the ground. "What about them?" she asked in a tired voice.

Cor shrugged. "Someone will probably come along and find them. I told Zerlos to tell the people in Prost about them, so it's likely that someone from there will come out to check on them. If not, eventually they'll probably manage to free themselves. And if they don't, then they'll just have gotten what they deserved anyway," he said calmly, before kicking his horse into a slow walk and finally moving away from the area.

As they rode away from the scene of the battle and began making their way back to the road, Cor tightened his grip protectively around his young friend. "Gabrielle, when I told Zerlos I was taking you home, I meant the Amazons, not Poteidaia. Is that where you want to go?" he asked quietly.

Gabrielle was silent for several seconds as she considered his question. Home. Why did that always seem to be such a difficult concept for her? Her home had been wherever Xena was, but Cor couldn't take her there. And even if he could, deep down, there was a small part of Gabrielle that was afraid that Xena might not want her around. Xena had looked absolutely magnificent in the vision Ares had shown Gabrielle; she certainly hadn't looked like the type of person that would want a simple little bard hanging around her. With a deep sigh, Gabrielle came to the only logical decision. Poteidaia was no longer home, it was simply the place where her parents and sister lived. "Yes," she replied softly. "Take me to the Amazons. Do you know how to get there?" she asked calmly.

Cor nodded. "Yeah, pretty much, although you'll need to guide me when we get close. It'll take us a few days to get there though."

Gabrielle nodded, as she rested against her friend. "Okay," she replied with a half smile. "Wake me when we get there," she said, as she yawned and allowed herself to finally drift off to sleep.


The journey back to the Amazon village took Xena and the others almost a week. When they had been chasing after the warlord, they'd wandered all over the countryside, backtracking constantly and stopping on numerous occasions to help out villages and travelers. The return trip, however, was conducted with as much haste and as little fuss as possible. They traveled cross-country in a nearly straight line, all of the women anxious to get back to the village, although their speed was slowed somewhat by the condition of their prisoner. The Amazons had been stunned when they had first seen the battered and broken body of the warlord and they were equally amazed that Xena had somehow managed to keep from killing him. They had seen to his injuries as best they could while Xena had watched dispassionately, neither lifting a hand to help or stop the women in their efforts. The Amazons couldn't have cared less about Martakas' suffering, but they were determined that he wouldn't die before they got him back for his trial. Once they had started back towards the village, they pushed the pace as much as they could, enjoying the fact that every moment of the journey was sheer agony for their prisoner.

For the first few days, Xena was essentially numb to the entire situation. The rage and hatred that had kept her going before were all but gone, but so was her strength. She now followed the Amazons where before she had led. She was apathetic and indifferent to everything, and she wasn't certain that she even wanted to change the way that felt. The Amazons were all extremely concerned about her but they had no idea what they could do to help her. Even Alaini was unable to reach the warrior, who simply sat quietly every evening, staring into the campfire for hours, before finally curling up into her bedroll and falling asleep. The only times Xena showed any real emotions at all were when she would start to stare at Martakas for long periods of time. On those occasions, the anger within her would slowly start to bubble back to the surface and the Amazons were always careful to keep a close eye on her, knowing that the warrior would still love nothing more than to resume her torture of the man who had killed her lover. The usual procedure for dealing with Xena during these times was for one or more of the women to physically block Xena's view of the warlord, using their own bodies if necessary. Since Xena simply didn't care enough to expend the energy to move so that she could still see Martakas, the strategy was largely effective.

As they continued to travel towards the village, Xena's attitude improved only slightly. She rarely spoke more than a few words at a time and never initiated conversations with the others. She felt completely empty, and she began to wonder more and more how she was going to be able to go on with her life once this was all "over." Alaini had made a few comments about the possibility of Xena remaining with the Amazons, but the warrior knew that that would be impossible. It would be too painful to spend any part of her future with the Amazons. They would only serve as a tormenting reminder of Gabrielle and the love that they had shared.

Alaini understood Xena's reluctance and didn't press the issue. She continued to try to provide a shoulder for Xena to lean on, however, and at least in some respects she was successful. After awhile, she could see that Xena was finally coming to terms with Gabrielle's death and she was greatly relieved. She knew from her own experience that, until the warrior accepted her loss, she would never be able to move on and, on a more practical note, Xena would remain an extremely dangerous person to be around until she was finally able to deal with Gabrielle's death and go forward.

By the time they had reached the village, Xena was quiet and withdrawn but had managed to regain at least a small portion of her spirit. As they walked through the village gates, Ephiny came out to meet them. A member of the scouting party who had first encountered them had informed her of their return, but the relief on her face at actually seeing them herself was obvious to all. She recoiled slightly when she saw the appalling condition the warlord was in, before turning to study Xena carefully. The person standing in front of her was barely recognizable as the woman who had accompanied Gabrielle to their village a few months ago. There was a look of hopelessness in her eyes that Ephiny had never thought she would see. Xena appeared to have given up and shut down all her emotions and feelings. She was now simply going through the motions, not particularly caring what happened to her next.

"Thank you for helping to capture Martakas," Ephiny finally said quietly, not knowing what else she could or should say.

Xena simply shrugged as she watched the Amazons lead the warlord away. After a few more silent moments she turned back to face Ephiny. "The sentence will be carried out tomorrow?"

Ephiny nodded. "He'll be given a chance to speak and then he'll be executed. I'll use Terreis' sword. It was given to Gabrielle when she received her right of caste. It's the closest thing we have to the 'sword of the slain'."

Xena nodded and then sighed heavily. "All right. Do you need me for anything else?"

Ephiny shook her head. "No. You're welcome to stay in my hut while you're here. Do you...."

"No thanks. I'll be around if you need me," Xena said abruptly, before walking silently away.

Alaini and Ephiny watched her leave. "So? How is she really?" Ephiny asked quietly.

Alaini shrugged. "I don't know. She made the decision on her own not to kill Martakas, so that's something anyway. At the moment she's mainly hurt and confused, and I think she finally understands the fact that Martakas' death isn't going to give her what she really wants. She still wants him dead and, deep down, I think she still wants to kill him herself. But she's realized that it won't heal the pain in her heart and that's just making her angrier and more troubled. She needs time to heal and, until she gets it, I wouldn't suggest doing anything that will set her off if you can avoid it. Right now, though, she mainly just needs to be left alone."

Ephiny nodded, before looking in the direction that Martakas had been taken. "All right. I'll spread the word that she is not to be bothered. For now, though, I need to see to our prisoner. I want him to be in top condition when we execute him tomorrow," she said coldly, before walking quickly away.

Cor and Gabrielle journeyed in relative peace for several days. The young bard found it rather amusing that people who might normally have tried to give Xena and her a hard time because they were two "helpless" women, gave Cor and her a wide berth. It wasn't really surprising though. After all, Cor was one of the largest, more powerful looking men Gabrielle had ever seen, rivaling Hercules in sheer size. Few people wanted to tangle with someone that looked like that.

As they traveled through the countryside, Gabrielle worked off her "debt" by telling stories and poems. The first things she covered were the events that had led up to Cor finding her in the forest, as well as telling her friend everything she knew about what had happened to Xena. After that, though, she began telling Cor happier tales, and the time passed by quickly. She tried to thank Cor for taking the time away from his trip back to Uthranis to take her to the Amazons, but he would have none of it. He calmly informed her that he had been nearly bored to death with Zerlos, who was a decent man but one of the dullest individuals to walk the face of the earth. Unfortunately, the other men who had helped Cor escort several dignitaries from Uthranis to Drechen had either stayed behind for a few days or had taken a short leave of absence to visit other places, before they too would return home to Uthranis. That had left Cor alone with Zerlos, and he had been more than happy to send the young man on ahead by himself to Uthranis.

Cor pushed the pace as much as they could, stopping frequently whenever Gabrielle needed a break. Each day they rode until it was nearly dark and, once they stopped for the night, Cor insisted on taking care of all the camp duties while Gabrielle rested. At first, Gabrielle tried to protest, but her words fell on deaf ears and she had to admit that it felt good to have someone fussing over her for awhile. Cor kept a close watch on the injuries that Gabrielle had suffered during her fight with the bandits, changing the bandages and reapplying salves to help the wounds heal more quickly. He also spent considerable time caring for the whip marks on Gabrielle's back that served as souvenirs from Bulartha, some of which had become infected and were extremely painful for the young bard. After all of Gabrielle's injuries had been tended to, Cor would gently massage the young woman's aching muscles until she fell asleep.

The only thing that marred their travel was the fact that Gabrielle's sleep was often plagued by nightmares, and Cor was forced on several occasions to wake the young woman up. Holding her close, he whispered soft words of comfort to his friend until she was able to get to sleep once again. He knew full well, though, that it wasn't his embrace that Gabrielle wanted or needed. Unfortunately, he wasn't certain what he would be able to do about Xena even after he had delivered Gabrielle to the Amazons. If Xena actually had gone all the way back over to Ares' side, simply telling her that Gabrielle was alive wasn't likely to have much of an impact on the warrior. And even if Xena hadn't really gone that far yet, after all this time it was going to be difficult to get her to believe that Gabrielle was still among the living.

They continued their steady and rapid pace for a few days, and eventually they drew close to the border of the Amazon territory. "So," Cor asked curiously, "Have you figured out yet what you're going to say to the Amazons when we see them?"

Gabrielle shook her head. She had been trying for days to decide the best way to handle her reunion with the Amazons. She had seen Amazons riding with Xena in the vision Ares had shown her, and she was all but certain that the women of the village "knew" that she was dead. Unfortunately, she wasn't exactly sure what she could say to them to prove who she really was. She was reasonably certain, however, that she would eventually be able to convince them that it had all been a horrible mistake. "No, I haven't," she finally replied. "I'm counting on the fact that they'll be willing to hear me out though. After all," she said with a wry grin. "it's not the first time Xena or I have 'returned from the dead'."

Cor chuckled softly, before urging his horse on to greater speeds and encouraging Gabrielle to tell another one of her stories. It wasn't long before they had crossed into Amazon territory and were surrounded on all sides by dense forest. Almost immediately, Cor sensed that they were being watched by unseen eyes and he leaned forward to tell Gabrielle that her sisters were all around them. They continued to ride slowly through the forest, knowing full well that their appearance had to be causing quite a disturbance among the Amazon scouts. An unknown man traveling with a woman who had the appearance of their dead Queen were not exactly a common sight.

After they had been moving through the forest for a short time, Cor pulled his horse to a stop and jumped down to stand on the ground beside Gabrielle. He stood silently, waiting for the Amazons to make their move, knowing that it would be best if they got this confrontation out of the way as soon as possible. Gabrielle looked down at him curiously and then started to dismount as well. Cor began to stop her but then shrugged and helped her down. It didn't really matter one way or the other, he supposed, as long as Gabrielle didn't have to stand for too long on her injured leg.

Several minutes passed in absolute silence. Gabrielle began to grow nervous as more time went by and nothing happened, but Cor remained at ease, smiling at the young bard encouragingly when he saw her becoming more and more apprehensive. Suddenly, without warning, ropes fell from the trees and several masked Amazons dropped down to completely surround them, all of them pointing crossbows at the intruders to their forest. Both Cor and Gabrielle immediately gave the women the Amazonian symbol of peace, before slowly dropping their hands back to their sides.

One of the women stepped forward to speak, her voice slightly muffled by the mask she was wearing. "Who are you?" she demanded.

Gabrielle smiled and moved forward slightly. "It's me, Gabrielle...."

"That's impossible!" the Amazon interrupted harshly. "Queen Gabrielle is dead."

Gabrielle shook her head. "No. I'm not. It was all a mistake. I was captured and held as a slave but I wasn't killed. I know this is hard to believe but I'm telling you the truth."

The woman standing in front of her slowly removed her mask, revealing herself as Solari. "Do you know who I am?" she asked calmly.

Gabrielle smiled warmly. "You're Solari. You stood with Ephiny and me against Velasca and now you're Ephiny's second in command. And you're a good friend to us both."

A momentary look of relief flashed through Solari's eyes when she heard Gabrielle's words, before she quickly hardened her features once again. Turning towards Cor, she looked him over carefully. "And who are you?"

Cor smiled easily. "My name is Coriath, but most people just call me Cor. I was in Xena's army a few years ago and I'm still a friend of hers. At the moment I'm Captain of the Guard for the city of Uthranis. I found Gabrielle after she escaped and I've been helping her to get back to her sisters."

Solari's eyes narrowed slightly. "You're a friend of Xena's?"

A brief look of confusion crossed Cor's face when he heard the intensity behind her question. "Yes, I am. Why? Is that a problem?"

Solari shook her head. "No," she said simply, before turning once again to study the woman who claimed to be Gabrielle. The young woman appeared a little pale and skinny, but otherwise she looked exactly the way that Solari remembered. An hour ago, she would have said that it would have been impossible to ever see Gabrielle again, but then again, she would have said the same thing about Xena after the Warrior Princess had died. More importantly, Gabrielle wasn't claiming to have come back from the dead. She was claiming that it had all been a mistake, that she had never died in the first place.

Solari shook her head. This wasn't something she should even try to decide. Ephiny was Queen and she should be the one to try to sort this mess out. Even better, Xena and the others had returned to the village that morning, and if anyone would know if this was actually Gabrielle, it would be Xena. In addition, Xena would also be able to vouch for this man who called himself Cor. All things considered, it would be best to escort the two people back to the village.

"All right." Solari finally said. "We'll take you back to the village. Ephiny will decide whether or not you're telling the truth," she said, deliberately omitting the fact that Xena was at the village as well. If these two were lying, it would be best to keep that piece of information a surprise as long as possible. "However, you will have to give up your weapons," she said, looking pointedly at Cor.

Cor shrugged his shoulders and then calmly allowed them to take his sword as well as the dagger he was wearing on his hip. He watched impassively while they took the reins to his horse but, when they began to lead the animal away, he spoke up quickly. "Gabrielle should ride," he said firmly. "She's been hurt and walking is still difficult for her. I understand that you don't know yet whether or not to believe us, but she is your Queen. Give her the benefit of the doubt now or you'll only regret it later when you realize the truth," he said reasonably.

Solari considered his words for a few moments, before nodding her head in agreement. The Amazon with the horse led the animal back towards Gabrielle and Cor quickly lifted the young bard up into the saddle. Grabbing one of the saddlebags, he handed it to the closest Amazon. "There's a staff and a dagger in there. I don't want you to think I was trying to get closer to the weapons."

Solari nodded once again, before ordering one of the Amazons in the scouting party to go on ahead to tell Ephiny what had happened. "All right. Is that it? Are there any more weapons you haven't given up?"

Cor chuckled softly, before reaching down and pulling out a dagger from his boot and tossing it at Solari's feet. Continuing to smile broadly, he carefully removed several more daggers that were hidden on his body and tossed them to the ground, until a half dozen knives had been given up. Turning to look at Gabrielle, he saw her struggling to hold back a smirk and he shrugged helplessly. "As soon as I find one that comes back after I throw it, I'll get rid of the rest."

Gabrielle grinned at her friend. "Why don't you just give in and learn how to use a chakram? It would be a whole lot easier."

Cor snorted loudly, as they all began walking back towards the Amazon village. "Define easier. I don't consider trying to function without both of my hands to be 'easier' than carrying a few extra daggers!"

Solari listened to Cor and "Gabrielle" discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of daggers and chakrams for several minutes, before she finally heard the young woman launch into a story. Solari closed her eyes briefly when she heard the bard beginning to spin her tale. She had heard Gabrielle tell that particular story once before and, as she continued to listen, she began to grow more and more certain that the young woman was in fact who she claimed to be. She just prayed to Artemis that Xena and Ephiny would be able to confirm her belief.

It didn't take long for Gabrielle, Cor, and the Amazon scouts to reach the village. As they rode through the gates, Gabrielle noticed countless women staring at her curiously. The reception she was getting was completely different that the one she had received the last time she had visited the village, but at least it wasn't overtly hostile. It was obvious that the women of the village had no idea what to make of her, and they were being extremely careful about making a decision about her one way or the other.

As they arrived at the center of the village, they came to a halt. Cor reached up and helped Gabrielle down from his horse and then watched as the animal was led away. He glanced around briefly at the women who were surrounding them, before grinning and leaning slightly closer to speak to his friend. "You know, this has got to be the one time that a man can visit an Amazon village with a woman, and not be the one everyone thinks of as unusual and out of place," he said with a wink.

Gabrielle chuckled softly and began to reply, before she noticed Ephiny slowly walking towards them. She smiled broadly at her friend but stayed where she was, not wanting to do anything that would serve as a cause for alarm to the other Amazons. "Ephiny!" she exclaimed happily. "It's good to see you again!"

Ephiny looked the visitors to the village over carefully. "So you know who I am?" she asked calmly.

"You're Ephiny, Queen of the Amazons in my absence. You have a son named Xenon Gabris Phantes who often spends time with his grandfather Tyldus at the centaur village across the river. I tried to give you my right of caste when we were in the Thessalian Temple after I'd been wounded but you refused to take it. And you gave me your mother's staff to serve as my first weapon," Gabrielle said confidently, wanting to volunteer as much information as possible.

Ephiny's eyes softened slightly, as she continued to look at the young woman, before she glanced over at Cor. "And you're one of Xena's friends?" she asked evenly.

Cor nodded. "Actually, I'd say that I was a friend of Xena's and Gabrielle's, but yes, I've known Xena for a long time."

Ephiny nodded slightly and then looked back to Gabrielle. The woman looked so much like her young friend and Queen, and Ephiny desperately wanted to believe that what she was hearing was true. However, she remained cautious. She had seen Gabrielle's body with her own eyes and there had been no reason until this afternoon for her to doubt that what she had seen was real. "You claim that you're Gabrielle, and yet I know that Gabrielle died. We held an Amazon funeral for her. Her body was placed on a funeral pyre."

"It was all a mistake in identity," Gabrielle replied. "The body you saw wasn't mine. It only looked like me. The person who told Xena about my death lied to her." Gabrielle took a deep breath before continuing. "I know how unbelievable this all sounds, but if you just give me a chance I know I can convince you that I'm telling you the truth. Ask me anything you want and I'll answer."

Ephiny considered the young woman's words, before reaching her decision. "All right. You look and sound like Gabrielle, but I'm going to need more before I can be certain." Turning to several of the women standing nearby, Ephiny ordered them to escort Cor and Gabrielle to her hut, warning them to treat the pair as honored guests, not captives. "I'll be there in a few minutes," she said with a small smile. "I just need to talk with Solari first."

Gabrielle nodded and smiled back, knowing that Ephiny was starting to believe that Gabrielle was in fact who she said she was. "Okay, I'll see you in a few moments," she replied, before turning to lean against Cor as they slowly followed the Amazons to Ephiny's hut.

Ephiny watched the two walk away and then turned around to address Solari. "Well? What do you think?"

Solari shrugged. "I don't know...."

"I didn't ask what you know," Ephiny said, as she interrupted the other woman. "I asked what you think."

Solari sighed. "I think it's her," she said simply.

"Why? Because it looks like her? Because it sounds like her?"

Solari shook her head. "No, although you're right she does. No, it's because that woman acts like Gabrielle. The way she carries herself, the way she reacts to others...the way she tells a story," Solari said with a wry grin, "All of it reminds me of Gabrielle. I just can't believe that any impostor could so perfectly mimic all of that. It just feels like Gabrielle has returned to us," she finally said.

Ephiny nodded. "Yes, it does. And I agree with you. I think it's her too. But there's one easy way to find out."


Ephiny nodded once again. "Yeah. An impostor could fool the rest of us, but there's no way she could fool Xena. Under normal circumstances, she might be able to pull it off for a little while, but if that person is a fraud, there's no way she can possibly convince Xena that she's Gabrielle. Not right now, not in the mood Xena is in, not when Xena has every reason to believe that she's a phony."

Solari nodded her head in agreement. "You're right. What did Xena say when you told her about Gabrielle's 'return'?"

Ephiny shrugged helplessly. "We haven't been able to find her yet. The others are still looking for her. I know she must be around someplace though. She wouldn't have wandered off too far. She'd stick close by until Martakas' sentence is carried out."

Solari looked at her intently. "That's right. I'd almost forgotten about him. What are we going to do with him if it turns out that this is really Gabrielle?"

"One crisis at a time is all I can handle at the moment," Ephiny replied with a rueful grin. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," she said, before leaving and heading towards her hut.

Xena had left the Amazon village almost as soon as she had returned, needing to be alone and knowing that the only way she would be able to accomplish that goal would be to get outside the village gates. She hadn't gone far though and had kept the village within sight, as she sat quietly waiting for time to pass. Now she was watching from her position in the trees as a pair of Amazons walked beneath her. The women were calling her name, as were several others at the moment, but Xena had no intention of responding to them. The fact that they were actively looking for her meant nothing to the warrior. She would only be found if and when she was ready and, at the moment, she wasn't ready. She knew exactly why they were looking for her, having overheard several women earlier when they had first started searching for her. Gabrielle had returned to the village, apparently with Cor, and the women were trying to find Xena to take her to Ephiny's hut.

Xena shook her head, unable to believe what was happening. It was amazing, it was incredible...it was Ares. There was no other logical explanation. The timing was just too perfect. Gabrielle was dead, she had finally accepted that fact, was finally coming to terms with it, and now the god was playing his next card. He had either arranged to have Strife or one of his other minions play the part of her friend, or maybe he'd just found some willing mortal and changed her appearance. In any case, it was obvious what he was trying to do. He had managed to convince Cor that the person with him was Gabrielle and now he was trying to convince the Amazons as well. Apparently he figured that Xena would just be swept along with everyone else, or that she would be so overjoyed about getting Gabrielle back that she wouldn't stop to resist the idea. She couldn't believe that Ares actually thought she would fall for this. She had no idea why he'd even try to pull a stunt like this, but she had no intention of playing his little game.

As Xena continued to watch the women search for her, she began to grow increasingly angry. How dare Ares try to fool her like this! How dare he try to corrupt the memory she had of her friend! He probably intended to have this "Gabrielle" belittle her, to tell Xena that she hated her, that she didn't want to ever see her again. Ares had pulled some dumb stunts in the past, but this was going too far. It was bad enough that Gabrielle had had to die, but for Ares to use her image like this now in some stupid ploy to get Xena to come back to him was inexcusable.

With a low growl, Xena began carefully moving through the trees back towards the Amazon village, her fury just barely in check. Everyone wanted her to come see the person claiming to be Gabrielle, and Xena would oblige them. She would confront the woman claiming to be her friend, and she would listen to her "story." And then she would force whoever this fake was to reveal the truth, even if she had to beat the truth out of "Gabrielle" herself.

Cor and Gabrielle both looked up when Ephiny entered the hut and began speaking softly with one of the guards who was standing near the door. With the addition of Ephiny, there were now four Amazons in the room with them. The other women had treated them well, however, and it was clear that deep down they believed that Gabrielle was who she said she was. There was both respect and relief in their eyes every time they looked at the young bard, and these feelings only increased as Gabrielle continued to talk to the women around her.

After a few moments, Ephiny walked over to where Gabrielle and Cor were sitting and sat down in front of them. She stared at Gabrielle for several long seconds, unable to really believe that any of this was actually happening. "So," she finally said awkwardly. "You said it was a mistake. That you never died. You're not trying to tell me that you've come back from the dead?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No," she said calmly. "I was never dead. I don't know who it belonged to, but the body you saw wasn't mine."

Ephiny nodded and then began to speak again but was stopped by the arrival of another Amazon. The woman looked extremely harried and it was obvious that she was becoming very frustrated by something. Ephiny looked at her inquiringly, before calmly asking, "So has anyone been able to find Xena?"

"Xena!" Gabrielle and Cor exclaimed in unison, as the Amazon shook her head in answer to Ephiny's question.

Ephiny turned back to face the pair, wanting to see the reaction that her question had caused. "Yes Xena. We're trying to find her but so far we've had no luck."

"Xena is here?" Cor asked in surprise.

Ephiny nodded. "Yes she is. You have a problem with that?" she asked, a slightly suspicious tone to her voice.

Cor shook his head. "No, it's not that. It's just that I was told she was leading an army..."

"I was leading an army, Cor," Xena said in a dangerously soft voice, as she slowly stalked into the room. "I was leading an army so that I could capture Gabrielle's killer. I caught him, so I sent the army home."

Gabrielle looked up in astonishment when she heard Xena's voice. "Xena!" she cried out happily, as she stood up and began moving rapidly towards the warrior. After a few steps, however, she stumbled to a halt, as Xena turned cold, hate-filled eyes in her direction. She had seen Xena angry before, but she had never seen such a look of intense rage and malevolence as she was seeing now. "Xena...I...."

"Don't!" Xena spat out angrily, as she held up her hand to interrupt the bard in midsentence. "I don't know who you are, but you're not Gabrielle, and I won't be deceived again!" Glancing towards Cor, Xena struggled to keep a tight rein on the anger that was rising within her. "Ares is using you, Cor. Gabrielle was killed almost two months ago. You were tricked into bringing this 'person' here to try to fool me, but it's not going to work."

Cor glanced around at the others in the room and saw that the Amazons were too confused by Xena's reaction to voice any opinions, and Gabrielle was too astounded to try to defend herself. He slowly rose and walked forward, until he was standing next to Gabrielle, and then began to speak quietly to the irate warrior in front of him. "Xena, listen to me. I know what you're thinking but you're wrong. This is Gabrielle, and if you'll just...."

"It is NOT Gabrielle!" Xena hissed furiously, before reaching out and grabbing the young woman's wrist in a excruciating grip. "Stop this now Ares, or whoever you are. I won't fall for it again!" she growled savagely, as a glint of madness began to appear in her eyes.

Gabrielle yelped in agony and fear, as Xena pulled the bard roughly towards her. Before Xena could follow up on her actions, however, Cor's arm flashed out as he drove his fingers into Xena's shoulder. Gasping in pain and shock, Xena was forced to release her hold on Gabrielle, as her arm temporarily went numb. Cor quickly maneuvered himself between the two women, keeping a vigilant watch on the Amazons in the hut with them. He saw Ephiny begin to move forward to help Xena, but to his relief he saw the warrior glare harshly at the Amazon, clearly warning her to stay out of the situation.

Xena slowly pressed her fingers against the nerve Cor had struck, as she carefully returned the feeling to her arm. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded in a low, hard voice.

"I'm stopping you from making the biggest mistake of your life," Cor replied evenly. "Look at me Xena," he ordered forcefully. "I know how hard this is for you to believe, but you've got to listen to me. I know Gabrielle. Not as well as you do, not as well as many of these Amazons do. But we've been traveling together for a few days and I do know her well enough that I would have figured out by now if she was an impostor." Cor took one step forward and placed a gentle hand on his friend's shoulder. "Forget about what you've been 'told' in the past. The eyes, the ears...all the senses deceive. Listen with your heart, Xena," he said quietly. "It's the only way you'll be able to see the truth. Gabrielle...."

"Is dead!" Xena choked out, her voice ripped from her throat in a strangled sob as she tried to resist what her friend was telling her. "She was killed by the warlord Martakas. I saw her body, Cor. I watched as the Amazons lit the funeral fire that consumed her corpse."

Gabrielle closed her eyes momentarily, when she saw the look of intense pain in her lover's eyes. "No," she said softly, as she cautiously moved out from behind Cor to stand in front of Xena once again. "I didn't die. Ares just wanted you to think that I was dead. It was all an illusion."

Xena stared at the young woman in shock before turning back to look at Cor. "No. No, I saw Gabrielle's body. I saw the way everyone in that town was looking at me. And Hrothgar said...."

Gabrielle shook her head "No...Ares was Hrothgar. It was a lie, Xena. None of it was true. You've got to believe me Xena. Ares arranged to have me sold into slavery, but I never died."

Xena looked at her friend uncertainly, unable to grasp what she was hearing. Frantically she replayed the conversation she had had with Ares in her mind. The god had given her his word that neither he nor Strife had killed Gabrielle. He had said that they hadn't made Martakas do anything that he hadn't wanted to do. But Ares had never once actually said that Gabrielle was dead. She stared at the woman in front of her, desperately wanting to believe what she was hearing but still terrified that it was simply another one of Ares' cruel games. "You just admitted Ares fooled me before. How can I possibly know that this is real now?" she finally asked.

Gabrielle's heart broke, as she saw the agonized expression on her friend's face. She thought for a few moments about all the things she had tried to come up with to prove to the Amazons who she was, before finally shaking her head sadly. "I've been asking myself that for days. How can I prove who I really am? And the trouble is, there's nothing I can tell you that can prove to you I'm real."

Gabrielle sighed softly before continuing. "Ephiny and the other Amazons would be satisfied if I told them some obscure facts that only Gabrielle could know, but you won't be. I could remind you of how you proved to me that it was really you in Callisto's body when I was standing over you trying to kill you. I could remind you how you convinced me that you were the one who had freed me from King Lias' dungeon, when I wasn't certain if it was you or Meg. I could even tell you what I told you to prove who I was so that you would be able to see that I wasn't one of Morpheus' illusions. But none of that would mean anything now, because deep down, you know that Ares could know any of that. And you need for me to prove to you that I'm not a part of some trap Ares is setting for you."

Gabrielle took a deep breath, before reaching up to gently stroke Xena's cheek, desperately grasping onto the clue that Cor had inadvertently given her. "Cor was right Xena. There's only one way you can be certain of me...and that's in here," she said softly, as she moved her hand and placed it over Xena's heart. "What does your heart tell you, Xena? What does your soul say?"

Xena closed her eyes briefly, as she felt the warmth of Gabrielle's touch slowly infuse her body, her heart pounding furiously in response to the young woman's words. Reaching up, she captured the hand that was lying against her chest and held it tightly, fighting to breathe normally as she felt wave after wave of emotion crashing over her. Her mind was still trying to fight against it, but in her heart and soul she knew that it was Gabrielle standing in front of her. The horrible darkness and devastating emptiness that had been with her ever since she had heard that Gabrielle was dead were gone. She felt complete again. The other half of her soul had been returned to her.

Opening her eyes once again, she gazed down at the young woman's face, an expression of absolute wonder on her own. "Gabrielle?" she finally whispered brokenly, before extending her arm to trace her fingers alongside the young woman's cheek. Her breath caught in her throat, as Gabrielle reached up and caught her hand and then turned to softly press her lips into Xena's palm, the gesture so achingly familiar that Xena felt her knees buckle and almost give way. "Is it really you?" she asked softly, desperately praying that this wasn't simply another illusion

Gabrielle sighed in relief when she heard Xena's words. "It's really me," she said quietly, before moving into Xena's all-encompassing embrace. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she held Xena close, afraid to let her go, afraid that at any moment she was going to wake up and discover that this was all just another dream. She smiled blissfully when she felt Xena's arms tighten around her, ignoring the slight pain she felt when the warrior's hands and arms pressed against her injured back. She'd been longing for this moment for far too long to let a few bruises keep her from having Xena's arms wrapped around her once again.

Xena continued to hold Gabrielle tightly for several minutes, unable and unwilling to let her friend go. Finally, as she began to get herself back under control, she heard the sound of someone clearing her throat. Looking up, she saw Ephiny and the other Amazons standing nearby, wanting to come forward to see their Queen, but hesitant to intrude on the lovers' reunion. Smiling ruefully, Xena moved slightly away from her young friend but immediately reached down to take Gabrielle's hand in her own, holding onto it like a lifeline. Gabrielle smiled tenderly at her lover for another moment, before turning to face the other women. With a sigh of relief they came forward, telling her with words and gestures how happy they were to learn that she was still alive. They touched her gently as they sought to convince themselves that she was in fact real, until Ephiny finally took her in her arms and hugged her tightly.

The Amazons spoke with Gabrielle for a few seconds before leaving the hut along with Cor, knowing that she and Xena needed to be alone at the moment. Gabrielle smiled gratefully at them for understanding and then turned back to look at Xena once again. The overwhelming look of love and tenderness in the warrior's eyes staggered the bard momentarily, causing her breath to catch in her throat. "I love you," Gabrielle finally whispered.

Xena felt as if her entire world had just been rocked to the core. Three little words. That's all they were, just three little words. But they were three little words she had never expected to hear again. Taking a deep breath, she gently pulled Gabrielle back to her to hold her close, her heart feeling like it was about to pound its way out of her chest when she felt the bard's head resting on her shoulder. "I love you too," she whispered softly, as she lost herself in Gabrielle's embrace.

Gabrielle held Xena tightly for several more seconds, before leaning back slightly to look up at her lover. Raising her hand, she lightly traced the lines of Xena's face, smiling when she saw Xena's eyes close as the warrior savored her touch. She continued her gentle caresses for several seconds, until her friend finally opened her eyes to look back down at her. Their gazes locked, while both women struggled to find the words to express what they were feeling. "You hold my heart," Gabrielle finally said softly.

"And you are my soul," Xena replied, before leaning down to cover Gabrielle's lips with her own. Gently at first, and then with increasing passion when she felt Gabrielle respond, Xena tried to convey everything she was feeling with that soul-searching kiss. Seconds passed into minutes as the lovers continued to kiss and hold each other tightly, whispering soft words of love and devotion to one another.

Xena finally broke away to look down on her lover, needing to see Gabrielle's face, as she tried to convince herself that she wasn't simply imagining that her lover had come back to her. She shuddered slightly when she felt Gabrielle's hands softly stroking her back and then carefully leaned forward to place a kiss against Gabrielle's forehead, before resting her head against the top of the young bard's. Struggling to control the feelings that were washing over her, she finally managed to speak, her voice raw with emotion. "I never thought I was going to be able to hold you like this again. I finally feel...."

Gabrielle looked up at her curiously, when Xena's voice trailed off uncertainly as she found herself at a loss for words. "You finally feel?" she asked quietly.

Xena thought for a few more seconds and then gave her lover a crooked smile. "I finally feel," she replied softly, before gently kissing Gabrielle and pulling her back into her arms.

Gabrielle smiled and moved further into Xena's embrace, content to simply hold on to the warrior and to feel her closeness. After a few more minutes, Xena leaned back to take a closer look at her lover. She noticed how wan and thin Gabrielle appeared and, as she caught sight of the injuries to her head and leg, she remembered that Gabrielle had been limping when the bard had walked towards her earlier. "Gabrielle, are you all right?" she asked worriedly. "What happened to you?"

Gabrielle looked up at her friend reassuringly. "I'm okay. I'm just a little sore and knocked around." Seeing the anxious look in her lover's eyes, Gabrielle smiled warmly. "Trust me, now that I have you back I'll be fine," she said, before moving back into Xena's arms. Feeling Xena's hesitation, Gabrielle tightened her embrace and pulled the warrior closer, before leaning up to lightly brush her lips against Xena's. "I won't break, Xena," she said softly, "And right now, I really need you to hold me."

Xena paused for a second and then moved away from Gabrielle as a thought occurred to her. Quickly removing her breastplate, she tossed it into a corner and then sat down in one of the chairs before pulling Gabrielle back to her, knowing that the bard would be more comfortable if she wasn't getting pressed up against the hard metal and if she was able to get off her injured leg for awhile. Gabrielle made a small sigh of contentment and then burrowed further into Xena's embrace, smiling when she heard the warrior humming softly as she gently caressed Gabrielle's back.

They sat together quietly for several minutes before Gabrielle leaned back slightly to look Xena in the eyes. "We have a lot to talk about, don't we?" she asked softly.

Xena swallowed hard, before nodding her head in agreement. "Yeah, we do...but not just yet. For now just let me hold you."

Gabrielle nodded and then laid her head back down against the warrior's chest. "For now, just hold me," she agreed, before closing her eyes and surrendering to her lover's embrace.

Part 9

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