Father of All Evil 

Part II

The small conference room was already filled when Xena walked in. In the middle of the room stood a large oval shaped table. Alexander was seated at the far end, with Parmenios at his right side. On the other side was an open spot between Alexander and Gabrielle. The rest of the seats were taken by several lieutenants. Most of them she remembered from the old army. Slowly she walked over to her chair and seated herself. 
"What took you so long?' Gabrielle whispered softly 
"Had an unexpected visitor." Xena replied. "We'll talk about it later." 
Gabrielle nodded. 

Alex slowly stood and faced his companions. "I've asked you all to come here to discuss our situation. Now, obviously you all know I've called for Xena to help us out. I'm sorry I didn't inform you all about this, but I realized that some of you might not be happy about that news and would try to stop her. I've heard the problems have been resolved now." he directed at Xena with a smile "You probably also heard that Xena has chosen not to be in command of this army or take any high ranking position in it, however she will be in charge of the training, as she has made perfectly clear today, and will be my advisor. Same goes for Gabrielle. I hold them both in high esteem and any sign of disrespect towards them I will take very personally." He let his eyes roam over the men and women in front of him. "OK, now that we have that settled." he said, seating himself, "let's talk about our status. Xena?" 

Xena leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. "It's not that bad really. After a couple of weeks they'll be in good shape. They'll need to know how to handle different weapons. But the thing I'm most concerned about is that some of the young ones really aren't meant to be soldiers. I don't know any names yet, but I think we'll have to try to get those ones out of the army. They'll only hurt themselves and others if they stay..." 
Alaran, who was seated at the other end of the table nodded. "I agree. I know some under my command that I've had doubts about. I'll keep an eye on them in the coming weeks and see what I can do." 
Xena nodded. "Good. You all know the men better than I do, though I hope that will change in the coming weeks." She turned to Alex. "How long have I got?" 

"I was thinking about traveling end of spring. The weather is good for traveling then." 
"All right then. We'll have to be ready in 2 months." Xena said. "It's gonna take some hard work, but it is possible. Have you thought about food supplies and stuff." 
"We've gathered a large supply of food and water." Parmenios replied. "Most of the food is salted meat and fish now, but we've asked the bakeries in the nearby towns to help us out when the time comes and the villages along the way have also offered to help. And I'm sure the Greek cities that were conquered in the last Persian war will be more than happy to assist. We have a couple of smiths traveling with us, and also some fishermen, doctors, horse trainers, bards..." 
"Bards?" Gabrielle suddenly was all ears. 
Parmenios chuckled "That got your attention huh? No famous bards or anything, well, except you of course. Eumenes will be recording the whole thing and one of our lieutenants here is a bard himself." 
A small Egyptian man seated next to her inclined his head towards Gabrielle "Ptolemaios." 

A servant entered and dinner was served. Several conversations began, most about the war, but since that had never really been a subject of choice for Gabrielle she started to talk to the young Egyptian. "So Ptolemaios, what sort of stories do you write about?" 
"I used to write Egyptian stories mostly." He stated politely, with a slight accent. "Stories of the gods and pharaohs. But when the Persians came... I lived at the border of the two empires and was under constant attack by the forces of Xerxes. Many friends and family died under the blades of his men. After I had fled to Greece I lost contact with the stories of my homeland. Now I mostly write poetry." 
"You're a poet?" Gabrielle asked enthusiastically. "Wow, a poet and a warrior... there's two things that you hardly ever see combined." 
Ptolemaios laughed. "Well, that is true. Most of my friends here don't understand one bit of my work." 
"I'd love to read some of your work, if you don't mind of course. I'm not much of a poet myself..." 
"I would be honored." the Egyptian told her. "If you can find the time, just drop by and I will let you read some of my poetry. Though I doubt you will find it interesting. It is mostly about my longing for Egypt…. It is strange. In Egypt I was a simple farmer. I had nothing to spare. And now I live in this land of wealth, I have all the money I could possibly want and still... there is nothing I want more than to return to the simple life I had before if it would mean returning to Egypt..." 
"That isn't strange." Gabrielle smiled. "I could have stayed at the academy in Athens and lived in luxury, but I didn't. All the money and the fame didn't mean anything to me... I just wanted to go home." 
The Egyptian nodded. "Home is where the heart is." 
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment, then nodded silently. 

It was late that evening when the two women climbed the stairs up to their rooms. 
"I never thought a war council could be so much fun" Gabrielle commented cheerfully. 
Xena laughed "Glad you had some fun. All this war talk must be pretty boring for you." 
"It's OK." Gabrielle replied "I want to know what's going on and all, so I'll listen. But talking about writing and poetry for a while was a relief." A silence fell as they entered Xena's room. "So, who was the mystery guest?" 
"What mystery guest?" Xena said. 
"You went upstairs, walked in to your room and suddenly there was..." 
"Oh, that mystery guest..." Xena replied, remembering. 
"Was it Ares?" 
Xena stopped dead, completely stunned. "How'd you know?" 
"I have many skills" Gabrielle replied seriously, then burst out laughing as she saw Xena's clueless look. "You were pretty on edge when you got back down and that usually happens after he's paid a visit. And it's only logical. I mean... you leading an army and all..." 
"I am NOT leading the army." Xena replied angrily. Gabrielle raised both eyebrows and stared at her friend knowingly. Xena rolled her eyes and sagged down on the bed. "Well, not exactly anyway." 
Gabrielle sat down beside her. "Come on Xena, we both knew this was gonna happen. I knew." 
"You did?" The warrior replied, a little surprised. 
"Of course I did. Xena, have we ever run into an army where you didn't take command?" 
Xena sighed. "No." she grudgingly agreed. 
Xena let out an even deeper sigh. "This is bad, isn't it?" 
Gabrielle stared at her in silence for a moment. "Why are you so scared of leading an army all of a sudden? This isn't any different from the time you lead that army against Caesar." 
Xena shook her head. "It's completely different." A short silence followed. "For the past three years I have only lead an army when I had to. Always a defending army." 
Gabrielle nodded, suddenly understanding the problem. "You're afraid that being the one who attacks will bring back some memories." 
"And more than that." Xena replied. 

Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. "What if... I promise you that if I see that you're becoming that person you were again I'll hit you over the head with a pitchfork and drag you back to Greece?" 
Xena burst out laughing. "Deal. Even it were only to see you try to drag me from Persia to Greece." 
"Hmm.. yeah, that might be a problem... Well, fortunately I'll never have to do any such thing, 'cause you won't give me any reason to." 
The warrior regarded her friend thoughtfully. "You have a lot more faith in me than I have Gabrielle." 
"That's because I know you better than you know yourself." Gabrielle chuckled. She patted the warrior on the shoulder, then stood. "Try to get some sleep OK. Because of your little training schedule we now only have 5 candle marks left, so I suggest you use them." She smiled. "Goodnight Xena." 
"Goodnight." She watched Gabrielle leave the room and heard the click of the door as she entered her own one. She stared at the door for another moment, then slipped into her night shirt and stepped into bed. 

The bard awoke with a shock at the sound of her name. She immediately stood, grabbed her staff and faced the shadows. "Who's there?" 
"No need to worry, my chosen one." said the voice and the form of a young woman stepped out of the darkness. She was wearing dark brown leathers and had a bow slung over her right shoulder. 
"Artemis?" Gabrielle said, in a surprised tone. "What are you doing here?" 
"Shhhh" The goddess suddenly became very restless and stepped closer to her chosen. "Be quiet. I have little time. But I just had to tell you this Gabrielle." She softly touched the bard's shoulder. "You are heading for great danger Gabrielle. Even worse than you've faced before. A great evil awaits you in Persia. It's..." 
Suddenly a bright light flashed behind the goddess and the young woman was yanked toward it. "You will pay for this betrayal Artemis" A low thundering female voice said. And then in a flash the goddess was gone.

Xena ran into the room just in time to see the light fade away. She looked at Gabrielle, who was pensively staring at the spot where the light had been. "Gabrielle? Are you OK?" 
Gabrielle looked up at the sound of Xena's voice. "Yeah, I'm fine... Not that I mind or anything, but what are you doing here?" 
Xena slowly walked over to Gabrielle's side and seated herself on the bed. "I had a feeling... like when Ares is around. It wasn't Ares, was it?" 
Gabrielle shook her head. "Artemis." 
"Artemis? What would she want from you?" 
"She came to warn me about something." Gabrielle replied "Something bad in Persia... But before she got a chance to finish that light appeared and dragged her away." 
"Weird." Xena muttered. "Maybe she meant the war was evil" 
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. "No, I don't think so. She was really serious Xena, going on about this great evil awaiting us in Persia. She was pretty scared to. Said she had little time." 
"Probably one of the other gods objecting to her telling you. A lot of gods will profit from this war you know. Zeus, because the Persians entered Greece without him being able to do anything, Hera, because they destroyed one of her greatest temples, Athena, because they destroyed her Athens, Ares... because he just really likes war...." 
"It was a female voice that came from that light" Gabrielle interrupted. And it would have to be a goddess who'd have the power to just pull Artemis away like that. All lesser gods are out." Gabrielle went over all the goddesses in her mind. "Hestia and Demeter have no reason to do something like this.... Aphrodite?" 
"I wouldn't know why." 
"So that just leaves Hera and Athena' 
Xena got up and started to pace around the room. "Damn the gods." she muttered. " I never ask for their help, I never want them to be around and still they always meddle in our lives...Aphrodite, Ares, and now Artemis, Athena or Hera..." 
Gabrielle chuckled softly at the warriors muttering. "They're gods Xena, that's their way of having fun." 
"Yeah, I guess..." Xena sighed and reseated herself on the bed. "So what do you think? About what Artemis said?" 
"Well... I doubt that Artemis would say such a thing and not mean it... she really did look very serious, so I'm sure she's right and there is a great evil there. On the other hand, after Indragit, Valeska and Callisto I think I can say we're used to some evil by now." The bard laughed softly. "I think we should deal with whatever it is when we get to Persia." 
Xena stared in front of her, silently. "Yeah... maybe..." 
"Well, that doesn't sound really convinced." 
The warrior chuckled. "Yeah, well, when a goddess personally comes to warn you, I have the tendency to take such a warning very seriously. But you're probably right. Let's just wait en see..." 

"Good," Gabrielle agreed, "Now that we've got that settled I'm gonna try to get some more sleep." The bard was just about to crawl back into bed when a hand pulled her away from the covers 
"Ah, ah, ah!" Xena wagged a finger at her. " No time for that. Remember, a candle mark earlier..." 
Gabrielle, groaned, then turned to give Xena a really sad look. "Do I really have to?" 
The warrior chuckled and stood, pulling the bard up with her. "Yes, you do. Come on, you go and get dressed. I'll get my stuff and meet you downstairs, OK?" 
"Yeah, yeah.." Gabrielle muttered, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. "Go on." 
Xena walked over to the door. "Best part is, we'll be doing this every day for the coming two months. Good thing you're a morning person, huh Gabrielle?" Xena ducked outside the door just in time to avoid a pillow aimed for her head. 

They headed for the training square as the first rays of the morning sun slanted over the landscape. "Beautiful day, don't you think?" Xena commented cheerfully. A low growl sounded to her right as Gabrielle narrowed her eyes dangerously. "Ah, come on Gabrielle." The warrior chuckled. "Give early morning a chance. Just look around you. The sun rising, only the sound of birds around you, the smell of the flowers... You would've missed all of that if you'd stayed in bed. Now, aren't you glad I dragged you out here?" 
"Eternally grateful" Gabrielle muttered sarcastically. 

Xena laughed softly as they arrived at the gates. She pushed open the door to the training area and then stopped dead. In front of her stood thousands of soldiers, all standing in formation. Thousands of eyes flicked in her direction. For a moment she just stood there, staring. Then she quickly recovered her pose and started walking to the platform. She felt Gabrielle's presence close behind as she mounted the few steps up to the platform and then turned to face the soldiers in front of her. Suddenly, a voice sounded from the back. "Hail Xena" and in one fluid motion all the men and women in front of her saluted her by a tap on the chest followed by an outstretched hand. 

Dead silence fell. Xena felt a soft hand touch her back as Gabrielle moved closer. Briefly she closed her eyes, swallowed down some memories and then faced the soldiers in front of her. "And all of that in just one day. Good to know I haven't lost my touch." She joked, an almost undetectable tone of discomfort still lingering in her voice. A soft laughter arose, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "We are going to do a little running today." Xena continued in a serious tone. "You'll be divided into ten groups. I'll take the first group and I want all the lieutenants with me to get to know the path. Parmenios will stay here and do some sword drills with the rest of the groups." 

All the men were divided into groups and soon the first one was ready to go. Xena walked over to Parmenios. "Par, I want you to start out with the same drills they did yesterday, then make them a little harder. Add some turns." 
Parmenios nodded. "No problem." 
"Good." Xena turned and wanted to head for the group of soldiers patiently waiting at the gates, but a voice stopped her. 
"Xena?" Parmenios asked 
"I uhm... I hope that saluting stuff and all didn't... uhm... make you feel uncomfortable or anything..." 
Xena slowly shook her head. "It was just... It just caught me off guard, that's all... Did you...?" 
"Oh no." Parmenios quickly replied . "Actually, it was their idea." He said, indicating the soldiers around him. "They asked me what was the right way to salute a..." The chief lieutenant stopped speaking and looked at her apologetically. 
"A commander" Xena finished softly. She sighed. "There really is no avoiding this is there?" 
"I'm afraid not." Parmenios replied. "They... they need this Xena. You said it yourself, they're scared. They need to know that they're lead by someone who'll pull them through all this. Not that they don't think Alex could do that, but you... well, you're you." 
"Unfortunately" Xena mumbled softly. 
The chief lieutenant smiled. "It'll be OK, Xena. Just wait and see how things work out." He patted her on the shoulder, then started to walk towards the platform. "Good luck with the running." 

"Thanks." Xena called after him, then turned and walked over to the men waiting at the gate. 
"All right, let's get going" she said to the troops and started to jog in the direction of the forest. Soon Gabrielle fell into pace beside her. "You OK?" 
Xena gazed at her friend for a moment, then smiled. "Yeah, I'm fine. It was a little sudden, that's all." 
Gabrielle nodded. "That was a commander's salute, wasn't it?" 
"Are you going to let them continue?" 
Xena gazed at the clouds of dust around her feet for a long moment. " I... I don't know Gabrielle. Parmenios said some stuff that made sense and I... I just have to think about it." 
Gabrielle nodded. "All right" 

They ran on in silence for a while, until the edge of the forest came in sight. 
"Well, well." Xena said, spotting a small form standing at the beginning of the path. "If it isn't his royal highness." 
Alex smiled as they approached. "Good morning. Heard you were going for a run and I thought I might join you all." 
"Fine by me." Xena replied, then turned to look at the group. "All right. This was the easy part, now we're going do some real running." Some soft grumbling and groaning sounded from the back. "Glad you're enjoying yourself so much. OK, everybody try to keep up. Everybody who doesn't will get the pleasure of doing a hundred push ups in front of all his friends when we get back." She glanced over the soldiers in front of her. "All right, let's go." She started of at a high pace down the path, quickly followed by the rest of the men and women. 

Gabrielle smiled slightly as she joined Alex at the end of the line. "Mind if I ask you a question?" She directed at the young king running beside her. 
"Of course not." 
"What the Hades are you voluntarily doing out here just after sunset?!" 
Alex laughed. "I take it you're not doing this because you enjoy running?" 
"Absolutely not. There's nothing wrong with a little running, but running before any sane person gets out of bed is not one of my favorite activities.." 
"That bad huh" Alexander chuckled. "You could've just asked Xena if you could sleep in late." 
Gabrielle laughed "I tried, believe me, I tried." A small silence fell. "I hate to admit it, but she's right anyway. You need to be in top shape to be able to handle a war and all...." 
"And you're not? Oh, come on Gabrielle." Alex snorted. "Just the fact that you're able to keep up with Xena shows you're in perfect shape. You can do some real damage with that staff of yours and after all this running we did so far, you aren't even feeling a bit tired, are you?" 
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. "No, actually I'm not." 
"Thought as much." The young king said, breathing more heavily with every step. "Well, I am, and that's exactly why I am getting up this early in the morning to run. I thought about things last night and I realized I haven't been doing what I was supposed to do. I mean, my father was always busy with perfecting himself. Even when he got older he kept training and working out. And Elis was around the troops constantly. Talking to them, training them. And he was always learning about science, strange cultures and religions. I haven't been doing any of these things so far." 
Gabrielle glanced at the young king. "You aren't them Alex. You have to be yourself." 
Alex sighed. "I have to live up to them, Gabrielle. I owe them. My father once told me that he knew that one day I would surpass him in many ways." 
"Alex, we can't always live up to what our parents want us to be. My parents wanted me to be a peasant girl. Wanted me to marry and settle down and have kids and... be normal. But I didn't want that. So I left and became what I wanted to be. The best you can do in life, Alex, is to just be you." 

The young king turned his eyes to the ground for a moment. "Gabrielle, I... I can't be me before I've been what he wanted me to be. If I don't do this, I'll wonder for the rest of my life if I should have. And I can't live like that." 
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment. "I understand." She finally said softly. "Well, if you want to be a soldier, you definitely have to get in better shape, Alex. She's not going to take it easy on you just because you're a king." 
A deep sigh sounded from her right. " I know." 

"Aren't you making it a little too hard for them, Xena?" Alaran, who was running beside her, said. 
Xena laughed softly. "Can't keep up Alaran?" 
"No, no, I'm doing fine, I just feel sorry for the young ones. They all look a little wiped." 
Xena darted a quick glance behind her and saw a large group of sweating, heavy breathing soldiers desperately trying to keep up. She let an evil grin cross her face. "They're holding on longer then I suspected." 
Alaran looked at her then smiled too. "You're just doing this so you can all see them do push ups aren't you?" 
Xena laughed. "Well, that's one reason. And also to make them understand that play time is over. I want to lose the ones who aren't supposed to be here before they get themselves into trouble." 
Alaran smiled. "I like your strategy." He glanced up at the warrior running beside him. "Xena, I'm sorry about what I did before. I..." 
"It's OK." Xena interrupted him softly. "I would have done the same if I'd been in your shoes." 
"I know, you taught me." Alaran replied, smiling. "But I know now that you want the best for Alexander. I've been watching you." A small silence. "You've changed Xena. I never thought you could, but you have." 
Xena looked at him. "I didn't think I could either Alaran. But fortunately I had a lot of help." 
Alaran stared in front of him for a moment, digesting this all. "Hey Xena?" 
"All that changing, did it effect your running?" 
Xena laughed. "Wanna find out?" 

Gabrielle looked up as the men in front of her started moaning even harder than they had before and attempted to speed up. She shook her head softly. "Alex, if you would excuse me, I gotta go and see what a certain Warrior Princess is up to." 
Alex looked at her. "And how are you going to do that? You don't think you can just catch up to ...." He stopped as Gabrielle increased her speed, running past the soldiers in front of her in a flash. "OK, maybe you can." He muttered softly. 

"Xena, what the Hades do you think you're doing?!" Gabrielle said, breathing heavily as she finally caught up to the warrior. 
"Hey Gabrielle, tired already?" Xena replied with a grin, slowing down a little, but not enough to let the others catch up to her. 
Gabrielle gave her an angry look. "I just sprinted all the way over here, of course I'm tired! Now would you please slow down, you're killing them." She said, indicating the men behind her. 

Xena sighed, then slowed her steps to an easy jog and waited for the others to catch up. Alaran was first to close in on them. "Forget what I said about the running." He said, trying to catch his breath. Then he turned to Gabrielle. "How on earth were you able to catch up to her?" 
"Alaran, she wasn't even trying." Gabrielle replied simply. Xena let a huge grin cross her face. 
Alaran just looked stunned, then shook his head in disgust. "I just had to ask..." 

When they exited the path and Xena changed direction, heading back for the training square, most of the others had caught up to them. Xena could hear them breathing all the way to the back of the line and smiled happily. "Lovely day for a run, isn't it?" She commented cheerfully, falling back and walking beside one of the soldiers, who was clearly walking on his last legs. He just gazed up at her with a look of complete exhaustion. Xena laughed and patted him on the shoulder. "Just hang in there." She said, after which she sped up again, leaving the poor soldier gazing at her in complete exasperation. 

Shortly after, she caught up with Gabrielle, who was walking in the front. "Show off" the bard commented. Xena chuckled. "That wasn't showing of. This..." she said, and jumped into the air, doing several flips before landing and continuing her run without effort. "...is showing off." 
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes. "You're really enjoying shaking those poor boys up, aren't you?" 
Xena grinned. "Loving every minute of it. Who's up for a little race?" She called out over her shoulder to the soldiers behind her. Her words were immediately followed by some groans and a rumble of angry voices. Xena laughed. "See what I mean?" 
Gabrielle chuckled. "You're such a brat sometimes, you know that?" 
"Yes." Xena commented cheerfully. "Wanna race?" 
Gabrielle glanced at her friend, then let out a sigh in surrender. "Sure, why not. But I get a head start. And no flipping or anything OK?" 
Xena rolled her eyes. "All right. First to the gate wins. You start, I'll follow on the count of ten. Ready?" 

Gabrielle took of, leaving Xena in her dust. "I guess you are." The warrior mentally counted to ten, listening to the sounds of grumbling soldiers behind her, then took of herself, speeding up and shortly after catching up to a heavily breathing bard. She slowed her pace until it matched the bards, then patted her on the shoulder. "It was a nice try though." She grinned, feigning compassion, after which she sped up again. 
"One day, Warrior Princess... you just wait and see!" Gabrielle called after her. She heard the sound of Xena's laughter in the distance. 

Parmenios turned as he heard voices in the distance. He told the men to continue and walked over to the gates. He opened one of the doors and then jumped out of the way as Xena came racing in. 
"I win" She called out triumphantly as Gabrielle came in to view, jogging towards the gates at an easy pace. 
"Only because I let you." Gabrielle called back, still a little out of breath 
"Xena?" Parmenios interrupted. Xena faced the chief lieutenant, raising an eyebrow in question. "What did you do with the rest of the army?" 
Xena chuckled. "Oh, they'll be here shortly... Look, there they come." Xena remarked as the first of the soldiers came into view. Alaran and the other lieutenants were running in the front lines, looking a little tired, but except from that they were doing fine. Then the others came into sight. Parmenios immediately burst out laughing. "By the gods Xena, what did you do to them?" 
"I just took them out for a little run." Xena replied innocently. "Not my fault they can't handle it." 

The soldiers that had been doing sword drills curiously edged closer until they could see past the gate, then busted out laughing as well as they saw their exhausted, sweating companions trying to reach the gates. Gabrielle was the first to enter after Xena had. She took one look at the totally exhausted men stumbling towards the gates and immediately felt sorry for them. She turned to the laughing men and women behind her and smiled sweetly. "Funny, isn't it?" They laughed even harder and some nodded between breaths. "The funniest thing is, she'll be taking you all out next." 

Dead silence. "But isn't she tired now. I mean, after all that running she should rest, right?" A young man commented. His companions nodded eagerly. 
Xena turned and smiled sweetly. "I'm really touched by your concern for my health. But actually, I think I'm up for another run." Parmenios stared at her in outrage. "Yeah, a nice little run with our chief lieutenant here sounds like fun." She said letting an evil grin cross her face. 
Parmenios swallowed. Then gave her a pleading look. "Please?" 
Xena laughed. "Don't worry Par, I'll take it easy on you." 
"Don't listen to her Par, that's what she told us." Alaran commented, jogging onto the square. 

One by one, the soldiers came running, walking and crawling in. They dropped down on the sand, trying desperately to get air into their lungs. Xena grinned. "I'm very glad you all enjoyed this little walk so much, I hope you'll all join me again same time tomorrow." 
Gabrielle lightly slapped the warrior in the stomach. "Come on Xena, give them a break. They didn't do that bad." 
Xena smiled. "No, they didn't." Then she walked over to Parmenios and the slightly shaking second group. "Come on Par, let's go. Gabrielle, you're in charge of getting these guys onto their feet again. After that they can all do push ups, 'cause nobody managed to keep up." She said, grinning. "You too Gabrielle." 
"Would you just get out of here and leave us normal people in peace?!" 
Xena grinned, then turned and took off, followed by Parmenios and the rest of the group. 

"She.. didn't really... mean that, did she?" One of the younger soldiers managed to get out. 
Gabrielle sighed.. "Unfortunately, yes, she did." She smiled at the young man. "But I'll let you of the hook this time if you promise not to tell her, OK?" A relieved murmur sounded. "But that doesn't mean I'm just going to let you sit here all day. Come on, on your feet. Everybody go and grab a staff." Some moaning erupted from the soldiers in front of her. "Hey, I already cut you some slack. Now everybody shut up and get moving now or we'll be doing those push ups after all." Immediately the complaining stopped and everybody quickly stood and walked off to get a staff. Gabrielle smiled to herself. "You know, I could learn to enjoy this." 

"Hey." Alex said, ambling over to Gabrielle, who was leaning on her staff watching two men facing of against each other. "Could you teach me some of those moves Xena and you used yesterday? If you're not busy or anything, I mean..." 
Gabrielle smiled at him. "I'd love to." She took her weight of the staff and lifted it. "All right, I'll strike out, you try to defend, OK?" Alex nodded and deflected an easy blow aimed for his side. Gabrielle directed some more blows at his sides, switching from right to left, then tried an overhead strike, which Alexander was just in time to block. Gabrielle continued at this speed. It was a strange feeling to be holding back on her speed and strength. Alexander was good though, he deflected every blow she aimed at him with great precision. "OK, try to hit me." She commented, and Alex immediately swung his staff in her direction. Gabrielle blocked the strike with her staff, then pushed back, throwing Alex of balance and softly tapped the edge of her staff on his ribs. She smiled "Just force isn't enough Alex, you have to be prepared for the return blow right after you strike." 
Alex nodded. "OK, gimme that again." 

Gabrielle nodded and blocked Alex's staff with her own again and pushed back. But Alex was prepared this time and stayed balanced, deflecting the blow Gabrielle aimed at his side. 
Gabrielle smiled at him. "Very good. You're a fast learner." 
"Thanks." Alex replied, dodging a blow for his head. "Could you show me that sweep thing you used?" 
"Sure." Gabrielle said, and sent the weapon in the direction of the young king's legs, but missed intentionally. Alex jumped up in reflex and landed unbalanced. Gabrielle took advantage of that by turning and taking out his legs in one fast motion. Alexander fell backwards, landing on the sand beneath him. He blinked at the woman towering over him. Gabrielle laughed. "Let me give you some good advice Alex." she said, pulling the young king on his feet. "Never trust your opponent, especially when she's a bard." 
Alex grinned in response "I should have seen that one coming. Could you show me that again in slow motion." 
"Sure." Gabrielle responded, lifting her staff to demonstrate. 

Xena returned shortly after with an exhausted second group and announced it was time for breakfast, for which everybody was very grateful. Xena took a slice of bread and walked to an out of the way spot near one of the walls. Gabrielle soon joined her. "You know, I finally figured out why you're doing all of this to them." 
"You did, huh?" 
"Uhuh… You just want to torture them so bad they won't even think about saluting you tomorrow." 
Xena grinned. "Just one of the nice benefits to all of this… Is it working?" 
"Nope" Gabrielle replied cheerfully. "They're just all in awe Xena. They can't believe you can do all of that, and when I tell them they have seen nothing yet, they never believe me until you pull another stunt like the one this morning." 
"Hmmm" Xena muttered softly. "Maybe I should back down a little, huh?" 
"I don't know about that" Gabrielle replied. "They've really changed since yesterday you know. I talked to some of them this morning and they seemed a lot more cheerful. Well, they were before the running anyway. They really hated that, I think you have to slow down on that at least a little." 
Xena gave her friend a sad look. "No more jumping?" 
Gabrielle laughed. "No more jumping. You're gonna have to do this at their pace Xena, not yours." 
"Hmmm… I guess you're right… OK I'll be nice, take it a little slower next time." Xena replied gruffly. 
"Good. So, what's the plan for today?" 
"More sword drills and staff drills. But no groups this time, so everybody gets to practice the same weapon. I was thinking about a little one on one with Par, so I can point out the faults in his offense and defense." 
Gabrielle slightly shook her head at her friend. "You really enjoy torturing the poor guy, don't you?" 
"Yes." Xena grinned deviously. "But there's a point to it to, you know. If they see their chief lieutenant has flaws, they'll understand they have to be even worse." 
"Fine by me, as long as I'm not your victim when you get to staff practice." Gabrielle chuckled. 
"Nope" Xena replied seriously. "I'd have way to little to point out." 
"Thanks" Gabrielle smiled, happily draining in the compliment. "So, who will it be then?" 
"I was thinking about Alaran, maybe putting him up against you or something, see how things work out." 
Gabrielle nodded. "Alaran and you made up I take it?" 
"We're OK" Xena admitted. "He knows now that I'm not here to hurt Alex and that's all that matters to him. There are others that won't be that easy though." 
Gabrielle eyed her interestedly. "How so?" 
"Personal matters. See that woman over there, sitting next to Alaran?" Xena said, as she pointed out the woman in question. "Her name's Halys. She and her best friend joined me after Athens. They were really close, practically inseparable. One night I sent Halys out on watch. Normally her friend Charis would have come with her, but she didn't… Maybe she wasn't feeling well, I don't know… Anyway, news came about some enemies of ours, saying they might be nearby, so I called for Charis to check it out. She was hesitant about leaving without telling Halys, but I insisted… She never returned. We found her lifeless body on the riverbank the next morning. Halys was devastated. She held me personally responsible for the death of her friend. Stuck a knife in my back… Eventually I kicked her against a wall and told her to get the Hades out of my face." 
"Ouch." Gabrielle commented softly. "That must have been pretty hard, on both of you." 
"I felt guilty, yeah…" Xena said. "But she…. She lost her best friend. Nothing can compare to that." 

Alaran silently chewed on his piece of bread. A deadly silence was hanging around the small group of lieutenants. As Alaran looked up all eyes quickly diverted. He quietly popped the last bread piece in his mouth and then sighed. "Would you all just cut out the silent treatment already! What's up with you people?" 
Burning blue eyes shot at him as Halys turned her gaze to meet his. "You are walking a thin line Alaran. Don't walk it with an enemy at your back." 
Alaran stared at her "You're calling me a traitor because I talk to her? Halys, you're losing it!" 
"You are lucky Alaran. Lucky you saved my butt one time and I owe you, or you'd be in a thousand pieces scattered on the ground right now." Alaran met her eyes squarely, defying her threat. "And don't you try to defend her to me Alaran, you know what she took from me. I will never ever forgive her for that!" 
"She isn't that person anymore Halys. I know you won't believe her, but I saw it, in her eyes. Her friend over there, Gabrielle, she helped her to become more than she was." 

Halys turned to look at the two quiet forms leaning against the outer wall. "Did she now?" She said, with a curious tone in her voice. 
"Yeah. Really Halys, you should just go and talk to her, you'll see how she's changed." 
"Maybe I will." The woman replied softly. "Maybe I will."

"All right people, back to action" Xena said, while stepping into the center of the square. "Everybody gather around. Par, if you would be so kind to come over here." Parmenios let out an audible sigh, but nevertheless walked over to the warrior standing in the middle of a circle of soldiers. "We'll be doing a little swordplay here, I'll try to point out to all of you where your opponent's strengths and weaknesses lie." Xena said, drawing out her sword in a fluid motion and nodding to Parmenios to do the same. "All right, lets go Par." 

 Parmenios moved his sword forward hesitantly, and Xena easily parried the blow. Then struck out herself, aiming for the chief lieutenant's side. A hard clanging sounded as their swords met again and and Parmenios was just able to push his sword back. Xena smiled, receiving a smile in return from her opponent as Parmenios swung out again, with much more strength this time, and send the sword in the direction of the warriors head. Xena caught the blow and pushed back hard, sending Parmenios tumbling back. "If he were a Persian, he'd be dead now." Xena commented simply. "Never underestimate the power of your opponent. Always be ready for the return blow." Xena struck out again and the two warriors traded blows for a while, drawing and quartering. "After a long stand off, like this one, you have to have noticed the little faults in your opponents defense and offense, for instance…" Xena said, then ducked under a sword aimed for her head and softly tapped the side of her sword against Parmenios' leg. "Par here puts to much of his weight into the blow, leaving him off guard afterwards." Some laughs sounded from the crowd as Parmenios stared at Xena indignantly. Xena grinned at him. "Sorry Par. But I gotta tell you, you haven't lost your touch much. Just don't swing too hard and you'll do great." 
Parmenios smiled back, understanding the weight of the compliment. 

"OK, now everybody pick up a sword and start practicing. Remember that the strength with which you strike out doesn't matter, it's how you strike and when." Xena nodded at them as a sign to get started and they all moved away. Then she walked over to Parmenios and patted him on the shoulder. "Nice going, better then I'd expected, really." 
"I'll take that as a compliment" The chief lieutenant replied with a smile. "You're still great with that thing you know." He continued, indicating the sword in her hand. 
"I try to keep up." Xena said, waving of the compliment. "I'll go and see how they're doing." 

Gabrielle had watched the match with interest, a little surprised Xena hadn't even tried a little flip or other stunt to show off. Not that she hasn't made her point about being a living legend already… Gabrielle smiled as the group spread out and they all started practicing two by two. Gabrielle walked back to the platform where she'd left her staff and then turned to gaze out over the masses. It was really an amazing sight, these thousands of men and women, swords flickering in the sun as they squared of against one another. Gabrielle never really had felt any need to control, but watching this she could understand the powerful pull it had on her friend. She looked at Xena as the warrior strode down the lines, making some comments here and there. Xena really was in her element here, Gabrielle realized. Not that she minded really. There was no doubt in her mind Xena would be able to control her dark side this time. Just the fact that the warrior worried about that so much made it clear enough to the bard that her friend was passed that stage. She smiled as she saw Xena take hold of her sword and demonstrate a move to one of the soldiers. Then she lifted up her staff and moved over to a corner of the square and started doing some drills of her own. 

"Like that." Xena said, as she blocked a strike from a young soldier facing her. "You see?" 
A young man beside her nodded. "OK." Xena was just about to head for the next duo, but a soft voice interrupted her. 
"Uhm…" The warrior turned around and raised an eyebrow at the boy. "I … uhm… I was wondering… why isn't Gabrielle… I mean…" He let his eyes drift in the direction of the lonely form practicing in the far corner. 
Xena followed his gaze. "She… isn't really into swords." 
"She can't use them?" The other boy asked. 
"She can." Xena said, as her eyes and her friend's locked for a moment and she smiled at her, getting a smile in return before the bard returned to her drills. "But she doesn't kill, so she doesn't need to use one." 
"Oh…" Both boys said in unison. A short silence fell. "But… we'll have to kill the Persians, right?" 
Xena nodded softly. "Some." She looked at the two boys for a moment. "You have never killed, right?" They both shook their heads. "Don't, OK?" 
The two stared at her wide eyed. "But… but… We have to defeat the Persians." 
"You can defeat them just fine by knocking them all out senseless." Xena smiled, but then turned serious. "Trust me on this one guys, if you kill someone…. It rips away a piece of you deep inside and that really hurts. I should know." 
Another silence fell as both boys digested this. "Does she?" One of them asked softly. 
Xena turned her gaze towards her friend and immediately noticed al those little changes in her again she had started to see after Britannia. The change in her pose, the wrinkles under her eyes and the shadows in them that still showed how much the experience haunted her. "She does" Xena whispered softly, "More than anybody, she knows." 

Time passed. When the sun was halfway across the western sky, Xena decided sword practice was done and called Gabrielle over. The soldiers gathered around both of them. "OK, we're switching to staffs now. Gabrielle here will square of against someone and I'll try to point out the faults again. Alaran, could you come over here?" 

Alaran wanted to step up, but another form pushed him back and stepped forward. "If you don't mind, I'd like to give this a try." Halys said in a sweet voice as she walked towards the two standing in the middle. Xena narrowed her eyes a little, but said nothing and merely looked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle simply shrugged. "Fine by me." 
"All right" Xena drew out the words slowly, no feeling quite at easy with the whole situation, but not wanting to deny Gabrielle the chance to handle things herself. She flipped a staff off the ground with her foot and caught it, then threw it in Halys' direction. The woman caught it in one hand and smiled sweetly at the warrior. Then walked over to Gabrielle, who was standing in the center. She leaned a little closer, then grinned "I'm gonna enjoy this." She whispered, so only Gabrielle could hear it, then quickly struck out. And was surprised to find her staff caught on hard wood as Gabrielle blocked her blow and pushed her back easily. The bard smiled. 'So am I' she mouthed back, then jumped over the staff that was aimed for her legs and ducked for the next blow. She pushed the edge of her staff forward and poked her opponent in the stomach. Halys stumbled back and looked stunned at the bard, then doubled her efforts and lunged for her, striking her staff out furiously. 

Xena argued with herself about interfering or not. She realized from the moment the two staffs had crossed that this was not just practice to Halys. But Gabrielle was handling herself well. She decided to let the bard do things her way. Maybe now she could avoid conflict with Halys in front of everybody and handle the matter more privately….

She was very strong, Gabrielle realized, as it took al her strength to deflect the blows aimed at her. For one moment she was out of balance, and Halys immediately swung out, hitting Gabrielle's arm. The pain seared through her, but Gabrielle ignored it and concentrated on her opponent. She caught the next blow again and pushed the staff off, giving her some room to strike out herself. She did and caught Halys in the side. The woman was off balance for a moment and Gabrielle immediately took advantage of that by turning and striking out for her opponents legs, dumping Halys on the sand in one fluid motion. Before the woman could recover, Gabrielle had the edge of her staff pressed against her neck. Their eyes met for a long moment, then Gabrielle drew the staff back and extended her hand. "Here, let me help you up." 
"Forget it." Halys replied gruffly letting her eyes pierce into the green ones before her. 
Gabrielle shrugged. "Suit yourself" she said, then turned her back towards the woman and walked away. 

Xena saw the dagger before anyone else did. She leaped forward between Halys and her target as the metal flew towards Gabrielle and snatched it out of mid air. With a hard thump she landed on the sand. Gabrielle turned, looked at her friend and the dagger and then lifted her gaze to meet that of her attacker. Halys was staring wide eyed at Xena, then turned to stare into patiently waiting green eyes. To her complete confusement the bard smiled at her, then walked over to Xena, who was just trying to get on her feet and helped her up. 
"Nice catch." Gabrielle mumbled softly as she pulled the warrior to her feet. Xena grinned as she dusted some of the sand of her leathers, then handed the dagger to her friend. Gabrielle smiled, then walked over to Halys, who hadn't moved an inch. "I believe you lost something." She said and handed the woman the dagger. Halys took it without a word, looked at both warrior and bard one more moment and then briskly turned around and walked off. 

Xena watched her go, then looked at the soldiers standing around her who were looking at the two of them in total awe. "Best thing to learn from this," she said, "Is never let your feelings cloud your concentration." She let her gaze drift over the men and women around her, then directed her concentration to Parmenios "Par, you can handle this for a moment." Parmenios simply nodded. "Come on Gabrielle." 

The two of them walked back towards the castle. "You OK?" Xena asked. 
Gabrielle nodded. "Fine." 
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Really?" 
The bard smiled. "Really. Just a little hit on the shoulder, that's all." A short silence fell. "So, what are we going to do about her?" 
"Run a sword through her?" 
"Xena." Gabrielle said, letting her voice drop a pitch lower. 
"Smack her over the head with a spiked club?" 
Gabrielle merely raised an eyebrow. 
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Talk to her?" 
Gabrielle patted her on the shoulder. "Good girl." 
Xena sighed. "I hate diplomacy." 
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Running a sword through her won't get you anywhere and you know it." 
"Yeah, yeah…" Xena muttered, pushing open the castle gate and heading for the stairs. Xena entered her room and walked over to their saddlebags, pulling out some herbs and a small bowl. "Here, sit down." She told Gabrielle. "Lemme look at that." She gazed at the bard's arm. The skin on her upper arm was already taking on a darker shade. She softly let her fingers trail over the bruise, feeling the bard flinch. "Sorry. That's quite a blow you took there." 

Gabrielle shrugged, immediately regretting the action. "Hardly felt a thing," she managed to get out. 
Xena chuckled. "Very convincing." She selected some of the herbs and mixed them together in the bowl, then added a creamy substance to the mix. She softly rubbed the salve on her friend's heated skin. "Better?" 
Gabrielle smiled. "Much better. Thanks." 
"No problem. I'm just sorry I didn't interfere sooner. This shouldn't have happened." 
Gabrielle put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "It's just a little bruise, Xena. I'll live." 
Xena lifted her eyes to met clear green ones. "It's just… I don't want you to get hurt because of my past, Gabrielle." 
"I can handle it, really. As long as you catch the arrows and daggers, I'll be fine." 
Xena smiled and was going to reply, but was interrupted by a young boy that burst into their room. He quickly bowed. "Xena, a messenger is on it's way over here. He's from Persia." 

They quickly made their way down the stairs and met the exhausted man in the hallway. As he spotted the warrior walking over he kneeled before her and bowed his head. Xena looked at the man in shock. "None of that, get up." She mumbled a little awkwardly as the man stood again. 

"My name is Telamon, I've come from the city of Pargamon, a former Greek city at the border of the Persian empire. I'm here to offer our allegiance in your fight against Xerxes." 
Xena nodded friendly at him. "Thank you Telamon. Your help will be very appreciated." 

Alexander chose this moment to stumble into the hallway. Telamon immediately dropped to a knee again when seeing the young king. "My liege." 
"Arise, my friend." Alexander told him friendly. "You must be tired after such a long journey. Please, let me offer you a meal and a room." 
The messenger inclined his head. "Thank you, my liege." 

They all walked towards the diningroom and Alex alerted his staff of the visitor's arrival. Shortly after they'd sat down, a servant walked into the room carrying a large plate covered with all sorts of food. Telamon selected a bit of meat and started chewing. 

Xena studied the man sitting across the table. He was obviously a farmer, used to hard work on the land. He would make a good soldier. The warrior mentally slapped herself. Would you stop thinking like that?! The man just got here for crying out loud. "So..." She started, breaking the silence. "Tell me about your hometown." 
Telamon sighed. "It used to be such a beautiful city, Pergamon. Lively, prosperous... But then the Persians came. We had nothing to defend ourselves, except for the small group of militia. They were brave men, all of them... No one returned from the battlefield..." He said, the strain obvious in his voice. "The Persians overtook our town the same day. Took everything we had they could use for their troops and walked away. We hoped we'd seen the last of them and that they would leave us in peace, but that only lasted until the battle of Salamis was over. The soldiers returned and set up an outpost near the city." 
"How many men?" Xena inquired. 
"Hundreds. There are more of these outposts along the mountaintop." 

Xena nodded in thought. "What happened after they came?" Gabrielle asked. 
"From that moment on the soldiers started to tyrannize the Greek cities. This has been going on for five years now. They just come in and take what they want… Food, jewelry… women… My daughter was taken last year…I tried to defend her, but I…" Telamon fell silent for a moment. 
Gabrielle gazed at him compassionately. "I'm sorry." 
Telamon sighed. "I never saw her again. My neighbor's daughter was taken too. He killed a soldier while trying to keep her from them. He and ten others from our village where hanged the next morning. They hung there for two weeks…" Telamon raised his eyes to meet Gabrielle's. "Xerxes is an awful man. He has to be stopped." 

Gabrielle looked back at him, seeing the emptiness behind his eyes. She nodded softly. "He will be." 
"Yes, he will. And you'll be a big help in that." Xena continued. 
Telamon nodded. "I will tell you everything about his defenses and troops. All that I know at least. And all about our little fighting force." 
Xena held up her hand, stopping him from going any further. "That can wait." She smiled. "You can tell us all that after some rest. But what I would like to now… How did you find out? About Alex… about me…" 
"We have some contact with Greek shepherds" Telamon told them. "We meet them sometimes and exchange information. They tell us all about what's going on in Greece, especially any plans about helping us regain our freedom." 
Xena nodded in thought. "So Xerxes doesn't know yet?" 
Telamon frowned his brows in thought for a moment. "I think he has heard the rumors. But there have been more of these rumors and they all turned out to be nothing. I think he's on his toes now, and will be very careful. But I'm sure he doesn't know you are here, Warrior Princess. I heard that only when I came near the city." 
The warrior smiled. "Good." She turned to face the young king, who was sitting at her left. "Alex, we have to make sure word doesn't get out about me being here. I'm sure Xerxes still has a grudge against me. If he finds out I'm here he'll want to go full force from the beginning on. We have to avoid that." 
Alexander nodded quietly. "I'll see to that myself." He said, then stood and turned to his guest. "Now, my friend, I will show you to your room if you'd like." 
Telamon stood and dusted of his clothes. "If you would be so kind, my liege." He inclined his head towards both Xena and Gabrielle, then followed Alexander towards the stairs. 

Gabrielle slowly pushed herself off her seat and walked towards one of the windows. She stared out in pensive silence, watching the small forest in the late afternoon sun. Xena watched her friend from her position at the table, then stood and walked over towards Gabrielle. "His story shook you up a little, huh?" 
Gabrielle turned her head and looked at her friend for a moment, then gazed back out the window. "After all these years, all that has happened to me, to us… You'd think I knew better then to take things for granted. But still… I never think about how lucky I am that I'm free to do what I want… to be who I want to be…" She said, turning to face Xena. "He doesn't have that.. His daughter probably never will again…" 
"You don't know that." Xena spoke, trying to encourage her friend. 
Gabrielle looked at her with an empty expression. "Xena, we both know what happened to her. I can't pretend like I don't know that…Not anymore." 

Xena looked at her and let out a soft sigh. "I guess you can't." Their gazes met in understanding for a moment, then Gabrielle turned again to face out of the window. Xena walked over behind her and gazed out as well, wrapping her arms around the young bard. For a long moment they stood like that in silence. "You're right." Xena said softly. Gabrielle turned her head a little to meet blue eyes peering over her shoulder. "We can't pretend that nothing bad happened there. But unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about that anymore. We can't keep lingering in the past, talking about whens and ifs. The best thing we can do now is help them the best we can." 
Gabrielle sighed. "I know. But I still feel bad." She said, as Xena let go of her and she seated herself on the windowsill. She gazed up at her friend. "How do you just stay so calm? I mean, he's telling about all the horrible stuff that happened to him, and you just ask 'how many men' I could never do that." 
Xena seated herself next to the bard. "In a war, you have to be able to separate emotions from your mind. If you don't, you'll get careless and get killed." 
Gabrielle silently digested this. "I can't do that." 
Xena focused her attention on her hands. "I know." She looked up. "You don't belong in this war Gabrielle. I know you'll come along." She quickly added, seeing the bard open her mouth to bite of the comment. "And I'm glad you are. Really. I'm just saying... You'll have to be prepared for some really bad times Gabrielle. From the moment we enter Persia, we'll see nothing but destruction and chaos. Nothing but death. Are you sure you can handle that?" 
Gabrielle gazed down. She was pretty sure she couldn't. But letting Xena go through this alone wasn't an option. The warrior had gone through Hades for her several times and now it was her turn. She'd be damned if she'd turn back now. "I'll have to." She said softly, but with a tone of determination in her voice. 
The warrior wrapped an arm around her. "I'm sorry you'll have to go through all this." she murmured softly. 
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, pensively gazing into the fire that was burning on the fireplace in the far corner. "I'll have the chance to help to take away a treat of the Greek nation and free a lot of innocent people. What can be better than doing that?" 
"Just remember that, remember what we're doing this for. Make sure we both know why. " 
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. "I will." Silence fell again, leaving only the sound of the crackling of the fire, sending sparkles up into the chimney. 

Gabrielle slowly felt herself getting into the rhythm more and more each day. Xena had kept up the daily routine of a long run in the morning, followed by some drills and intensive training in the afternoon. After about five days a group of men had walked away, but it had been a lot less than they'd expected. Even the group of boys that had been harassing that girl just a couple of days ago had stuck around. They weren't bad kids. She'd talked to them a few times now and their attitude had changed completely. They'd treated her with much more respect this time. That was, she realized, mostly because she'd wiped the floor with them twice. She'd always been against any form of violence, unless it was absolutely necessary, but sometimes.. a little bit of butt kicking had its advantages. The thing that surprised her most, now she thought about it, was that Xena had hardly used any violence at all. In fact, the only fight the warrior had gotten into, was a little staff practice with her and a little sword play with Parmenios. She herself was the one that had done all the serious fighting this week... 

So why were they all worshipping Xena? Because they were, especially the young ones. It was a wonder they hadn't built a shrine for the warrior yet, really. Just in these few days Xena had bound them all by a loyalty that would make them walk to Tartarus and back for her. Xena absolutely hated that. Although the warrior had tried to hide it the best she could, Gabrielle still noted the little signs of nervousness in her friend. The little twitches, the fumbling with whatever she could get her hands on... Basically, the warrior was scared to death. Nobody would have ever guessed from the stoic way in which she acted, but she was. Especially the loyalty of the soldiers was overwhelming for her, Gabrielle knew. She'd heard Xena shifting and turning in her bed every night because of the nightmares. The bard had tried everything to put the woman at ease, telling her she trusted her completely and believed in her, but the problem was the warrior didn't believe in herself. Xena just had to work things out on her own, and that was going to take time. 

She watched the warrior from her spot in the shade. Xena was holding a spear in one hand, and indicated to the group around her what was the best way to throw it. Some of the older soldiers were also gathered around and were listening with interest. Xena had talked to most of them by now, settling some differences. Halys hadn't appeared again after the whole staff fighting incident. Gabrielle really felt sorry for her, knowing exactly what she'd lost. She had really hoped the woman would return so she could have talked to her, to tell her she knew how she felt... OK, a lousy line, but it was true, wasn't it? But Halys hadn't been spotted for over a week now. Alaran had tried very hard to find her, but to no avail... The lieutenant suspected she'd left town. "But Halys isn't a quitter," Alaran had said, "She'll come back. I doubt Xena will be happy when she does, but she'll be here sooner or later." 

"Hey lazy!" A low voice called out as Xena walked over. "You gonna stand there all day or will you actually be doing something today?" 
Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow at the warrior. "Xena, I just spent the whole morning doing staff drills with Alex. I'm totally wiped! Do you know how persistent that friend of yours can be?" 
Xena laughed. "He is taking this a little over the top, isn't he?" 
"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed, "I think he's been watching a certain warrior princess too often." 
"Tch..." Xena muttered, then she tugged on Gabrielle's shoulder. " Come on, I wanna show you something." 
The bard immediately cocked her head in interest. "What?" 
"You'll see when we get there." 
"It's a surprise?" 
Xena grinned. "Oh yeah, it's gonna be a surprise all right." 
Gabrielle frowned her brows. "I don't know if I like the sound of that." 
They walked past the gates to the meadows at the eastern end of the city. Xena took the lead and headed for a small shack. She pushed open the doors and let Gabrielle enter. Gabrielle looked around the small space. There were large stacks of hay piled up on one end of the shack. On the other were two large boxes. In one stood Argo, in the other a large black horse. Gabrielle gazed the horse, then back at a grinning Xena. "I've got two words for ya: no way!" 

The bard turned around and headed for the door, but Xena grabbed her by the arm. "Come on, Gabrielle. He's really very sweet." 
"Xena, you know how I feel about horses." Argo let out a loud snort. "No offense Argo." Gabrielle directed at the horse, then looked at Xena with a pleading look. "Can't I just walk?" 
The warrior smiled. "Sorry. You need to be able to fight on horseback Gabrielle. If I have to fight on Argo I want you to be right by my side and you can't do that if you don't ride." Gabrielle sighed. "Aw, come on, just give him a chance." Xena said, indicating the horse. 

The bard glanced at Xena from the corner of her eye, then slowly walked over to the black horse in the far corner. Dark brown eyes eyed her suspiciously. Gabrielle slowly lifted a hand. Carefully he edged his head a little closer so his nose just touched her skin and softly sniffed in its scent. He decided he liked it, and softly pushed his nose against the bard, giving her a playful shove. Gabrielle chuckled. "You are kinda cute." She told the horse softly and patted his strong neck. Then she turned to meet smiling blue eyes. "OK, OK, you win." 
Xena grinned. "Wanna go take a ride?" 
Gabrielle shrugged. "I got myself into this anyway, so it's best to get the worst part over with, right?" 
"Right." the warrior smiled back, as she walked over to Argo and lifted the saddle onto the mares back. Gabrielle saddled her horse as well and then slowly led him out of the stable into the fresh air. Dark ears immediately cocked forward happily. Gabrielle put her foot in the stirrup and hauled herself into the saddle. It felt a little strange, sitting in the saddle instead of behind it, but it wasn't uncomfortable. She stroked her hand through dark manes. The stallion let out a soft snort. 
"I think he likes you." Xena commented as she pulled Argo to a halt beside her friend. 
"As long as he doesn't throw me out of the saddle we'll do just fine." Gabrielle answered, then softly urged the horse forward into an easy trot. "So, where do we go?" 
"I have this path I usually take when Argo and I go for a ride." 
"Fine by me." 
"Good. Wanna go for a little gallop?" Xena asked. Gabrielle immediately shook her head. Xena grinned deviously. "Problem with him is, he's kind of competitive" Then she pushed Argo forward into a fast gallop. The stallion immediately sped up as well and raced after the mare. 
"Xena!" Gabrielle called out, trying to hold onto the saddle. "You are toast, warrior princess!" 
"Gotta catch me first!" Xena called over her shoulder. 

Gabrielle muttered some curses. OK, OK, I can do this. Sit back, feel the rhythm of the horse. Yeah, that's better. She'd stopped bouncing all over the place and was now seated pretty securely in the stallion's saddle. She gazed up at the galloping Argo in front of her. "OK boy." She whispered to the horse. "Let's show those old war-horses what we're made of, huh?" The stallion neighed softly and increased his pace. "Smart horse." She complimented him. They eased closer and closer until the stallion was galloping beside Argo. Xena looked at her friend in surprise. Gabrielle just grinned. "You know Xena, I think I finally found something I can beat you at." She pushed the horse even faster and it sprinted forward and passed the mare with ease. Gabrielle turned in the saddle to grin back at her friend. 

The branch hit her with a loud crack and threw her from the horse's back on the hard sand. She gazed with wide open eyes at the blue sky above her. Then the sky was replaced by concerned blue eyes. "Gabrielle, are you OK? Come on, talk to me." 
Xena pulled her friend up into a sitting position. "That wasn't really the response I was hoping for." 
Gabrielle slowly lifted a hand and softly rubbed her hurting temple. "Ugh... remind me to keep looking forward next time I try to show off, OK?" 
Xena smiled. "No problem." The warrior managed to get out before being pushed aside by a large dark head. The stallion gazed at his rider with soft brown eyes and then softly nudged her in the side. Gabrielle softly patted his head. "It's OK, it wasn't your fault." The stallion snorted softly. 
"Think you can stand?" Xena inquired. 
"We'll just have to find out." Gabrielle answered and attempted to get back on her feet. Failing miserably she fell back against Xena's body. "That would be a no." She got out, trying to stop her head from spinning. 

Xena chuckled softly. "We'll just have to do this the old fashioned way then." The warrior commented as she helped the bard walk over to Argo. She pulled herself in the saddle and was just in time to stop her friend from falling over again. "Oh no you don't" She muttered as she pulled Gabrielle up behind her. "Just hang on tight OK, we're near a lake, we can stop there." Gabrielle simply nodded. Xena whistled at the stallion "Come on, boy, let's go!" the black horse followed his rider obediently towards the small lake up ahead. 

"How does that feel?" Xena asked her friend, as she placed a cold piece of cloth on her temple. Gabrielle hummed approvingly. They were sitting against a large tree, looking out over the lake. The two horses were grazing a little way off. Xena let out a long breath. "You really do have something with horses, don't you?" 
"It's not his fault." Gabrielle said. 
"Who said I was blaming the horse?" Xena grinned as the bard raised an eyebrow at her. "Just don't look back next time you're on a galloping horse and you'll do great. You really weren't doing so bad... I'll teach you some fighting skills in a few days." 
"Can you fight on horseback with a staff?" Gabrielle inquired. 
"It's a little tricky, but it can be done." The warrior replied. "If you can get the hang of it, it's a great weapon to use from horseback. Smacking others off is a lot easier when you're high up." 
"That makes sense... So how many horses have we got?" 
" 'Bout thousand." Gabrielle gazed wide eyed at her friend. Xena raised an eyebrow. "It's a war Gabrielle, thousand really isn't even enough. You need them for riding, for pulling carts, for setting up camps... Horses are a must you know..." 
Gabrielle nodded softly. "Hadn't thought about that... So, why this one." She said, pointing at the black stallion standing a little way off. 
Xena thought about that for a moment. "Because he was kind, obedient, loyal, well trained and he seemed very intelligent." 
The bard nodded again. "I noticed that too, it's almost like he knows what I'm saying..." 
"Maybe he does...." 

Gabrielle gazed at the dark horse. After a moment it lifted it's head and gazed back at her with his big brown eyes. "Yeah, maybe he does... So, what's his name?" 
Xena shrugged. "No idea, it's your horse, you think of one..." 
The bard looked at the horse another moment, finding a suitable name. "Chilon." Xena raised an eyebrow. "You know, as in Chilon of Sparta..." Another eyebrow lifted. "Gees, Xena, have you ever even touched a book?" Xena grinned sheepishly back at her. The bard rolled her eyes. "Chilon of Sparta, one of the seven wise ones... He was the one that came up with the phrase 'Know thyself'." 
"Right..." Xena said pensively. 
Gabrielle covered her eyes with a hand and softly shook her head. "Never mind." She sighed. 

The warrior laughed. "Just kidding. It's a very nice name Gabrielle." A green eye peeked out between to fingers, looking at her questioningly. "Really." Xena assured her. "So, how's the head." 
"What head?" Gabrielle muttered, then it dawned to her. "Oh, that head. Better, much better. I think I can stand now." Xena raised herself up and pulled her friend along with her. Gabrielle stood a little shakily, but then found her balance. "See, no problem." 

They both got back on their horses and rode back towards the city at a slow pace. 
They made their way towards the castle and placed their horses in the castle stables, then walked into the large hallway where they met Parmenios. "Where've you been? You missed the big announcement." 
"What announcement?" Gabrielle asked curiously. 
"About the party tonight." 
Xena's mood immediately sobered, but Gabrielle's cheered up considerably. "A party? Great! When? Where?" 
"Tonight, in the castle. Alex arranged it as sort of a present for the men, because they worked so hard these last weeks." 
"Great idea" Gabrielle smiled happily. "We gotta go prepare for that... Come on Xena, let's shop." 
"No buts, lets go." The bard said and tugged the warrior along by her arm. 
"Aw, come on Gabrielle.... I really can't, I've still have some training sessions to complete..." 
"No you don't." Parmenios helpfully informed her. "Alex gave everybody the day off." 
Xena narrowed her eyes dangerously at the chief-lieutenant. "Thanks Par." She muttered between clenched teeth. 
"You're welcome." Parmenios replied with a big grin on his face. "Have fun!" He called after them. 
"You little piece of..." Xena muttered in a low tone as Gabrielle dragged her off towards the market square. 

"Do I really have to?" Xena asked in a pleading voice. "Come on Gabrielle, you know I don't like these dress ups... What's wrong with the leathers?" 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes in despair. "You can't go to a party in a warrior outfit Xena..." 
"Why not?" 
"Because... because.. because you just can't... The point to this whole party thing is getting away from the fighting and training and stuff. Going in that." She said, pointing at Xena's leathers. "will ruin the whole point..." 
The warrior sighed. "OK, OK, you win... but nothing fancy OK?" 
"Of course not." Gabrielle immediately agreed, digging into the racks of dresses surrounding her... 
Xena let out another deep breath... Shopping Uck! If I ever run into the ones that had invented that I'll cut of their heads with a blunt sword. Then I'll roast their bodies... 
"How about this one?" 
Xena looked up and gazed at the dress in question. "Fine." 
Gabrielle immediately put the thing back and went digging for another one... 
...And I'll let the wolves rip their remains apart until there's nothing left but a pile of bones. Oh yeah... Xena grinned evilly. Revenge is sweet. 

The sun was half way across the western sky before they made their way back to the castle. Xena was balancing a dozen packages on her arms. She gazed at her friend. "You can help me out with these you know." 
"Yeah, and you could've helped me out with the shopping. But all you did was sit on that stupid chair gazing in front of you with that dreamy look in your eyes... What was that about anyway?" 
"Oh, uhm... just thinking..." Xena replied with an innocent look. 

Gabrielle gazed at her suspiciously, but didn't reply. They walked on in silence until Alex came running up to them "Hi you two!" He gazed at Xena and her pile of packages. "Here Xena, let me help you with those." 
Xena smiled. "Thank you Alex. At least there are some people here that are willing to help a friend out..." She said, sparing a grim look for the bard. 
Gabrielle gave her an angry stare. "Yeah, but those people don't give their friends a hard time when they try to help them with their wardrobe, now do they?" 
"If you would've told Alex to put on that blue dress with the ribbons, you think he would've done that?" 
Gabrielle backslapped her friend in the stomach, almost causing her to drop the packages. Alex gazed at the two with an odd look on his face, then he shook his head in confusion and concentrated on balancing his packages. 

Gabrielle turned towards the young king. "So, what's with the party?" 
"Oh, I just thought everybody could use a break, after all the hard work and all. They seemed pretty tired after you left, so I thought I'd cheer them up a little. It worked pretty well, if I may say so myself." 
Xena nodded in approval. "Good idea Alex, we don't wanna get moral down..." 
"Ugh..." Gabrielle let out. "You two are just so serious. You're talking moral and stuff while we're having a party? Can't you even try to see the fun in this?" 
"Gabrielle, putting on some fancy dress and walking around a diningroom all night talking to people I don't wanna talk to is not my idea of fun." 
The bard sighed. "Sometimes I wonder why I even try..." 

"This sucks." Xena told her reflection in the mirror. "This really, really sucks." 
Gabrielle chuckled as she walked into the room, then fell silent as she caught sight of her friend. "Wow..." 
Xena turned raising both eyebrows. "What?" 
"The dress... wow..." Gabrielle managed to get out, looking at the warrior who was now dressed in a long black dress, that reached all the way to the ground. "Black really is your color." 
"Black isn't a color, Gabrielle, it's the absorption of all colors." Xena corrected her. 
"Who cares..." Gabrielle murmured, then slightly shook her head. "OK, lets go." 

They both moved down the stairs and walked towards the diningroom. Xena could hear the voices far before they came near the door. She pushed it open and let Gabrielle enter, then entered herself. 
The room was stuffed full of people, all talking and dancing and having fun. Parmenios' head turned towards them. As soon as he had spotted the two walking towards him his eyes grew round and his mouth dropped open. He poked Alexander on the arm. "Xena.. Gabrielle...dress...wow!" He managed to stutter. Alex also turned and grinned as he saw the two approach. "Hi ladies." He welcomed the two women. Gabrielle walked toward him, directly followed by the warrior. 
"Alex. Par." Xena nodded at them, then frowned as she looked at the chief lieutenant. She lifted a finger and closed his mouth. "Didn't your mother teach you it's rude to stare?" 
"She uhm... yeah... but..." Parmenios mumbled, then he just smiled and shrugged. "Hi Xena." 
The warrior patted him on the shoulder. 

Gabrielle had already walked off, spotting a familiar form. "Hey." She said, tapping Ptolemaios on the shoulder. 
"Ah, Gabrielle." The Egyptian said, inclining his head towards her. "I'm so glad we can finally meet again off the field." 
The bard smiled. "Me too. I'm sorry I didn't stop by like I promised, but I've been so busy lately..." 
Ptolemaios lifted a hand. "That is all right. I have seen you running around the training square, so I kind of figured that out myself." He said, smiling. 
Gabrielle grinned back. "Yeah, that's the price you have to pay when you're Xena's friend. No rest what so ever." She smiled. "Not that I'd have it any other way of course." 
Ptolemaios chuckled. "Maybe you could stop by tomorrow or so, I doubt Xena will just start the training tomorrow, after being up so late." 
Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow. "We're talking about Xena here, remember?" She chuckled. "But maybe I could talk to her, get her to relax a little, at least tomorrow morning... If I can, I'll drop by, OK?" 
"I'd like that." The Egyptian replied with a smile. 

Candle marks had passed and the party had only gotten busier. Xena decided it was time to slip out. She walked over to a door, which she remembered led to a small balcony. As she stepped outside she took a deep breath of the fresh air and let it clean her head a little. Parties…uck! She let her arms lean on the railing, her eyes roaming over the forest in front of her. She could hear the soft sounds of small night animals scurrying around between the fallen leaves. An owl hooted in the distance. Slowly she let the night sounds calm her. After a moment she picked up the sound of footsteps coming closer. 
"Getting too crowded for you in there, huh?" Gabrielle said as she walked over and leaned against the balustrade beside the warrior. 
Xena smiled. "I just needed a little break. I'm OK now. So,… I saw you talking to Ptolemaios…" 
"Yeah, I uhm… I kinda said we'd be stopping by tomorrow morning." 
Xena sighed. "We have work to do tomorrow." 
"Aw come on Xena, these guys aren't gonna be worth scrap tomorrow morning anyway." Gabrielle reasoned. "You might as well give them the day off… They deserve it, don't they?" 
Xena gave the bard a look. Gabrielle just blinked at her with pleading eyes. "Please, Xena?" 
A sigh. "All right, you win… again…" Xena muttered. Gabrielle chuckled softly. "I'm gonna go back inside to arrange some things with Alex and Par. You coming?" 

Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. "Nah… I'm gonna enjoy the fresh air a little first. I'll see you in a while." 
Xena nodded. "OK, see ya.." The warrior walked back towards the door, and sighed as she opened the door. "OK, here we go again." 
Gabrielle chuckled as the door slammed shut again, leaving her in silence… A little too much silence, she quickly realized. All the normal forest sounds had ceased, leaving only an eerie quietness. Something was up. Gabrielle closed her eyes, focusing on her surroundings. For a long time she heard nothing, but then there was a small crack, coming from one of the tree branches a little way off. The cocking of a crossbow, and the shifting of air as the arrow was released. 

Part 3

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