Father of All Evil

Part III

Gabrielle immediately ducked, just in time to avoid the arrow aimed for her heart. She straightened again and jumped off the balcony, landing on the ground with a soft thud. A shadow jumped from the tree in front of her and took off into the forest. Gabrielle didn't hesitate a moment, but ran on after the form. 

Slowly Gabrielle started to catch up. When she was just a few feet away, she lunged forward, catching her attacker around the knees, bringing them both to the ground. Before the form could move, Gabrielle had it pinned down by the shoulders, bringing her face to face with the assassin. "Nice to see you again too." Gabrielle muttered, a little out of breath. Halys said nothing, but struggled to get out under the bard's grip. "Oh no, you're staying put this time." Gabrielle said, tightening her hold. "Now, why were you trying to kill me, I thought we'd passed that stage…" 
"Well, you thought wrong." Halys sneered back. 
"I'm not your enemy Halys." 
"You are her friend." Was the simple answer. 
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, I am. But she isn't your enemy either." 
"Oh, isn't she?" Halys let out an unpleasant laugh. "She killed my best friend, and I won't rest until I have done the same to her." 
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "I… I'm sorry." 
"You're what?" Halys replied, expecting anything but that after openly admitting she was going to kill this woman. 
"I'm sorry… Sorry you lost your friend… I know what that feels like…" She lifted a hand silencing the following comment. "I know you can't believe that, but I do… And I'm sorry you became what your friend would never have wanted you to be. " She released her hold on Halys and stood, backing of a few paces. 

Halys scrambled up, looking at the bard quietly. She shook her head. "I don't understand you… I try to kill you and you let me go… Why?" 
"Because I want you to know I'm not your enemy. I… If you want to, you can come back with me. There's a get together at the castle." 
Halys stared at her in confusement. "No." She said stubbornly, then turned and headed deeper into the forest with determined paces. Gabrielle slowly shook her head, then turned around as well and headed towards the castle. 

"You can come out of there now." Gabrielle said, as she walked past a large tree. 
Some leaves rustled and then Xena's form jumped down. "You're getting good at this." She complimented the bard as she caught up with her. 
"Thanks." Gabrielle said cheerfully. 
Xena wiped some small twigs from her dress. "Uck, do you know hard it is to climb trees in this thing." 
Gabrielle chuckled. "You could've just stayed at the party you know…" 
"Now lemme see, staying at the party talking to half drunk soldiers or going after you into the forest" Xena tapped her temple in thought. "Tough choice.." She laughed softly. "And you needed a back up plan anyway. Just in case…" 
"Well, I'm glad I didn't in this case… You think I got through to her?" 
Xena thought about that for a moment, then she nodded. "Yeah, I think you did. I hope she'll decide to come back." 
Gabrielle looked up at her friend. "She'll be a pain in the butt you know." 
"I know… but she's a great fighter… And we'll need those. From what I've heard from Telamon we're up against a big majority." 
Gabrielle nodded. "How bad?" 
"Three to one.. maybe more, I don't know exactly." 
"Three to one isn't that bad… right?" 
Xena sighed. "It is for a first fight. These are just the outposts Gabrielle, When we'll get to the cities, we might be up against twice as much." 
"OK, that is bad." Gabrielle said softly. "But this isn't impossible, right?" 
The warrior shook her head. "Nothing's impossible, but it's gonna be tough. That's why I'm pushing them so hard, you know. I want them to be able to keep themselves alive." 
"I know that." Gabrielle told her. "I know you're doing this to help them Xena, you don't have to explain that to me." 

Xena nodded softy, but said nothing, just staring at the movement of her feet in pensive silence. Gabrielle looked at her friend, then wrapped an arm around Xena's shoulders. "Don't put so much pressure on yourself, OK? You can't do anymore than you're doing." 
"I guess." Xena said softly. "But it's just never enough, you know. When you look back, there'll always be things I know I should've done better. And when I realized how many lives that cost, it hurts…" 
Gabrielle looked up at the silent face above her, shadowed in dark memories and she realized nothing she could say would ever take those thoughts away. So she just hugged her friend a little closer as the castle walls came into view, towering in the distance. 

A ray of light fell into Xena's bedroom that morning, causing the warrior to wake up. She blinked against the bright light shining in her eye, then started to rub the sleep out of her eyes. "Damn party." She muttered to herself, as she got up and walked over to the basin. She splashed a handful of cold water into her face to clear her mind, then walked over to the window and pulled the rag in front of it away. The sun had already risen halfway past the eastern sky and the streets of the town were filled with people. 
"And you call yourself a warrior." Xena scolded herself. "One little party and your whole system is blown to pieces." She walked back over to the chair in the far corner and started dressing herself. The leather felt comfortable after all that soft fabric from the night before. 

Some soft murmuring sounded from the room next door. Xena pulled the door open a bit and peeked through. The light had found it's way into the bards room as well and was shining right in Gabrielle's eyes. The young woman was twisting and turning to avoid the brightness, but was obviously failing. In despair she pressed a soft pillow over her eyes, sighing in relief at the darkness. Xena chuckled softly, then walked over to block the lights path and slightly shook the bard's shoulder. "Hey, Gabrielle?" One green orb peeked past the pillow. "Come on, time to get up." 
"I thought we could all sleep in today. "Came the muffled response, as Gabrielle pressed the pillow closer. 
"We already have. It's kinda late you know?" 
"Not late enough." Gabrielle muttered, but reluctantly pulled herself into a sitting position. 
"Good girl." Xena said, patting her on the shoulder. 

"You coming with me to talk to Ptolemaios?" Gabrielle asked as she slipped out of her night shift. 
The warrior thought about that for a minute. "Sure, I've got nothing better to do anyway." 
"Don't sound to enthusiastic." Gabrielle mocked. Then got up and walked over to the door. "OK, lets go." 

They found the Egyptian sitting in front of his small house, carving in a piece of wood with a small blade. As he saw them he immediately got up and welcomed them with open arms. "Gabrielle, I am so glad you could make it." 
Gabrielle smiled easily. "So am I. I brought Xena along too, hope you can stand her presence long enough." 
Xena took on a hurt look, Ptolemaios chuckled softly. "I'll manage." He responded. "I'm happy you came too Xena. Here, let me introduce you to my family." He turned and motioned the figures peeking around the doorway forward. A young, dark haired woman stepped closer, a small child hiding behind her. "This is my wife, Kalis." 

The woman extended her hand shyly and both Xena and Gabrielle shook it. "It is a pleasure to meet you both. My husband speaks of you very often." 
Gabrielle smiled at her, then bent down to be at the same level with the child. "And who might you be?" She asked. The little girl hid her face behind her mother. Gabrielle chuckled softly, and rose as Ptolemaios spoke again. 
"This is my little girl, Hellas." He said, stroking the girl's hair in a soothing motion. "She's a little bit shy, it is not that often that people come to visit here." 
Gabrielle nodded. "Her name is a bit unusual." She said, in a questioning tone, as Xena fell to one knee and started talking to the young child in a soft low voice. 
"She was borne when we had just arrived in Greece." Ptolemaios explained to the bard. "We were so grateful we could give our child a safe home now, away from the war that we named her after your country." 

Gabrielle nodded, then looked down to see Hellas shyly take hold of Xena's outstretched hand. The warrior murmured some soft words to the girl, then stood again. Hellas peered up at her curiously. Gabrielle slightly shook her head in amazement. "How come you are so good with children?" 
Xena grinned, as she pulled a small piece of candy out of a small pouch. "Bribery." She smiled, handing the piece to the waiting Hellas, who immediately popped it into her mouth. Then the girl held up her hand again, looking at the warrior with wide round eyes. Gabrielle chuckled softly. Xena bent down on a knee again. "You want another one?" 
The girl nodded heavily. "For Ra." She said softly. 
"And who might that be?" Xena asked. 
The girl suddenly turned and headed back inside the house, to return a little later with a small black kitten in her hands. She held it out to Xena. "Ra." She stated. 
The warrior smiled, then reached into her pouch again and handed her another piece of candy. "That one's for Ra then." She said, then straightened up again. 
Hellas held the bit of candy in front of the kitten's nose. Ra sniffed it, then turned his head away sneezing softly. Hellas shrugged, then popped it into her own mouth, sucking happily. 
"Aw, that's so cute." Gabrielle laughed softly. 

They all watched as the kitten started to squirm, trying to get out of the young Hellas' hold. He finally did, and ran back into the house, immediately followed by the young girl. Ptolemaios chuckled softly. "She can be a little demon sometimes, but I wouldn't want to miss her for the world." He said, staring after his daughter, then he turned back towards his two guests. "But don't let me bother you any longer with all this talk about my family. Please, come in. I will show you to my study." The Egyptian motioned them forward. He led them through a narrow hallway towards a small door at the back. 

"Well, here it is." Ptolemaios said, stepping into the room. Gabrielle followed him, looking around with interest. It was pretty small, but very cozy. There was a large wooden desk on the left side, a pile of parchment in the center. On one of the corners stood a small ink jar, with some quills lying beside it. On the other end stood a comfortable chair, positioned right in front of a window. As Gabrielle peered out, she saw the forest stretching out before her, dark mountains towering in the distance. "Beautiful." She said softly. Ptolemaios stood beside her. "It is, isn't it? Sometimes, when I'm feeling a little down, I just sit here and watch. It can be very soothing." Gabrielle nodded softly. "Here." The Egyptian said, handing Gabrielle a small scroll. "I hope you like it. Be careful, there are some loose pieces of parchment in it I still have to copy out. With all this training I've had little time." 
"Sorry." Xena said, smiling apologetically. 
"No, it is OK. War before poetry, at least, if this war will get me back home." 
"I'm sure it will." Xena reassured him. 

Gabrielle had seated herself on the chair and busied herself with Ptolemaios' work. She was reading the pieces with great interest. 
"Do you like them?" Ptolemaios asked softly. 
Gabrielle turned to look up at him. "It's beautiful." Ptolemaios diverted his eyes shyly. "No, really. I love this one." She said, indicating one of the poems. 

An hour has not passed today 

An hour has not passed today 
In which I have not cried 
All my pain and agony 
In flashes of the memory 

My ship is sailing further 
From the country I adore 
The beauty of my homeland 
My eyes will see no more 

My restless soul is seated now 
And stares across the sea 
A spot on the horizon 
Is all my land can be to me 

"I wrote that on the ship sailing to Greece. That was a very lonely time for me." 
Gabrielle nodded in sympathy. "Are they all about Egypt?" She asked, flicking past some more poems. 
"Not all. Some are about my wife and daughter. They are all about the things in my heart. Egypt is a very big part of that. And though I am very grateful for the things I have, my mind always goes out to the things I lack…" 
"That's normal." Xena said, leaning against. "We always long for what we can't have… Human flaw." She smiled. 

But the smile slowly ebbed away from her face when she saw the look on her friend's face. Gabrielle had turned white as a sheet and was staring at a loose piece of parchment that she was holding in shaking hands. "Gabrielle?" Xena asked softly, approaching her friend. "What's wrong?" 
Gabrielle shifted her gaze and looked at Xena, raising the parchment without a word. The warrior took it from her hands and let her eyes roam over the words before her. 

Shadows all around me 
The battle has begun 
Evil approaches softly 
Covering the sun 

Frightening fire lights the skies 
As far as I can see 
As hatred lingers in his breath 
Dahak's flames surrounding me 

Shocked blue eyes met frightened green ones for a long silent moment. Ptolemaios let his eyes flicker from one to the other, not understanding. "I am sorry if I offended you in any way. I had no intention to…" He stuttered. 
Xena broke his words of with a soft hand gesture. "Ptolemaios, it's OK. Really. It's nothing you did." The poet nodded in relief. "Could you leave us alone for a minute?" Xena continued. 
"Of course." The Egyptian hastily agreed. "Please, take all the time you need." He said, then walked out, softly closing the door behind him. 

Xena softly walked over to her friend, who was still sitting in the chair, staring wide eyed into the nothing. "Gabrielle?" Xena said as she walked closer and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Gabrielle, listen to me. Dahak is dead, OK? Hercules and Iolaus killed him. He's not going to hurt you anymore." 
Gabrielle lifted her eyes and focused on the face before her. "He's the evil Xena." She whispered in a hoarse voice. "The great evil that awaits us in Persia, it's Dahak." 
"It can't be." 
"It is. I can feel it…" 

"You're wrong." A soft female voice interrupted. 
Xena immediately spun around, drawing her sword at the same time, pointing the edge of it towards the intruder. It was a young woman, with long, flowing, blond hair, dressed in a simple blue tunic. 
"Who are you?" Xena grumbled at her. 
"Well excuse me for skipping the godly wardrobe for a change." The woman muttered softly. Then there were several small flashes of light. A long lance appeared and a round, golden shield with the head of Medusa on it. A large helmet covered her blond hair. "This clear enough?" The woman asked innocently. 
"Athena." Xena said, narrowing her eyes dangerously at the goddess. 
"Very good." Athena snapped her fingers and the armory disappeared again. "I'm here to settle a few things. Xena, could you please put that sword down. I'm not here to hurt either of you, really." 
Xena gazed at the goddess suspiciously, but slowly lowered the sword and moved back, to stand beside Gabrielle. 

Gabrielle, who had jumped at the hearing of Athena's voice, reseated herself. "You were the one that dragged Artemis away." 
"Yes, that was me." The goddess admitted simply. "She was out of line by telling you."  
"So, now that we found out about Dahak, you're here to keep us from leaving, that it?" Xena interrupted the goddess. 
Athena raised her blue eyes to stare directly into Xena's. "It's not Dahak… It's his father."

Both warrior and bard stared at the goddess in shock for a moment. "Dahak has a father?" Gabrielle managed to get out. 
"Sort of… It's kind of complicated." Athena said. "You see, in Persia, there are two powers, one for good, Ahura Mazda, and one for evil, called Angra Mainjoe. Angra Mainjoe controls all that is evil. Demons, monsters, … In a way, they are a part of him, because they contain a piece of his darkness. So you could consider him Dahak's father. He considers himself as the father of all evil anyway…" 
The two women digested this. "So… what was Dahak doing in Greece?" Xena asked. "Did he betray his father or something?" 
"Dahak was… sort of an embassary. You see, in the last few years, evil has taken control in Persia. Angra and his following have driven good into a small corner of the country. He captured Xerxes in his hatred, making him crave for revenge so bad, it made him lose his mind." Athena took a moment, and sighed, then continued. "He had nothing more to gain in Persia, so he wanted to expand his power. Greece seemed an easy target. First he tried simple war, sending Xerxes and his troops towards Athens. When he realized that wasn't working, he decided to send his son, Dahak, to clear a path for him." Athena looked up at the two women across her. "He's probably thinking up another plan this very moment. I… I know it is wrong of me to ask you this, but I don't know who else to ask. He needs to be stopped." 
Xena gazed up at the goddess, hatred in her eyes. "So he doesn't kill you gods, right? You want me to risk my life, and on top of that Gabrielle's, so you don't get wasted. You can't seriously believe I'll do that!" 
Athena stared her straight in the eye, not moving back an inch. "I know you don't like us Xena. That's OK, I understand that. Most of us are arrogant, self-centered, egoistic… But you and I both know that if it comes down to us or Dahak's daddy over there, we're the better choice." Xena said nothing, she just stared back at the goddess. Athena gazed down for a moment, then looked back up. "Look, I can't force you to do this. What you will find in Persia is at least twice as bad as you have seen with Dahak. The moment you cross the borders of that country you'll be trapped in chaos, surrounded by hatred, war and death. It isn't going to be pretty, I know that. It's up to you to decide if you want to step into that or not… But remember what is at stake here. Greece. This country will be destroyed if Angra conquers Greece. Many people you love will die." Athena gave her one more look, then stepped past her and faced Gabrielle. "I'm sorry." She said softly, her blue eyes searching mist green ones. "If there was any other way… But there isn't. It's…" 
Gabrielle looked at the goddess, seeing the pain in her eyes. She nodded softly. "I know." 
Athena looked at her for another moment, then smiled at the bard. Then a flash appeared and she was gone. 

Xena looked at the spot Athena had stood, then turned and gazed out the window. "I… uhm… I'll go to the castle, pack our bags. We can be out of here by dawn tomorrow." 
"We can't leave." A soft voice came from behind her. 
Xena turned around. "We can't stay. Gabrielle, she wants us to fight a god. And not just any god, a god that is stronger than all the Olympian Gods together. Dahak's father…" She let the thought trail off into the distance. 
Gabrielle stepped closer to the warrior. "We can't run away from this Xena, not anymore. If we run, he wins." 
Xena threw up her hands. "Let him win, I don't care. Let him take over this stupid country, and kill the gods and whatever.. Just let him… But I won't let him hurt you anymore, ever…" 
"We can't let people die because we're scared." 
"I promised myself to never let him hurt you again…" Xena whispered, gazing out at the trees, leaves softly blowing in the wind. She turned to face the bard. "Gabrielle, I can't let you step into this. Not again." 
Gabrielle walked closer, softly touching the warrior's arm. "Xena, I can't live with myself if I don't. If.. if I walk away from this, I will cause the death of all the people evil kills." 
Xena shook her head. "No…" 
"Yes." Gabrielle replied firmly. "We're going to Persia Xena, we have to… for the greater good." 

The blood was dripping from Gabrielle's hands, as the girl fell to the ground in agony. Xena picked up the pace, increasing her long strides to a faster rhythm. She raced past the trees in a flash. The heat of the flames as she battled Kraftstar, as she heard Gabrielle scream. She shook her head wildly, trying to shake the memories, but to no avail. Gabrielle's innocent face changed, Hope's treacherous eyes glimmering at her. 

Xena stopped her running, standing still in a small clearing. She reached behind her and pulled out her sword, then started swirling it around, lashing out to unseen adversaries in wild rage. The look on Gabrielle's face as she fell towards what seemed certain death. Callisto's laughter. The feeling of the dagger cutting through flesh. Xena regained her senses as her sword came in contact with solid wood. The warrior blinked a couple of times, then gazed at her sword, which she had slammed right through a tree, the edge sticking out on the other side. She let go of the weapon, then sagged on the ground, leaning against the tree. "I can't…" She whispered softly. "I just can't…, not again…" She let her head rest on her hands in despair. 

She had been a complete mess the last few days. After the encounter with Athena, memories had been haunting her, day and night. Gabrielle had tried to talk to her, but she'd brushed the bard away. That wasn't fair to her friend, she knew that… She's so much stronger than I am… Xena let the thought flicker through her mind and realized it was true. The bard was scared, of course she was, but she wouldn't let her fear interfere with what was the right thing to do… 

But she just couldn't do that. The flashes of Dahak kept tormenting her, beating her down, making her unable to concentrate on anything. She'd left Parmenios standing to handle the training several times while she scurried of into the forest, letting out her rage on the defenseless trees. Three days had passed now, and it was still the same. Xena let out a deep breath. "I have to stop this, people depend on me." She told herself sternly. She pulled herself up and walked over to a small pond nearby. She reached down and splashed a large amount of water on her sweating forehead. As the surface of the water calmed again, she looked down to see her reflection gazing back at her quietly. "What am I gonna do?" She asked softly, gazing back at the pale blue eyes. "I can't go on like this…" She looked at her image a few moments longer, then stood and started pacing. "OK, Xena, let's face facts. You have to go to Persia, there's no other way." She told herself, turning to pace the other way. "So just stop whining and get a grip, will ya? Alex needs your help with the army and Gabrielle needs your help getting through this. So far you haven't helped either of them… It's about time you started. " She nodded quietly, then turned towards the tree and took hold of her sword. She pulled the sword out of the tree and then sheeted it behind her. 

Gabrielle sat down on her bed and pulled her bag closer, pulling out her quill and a scroll of parchment. She settled against the wall, balancing the scroll on her knees as she started writing. 

So here I am again… writing… alone… I really can't blame Xena. I know she's trying to deal with this in her own way. But I just wish she'd talk to me, that she wouldn't run away every time I try to get her to open up. I'd really just like to talk to someone, and she's the only one I can talk to about this. Talking about what has happened still hurts us both, I know that, but for me, it's the only way to deal with this, to get it out of my system… 
We're both scared, but I believe we can get through this now. We're so much stronger than we were before. We've learned from our mistakes and I believe that whatever happens, we'll stay together through this… I just hope Xena feels the same. I know she's thought about leaving me behind. I have seen it in her eyes… But she hasn't mentioned anything yet, so I'm hoping for the best… 

Gabrielle put her quill away, softly blowing on the ink before rolling the scroll back up. She sat on her bed for a while, listening to the silence around her. Then she couldn't stand it any longer and stood, walking down the stairs and heading for the stables. 

Xena slowly opened the door to Gabrielle's room and looked inside. "Gabrielle?" She said softly, looking for the bard. When she realized she was nowhere to be found, she entered her own room. She walked over to one of the corners and collected a set of maps she had made of Persian territory. She sat down on her bed and pulled the small table in her room closer, spreading the maps out on it. The top one showed the border between Greek and Persian territory. Water separated the two kingdoms, followed by a hill climbing into the surrounding by high mountains. Behind the mountain range lay the former Greek cities. 

The border was guarded by Persian soldiers. They had taken up position slightly inland, an easily defendable place on top of one of the mountains. Telamon had indicated the places where the camps were. There were seventeen camps, each containing about 500 soldiers. Strategy was vital in this case. Xena picked up a pencil from the desk. She looked at the map pensively, tapping the pencil against her left temple in thought, then started drawing some lines on the map. 

Suddenly she heard a soft crack from outside her window. She grabbed a small dagger lying close by and aimed it for the window, waiting. A hand grabbed hold of the windowsill. Another appeared and then Halys' face came up, peeking inside. "Well, it's nice to see you too, Xena." She commented dryly seeing the dagger aimed for her head. 
Xena slowly lowered the weapon. "Hello Halys. To what do I owe the pleasure of your companionship?" The warrior replied over-politely. 
"To your little friend actually." Halys said, ignoring the sarcasm. "She probably told you we talked." 
"Yes, she did." 
Halys nodded. "Good. OK, first things first. I will never, ever forgive you for what you took from me, got that?" 
Xena looked at her, then nodded softly. "I don't expect you to." 
"Good." Halys said, a little more softness in her tone now. "I don't like you Xena, but I'm not blind… You're not who you were anymore. So…" Halys said, straightening up a bit. "If you could still use an extra pair of hands, I am willing to fight in your army." 
Xena looked at the warrior for a moment. "You know that means that you'll have to obey my commands, even if you're not sure about the reason. Do you trust me enough to do that." 
"No." Halys stated frankly. "But for some reason I trust that friend of yours. If she understands why and is OK with it, I'll follow those orders." 
Both Xena's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "She made that much of an impression on you?" 
Halys looked at the warrior. "I've followed her around these last few days. And while you were beating yourself up in the forest for some reason, she dealt with her problems in silence and didn't run out on Par every chance she got." 
Xena bent her head, and looked at the ground for a long while. "I know." She replied softly. 
"So yeah, I guess I do trust her, more than I could ever trust you anyway." 
Xena lifted her eyes slowly. "That's good enough for me." She finally replied. Slowly she extended her hand. "Welcome back in the army." 
Halys looked at the outstretched hand hesitantly for a moment, then took it. 

Gabrielle pulled the door open. The smell of fresh hay entered her nostrils as she closed the door behind her again. She walked down the long aisle, horses standing to her left and right, peeking at her curiously. At the end she stopped next to two adjoining boxes. In the first stood Argo, who lifted her head as she heard the familiar footsteps and snorted softly at the bard. "Hey Argo." At the sound of her voice a dark head peeked out of the other stable, soft brown eyes watching her with interest. Gabrielle smiled. "Hey boy." She said, patting the large black neck. The horse neighed softly, giving her a slight shove with his dark nose. Gabrielle picked up one of the brushes lying next to Argo's stable and walked into Chilon's box and started brushing the dust from his back. The slow, rhythmic movements were very soothing and she let herself drift away a little. 

"It's calming, isn't it?" A low voice sounded. 
Gabrielle lifted her head quickly, to find Xena leaning against the wooden panel separating the two boxes. She smiled. "Yeah, it is." 
The warrior smiled back, but then her face turned serious. "Gabrielle… I… I just…" 
A soft hand touched her arm as Gabrielle stepped closer. "It's OK." 
Xena shook her head. "No, it's not. I should've been there for you these last few days and I wasn't. I've just been running around feeling sorry for myself and acting really, really stupid." 
Gabrielle just smiled and wrapped her arms around the warrior. Xena hugged her back. "I'm really sorry Gabrielle." 
"You had to deal with this in your own way. I knew that." 
Xena nodded softly, then released her hold on the bard. "I know you're right. We have to go to Persia." Gabrielle nodded silently. "I can't break my promise to Alexander or his father. And I know it's the right thing to do. But now that a god is involved, things have changed. We have to be very careful about planning this all." 
Gabrielle nodded again. "So, what's the plan?" 
Xena lifted an eyebrow. "Who said I have a plan?" 
"You always gave a plan, Xena." 
The warrior chuckled softly, then continued. "For now, the plan is to dig up as much information as we can." 
"About Angra?" 
"About everything that has anything to do with Persia. Gods, kings, rituals, you name it." Xena corrected her. 
"So that means I'm gonna be scrounging through a library again, huh?" Gabrielle asked, with a grin on her face. 
Xena, however, remained serious. "Only if you're up to it." She softly toughed the bard's shoulder. "This is probably gonna bring up some memories, Gabrielle, you might not want to get into this…" 
Gabrielle looked her friend straight in the eyes. "I know that. But I can handle it. I'll have to. It's better I deal with this now than in the middle of a fight, right?" 
Xena nodded slowly. "Right. But if you wanna quit, just say the word, OK?" 
"OK." She said, then hugged the warrior again. "Thanks Xena." 
"For what?" 
"For being here." 
Xena smiled. "I'll always be…" But before she could finish the sentence a dark head pushed the two of them aside. They both looked as Chilon took the brush that Gabrielle had left on the ground between his teeth and held it in front of the bard's face, eyeing her expectantly. Xena started laughing. "OK, I'll let you get back to your work now." She said grinning, as Gabrielle smiled and took the brush from the horse's mouth. "I'm gonna go have a talk with Alex, OK?" Gabrielle nodded. Xena ruffled the stallion's manes playfully, then walked off, heading for the door. 

With a soft thud it closed behind her. Gabrielle turned to the stallion, folding her arms across her chest and giving the animal a stern look. "Did you have to break that up?" The horse blinked at her innocently. "Don't give me that look, Chilon." She warned the horse. The stallion cocked his head slightly. Gabrielle threw up her hands. "OK, OK, I give up." She started brushing Chilon's neck with soft strokes. "But next time, just wait till the hugging part is over, OK?" The stallion snorted softly.

A few candle marks later, Gabrielle walked up the stairs to her room. She heard some stumbling in Xena's room and opened the door to peek in. Xena was sitting on her bed, maps and pieces of parchment spread all around her. The warrior looked up as she heard the door open. "Oh, hi." 
"Hey." Gabrielle smiled as she stepped into the room. "What ya doing?" 
Xena shrugged. "Just a little thinking and planning." She ruffled some papers aside and patted the now cleared space. The bard moved over and sat down beside her on the bed. "So," Xena continued. "I talked to Alex." 
Gabrielle nodded quietly. "And?" 
"He's arranging a meeting of the lieutenants tonight, to talk things over." 
Gabrielle gazed up at her friend. "How much did you tell him?" 
"Just what he needed to know." Xena said softly. "He didn't ask anything about when and why, so I just…" 
Gabrielle swallowed, then nodded slowly. 

A long silence fell. "So, what are you looking at there?" Gabrielle started, changing the subject. 
"Just looking at some maps and stuff." Xena replied. She selected one of the pieces of parchment and handed it to Gabrielle. "This is a drawing of the border between Greece and Persia. And that is where the first battle will be." She stated, pointing at a mark slightly south from the border. 
Gabrielle looked at the map with interest. "Tricky territory." She remarked. 
Xena nodded. "Yeah, those hills are a big problem. The Persians will be waiting at the top... Fighting up hill is never easy and we'll have to cross that river before we can do anything..." Xena stated, as she traced a blue line across the map. "And with the way we're outnumbered, we'll have to use some kind of trick to get the advantage here."
"You figured anything out yet?" 
"I've been thinking about some stuff, but nothing yet really..."

Gabrielle reached over for another piece of parchment spread across the bed. It contained lots of numbers and some scribbling in the sideline. "What's this?" 
"Information about the number of troops and stuff." 
Gabrielle looked at the paper. "I'm hoping the numbers at the bottom there are ours?" She asked hopefully. 
The warrior shook her head. "Nope." 
The bard made a face "Ouch…" 
"Yeah, very ouch… We need more men, more supplies… I've already sent out some letters to some people I know, asking if they will join us… The messengers left a few days ago…" 
"You think they'll show up?" Gabrielle asked as she put the parchment down again. 
"Most will, I hope… we'll see…" 
Gabrielle nodded, then pushed herself off the bed's surface. "I'll go down to the library, see if I can find anything that can help. When's the meeting?" 
"At dinnertime." Xena replied, sparing another look for her maps, then lifting her eyes. "Anything you can find will be great. I heard from Alex the library has quite some scrolls about Persia. His father collected some, in preparation for his conquest. Good luck." 
"Thanks." Gabrielle smiled, before she edged out of the room, leaving Xena and her maps in silence. 

The library was huge. It was about the size of the dining room, probably even bigger. It was full of large wooden scroll cases, filled with piles of rolled up pieces of parchment. Gabrielle walked over to the one and pulled a dusty scroll from one of the shelves. A small label was attached, stating the contents of the scroll and the writer. In this case, the writer was not indicated, because the scroll was one about Persian myths. Gabrielle walked over to a nearby table and sat down, unrolling the scroll before her. She read the scroll about the gods and heroes with great interest. After finishing she leafed through another, and another. The Persian gods were not much like the Greek ones, she quickly realized. The only difference was, that they were split up into two distinctive categories, good and bad, while the Greek gods had a bit of both. Dahak was also mentioned several times and was depicted as the three headed monster he actually was, instead of the faces Gabrielle associated him with… Kraftstar… and Hope… The thought send shivers down her spine, but she forced the emotions back down, took a deep breath and continued. 

Candle marks later the door to the library opened and Xena's head peaked through. "You ready?" 
Gabrielle's head shot up, not having heard the warrior enter. "What…? O yeah, the meeting.. Sorry, I completely forgot." She rolled the scroll she was reading back up and placed it back on the shelve she'd taken it from. Xena held the door open for her to exit the room and they both walked towards the conference room, where the meeting would be held. 
"So…" Xena started. "Did you find something interesting?" 
Gabrielle nodded. "Lots of stuff about Persian religion. I don't know if you'll be able to use it, but it was very interesting." 
"Good," Xena continued. "Than you can advice me what scrolls to read." 
"You're gonna read them too?" Gabrielle asked, a bit surprised. 
"Sure, I wanna understand what I'm up against, so I'll have to." Xena replied logically. 
"I guess you're right." Gabrielle said, as she pushed open the door to the conference room. 

Most lieutenants were already seated and gave them friendly smiles as they entered and took their places. Halys had also joined them and was sitting across from them. She lifted her gaze to meet the bard's. Gabrielle smiled back at her, then she sat down beside Ptolemaios. The Egyptian friendly inclined his head towards her. "Hello Ptolemaios." Gabrielle greeted him. 
He smiled at her. "Hello Gabrielle…I… I uhm…" he started to stutter. "Xena hasn't really been quite herself after your visit and I was wondering…" 
Gabrielle cut off his words with a soft hand gesture. "Really, it wasn't your fault… It was just… well, I think you'll understand after this meeting is over…" 

Ptolemaios frowned his dark brows, but said nothing as Alex rose and started to speak. "Friends, I have asked you to come here to discuss certain.. issues that have come up in the last few days… I…" he turned to Xena. "Do you want to take the word, or should I?" he inquired. 
The warrior thought about this for a moment, then stood. "I think it'll be best if I tell this." She said to Alexander, who sat down again. She turned to face the lieutenants before her. They were gazing at her with great interest and curiosity, realizing that something pretty serious was up by the way their king and Xena were acting. "Now," She started. "What I will say here tonight will not be discussed outside these walls, understand?" Many faces nodded. "Good… I…" Xena was silent for a moment, ordering her thoughts. "When we started this, I believed that the only thing we were up against, was a powerful tyrant. Just a few days ago I realized that is not true." A murmur sounded, but Xena silenced it with a dark look. "Xerxes is a dedicated follower of the most vicious, powerful god around. This god is likely to back Xerxes up when we attack… if we want to eliminate Xerxes, we'll have to defeat this god first." 
"You want us to go up against a god?" One of the younger lieutenants, named Lucius, replied shocked. 
Xena met his gaze. "If it is necessary, yes… I don't know how to fight this god, I don't know if it will take an army, or just one person, but I do know he has to be stopped. He has threatened Greece before, and he will do it again in time. You can either stop him now, or wait until he comes for you and your family. It's your choice." 
Lucius diverted his eyes away from the warrior's. "I… It's just a really scary thought Xena, going up against a god." 
Xena let out a deep breath. "I know… but we have no choice. I… I can't force you to come along Lucius, I can't force any of you." She directed at the rest of the group. "And if you chose to stay behind, I'll respect that. But I am going to Persia, because there are people there who could use my help and I promised I would help out." She directed a glimpse at Telamon, who smiled at her thankfully. 

"You probably won't have to go up against this god Angra…" Gabrielle joined in. "From what I've read, he has been pushed back several times. Never by armies or large forces, but mostly by one single person. So Xena and I will probably deal with Angra, while you stick to fighting. " She looked at Xena, who nodded. 
"We'll try to get Angra out of the way as fast as possible, so he can't interfere in the battles, but you still can count on the fact that he will be helping Xerxes in the first battles… That's gonna be tough. That's why it's really important to get everybody in the best shape possible and let them be prepared for anything." 

The low murmur started again, but now Alex spoke up. "Listen, I know this is all pretty bad news. But we need to focus here. We leave in less than a month from now. I still believe we can win, that we can defeat Xerxes, even if he has help from a god. Because I have faith in you all, in the troops and because I have faith in Xena and Gabrielle. They have both met their share of gods, and defeated them all." He let his eyes roam over the men and women in front of him. "But if you decide you can't handle this and leave the army, I need to know it now. We don't have time for doubts and second thoughts... Either you decide to leave now, or you stick with us to the end." 

Alexander sat down again, watching his lieutenants. He didn't want any of them to leave. They were good, experienced fighters, which he needed more then anything now. But most of all they were his friends and if they wanted to quit he had to let them... Silently he watched the men and women before him. Some discussed what had been told them, other sat quietly, pensively staring into the nothing, deep in thought. Then Alaran got up and walked over to the head of the able, were Alexander sat. He looked at the king for a moment, and then dropped to one knee at his feet, bowing his head. "I pledge allegiance to my king, the great Alexander." He said, starting to repeat the vow every lieutenant had to make when initiated. Halys was the first to kneel beside him, but the others soon followed, joining him in his words. "I will stand by him in times of trouble, and defend his life with my own. Never will I leave his side in battle, never will I betray his trust. This I swear today to my liege and ruler." 

No one left. Alex swallowed a moment and waited long before he spoke again. " Thank you all." He managed to get out. "This means a lot to me. Even if this battle will lead to my death, I will have been proud to have fought beside such great men and women." With a hand gesture he ordered them all back to their seats. 

They discussed what to do a little further, and also how the troops were doing and what still needed to be done. After another two candle marks everyone exited the conference room. Xena walked past Alexander and tapped him on the shoulder. "You've got some very loyal people here, my friend." She said, smiling at him. 
Alexander smiled back. " I know." 
Xena gave him another pat and then walked towards Alaran, who was standing a little further off. "Thanks." She said, letting a smile cross her face. 
Alaran smiled back. "There's nothing to thank me for. I just did what any good soldier would do Xena…And just for the record, if it had been you, instead of Alex, I would have done the same." 
Xena blinked a couple of times, in shock. "But I…you…" 
Alex chuckled at catching the warrior out of balance. "That's all in the past Xena. Things are different now." 
Xena straightened a little, recovering her pose. "I'm… I'm really glad you feel that way Alaran." 
"So am I" The lieutenant said smiling. Then he turned and headed for the gates, returning home. 

Xena stared at the ceiling above her head, thinking. About Angra, about what Alaran had said... About Elis... 

"They'd follow you to Hades and back if they had to, I'm telling you they would."
Xena looked up at her friend, disbelieving. "No way Elis. These people have got minds of their own. They know who I am...."
Elis smiled mischievously "Wanna bet?"
"Bet what?"
"Fifty dinars says that if you tell them now to jump in that lake over there, they'd do it."
Xena turned to look at the lake. A thin lair of ice was covering the surface, since it had been freezing the night before. She looked at Elis. "You're kidding, right?" Elis shook his head. "This'll be the easiest 50 dinars I have ever made." Xena said happily, then walked over to the large group of men and women standing a little way of. "OK guys, listen up." All heads turned in her direction. "OK, I want you to jump in that lake over there." She stated, pointing at the
water in question. 
For a moment the group was quiet, as they gave each other not-understanding looks. Then some guys in the front line shrugged and started pulling their boots off. "Can we keep our clothes on lieutenant?" One of the boys asked. 

Xena blinked a couple of times, checking if she was really seeing thousands of people
getting ready to take an ice bath, just because she said so. "Uhm...sure." She muttered to the boy, who then started running towards the lake. One after the other they dove into the water, shattering the ice with a loud crack. Xena looked at them with unbelieving eyes, then turned those eyes to meet Elis'. 
The young prince had a broad grin on his face as he extended one flat hand towards the warrior. "Pay up warrior princess."
Xena grunted some curses, but then dug into her money pouch and slapped the coins in his hand. 
They both turned to see thousands of faces looking up at Xena, eyes silently asking what to do next.

Xena turned to lay on her side and stared at the wall silently. What a mess this all was. When this all started, she thought she was stepping into a normal war, as far as wars are ever normal of course, being just a little soldier in the whole thing. And now she was practically a chief lieutenant in a war against the father of all evil and his madman protÈgÈ, Xerxes.
Xena let out a deep breath and turned to lay on her back again. What a mess... She was going to lead thousands of men and women to their graves... again.... How could she just do that?

Softly she heard a door slide open and soft familiar footsteps approached. She turned her head to greet her friend. "Hey"
"Hey" Gabrielle said softly, sitting down beside the bed. "Can't sleep huh?"
Xena shook her head softly. "Too much to think about..."
"I know the feeling." Gabrielle said. "And I figured, if we're both awake, we might as well be awake together."
Xena smiled. "I like that thought." She said, then sat up. Gabrielle pulled herself off the floor an sat down beside her on the bed.
"So, you wanna talk about what's bothering you?" Gabrielle started, breaking the silence.
"Why don't we talk about what's not bothering me, that'll make a nice short conversation."
"Hey, it's not like we have anything better to do." Gabrielle reasoned 

It was quiet for a moment, then the warrior let out a soft sigh. "You wanna know what's bothering me? OK, what's bothering me is that I'm stepping into another war leading thousands of people towards their deaths. What's bothering me is that all these damn gods are involved and they refuse to leave us alone. That everyone is relying on me to fix things. That Alex is getting himself into something so horrible, he has no idea of. That I'm gonna let him. That I'm disgracing his bother's memory by doing so. And that I'm dragging you towards the father of Dahak, towards what might very well be our deaths..."

Silence fell and lasted for a long time. "That's a lot to worry about." Gabrielle said softly.
Xena only nodded. "I... I don't know what to do anymore..."
Gabrielle looked at her friend. She saw the twitching of muscles in her face as Xena tried to hold back her emotions. Gabrielle kept looking until troubled blue eyes looked back at her, the bard just wrapped her arms around her friend. "We'll get through this" She whispered softly in a nearby ear. "You know we will." 
She felt Xena nod softly against her shoulder. They sat like that for a long time, but finally broke
"Xena" Gabrielle started softly 
"I think you have to take command of the army. Officially."
Xena's eyes grew round. "Gabrielle...you...you know I can't do that..."
"You can't keep hiding from this Xena. We've started this and now there's no turning back. You are their chief lieutenant, whether you want to or not." 
Xena looked at her friend a moment, then dropped her eyes and let out a deep breath. "I know"
Gabrielle smiled softly. "I know you do. They need someone to rely on now, more than ever." The warrior simply nodded. Gabrielle gave her friend a sympathetic look. "It'll get easier Xena, I know it will."
The warrior slowly lifted her eyes. "The bad stuff hasn't even begun yet." She said softly. 

Waking up felt a lot better after a night without nightmares, Gabrielle decided, as she slightly moved her head to find a more comfortable spot on the warrior's shoulder. She glanced up to see Xena still fast asleep. Poor Xena she thought to herself. It was strange how all her own fears and worries disappeared into the nothing when Xena told her hers. And the worst thing was there was nothing she could do to help. Softly she stroked an errant lock back behind Xena's ear.

"Well, now isn't this cute." A low male voice interrupted. 
Gabrielle let out a sigh and slowly, trying not to wake Xena, turned around to meet a familiar face. "What do you want now Ares?"
The god of war chuckled softly "Well, I'd hate to tear you away from such a lovely spot, but..." With a snap of his fingers Gabrielle suddenly disappeared and reappeared standing in front of the god. "...I'd like a word."
"Well, you're not gonna get any more from me." Gabrielle stated, then turned away from the god.
"Ouch" Ares said with a painful look on his face. "And that when we finally agree on something... I'm so hurt..."
The bard stopped her movement and turned again. "Agree on what?"
Ares let a grin cross his face. "That Xena should lead this pretty little army. Oh, you convinced her so easily. You know, making Xena do what I want is so much simpler with you on my side... Ouch! Hey, would you let go of my ear!" The god hissed as Gabrielle dragged him into the next room.
"Just shut up Ares."
"But it hurts." The god complained, softly rubbing over his left ear.
"Just be quiet so you don't wake Xena up." Gabrielle was silent for a moment, then looked up into dark brown eyes. "Why can't you just let go of her Ares?"
"Could you?" The god retorted with deadly precision.
"No.." Gabrielle replied softly. "But there's a big difference between you and me Ares, she wants me around..."
"Oh yeah, I noticed that." Ares muttered, getting an angry stare in response.
"She's not coming back to you anymore, you know?"
Ares let out a low chuckle. "Isn't she? Aw, come on Gabrielle, you know just as well as I do that that little destroyer of nations is still in there. You've seen her, haven't you?"
"I have... But Xena can control that part of her now."
Ares smiled and softly shook his head. "You're such a naive little thing." He said, patting the bard on the cheek. Before Gabrielle could slap it away he stopped and then slowly started circling her. "You think you know what war is, don't you Gabrielle?"
"I've seen war"
Ares laughed. "Not like this you haven't. How many people did you lead in that little Caesar war thing... Thirty? Forty?" The voice dropped a pitch lower. "Xena will lead thousands." A laugh. "War is a very strong power Gabrielle. So strong it can even crack you're precious Xena in there." He said, pointing at the door to the next room. Then he turned back to Gabrielle and brown eyes met green for a very long moment. "Just know what you're dragging her into Gabrielle." Ares said, then disappeared into the nothing. 
Gabrielle kept staring at the place he'd stood at for a very long time, then let out a deep
breath. "Gods, I hate that guy." A distant low chuckle was the response. 

Gabrielle slowly pushed open the door to Xena's bedroom. The warrior was still asleep, but now she was
tossing and turning restlessly. The bard walked closer and then softly touched her friend's shoulder. "It's
OK Xena, I'm here." she whispered. There were a couple more jerks, but then the warrior's body sagged back into the bed and returned to a peaceful sleep. 
Gabrielle took a moment to stare at the quiet face. "Maybe Ares is right." She mumbled softly. "Maybe I am pushing you to hard." Then she slowly straightened and walked out, slowly closing the door behind her.

It was very quiet when Xena awoke. Too quiet, she quickly realized. She pulled herself up and let her
eyes flick over the room, looking for a familiar shape. Nothing.... Xena stood up and pulled open the
door to the hallway. Softly she made her way down the stairs.
"Now if I was a Gabrielle, where would I be...?" She muttered to herself. For some reason the word
'kitchen' came to mind, so she started to make her way in that direction, until she saw light shining through
the edges of the library door. 

Slowly she pushed the door open to see Gabrielle leaning over a large scroll, trying to make out some words in the candlelight. "Gabrielle?"
Dimly lit green eyes lifted. "Oh... hi..."
Dark brows frowned. "What are you doing here?"
Gabrielle shrugged, returning her staring at the scroll. "Just trying to make myself useful..." 
"I thought you were pretty useful in getting rid of my nightmares."
Another shrug.
Xena stepped closer "What happened?"
Her friend slowly looked up and met concerned blue eyes. "Ares stopped by." she said, dropping her eyes again.
Xena let out a soft sigh, then moved closer and dropped to a knee beside the bard's chair. "Gabrielle, he's just trying to get you on edge..."
"He just said some things that made sense."
A dark eyebrow lifted. "Gabrielle, this is Ares we're talking about. He never makes sense."
Gabrielle silently shook her head. "He does now. You know, ever since we came here I've been pushing you into this. You didn't want to get involved in this war and I just said "Go to war" and you did and every time you had second thoughts I kept on saying "You have to go, it's the right thing to do..."
"And it is."
"Is it?" Gabrielle said softly, letting her eyes meet blue ones. "Xena, just look at what's happened. For the last month you've just been fighting yourself and I..."
"Gabrielle.." The warrior softly interrupted. "Just listen, OK?" A soft sigh. "Look, ever since I met you I've seen demons from my past surface. You made me deal with them and put it behind me. And that's what you're doing now..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "All I've done is sit by and tell you what I thought you should do... I always let you take the blows..." The bard straightened. "Well, not anymore."
"What do you mean?"
"I told you you should be a chief lieutenant, and I still think you should be, but not on your own."
Blue eyes looked up at her. "Gabrielle..."
"If you are going to be a chief lieutenant, so am I." 
Xena stood abruptly, turning away from her friend. "You don't know what you're saying." She whispered softly.
"I'm not going to let you lead this army by yourself, Xena. I'm not going to let you take on that responsibility." Gabrielle said, standing up and moving closer to the warrior.
"No!" Firey green eyes met blue. "I'm not the little girl I used to be. I can't keep hiding behind your back anymore. Xena, please... Please don't fight me on this..."
The warrior was silent for a moment searching for the right words to say. "Gabrielle, I...I don't want you to get hurt..."
"It'll hurt me more to stand by and see you suffer, while I can't do anything to help you." Gabrielle slowly touched her friend's shoulder. "Don't you see? I have to do this Xena."
Xena closed her eyes for a long moment, then nodded softly.
"Thank you." Gabrielle whispered, then enfolded her friend in a long hug. 
Xena swallowed. This was getting more complicated by the second....

"Listen up everybody, I have an announcement to make!" Alex's voice rang out over the training square. Thousands of heads turned towards him and the two women on the podium. " As of today, the line of command has changed. I'm very glad to announce Xena has changed her mind and has decided to take up the position of chief lieutenant..." The men and women cheered. Even Halys and her group. 

Xena looked out over what were now her troops and, softly, she heard her dark side chuckle. But she ignored it and listened as Alex continued. "And I am also happy to tell you she will be sharing the position with Gabrielle. Silence followed and lasted for a long time as the soldiers exchanged glances. Then new cheers sounded over the square. Gabrielle let her eyes drift over the crowd and immediately spotted a group of soldiers whispering among themselves and not joining the cheers. The bard cast a glance at Xena, who looked back at her. Then they both waited for the training to begin.

Xena made her way off the podium and immediately started to head in the direction of the group of boys, but Gabrielle stopped her. Green eyes looked up at her. Xena sighed, but pulled back as Gabrielle walked off. 

"You're holding that staff all wrong." Gabrielle commented, as she walked up to the group. The boys looked at her, then one stepped forward and made an obvious display of saluting her "Yes, lieutenant. Of course, lieutenant. Whatever you say, lieutenant." Gabrielle kept quiet and raised an eyebrow. "If you have something to say, than say it." The boy looked at her for a moment. "OK." he said, standing a little taller and making the most of his height. "I don't think you're capable of running an army" 
"Why not?" Gabrielle replied easily. 
The boy blinked. "Because...'cause you..." 
"No, let me answer that question for you" the bard interrupted swiftly. "It's because I'm 'just a bard' right? I can't be any good cause I'm just a little storyteller walking around with a stupid stick, is that it?" 
The boy leaned on his staff and looked her straight in the eyes. "Yes" 

Gabrielle looked at him, then chuckled softly. In a flash she lifted her staff and swiped his away from under him. He stumbled then fell flat on his back on the hard ground. Before he could even utter one word of protest he felt the end of a staff cutting off his air. With frightened eyes he looked up at the bard towering over him. " A staff can be just as dangerous as any sword... and just as deadly." Gabrielle said softly, looking straight at him as he was straightening himself to get air into his lungs. Then she removed the staff. The boy coughed, raising one hand to rub his throat. Gabrielle stood quietly, looking down on him.

The boy pushed himself off the floor, then stepped closer to her. "Now I know you can kill" He said softly, so only she could hear, " But will you? When I'm fighting for you glory will you kill the enemy that approaches me from behind?" 

A long silence fell as images passed before Gabrielle's eyes... Flanagan... Then green eyes looked straight at him, "Yes" She whispered softly. 
Pale gray eyes searched hers. "All right... lieutenant." Was the only response before he turned and walked back to his friends. 

Gabrielle turned as well, glancing in Xena's direction. Blue eyes looked back at her. Gabrielle nodded quietly. She saw Xena nod as well before the warrior returned to her practicing. 

She heard footsteps approach and shortly after, Halys fell into pace beside her. "Nice going" She said, patting the bard on the shoulder. "You handled that really well"
Gabrielle looked at the woman for a moment, then made her decision. "Halys, could we talk for a moment, I have a favor to ask" 

"No" Halys replied, crossing her arms and turning away from the bard. 
A hand touched her shoulder. "Halys, please…" 
"No" The warrior said determinedly, shaking her head. "I can't teach you." Grey eyes met green. "What do you think Xena will do if she found out I'd been teaching you how to throw daggers into people's hearts?" A sigh. "You have to tell her, Gabrielle" 
Gabrielle shook her head vigorously. "I can't. She's already in shatters because of me. Do you know how hurt she'll be when I tell her?" 
"Do you know how hurt she'll be when you don't? Look, Gabrielle, to be honest, I don't give a damn how Xena feels, but you…. Just don't make the same mistake I made." Halys muttered, staring down at the ground. 
Gabrielle looked at the bent face. "Do you… wanna talk about it?" 


Grey eyes lifted. After a long moment of doubt Halys sighed. "Xena… told you… right?" Gabrielle just nodded, realizing what she was talking about. Halys let out another sigh, then restlessly started to walk around the small room they were standing in. "When… when we first joined up with Xena, she was like a goddess to us all. We'd seen her raging around on that battlefield and she'd saved our necks thousands of times. So, it was almost logical to join her army. At first we did good things. Fought a couple of warlords here and there. But after that…." 

"Charis was starting to see that something was wrong. I didn't, or if I did I didn't care. That time, we were fighting this village. Xena had demanded resources from them, but they had denied and were now giving us a harder time than we expected. That one day…" Halys stopped a moment and swallowed, briefly closing her eyes. "We'd captured this villager. He'd fallen down a small hole and had broken his leg. We got him out and dragged him back to the camp. Being the leader of the expedition, I personally handed him over to Xena. She was pleased and invited me to the questioning. I was thrilled…" Halys got out, an obvious tone of disgust in her voice. "Normally only the lieutenants were allowed to join her. It was a great honor. So, when I walked back into our tent…" 

Halys lashed the flap of the tent that served as a door away and happily came bursting the tent. The short woman with light brown hair sitting in the far corner glanced up from the book lying on her lap. "Did you take him to Xena" She said, a bitter tone sounding obviously in her voice. 
Halys didn't hear it though. "Yeah, and you know what she said? I can join the interrogation!" 
Charis shot up from her chair. "What?! You… you refused, right? 
Halys' brows frowned. "Of course not. This is a great honor and.." 
"An honor?!" Charis spit out. "Watching her hit an innocent villager an honor?! Halys, where's your brain?!" 
"He is the enemy!" Halys cried out in exasperation. 
"What did he ever do to us?" 
"They didn't want to give us their food and…" 
"They hardly have enough to feed themselves." Charis interrupted. "Halys, don't you see? This is so wrong… " Soft blue eyes gazed up into gray ones. "Please… please promise me you won't go…" 
Halys stared back at her for a long moment. "All right" 

"But of course I went anyway. How could I turn down an offer from Xena." A sigh in self disgust. "I figured that if she didn't know, it wouldn't hurt her, so I told her I was going for a walk and went over to Xena's tent. 

"Halys, finally. So glad you decided to join us." A low voice called out to her as Halys walked in. Xena was sitting behind the small desk in her tent, surrounded by some of the high-ranking officers. "Gentlemen, meet the woman that has made this lovely interrogation possible." The warrior said as Halys marched further into the room and stopped in front of Xena's desk, saluting her. 
Halys basked in the glory as the lieutenants gave her respectful glances.
Xena pushed herself to her feet. "Well, let's get started, shall we?" She said, a vicious grin tugging at the edges of her mouth. 
The officers chuckled as they followed their leader into another tent where a young boy was strapped to a pole in the center of the small space. He was leaning to his left, trying to relieve the pressure from his broken leg. As he heard them walk in he lifted his head and looked up at them defiantly. Xena chuckled as she stepped closer. "Well, well, well, what have we here? A peasant with attitude." The warrior's voice rumbled as she leaned closer. "Now listen to me, kid, we can do this two ways. Either you talk right now and walk out of here untouched, or I'll beat the crap out of you after which you'll talk anyway. Your choice…" The boy straightened, looked her right in the eyes and then spit her in the face. 

Xena moved back slowly, swiping a hand across her face. She looked at the boy, then chuckled. Then in one savage move kicked against his already broken leg. The boy yelled out in pain, tears staining his eyes. And Xena laughed. 

Halys felt torn. Part of her just wanted to run away from this boy's suffering, but another part… enjoyed it. And that's the part she decided to let out. Halys laughed. 

"Later that night, I returned to my tent. Charis was still up and as I walked in, she looked up.

"Had a nice walk?" Charis asked, as she put away her book and stood, walking closer. 
"Yeah. I walked to the woods back there and…" Halys fell silent as her friend stopped in front of her, a strange look in her eyes. "Charis? What's…?" 
The left side of her face stung as a hand slapped against her cheek. "Liar!" Her friend sobbed, as she pushed Halys back, causing her to fall over. "I saw you Halys!" She cried out, towering over her. "In Hades' name, I saw you in there laughing over that kid's pain." And then in a smaller voice. "How could you? You... you promised me…" 
"Charis, please understand…" 
"No, no I can't understand this, I never will." She sputtered. 
Halys had managed to get herself back on her feet. "Charis.." 
"No, just… just leave me alone!" 

"And with that she walked out. I…I tried to find her, but I couldn't… and when I got back from watch and I heard…and…" A soft sob. "And then I found her by the stream…" A soft hand touched her shoulder. "It was my fault." Halys whispered softly. 
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "It wasn't your fault Halys, it wasn't" And with that the bard wrapped her arms around the woman. 

It felt strange, Halys mused, in a good kind of way. How long had it been… Four years? Five? Too long, her body simply replied, as she let herself fall into the embrace, finally letting go. After a long moment of silence she released the bard. "Thank you" She whispered softly, wiping the tears from her face. 
Gabrielle smiled. "My pleasure." 
Halys smiled back, but then turned serious. "Gabrielle, don't lie to her. Don't hide the truth… Because maybe, this time, you won't have a chance to make up…" 
Gabrielle stared into the gray eyes for a long moment. "Thank you." She then said softly. 

As Gabrielle walked back onto the square her eyes quickly spotted Xena. The warrior was training one of the boys, and was obviously bored. As she walked closer the warrior glanced up and greeted her with a smile. "Hey there." She said, as she lazily blocked an overhead strike. "You OK?" The bard nodded. "Just fine… So, any plans for today?" 
"Yes, actually" Xena said, as she side stepped to let the soldier storm passed her. "I was thinking about taking the horses out and doing a little drill. Wanna come?" She lunged her sword at the kid, making him stumble backwards. 
"Sure" Gabrielle chuckled as the boy sagged down on the ground in exasperation. "It'd do me some good, probably. I'll go saddle Chilon… See you in a bit." 
As she paced off she walked past the boy, who had just pushed himself back to his feet. "Try to hit her low on the left." She whispered, then winked as the boy smiled, before running off and furiously starting to attack Xena's left leg. Xena defended against the blows that were finally posing a bit of a challenge. 
"Gabrielle…" her dark voice rumbled across the square. 
Gabrielle just chuckled. "See ya later Xena... Enjoy!" 
The warrior muttered something but now kept her eyes focused on the soldier in front of her. 

"Hey boy." Gabrielle greeted the dark horse in the far corner cheerfully. Chilon glanced up from his pile of hay and neighed softly at her. Gabrielle stepped closer and stroked the long dark manes. "Wanna come for a ride?" The horse softly pushed his nose against her stomach, making her stumble back slightly. 
Gabrielle grinned. "I'll take that as a yes." She walked over to the brushes lying a little way off and started wiping the dirt off Chilon's flanks. 

A little while later Gabrielle heard the stable door open and footsteps come closer. "Hey Xena." She greeted her friend, without looking up from her task. 
"Hi…" Xena replied as she stepped closer. "Hey Gabrielle, do you know what time it is?" 
There was a tone in the warrior's voice that Gabrielle didn't quite trust, so she looked up … to see a large patch of hay coming straight for her. "Pay back time." Xena grinned as the hay hit her friend straight in the face. 

Gabrielle spit out a straw and casted an evil glance at her friend. "Ow, come on, like you didn't want a bit of a challenge." Xena just grinned and launched another straw off her open hand with her forefinger, hitting the bard on the forehead. "Ow, you've got it coming now Warrior Princess." Gabrielle grinned, ducked and picked up a handful of hay, then lunged in the warrior's direction. 
Xena stepped aside letting the bard dive past her into the haystack behind her. 
Gabrielle coughed, then emerged, picking a hay straw out of her hair. She twisted the straw between thumb and forefinger and chuckled softly. "Funny, very funny..." Then in a flash she reached out for Xena's arm and, with a wild tug, pulled the warrior into the pile. She jumped in after her and started to rub handfuls of hay into Xena's face. 

Argo looked at the spectacle and softly shook her head. Chilon looked at his friend and nodded, letting out a soft snort. 

A little while later the two women were lying in the haystack, trying to catch their breaths. Gabrielle smiled, then looked at Xena. "Thanks, I really needed that." 
Xena smiled. "Figured you did. You wanna talk about what's bothering you now?" 
Gabrielle glanced in the blue eyes for a long moment, then looked away. "Xena, if I … If I wanted to tell you something that you really didn't want to hear right now, would you want me to tell you?" She glanced at the warrior. 
Xena held her gaze for a long moment. Then the warrior sighed and stood, walking over to their saddlebags that were lying near Argo's stables. She dug into them, then retrieved a wooden box, about the size of a large book, and walked back over to the bard, who was now sitting up. "Here." 
Gabrielle frowned. "But…" 
"Just take it." Xena murmured. Gabrielle slowly took the box from the warrior's hands and put it on her lap. She unclicked the buckles on the sides and then slowly lifted the lid. ... 

Gabrielle's eyes widened. She looked up at Xena, then back to the contents of the box. Four small daggers were neatly ordered on the soft, blue velvet of the box. The metal blinked at her. Gabrielle softly ran her fingers over the neatly carved, swirly X engraved in each of the daggers. Xena cleared her throat uncomfortably. "They… uhm… they used to be mine, but I haven't used them for ages. " 
Green eyes looked straight at her. "How did you know?" She softly whispered 
Xena sighed, then sat down beside her friend. "It… was just the next logical step… I knew that for you, being a commander would mean protecting your men,… at any cost…" Xena said softly, fumbling with a piece of hay. "I just… I just hoped it wouldn't have been this soon." She glanced at the bard who was now experimentally balancing one of the daggers in her hand. "You, uhm… You don't have to use these, I can have other ones made for you if you want… I…" 
"No", Gabrielle said quickly, putting down the dagger and taking Xena's hand. "No, they're perfect… I…" A sigh. "Thank you so much... for understanding." She said, before pulling the warrior into a hug. 
"My pleasure." Xena murmured "And Gabrielle?" 
"Please, don't hesitate to ask me stuff like that. Whatever it is that concerns you, I want to hear about…OK?" Gabrielle nodded into the warrior's shoulder. "OK." Came the soft reply. 

Alexander stood on top of a small hill and glanced down over the group of horses before him, neatly lined up in long rows. As he watched silently, two riders came cantering in his direction. Xena pulled up before him. "Left flanks ready." 
"So is the right." Gabrielle said, as she pulled up beside her friend. 
Alex nodded. "All right then. Let's get this thing going." He said as he turned his horse, Buchefalos. 
"You OK?" Xena asked, staring at the serious face. 
The young king nodded, "Yeah, I'm all right. Let's just get started." And after that he shot into a canter. 
Xena and Gabrielle followed close behind. 

Alexander pulled up in front of the first row. "All right everybody. This is going to be a fairly simple drill, OK? First we head off down this plain as a group. And I want good formation, you hear? If anybody, and I mean anybody, is out of line we start over. Got that?" A short silence fell as Alex waited for any protest. There was none. "OK, Good. Now, after that we'll split up as we reach that hill over there." Alexander continued, pointing at the hill in the distance "My group will go over, Xena's will head left, and Gabrielle right, OK? OK." He glanced at Xena. The warrior nodded, as did Gabrielle, before they trotted off to their positions. Alexander lifted his hand. "Let's go!" He ordered out as he swept his hand forward. 

And the army moved. The walking went quite well, but as Alex went over into a trot, gaps started to fall. The king immediately halted his horse. "Wrong! Everybody back!" His voice rang over the plain. All the horses turned, rode back, retook formation and they started off again. 

"No, no, no! Back up!" The whole army sighed in unison. 
"But Alex..." one of the soldiers started to protest. 
Immediately brown eyes turned to him and stared at him intently. "Lycos?" 
"Uhm… couldn't we…like… take a break…or…" 
"When we were fighting the Persians, do you think they'll give you a break.?" 
"Well, no, but…" 
"No buts, Lycos, no buts." Alex interrupted. "Now you listen to me. If you step into this war and you're not trained well, you'll die. You got that? And I will not, I repeat, will not, have your death on my conscience. I'll do anything to keep you alive and if that means slaving you off on a battlefield, than so be it…" 
A long silence followed, then Lycos nodded. "Yes, genr'l" he said, before riding back to his spot. Alex stared after him for a moment, then took a deep breath. "OK, one more time, every one…. March!" 

And the army moved as one. From a walk, into a trot, into a canter. It wasn't quite as fluent as Alexander wanted it, but it would do, for now. 
As they reached the hill, Alex gave the signal to split up. Xena immediately edged to the left, as Gabrielle went to the right. As he reached the top of the hill, Alex glanced down at the troops below him. All were trotting in neat formation. At the bottom of the hill the groups joined up again. Not quite perfect. Xena was too far in the front and Gabrielle a bit behind. Alex lifted his hand and slowly slowed down to a halt, then turned around. 
"We'll practice this again…" He started. Heads bent down in defeat "...tomorrow." With a grin he listened as sighs of relief drifted up. "Go on, back to the stables."

As his troops rode off in the distance, Xena halted Argo next to him. "You did well." His chief-lieutenant commented silently. 
Alex closed his eyes and let the wind blow his hair back. "Thank you…Xena?" 
"Would my father have done this? Would he have risked their lives for this battle…?" 
Xena looked him. She closer her eyes and remembered his father, a strong, determined man. And when she opened her eyes she saw his image reflected in her young friend. "Yes, yes he would have. I… I think he's very proud of you, Alex." 
Alex swallowed and a long silence fell. "And how about you?" Xena turned to him and blinked. 
"What about me?" 
"Would you… lead them to war?" 
Xena looked away and gazed at the horizon for a long moment. "I'm not the right person to ask, Alexander. This war is too personal for me…I…" She gazed down for a moment… "But what I do know is that I am proud of you, Alex…" She looked in his direction and saw soft brown eyes looking back at her. "I… If there was any man capable of leading these men to war and succeeding, it'd be you… and whatever you choose to do, I'll follow you." 

Alexander gazed at her. She'd follow him… The former destroyer of nations was following him to war… This was so strange. He straightened and put a hand on her shoulder. "Thanks Xena."
Xena smiled. "No thanks needed… You… you're doing the right thing Alex." 
Alexander smiled as well, then patted the warrior on the shoulder. "Come on let's head back." 
"Sounds like a good idea to me." The warrior agreed, then suddenly spurted off into a gallop. "Race ya!" 
"Hey!" Alexander called after her in surprise, but then pushed his horse into a gallop as well and raced after the warrior. 

Chilon was already unsaddled and chewing on some hay when Xena arrived back at the stables. She unsaddled Argo, gave her a good brush down and then headed off to find her friend. She made her way back to the castle as the sun spread a light red blanket over the landscape. As she walked past one of the small shops, she suddenly remembered something and stepped inside. 

An older, gray haired man looked up from a thick book lying on the counter. "Xena" He greeted her with a smile, motioning for her to come closer. "It's good to see you." 
Xena returned his smile with one of her own. "Hi Nicias, how are you getting along?" 
"Quite well, thank you." The weapon smith said cheerfully. "Actually, I have something for you here." Xena looked up. "You finished it already?" 
The old man chuckled. "You are one of my favorite projects Xena, of course it was the first thing I started working on." The man grinned, then picked something off one of the shelves behind him and handed it to Xena. 
The warrior took the sword and unsheathed it from the scabbard and revealed the shining metal. Engraved in it was a dragon, swirling its way up the blade to end with it's head near the edge of the metal, face forward, large eyes peering at her. The design reminded her of the pictures she had seen in Chin and memories struggled to come up, but Xena repressed them. "It's beautiful Nicias. I see you still haven't lost your touch." 
Nicias beamed a smile at her. "You like it?" 
"Love it." Xena replied honestly. "Where did you find the design?"
"I've been reading too many scrolls I guess." The old man chuckled softly. "I was just leafing through one of those old scrolls I have and saw this one. It reminded me of you, for some reason." 
Xena's eyebrows lifted. "Well, I'm honored." She glanced at the blade again. "I really don't think I can take this one into battle with me though, it's way too beautiful to spill someone's guts with." 
The weapon master laughed. "Tactful as always, aren't you Xena? But please do use it… considering I can't be there for this one myself, I'd like you to have something to protect yourself with." 

The warrior looked at her old friend, who she'd known the last time she'd been in Pella. "I still owe you for that one." She said softly. 
Nicias shook his head. "You don't owe me anything. I protected my commander, as I was supposed to." 
"Nicias, you lost your leg…" Xena started, but the lifting of a hand cut her off. 
Nicias walked around the table, limping slightly, as he tried to balance his wooden leg. "Xena, you have enough to worry about right now, the least of your worries should be me. Actually, you have paid me back a thousand times, just by being here. By becoming the person I always knew you were. If the gods wanted my leg to give you back your soul, I have been glad to have given it up." 
Xena glanced down, at a loss for words. 
Nicias smiled and patted her on the shoulder. "I don't care much for the leg, Xena. As long as these hands can still do their thing, I am a happy man." He said, smiling, flexing his hands. 
Xena looked up, then smiled back. "Well, those hands are still worth their weight in gold my friend. Thank you." She lifted the sword, put it back in the scabbard and then attached it to her armor. 
"My pleasure. So, what are you here for then, if you weren't expecting the sword?" 
"I wanted to check up on things. How are the other weapons coming along? And the armor?" 
"Back to business it is." The weapons master smiled. "Coming along quite well actually. I've got all my little helpers in there working overtime. Most of the weapons are already finished. I'm just working at the fancy ones now. And as far as armor goes… we're working really hard Xena, but these are thousands of soldiers you know… It'll take us two weeks, at least, to get them finished." 
Xena nodded. "That's all right. They'll just have to get used to them while we march towards the border. There's one I want especially made though…" 
"For your friend, right?" Xena laughed. "You know me too well." 
"I just know you're very protective of that one." Nicias grinned. "And you should be. You can never be too careful with your friends. I haven't seen her around here though." 
Xena shook her head. "She's not much into weapons…although…" Xena's face darkened slightly. 
Her friend immediately noticed though. "Something on your mind?" 
Xena sighed. "It's just… Gabrielle's not one to kill, Nicias, but now that she's a commander, I knew she'd want to protect those who served her… So I gave her some daggers and…" 
"And now you're worried if you did the right thing?" Nicias laughed. "I can remember a certain Warrior Princess who always told me to 'go with your gut'. I guess it's time to take your own advice here Xena" He smiled. "But if you want my advice… Sent her by some time, so I can measure her for that armor, and I'll have a look…" 
Xena smiled. "Thanks. I… I know I shouldn't butt in, it is her choice after all, but I just… I just don't want to see her get hurt… " 
"You don't know if she's ready for this?" 
"Oh she's ready…" A sigh. "It's very strange Nicias. Just a couple of years ago she was this young bard from Potedaia, and today I saw her riding at the head of an army. I… I know I shouldn't begrudge her the fact that's she's growing up and learning, but sometimes… sometimes I just want that naïve little girl back… You know?" 
Nicias nodded, then smiled. "Now I really can't wait to meet her." 
Xena returned his smile. "I'll send her over some time soon, when she can find the time." 
"You do that." Nicias said, then showed her off. "Now, you go and take a bath, you smell like horse." 
"And what's wrong with that?" Xena laughed. "But I'll leave you to your work my friend. Good luck." "The same to you." Nicias said, clasping the warrior's shoulder. "And don't worry too much about things that you can't prevent anyway Xena. Just let things be. Sometimes, problems have a way of solving themselves."
Xena smiled, then patted him on the shoulder and walked out of the small shop. 

"Stupid language…" An irritated sounding voice came from behind the library door. Xena peered in, to see Gabrielle lying on her stomach on the floor, leaning over a large book. At the moment she walked in Gabrielle closed the book with a snap and rolled on her back, staring up at the ceiling in anger. 
"What in Hades' name are you doing in here?" Xena rumbled. 
Gabrielle shot up, then immediately dropped back down again, wincing in pain. "Ouch" 
Xena frowned her brows and stepped closer. "What's wrong?" 
"My butt hurts" Gabrielle said grumpily. "I guess I'm still not used to spending that much time on a horse huh?" 
Xena grinned, and sat down cross-legged beside her friend on the floor. "That's why normal people take a nice hot bath to relax before they stuff themselves into a library." 
Gabrielle chuckled. "I never said I was normal." A grin. "I just really want to figure out this language." She said, pointing at the closed book. "But I just don't get it. The letters are different. I can't even make out the words." Xena looked at the scroll, then picked it up and balanced it on her legs, opening it somewhere in the middle. 
Gabrielle continued looking up at the ceiling. "I tried to compare it to other languages I know, but I can hardly find any resemblance." 
Xena looked at the lines on the old, yellow parchment. "Aogemaideca usmahica visamadaeca" 
"And I've been trying and trying but…" Silence followed as she watched the warrior bend over the parchment. 
"visamadaeca Shato-manau vahishto-urvano" 
"Oh my gods" Gabrielle breathed, looking wide eyed at the warrior. "You can actually read that?" 
Xena looked up and grinned. "You surprised?" She said, blinking at Gabrielle with innocent eyes. 
The bard sat up, forgetting her butt for a moment and slid over to the warrior. "When did you learn?" 
"Actually, Elis taught me. He said I didn't understand the beauty of the Persian culture and he basically forced me to learn." Xena smiled at the memory. 
Gabrielle looked at her friend. "He must have been a very open-minded person." 
Xena nodded. "He was. He was an incredible man." A silence fell. "This is the first time I've ever been able to use it though… You don't see a lot of Persian around, you know?" 
Gabrielle shuffled a bit closer, peering into the book. "So, what does it mean?" 
Xena looked back at the book and put her finger down on the first sentence. "I come into this world, I accept evil, I resign myself to death; with the mind in joy and the soul in bliss." 
"Wow." Gabrielle said, peering at the handwriting that looked like nothing but scribbling to her. "I can't believe you can actually make words out of these things." She sighed. 
"Want me to teach you?" 
The bard's eyes lit up immediately. "Can you?" 
"OK, what does…?" 
"Nah ah..." Xena interrupted, waving a finger at her friend. "I didn't say I'd teach you now." 
Gabrielle tried her saddest look, blinking sadly at Xena. 
But for once, the warrior wasn't impressed. "Nope, no way bard. You smell, I smell and we need a bath." 
She stated, getting up and pulling the bard along with her. "Aw, come on Xena…" 
"Nope" The warrior stated firmly. 
"Ow, just that little piece..." Gabrielle said, resisting and trying to drag the warrior back to the book." 
Xena grinned devilishly. "You don't wanna come?" 
"No I…" Then Gabrielle caught the look in her friend's eyes. "Oh, no… what are you up to…?" 
Xena grinned, then reached out for the bard in a flash, wrapping one arm around her shoulders and the other behind her legs and lifting her straight off the ground.
"Aaaaahh!" Gabrielle yelled out as her feet left the floor. "Xenaaaa! Put me down!" 
The warrior laughed. "Just a matter of hygiene, Gabrielle, just a matter of hygiene." She chuckled as she carried the screaming and kicking bard in the direction of the bathroom. 

Along the way they ran in to Alex, who had heard the commotion. "Hey Alex." Xena smiled as she passed him. 
"Alex, Alex, tell her to stop OK?" Gabrielle pleaded, looking over Xena's shoulder. "Please?" 
Alexander burst out laughing. "I'm not going to oppose a Warrior Princess Gabrielle, you're on your own." Gabrielle managed to point a finger at him "I'll get you for this, kingie!" She yelled after him, which just made him laugh even louder. 

Xena marched on, kicked open the door to the bathroom and walked closer to the pool. 
"Xenaaa! Come on, let me down now. This is so embarrassing. Just let go of me!" 
The warrior shrugged. "OK." 
And with a plunge the bard fell into the water. A second later she emerged again with a splash, tossing her wet hair back. "You..." She hissed, pointing at the warrior, "are so dead." 
Xena just laughed and then raced off, immediately followed by a completely soaked, angry looking bard. 

A couple of candle marks later Gabrielle dropped down on the grass near a small lake. She grinned and content with her revenge, laid down on the grass and closed her eyes. A few moments later a dripping warrior princess pulled herself out of the lake and walked over to her friend. She shook herself vigorously, scattering droplets on the peacefully slumbering bard. Gabrielle grumbled a little, but remained in her comfortable spot in the sun. Xena smiled, then dropped down beside her, crossing her arms behind her head and closing her eyes. "You happy now?" She murmured. 
"Uhuh." Gabrielle managed. 
The warrior chuckled softly. "Why is it we always end up tossing each other in the water anyway?"
"Hey, you started it." Gabrielle said, peering open an eyelid and eyeing her companion. 
Xena grinned. "True... Well, at least it keeps us nice and clean, right?" 
"Right." Gabrielle chuckled, lying back comfortably, letting the sun paint the insides of her eyelids in shades of red. 

Nicias looked up as he heard the door open. A blond head poked inside and smiled at him. "Can I come in?" 
Nicias smiled back. "Of course you can." 
Gabrielle opened the door further and edged her way inside, walking over to where the older man was sitting and pulled up a chair. 
"So Xena gave you my message, did she?" 
"Yup." Gabrielle confirmed, leaning back and stretching herself. "I hope you don't mind me coming by this early, it's just that I'll have no time the rest of the day." 
Nicias smiled. "That's just fine, don't you worry." 
Gabrielle nodded. "So why am I here?" 
"Your armour" The weapon smith stated, then stood and limped over to a small desk on the other side of the room and retrieved some measuring gear. "I need to take some measurements." 
"No, no, that's fine." Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't need anything more than you're going to give the troops,. I'm just a…" 
"Chief lieutenant." Nicias finished for her. 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. 
"Look, Gabrielle, as a lieutenant you don't only have a leading position, you're also there to give an impression. Good armour will do that. And…" He continued, "a certain warrior princess wants to keep you nice and safe, and it's up to my armour to do that." 
The bard chuckled softly. "I knew she had to come in somewhere." 
The weapon smith smiled. "She's just concerned for you." 
"She shouldn't be." 
"Yes she should." Nicias answered with deadly precision. "There is nothing more important than friendship, Gabrielle. Not war, not power,… nothing. She finally understands that, don't take it away from her." 

Gabrielle regarded the man for a moment, then dropped her gaze. "OK." 
Nicias came closer as Gabrielle got to her feet and started taking measurements. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to come at you like that." 
"No, it's OK… you're right… I expect her to take care of herself, I should do the same." Nicias nodded softly. "You… you're a good friend of hers, aren't you?" 
The smith nodded again. "I know Xena and she knows me… If she had something on her mind I was the one she came to talk to… She knew she could trust me…" 
A soft nod. "Is that how you lost your leg?" The bard asked softly, looking up into the slightly wrinkled face. 
Nicias gazed down at her. "When we tried to get into Athens, someone came up from behind her as she was battling five others. He knocked her down and wanted to cut off her head. My leg got in the way." He stated simply. 
Gabrielle gazed down. "Wow." 
The man smiled. "Not at all. It's something any real friend would do. You would, wouldn't you?" He asked as he was measuring her shoulders. 
"Of course" She answered, almost without thinking. 
"Good." Nicias stated, then changed the subject. "I heard you're an Amazon. Want any of that to shine through in your armour?" 
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. "As long as there's no feathers…" She said, then chuckled. "To be honest with you, I'm not much of an Amazon… Not much of a warrior…" 
"And still you throw yourself into a war?" 
"It's something any real friend would do." She copied the older man's words. "And secondly, it's just something I have to do… It's something it's time for me to do…" 
Nicias looked at her, then nodded slowly. "All right, that's about it for the measurements…" A moment of silence. "And, you know… I think I have just the thing to put on your armour… 
"Really?" Gabrielle asked, curiously. 
Nicias smiled. "Really… Wanna see?" Gabrielle nodded vigorously. Nicias smiled and guided her over to his desk, retrieving a thick scroll from one of the drawers. He unrolled it and then showed it to Gabrielle. "Like it?" The bard took in a deep breath and let her fingers roll over the design, tracing the thin black lines. "It's beautiful…" 

A colourful bird was erupting from the flames, its head facing forward. Bright red eyes were staring right at the bard. Through her, in a way. 
A phoenix. 
Gabrielle looked a the picture for another moment, following the fluid lines. Then she gazed up at the weapon smith. "Why? Why a phoenix?"
Nicias smiled. "Do you know the myths about the phoenix?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Hey, I'm a bard, what do ya think?" Nicias chuckled softly as Gabrielle continued. "The phoenix is a beautiful bird, that sings a song so gorgeous that each morning the sungod Helios has to stop and listen to it. The bird lives for a thousand years and then, when he knows his end is approaching, builds a nest and sets it to flames, burning himself. And out of the flames comes a new young bird." Gabrielle related, skipping into bard-mode. 
Nicias smiled. "You're right, that's the Greek myth. Phoenix stands for immortality. In Egypt the phoenix or Bennu represents life, and is a carrier of the soul. In Chin it's a sign for the royalty and a protector against evil. In Japan the bird signifies loyalty and justice. In India, the Garuda is a protector of the innocent and a destroyer of demons."

Nicias was quiet for a moment and glanced into fascinated green eyes. "A bird that sings so beautifully can't be evil, right?" Gabrielle shook her head. "But still it kills." Nicias continued, looking straight into those green eyes. "Only to protect the innocent. That's not a bad thing, is it?"
"No." Gabrielle managed softly. 
Nicias nodded slowly. "Do you understand now?"
"Yes." The bard said, gazing at the picture, then she looked up at the weapon smith again. "Thank you."
Nicias inclined his head. "My pleasure, my friend." He leaned over the scroll, then rolled it back up. "Now you go on and do your job. I bet Xena's waiting for you."
Gabrielle smiled at him, then turned and headed for the door, waving him goodbye. 
The older man waved back, then picked up the scroll and took it into his workroom. 

Gabrielle increased her pace as she walked towards the training square. The sun had all ready risen high in the morning sky. Interesting man. She thought to herself, as she pondered on what had happened the last candle mark. He knew so much about so many things. Very talented, very smart
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a loud yelling. Gabrielle's head shot up to see a scout riding towards her. 
"Lieutenant!" He yelled as he pulled his horse to a sudden halt. "It's an army lieutenant! It's marching up the southern pass and is heading this way!"
Gabrielle's eyes widened, then she turned and ran towards the training square, followed by the young soldier. 

Part 4

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