by jtd

For disclaimers, see Part I.

Chapter IX

Xena had to pick her way through a murmuring crowd to get to the wagon again. She was oblivious to their wide-eyed stares, just concentrating on the pale form of her soulmate in her arms. Sorrow gripped Xena's heart. The knowledge that she had not been there when she was needed made her step and her heart heavy.

She placed Gabrielle on the wagon, the blonde's head propped up by one of their spare saddlebags. A hand gave her a cloth to mop up the blood seeping out of Gabrielle's wound, and when Xena looked up, she recognized the concentrated face of Lana, Liandra's little sister, who had been her nurse before.

Experienced young eyes found the jar with the right poultice and handed it to the warrior, as well as some water.

Xena was glad for the fact that she didn't have to speak. There was a burning in her throat and her mask firmly in place but she didn't know if she could control either one if she was forced to speak.

Her hands worked mechanically, cleaning the wound and setting up a wrap, then wetting a cloth and dabbing Gabrielle's face and forehead.

"Come on, Gabrielle, wake up..." Her whispering voice took on an urgent tone.

It took another splash before Gabrielle's eyelids fluttered and she slowly regained consciousness. The bard's green eyes were glazed and confused, and Xena wrapped one large hand around Gabrielle's smaller one when she rasped her name: "Gabrielle?"

"Uh..." the younger woman sighed. "Here, but dizzy. Did I really just faint?"

"Yeah..." Xena managed a faint smile.

"I feel like such a sissy," Gabrielle attempted a joke. She coughed gently, and Xena let her have a couple of gulps of water.

"Your shoulder - does it hurt?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle moved it gently. "Feels numb," she said. "It bled, didn't it?"

"Yeah." Xena ran the wet cloth along Gabrielle's forehead again, and she realized that her voice sounded shaky.

Gabrielle regarded her with one eyebrow raised and tiredly attempted to get Xena out of her funk. "Hey, am I not getting scolded for getting myself into danger?"

Xena avoided her eyes. "No, of course not. You were where I should have been."

"Xena, you were repairing a wheel. And Simon didn't take his job seriously." The bard touched Xena's arm. "Xena?"

"Yes, you're right." Xena gave her a smile that twisted the bard's heart. "You feel a bit better?"

"I think so. Help me sit up?"

Xena complied, and Gabrielle noticed that she felt better than she had hoped. "That feels all right," she commented.

"Good. Try and eat something when you can, ok?" Xena looked at her intently. "You'll need all the energy you can get."

"Yeah, ok." Gabrielle watched her friend give the jar back to Lana who stored it in their medical kit.

Xena looked up and noticed the refugees clustered close, watching them intently and with a new kind of respect that hadn't been in their gazes before.

"Get ready," Xena told them. "We'll be on our way again. Rufus - the wheel should be ok now. Find someone to help you get it on the wagon again. I'll stay up front." When they didn't move right away, she added:" I'm sure they were Taelos' scouts. He's not sure where we are, which is good. I don't expect more trouble until we get closer to the river."

Obviously, that was what they needed to hear, because the small group dispersed and everyone got back to his or her assigned spot.

"What are we going to do with their bodies?" Liandra asked from beside the wagon. She had been incredibly scared to lose the bard, and her composure was still quite shaken.

Xena narrowed her eyes at her. "I'll take care of it. Can you give us some space here?"

"Sure." Liandra took the hint and took her sister with her, as well.

Gabrielle had followed the exchanges closely, and watching Xena told her that something was wrong. Her movements were edgy, and she tried to stay occupied.



"Are you ok?"


"We are not back to square one here, are we?" Her look bore into the warrior.

Xena was just so good at feeling guilty. She had loaded enough guilt on her to last a lifetime, if not longer, but that wasn't what they needed here. They needed forgiveness, and it had just been achieved between them. Gabrielle didn't want to lose that again so fast.

Xena's incessant fiddling stopped and she looked at Gabrielle for a moment before leaning forward and kissing the bard's forehead. "No. Of course not."

"Xena - I mean it. It wasn't your fault."

"I know." The warrior sighed. "I know."

"I love you." Gabrielle lifted a hand to trace the clenching muscle on Xena's jaw. "That will never change." She raised her eyes to the warrior's. "You hear me, right? Never."

There was an intensity in the bard's demeanor that Xena couldn't ignore. "Never," she acknowledged, and the sides of her mouth lifted into a very tentative smile. "I understand."

"You better." Gabrielle frowned at the warrior to emphasize her words, then smiled a shaky smile. "I never thought I would say this, but could you make one of your teas for me? If I should eat, first I need to calm down my stomach. I think I'm not feeling so good."

Concerned, Xena checked Gabrielle's forehead again, and found it covered in cold sweat. The bard's complexion was pale. She had most certainly overexerted herself and definitely needed some rest.

"Don't put me out again," Gabrielle pleaded when she recognized the pouch Xena reached for in their medical kit. "What if something else happens?"

"This time I'll be there," Xena pronounced between clenched teeth. "But ok. I'll give you something for the nausea and the pain. It will make you a bit drowsy, though. And if you feel you need to sleep, I want you to, you hear me?"

"Ok." Gabrielle just didn't have the strength anymore to fight with Xena. She watched the warrior mix the herbs with some water and hand the cup to her. She took a tentative sip and when it didn't come up again right away, she emptied the cup.

Xena handed her some of the pain-relieving herb they had collected yesterday. "Here, chew on this. I don't have any of our other herbs against pain left."

Gabrielle grimaced at the bitter taste, but chewed industriously and was rewarded with another half-cup of water mixed with honey. She smiled. "Thank you. Good idea."

Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "Rest, ok? I'll have Liandra here to look after you again. I'll let you know when we get into dangerous territory. I expect no more trouble in the next few hours."

"I can watch her, too," a small voice piped up besides both of them. Xena turned to look at Eva who seemed to have a knack to stay invisible if she wanted to.

Gabrielle beat Xena to a comment. "That's a good idea," she said. "You did very good with screaming, Eva."

"That was you?" Xena eyed the girl who seemed to shrink a few inches under her scrutiny. "The screaming told me that something was wrong up here," she explained and reached out to pat Eva on the shoulder. "Good work, Eva."

The girl's eyes shined.

"Looks like I'm in good hands, Xena," Gabrielle said.

Xena nodded, checking Gabrielle's forehead again. "How are you now?"

"Still a little dizzy, but I'm getting sleepy, too. I wish we had something else left to eat other than meat, though." She grimaced. "I don't feel like I want to chew on that forever."

Someone clearing his throat alerted both Xena and Gabrielle to Rufus' round form beside their wagon.

"What do you want?" Xena asked brusquely. "Can't get the wagon done without me?"

Rufus seemed to be at a loss for words, which was a first. "Um... no, we... We just got that done." He looked at Gabrielle and lifted a pouch clenched in his hand. "I thought you might like some of this. We grabbed what we could when we fled – didn't really care what it was. Just found this when we took our stuff off the wagon. Maybe it'll help."

When he realized that Gabrielle couldn't reach that far, he walked around the wagon and placed the pouch beside her.

Gabrielle traded a look with Xena and proceeded to open it. Her eyes went round, and found Rufus'. "Oh, that... that is so sweet of you. Thank you. I was just saying to Xena... yum!" She smiled, and dug into the pouch that held five small, sweet honeycakes. She unwrapped one and took a bite, then smiled a huge smile. "They're good. Thank you, Rufus. Just what I needed right now – how did you know?"

Rufus fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable with this benevolent side of him. "Like I said, just found this. I need to go back..." He pointed over his shoulder into the general direction of the wagon. "Later..."

Gabrielle watched his retreating back for a moment until she turned around to trade another look with Xena.

The warrior smiled. "Looks like you're a hero," she said, arching a brow.

"Ha ha," Gabrielle commented around another bite. "If being a hero always has sweet rewards like this, I may get into the business. Here, have one. They're really good."

Xena waved. "No, thank you. You got them, you need them, you eat them." Smiling, she watched Gabrielle give one to Eva before opening another one. It felt good to see that Gabrielle hadn't lost her appetite, always a good sign.

"Xena, everything's ready. We can start again," Liandra said, coming up beside the wagon. Her eyebrows shot up when she saw Gabrielle munching her cake. "What's that?"

Xena got up and flanked out of the wagon to stand beside Liandra. "Gabrielle will tell you all about it," she said. "Let's get ready, then."

She turned to find her horse, and Liandra climbed up into the wagon to find out what had happened.

* * *

Xena found her assessment to be right. No more disturbances met their trek on their way down the trail. They stopped for breaks again twice, and although everyone started to feel that they had been traveling under rough conditions for a few days now, they held up pretty good, considering.

The group passed a small stream which they used to fill their waterskins, wash up where necessary, and water the animals. That break proved to be especially refreshing and raised everyone's spirits.

Xena was still covering the front, sending out soldiers to scout at regular times. Gabrielle had slept between two breaks and felt better, as well, so it was easier for the warrior to concentrate on her task without worrying about her friend.

The sun was already lowering on her journey, and they were nearing the bottom of the hill as they traveled on. Scouting ahead started to get harder when first shrubbery, then trees, obscured the view. Xena took on scouting tasks again, all senses alert. Then she told the trek to stop.

"We're getting close to the crossing that meets with the road we left this morning," she explained to soldiers and volunteers. "I will go ahead and do some scouting to find out where the enemy waits for us. Deploy guards around the trek. Be suspicious. Be very suspicious. And don't repeat Simon's mistake and dismiss the help of the boys. They're very valuable with their slings, even though it's harder to use them between the trees."

Everyone nodded, and the boys' breasts swelled with pride.

"I'll be back soon," Xena continued. "If you hear an owl hooting like this," she interrupted her words to demonstrate the sound, "that'll be me. Don't use your weapons on me, please." A raised eyebrow accompanied the words, and a low chuckling was to be heard from the group. "Try to get some rest. Be attentive, this is going to be the hardest part."

They nodded, and proceeded to their assigned posts, when Liandra came closer. "You're a good leader, Xena," she said.

The warrior in question shrugged. "They're looking for someone to tell them where to go," she said. "Just so happens I'm here."

Liandra shot her a glance, but refrained from commenting further on the topic. "Do you think it's safe to get Nyara for her meal and a change of diapers?"

Xena looked at her. "If she doesn't really need it right now, don't. I need every capable eye and ear to be attentive. I'm leaving you to guard Gabrielle."

A low humorless chuckle. "Or her to guard me." Liandra looked up and placed a hand on Xena's arm. "Be safe."

"I will be." Now in full warrior mode, Xena was more than astounded to find this show of friendship from Liandra, but accepted it nonetheless. She nodded at the young woman and made her way to the wagon again where Gabrielle was waiting.

"I'll be scouting to see where they wait for us – I'll leave Argo here with you," Xena explained to her. "Don't tie her, maybe I'll need her later."

Gabrielle nodded. She had taken her original space up on the wagon and looked much better than just after the assault. "Anything else?" she asked.

"You're in charge, Gabrielle. Good luck." Xena gave her a last, long look.

"To you, too."

There wasn't much more to say, and their eyes spoke volumes. Xena tore herself lose and took a deep breath. She hated to leave Gabrielle here, but she knew it wouldn't be for long. With that thought in mind, she took to the trees and disappeared from everyone's view in a few moments.

* * *

She was totally concentrated on the task ahead as the Warrior Princess found footing on even the most dangerous looking branches and leaped silently from tree to tree as she had learned so long ago from the Amazons. Up here, it was unlikely that Taelos would look for her, but if he did, and found her, she was sure she was faster through the treetops than he or his troops through the undergrowth. But first, she had to see what the river ford looked like, and if help was coming.

She succeeded to get to the edge of the forest, then perched on the sturdy branch of a very tall tree. She had a view over part of the hills to the other side of the river. She imagined that she could see some of the twinkling lights that would mark Thessaly. The river ran low, which was good, and the ford looked untroubled.

Her eyes searched on, as there had to be a sign of Taelos' trouble making band. Instead, she found something else, and her face split into a wide grin. She felt a burden lifted off her shoulders when she noticed a large group of what looked like town militia filing out from between two hills, with their aim clearly being the river ford. Xena watched on and noticed a group of white-clad healers from the Temple of Aesculapius securely guarded in the middle of the armed group. The warrior's grin widened in delight.

Then, the grin slowly disappeared when another group emerged. Xena cursed in several languages under her breath when she realized it was Eliam of Nacchos.

"How in Hades' name did you manage to slime your way into this?" she hissed. "I can't believe this!"

Her first instinct was to get to the group as quickly as she could and run her sword through the traitor's hide a couple of times. But there were still the refugees to consider. She had to make sure they were in no danger from Taelos' band before she could do anything else. By her estimate, it would take the Thessaly militia a while to cross the river, and that should give her some time to find out where they stood and what to do about them.

There was no time to lose. Xena turned on her branch and slipped back into the darkness of the forest.

* * *

It was hard to miss Taelos' camp, just for the sheer noise level of it. He was obviously relying on the brute strength of his band members, and their plentiful numbers. They had put their tents up at the crossing between the two roads, and were obviously set on waiting for their prey.

Just when Xena arrived at the sturdy branch of a tall tree overlooking their camp, four men returned to it and reported to Taelos' personal tent.

Probably just returning from patrol, Xena mused. It's not going to be too long until they notice one group is missing. In fact, she was able to make out Taelos' yelling as she was listening, and just a moment later, he opened the tent flap and stepped outside, looking for his second-in-command.

"Nakatos!” she heard him call, and a shorter, blond version of his burly self appeared beside him. She strained her hearing to find out what they were saying. "Riders have been sighted close to the river ford. Lead out a patrol to find out if they're friend or foe.” The younger one agreed and went to find his horse, and a couple of men to accompany him. They were out of the camp in a few moments.

Xena concentrated on finding any weaknesses in the camp or Taelos' men. Peering past the tents, she noticed three neatly rolled up nets that would span several men's heights. "You wanna go fishing, huh?” Xena chuckled to herself while an evil glint made its appearance in her eyes. "You forgot that the fishies and I have a very... special... relationship.” Unconsciously, her voice dropped into a low purr. Satisfied with what she had seen, she slipped back into the security of the forest.

* * *

A low hooting sound told Gabrielle that Xena was approaching and she signaled the guards to stand down as her tall warrior friend appeared in camp as if stepping out of thin air. A delighted smile formed on her face when she noticed that Xena's first look belonged to her, and she saw the smile mirrored on the older woman's face.

"I guess that means good news?” she ventured when Xena jumped into the wagon and reached for the waterskin for a swig of the cool liquid. While she drank, her hand made a "so-so” motion. Then, she signaled for Rufus, Liandra and two of the soldiers to come closer so she only had to say this once.

"Palaemon is just about to cross the ford. He's brought help from Thessaly, along with healers from the temple of Aesculapius - old friends, in fact.” She shared a smile with Gabrielle, while listening to the delighted sounds the others were making. She raised a hand to quiet them. "Problem is, somehow Eliam of Nacchos has weaseled his slimy self into the group. Palaemon probably thinks he wants to help.”

Gabrielle frowned at her friend's words. "What about Taelos?”

"He's waiting at the crossing for us. He thinks we're going into his fangs like a school of fish...” She grinned evilly. "Though I guess he's going to be surprised who'll end up being the catch.”

Gabrielle's eyebrows rose. "Let me guess - you have a plan.”

"Mm-hm...” Xena's expression was smug. "You bet. This scum is standing between me and a solid night's sleep...” She eyed Gabrielle and winked at her, at which the bard was graceful enough to blush. "It's not gonna be a pretty sight.”

There was this delighted twinkle back in Xena's eyes, Gabrielle noticed. That particular expression hadn't been there for so long, lately replaced by this pained expression and an unusual seriousness. They had both been so wrapped up in their grief, there hadn't been room for laughter, or their usual bantering, or even the childlike excitement Xena showed when she thought up yet another plan to make some bad guy look really silly. Here it was, though - plain to see for anyone who cared to notice. Gabrielle spared a moment to look into her own heart. It did hurt a bit, she noticed, to watch Xena put the pain behind her so easily.

Easily? Gabrielle slapped her inner self over the head. Don't be foolish, Gabrielle!

"Gabrielle?” The bard looked up at the touch of the warrior's hand on her chin. "Are you alright? This won't work without you, you know?” Xena looked concerned, searching her friend's eyes for a clue as to what could be wrong.

"Yeah... just thinking...” Gabrielle really wished for a hug right now but didn't dare to ask because of their - though small - audience. "You think I can do it although I'm hurt?”

"Yes.” Xena gave her an encouraging smile. "I'm sure. In fact, you're going to use the weapon you're best with. You're going to talk them out of their wits.”

She dropped down into a squat before her friend and rested one hand on the bard's knee. "I'm very glad that I have something to look forward to,” she confided as she rubbed the inside of Gabrielle's knee with her thumb. "If I really thought about it, I might realize how drop-dead tired I am, otherwise.” She gave the bard an adoring look.

Gabrielle's heart warmed immediately, and she covered the warrior's hand. "Well then, what are your plans? Are you letting us in on them?”

A dazzling smile was her answer. "Yes.” She got up again and came to stand beside Gabrielle, one leg touching the bard's at all times as she laid out her plans to the captivated audience. "We're going to split up in two groups...” her dark, melodious voice rose up.

Gabrielle looked up at her and silently thanked whoever was listening for a second chance offered - and taken. By both of them.

Chapter X

"Let me know as soon as Nakatos returns to camp, you hear me! It's important!”

Taelos turned on the spot, and let the tent flap fall shut. For days now, he'd been on the heels of this particular trek of fugitives, and had nothing to show for it. With an irritated motion, he shoved the dagger he had been playing with back into its sheath and crossed his arms, blowing out an impatient breath. It wasn't the first time he had captured children and sold them as slaves, after all. But these had been especially recalcitrant, and this troublemaker wannabe-warrior they had with them didn't make things easier, either. And then, Taelos blew out just another snort, while snatching an apple off the stand in his tent and biting into it with a crunch, two of his lookouts had reported seeing a leather-clad warrior woman arrive at the camp and help. Since she seemed to travel with a small blonde, Taelos knew it could only be Xena. It seemed wiser at that moment to regroup and just catch them here, where they couldn't run. If they wanted to cross the river to get to help, they had to do so here.

"And the ransom will be mine...” Taelos clenched his fist, imagining the money in it.

Someone cleared her throat behind him, and he swiveled towards the sound, a comical expression on his face. "Xe... Xena?”

"Hello, Taelos. Long time, no see, huh?” The raven-haired, leather-clad apparition behind him smiled at him and crossed her legs at her ankles while leaning against the table standing in the middle of his tent.

"What - how did you get...” he sputtered, almost choking on his piece of apple.

"In here?” Xena indicated the tent. "That was easy.” She pushed herself off the table and languidly made her way around Taelos once, smiling at him.

He followed her motion, tripping over his own feet in the process. "What do you want?”

The warrior stopped, facing him, and he could almost see her polish her nails on a nonexistent shirt. "There are a few friends I want you to leave alone.” She leaned into him and her face took on a very different expression. He took a step backward. "Or would that be a problem?” she growled.

It took him a few moments to collect his wits. As bitter an opponent as she was, and however much he hated her and her goody-two-shoe new ways, there was a certain energy she exuded that he couldn't deny. He cleared his throat repeatedly, staring at her, before he took on a stance that more became his status as a leader of an impressive band of capable men. "I know you are with those people,” he said, and his voice sounded more self-assured than he really was. "You'll have no chance against us. You might as well tell me where they are right away. Since you are here, that can't be too far, right?” Now it was his turn to take a step towards her. "I'll let you have a share of the profit, if that's what it takes.”

Xena's face crunched up in disgust. "Not a chance in Tartarus,” she spat. "And I can promise you you'll find out where that trek is sooner than you'll like.” Her attention suddenly shifted to the tent flap behind him.


The voice behind him startled Taelos, and he turned around impatiently. "What?”

"Nakatos is back, Commander. You said you wanted to know.”

"Yes, yes...” The slaver waved impatiently. "What did he find?”

"That trek we were looking for - it's on its way to the river ford.”

"Ha!” Taelos shouted out in triumph, and turned around to Xena. "I told you so!” But the warrior he wanted to address was gone as if she had never been there. The slaver's brow furrowed for a moment. "Where...?” But he caught himself rather quickly. "No matter. Those children are mine.”

And with a grip for his sword belt, he exited his tent.

* * *

The camp was in an uproar with Nakatos in the middle. As soon as Taelos stepped out of the tent, his second-in-command stood before him.

"Report,” Taelos bellowed.

"Commander, there is a party of militia on its way to the ford, coming from Thessaly,” the younger man told him. "And we just spotted the trek leaving the woods and heading toward them.”

"Militia?” Taelos' brow furrowed. He didn't like this one bit.

"Yes, but Eliam is with them. Maybe he's trying to get the merchandise, first.”

"Hades' balls!” Taelos swore. "I can't let him catch them first! There's no profit in that! Besides, he's known to become pretty upset if something like this happens. We have to be there first!” He was in the middle of making his decision, when another member of the patrol galloped into the camp. He jumped off his horse and more or less landed in front of Taelos, almost stumbling into him.

"What is it?” The slaver snapped.

"Commander...” the man panted, "The trek. We've seen it down this way.” He pointed in the direction he'd been coming from. "They came down over the hills.”

"Are you sure?”

"Aye. Seen them with my own eyes. Mostly children and their mothers, with some wagons.”

"What is going on here?” Taelos thought for a moment. "Nakatos, I want you to go back into the forest to check that out. You can never have enough children to sell.” He chuckled evilly. "I'll be going down to the river with the rest of the men.” He looked at them standing before them. "Move!” he bellowed, and everyone scrambled into motion.

The band leader was brought his horse, and he jumped onto it, kicking it into a gallop and leading his men out of the camp, towards the river. And although he knew it couldn't be, he imagined hearing a woman's laugh overhead when he rode out.

* * *

Gabrielle clutched her staff tightly when after a long time of being protected by the woods, she lead the trek out into the open again. Xena had been very specific in her directions, and everyone knew what to do and was very determined to go through with it. Still, Gabrielle missed the reassuring presence of her warrior friend towering over them, and she even missed Liandra and Eva, who both had gone with Xena and the other group.

She traded a look with Raymon, who had taken the reins on her team of horses, and she noticed that he was pale, and his hands were trembling. He was ashamed of her catching his nervousness, but she placed one hand on his to steady them and nodded at him, letting him know it was ok.

She was nervous herself, although she had been in more than one tight situation since she started traveling with Xena. But Xena's plan was a sound one, as always, and it would mean they would all conserve as much energy as they could, even the warrior herself.

The bard took a deep breath and let her eyes sweep over the landscape before her. The river was beautiful, running through a lush green valley, and she could see the shallow waters of the ford from their position. Almost at the same moment, the Thessaly militia and its leader spotted them. One rider in the group let out a joyous yell and separated his horse from the group to race it along the river to their position.

Gabrielle felt elated, seeing Palaemon closing on their position, and she stood up on the wagon to greet him. He was out of breath when he was finally at their side, but beaming with joy. "Gabrielle!” he shouted. "It's so great to see you!”

A murmur went through the trek when he finally started looking around and his smile made space for a concerned expression. "Gabrielle, what happened? Where are the children? Did Taelos get you after all? Where's Xena? What...”

"Everything is fine, Palaemon, don't worry.” Gabrielle rushed to say. "Listen to me very closely, since I will probably have only one chance to say it.” Now she had the young warrior's whole attention. "The man you're riding with, Eliam of Nacchos, he's the one who wants Nyara.”

Palaemon's eyes widened. "But he's a friend. He was very concerned about everyone's welfare...”

"He paid Taelos to get the heir. Believe me, we know. Now go ahead and tell the militia and look very concerned when everyone gets here...” She turned around and looked at the fugitives left with the trek. "You all know what to do. Let's do it.”

They nodded back, their expressions firm, and all put on heartfallen, exhausted appearances. It wasn't just that hard to mimic, since they really were exhausted, but they put on a tad more of that to be convincing. Gabrielle nodded approvingly. When she turned back, the Thessaly militia had reached the trek, and she knew she had to put on her act, as well.

Palaemon watched Eliam very closely, and noticed his disappointed, and then enraged expression at not finding any children with the trek. He moved his horse over to the Thessaly militia and started whispering to the first man, who listened intently, and then turned to tell the next. Even while this was going on, the leader of the militia spoke up.

"We're here to help. Gabrielle, the bard, right?” He smiled back when Gabrielle did. "What happened? Where is Xena?”

"We were attacked by Taelos' men halfway up the hill,” the bard explained in a subdued voice. "They took all the children. We tried to fight back, and escape, but they were too powerful. We lost them all!” It wasn't hard to imagine a scenario bad enough to rectify the tears that started streaming down her face now. "They wanted to kill us, too, but Xena let them take her hostage, and at the offer of selling her for a high price, Taelos let us go.”

Murmurs of "We want or children back!”, silent sobbing and one or the other wail rang up, and Gabrielle decided that it was time for act two. "I heard him say he'd take them to the market in Corinth, to get a higher price.” She sobbed. "We need to help them!”

Eliam was furious. The veins in his thin neck started bulging, and his face was red. "That's outrageous!” he bellowed. "We need to catch this scum as soon as we can!”

And as if on cue, a band of at least thirty men broke out of the woods at the height of the ford and after orienting themselves for a moment, raced their horses into their direction with loud battle yells.

Eliam of Nacchos knew a challenge when he saw one. "Get the traitor!” he yelled at his men and only moments later, they charged Taelos' small army and both parties met in the middle with a loud clash. Furious fighting ensued.

Gabrielle took it all in, her head inclined, and then turned around to Raymon, who watched her. "Call me a chicken, but I think this would be just the right moment to make a beeline out of here,” she commented. She looked around, and nods greeted her from all the fugitives. She looked at Palaemon again. "Let's get out of here, Palaemon. Lead on!”

The young warrior's jaw clamped shut with an audible pop and he shook his head a couple of times as if to have to clear his thoughts. He then looked at her with an expression best described as disbelief, but finally stretched out his arm. "This way, Gabrielle. It's an honor.” And with another shake, he took the position at the head of the trek and led them toward the ford.

* * *

Pounding hoofbeats sounded through the forest as Nakatos drove his men along the dirt road towards the place the patrol had indicated. He was furious; to be asked to handle this small matter while Taelos went to catch the big fish! His thoughts raced along the lines of revenge and what he would really like to do to both Taelos and Eliam, and how to sell the merchandise to the highest bidder. He was so lost in his thoughts that he almost missed the little girl crossing their path just a few paces before him.

He brought his gray to a sliding stop, almost making his men ride him into the ground, and turned the horse on its heels to go after the girl.

"There they are!” he shouted. Three of his men followed him. The others couldn't stop in time and raced headlong in one of the big fishing nets that had originally been on their side. It had been disguised by branches, yet they found themselves very much entangled in the ropes, and a dark figure came sliding down one of the trees surrounding them and took their weapons before they even figured out what happened to them.

"Five down!” Xena yelled, and excited yipping answered her from the surrounding trees. Small faces appeared between the branches.

"Come down and look out that they don't escape,” the warrior told the boys who rushed to do what she had said. Lana was among them, and Xena was sure they would do their best to not let the grumbling, swearing men escape their prison until she came back. The warrior took to the trees again and went to look for the remaining four.

She didn't have to go far. They had run headlong into a similar net and found themselves tightly entangled in it. Nakatos swore and threatened at the top of his lungs while women and children encircled the struggling men.

Xena made her way through them to take the weapons off these men, as well, while Nakatos' swearing grew even louder.

"This is not how we talk in front of the children,” Liandra said, and came to stand right beside Xena, looking at the slavers intently. Xena gave her a sidelong glance, then stooped and picked up a rather sturdy looking branch from the forest ground, handing it to Liandra with a meaningful glance.

A wicked smile graced Liandra's expressive face, and she grabbed the impromptu staff, made a step forward and whacked the unsuspecting second-in-command over the head. Hard. The ensuing silence was very welcome. Liandra grinned. "Anything else you want me to do, Xena?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. "I'm in a weird kind of mood.”

And despite the long day, and their exhaustion, and the excitement, and the really dangerous situation they had finally escaped, Xena started to laugh. Or maybe because of all of the above. Whatever the cause, children and mothers alike started to chime in with the infectious laughter.

It was the most wonderful sound any one of them had heard in days.

* * *

It was an interesting picture that greeted Palaemon and Gabrielle when they finally found the group of women, children, and bound and gagged slavers in the woods.

Gabrielle slid down from her position behind the young warrior slowly, as to not jar her shoulder any more than she had to, and slowly advanced on the cluster of mostly sleeping adults and children. In their middle sat Xena, looking exhausted, but relaxed, a sleeping Eva curled up by her side. Gabrielle smiled. "Hello there," she said in a subdued voice. "I take it everything went right over here?"

"Yeah." Xena looked up to her through dark bangs. "I take it everything went ok at the river?"

"Oh, yes. Both Eliam's and Taelos' men are on their way to Thessaly right now. Priam, the leader of the militia, was quite satisfied to escort them there. I think he's looking forward to the prestige it'll bring him."

"Uh-huh," Xena nodded, then stretched and yawned. "Well, I guess it's time we got on our way then, too, huh?"

"Yup," Gabrielle agreed. "Hippocrates can't wait to see you."

"Oh, great." But the warrior smiled as she said so, and softly shook Eva. "Come on, we need to get up. We want to be in Thessaly before nightfall."

And so they were.

Chapter XI

Is it morning already?

Gabrielle yawned and pried open one eye. Sunlight streamed through the one small window of their room, indicating the morning was far advanced, but thankfully it didn't hit them directly in their snuggly hideaway. Gabrielle's sense of responsibility awakened with the rest of her body. I guess we should get up soon... We'll be needed... Then her hedonistic streak kicked in. But not right now.

"Mmm...” She adjusted her body again in the warmth that surrounded her. Pushing her back closer to Xena's soft front and pulling the warrior's arm across her hip to cradle it along her stomach and chest, she resolved to wait until someone - anyone - came to get them to take care of some emergency. Until then, she would not move or go anywhere. Instead, she would stay here, enveloped in this wonderful feeling of security and warmth.

"Yeah...” Xena mumbled into Gabrielle's hair with guilty pleasure. Her right forearm was pressed against Gabrielle in a very delicious way. Although she had just awakened as well, she felt her juices starting to circle. I should be tired, she chastised herself, and I am. Still... She pulled her young friend's body closer and heard her answer with a sigh.

Hippocrates had insisted on providing them with a chamber in the Healer's Temple, and after all they had been through, Xena hadn't argued with him too much. After settling the wounded and checking on them one last time, all she had wanted to do had been to snuggle up with the one wounded that mattered to her most, her friend Gabrielle, and not be bothered anymore. The priest had granted their request for a room together. He figured that Xena wanted to be close to Gabrielle in case of complications. But once he bade them goodnight and closed the door behind him, they changed into their nightshifts and settled into one narrow bed, rather than each taking her own. Despite anything they might have had planned, they slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep almost the same instant their heads had touched the pillows.

Xena mentally checked her own condition, wiggling her toes and rolling her one free shoulder. She didn't hurt as much as she had expected, but she resolved to take it easy the next couple of days. In addition, she was definitely in need of a bath.

Gabrielle giggled. "What are you doing?” she asked, and turned in the warrior's arms to be able to look her into her eyes. The loving expression in Xena's dark blue eyes made her hold her breath for a moment as a delicious feeling rolled through her body.

"Just checking if I'm still alive,” Xena said with a hoarse voice, still raw from sleep. "And how are you, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle shuddered. "If my being injured means we keep doing what we're doing, I'll be sure to stay very, very sick just so I can keep sharing this bed with you,” she whispered back, her hand finding the tender skin of Xena's thigh.

"Does that mean you're going to need a lot of attention?” Xena asked, her voice never leaving the lower octave. She raised one eyebrow and her face took on a suggestive air.

"Oh, yeah. Definitely.” Gabrielle's eyes were searching Xena's face. Her body was transforming into a puddle of goo, and if she really was hurting anywhere, she didn't feel it anymore. What she did feel was Xena's thigh sliding up over her own, finding its place behind her, and pulling her closer. Gabrielle gasped, her senses overwhelmed by the closeness of her friend.

Xena immediately pulled back. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to scare you...” she said, her expression confused.

Gabrielle could virtually see her retreating behind her walls. She laughed in a low voice. "You don't scare me...” she purred, letting her hand travel along Xena's thigh again, touching the sensitive skin behind her knee, and pulling it up over to where it had been just a moment before. Again, the closeness made her heart race, and she exhaled, and closed her eyes. It was like being in a cocoon, but a cocoon wouldn't make her body feel like this, craving the warrior's touch. She could feel the heat radiating from Xena's body, and if she concentrated on it, she could even feel the warrior's need pulsing against her mind. It was unsettling to be the focus of anything so powerful, yet at the same time, Gabrielle felt she needed it.

Xena didn't move for a moment, willing her heart and breath to calm down. It was ok to hold Gabrielle like this, she convinced herself, or at least tried to. The hand she lifted was trembling, but she managed to touch Gabrielle's hair and let it slip through her fingers slowly. The bard sighed, moving against her in an attempt to get even closer. Xena's heartbeat picked up once more.

Gabrielle opened her eyes again, searching Xena's. "What do I have to do for you to kiss me?” she whispered. "Is there a key word?”

The warrior looked at her, speechless. How did she do it? Every word stirred the warrior's soul in a most unsettling way, and it wasn't easy to deal with this at all. "Just ask,” she whispered back. "Anytime.”

There was that tiny smile again. "Please,” the bard said.

That was the last thing that was said for a long time, as the warrior ducked her head to find a pair of soft lips, losing herself in them. She felt Gabrielle's body rise as she kissed her mouth and gasped at the delicious feeling that evoked. Their bodies shifted and Xena moaned in response, her senses threatening to overload from nothing but a simple kiss. It just fit in a way nothing had fit in Xena's life up to this point.

They came up for air after a while, looking wondrously at each other.

"Gods, I like this,” Gabrielle said, running her hand along the powerful leg draped over her hip. "We should have done this a lot sooner.”

"Mhm-mm,” Xena agreed, momentarily unable to form words as she drowned in Gabrielle's green eyes, while her right hand developed a mind of its own and slowly slid up and down her friend's back.

The bard's body answered with shivers. "Oh... that feels really good...” Gabrielle let her head fall forward resting her forehead at Xena's shoulder, while the warrior massaged her aching back muscles. "I think I must've pulled something in my back yesterday...” she murmured. "This is great.”

"How's that?” Xena's broad hand found its way under Gabrielle's shift and touched naked skin. "Still ok?”

A groan answered her. "Too good...”

The young woman's skin felt just as delicious as the warrior had imagined. Soft and silky and... "Ungh...” For a moment, Xena's hand stilled as she felt nimble lips and teeth starting to work on her shoulder. "Gabrielle...” she rasped.

"Not now, I'm busy...” a faintly chastising response came from below her collarbone.

Xena's eyes closed, taking in the added sensation of Gabrielle's small hand finding its way under her shift and tracing a circle around her belly button. Her senses threatened to overload when her stomach muscles twitched under the delicious caress.

She couldn't do anything but dive for Gabrielle's lips again, crushing against her in a devastating kiss. Xena didn't know if it was possible to meet someone's soul by kissing her as deeply as she was right now, but she was doing her best to find out. Every barrier she erected to prevent Gabrielle from feeling overwhelmed, or worse, agreeing to something she didn't want, was immediately wiped away by the young woman. There was no doubt that Gabrielle wanted this, wanted her.

Panting, Xena broke the kiss to ponder this thought, but Gabrielle didn't give her time to ponder. Her green eyes, shining like two very deep pools, thanked Xena for looking out for her. "I love you...” the bard whispered, her hand overtaking Xena's broad one and moving it upwards along her body. "Thank you...”

Xena threatened to faint when their hands reached the bard's soft, inviting breast. "Gabrielle...”


How could anyone deny those eyes anything? Xena's eyes closed again briefly when her hand brushed against the soft mound.

Gabrielle buried her head in Xena's collarbone again and hummed with pleasure.

"No...” Xena whispered. "Thank you, Gabrielle. Thank you for this gift.”

Their eyes met, and they smiled again in a particular kind of understanding.

"I...” Gabrielle started, but was interrupted by a rap on the door.

"Xena? Are you awake yet?”

Both women groaned, and the warrior reluctantly removed her hand from its tempting resting spot.

Gabrielle giggled. "I knew this would happen. I just knew.” She shook her head. "Can we finish this another time, Xena?” she said, finding the warrior's eyes again.

"Yeah...” Xena's voice hadn't found its usual fullness yet.

"Xena? Can I come in?” the voice from outside inquired again.

"No!” both women called out, looked at each other and broke into laughter. "Just a moment!” Xena added, leaving their warm nest with a rueful glance at Gabrielle. "If you want to stay in here, Gabrielle, rest some more...”

But the bard had left the bed, as well. "I gotta wash up for sure, Xena. But I promise to take it easy today.”


They dressed quickly and somehow, Xena produced a new pair of boots for Gabrielle, fulfilling the promise she had made at the beginning of their journey. Gabrielle's brows shot up. "Where did you...? Never mind, many skills, right?”

Xena grinned broadly. "Anything for you, Gabrielle, you know that. You only need a light bandage today, and we'll leave the laces lose...”

The boots were of a very nice, soft leather that felt wonderful and and wouldn't require much breaking in. The warrior ignored the waiting person, taking her time to wrap the foot one last time, then lacing both boots carefully.

Gabrielle wriggled her toes, stood up and took a couple of tentative steps. "They're great, Xena, thank you. Much better than my last pair. You really did get the best boots in all of Thessaly, right?”

"Yeah... well.” Xena shifted her stance, slightly embarrassed. "I guess we need to go now, so you can try them out,” she suggested. But before she opened the door, she drew Gabrielle into a hug, kissing the top of her head. "I love you, Gabrielle,” she whispered. "And I promise you we'll try this again.”

"I'll take you up on this, you know?” Gabrielle peeked up.

"I'm counting on it.” Xena smiled back.

"What are you doing in there?” the voice from outside called again. "Are you naked or something?”

Both women chuckled, and Xena rolled her eyes. Two quick steps brought her to the door. She unlocked it and opened it swiftly to reveal Palaemon, crossed arms and everything.

"Well good morning to you too, Palaemon.”

"Yeah, yeah, whatever.” The young warrior couldn't help peeking into the room and noticing that only one bed had been used. His eyebrows shot up. "I... um...” he stuttered, then caught himself again. "Rufus wants to talk to you. And Vidalis. Oh, and not to forget Hippocrates.”

"So they sent you as a messenger?” Xena asked as they turned to follow Palaemon. "Or did you want anything, as well?”

"Actually...” He stopped and scratched his head, trying to come up with the best way to express what he was thinking. "I was pretty impressed by what you did yesterday, Xena,” he finally admitted. "I just wanted you to know. Looks like I still have a lot to learn.” That was a large admission for him, and he looked very uncomfortable saying it.

"It takes a lot of courage to admit that,” Gabrielle said, noticing his squirming.

He squirmed some more. "And I always thought you were a useless sidekick,” he admitted, sheepishly. "Yeah, well, from what I saw, and what the others told me, I got that notion knocked out of my head pretty fast. I'm sorry, for what it's worth.”

The bard beamed. "Thank you. Though I learned it all from Xena. She's a very good teacher.”

Both sets of eyes turned to a very uncomfortable looking warrior. "Well, can we go now? I want to have it done and over as soon as I can.” Xena turned on her heel and started walking into the direction they had originally been heading. Gabrielle and Palaemon exchanged amused expressions and followed her.

* * *

Hippocrates was eager to discuss the wounded and the techniques Xena had used to help them. Xena wasn't too surprised. What was surprising, however, was Rufus' and Vidalis' proposition.

Apparently, Rufus had relatives in Thessaly that Vidalis had friendly relations to, as well. He, Rufus and his family, and Palaemon were staying at their house, and invited Xena and Gabrielle to stay there as well.

"It would be an honor to our family,” Rufus said. He looked refreshed and now wore clothing that suited his superior air. "And Liandra and her family are there as well.”

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances.

"That seems to be one rich relative,” the warrior commented. "What's his interest in Liandra?”

"He's the town's judge,” Vidalis chimed in. "He has an interest in safekeeping Liandra until her situation is resolved.”

"He's ok, Xena, really.” Palaemon butted in as well.

Rufus cleared his throat. "Actually, he has planned a get-together tonight to celebrate our rescue. And you are our guests of honor.”

I hate those, Xena mouthed at Gabrielle while she was shaking her head no.

"We'll accept,” Gabrielle said, ignoring Xena's winks completely, "but only if all the refugees are invited.”

Vidalis and Rufus exchanged glances. "I think that can be arranged,” the courtier said, finally. "If this is what you want.”

"Yes.” Gabrielle nodded vigorously. "There's been so much loss, it's important to see that life goes on and that people are willing to help.”

"Then it's agreed upon,” Vidalis said.

"Gabrielle, I'd like you to go with Vidalis, to prepare for tonight's celebration.” Xena said. "I'll be trying to satisfy Hippocrates' scientific curiosity in the meantime.” She spared a glance for the eager young man smiling at her. "I will meet you at the judge's house later.”

"You know that should you try and weasel your way out of the recognition you deserve, I'll find you,” Gabrielle play-threatened.

"Yeah, yeah. Empty threats. I'll be there.” Xena rolled her eyes, biting back a grin. She then turned to Hippocrates. "So - what is it that you wanted my opinion on? And is there a good breakfast in it?”

Nodding eagerly, Hippocrates led the way.

* * *

The first person Gabrielle met in judge Talaris' house that was his wife. And there was a lot of wife, since she almost came to Xena's height but about double her width. Draped in a loose toga-like dress, she swooped down the stairs and almost swept up Gabrielle in a hug but held herself back in the last moment with obvious effort.

"Hello!” she greeted the bard in a warm, welcoming voice. "You must be Gabrielle, the bard I've heard so much about. I'm honored to have you as my guest. My name is Donata.”

Gabrielle liked her immediately. "Thank you for having us,” she replied. "Xena will come along later, she was held up at the healer's temple.”

"I'm looking forward to meeting her!” Donata said sincerely. "I heard you were in severe need of some pampering. Let me show you to your room and introduce you to the amenities.”

"Who told you about pampering me?” Gabrielle asked, falling into step alongside the large woman as they walked down a long hallway.

"I have my sources...” Donata smiled. "Besides, one can see that you have some healing to do. Although I expected you to be in worse shape from what I heard you've been through.”

So did I, Gabrielle thought. Amazing what kind of healing powers a night snuggled in Xena's arms triggers. Her shoulder should be in severe pain, maybe infected or at least very sore, but it wasn't. She surely felt it had been injured, but if she didn't move it too much, she could almost pretend it was a weeks-old wound. The use of her left arm wasn't restricted in the least, and her limp was almost unnoticeable.

The room Donata had prepared for her was large, draped mostly in dark reds and greens, with windows of stained glass that painted the room in all the colors of the rainbow as the light streamed inward. There was a fireplace, and a large bed was prominently placed in the middle of the room.

"Do you like it?” Donata asked from behind Gabrielle. "I take it you and Xena want to share a room. However, we have one more just like it just down the hall...”

"No, no, it's fine. One room will do just fine,” Gabrielle hurried to say. "It's beautiful.”

"Well, I'll have your things brought in a moment. I suggest a bath and a hearty mid-day meal along with it - or would that be breakfast for you? Afterwards, I assume you'll be quite tired and want to take a nap. Whatever you decide to do is fine with me.”

"What about the preparations for the celebration? Don't you need help with that?” the bard inquired.

Donata clapped her hands together. "Oh no, not at all, unless you absolutely wanted to. I love to prepare celebrations. It's nice to have people in the house.”

"And where's Liandra, come to think of that.”

"She and her family arrived earlier today. She went with Talaris to discuss her options and what to do about it. I'm sure she won't be too long now, she's been gone for quite a while.”

Gabrielle nodded, slowly. There really didn't seem to be much for her to do at this point. She might as well sit back and enjoy what was offered. Donata's joy at providing was obvious. "Is there anything I can do for you in return?” she asked, nevertheless.

"Oh, no child. You did enough in bringing my brother and his family back here where they are safe.” Donata assured the younger woman. "However, since you are a bard, maybe you could come and tell us about a few of your adventures later.”

"I'd be glad to.” Gabrielle nodded. "Now - what was that about the bath?”

Donata smiled. "I'll have a tub brought in and filled. Meanwhile, why don't you make yourself comfortable and relax. I'll have some breakfast brought in immediately. Enjoy your stay, Gabrielle.” And with that, she disappeared through the door to make the necessary arrangements.

Gabrielle looked around her, and spying a comfortable looking stuffed chair, she sat down. Yes, she was sure she would enjoy her stay very much.

* * *

The food was delicious and the water hot. Gabrielle enjoyed both after the deprivation of the previous days. Soaking contentedly, she closed her eyes for just a few moments. It took Liandra to wake her.

When the bard opened her eyes to Liandra's smiling face, the water was tepid already, and Gabrielle shivered. "Oh - hi Liandra. I guess I fell asleep. Wow.” She shook her head slightly to wake herself. "And it's cold in here, too. Brr.”

"Here's a towel.” Liandra grabbed one of the brightly colored linens lying nearby and spread it open for Gabrielle. Gabrielle stepped into it and immediately begun rubbing her arms vigorously, as she looked around for her clothes.

"Oh, Donata has brought some clothes for you to wear tonight,” Liandra explained. "She said you'd do her a favor by wearing them. She seems to have fun designing clothes, and she said she's sewn this quite a while ago but never found someone she felt it really belonged to.” The dark-haired woman indicated a set of clothes that was lying on the bed. "I'm here to help you wrap up the wound, and get dressed.”

Gabrielle smiled at her. "But you've had a long day yourself. Shouldn't you rest a bit, too? Oh, it's good to see Nyara with you again.”

Liandra was indeed carrying her sleeping baby daughter strapped to her front. "I'll be fine. I went with Talaris to find out what I can do about my situation. I didn't arrive much later than you, and I've had my nap.”

Gabrielle went to the clothes and picked up a piece. It was satin, producing a satisfying slippery feel in Gabrielle's hands. She examined it closer. It seemed to be a puffy-sleeved black blouse, but the front looked unusual.

"I think the tails are tied under your ribs,” Liandra explained, and now Gabrielle saw it, as well. With it came a dark blue, long skirt with a long slit on one side. It looked comfortable, but understated, even though it was of exquisite material.

"I can't wear that,” Gabrielle exclaimed. "It's too precious!”

"My hunch is that if you can be persuaded to wear this, we'll be able to persuade Xena to wear that.” She indicated a dress, also made from satin, laying close by. "And you know, even though I'm not inclined that way, I'd still pay to see that on her.” Liandra raised both brows.

Gabrielle actually blushed. "Um...” She moved over to the dress and picked it up. Equally understated, the dress had a low neck line, and Gabrielle noticed that the skirt was sewn in a way which would show Xena's legs every now and then as she moved. Apart from that, it looked comfortable, and had some gold colored trimmings. The bard tried to imagine Xena wearing it and swallowed. "Oh - ok. I guess you're right. We'll try it.”

Liandra chuckled. "How did I know. Oh, did I mention you look really cute when you blush? It suits you.”

"Ahh thank you. I think.” Gabrielle disappeared behind the conveniently placed parapet to finish drying herself and to put on some underwear before Liandra would wrap her wound. Amidst much giggling, they managed to dress Gabrielle in the provided garments. Liandra couldn't help but brush Gabrielle's hair until it was dry, then braid the sides away from her face and clasp them behind her neck. She also found a matching pair of slippers for the bard.

"You look great,” Liandra commented, genuinely. "I'm sure Xena will love it.”

"You really think so?” Gabrielle had a doubtful expression on her face.

"Actually, I think she'd find you beautiful in a sack, but that's beside the point,” Liandra smiled. She turned serious and stepped forward towards Gabrielle. "Tell me if I'm too nosy, but - have you been together long, Xena and you?”

"Huh? Um... no. In fact, just a few weeks ago it looked as if we wouldn't travel together anymore. We've had some... differences.” Gabrielle surprised herself by saying this. Just a few days ago, she hadn't even been able to say that much to Liandra. She smiled sheepishly. "We've just recently discovered... um...”

"So you've overcome your differences?”

"Oh.” Gabrielle was searching for words, and she sat down on the bed, shortly thereafter followed by Liandra.

"Look, if you don't want to talk about it, it's ok. I didn't mean to pry. If I had known...”

"No, no, you're fine.” Gabrielle took a deep breath. In a flash, she traveled back to the beginning of this journey, to that miserable day after encountering the Persians, to the point where she was accusing herself of being guilty of betraying her friend, of not being worthy of her company anymore. The bard felt this guilt like afterimages now that still hurt, but had lost their purpose. There seemed to be a buffer zone between the pain of just a few days ago and who she was and what she felt right now. The wonder of being in love with Xena, and knowing the love was returned took the meaning out of the accusations they'd yelled at each other. True forgiveness had entered their lives now. Actually, Gabrielle wondered about the fact that they were still alive. "We had hurt each other...” she started, haltingly. "Very, very badly. Partly, it's been circumstantial ... and some of it had been building up without us noticing. And we ended up wounded, both of us. It's a miracle we survived, and it's also a miracle that we started talking to each other again.”

"Whatever that miracle was, it seems to have worked,” Liandra said warmly.

"Yes.” Gabrielle agreed, after a moment's thought.

"From the outside, it looks as if it has worked quite well, too.” Liandra covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "I'm glad.”

"So am I.” Gabrielle felt better now that she had talked with someone else about what had happened. Even though she had not gone into great detail, she felt that having shared something personal with Liandra now made her a friend. And that was a very good feeling. "So, what is planned now? Are we going to help with preparing the celebration?”

"Actually, I think the first guests are arriving, and they can't wait to see you. Let's go.”

* * *

It took Xena longer than expected to satisfy Hippocrates' curiosity, and when she was finally on her way to Talaris' house, she felt weary all over. The bright side was that the healers were doing a good job and the wounded were not her responsibility anymore. Xena yawned. She certainly wasn't in the mood for a celebration right now. All she wanted to do was to crawl into a bed with Gabrielle and not see anyone.

Donata welcomed her warmly and ushered her past the first guests assembling out on the portico. Xena was sure she had seen Gabrielle among them, entertaining some children with a story, but she was too weary to resist her well-meaning hostess when she led her into their beautiful room and urged her to take a bath, eat something and relax before joining them. She even let herself be talked into wearing a dress of Donata's design.

"Gabrielle wears something special, too,” the hostess explained, "and asked me to coax you into wearing this to complement her. And I would feel honored if you would decide to wear one of my creations...”

At that point, Xena had nodded her assent, desperately seeking peace, and Donata finally left the room to leave Xena alone with her bath.

The hot water was bliss. Xena finally got rid of the dirt and sweat she had accumulated during the last few days and then leaned back contentedly to soak a little longer while feeding herself morsels of the delicious food provided by her hosts. Her thoughts wandered back to the pleasurable memories of waking up with Gabrielle today, and a slow smile spread on Xena's face. It was curious that while she had been reluctant to put any pressure on Gabrielle, the bard seemed to be certain of her commitment. Although I'm still afraid of hurting her, it may work out after all, Xena thought while taking a long sip of the delicious red wine. I can trust her to show me the way, odd as it is. It was unsettling, a new sensation, but every new step Xena took felt just right, somehow. Unsettling, but right.

Finally, when the water became too cool for comfort, Xena pushed herself up and out of the tub. The bath had refreshed her, and she was actually curious of the dress Donata had laid out for her. Still wrapped in a towel, she inspected it and found that she liked it more than she had thought. She dried herself off quickly and tried it on.

The satin felt incredibly sensuous as it slipped along her skin. Even after warming to her body, she felt the fabric slide over her skin with her movements; creating a very pleasurable sensation. To close the dresses laces in the back, Xena had to call one of the servants into the room, who also helped her braid her hair. Slipping on a matching pair of soft shoes, Xena was ready to go.

When she finally stepped outside, it was almost dark. Rows of lights illuminated the scene of the celebration, where the refugees, their hosts and of course Palaemon and Vidalis had gathered. Dinner had obviously been served, and Xena could see a space left empty beside the rows of tables that she suspected was reserved for dancing later. The atmosphere was relaxed. Gabrielle was right again, she mused. It's good to be reminded that there are good things left in life, and generosity where you didn't dare to hope for it.

She spied Gabrielle amidst a group of people talking to each other. Most people looked sad. Xena made her way over to her partner, nodding at her hosts, Palaemon and Vidalis and some of the faces she recognized from the trek.

"...and then we just grabbed what we could out of the house. Fortunately, father had the wagon hitched up 'cause he had some errands to do, this is how we saved the horses. But it broke my heart to be leaving so many things behind that my parents and grandparents have owned before me,” a young woman spoke, sitting opposite Gabrielle, and the surrounding people nodded.

Xena listened as she was moving to stand behind Gabrielle. Arriving at her spot, she softly touched the bard's shoulder.

Gabrielle turned. "Hey,” she said softly. "We are just talking about the Persian attack. Sit down?”

At that moment, Donata stood up and clapped her hands to get her guest's attention. The murmuring died down. "Dear guests,” Donata announced, "now that our last guest, Xena, has arrived, let me just say how happy I am that my brother Rufus was brought here safely with your help. It means a lot to me, and my husband. We want to celebrate an unlikely rescue tonight, and I hope you will all enjoy our time together.” She paused to look around. "We have among us Gabrielle, the bard, and she promised me she would tell one of her and Xena's adventures tonight. Gabrielle?”

Everyone was clapping, and Gabrielle beamed. Attentively, Xena helped her to a slightly raised chair. The warrior took a seat at one of the nearby tables and was served wine and some finger food. But her eyes were on her friend who looked radiant in Donata's clothing. The black fabric of her blouse made her look older, and more experienced, and the long, puffy sleeves enhanced her well-muscled abdomen visible between blouse and the low band of the dark blue skirt. It wasn't anything like the clothing Gabrielle usually wore, but it suited her, and enhanced her beauty. Well, I guess I would say that even if she was clothed in a sack, Xena sighed mentally.

Gabrielle's brow furrowed as she got ready to speak. When she looked up, her eyes met Xena's, and a smile changed her face completely. She looked around at all the people she had come to know in the last few days. "I have thought about what story to tell tonight,” her voice sounded clear and confident. "And since we all traded stories about what it was like to lose one's home, I thought I should share how we experienced the attack.” Her eyes found Xena's again, asking her for permission, and Xena nodded slightly. This wouldn't be a happy tale, would it? Was it suitable for a celebration?

Gabrielle started on a light note, relating that her foot injury wasn't due to some bravery. Her face changed as she mimicked her eager attempt at mastering the flip, and chuckles were heard all around. The story moved on to their encounter at the stream, and how the knowledge that there was danger for Greece coming darkened that sunny day. They met the Persian spy, and breaths were held all around when the bard was hit by the arrow. As the story progressed, the listeners forgot about their surroundings and felt Gabrielle's pain and guilt, marveled at Xena's mastermind strategy, winced and exchanged glances when the antidote for the poisoned arrow wasn't found in the healer's hut and a desperate stand was taken in the armory. Eyes filled with tears when one warrior sent her horse away because she knew she wouldn't be there anymore to greet her the next day. Gabrielle didn't relate all that was said between them that day and night, but she told them about a warrior who wasn't content with losing her friend, but wanted to be with her whatever came, even if it meant following her into death. She regaled them with Xena's heroic efforts in that never-ending fight and looks drifted to the warrior sitting silently in their midst. She had done that? Muscles unclenched when Xena found the antidote and sent the soldiers away with a daring threat, and when finally, warrior and bard reveled in the knowledge that they would live, both of them.

As it happens sometimes with a truly well told story, there was a silence when Gabrielle finished as minds didn't want to leave it so early. But then, one set of hands started clapping, then another, and soon, the appreciative audience lauded the bard for a story that had touched them deeply.

Gabrielle's eyes clung to a pair of blue ones in the audience, and when the attached warrior nodded her approval, the bard relaxed and enjoyed the appreciation. Smiling, she slowly stood up and raised a hand until the clapping died down. "We have shared the tales of what we have lost,” Gabrielle said. "Now let's celebrate that we're still alive, that we still have people to turn to. Let's be thankful for the wounded saved and the chance to be together tonight.” The clapping resumed when Gabrielle moved down from her chair and towards Xena. Some of the guests pulled out various instruments and set up stand next to the dancing ground. It took a moment of adjusting and tuning the instruments, but then they started playing a tune almost everybody seemed to know. It was apparent that the stomping songs would not be played tonight.

Both warrior and bard only noticed marginally, as the room seemed to have reduced to only them. By some form of magnetism, they moved towards each other, just to stop at arm's length by some unsaid consent.

"You look beautiful,” Xena said, and her eyes told Gabrielle that she said the truth.

"So do you.” The bard inhaled the vision before her eyes; the dark hair and bronze complexion enhanced by the dark red of the satin that clung to her like a second skin; the low neckline that left Xena's shoulders bare, beckoning Gabrielle's caress. The bard's body thrummed with sensations and longing.

How could it be that after the intimacy they had shared just this morning, they were now dumbstruck and at a loss for words? The unfamiliar clothing seemed to enhance their shyness and they just stood there for a long, long moment, drinking in each other's sight.

Finally, Gabrielle took heart, although she felt breathless in Xena's presence. "Would you... dance with me?”

"Can you - is your ankle good enough for that?” Xena's eyes never left Gabrielle's.

"I'm sure you'll be careful with me.”

"Then I'd be honored,” the warrior nodded, offering Gabrielle her arm, which she took. Slowly, they made their way to the dance ground where other couples had gathered, with the non-dancers sitting around it, watching and talking.

Xena felt as if she was on a first date, as if she had never seen; never touched the radiant young woman she now led to the dance floor. Gabrielle moved with grace beside her, matching her steps.

And then, as they turned to each other, Xena finally dared to touch the golden hair, touch Gabrielle's shoulder blades, let a whisper of a touch run down the bard's back until she reached her hips. Slowly, she directed the bard's smaller body towards her own until they finally met with a slowness that made both their skins tingle with anticipation. A small hand rose hesitatingly from Gab's left side to stop just above the warrior's hip bone. The same hand then seemed to change its mind and reached up to caress one bare shoulder, soon followed by its partner. Both hands met behind Xena's neck and Gabrielle trembled.

So did Xena, her own hands circling the bard's bare midriff. They paused a moment, too deeply moved to talk or look at each other. Then, Xena picked up the music's slow rhythm, and her hips began to sway. Gabrielle fell in as if they were one creature. They moved as one, their bodies becoming accustomed to the closeness they shared, their surroundings forgotten. The sensual energy between them left them breathless.

It took them a while to get their overloaded senses to calm and remotely used to the current flowing between them. Gabrielle moved closer to rest her head at Xena's shoulder, both exhaling at the contact. Slowly, the bard became aware of the warrior's pelvis moving in sensuous circles against her, and she found that she matched the motion. It became a sensuous game between their bodies - teasing, retreating, moving against each other until the bard threatened to burst with the sensations.

"Xena...” she whispered in the conveniently close ear.


"I don't dare to look around...”

Xena chuckled and lifted her eyes for a moment. "They're staring,” she informed the young woman in her arms.

"I think they're waiting for us to start making out on the dance ground.”

"Aren't we already?” Xena accentuated her statement with a particularly well placed grinding motion.

"Ungh...” Gabrielle buried her eyes in Xena's shoulder, trying to catch her breath. "How about we leave the party, Xena? I don't know how much longer I can keep my hands still...”

"Oh...” While one part of Xena screamed Yes!, another part wanted to proceed with caution. If they left here and went to their room, Xena knew what would happen. Puzzled, she took the time to examine her sudden reluctance at consummating what had been building up the last few days.

Gabrielle felt her partner's body shift, and the muscles that had just been wrapped around her body in a most enticing way retreat. She looked up, finding a confused expression on Xena's face. She lifted one hand and brushed against a prominent cheekbone. "Xena? Do you have second thoughts?”

"I... I...” Xena stuttered, trying to sort through her thoughts, and failing. "I think I need a drink of cold water.” She didn't dare meet Gabrielle's eyes, too confused and ashamed of her reluctance. She only knew one way to express both feelings, and that was to appear unimpressed. "I'll be back in a moment.”

And with that, she wriggled herself out of Gabrielle's arms leaving the bard standing there as she made her way through the crowd towards the well, hidden in the darkness.

For a moment, Gabrielle was dumbfounded. What had just happened that she hadn't noticed? Was it anything that she had done or said? She examined the last few moments they had shared, and her skin still tingled just thinking about their dance. Whatever just happened, it didn't have anything to do with me, she decided. But if I leave Xena alone with this, it's gonna get worse, I'm sure. With as determined steps as her ankle allowed, she followed the warrior to where she had last seen her.

...continued in Part 5

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