Disclaimers:The following story is classified as Fan Fiction. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and others who have appeared in the series, Xena: Warrior Princess, are the property of MCA/Universal Television and Renaissance Pictures. I only borrowed them. The story itself is mine and cannot be redistributed in any form without my consent.

History Cast in Amber
by LZClotho
(c) July 1997

E-Mail LZClotho at lzclotho@cfl.rr.com



Dawn broke quietly in the valley. Arianna was up early, cooking a sturdy breakfast of a dozen hen's eggs and sliced meats.

Theocratus and Arianna offered to share their breakfast. Xena and Gabrielle declined, choosing instead to check out the local tavern and listen to the lay of the seedier side of the land. Particularly, Xena confided to Gabrielle, she wanted to see if Fracchus had spies that should be cleaned out of Amber before they departed for his camp.

They entered the tavern to find the ale already flowing freely. Gabrielle ordered buttered bread and a bowl of vegetable soup. Xena filled herself with a cold chicken thigh and another bowl of the soup. Finishing quickly, she told Gabrielle as much as she could recall about Fracchus.

As she concluded, she apologized, "I'm sorry, it's not much, but, well, I didn't do much back then other than classify a person a good soldier or a bad one. Fracchus was a good soldier, a bit more bloodthirsty than the average. Liked a good kill...But then again, so did I." Xena said this last softly and turned her eyes away from the bard's gaze. "I'm going to go rub down Argo and get our gear packed."

Gabrielle stood when Xena did. "I'm ready. Let's go." She dropped the dinars on the table to pay for the meal and followed Xena toward the door.

"Come here, girlie. Let's have a little fun."

Two large men stood suddenly and grabbed for Gabrielle after Xena passed. The warrior's reflexes were fast. She drew her dagger and stabbed Gabrielle's captors in the thick of their biceps.

They yelled and dropped Gabrielle, who had enough presence of mind to drop to the floor and roll away from the confrontation coming.

"Hands off," Xena ordered, as the two pulled back and squeezed their wounds.

Gabrielle stood, and Xena nodded her head. The two men, thinking some signaling was happening, turned to look in the direction Xena had nodded. She quickly brought up her dagger handle and bashed it against the back of the nearest man's skull. She turned to the other and smiled. "Are you going to talk, or do I have to get rough with you, too?"

The second man looked from his downed companion to the warrior woman. Recognition dawned. "Um, nope, our mistake. Won't happen again. Come on, Durbin, let's get out of here." The man picked up Durbin, who was beginning to come around, and practically dragged the man from the tavern.

Xena dropped her hand with the dagger in it and looked around the room. Gabrielle came up to her and led the way outside. Once on their way to the stables, Xena replaced the dagger in its pouch.

"That was our boning knife, Xena," Gabrielle sighed. "From now on, I carry all the cooking utensils, understood?" She snatched the pouch off the warrior's belt tying it to her own, and frowned at Xena's arched eyebrow. "You and your creative fighting," she snorted.

The warrior and the bard entered the stables a few minutes later and Xena walked straight to Argo's stall while Gabrielle settled up with the stable master for Argo's overnight stay.

"Good morning, girl. How are you?" Xena called to the horse as she held out a carrot chunk pilfered from the soup. Mistress and mount communed for a moment, Gabrielle standing back and watching them. The mare lipped Xena's hand and munched on the carrot, while Xena scratched between her ears.

The warrior grew self-conscious in the extended silence. "I'd better get you ready for the day," she admonished the horse, who began searching Xena's waist for the pouch of treats her mistress kept.

Gabrielle moved around Argo to the saddlebags resting in the corner of the stall. "Here's her brush and hoof pick." The bard passed the tools to Xena and stepped back as Xena lifted Argo's right front hoof and inspected the nail and frog making Argo sway ever so slightly. Gabrielle backed up more quickly.

"Pass me the brush, Xena. I'll work on this side. We'll get her done twice as fast." Gabrielle bent at the waist and received the brush passed under Argo's belly. "Thanks."

Xena responded, "Thank you."

With Gabrielle working on the mare's golden coatand Xena working on her hooves, then mane and tail, they finished in short order. Soon, the trio were on their way out of Amber. Xena rode as Gabrielle walked briskly alongside. The bard was swinging her staff in practice arcs and low sweeping strikes.

"You're really quite good with that now," Xena commented.

Gabrielle dropped the staff on end causing it to bounce back into her hand. Xena nodded, a sure sign of pride, Gabrielle noticed. "I'm gaining more balance every day. It's almost an extension of my arm."

Xena smiled. "When we get to Fracchus' camp don't 'practice', all right? It'll make him nervous - or one of his men. And that spells trouble."

Gabrielle watched Xena watching their surroundings. The bard knew the warrior was sensing and seeing everywhere at once, but her head never once moved from looking forward between Argo's ears. Observing her is fascinating, Gabrielle thought. I wonder if I'll ever be able to do that.

Xena smiled, seeing, out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle's scrutiny. Less than two years ago, she would have snapped at the bard for her stare. The warrior broke from her reverie when she noticed the scratched tree markings indicating that a sentry post for Fracchus' army was up ahead.

"Gabrielle, get up here with me." Xena offered her arm and pulled the bard onto Argo's back. "Get that glib tongue of yours ready, all right?"

"Okay," she replied, putting her arm around Xena's waist and glancing around as Argo trotted forward again.

Xena and Gabrielle rode unchallenged into Fracchus' camp. Xena didn't like the cool assessing looks being thrown their way, but she preferred that to having to hack and slash her way to speaking with her old lieutenant. Obviously, they were expected.

She didn't fool herself into believing the entire conversation would go as smoothly as getting in. But she was glad. Every time she had the bard with her, Xena's worries doubled. It was no longer like the old days. She didn't just have herself to worry about anymore.

"Ha, Xena!" Fracchus came out of his tent to greet the approaching warrior. "Here to talk over old times, eh?"

Xena slid off Argo first. Though it was awkward with Gabrielle behind her; she wasn't willing to put the bard down first and risk her friend being grabbed before Xena could dismount. Xena kept one hand on Argo's reins, kept both eyes on Fracchus, and reached up to pull Gabrielle down beside her.

Fracchus addressed the bard as the pair of women came near. "Welcome, little bard." Gabrielle, Xena noticed, wisely did not smile. "Perhaps you will entertain us tonight?" Xena shot Fracchus a glare. "A tale to warm our cold nights," he clarified.

"We won't be staying long, Fracchus. Let's get down to business." Xena led Gabrielle past Fracchus with firm hands on the bard's shoulders. The two women ducked into Fracchus' tent. The warlord soon followed. "You obviously got my message."

Fracchus nodded curtly and scowled. "Just passing through. Happy to chat for a while."

Gabrielle sank back into the shadows a bit, to watch until she could help. So far Fracchus wasn't acting as Xena had described him. He was too congenial. Something else was up here, and Gabrielle hoped she could figure it out before it became a problem.

Xena remained near the tent opening, her eyes following Fracchus as he entered and sat down at a lavishly dressed dining bench. "Please," he motioned. "Eat. We'll talk while we eat."

Xena declined, as did Gabrielle. "Fracchus," Xena began. "You know why I'm here. You were expecting me, so let's get this done."

"Yes, of course. But I tell you, civility can go a long way to explain my position."

"Civility? You call kidnapping young women civilized?" Xena responded, a chill in her voice.

Fracchus shook his head and lifted a leg of mutton. "Come ladies. You, Xena, you gave up this army to follow a path different from mine. I convinced Darphus to just let you go instead of having you killed. Don't make me regret that decision."

Xena planted her fists on the table in front of Fracchus. "I don't like what you're doing, Fracchus, and I will stop it." She punched her fist into the table, her eyes locked on his.

To his credit, Fracchus did not jump, though Xena eyed the twitch in his right cheek muscle. "I don't need to answer to you, Xena," he sneered.

"I'll stop you. I'll disband your little army and send you to Tartarus," she threatened. "Don't doubt it."

"Try it. You won't succeed."

She reached across to grip his throat in her fist, but drew back at the last moment. "I'll be back tonight. You'd better have closed up camp and moved on."

Fracchus scoffed. "You, a petty warrior, think to order me? Ares' own warlord?"

Xena growled. "Serving Ares will get you nowhere, Fracchus. Opposing me will get you dead."

Ares materialized out of the shadows in another corner of the tent. "You have a rather high opinion of yourself, Warrior Princess. Deadly attitude to take against a god."

Xena had expected something like this. She didn't blink as she turned to face the mocking, swarthy God of War.

Gabrielle, however, could not help a gasp and sank further into the shadows. She knew she couldn't completely avoid the god's attention but she'd try. Xena didn't need any distractions, not with Ares present.

"Hello, bard," commented the god casually. Xena glared at him. Fracchus watched Xena and Ares alternately. Gabrielle tried to pull back even further into the shadows.

They stood like this in silence for a long time, absorbing each other's presence. A guard ducked into the tent. "Fracchus, we have caught the intruder who has been taking our captives."

Fracchus grinned broadly. "Have the scum dragged in here. I'll deal with him."

The guard ducked out again and a scuffle ensued. Shortly, the guards dragged Draco, his lip cut and bleeding, into Fracchus' tent. Xena backed up, stepping between Draco and Gabrielle, hoping the love struck warlord wouldn't say something to put the bard's life in Fracchus' hands as a tool of revenge.

Draco moved his jaw to see if the overzealous guard had broken it. He did not see Xena or her little bard for the moment. He was also inwardly berating himself for trying a daytime rescue. He kept his eyes on Fracchus.

"So, we finally meet. What is your name?" Offhandedly, Fracchus added with a kick to Draco's chest, "So I can put it on your gravestone."

Gabrielle watched Draco being kicked around and realized that this beaten up warlord had really changed himself...for her. Her heart grew soft. It must have shown in her eyes, though, because Xena gripped her hand and when Gabrielle looked up, shook her head quickly. Gabrielle tensed but did withdraw further behind the Warrior Princess.

Despite the rough hands on his arms, painfully bending them back, and still recovering from the kick to the chest, Draco was finally able to speak. He did so, boldly. "Too bad you don't remember me, Fracchus. We fought under Xena together. I am Draco of Corinth. You are stealing Corinthian citizens. It is my right to return them to their homes."

"Hah!" roared Fracchus. "Xena, he's come to do your dirty work for you. Isn't it nice to have such good friends? Throw him in with the slaves. I'll decide how to kill him later." With a wave of his hand, Fracchus dismissed his problem.

Xena caught Draco's eyes as the guards were dragging him back outside. She raised an eyebrow in his direction, and lowered her right hand slowly. I'll be back for you. Lay low for now, she conveyed.

Draco dropped his head. Got it.

"Now, where were we?" Ares reemerged from the darkness, pleased with events to this point. "Ah, yes. Fracchus. I will give you another slave to replace all the ones Draco has released."

Xena watched and listened as Fracchus began to argue with the God of War. "What good would one slave be when I've lost five?"

"Her!" Ares pointed to the other side of the tent...at Gabrielle. Xena stepped forward and drew her sword.

She waved it in the god's face. "Over my dead body!"

Fracchus grinned maliciously. "That can be ...."

Ares slapped at the air, and Fracchus fell back several paces. "No. Xena, I don't want you dead. I want you leading this army again."

Xena kept one eye on Fracchus, who was picking himself up on the other side of the tent. She kept the other on Ares, who stepped close.

Xena shrugged. "Old song, Ares. Not even a new tune. Can't you sing anything else?" Xena was careful when needling Ares; he was more powerful than most gods. But the God of War just laughed.

"I don't have to bargain with you, Xena. I could just take her, seize control of your mind, and force you serve me, whether you want to or not."

Xena spat. "I did that once, Ares. Never again. I have the will to resist you."

Ares stepped up to Xena. "Do you? Do you, my Warrior Princess?"

A great flash later and Xena was blinking, staring at where Ares had been standing. "Damn!"

Fracchus came forward. "Ares told me I can't kill you, Xena. But I'm going to Tartarus when my life ends, so what's a little punishment? I'll be taking my new slave now."

With a flick of his head he motioned to a guard to seize Gabrielle. Xena spun as her name left the bard's lips. "Xena!"

"Gabrielle, duck!" Xena loosed her chakram from her hip, and in the same moment, Gabrielle sank like a stone, going limp and startling her captor. Almost instantly, the guard crumpled to the ground next to her, Xena's chakram imbedded in his chest.

Gabrielle shook. Xena grabbed her and snapped the chakram from the dead man's chest. Fracchus was at their heels as they bolted the tent and Xena whistled for Argo. Xena had to drop Gabrielle so the two women could maneuver separately to where Argo came charging to a stop.

Without so much as additional breath, Xena reached behind her and yelled to Gabrielle to hold onto her neck as she put the bard onto her back. With a leap onto a table covered with food and Gabrielle clinging to her, Xena sprang again, carry them onto Argo's back. The horse snorted then tore off through the camp.

Xena wasn't controlling Argo, her legs accomplished nothing more than keeping both her and the bard aboard the mare. Argo chose her own path through the maze of yelling and swinging soldiers.

The soldiers tried to turn the horse. Xena swung with her sword in several directions. Her blade moved so fast, Gabrielle didn't see it.

Gabrielle asked, "What about Draco?"

Xena answered, hating herself. "He'll have to fend for himself until I get you to safety!" She knew the bard had seen the changes in Draco and had felt for him as he was beaten and dragged away.

"If it helps, I don't think he knew you were there!" Xena said over her shoulder.

"It doesn't." Gabrielle shook her head against Xena's back.

Xena looked ahead of them suddenly, sensing the gathering of the mare beneath them. "Hold on! Argo's going to jump!"

Xena grabbed the pommel and Gabrielle grabbed Xena more tightly. The two women went sailing off the horse's back anyway. Arcing through the air, Gabrielle had the sickest sensation in her stomach. "Now I know why I hate heights," she murmured, "It's the drop."


Xena worked on twisting her body so that she was beneath the bard as the two hit the water in the middle of a river. Then the warrior rolled so that she was stomach down, and rolled Gabrielle over. "Hold on!" she cautioned the bard.

Gabrielle complied, grabbing Xena's weapons belt as the warrior began stroking strongly after Argo. The mare was struggling onto the far shore, weighted down by the wet saddle, bags and blankets.

The current carried them down a bit from the horse but did seem to be driving them away from the camp side of the river instead of toward it.

Xena felt her booted feet touch ground and she stood, helping her friend onto the embankment. "Were we followed?" asked Gabrielle, picking herself up.

Xena looked back over her shoulder. "I lost track of them with all of Argo's maneuvering." Thinking of her horse made Xena bolt out of the water to check on the mare. Argo stood shivering next to a tree. The mare looked over at the two women, and Gabrielle correctly translated her look as, "Well, I did it, didn't I?"

"You did wonderful, girl," she told the horse. "Next town we stop in, I'm going to buy you the biggest harvest of apples you can imagine."

"Let's worry about the here and now." Xena's used her hands to sluice the bulk of the water out of the mare's coat. "We'd better find deeper cover. Pretty soon the whole camp will come looking for us."

Gabrielle was wringing out her hair when Xena grabbed her arm. "Down! Now!" Gabrielle found herself flat on her stomach buried beneath the encroaching branches of a bush. Xena gave a birdlike whistle, and Argo trotted off deeper into the trees.

Xena kept one hand over Gabrielle's back as she inched forward to watch the shoreline.

A search party of three of Fracchus' soldiers tried to trot their horses into the river and pulled back. "They couldn't have made it across this river. Not here anyway. Let's try looking a little further down river."

Gabrielle murmured a thank you prayer to a gutsy palomino war-horse. "Shh!" warned Xena, still watching until the party was out of sight. "Okay, get up. Slowly."

The two women came to their feet. Xena shivered, finally feeling the soaked leather against her skin.

"We have got to get dry, right away," Gabrielle noticed the warrior's shiver and knew her own lips were turning blue. "All our gear is on Argo. Do you suppose miracle of miracles, she managed to keep her back somewhat dry?"

Xena whistled for the mare, and both women breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the palomino trot toward them from a copse of trees.

"I'm going to walk. Get myself warmed up," Gabrielle explained as she refused Xena's hand up onto Argo's back.

"Suit yourself. Let's move quickly." Xena kept Argo at a walk. She studied her friend and realized, "Hey, your staff is gone."

Gabrielle shrugged. "Lost in our little mad dash out of Fracchus' camp."

"I'll be going back. I'll get it for you then." Xena sounded matter of fact, as usual, but this time, Gabrielle didn't want heroics on her behalf. She said as much. "I have to rescue Draco, too," Xena reminded the bard with a gentle smile.

"Speaking of Draco. He's really not a warlord anymore, is he? What warlord could withstand such a beating and not have burning coals for eyes? I can't believe he's still in love with me. He's really changed."

Xena shrugged. "He didn't notice you tonight. Perhaps he isn't really doing all this for you, but for himself."

"Like you changed because somebody thought you could?"

"Just so." Xena continued to sluice what water she could from the mare's withers and neck as they walked along.

Gabrielle became dreamy-eyed. "Still, to think he would go through all that because he loves me. Nice thought."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Yes, I suppose."

"Come on, Xena. You don't think a man being willing to change just for you isn't romantic?"

"Oh, it's nice. But romantic? Hardly. What good is he to anyone if his heroics get him killed?" Xena grimaced as her own memories assaulted her, and she tried to push them aside.

But Gabrielle saw the grimace. "We're not talking about Draco anymore, are we?"

"Who says?" Xena's voice was just a little too tight, a little too curt.

"Fine. I won't mention it anymore."



The two women moved along in silence. Xena finally slid off Argo's back, unwilling to trot the horse and leave Gabrielle behind. She was so in need of moving to release her frustrations, she was afraid she'd kick Argo if she remained mounted another moment.

She walked on the opposite side of Argo from Gabrielle, glancing occasionally at the bard, to see the stiff back, the extra stomp to the step. She grimaced again. Damn, I shouldn't have snapped at her. My past shouldn't be such a secret between us anymore. We've been through too much. She thinks it's unfair, and she's probably right.

"Gabrielle?" Xena broached the silence carefully, choosing her words with the same care she would use to test an opponent before swinging out with the first strike.

"Yes?" Gabrielle's voice reflected her hurt.

"Gabrielle, I'm sorry."

"What for? I'm not supposed to bring it up, remember?"

"Listen, Gabrielle. I'm still not comfortable with ... everything," the warrior finished lamely. "I'm really pleased to see your romantic notions. If my own past has taken them away from me, it's not your fault. And I was wrong to take it out on you."

Gabrielle watched Xena struggle through one of the longest personal statements the bard had ever heard her utter. Supportively, Gabrielle moved around Argo, bringing the horse to a stop by gripping the bridle strap under the mare's chin. "Who was it?" she asked the warrior softly.

"A tale better told when we're warming by a fire."

Gabrielle's smile lightened two hearts. "Let's settle in for the night then. Hmm, the river's back there." She started picking up small branches as they walked. "I'll collect the firewood."

Xena shook her head. "I'm taking you back to Amber in the morning."

Gabrielle and Xena stopped in a wide clearing. The warrior removed Argo's saddle and quickly emptied the saddlebag contents, laying them out atop a blanket. Nearly everything was damp, but little was completely sodden. "Here, catch!" Xena tossed their bedding to Gabrielle. "It's actually not completely soaked."

"Gods bless you, Argo!" Gabrielle smoothed the bedding on the ground. "I'll go get some real firewood. Start with these." After dropped a small fire starter collection of twigs, Gabrielle left the clearing.

Xena turned from rubbing down Argo with a towel. "Be careful. We moved pretty far out of the camp's range, but they may still be looking for us."

"They have stopped," came a dark voice. "But I could bring them here."

"Ares!" Xena spun on her heels but didn't draw her sword, unwilling to be drawn into the god's sphere of influence. She waited for Ares to reveal his intent.

"You're getting so patient, my warrior. Must be the bard's influence."

"Why can't you just leave me alone for...a couple of days." Xena leaned back against a tree trunk, her eyes warily trained on the slippery god.

He smirked. "You'd get so lonely, my dear. Alone? Would you really know what to do with yourself?"

"Ares, without you, I'd be the happiest woman alive," Xena countered.

"Ah, you are so bright. That is what draws me to you. I may have claimed your soul for a while, but it was only after seeing what you had become entirely without my help."

"Thanks for the reminder," the warrior snorted. "Now, why can't I seem to get rid of your 'help'?"

"Because it's mine to give and yours to receive, Xena. And that is how it will always be."

Xena threw up her hands exasperated. "Great. Now could you get out of here? Gabrielle will be back any minute, and I don't want her to find you here."

"You don't want...." Ares bowed his head as if acquiescing. "Of course, I always give you what you want...."

"Hah!" Xena stalked across the campsite, snatching out her breast dagger, and stood toe to toe with Ares. "Now, listen. I want you out of here before Gabrielle gets back. You scare her, and I won't have her upset."

"Such sentiment for the little bard. Do you really want me to leave you alone?"

Xena glared at him. "Totally." She took a deep breath, knowing she did not have enough glibness to express herself to this annoying immortal, but she had to try, for Gabrielle's sake. "You can take me on some other time. Right now, I don't have the time to deal with you. I have bigger things to deal with than an insecure god."

"Oh, low blow, my dear. All right, you shall have your wish. You will be left totally alone for a period of three days. Long enough for you to wrap this little mess up, don't you think?"

"Ample. Now, go before Gabrielle gets back." She waved her dagger tip under his nose. It didn't intimidate him, but it made him back up all the same. With a gleam in his eye, Ares bent slightly at the waist and faded from sight.

Xena turned and cleared the space for their fire pit, circling it with rocks. It didn't take long for her to have a small fire going. She was feeding it smaller chips of wood from the nearby ground when she suddenly realized Gabrielle should have been back by now. "Gabrielle!"

She studied the foliage where Gabrielle had gone to collect wood. What could be taking so long about collecting a few fallen tree branches?

Argo neighed. "I'm sorry, girl. Here." Xena moved over and efficiently filled and settled the nosebag of oats on the mare's head. "It's a bit damp, but it should be fine," she commented as the horse snorted.

Xena half-expected, during the moments she was dealing with the horse, that the bard would come waltzing back into camp. It didn't happen.

Now Xena became worried. Maybe some soldier from Fracchus' camp had found them, and taken Gabrielle. But she would have heard something. A sick feeling clawed her stomach. She called again.

"Gabrielle!" No answer. Xena called again, then moved to the edge of the clearing where Gabrielle had disappeared. She followed the bard's tracks easily for several twists and turns in the dirt. She could see where the young woman had picked up a piece of wood here and there. She hadn't gone more than a hundred paces from the campsite at that point, surely the bard had heard Xena?

"Gabrielle!" She began looking for signs of anyone else moving through their part of this forest. Nothing.

Wind whispered through the trees and around the warrior as a night storm came closer. "Gabrielle! Come on, this is not the time to practice your stealth!" Xena looked up into the surrounding trees, then shook her head. Gabrielle was smart enough to know that she shouldn't be playing games tonight.

Xena traced Gabrielle's tracks around again. She found a discarded pile of branches, and began looking harder in the area for signs of her friend. Finally, she found several long strands of Gabrielle's blonde hair caught in a bramble bush. "Gabrielle!" Xena tamped down on her panic and tried to think.

The whisper of the wind took on a deep quality. "Three days, my dear. Alone for three days!"

Xena swore something vile. "Ares. I told you to leave me alone!" She swore again, wishing a curse on the God of War.

"The little bard will be returned to you in three days time, Warrior Princess. Solve your little problem and get to my temple in Corinth. We'll work out a ... trade."

Xena hated speaking to air. "Get out here, Ares. I want to see you!"

"Not even a handful of minutes, Xena. You really are awfully pathetic."

Xena shook her fist at the sky. "I demand your solemn oath - on the River Styx - that you will not harm Gabrielle."

"Why would I do that?" The god's voice reached her full of smugness. "As long as you do as I ask, the bard will not be harmed."

Xena gripped her chakram. "Swear it!"

There was a sigh of breath carried through the trees. "All right, Xena. I swear on the River Styx that I will not harm the bard."

Xena nodded. "I'll tear down Olympus with my bare hands and drag you to Zeus myself if you break that promise, Ares."

Another sigh through the trees. "I promised. Isn't that enough for you?"

Xena did not answer. Satisfied, for the moment, that Ares intended to keep his word about Gabrielle, she returned to the campsite and packed up most of their things. For Argo's sake, she built up the fire and kept the horse close. She settled into her blankets but sleep did not come.

Xena tried to go over all the events of the day, looking for any clues as to why Ares would snatch Gabrielle.

There had been that business about being left alone. That twisted little conversation must have given him the idea.

She guessed that he figured she might, since no longer influenced by the bard, let herself go out of control during the battle and take over Fracchus' army instead of disbanding it. But Draco was really doing the most damage. She recalled that Ares had not stepped in when Draco lay beaten and helpless. Could there be some advantage in teaming up with the rehabilitated warlord?

Two heads were better than one. In the morning, Xena decided, she'd go back to see Draco. She couldn't shake the feeling that she was missing some important piece of information. Ares was constantly plotting to drive Xena back into his arms, but somehow this time was different. She drifted to sleep only reluctantly, knowing, despite the company, that Gabrielle was safe for the moment. Not even recalcitrant Ares broke an oath sworn by the River Styx. Would he?


Gabrielle awoke with quite a headache. She looked around. "Where am I?" she said aloud, alarmed at the weak sound of her voice.

"I'm not sorry about that whack you took. You make me so mad, Bard." Ares walked into the room. "But I only promised to not hurt you after that happened, so it doesn't count."

Gabrielle swallowed as the imposing god sat down on the chaise, his dark form only inches from her hip. "Um, could you sit...over there? Please?"

Ares lifted his hands in an unfamiliar gesture of acquiescence. "Whatever. I thought you wanted to know where you were?"

Gabrielle uncoiled a bit as Ares settled on a bench nearby. "I still do."

"Ah, forgot that about you. You cling to a thought like a bad hair day." Ares settled back and crossed his hands on his lap. "You are my guest here. For three days to be exact."

Gabrielle looked around. "Exactly where is here?"

"The top of Olympus. My father has quarters on the other side of that wall." He pointed to the wall behind Gabrielle. "So I suggest you keep it down. He's very grouchy if awakened prematurely."

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and slid down the chaise, giving herself more distance from the wall. "Zeus? Zeus is sleeping on the other side of that wall?"

Ares nodded and shrugged. "You'd think it was unusual."

Gabrielle nodded, but then tried for casual. "Of course Zeus is on the other side of that wall. Everyone has to sleep, right?"

Ares scowled, unused to bright cheery people. Which is why this little bard irritates you so much, he reminded himself, renewing his aggravation, a more familiar set of emotions for the god of War.

"What do you want from Xena this time?" Gabrielle sat forward on the chaise.

Ares sat forward as well, hoping to see a bit of fear. All he encountered was curiosity. I should have remained on the chaise, he admonished himself. "Come, come. You are intelligent. I want Xena back to lead my armies across the earth. Without you, she doesn't have to protect you. She might just let herself go a little bit, and voila, I have my Warrior Princess back. All it will take is one moment of complete and utter rage."

Gabrielle shook her head. "I hate to say it, Ares, but you're a slow learner. Xena doesn't even think like that any more. She's more tactical, more restrained, and though she battles, she hasn't killed anyone who didn't attack her. So your 'innocent death' clause won't be fulfilled."

Ares growled. " We'll just have to see. The battle will come tomorrow. I will return to watch it with you." Ares stood and stalked out of the room.

Gabrielle got off of the chaise and wandered around. She really wished the god would leave her friend alone.

Gabrielle worried about Xena, but as long as Ares was up here, what could he do to bother the woman? And Xena would be busy with Fracchus in the morning. She had figured, when they were racing out of that warlord's camp that Xena would be going back again. Hopefully Xena would focus on that and not that Gabrielle was missing.

Ares was the darkest god, in looks and moods. It bothered the bard a lot that there didn't seem to be anyone to stand between her and whatever he might choose to do to her. Then she thought back to the statements Ares made when she first awakened. He made Xena a promise? Gabrielle wondered why and what it might be. She thought she might ask him when he returned. She wasn't sure she could.

It appeared he hadn't hurt either Xena or herself yet, so Gabrielle was willing to wait for further details.

Not one for idleness, and without her bag of scrolls, Gabrielle looked around for something to do. Curiosity drove her around the room and she explored the God of War's quarters in Olympus. There were weapons of every kind and a host of shielding and armor so finely crafted Gabrielle knew each was the work of Hephaestus, God of the Forge. She studied the pieces with a bard's eye, noting the fine detailing and the paper-thin, sharpened edges.

She examined each piece noting the nicks and scrapes. Unleashing her imagination, she dreamed up the tales behind each one. That bite into the blade came from a battle with Zeus over the Straits of Bosporus. The dent in that helmet was from striking a blow in the battle with Hades over Persephone's capture. No doubt some were from battles that no bard had yet put to verse.

She leaned into a doorway and blushed to her toes; Ares' bedchamber was as opulent a room as the young bard had ever seen. Heavy curtains shrouded the interior of a massive four-poster bed. She stepped in, and walked over to a balcony. She had to step back from the railing; the view down was dizzying. The beauty of most of the known world spread out before her. She changed her vantage so that she could look out across the sky. Looking down gave her stomach queasy little fits.

She could see the fading light from a distant setting sun. Apollo was driving the chariot into the stables for the night. She remained still until the sun's radiant edge disappeared from view. She turned back to face the room and jumped when the brassieres lined along the walls burst into flame in sequence.

She circled to a corner of the room and found a mirror. She was a bit surprised to discover such a vanity item. Then she studied it closer.

Gabrielle realized she was probably in the room of the most vain god on Olympus, aside from perhaps Hera. Ares' attentions to Xena proved his vanity, now that the bard considered it. She had been a prized pupil, and her leaving him shattered his pride. His whole campaign of abuse against Xena was because of his wounded ego. A god without followers isn't a god.

"You're perceptive, bard," came the steely silk voice at her ear.

"Makes me a good storyteller," she replied, fighting for calm in her voice. She hoped he didn't notice. She did not turn.

But Ares wanted to look in her eyes. He circled around in front of her. "Does, doesn't it," the god mused. "What would you do, I wonder, if I took away that little talent of yours?"

The bard's eyes shot up and met his. She bit her lower lip and stiffened her legs, afraid if she didn't take the precautions, she'd be bolting out of the room in another second. Gabrielle studied his face to see if he was seriously threatening her. His eyes were dark brown, the swarthy skin smooth. She stopped breathing. He was obviously capable of doing exactly as he threatened. Then she thought about something he'd said earlier. "I'm not sure Xena would appreciate your threatening me." She tamped down on the smile she felt when Ares took a step back. Had she found his weakness? She dared not hope. She replied to his question honestly, "I'd probably welcome the Elysian Fields. Who am I if not a bard?"

"Would you? Well, we can't have that. I did promise Xena I'd not harm you. For the time being," he finished ominously.

Gabrielle stepped out of his shadow and cocked her head to one side. She was pleased her acquiescence had revealed that information. Now she knew she was safe. It made her bolder in satisfying her curiosity. "Would you like to tell me what this is all about? The whole story?" She slipped into the same voice she used when trying to get Xena to own up to some tidbit from her past.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? Another tale to tell around a campfire, make me look like a fool."

"Never say that. I portray everyone fairly in my stories," Gabrielle defended her art.

Ares shook his head. "Do you? Callisto didn't get a fair shake in your latest tale, what did you call it? Oh yes, 'A Necessary Evil'. Well?"

Gabrielle growled. She wasn't used to being baited. The sound was so foreign to Ares coming from the petite woman that he was surprised. "Callisto can burn in Tartarus for all eternity! I told the truth, and well, if it wasn't flattering, I don't care!"

Ares smiled, pleased with seeing the bard's fire.

Gabrielle winced. She'd stepped into his trap completely. "Listen, please. I don't want to argue with you. I don't even want to be here. Callisto is a sore spot. If we just agree not to discuss her, I think you'll be a lot happier."

"You are quite right. She challenged me too much as well. Still, it does belie your earlier statement about treating everyone fairly, doesn't it?" His smirk raised Gabrielle's blood pressure another notch.

She strove for control and repeated her earlier question. "So, tell me. What's up?"

Ares cocked his head in the other direction. He was challenged by the look in the bard's eyes and her ability to change the subject so deftly. He knew that her visit would be filled with intrigue. He answered straight, "I want Xena back and right now, bard, you have her. Release her to me."

Gabrielle frowned. "I don't have any hold over Xena. She does what she thinks is right, and I help her. That's all."

"Can you truly have no idea?" He was incredulous as he searched her mind for any signs of duplicity. "No, I guess you don't. Listen, Gabrielle..." She looked up surprised to hear her name from him. "That is your name, isn't it? It already begins, Gabrielle. Take a look in my mirror. What do you see?"

Gabrielle looked back at the mirror and saw her reflection in it. While she watched, the glass shimmered, and she saw Xena galloping into Fracchus' camp.

Back on earth, it was already daybreak. The warrior was alone, so Gabrielle guessed she was seeing events as they took place. Ares stood by her shoulder as happenings unfolded wi+ Er@~.фbLvzWAPq2k"YxHogKKv8۞8C39w xž+[okaf"Wx՟R[Am[^ԯlZ'dh"netVi.s矝LuHGRcF5[JebVU+BJQ”cw!Zi)7G0Ygf"Ares?" Gabrielle, her compassionate nature coming to the fore, reached out a hand. When she touched him, he jumped as if burned. With a weary lift of his hand, he vanished.

Gabrielle turned to watch the events on earth play out in the mirror. Her mind absorbed everything she had just witnessed.

She felt the rush of air as the god returned. She wisely made no comment. The two watched Xena's battle once again.

The crowd around Xena and the horse had thinned. Her chakram fled from her hand to knock out several on-rushers. After she caught it, Xena ducked into the slave tent. The warrior hurriedly untied several of the women and urged them to be quiet. Then, she approached Draco, bent over and tied in the far corner.

The man sat droop-shouldered and eyes closed. Xena gently reached out and touched his near shoulder. "Draco, wake up."

The warrior opened his eyes and looked up at Xena. He didn't look the fierce warlord to Gabrielle's eyes. The difference was apparent to Ares as well, who growled and kicked the base of the mirror, causing the image to fade and return to reflecting his and the bard's image.

Gabrielle jumped then saw Ares had already moved off several steps from her and relaxed. Gabrielle sighed. "You really need to learn to control your temper."

"She's turned him into a lovesick fool." There was a weariness in his voice. Gabrielle didn't mistake the anger though. Even though his voice was breathy, Ares' deep rage peeked through.

Gabrielle smiled. "Technically, Bliss did that. Xena just asked Cupid to leave the spell on him."

"You find that amusing?"

Gabrielle smiled, then noticed Ares' stormy countenance. "What?" she murmured, then realized he was now angry at her. She backpedaled and wiped the smile off her face, "Well, not entirely. But one less warlord means a lot fewer lost lives in this province."

"Well, I've lost one too many warlords. First Xena, now Draco. What would you suggest I do about that?" He stepped forward. It was now very clear that somehow Ares had found a way to blame her for both defections.

"Listen, Hercules turned Xena. And well, Draco was a mistake. Talk to Cupid."

Ares didn't stop moving toward her. Gabrielle continued to back up at the menace in Ares' eyes. "I ... well... what do you want me to do about it?" These words came out in as rush as Ares' glare caused her to back against a chair she fell into.

Ares frowned and lowered his raised hand, mumbling to himself. "I can't do what I really want to and take you away from Xena. Her rage alone would give her power enough to challenge me."

Gabrielle paused in her scathing retort, having expected something a little more vociferous from the god. "Huh? Come again?"

Ares' countenance darkened again. "What?"

"You said that Xena's rage would give her the power to challenge you. What do you mean?"

Ares growled, forgetting for the moment with whom he was speaking. "I watched Xena for many years before welcoming her into my service, bard. I wined, dined and gifted her from time to time."

"I'd expect that. How else would she have come to serve you? Back then, I mean." Gabrielle stood up from the chair and took a few judicious steps away from Ares. Aware he was barely containing himself at the moment, she didn't want to put herself in temptation's way.

Ares growled and started walking for the door. If he continued this conversation, he'd definitely do something he'd regret, one way or the other. The bard's voice stopped him.

"What kind of gift from you would give her such power over you? Don't gods have rules about that kind of thing?"

"Bard ...," Ares warned. But Gabrielle was going to finish her thought.

"If I remember clearly, when Cupid wanted to marry Psyche there was all this hullabaloo about whether or not she could be gifted with more than immortality. Some even argued against that." Gabrielle walked away from Ares. She was ruminating on something, and finally turned back. "Did you forget yourself, Ares?"

He said nothing. His eyes promised retribution, and his body fairly pulsed with tightly leashed tension, but he was not striking out at her. Gabrielle suddenly saw with insight how tightly bound Ares was to Xena. He was acting as if there was something more than just keeping Gabrielle safe while Xena handled Fracchus. The bard didn't have time to consider the situation further.

Ares growled. Gabrielle had her answer. "Does she know she has this power over you?"

"I'm not stupid. To give her...To give any mortal that knowledge would end a god's reign."

"Yet you are telling me."

"I have told you nothing. At least nothing specific." Ares started to walk out of the room, hoping to find something to hit before he broke his word.

Gabrielle tried to think back, put herself in Ares', or Xena's, boots and figure out what had happened. "You made love to her, didn't you?" Her voice carried to him across the silence of the room. It wasn't an accusation. Just a statement, but Ares stopped again just short of the door.

Ares spun, his face dark as the Underworld. The bard discerned a host of emotions in his mobile features, though he tried to stiffen his jaw against them. In his eyes were pain, hurt. His clenched jaw revealed the anger. The slope of his shoulders conveyed defeat.

Without another word Ares vanished. Gabrielle stood alone in his quarters. "I shouldn't be surprised. I only wonder if she knew it was you," Gabrielle mused to the empty room.

The bard walked back to the mirror and studied it, hoping to catch more of Xena in action down in Corinth.

She had much to think on, and a mystery to unravel. Gabrielle fell asleep watching Draco and Xena liberating the women and children from Fracchus' camp.


Xena quickly untied Draco. Then, she and the warrior fought back to back, defending a circle around the women to escort them out of Fracchus' camp. She returned with Draco to his encampment, where the two made plans to drive Fracchus out of Corinth.

Draco encouraged Xena to eat. The warrior had not been still long enough for a meal in nearly a full day. She nibbled on some thick crusty bread and pieces of cheese while pouring over the map of the valley.

"We can drive his troops into this box canyon," she pointed out. "Demand their surrender or kill the lot of them."

Draco shrugged, but pointed out, "Cornered beasts fight hardest. And I don't have enough men for a frontal drive. We'd be driving them past several villages. We can't risk driving them into the townspeople."

Xena nodded resignedly. "You're right, of course. I just want this done."

Draco sat on his bench and chewed on a mutton leg. "Where's Gabrielle in all this?"

Xena turned and studied the warrior. "Someplace safe."

Draco frowned. "We do this, and no place in this valley is safe until Fracchus is dead. Making another warlord mad and leaving him wounded kills safety in any place almost instantly. We could end up with a war on our hands."

"I won't let it come to that. I'll kill Fracchus myself if it looks like he'll escape."

"You do that."

Xena settled on the bench next to Draco. "Gabrielle thinks it's romantic that you're still fighting the good fight. All for her."

Draco looked away from the ice blue eyes of the Warrior Princess, seeing in his mind the crystalline green ones of the little bard. "She's really something. And yes, I still want to win her, Xena. But I'm enjoying this too." He turned to the Warrior Princess. "It wasn't like this the last time I tried to turn down this path."

"Timing is everything," Xena agreed. "You were more ready for it this time, I think."

"There may be something to that. I have thought about a lot of things since returning from Hestia, and one thing I discovered, is I am no longer happy with the kill...."

Xena nodded, her own transformation had gone similarly. What had turned her stomach against her work was looking into the eyes of a baby, kidnapped by her own men. "But the hunt is still thrilling," she concluded for him. "For warriors it is always so. At least that's what Gabrielle tells me."

"Old warriors never die, we just turn our talents to other things. Is that it?"

Xena nodded and for the first time in nearly two days, found herself laughing. "We'd better get back to these plans. We can move out in the morning."

Draco nodded and stepped outside to speak with one of his lieutenants. Xena turned back to the map of the valley and traced the paths between Draco's camp and Fracchus' camp with her fingers. She committed to memory the notations of where towns lay as well as streambeds and mountain passes. She expanded her mental map by committing to memory the surrounding lands and considering all the outcomes of tonight's battle.

"I'm so glad you're not here, Gabrielle," she murmured to the empty tent. "Ares may not be the best of companions, but he swore he'll keep you safe."

Xena settled back and finished off her bread and cheese, washing it down with a mug of ale. She thought about her friend and the God of War and wondered what Gabrielle would talk about with him. Even in front of a god, Gabrielle couldn't be quiet to save her life. Silence always weighed heavily on the bard, and she broke into conversation, one-sided if need be, at any opportunity. Around Ares' quick temper that could prove a problem.

Xena had a mental image of the bard trying to tell Ares a story and felt only a moment's pity for the god as he was backed into a corner forced to listen to one of Gabrielle's morality plays.

"Could you talk him into letting you go, I wonder?" Xena smiled. "Even if it's only out of exasperation." She concluded her rumination, then stood and went outside the tent. She stopped a passing soldier. "Where's Draco?"

"He's reviewing the mounts," the man responded.

"I need a place to clean up. Is there a bathing tent?"

"No ma'am, but the river's just down there a piece," he pointed back over his shoulder toward the western edge of camp. Darkness was beginning to cloak the tightly clustered trees. It would give her quite a bit of privacy. Xena nodded her head in thanks and went to fetch the saddlebags from Argo.

She came upon Draco examining his horses. "Hello, Draco," she said as she came up. The warrior looked up from the hoof he was examining and smiled at the Warrior Princess.


"Nearly. I'm going to take a bath first." Xena smiled at the raised eyebrow. "I must have learned that from you," she laughed. "I forget sometimes how much I learned from you."

Draco shrugged. "You learned nothing from me, Warrior Princess. All that skill is all you. Raw talent. Molded at one time by Ares himself."

Xena's face became shadowed. "Yeah, I know. It's inescapable, isn't it? Even before a righteous battle we get that euphoria, all from him."

Draco, also now sobered and nodded. "It's our lot for having taken an innocent life."

"So sanguine already. You're adjusting remarkably well."

"Most of the time I haven't a clue what I'm doing," confessed Draco. "I find myself, at the most awkward moments, asking 'What would Xena do?'"

"Not possible."


Xena and Draco shared a smile. Then Xena, her saddlebags slung over her shoulder, slipped out of the corral and walked down to the river. She kept on her shift as she waded into the river's current, carrying the oats-n-lye soap bar. She looked out across the water, watching the current kick up little swells around her as she moved. She splashed a broad hand through the surface and began to lather up.

As she washed, she thought about the day. Draco was free, the kidnapped women were free, and Draco's men would escort them home by daybreak. Locked in the silence of the waning day, Xena found she missed the bard's voice, usually hovering near on the bank, or laughing next to her in the water.

Just thinking about the bard made Xena's chest hurt. Not unreasonably, Xena wondered where Ares would take Gabrielle for "safe" keeping. At one of his temples? Not for this challenge. Xena could too easily ride off and snatch Gabrielle from earthly guardians. So it would be one of the immortal realms: Tartarus, the Elysian Fields, or Olympus.

Hades and Ares had a falling out when Xena died and entered the Underworld. So the God of War would not have enlisted his help. Olympus then.

Xena knew the bard's curiosity would not permit her to sit idly by while an opportunity was at hand to put to parchment happenings in Olympus. She hoped that Gabrielle had enough luck not to run across any of the other gods or goddesses there and create a new host of problems.

She then wondered if Gabrielle had any scrolls to write on. Would Ares have seen fit to supply her with such, to him, a trivial need? Only Xena knew that for Gabrielle her parchments were her lifeblood. Xena finished washing and walked back to the bank, grabbing up a towel to dry off. She wanted to fish out one of Gabrielle's stories and read it to herself, but knew she didn't have time. She promised herself, when Fracchus is dead or gone, and I have Gabrielle back, I'll get her to read me one herself.

Thinking about her friend's return lightened Xena, and she returned to Draco's camp ready for the upcoming battle.


Gabrielle had found some parchment left from Orpheus' last song-writing session and was describing Olympus, one eye on the mirror. Through the day, she'd discovered that whenever there was a battle anywhere in the known world, Ares' mirror would reveal it. The God of War, however, had not appeared at any time to watch the goings on.

Not for the first time, Gabrielle wondered why the fiercest of the gods was so unsettled around her.

She guessed that Ares had lain with Xena. At that time, he'd bestowed a magnificent gift upon Xena, believing that his possession of his warrior woman's body and soul would last forever. He never told Xena of his powerful gift and wiped their passion-filled night from her memory. Years later, when Xena turned her back on Ares' influence, the God of War began to know fear. If Xena learned of his gift to her and chose to misuse it, she could cause him to cease to exist.

This was not the first time Gabrielle had come face to face with one of Xena's former loves. The Warrior Princess had been free with her favors during her years as a warlord. Solan had been the product of such a union. One more special than others perhaps, but still a liaison, not a relationship any deeper than a one-night stand, though perhaps a bit longer lasting.

She'd seen Xena after a battle, high color in her face, a sheen of sweat on her skin, deep, heaving breaths as she fought to calm her passions. What man worthy to be called such could resist the siren call of those crystal blue eyes should her passions become sexual?

Borias and Marcus were among those whom Gabrielle knew had shared the warrior woman's bed. She suspected Draco had, too. Briefly, she wondered, had Fracchus also, at some time? No, she decided, shaking her head. Although Fracchus had once been her lieutenant, he just wasn't Xena's type as a lover. Besides, though she may have slept only one night with some, Xena never forgot anyone. And Xena barely distinguished Fracchus from any of a hundred other soldiers who'd served in her army.

Gabrielle looked at her image in the mirror. Obviously, the great deal of activity, the frenzy and excitement, had taken their toll. She definitely needed a bath. Her hair hadn't been washed since the day before she and Xena arrived in Amber.

The bard had an attack of vanity and went to the door of Ares' chamber. She looked up and down the corridor for the god. She pulled back into the room and called into the air. "Ares!" Pause. "Ares!"

The god appeared behind her. His voice made her jump. "What is it?"

"I need a bath."

"This is Olympus, bard, not an inn. And gods do not bring baths for mortals."

Gabrielle smiled sweetly. "Come on. I don't need you to bring it to me, can you just tell me where I could wash up?" Ares still looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. "You do wash up, don't you? Even you can't possibly like being covered in dirt or blood after a battle."

Ares shook his head. "It's never my blood," he smirked.

"Doesn't have to be to make you feel dirty. Besides what about just plain old dirt?"

Ares sighed. "Okay, okay. Shut up. I'll take you to the baths."

Gabrielle smiled as the god of War none too gently took her arm and dragged her through the rest of Olympus. "We're not going to just 'pop' there?" she asked, her eyes absorbing everything she saw.

"You wanted to see Olympus. I'm giving you the dinar tour," replied Ares.

She reached into a pouch on her hip. "What could I get for five dinars? Or ten?" she teased, hoping to ease her communications with this god.

"Don't you ever shut up?" sighed Ares. He turned a corner and they stepped into a massive room, filled floor to high ceiling with flora of every kind. In the center was a carved and polished stone bath, the marbled surface was the palest of earthy pink, like the newborn skin of a babe.

Ares pointed out the towels on the ground near the bath and the nymphs lounging by the water. "They will see to everything. When you are finished, return to my rooms."

Gabrielle nodded. Ares left with a snap of his fingers. She stepped forward. One of the nymphs approached her. "May I help you, Gabrielle?"

"You know my name?" Gabrielle took in the translucent skin and golden hair of the young-looking woman. The repose in her face was unearthly. Gabrielle laughed at her own thought.

"We were told to expect you."

Gabrielle smiled. Under her breath, she said, "Maybe mind-reading is a good thing."


"Oh, nothing. I won't be long. I just want to wash up. I've been doing a lot of traveling."

"Please come into the water," the nymph said, beckoning for Gabrielle to follow.

"I didn't catch your name," said Gabrielle as she followed the nymph.

"I am Cisera."

"Nice to meet you, Cisera." Gabrielle sat down at the edge of the water and began unlacing her boots, and setting them aside.

"Would you like these washed?" asked Cisera.

"I can do it."

"Nonsense. We are here to serve you."

"Listen, I'm not a goddess or anything. Ares is holding me for Xena."

"It does not matter. We are to serve anyone who enters the bathhouse."

Gabrielle started to argue again but then closed her mouth. "All right. But I'll need something else to wear while you wash my clothes."

"We will be done before you are through with your bath," Cisera replied.

Gabrielle unwrapped her skirt and laid it on the pile of her clothing Cisera was collecting in her arms. She dropped into the water and removed her shift, tossing it up to the nymph. "Thank you. I appreciate this."

Cisera nodded and walked over to the other nymphs. She gave the boots to a brunette, the undergarments to another, the skirt to another and kept the top for herself. The four nymphs stepped out of sight. Two other nymphs came up to the bath.

"Do you require assistance at your bath, Gabrielle?" The bard sank lower in the water and shook her head. "No. Thank you," she said, and they left.

Finally alone, Gabrielle threw her arms around her shoulders, hugged herself, and laughed with great delight. "Wow!" she thought. "Here I am, the little bard from Poteidaia, relaxing in the gods' bath!"

After two hours, Gabrielle started the walk back to Ares' rooms. She stopped to admire her surroundings and marvel at the great privilege of being a mortal in Olympus. How many mortals had the opportunity?

The bard combed her knowledge of the myths. Hercules came to mind, but he didn't really count. He may not be immortal, but he was Zeus' favored son. Theseus had once made the trip on Pegasus. What illustrious company she kept, Gabrielle thought. She doubted anyone but Xena would believe her when she said she'd been to the Gods' realm.

She was admiring a piece of sculpture on a pedestal in the corridor when she stumbled aside in a rush of wind. She almost laughed at the horror-stricken face that studied her to see if she was all right. "I'm fine. You must be Hermes."

"At your service!" said the youthful god, doffing his winged hat and sketching a bow. Gabrielle fought her inclination to laugh, but giggles escaped as she studied the messenger god.

Gabrielle stopped her giggling. If Hermes was dashing about... "You must have a message for someone. I shouldn't keep you."

"I don't go anywhere slowly. I'm not delivering anything at the moment. What is your name?"

Gabrielle introduced herself. The name didn't mean anything to the young god. "I'm a bard from Poteidaia." Hermes brightened, as Gabrielle suspected any god might when presented with a storyteller.

"Very nice to meet you, Gabrielle. Where do you tell your stories?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "All over. I travel with Xena."

Hermes' eyes brightened. "The Xena? The Warrior Princess?" Gabrielle nodded. "You are well met, Bard. There's one that keeps me busy."

Gabrielle shook her head. "How does Xena keep you busy?"

Hermes replaced his cap. "Excuse me, I've been summoned."

Gabrielle grabbed his arm, then recalled herself. "Please, what do you mean about Xena?"

Hermes replied off-handedly. "Ares has me keep track of her, you know. Her comings and goings, when she travels toward his areas, and stuff like that."

"I thought a god could do all that himself."

"Sometimes he just wants me to deliver messages. In disguise of course. Usually a draw to bring Xena to wherever Ares is."

"You mean he sets up situations just so he can bring her to him?"

"Often. He likes to watch her work." Hermes shook his head. "I'm sorry, I really have to go. Maybe we can talk later?"

Gabrielle smiled. "I'd like that. I'm staying with Ares at the moment."

After leaving Hermes, Gabrielle returned to the room. She looked over to the mirror, and went to stand in front of it. Xena and Draco were riding out, leading his troops to do battle with Fracchus. She felt the rush of air as Ares appeared in the room with her, standing at her right shoulder, to watch the events unfold.

Xena and Draco were in full battle dress. Draco's wildly cordoned hair shifted in the breeze created by his mount's sidestepping trot. Xena rode next to him, her hands relaxed on Argo's reins. Gabrielle knew from their adventure earlier that Argo didn't need commands from her mistress to do anything. Somehow horse and rider communicated through every motion, including reins. It was intoxicating watching the two warriors lead the march toward Fracchus' camp.

The scene shifted abruptly as the mirror reflected Fracchus, in his camp, kneeling at a likeness of the war god and praying. Gabrielle watched in fascination a moment, then she realized that Ares was standing there, eyes closed, having a communication with Fracchus. She stepped back, unwilling to intrude on someone's private moment, even a god's.

Gabrielle sat on the chair, her eyes roaming the room as the god conferred with his follower. It was a unique moment for the bard; Gabrielle herself had prayed but she never heard replies in her head as was obviously happening here. Ares was at least attentive to his followers, she'd grant him that.

Ares shook his head and broke off contact with Fracchus. Gabrielle could see that the warlord was not entirely happy with whatever Ares had told him. The warlord stood, pounded his fists together and only at the last moment controlled himself before he flung the idol across the tent. Fracchus left the tent and the mirror returned to focus on the approaching troops led by Draco and Xena.

Ares watched with an expression that Gabrielle pegged as pensive, even nervous, as the two armies met on the battlefield. "Aren't you supposed to be down there doing something?" Gabrielle asked. "Egging them on? Or something?"

Ares looked at the bard, and with none too much pleasure, snapped his fingers and vanished.

Gabrielle stayed still a moment longer, then stood up. She wanted to see what would happen in this battle, but her instincts told her to run away, far away, now that the god of War's attention was elsewhere.

"I wouldn't leave if I were you," a voice called from the doorway. "Uncle wouldn't like that very much. It would jeopardize his vow."

Gabrielle turned to find Strife, Ares' nephew, and a god himself, leaning casually against the door, arms crossed over his black leather-clad chest.

"Aren't you supposed to be down there, too?" Gabrielle asked, coming near this young god, who looked no older than herself, though she was sure he was eons older.

"Nah, I'm not around during grudge matches. I only step in when a town or village is being besieged or overrun."

Gabrielle nodded and said congenially, "Ah, right. Forgot about that. Strife, isn't it? Well, hey, nice to meet you...I guess." She indicated the mirror. "You wanna watch? Makes me ill. I'm going to find someone to talk to."

Strife settled in front of the mirror and Gabrielle ducked out the door.

On the ground, Xena was riding across the battlefield, sword swinging. With a push at the pommel, she leapt from Argo's saddle and flew at an on-rushing attacker. She landed with her feet planted firmly against his chest. She swung her sword tip at his nose and uttered one word, "Fracchus."

The soldier, struggling to breathe, pointed to the rear of the advancing force. Xena stepped off and marched in the direction the soldier had indicated, her sword swinging in small arcs in her hands. The soldier she had so abruptly interrogated began running for the edge of the battlefield, desertion the only thing on his mind after peering into piercing ice blue eyes.

Others weren't so bright. Xena kept her eyes focused on Fracchus as she crossed the distance separating them. With deadly precision, she met several soldiers' challenges with a well-placed kick here, or an uppercut there with her sword hilt.

Draco was cutting through troops himself and urging on his men with calls of "Free Corinth! To Hades with slavers!" The prevailing tide of battle was in Xena and Draco's favor.

Xena emerged to the back of the battlefield and saw Fracchus riding along, swinging his weapon at laggards in the back of his lines. "Move up," he ordered. "Close ranks. Let's kill these bastards!"

The Warrior Princess drew his attention with her chill battle cry as she leapt into the air, closing the distance between herself and her prey. The warlord raised his arms and his sword above his head, knowing he was going to tumble off his horse before he could do anything to prevent it. He maneuvered so he would stab Xena on their way to the ground.

Xena saw the sword tip aimed at her stomach and shifted in mid-air hoping to deflect it. She managed... only partly. The sword sank deep into her left side. She rolled away, her fall taking Fracchus down as well because of her weight on the blade. The pair rolled off the back of Fracchus' horse. Xena went lightheaded, the edges of her vision clouded, as the sword ripped out of her side when she rolled over then under Fracchus.

She bit her lip to keep from screaming and stumbled to her feet. She focused on Fracchus to get her mind off the blood she felt sliding in thick streams down her thigh. She raised her sword to Fracchus as he stood. "Drop your weapons!" she demanded of the warlord. "Leave Corinth!"

Across the battlefield, Draco saw Xena confront Fracchus and ran to join her. Fracchus did not notice; his eyes and sword focused on the Warrior Princess. "I'm not running from you, Xena. Not this time. Ares may want to give you my army, but I won't give it up without a fight."

Xena sighed. "I don't want your army, Fracchus. Get out of Corinth."

"Do what she said, Fracchus," Draco came up behind the warlord. Now Fracchus had to split his attention between the two of them.

Fracchus charged Xena first, figuring he could take Draco after getting the Warrior Princess off balance. It didn't work. He and Xena became locked in their deadly dance, and Draco kept others from interfering. Finally, it was only the three of them on the battlefield.

Xena broke Fracchus' hold on her weapon and stepped back. "Aiyiyiyah!" she yelled in his face, delighting in the fear she saw there. With renewing strength, Xena brought her sword down and up between them, shattering the blade of Fracchus' weapon his hands. She broke contact with Fracchus again and turned.

She didn't see Fracchus close his eyes and pray, raising the dagger in his belt toward Xena's back. He lunged toward her.

Draco yelled, lunging for Fracchus himself. "Xena!" He alerted the Warrior Princess, who turned and struck out at Fracchus. She was too late. Fracchus' dagger sank into her back as Draco's sword pierced his stomach and Xena's sword sliced into Fracchus' leg.

Only by luck did Draco avoid getting caught by the end of Xena's blade himself.

Fracchus cried out for Ares, and suddenly, all three warriors lay on the ground panting in the shadow of the great God of War.

"Nice little battle you three have had here," Ares mused aloud, watching Fracchus' eyes glaze and Draco pick himself up. Xena kept her head down, concentrating on trying to move. Her side wound bled copiously into the soil, and she was breathing shallowly.

Fracchus struggled to his feet to approach the god. "I demand satisfaction, Ares! You cannot give her your army. She won't serve you! I will! I will see that you are declared the greatest god of the known and unknown worlds!"

Ares looked at the man. "You're already dead, Fracchus. You're just too stupid to know it." Fracchus staggered in the face of Ares' rage. He sank to his knees on the ground.

Draco made a move to see to Xena's wounds, but Ares stepped between him and the downed Warrior Princess, saying nothing. Draco scowled, remaining where he was, unable to bring himself to challenge the god.

No one moved for a very long time.


Continued in part 3

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