Disclaimers:  Xena and Gabrielle aren't mine.  They belong to Renaissance Pictures, Universal Studios, or whoever owns them now.  The other characters are mine.

Subtext:  A little, but not much.  There's just some hugging because, well, people need to be hugged.

Story:  Written and completed in October 2022 for the annual Royal Academy of Bards Halloween Invitational.

Feed the Bard:  silverdolphin12@hotmail.com


This Fleeting Life
by The Bard of New Mexico

Gabrielle, relatively silent that late morning, breathed in deeply, enjoying the cool, dewy, invigorating air, a reward for having weathered the rainstorm the night before.  It wasn't cold, however, as Helios's rays blessed her and Xena with a mild warmth.  She felt the smooth patina of her staff under her hand, gained from hours of practice and use, and dwelt on the slight soft springiness of the turf under her booted feet.

“What a wonderful day, Xena!  It makes you feel good to be alive!  Smell that rain-freshened air!  Feel that warmth on your back!  Enjoy the breeze blowing through your hair!”  She brushed a stray lock of long black hair behind Xena's ear.  Xena made a noncommittal grunt and playfully swatted her hand away.  Gabrielle continued undaunted, “Everything's like it's fresh and new.  You just know that Demeter is doing her best to prepare for Persephone's homecoming.  Look how green everything is!”

Xena looked down at the young woman who strode by her side.  She stopped a moment and whispered, “Just like your eyes.”  The fiery spark that Xena saw in Gabrielle's eyes a minute ago softened to a look of deep affection.  Gabrielle smiled slightly.  Her lips reminded Xena of cherries.

“What a beautiful thing to say,” Gabrielle whispered back.

Xena's own blue eyes softened and seemed to glow.  “Gabrielle, if I see beauty in anything, it's because you make me stop and see it.”

Gabrielle looked deeply into Xena's eyes because it was important to her that Xena understood her message.  “To me, the most shining example of beauty in this world is right here.”  Without losing eye contact, Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's breastplate over her heart.  She finally looked away when she slid her arms around Xena for a long hug.  Xena, unable to say anything, stroked Gabrielle's long strawberry blond hair.  She slowly shut her eyes and relished the intensely sweet moment.

Gabrielle unexpectedly stiffened after a long time.  Xena's ears perked up and she answered as if Gabrielle had spoken her thought out loud, “I don't hear anything, either.”   She sprang away from Gabrielle and unsheathed her sword in one smooth motion.  She stood perfectly still and listened, scarcely daring to breathe.  Not even a hint of wind stirred a leaf.  It was like someone had muted the whole forest.  Suddenly, voices lifted ahead in a cacophony of utter confusion.  “Come on!” Xena yelled as she sprinted toward a bend on the trail. Gabrielle quickly picked up her staff and ran as well.

Not too far around the bend, a signpost welcomed them to Kalos, a small town.  When Xena realized the voices were all shouts of joy, she sheathed her sword.  She and Gabrielle made their way into the town's main square.  She grabbed a passing man by his leather vest.  “What's going on here?”

The tall lanky man with short brown hair looked at her.  The boy at his feet, who appeared to be five summers old, looked just like a miniature version of him, even down to the sad-looking, brown puppy eyes that lit up with extreme joy.  “It's the BEST day of the year!  The Spring Festival begins today!”  Xena smiled at the lad's bouncy excitement.  He turned and looked over his shoulder at a redheaded young woman whose eyes were a little darker green than Gabrielle's.  “Come on, Sis!  It's nearly time!”

“I know, I know!” shouted the woman who appeared to be around twenty summers old.  She hurriedly secured a lyre strap around her wrist and headed for a small wooden platform where the town's mayor waited for her. 

The plump, bald, middle-aged mayor held up his hands to quiet everyone.  “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention!”  He directed his next comment to the young woman.  “Lara, if you would, please....”

She hopped the two steps up to the platform and settled herself.  Her short blue chiton imitated the sky and her red hair, blowing in the wind, flickered like a flame in the sunlight.  She played a quiet song, a hymn to Demeter.  Then after a few moments' reverent silence, she started singing with wild abandon.  It was a happier song with a strong beat that bid people welcome and declared the festivities underway.  When it was over, people joyously cheered for the young lady and danced.  A group of other musicians on a larger stage, the bandstand, took over the musical duties.

Xena and Gabrielle could only look at each other in astonishment after hearing the musical performance.  “Xena, that was...”

“Yeah,” Xena agreed, admiration in her voice.

Lara delicately stepped down from the platform, her lyre still hanging off her wrist strap.  People mobbed her to hug her and one man grabbed her and twirled her twice in a high-spirited dance.  She just laughed a crystalline laugh and gently pushed him away.

When people finally drifted off, Xena and Gabrielle caught up with Lara.  “Hi, I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena.  You have a nice voice.”

“Thank you.  You're new in town.  Here for the festival?”

Xena answered, “No.  We just heard yelling and thought you might need our help.”

Lara laughed lightly.  “Nope!  Just opening the festival.  I don't know what your plans are, but stay for a few days.  There'll be games, a storytelling contest, and a huge feast.  It's always fun!”

Gabrielle perked up when she heard about the storytelling contest and her eyes begged Xena to stay.

“Sounds good,” Xena replied.  “Where's the best place to stay?”

“Well, the festival is pretty popular around here so the inn always fills quickly.  If you want, though, we have a hayloft you could sleep in.  It's warm and dry.”

Xena nodded down the trail.  “I have a horse back there.  Are the stables full, too?”

“Yes, but our barn has an empty stall.  You're welcome to that as well.”

Gabrielle smiled widely.  “Thank you.”  They shook Lara's hand.

Lara's father and younger brother listened to the exchange and didn't seem to mind Lara's hospitality.  Lara's brother jumped excitedly.  “Father!  We're gonna have some guests!”

Lara's father beamed.  He addressed Xena and Gabrielle, “It's not often we get visitors.  I'm Nikos and this is Ridel.”

“Nice to meet you,” Gabrielle said.  She and Xena shook their hands.

“Let's fetch your horse, get you settled in, and grab a snack before we come back.  The best part of the festival actually starts this afternoon,” Nikos said.

Lara, Nikos, and Ridel chatted with Gabrielle while Xena got Argo.  Then, everyone continued on the path that led through town and reached the family's farm. They took a left up a short dirt-packed road until they reached the wooden barn, each plank of it carefully handcrafted. 

Nikos pointed up a ladder to the hayloft.  “You can put your things there and you can stable your horse there.”  He indicated the stall furthest from the door.  “There are also plenty of feed for your horse.  Just come inside when you're done.”

Xena mumbled her thanks.  Gabrielle took the saddlebags off Argo and slung them over her shoulder.  As Xena got to work brushing and feeding Argo, Gabrielle climbed into the hayloft and prepared a soft nest of bedrolls on top of some hay.  She was sure they'd be tired after all the excitement of the day ahead.

Gabrielle climbed down.  “Nice barn.”

Xena noted how the wood wasn't even very weathered yet.  “Yeah.  Looks new.”  She saw the stone house through the open barn door.  “Can't say the same for the house.”

Gabrielle turned and gave the house an appraising gaze.  She noted small chunks of crumbled mortar near the walls.

When Xena and Gabrielle went inside, they found a snack of apples and bread set out for everyone.  “Don't eat too much,” Nikos warned.  “The town will put on quite a feast tonight!”

They ate in silence for a little while.  Gabrielle then spoke up.  “Thanks again for letting us stay here.  That's quite a nice barn you have.”

Nikos's sad puppy dog eyes belied his proud grin.  “Yes.  We just got it finished two weeks ago.  I'll tell you, it was a lot of work!  Time for a little rest, a little fun at the festival, and then it's time to start patching up this old place.  My great-grandfather built it, you know.”  He let his eyes roam lovingly around the house.  They were in the kitchen, which also served as the main room.  An old brown blanket partitioned the kitchen off from what Gabrielle assumed to be one or two back rooms, probably sleeping quarters.  There was only a little decoration mostly just beautifully-woven baskets and shining metal pots and pans hanging neatly on the kitchen wall. 

Gabrielle searched for something to say.  “Yeah, it has a very homey, welcoming feel.  Very comfortable.”  Nikos smiled again.

It wasn't long before they headed back toward the festival.  As they walked along the road, Lara once again slipped the lyre's strap around her wrist.  “Storytelling competition is going to start in an hour.”

“I'll be ready,” Gabrielle replied.  She swung her staff with every step she took.

“You're a bard?” Lara asked, a bit surprised.

“Yes, although it's been a while since I've performed.”

“It's good to know the face of my competition.”

It was Gabrielle's turn to be surprised.  “You're a bard, too?”

Lara smiled brightly.  “Well... um... not in the usual sense of the word.  The town bends the rules a bit for me.”  Lara then grinned sheepishly.

“What do you mean?”

Lara waggled her left hand that had the lyre securely on it.  “I tell stories through my songs.”

“I see.”

Lara continued, “So when I say 'I sing a song of whoever', I literally do.”  She smirked and Gabrielle laughed.

“Well, musical accompaniment sure is a pleasant gimmick.  Unfortunately, I'll just have to do my story the old fashioned way.”

Lara grinned.

By the time they got to town, Gabrielle and Lara had become good friends since they had so much in common, apparently including making friends easily.  Gabrielle watched people along the road and in town stopping to greet Lara.  She always had a bright smile and an enthusiastic wave for them in return.  Xena noticed Lara's happy energy, too, and grinned since it reminded her of when she met Gabrielle.

Lara unwrapped her wrist from the lyre strap.  She asked Gabrielle, “Do you mind holding this for a minute?”

Gabrielle took it and watched as Lara dashed off to help put up a huge floral garland. 

“That's Lara,” Nikos said, “always rushing off to help others.”    Gabrielle glanced at Xena and gave her a knowing smile that Xena returned.  They knew the feeling.

Gabrielle plucked a few strings to test the lyre's sound and found it pleasant, but she stopped when she hit a few discordant notes.  Lara soon came back and reclaimed her lyre.

“Hey, Lara,” a plump man called, “are you going to play soon?”  He mimicked playing the lyre as he asked.

“Later when the bards perform.  Can't use my best material before the competition,” she replied with a chuckle.  The man looked mildly disappointed.

She found a large table near the bandstand and ushered Xena, Gabrielle, Nikos, and Ridel toward it.  “Save me a seat,” she called over her shoulder as she rushed off again.  She soon got back with ale for the adults and milk for Ridel.

They all enjoyed the happy excitement in the air and had some good laughs when the fools passed by their table.  Soon, jugglers and other street performers wandered in between the tables while performing their acts, music playing in the background continuously.  Ridel bounced up and down in his chair when he saw the fire eaters coming their way.  “Oh, boy!” he shouted as he clapped his hands together.

Lara sensed how underwhelmed Gabrielle was regarding the fire eaters.  “Don't you like fire eaters?”

Gabrielle said, “Oh, it's a fun trick to watch, but there is something even better.”  She eyed Xena who looked back at her hoping she wasn't going to say anything.  She did a cute little eyebrow dance at Xena in supplication.

“Gabriellllllllle,” Xena drawled in a low warning tone, already knowing what Gabrielle was thinking.

“Come on, Xena, it's a party.  Let loose a little!”

Lara, Nikos, and Ridel looked between the two women, trying to figure out what was going on.  Xena's blue gaze held fast, but Gabrielle's green pleading eyes didn't look away.

Xena reluctantly gave in.  “Ohhhhhhhhhhh, okay.”  Gabrielle gave Xena a brilliant grin in joyful anticipation, which made Xena fine with her decision.

Lara and her family looked expectantly at Gabrielle for an explanation.

“You see, Xena's not exactly a fire eater....  She's more of a fire thrower.”

Ridel's eyes widened.  “Really?”

Xena got up from her chair and addressed the red-costumed fire eater next to her.  She indicated his torch.  “Gimme.”  The fire eater wasn't about to deny her request when he saw her steely gaze.  Xena took a huge mouthful of ale, turned in the least populated direction, and spit into the torch she held a few inches from her face.  A huge fireball erupted suddenly.  Around them, everyone's jaws dropped as they sat in stunned silence.  Then, they cheered wildly for the beautiful dark-haired stranger.

Ridel bounced harder than ever.  He clapped louder than ever, too.  “That was neat!  Do it again!”

Xena looked at him.  “Sorry, kid.  Once is my limit.”  Then she saw Gabrielle's pleading green eyes.  She rolled her own eyes.  “Okay, once more, but that's it.”

Torches ringed the square, waiting to be lit when the sun went down.  Xena walked over to one, took another big mouthful of alcohol, and let loose another fireball.  This time, the fireball lit one of the torches.  Again, people applauded. 

Xena relinquished the torch to the fire eater.  The infectious excitement buoyed her own spirits as did the wonder and  admiration on Ridel's face.

“That was amazing!  Thank you!” said Lara, who was beaming widely yet again that day.  Xena just nodded in acknowledgment. 

Someone then caught Lara's attention.  “Excuse me,” she said and ran off.  Looking between buildings, Xena saw a field behind the inn.  Lara helped some men bring in a pile of small boulders, then another.  Lara marked off twenty paces and laid a stick down, then another stick four paces to the right of the first stick.     

The mayor climbed the bandstand steps.  The gold trim on his official blue robe sparkled in the afternoon sunlight.  He held up his hands and waited for the music to stop.  “Let's all adjourn to the field.  It's time for the strongman competition!  Competitors, go to the field to sign in!”

Xena stood up and headed through the alley toward the field.  Gabrielle and Ridel followed her.  Gabrielle paused.  “Aren't you coming?”

Nikos shook his head.  “I'll sit here and save our seats.”

When Xena got to the sign-up table, the mayor once again held his hands up.  “Whoa there, little lady!  This is the strongMAN's competition!”  Xena clutched him by his lapels and glared at him.

Gabrielle intervened.  “Sit back and watch, sir.  You might be surprised.”

The mayor's eyes bugged out and sweat made his head shine.  “S—suit yourself.”  He nodded at the registrar to let her compete.  “The rules are simple,” he began again.  “The first one to pile all the boulders beyond the stick wins their round.”  He checked the sign-up list.  “Ooh!  We have eight competitors this year!  A real embarrassment of riches!”  Everyone applauded the competitors.

A wiry man in the first heat couldn't move a single boulder.  Another small man in the second heat suffered the same fate.  Both men in the third heat made it through.  It was a close race.  Xena easily won the last heat.

“By the gods,” Lara whispered amazed.  “She is strong!  She made those boulders look like pebbles!”

Gabrielle chuckled knowingly.  “Yeah.” She beamed proudly and caught Xena's eye.  Xena grinned back.

Xena took on a huge mountain of a redheaded man who wore a bearskin.  The head of the bear came over his own head.  He easily tossed those boulders around, but near the end of the race, he tripped and fell.  Xena won handily.  Lara ran out of the inn with water and bandages and tended his scrapes.  In the final, Xena took on a short man who could almost be Hercules's smaller twin.  He pulled back his golden hair into a ponytail and secured it with a brown leather thong.  He shook Xena's hand.  “Let the best man win,” he stated arrogantly.

“Or woman,” Xena replied coolly. 

The mayor stepped between the lanes.  He held his hands above his head.  Everybody was already cheering on their favorite so the finalists barely heard him yell, “Ready...set...GO!”  He dropped his hands and the contestants took off.  Xena got to her boulder pile first and strategically snatched the heaviest rock.  Golden Hair ran neck-and-neck with her, but he saved the heaviest rocks for last.  That strategy, and the huge strides Xena got from her long legs, allowed Xena to prevail.  She took a few deep breaths.  However, she got the wind knocked out of her again when Gabrielle jumped on her for a victory hug.  “Well done!” Gabrielle whispered in Xena's ear.  Lara applauded wildly and shook Xena's hand enthusiastically.  Ridel shyly came up and gave her a hug too, although he could only reach her legs.  Xena grinned down at him, extremely charmed.  The mayor cleared his throat and got everyone's attention.  “Yes, well, it seems Miss...er--”

“Xena”, she supplied.

“Yes.  Miss Xena won.”  Gabrielle shot him an I-told-you-so smirk.  He grabbed a pouch off the registrar's table and turned to Xena.  “Here's the prize, 20 dinars!”  Everybody cheered.  “And the trophy.”  He held up a palm-sized stone, a miniature replica of the small boulders.  Xena raised an eyebrow at the “trophy”, but she smiled graciously and thanked the mayor.  She, Gabrielle, Ridel, and Lara returned to their table.

Ridel jumped up and down when he saw his father.  “She won, father!” 

“So I heard,” Nikos replied.  “I got us fresh drinks.”  He indicated the drinks and raised his own in a silent toast to Xena.

They didn't have much time to savor the victory.  Men lit the torches ringing the town square, except for the one Xena lit earlier.  Red and yellow metallic pinwheels, hastily stuck in the ground, spun in a light, refreshing breeze, throwing off colorful lights in interesting patterns.  The musicians cleared off the bandstand.  “We're taking a short break,” the dark-skinned lead musician announced.  “We'll be right back after the storytelling competition.  Bards, sign in here.”

Gabrielle and Lara signed up and returned to their seats.  The mayor then announced the lineup and since Lara was slated for last, she got up yet again to help the inn workers lay out the feast.  Everyone at their table except for Lara and Gabrielle immediately fixed themselves plates of food.  Gabrielle's mouth watered when she saw all sorts of spiced meats, cheeses, flat bread, and fruits laid out, but she reminded herself to focus on the story first.  She thought she'd tell the tale about the time she, Xena, and a group of Amazons kicked a petty warlord's butt and saved a village.  She also figured that since Lara had a prop, her lyre, she'd go onstage with her staff. 

The first three contestants told stories that the audience enjoyed, but weren't overly enthusiastic about.  The mayor then called Gabrielle to the stage and while she climbed the steps leading to the bandstand, Gabrielle made sure there was plenty of space cleared around her.  She began at a leisurely pace, adding such detail that the audience could see it in their imaginations and soon got sucked into the tale.  When she reached the beginning of the battle scene, Gabrielle swung her staff in gentle arcs, keeping a steady rhythm with her words.  As the tension mounted, though, Gabrielle spun her staff so rapidly that the audience could barely see it.  She swung it wildly at phantom enemies and connected with their heads with a resounding crack that the audience could virtually hear.  The torches' light flickered off her and her staff, making the action seem truly an urgent struggle between life and death.  The torches' flames evoked images of the forest fire the battle had started.  The audience could smell the fire's woody, ashy scent and hear the screams of the disabled wounded who burned alive.  The pace of Gabrielle's words flowed faster and faster as the story sped to its climax. The audience gasped frequently and one woman even fainted.  Gabrielle skillfully brought the tension down little-by-little until the tale ended.  People cheered wildly and Gabrielle bowed swiftly before going back to her table.  Lara gave her a quick hug when they passed each other on the stage steps.

While Gabrielle took a swig of her drink, the audience immediately fell silent.  Lara quietly stood center stage and gathered her thoughts.  She delicately looped the lyre strap around her wrist and began a song with an incredibly beautiful, haunting melody that suited her voice very well.  It was a deeply introspective song.  The narrator of the song bemoaned the fact that his life felt hollow and wondered why.  The narrator suggested ways to improve his life, such as being a friend and showing love and kindness to those who have no one, as well as turning sorrow into joy.  Gabrielle caught a movement out of her peripheral vision.  She saw Xena gazing softly at her and knew Xena's thoughts.  She reached out and squeezed Xena's hand, then she gave Xena a big toothy grin that crinkled the corner of her nose.  Xena returned the squeeze and the smile.

By the time the song ended, lots of people swiped a tear or two from their eyes.  They cheered for Lara as loudly as they had for Gabrielle.  Now, it was up to the judges to determine who won.  Staying on the stage, Lara played two more songs, one funny and another one upbeat that got the crowd fired up again.    In the meantime, Gabrielle fixed plates of food for the both of them and had it waiting when Lara returned to the table.  Before she could eat, though, the mayor announced the winner.

“Well, this is unusual, folks.  It seems we have a tie.  Tonight's winning bards are...” he paused for effect, “...Lara and Gabrielle!” 

They victors jumped up and hugged each other in congratulations.  The mayor gave the winning prize to Lara, who immediately opened the purse.  She counted out half the money and gave it to Gabrielle who said humbly, “You don't have to.”

“Don't be silly.  Fair's fair.  You earned it and so did I!”

She pressed the coins into Gabrielle's hand, who then gave it to Xena to add it to her prize pouch from earlier.  Xena also gave Gabrielle a quick congratulatory hug and whispered in her ear, “It's been quite a day!  Good job!”  Gabrielle thanked her.

Lara and Gabrielle began eating their dinners when the others were halfway through.  Suddenly, Lara threw her mug up in a toast and burst out exuberantly, “This is really living!  A good dinner, making music, and most importantly, spending time with family.”  She gazed fondly at Xena and Gabrielle.  “And new friends.”

“To new friends,” everyone else repeated and drank.

When dinner was finished, Nikos let out a huge sigh and stretched.  “Well, it's time to get this young man home to bed.”

“Awwww, Father!” Ridel complained.

“Don't start that with me.  It's been a long day.”

Ridel moped, but he obeyed his father.

Lara told Xena and Gabrielle, “I'll head out, too, but you two stay a while longer and enjoy yourselves.  See you tomorrow for breakfast.”

“Thanks, and thanks for a wonderful day!” Gabrielle replied as everyone shook hands.

Gabrielle got another round of drinks and danced before sitting down to enjoy hers.  Xena contentedly watched Gabrielle dance and hummed to whatever music she knew.  Gabrielle came back and caught her breath.    “Lara was right.  This truly is living!”  She snatched at the air with both fists.  “Just grab life with both hands and don't let that sucker go!”  Xena chuckled at Gabrielle's bubbly enthusiasm and her overly dramatic gesture.

“Yeah,” Xena replied. 

When they finished that round of drinks, Gabrielle got up to get another.  Xena saw she was a bit unsteady on her feet and when it looked like Gabrielle was going to fall, she hurriedly grabbed the back of Gabrielle's green top.  “Whoa!  I'd better get this round.  Stay RIGHT here!”  Gabrielle flopped down into her chair and waved her hand in time to the music like a conductor.

“Here.  Drink this,” Xena instructed Gabrielle.

Gabrielle chugged it before she noticed it wasn't ale.  “That's  water!”

“Right.  I think we've both had enough to drink tonight.”  Xena wasn't even half drunk, but she drank her own water anyway to make Gabrielle feel better.  “How about we go home and have a good sleep?”

Gabrielle started to protest, but she thought better of it and got up unsteadily again. 

“Let me help you.”  Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's waist.

Between Xena's help and her staff, Gabrielle managed to get back to the barn safely.  Her eyes roamed up the ladder to the hayloft.  Suddenly, she felt a bit woozy.  Xena noticed.  Without saying anything, she hefted Gabrielle over her shoulder like a sack of grain and hauled them both up the ladder.  Somewhere halfway up, Gabrielle fell asleep.  Xena laid her gently on the hay and covered her.  “Goodnight, Gabrielle,” she whispered.  Xena fell asleep not long after covering herself.

*                  *                  *

Sleepy green eyes slowly blinked open.  “How do you feel?” Xena asked Gabrielle.

“Just two steps up from a Roman chariot dragging me through the streets.”

Xena grinned.  “You'll live.”

Gabrielle rubbed her face with her hand.  “Is that your official diagnosis, healer?”

Xena let that comment go.  “After breakfast, we should get going.  Autolycus will be waiting for us.”

Gabrielle didn't feel like going anywhere, but she made herself presentable and she and Xena knocked on the house's door.  Soon, a smiling Lara came to greet them.

“Good morning!  Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, thanks,” Xena replied.

“Come in and have something to eat.”

Gabrielle groaned. 

“You had a little too much fun at the festival last night, huh?   Doesn't matter.  I have some tea to help you.”

Xena ate breakfast and chatted with the family while Gabrielle sipped the tea Lara made for her, which restored her a bit. 

After a while, Xena announced, “We're leaving for Naxos today.”

“Aren't you going to stay for the second day of the festival?” Lara asked.

“I'm afraid not.  We have a friend waiting for us.”

“Too bad.”  Lara looked disappointed.

Xena spoke up because Gabrielle didn't look like she was going to be able to. “Thank you for your hospitality and a good time yesterday.”

Lara smiled brightly.  “It was our pleasure!  Please, the next time you're around here, stop by and say hello.  We'd love to see you again.”  The rest of the family nodded eagerly.

Gabrielle finally managed to talk.  “Thank you.  We'd like that.”

Xena left to feed Argo and get her ready while Lara packed a sack of apples, bread, and cheese for Gabrielle and Xena to take with them.  Then, the family said goodbye to them.  Lara gave each of them a hug.  Argo, prancing and antsy, held still just long enough to let Gabrielle board her.  “Safe journeys!” Lara called out to them as they disappeared down the path.  Xena set a slow pace, accommodating Gabrielle's mildly hungover state.

Argo nervously danced again.  Xena spoke to her.  “What's up, girl?  You've been anxious all morning.”  Xena commented to herself, “Come to think of it, all the animals have been nervous this morning.”  Xena stood still a moment and stretched out her senses, but could not detect any real threat.

A little more than a quarter candlemark after leaving the farm, Gabrielle grabbed Argo's mane to steady herself.  It felt to her like the ground just heaved under Argo.  Argo reared back a little, but didn't get far before Xena's strong grasp on the reins stopped her. “Whoa!  I didn't think I was still that drunk.”

Xena stood absolutely still.  “You're not.  We just had an earthquake.”  They paused again when a minor aftershock rocked the ground.  Gabrielle dismounted and she and Xena sat in the middle of the road in case another aftershock hit.

Less than a quarter candlemark later, Xena sprung up and drew her sword when she heard someone running down the path.  Through the trees, she caught a glimpse of someone with a shining white chiton and gleaming red hair.  She lowered her sword when Lara ran around the bend.

Lara halted suddenly, sliding on some loose pebbles as she did.  “Xena...Gabrielle...please...HELP!!!!!”  She turned around and raced back down the path, soon rounding the bend.

Xena's senses alerted.  Gabrielle wondered how Lara had gotten there so fast, but shoved that thought to the back of her mind when emergency action was called for.  Xena and Gabrielle boarded Argo and took off in a flat out run.  When they rounded the bend, they couldn't see Lara any longer.

“We should've overtaken her by now,” Gabrielle yelled in Xena's ear.


“Maybe she knows a shortcut.”

“Yeah,” Xena once again replied, though she couldn't shake a feeling of dread.

Barely less than a quarter candlemark later, they turned up the road to Nikos's farm.  Xena jerked the reins to hurriedly stop Argo and the horse reared a bit.  Xena vaulted herself off Argo, landed on her feet, and ran to the stone house.  It was little more than a pile of rubble.

They found Nikos pinned to the ground out front, nearly in tears.  He struggled with getting a big jagged stone off his leg.  “Xena!  Gabrielle!  Thank the gods you came back!”

Xena and Nikos got the stone off his leg.  “Good thing Lara found us.”

Despite the pain, Nikos tilted his head in confusion.  “Can't be.  She's in there!”  He nodded toward the pile of debris.

Fingers of fear played down Gabrielle's spine.  She shivered at the unsettling feeling.  Her heart raced as she sprinted toward the rubble pile and tossed rocks away with superhuman strength.  “Ridel!”, she yelled when she heard faint crying.  She pulled him out of a little cavity the fallen rocks had miraculously made around him. Other than a few scratches, he was okay.  He ran to his father and collapsed in a tearful heap in his arms. 

Ridel looked up at Xena.  “Lara tried to get us out.”

Gabrielle uncovered a bloody stone.  “Xena,” she called in a panic.

Xena dashed over and helped Gabrielle.  Soon, Gabrielle gasped.  Xena came over and looked.  Lara was indeed dead.

Gabrielle's heart fell through the bottoms of her feet in shock.  Her mind whirled with images of Lara so full of laughter and life and now the stark contrast of seeing her bloodied and crushed to death.  She couldn't wrap her mind around the fact that she'd just seen Lara beg for her and Xena's help.  It just wasn't possible that she was on the path while she was trapped under the ruins. 

Xena wrapped an arm around her shoulders.  The power of the love and warmth behind the touch brought insight.  Love made impossible things possible.  The uncomfortable shuddering eeriness gave way to a profound sadness.  She dropped her head and encompassed herself fully in Xena's embrace as she cried.  “Her last act,” Gabrielle choked out between heaving sobs, “...was saving them....”