Okay...this was my first attempt at FanFic (although I posted a few other short stories before I ever finished this monster)...first, the obligatory disclaimer:

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names of the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo, as well as any backstory (and secondary characters or quotes from same) used in this fan fiction, belong to MCA, Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by the author and no dinars are changing hands. Story is mine...characters are not (well two of them are), cause if I owned them... I would be posting this from my stunning 9 room beach house in NZ, with a '72 metallic warrior princess purple (with amazon gold pinstripes) Corvette Stingray ragtop convertible in the driveway and a Lear jet on standby.

OH YEAH, A COUPLE MORE THINGS: Any poems or lyrics quoted will have proper credit attached and this story is copyrighted me and may not be posted/archived with out permission (ya want it, ya got it...just ask first, okay? AND explain to me why you would want it...trust me folks, there is much better stuff out there. I'll be happy to tell you where to find it. <<.grin.>>) If you print a copy, please make sure the disclaimers remain intact and attached.

VIOLENCE WARNING: Yeah, there is violence to one of the main character (and somewhat graphic at that) but don't worry, I'm kinda attached to her and I'm a sucker for a happy ending.

HURT/COMFORT: Uh, yeah…I would say so.

SUBTEXT: Nope, I'm not going to debate subtext, its existence or non-existence with you...love is love.

FYI: In this story a candlemark is about 20 minutes.

THANKS: to all the bards out there in the vast Xenaverse for the inspiration...especially Melissa Good, the Alpha wolf herself, who is the BEST of the BEST! I borrowed (with permission) some stuff (including a nickname and a ‘game’) from her stories (I promised to return everything in one piece...okay, okay, so I bent one just a little bit...<<.VBG.>>). AARRROOO, Missy!

SPECIAL THANKS: to my expert proofer: Tania. AND to the best beta-reader in the Xenaverse: Ann...I couldn't have done it without you, thanks for the critique and support.

AND VERY SPECIAL THANKS: to my super editor "Warrior Deb"...without you, HOME would just be filling up some space in the recycle bin and for that, this Sidekick is very grateful. However, if the readers hate it and come after you...you're on your own, babe <<.smirk.>>

OH BTW: This takes place right after season 2 because I was in very serious denial about season 3 when I started this story many, many moons ago (and let's not even discuss season 4, okay?). ;-P

OH BTW part deux: This was written (primarily as entertainment for a couple of non-Xenite <<.GASP.>> friends of mine) so that a reader unfamiliar with the show could follow along...many backstory references (spoilers) are made. AND not only that but I played with character history too. Hey, It wasn’t like they were going to know the difference. <<.shrug.>>


Any and all feedback (good or bad) is welcomed, I answer it all...



You're the bravest of hearts, you're the strongest of souls.

You're my light in the dark, you're the place I call home.

C.Dion...If That's What It Takes


Chapter 1: Day 4

"Aw C'mon... you know you want to," the voice was low and seductive. "You did it the other day and you even liked it!" She reached forward and ran her fingers through the silky blond hair. "It won't hurt, I promise." Her azure blue eyes stared into the deep hazel ones in front of her and she looked for a response, any response. Then the hazel eyes turned away. "Please, for me?" The raven-haired beauty leaned forward and sought out the ear of her blond companion. "I'll give you an apple," she gently whispered.

Argo turned her head quickly and hit Xena squarely in the chest. The strength and force surprised the Warrior Princess and she suddenly found herself sitting on the ground. "I'll take that as a yes. Y'know, your price is getting cheaper in your old age, my friend. You could have held out for two."

Xena chuckled lightly and in one swift move, jumped to her feet. The horse let out a loud neigh and turned to face the Warrior. "Alright, alright, I'll get you the apple. Shheesh!"

Xena reached into the saddlebag and removed the fruit, one perfect red apple. Remembering, that it had been hours since they started this journey, she raised it to her lips to take a bite. As she looked past the fruit in front of her face, she was met with a stare. Not just any stare but one that rivaled even 'her look', as Gabrielle called it.

"Okay, Argo, it's all yours," she said with resignation in her voice and handed the warhorse the apple. Xena then reached back in the pack for another for herself.

After Argo finished her snack and the second apple core Xena gave her. The Warrior then doubled checked the saddle cinch and all the gear. She grabbed the loose reigns and mounted the horse. As she settled into the saddle, she leaned over and pleadingly asked, "Now, will you please cross this little stream? I know it's cold water, girl, but we need to get moving."

As she sat back up, Xena shivered and pulled her cloak up around her neck. Even though she had put trousers under her normal leathers, the cold was going right through her. She was glad Gabrielle made her take the extra blanket, too. She might just need to use it after all. The snow was beginning to fall and flurries settled softly in Argo's mane. Xena knew she needed to get over and down this last mountain. One look at the blue-gray sky... it was obvious, the first big snowstorm of the season was headed this way. The already narrow, steep, loose rock pathways would soon be covered in snow. She didn't like the idea of Argo walking on this dangerous path as it was, and she especially did not relish the thought of the warhorse trying to maneuver it covered with white powder and ice.

It had been four days since she had set out on this scouting mission through the mountains. Xena left Gabrielle to make them a camp in a valley clearing below. The Warrior mentally calculated the distance and smiled when she realized she would be back at the camp many candlemarks ahead of the brunt of the storm. That will give us enough time to find a better shelter she thought to herself. The smiled widened, when she remembered that there were caves all over the area.

"Let's go home, Argo!" she commanded and lightly squeezed Argo's sides. Home? She thought, now where did that come from? Home, to Xena, had always been Amphipolis and her Mother's inn. There were mixed memories concerning Amphipolis. She had very pleasant early childhood memories growing up with her beloved brothers but her young adult memories were very different. After the raid on her village by Cortese and the death of her brother Lyceus, Amphipolis took on new meaning. The events of that time set her on her path through darkness. Darkness that would shape her destiny, her very being for the next 10 years. Darkness that would still be encompassing her life, except for one thing...

Gabrielle. It had been a quiet trip, and Xena found herself missing the stories and laughter of the bard. True, she could be a bit irritating at times but no brighter, no purer, no more loyal best friend existed. And, hey, Xena knew she could be moody, sullen and irritating right back. She often still wondered how/why Gabrielle even puts up with her. She thought back to the past two years that they had traveled together and thought back to how they met.

How they found each other in Poteidaia. The battle weary Warrior with no army and nothing to live for and the misfit farm girl, full of spunk and promise, eagerly seeking the world and all its adventures. Xena recalled how distraught she had been and how she had finally reached the lowest point she could possibly imagine. And then she had to smile as she thought of how that little farm girl saved her. Xena may have saved Gabrielle from the slave traders, but Gabrielle saved Xena's soul. A debt she would gladly spend her lifetime repaying. Even if Xena wasn't sure, Gabrielle knew for certain that her destiny lie with the Warrior's and somehow their lives were meant to intersect. Gabrielle knew that they needed each other...she just had to convince Xena.

Talk, eat, talk, eat, talk, eat, talk, sleep... an endless cycle. Xena chuckled as she silently recalled memories of their first few weeks together, a stoic Warrior and an incessant chatterbox.

Xena tried to discourage her but Gabrielle would have none of it. The harder the lessons Xena taught, the harder Gabrielle tried. Gabrielle swallowed the pain and just kept trying. Xena had to admire her for that. Gabrielle slowly earned Xena's respect and Xena gathered strength from Gabrielle's unwavering faith and trust in her.

As she continued to guide Argo down the mountain path, an impish thought overtook the Warrior. Xena grinned at the thought of sneaking back into their camp and scaring the little storyteller. Then Xena remembered that the last time she tried this she almost ended up with a broken nose. Gabrielle had become very capable of protecting herself with her Amazon staff. "Nevermind, I'll just walk into camp," Xena said, aloud to herself, with a goofy grin still on her face.

As they rode on, Xena continued to think about her friend and the short argument they had the day she started up the mountain. She had put off telling Gabrielle that she was going alone until the very last moment. Xena didn't want to leave her behind and she knew Gabrielle hated it too. Although it was happening a lot less lately, it still hurt Gabrielle. Xena knew that Gabrielle equated this with perceived personal inadequacies and looked on it as her not being needed. On the contrary, in the past two years Xena had come to admire Gabrielle and all the qualities she possessed. They made a formidable team. Individually, they were good but together they were better. One plus one equals three. Xena knew that there was not another soul on earth that she would rather have at her back during a fight. She didn't need to protect her in the same way that it was when they first started out. The Amazon training had made her very capable with a quarterstaff and she worked hard developing new skills and moves. Gabrielle was a great student and a quick study, eventually Xena knew she was going to lose one of their practice parries and then... well she knew the bard would never let her forget it.

The reason for the journey was a simple scouting trip. Xena had to go over the mountains find out just where Draco's army was camped. Apparently, Cupid's spell had finally been broken and Draco was back to his old self. King Gregor had summoned them a fortnight earlier for a much happier occasion. It was Prince Gabriel's birthday. It was during their stay at the castle that the rumors of Draco's rapidly growing army and its possible threat reached the King. The Warrior well knew that it would be the kingdom that would suffer if the right preparations were not made. She owed King Gregor, he had always helped her when she needed a favor and this would be an easy way to start to repay the debt. The Warrior Princess volunteered to do the reconnaissance.

Before she could convince Gabrielle to stay at the castle, in safety and comfort; she found them both on the road and headed for the mountains. Xena knew better than to bring Gabrielle's safety into this argument. This was the major cause of most of their disagreements. It was not that Xena didn't trust her or trust in her skill, she just had an overwhelming desire to protect and keep Gabrielle safe. She couldn't lose her again. There was no reason to take any unwarranted risks. Although she believed the mission to be safe, but there was the chance that Draco would send a few troops up the mountains to act as sentries.

"It's not going to be a pleasant trip, y'know, it is going to be cold and nasty and the paths are narrow and rocky," Xena explained.

"Y'know that I passed the Amazon skill test of climbing," Gabrielle countered.

"There are rock slides and wild animals."

"Great, we haven't had wild boar in a long time."

"Argo is going to have a rough time too, I'll have to have her reshod when I get back."

"Then leave her here and take me."

"Ah, no. It would just make more sense for you to stay behind, Gabrielle," Xena argued. "And, besides, you know how you catch cold," she said, trying, but failing, not to sound condescending.

"Uh, thanks Mom," Gabrielle replied sarcastically.

They argued for a few more minutes, the bard skillfully answered each point that Xena brought up. Gabrielle enjoyed this type of competition with Xena. This was the one true arena where she could hold her own and actually best the Warrior Princess, most times.

But Gabrielle also knew that Xena was right and cheerfully changed tactics. "Okay, Xena, you win," Gabrielle relented, smiling.

She would agree to set up their camp and wait. She told her partner that she would gather up new food stores and supplies. Plus, Gabrielle knew that it would give her plenty of time to work on her scrolls and to practice her staff. It would also give her time to think of something diabolical to do to Xena. The fact that she gave up so quickly would weigh on Xena's mind for the whole trip. Bonus!

"Paybacks are Hades!" Gabrielle whispered to herself.

"What did you say?" Xena questioned.

"Nothing," and Gabrielle burst into giggles.


Chapter 2: Day 1

"When you are right, you are right!" Gabrielle cheerfully conceded. "Don't worry about a thing... I have lots of stuff to keep me busy for a few days. Oh, I'll be fine, really. Go ahead, I'll be right here when you get back. C'mon, how much trouble can I get into way out here, alone?"

Gabrielle was still chuckling to herself as Xena rode off on Argo. A demonic smirk seemed permanently attached to her normally angelic face. The bard knew that the last thing she said to Xena would set her plan in motion. She knew that Xena would now be preoccupied the entire trip with what had transpired concerning their silly little argument. She could just about picture the gears turning in Xena's brain; as the Warrior Princess tried to figure out why Gabrielle conceded their argument so quickly. Although they had traveled together for sometime now, it actually had taken the little bard almost no time to figure out which buttons to push and how to amusingly needle her friend. Xena, once she knew she had been taken in, was almost always a good sport about it. She would act the tough Warrior, put up a good front and feign anger. Then eventually the stormy facade would dissolve into raucous laughter. Gabrielle knew Xena would vow and eventually try to get even, that was the nature of their relationship and she delighted in it. It added a fun element to their adventures on the road.

It was amazing how different this Xena was from the Warrior reputation and dark persona. The Warrior Princess was rough, tough, with a heart of rock and a backbone of steel. When her six-foot tall, athletic frame is dressed in her leathers, armor and weaponry; it only enhances the intimidation factor. Then add to that ice blue eyes and "the look" which could bore a hole right through you. This was the Xena that Gabrielle first met many months ago and has seen many times since. The Warrior always ready to defend and fight for her beliefs and the greater good. In time, Gabrielle met the other Xena. Her Xena was a warm, caring, compassionate, protective person with a heart of gold, whose sky blue eyes could melt your soul. And when it came right down to it, at least where Gabrielle was concerned, she was mush.

Gabrielle had cheerfully volunteered to pack Argo's saddlebags for the little travel adventure. An act that she purposely made certain did not escape Xena's attention. Gabrielle made sure that Xena took the extra blanket and any extra clothing they carried. She knew that it would be cold in the mountains and that Xena would freeze her Warrior butt off in her short leather skirt and tunic. The bard did not want the Warrior to catch a cold for one selfish reason...Xena was a pain when she was sick. Arrow, sword or knife wounds, broken bones, cuts and bruises were business as usual, but give her a few sniffles and sneezes and she falls apart. Nothing is worse than a whining Warrior!

Gabrielle also made sure to pack two full waterskins, some of the medicinal herbs and salves (a must in their line of business), Xena's bedroll, the heaviest cloak, grain for Argo and a pack full of trail food--dried meat, some hard cheese, some flatbread, and a few pieces of fruit. She also secretly packed a small flask of Xena's favorite port wine and some Croesus, both of which she had gotten from King Gregor's castle before they left. Xena surprisingly had a real sweet tooth and had become absolutely smitten with this honey and nut dessert treat. Gabrielle knew it would be a welcome surprise when Xena found it in her pack.

With Xena now out of sight, and the day getting later, Gabrielle got down to the business of building their camp. "I have many skills, too" Gabrielle giggled.

This was a job she had done hundreds of times before and actually enjoyed doing. Not that she would ever admit anything like that to Xena. For the first few months of their travels, Gabrielle lived in the constant fear that Xena would send her back to Poteidaia. She tried to learn everything quickly to, at least she thought, make herself indispensable.

What was I even thinking? Gabrielle pondered. Indispensable, yeah, right. Xena knows everything!

Gabrielle thought back to the very first night on the road and a giant grin crept across her face. Xena gave her the task of collecting wood and building a fire. She remembered the lesson vividly. She collected the wrong wood, the wrong kindling, and attempted to build the fire the wrong way. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, Gabrielle recollected and sighed.

This was the first time she was exposed to 'the look.' Xena took one look at the green wood and the eyebrow was up and arched. The look, at first, may have seemed amusing but the icy stare spoke volumes. Gabrielle just somehow knew that Xena would not explain things too many times and that undivided attention to this and other survival lessons would be vital.

Xena stare softened and she began to explain carefully how to choose wood and tinder and how to build a firepit. She walked Gabrielle through the steps while letting her do the work. Once the fire was going, Xena went about the task of cooking the meal. Gabrielle learned a second valuable lesson that night, too. If she wanted to survive she would have to learn to cook. Not because Xena wouldn't do it but, well...Xena's cooking was atrocious.

Gabrielle smiled as she mused; I wonder how she survived all those years, eating her nasty cooking? The bard shook her head and sighed. She then finger-combed her red-blond hair out of her eyes and cleared her thoughts for the big job at hand.

The clearing that Xena had picked was far enough off the road for safety and privacy. A campfire would not be seen by any travelers that past on this road. The abundance of small brush and trees would provide enough dead twigs to act as an alarm. Anyone walking through the brush would be heard long before they would reach the camp. On the west, there was a rock formation through which a mountain fed stream flowed. The mountains began to the west and continued to the north. The forest treeline protected her on the other two sides. The forest was denser on the east but the southern view, which led to the river, was more beautiful. Gabrielle looked around the clearing for a nice flat spot. Nothing was worse than sleeping on rocks.

Gabrielle made her choice and then dropped her packs and put down her staff. She opened one pack and took out the small axe. The first task was to collect wood and build the firepit. She walked about 30 paces to the eastern timberline and began to collect wood. The bard made several trips into the forest always returning with an armful of small pieces of wood. On her last trip she struggled but brought out a rather large log. When she was assured that she had enough firewood, at least for tonight and for cooking purposes, she began to gather rocks for the firepit. The small boulders and rock formations provided all the stones she needed. She dug a small shallow hole and arranged the rocks around it. She laid some dead leaves and small twigs in the pit. Over this she stood slightly bigger twigs. Gabrielle then reached back into the pack and got out the flint. She struck the two stones together and the spark ignited the leaves. Once a roaring fire was established she began to assemble the remains of her camp.

Gabrielle placed the large log by the fire. This would be a seat. It was close enough for warmth and for light to work on her scrolls. Cautiously checking the wind direction, she arranged her bedroll on the opposite side. She then carefully laid her Amazon staff within easy reach of both the seat and the bedroll. "Always keep your weapon at hand," she said aloud in her best imitation of Xena's voice. "Warrior rule #1." She paused. "Keep your troops fed, Gabrielle rule #1," she added with a chuckle, in her voice, and a gleam in her green eyes. "Now what to eat?"

It was beginning to get dark and Gabrielle was hungry. Actually she was always hungry. This fact was a constant source of amusement to Xena. She was amazed at just how much food the bard could pack away. Gabrielle loved all kinds of food and ate with the same gusto that she lived life with. She sat down on the log and began to dig in the packs to see what kind of food she had and what appealed to her. As it turned out, dinner was to be a vegetable soup Gabrielle made with the dried beans and herbs that were always in their food pack. Gabrielle had considered going down to the stream to do some fishing but the thought of standing in waist deep cold water at that time of day just didn't appeal to her. She also considered setting some rabbit snares, like Xena had taught her. Gabrielle knew that if she caught anything, she could not bring herself to kill it. Xena always did the hunting and the cleaning of the game before bringing the meat to camp to be cooked. Gabrielle cooked it, she ate, and she liked it, but killing it was another matter. Gabrielle's personal code would not allow her to kill anything, especially anything fuzzy and cute.

While dinner was cooking, Gabrielle decided to make a trip down to the stream to refill the waterskins. She stood looking at the swift blue water and sighed. Silently she offered up a prayer, one that had become almost a habit. She prayed for the Gods to keep her friend safe. She knew Xena could take care of herself and she also knew that Xena did not revere the Gods in the same way that she does...but there was no need taking any chances. She couldn't lose Xena again. Xena's death a few months ago tore her world apart. It changed everything she knew and everything she believed. When Xena was returned to her, the message was loud and clear...Life is what you make of it, do not take anything precious to you for granted.

When she returned to camp, as the last rays of the setting sun peered out from behind the mountains, Gabrielle stood back and surveyed what she had done. "There's no place like home."


Chapter 3: Day 2

"Great, just great. I just don't believe this!" Gabrielle flung herself back down on the bedroll and pulled the blanket over her head. "ARRRGHHHH!"

Gabrielle then sat back up and watched the sun as it came up through the trees. She had been awake for a few candlemarks now. "I can't believe it," she exclaimed. "I finally get a chance to sleep in, but NOOOO! No Warrior to force me to get an early start and I wake up at the crack of dawn anyway. By the Gods, it just isn't fair!"

Gabrielle cupped her face in her hands and breathed deeply. She shook her head and thought about the normal morning routine. A slight chuckle escaped her lips. Just as setting up camp had a ritual, so did breaking camp.

Xena would always wake up first; silently she would get dressed and then restock the fire, and heat some water. Then she would quietly try to wake Gabrielle. Then it would be time to pack up the saddlebags and resaddle Argo. Again she would try to gently nudge Gabrielle awake. Xena would make some herb tea and begin to cook breakfast, refill the waterskins and, this time, with a little more force, try to rouse the bard. By the time her bedroll was secure to the saddle, her friend would be finally coming awake. Gabrielle would be stretching and yawning but awake. It was no secret; the Bard was a sound sleeper. On one occasion she had even slept through an early morning ambush by four thugs. While Gabrielle got dressed Xena would finish cooking breakfast and pack up the remaining stuff. They would eat, cleanup the plates and pots, the fire would be extinguished and the two travelers would be on their way. It took about a trio of candlemarks from start to finish.

"Okay, so I'm not a morning person!" she admitted aloud to no one there. "Well, time to get on with the day. Let’s, umm, see... what first? Bath or breakfast? Breakfast." the bard replied to her own query, nonchalantly.

Gabrielle reconsidered the idea of setting some snares for a split second, and only a split second. Then the thought of cute, fuzzy, hoppy little bunnies entered her mind.

Fish, I can live on fish for a few days, she thought.

Gabrielle got up from the log and walked over to the packs, opened one and reached in. She pulled out a small dagger. Then reached back in again. She rummaged around for a few seconds.

"There it is!"

She put the pack back down and walked back over to her staff. Carefully she tied the dagger to the end of her staff with a small piece of leather twine. There would be Hades to pay if she lost the dagger in the water. Although Xena was able to catch fish with her hands, Gabrielle found the spear method much more efficient. Plus, she knew the water would be ice cold since it was fed from the mountain. She didn't relish the idea of standing in cold water for any length of time. She laid her staff back down.

Gabrielle quietly got dressed, minus her boots, picked up her new spear and headed down to the stream. The ground was cold and littered with small rocks and pebbles. A little more than halfway to her destination, Gabrielle was regretting the idea of leaving her boots in camp.

"Ow, damned rock!" Gabrielle exclaimed and she reached down to pick it up.

She turned quickly and let it fly into the water. PLINK! A silly grin suddenly overtook the bard's face. She reached down and picked up a few more little rocks. She stood and began flinging them into the stream trying very hard to skip them across the water. She had seen Xena do this many times before. Is there anything she CAN'T do? She wondered.

Each pebble was tossed and each pebble landed with a perfect PLINK. Then sunk straight to the bottom.


Gabrielle looked at the one remaining stone. The last rock in her hand was a flat one, pretty close to perfectly round. She wrinkled her nose, squinted her green eyes and let it fly, sidearm. It skipped twice before sinking into the water.

"YES!!!" she said, as a broad smile enveloped her face. Inwardly she celebrated this small victory.

The stream was a rather quick moving body of water but there were small rocks and stepping-stones going almost all the way across. There were larger boulders and outcroppings of rock all around, disguising where the stream actually emanated from. The hills behind were covered with these same rock formations all the way up to the base of the mountains. Gabrielle was sure there would be a small cave, if not several small caves imbedded throughout. She made a mental note to go exploring later. Her stomach then growled, reminding her of the task at hand. She walked up and down the bank surveying the water and looking for any signs of fish. Gabrielle then decided to step out onto the stones to the middle of the stream. Carefully, with her staff in hand, she jumped from rock to rock and when she reached the largest boulder in the middle, she sat down. She lowered her feet slowly into the water and then quickly retrieved them.


The water was indeed ice cold and clear enough to see the bottom. Yet at the same time, it appeared to be a beautifully deep azure. Hmmm…almost the same vivid blue as Xena's eyes. This thought set Gabrielle's mind to wandering again. She recollected back to the time they were helping Hower and his village escape the wrath of the giant, Gareth.

They hadn't eaten breakfast that morning so Xena had stopped to do a little fishing. She tied back her hair, took off her boots and purposely walked into the brook. She leaned close to the water and listened. With lightening reflexes her hand dove through the water and she pulled out a trout. She quickly flung it to the shore. "Heads up!" Xena yelled.

Gabrielle was sitting there doing what she does best, talking, when she heard the shout. She turned to look at Xena just in time to have the trout smack her right in the face. As she wiped the water from her face, she looked to her friend. Xena's face had a very smug look. She was smirking! Xena did it on purpose. Gabrielle returned the look with one of her own. She did her best to glare back. The intent was to convey anger and utter disapproval but the twinkle in Xena's eyes showed a different interpretation of Gabrielle's menacing look. Xena took it as a challenge to just try it again. Gabrielle thinking the icy stare transmitted her message, turned again to talk to Hower. This time the trout flew to shore without any warning shout. Gabrielle took it again, literally, on the chin. Xena was chuckling inwardly as she made her way to shore. By the time Xena sat next to her friend there were no hard feelings. Gabrielle couldn't stay mad, not for this. Playtimes were few and far between for them. It was all in fun and they both shared a good laugh.

Gabrielle shook off the daydream and turned her attention back to the job at hand. She stood back up on the rock. Poised with the spear, she waited for a fish to cross underneath her. Twice she tried and twice she missed. All she succeeded in doing was splashing water all over the top of the rock. She looked down again, and waited to make her move. Her patience was soon rewarded. She plunged the spear in. Got it! As she pulled the speared fish from the water, she suddenly realized she underestimated the size of the catch. Her mistake in judgment and the slippery rock, combined to cause Gabrielle to lose her balance and down she went. The current was swift but the area Gabrielle fell in was rather shallow. The bard was quickly on her feet, sputtering and spitting water.

"Son of a Bacchae!"

She retrieved her staff with the fish still attached and waded back to shore, relieved, for once, that Xena wasn't there. Gods! If Xena saw this one... Gabrielle mused; she knew she would never live it down. I guess I should have picked 'bath' first.

Back at camp, Gabrielle rebuilt the fire and then set out to clean the fish she had caught. As she worked, she thought about the rest of her day. After breakfast she would practice her staff. Xena had called her a natural at this skill. Praise from the Warrior Princess was high praise indeed. Gabrielle worked hard to build and maintain her staff techniques. One day, she hoped she would finally be able to best Xena in one of their practice parries. She knew her partner would not be mad at losing to her but instead be very proud. To see pride shining from those blue eyes would mean more to Gabrielle than all the dinars in the world. Plus, maybe then Xena would not feel like she had to protect Gabrielle all the time. Sometimes she felt like such a burden.

After practice she would go exploring. Xena taught her that a lot of medicinal plants and herbs were found in areas in and around caves such as these. In their line of business, they needed all the remedies they could find. Restocking their medicine supply would be most beneficial. After the caves, depending on how many candlemarks she spent there, she would need to collect more wood and set up camp to last a few more nights.

Gabrielle finished cleaning the fish, dusted it liberally with cooking herbs and wrapped it in leaves to cook on the fire. A shiver ran down her spine. Although the air was still fairly warm, the wind was picking up and she was still soaking wet. She stripped off her clothes and wrapped herself in a blanket. She laid her brown Amazon skirt over the log by the fire. The bilious green top quickly joined it. She hoped that as breakfast cooked the clothes would dry. She made herself another cup of herb tea. As she sat, her mind began to drift again. After a few moments, smoke from the burning fish quickly cleared her thoughts.

"This is not going to be a good day!"


Chapter 4: Day 2

Hey, this isn't too bad. Plenty of herbs I wonder if burnt spicy fish will ever catch on? Nah...but I bet Uncle Justin would like it...

Gabrielle finished her scorched breakfast. She washed the blackened ruins down with a healthy swig of water. She then reached over to check the condition of her clothing. The fire had dried her Amazon garb rather quickly. Gabrielle dropped the blanket and got dressed for the second time.

Gabrielle packed her small bag with a small amount of fruit, some flat bread and some trail meat. She also packed some healing herbs and a scroll, quill and ink and soapstone to mark a trail. Leaving room for any healing herbs or plants she might find. She also took a small flask of oil and an old piece of linen cloth as torch building material. She put her flint in the bag and then added the dagger.

Can't be too careful.

Gabrielle quickly tidied up the camp. The breakfast dishes and pots were cleaned and then she rolled up her blankets and repacked the gear. She pulled a pink piece of old linen out of the pack. She shook it out and lightly snapped it over the log seat as if she was dusting it.

Can't have a dirty house...what will the neighbors think? Gabrielle chuckled; then she refolded the cloth and put it back in the pack next to the wine skin.

Although she had planned to do staff drills for a few candlemarks, the mysteries of the mountains were beckoning. Curiosity, what a wonderful affliction. The staff could wait until later. She extinguished the fire by kicking dirt and sand over the embers. The bard, hoisted the pack over one shoulder, and then picked up her staff. She headed for the base of the mountains and all the secrets the rock formation might contain and her overactive imagination could envision.

She could hardly contain the growing excitement. She would be able to see and explore something *before* the Warrior Princess. Maybe I can find a hot spring or a waterfall or something, anything, she quietly contemplated.

She mused hopefully about a hot spring. The Warrior loved them, not that she would ever admit it. Fighting day in day out and sleeping on cold ground was bound to have an effect on your body's muscles. The warmth could do wonders for sore, achy, injured aging muscles. Gabrielle laughed and a smirk enveloped her face. "Call Xena old, yeah right.... I die young!" she said aloud.

Gabrielle remembered back to the time, after about a couple of moons on the road together, when Xena discovered just how old the bard was. Xena had thought that the young woman was several summers younger and was very surprised. Not as surprised as Gabrielle was when Xena revealed herself to be only three summers older. The bard had always assumed from her look and her poise and her manner that the warrior was at least ten summers older. Oh, how Xena's hard warlord life had aged her. Right then, Gabrielle resolved to try all the harder to make things up to her somehow. Any small comfort they could find was greatly appreciated by both of them.

Their life was a rough one. Traveling leagues at a time through rain and snow, heat and cold. Just the three of them. Gabrielle had to admit they were now spending more time in inns then they did before. She had hoped that it was her calming influences that Xena had picked up on and that she was now more comfortable around people and they more comfortable around her. It had taken a couple of cycles of seasons to begin to change Xena's reputation from 'Destroyer of Nations' to 'Hero at Large'. But she knew that the simple reason was that now that they had more money it was possible to stay in inns more often. The bard earned most of their dinars. Telling stories in taverns and inns in exchange for room/board and stable. Tips were the bonus dinars that they used to buy road supplies. Xena never accepted money from the people she helped, be them King or villager. This was Gabrielle's way of contributing to their partnership. Earning the dinars that they needed made her a true partner...equals... Xena took care of everything on the road...this was the least Gabrielle could do. Xena knew how important this was to her friend.

It was truly amazing how the same situation repeated itself night after night in the inns they stayed in. Gabrielle would barter with the innkeeper for the chance to tell some tales (as a way of earning money) and Xena would quietly sit in a dark corner listening and watching even though the stories of her exploits always made her feel uncomfortable. Her eyes never leaving the bard except to occasionally scan the crowd for trouble from patrons who had too much to drink. Gabrielle embellished some, toned down a lot and always seemed to leave her contributions out of the stories. She told Xena...her part was not important. Xena was the hero.

The rocks were a dull cold gray color covered in some shadowy places with a dark green moss. For the most part they were smooth from many, many springtimes' snow run off from the mountains above. In some spots vegetation grew from between the stones, beautiful colorful stalky wildflowers with dark green leaves.

Gabrielle surveyed the area in front of her to determine her starting place. Xena had gone further north to find her a wider path that Argo could use to go up the mountain but Gabrielle wanted to stay within sight of her camp. A lot of the low boulders were covered in wild growing brush but she saw a narrow steep path. Slowly she began to climb. The rocks were smaller on the bottom. Her short stature was still tested in some places, as her legs were not tall enough to step up. Gabrielle used her staff to help her climb and for support in others places. Her fib to Xena about the Amazon rock climbing skills test quickly came to mind. There was no such test, and a goofy smile enveloped her face.

Gabs hands slipped as she tried to climb over a rather large boulder.


She looked down on her hand and blew on it. The skin was red but not broken. Gabrielle hoisted herself up and over the boulder. She landed with a dull UGH! On the other side she stood and surveyed the flat area before her. It was like a plateau, a relatively flat spot fifty paces across and several paces wide. She surveyed the rock formations and saw what she had come after--a cave. Before going to the newly found cave she turned to look back at her camp. She was amazed at how tiny it looked; she didn't seem to think she had climbed so high.

Smart, Gabrielle, real smart. You won't ride on Argo cause she is too tall but you climb way up here without thinking about the trip down. She breathed deeply and fanned herself with her hand. The cool mountain air was so clean and crisp. She was surrounded by the mixed scents of late fall flowers and fragrant plants. "GODS... it's beautiful."

She willed herself to look back at her camp again and then beyond the camp to the treeline and deep greens of the forest. Then her eyes moved southwestward to the river. From this height she could see quite a distance downstream and discovered a wonderful small glen and what appeared to be a waterfall.

Oh yeah, definite day trip tomorrow.

She looked up into the mountains in the direction Xena should be and with a childlike innocence waved, as a slight giggle escaped her lips. As she made her way to the cave mouth she noticed the variety of grasses and mushrooms growing in the shadow of the rocks. She stopped to examine them. Some of these would do nicely. She pulled the dagger out of her pouch and carefully scraped and cut the herbs from the rock crevices. She put all the pieces into the pouch. She considered looking around for more but the cave beckoned. Her bard's natural curiosity had gotten her in more than one scrape a time or two and she was sure, as always, this would not be an addition to that list.

Trying to maintain her enthusiasm and balance it with the lessons Xena had tried to instill, she carefully planned her way into the cave. She began her entry with a deep breath. The cave did not smell of any normal animal scents. She began by walking along the smooth walls within the mouth of the cave. Right inside she found decaying old leaves, possibly birds’ nests long since abandoned, or more likely just leaves, which had blown in from storms of the past. A little further in she spied the circle of rocks, which evidently signified an old firepit. She suddenly felt a slight loss and disappointment. She wasn't the first here. She continued inward ever carefully with her staff held in a standard fighting grip and her posture signified a battle stance. She continued into the cave along the walls and kept glancing over her shoulders at the opening. The bard turned a corner and she finally lost sight of the opening. The unexpected fierce pounding in her chest finally caused Gabrielle to pause. Gabrielle suddenly found that she was still uneasy in confined spaces. Rationalizing that this part of the cave was too dark to explore without a torch anyway, Gabrielle eased herself back out of the cave along the walls the same way she went in.

Focus Gabrielle, focus...you can do this.

Once back out in the open air, the sun was shining, bright and warm. She drank in the sunlight. She leaned back against the outer cave wall and slowly slid to the ground. She waited for her heart rate to slow down and for the anxiety to ease. Her eyes were closed as the sun's warmth lit up her face. She squinted as she reopened her eyes and reached into the pack for an apple. As she munched away, her thoughts turned to the reason behind the queasy, uneasy feelings.

She still had not gotten over her fear of confined places. Her biggest fear growing up was heights, but ever since the time she was kidnapped and that crazed advisor Apex locked her in a coffin and tried to cremate her, confined, dark places scared her worse. That incident was a very close call; Xena rescued and freed her just as flames began to envelope the coffin.

Gabrielle finished her apple and flung the core away. She began to look at all the vegetation that grew in and around the shadows of the rocks and caves. She looked around and saw another cave opening a few paces further down. The bard, ever determined to beat her fears, hesitantly decided to continue to explore.

Let's see what's in there.

This cave was obviously much deeper and darker. She carefully constructed a torch from the supplies she brought. There was no way she could carry her staff and the torch at the same time so she folded up the staff and stowed it in her pack. The torch would be a good enough club. She took out the flint and lit the torch. The soft light seemed to help calm her beating heart. She took a deep cleansing breath and slowly began to walk in. The walls were smooth and various shades of gray and brown. Inside there were smaller rocks and some large boulders that littered the floor.

Although her heart's pounding echoed loudly throughout her head, Gabrielle's ears suddenly picked up a strange noise. Turning her head from side to side, she tried to determine where the sound was coming from. After she figured out the 'where' she would find out the 'what'. As it turned out the 'where' was behind a rather large boulder off to her left. She quietly inched herself closer, when she got within a few paces, her brain finally identified the sounds. It was mewing. Gabrielle quietly looked behind the boulder and there they were... puppies. "No, no, silly, they can't be puppies," Gabrielle said to herself, aloud.

They must be wolves, tiny mewing wolves. They were cute little bundles of soft gray and black fur. She watched how they squirmed and clumsily fell all over each other as they moved about. She watched as one ball of fur stood, shakily, and stretched his little legs. He then yawned, sticking his tiny pink tongue out. She watched as he resettled himself back down and closed his eyes. Although her first thought was to reach down and pick up one of the cute little furry creatures, her mind quickly registered a thought...where there are babies there is... momma. Gabrielle turned quickly when she heard the low growl. Yup, momma! Gabrielle thought to herself.

As she turned the torch turned with her, startling the protective she-wolf. The beast was a beautiful animal. She was mottled gray in color with dark tipped ears and a darker stripe of black-black down her spine. The thick fur of that stripe stood straight up. Even in only torchlight, the bard could see a very large pair of canine teeth gleaming and two very expressive yellow eyes. She instantly recognized the look in those eyes; she had seen the same look so many times before. Every time Xena felt the need to protect her. The wolf stood between her and the passageway to the cave mouth. Using the torch as a shield she slowly advanced toward the wolf, Gabrielle didn't want to hurt her but this was her only way out. As she progressed toward the snarling wolf she waved the torch back and forth in front of her. Gabrielle kept her back toward the wall and her eyes on the wolf. While inching her way to the cave opening, Gabrielle continued to do what she does best...talk. Using a low monotone voice, she tried to calm the animal.

"Now see here, little missy. I'm not gonna hurt you. Nice family ya got there. Easy mom, I just want out of here. Nice wolfie, wolfie. That's it... I'm going."

Once outside the cave, she hurried back to the spot where she had climbed up. Gabrielle continued to look behind her, hoping that the wolf had not followed. When she determined that the animal didn't, she finally let out the breath she didn't realize she had been holding, and she began to relax a bit.

Gabrielle had a much harder time getting back down from the mountain than she did climbing up. After all, she reasoned, you never heard any stories about anyone ever getting hurt *falling up* a mountain. Once back at camp, the bard cleaned and processed the herbs she gathered and packed them way in the medicine pouch. The mushrooms she sliced and set aside to go with dinner. By this time, many candlemarks had passed and it was late afternoon. She refastened the dagger to the end of the staff, retrieved the empty water skin and set off to the river to catch a fish. Having learned a lesson earlier in the day, fishing for dinner was not nearly as time consuming. Within moments she had snagged herself a large perch. She set the fish down and refilled the waterskin. Gabrielle picked up all her supplies and made her way back to camp. The fish was quickly cleaned and wrapped in leaves with the lemongrass she found by the shoreline.

It was too late now to practice her staff; the sun was descending behind the mountains and casting colorful shadows across the camp sight. She quickly rebuilt a fire and cooked and ate her dinner. Leaving the dinner dishes for cleanup in the morning, Gabrielle began to dig through her pack for her quill, ink and parchment. The storyteller was determined to fill a scroll with all the details of the day. Gabrielle unrolled her sleep furs next to the fire. She threw only a few small branches on the fire, knowing she would rebank it later to keep it burning all night, and changed into her sleep shift. Then she laid down on her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows with her writing material in front of her and the tip of the quill resting on her lower lip. As she settled into her thoughts, a foreboding shiver ran up Gabrielle's spine. The bard shrugged off the shiver and it's accompanying fleeting bad feeling to her active and exciting day. She began to record all the events of the day, as well as her anticipations for tomorrow's adventures. Soon however, exhaustion overtook the little Amazon. She laid her head down on the silky fur and Morpheus' sweet dreams once again claimed her.


Chapter 5: Day 3

"OOOOHHH, look it's a bunny! No, maybe it's a squirrel... Bunny, absolutely, a bunny....maybe... Well, that other one is easy...it's a three-headed hydra. And that one looks just like Xena's chakram. Bless you."

The bard covered her mouth and tried unsuccessfully to suppress the giggles caused by her recollection of that old joke about Xena's weapon of choice. Gabrielle was lying on her back in the tall sweet smelling grasses of a quiet glen. The sun was high and the sky was a brilliant, rich expanse of blue. The young Amazon was watching the gentle fluffy shapes of the clouds as they passed over her. All around her she could hear the sounds of the small woodland creatures as they scurried about their normal day routines oblivious to the non-moving peaceful intruder among the verdant reeds.

Without warning, the ground began to tremor, lightly at first and then a deeper rumble. Gabrielle instinctively reached for her staff and jumped into a battle-ready stance. She turned in a complete circle and looked all around. None of the animals were taking any notice of the tremors. Gabrielle then realized the ground wasn't quaking; she was shaking. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around herself as she felt the shudders start again.

Suddenly her eyes flew opened, as the next set of tremors started. Gabrielle had awakened with a bad case of shivers. Sometime during the night, the fire had burned out. Since she had fallen asleep while writing, she was still lying on top of her blanket. Her light shift was no protection from the cool night mountain breezes or the dampness caused by the early morning mist.

"SSSSon of a BBBB...BBBaaa...BBacchae!" she cursed, as her teeth chattered. "I can't bbb...bbbelieve I did th…th...that! HHHHades!"

She continued to stammer and swear, under her breath, as she got to her feet and pulled her blanket around her. She stepped over to the log seat and the supply packs. Holding the blanket closed with one hand, she rummaged around in the bag for the flint. She need both hands to rebank the fire and to strike the flint, so with a reluctant sigh, she let the blanket fall open while she continued this task. She quickly started the fire and was silently thrilled that she had thought ahead and had extra kindling and wood on hand. She gathered the blanket back closed as another shiver ran up her spine. She sat down on the log to bask in the warmth from the growing campfire.

"I haven't been this c…c...c…cold since that n...n...n…night we spent on the b...b...b…beach two moons after last winter sss...ss...Solstice. Herb tea, th...th…that'll do it," she said to herself.

With one hand, she slowly dug through the packs to find the correct herbs, a cup and the small pot for heating water. She opened a waterskin, filled the pot and set it on the fire to heat.

The intensity of the tremors was lessening, but knowing she could not postpone the inevitable goosebumps, she quickly discarded the blanket so she could change from her damp sleep shift into her Amazon skirt and halter top. Gabrielle quickly wrapped the blanket back around herself. Still trembling slightly, although she was quickly warming up, and not wanting to move away from the fire, she decided some of the trail rations would be her breakfast. By time she had finished her tea and her breakfast, the sun was fully up and the morning chill in the air was dissipating rapidly. She watched as the fog in the clearing began to burn off. The sun peeking through the hazy mist cast a grayish pallor and unusual shadows over the placid glen.

What to do today?

The Amazon Queen knew that she had put off practicing for too long. She had to do her drills this morning. Her life and her partner's life may depend upon her skills someday. Although she had started out as a quite inept staffweilder, through hard work and lessons from the best Amazon teachers, she quickly advanced to adequate and now, Gabrielle was a skilled expert. She was physically capable of deadly force but she continued to hope that she would never have to make the choice of taking a life.

Plus, she always seems to know when I don't drill, the bard guiltily conceded, with a half-grin.

Gabrielle tossed aside the blanket and immediately felt a final shudder run through her body. Ignoring the minor discomfort, she picked up her staff. The Amazon moved to a spot in the clearing away from her gear at the campsite. She laid her staff down in front of her and began to loosen up. Gabrielle began with some gentle stretching and bending. She carefully stretched her lithe body by extending her arms and legs just as the warrior had taught her. With her arms stretched above her, she closed her eyes and rolled her head around on her shoulders. She listened for the audible pops as she felt her backbone realign. Now that she felt she was sufficiently loose, she could begin her staff drills.

She reached down to pick up her Amazon staff, but suddenly stopped about halfway bent over. She stood back up; a silly but determined grin overtook her angelic face. She raised her right foot and brought it down on the end of the staff with the intention of flipping it up and catching it. Gabrielle had seen Xena do this dozens of times with her broadsword. Gabrielle's left boot slipped a hair's breadth as the momentum continued to carry her right boot downward. Trying to replant her left boot caused a shift in the downward trajectory of her right boot. Her boot caught the end of the staff but not on the point she had anticipated. The new pivot point caused the ebony staff to kick up at an unexpected angle. Since both arms were spread out trying to help her to maintain her balance, Gabrielle could do nothing to stop the staff from connecting with her shoulder and then her right temple.


As she momentarily struggled to maintain her balance, she juggled the staff a few times before getting a firm grasp on it. If her head didn't hurt, she knew she would be laughing. Oh, the irony. Xena left her in this clearing to keep her safe...so far, she had fallen into a raging river and could have drown herself, ran into a very protective she-wolf, nearly fell climbing a mountain and now clunked herself in the head with her own staff. If her companion didn't come back soon...who knows what other fate might happen. She smiled as she remembered what she told the Warrior as Xena rode off... C'mon, how much trouble can I get into way out here, alone?

She brought her hand up to rub her temple and remembered, luckily, at the last second that her staff was still in it. She leaned it, gingerly, against her throbbing shoulder and proceeded to rub her temple. Gabrielle then, jokingly, checked the shaft for any indentation from the contact with her head. Xena, always calls me hardheaded...ya never know... She sighed lightly and shrugged...then began her drills in earnest.

She started by assuming the typical battle stance. She stood with one foot slightly in front of the other and her balance equally distributed on her feet. Her hands rested on the staff equal distance from each other and the ends. Gabrielle began to slowly twirl the stick directly in front of her. Her hands shifting position as the staff turned. Then her hands halted and she began to spin it in the opposite direction. Without too much delay the staff was moving at a blur. The Amazon slowed the pace back down and began to swing the battlestick in wide arcs from left to right and then right to left. Now sure that she was completely warmed up, she began to add the spins, thrusts, and feigns to the defensive parry moves she was practicing. Her active imagination then placed several fantasy raiders in front of her.

She spun to one side and thrust her staff at the first raider's midsection. A feral grin broke out as she realized he was down on his knees. A crack across the back of his head put him down for the count. She took a step backwards and brought the other end of the staff down to catch the second raider on his shoulder then quickly reversed the move and caught him under his chin. An evil chuckle escaped her lips. She turned to face the third raider. She temporarily dazzled him with the swift movements of her quarterstaff. The movements of the spinning stick hypnotized him momentarily. With lightning speed she spun the shaft over her shoulder and behind her back. She brought it back in front of her and with a sweep move took the startled raider by surprise. While he lay on the ground she hit him in the temple and knocked him out cold. The fourth raider came at her with a sword, she parried his overhead blows and thrusts patiently and easily, then she saw her opening, feigning to her right she brought the staff up on her left side and clipped him in the head, as he was going down she brought her staff down across his back.

By now her breathing was getting labored and a slight sweat was beginning to form on her brow. She continued through all the drills, all the whirling patterns and complicated movements. Although the spinning stick was a deadly weapon, in her expert hands... Gabrielle also knew that the movements could be graceful in their own way. She always likened Xena's sword drills to a dance of sorts and she guessed that her staff drills could be considered the same. She then concentrated on battle strategy and began to exercise her mind as well as her body. Xena's lessons stressed foresight over brute strength. If you anticipate the counter move before making your move, you increase your chances of success and lessen your vulnerability.

Several candlemarks later, Gabrielle began to slow down her training. She was breathing heavy and in need of a rest. She headed back to her campsite and grabbed a waterskin for a well-deserved and necessary drink. As Gabrielle sat to calm her heart rate and cool her body down, she began to plan out her day trip to the waterfall she spied yesterday.

She packed her travel pack and cleaned up her campsite as she did the previous day. Then grabbing her staff she headed southwest. Gabrielle decided the easiest path to the waterfall would be to follow the river. After walking for several candlemarks along the bank, Gabrielle began to wonder if she had imagined the waterfall and began to think that she would never find it. From the mountain summit it looked so close. The bank began to slope slightly downward and the river took a sharp turn to the left. The gentle gurgling sound of the river as the water flowed over the rapids suddenly began to take on a much louder din. As she took the last turn, and pushed some errant branches aside, she came upon the waterfall.

This was not the highest, nor the most powerful waterfall she had ever witnessed but it was the most beautiful. The waterfall was a series of three smaller rivulets that converged from separate rock formations upstream. Two flowed into a common small flat shallow puddle on what looked like a ledge. Then the water flowed off the edge, downward into another shallow basin in the rock formation below where it was joined by the third rivulet. All three then, in turn, poured onto another shallow pool ledge that finally overflowed and became the cascading body of water.

The sun reflected off the river and gave the gushing water a deep blue hue. The normally translucent river took on a dark glassy appearance. The water was no longer crystal clear but, like a mirror, instead reflected all the sites around it. In places, sunbeams caused the water to twinkle like brilliant stars on a clear night. At the bottom of the waterfall the water swirled and eddied into a deep pool of frothy, whitecap ripples, which a deep azure again quickly replaced as the water continued to flow swiftly downstream.

For such a small waterfall, the noise was thundering. It drowned out all the normal sounds of the forest. As noisy as it was, it was also quite calming. It was almost like peaceful music. Gabrielle sat on the bank and just stared at the magnificent sight. The green forest, multi-colored meadow flowers and blue river combined to form a spectacular view. Gabrielle found herself instantly relaxing and letting her mind begin to wander. She unpacked her picnic lunch and her scroll. Gabrielle ate her lunch and then began to a new poem about this fantastic place. Soon she decided to put her quill away and she lazily stretched out on the grassy knoll to just enjoy the warmth of the sun and the splendor of the day. She was totally oblivious to the pair of eyes that were staring at her from the treeline.

Waking up several candlemarks later, Gabrielle repacked her things and set off to go back to her campsite. She knew that she would need to do some fishing and she would also have to replenish her firewood supply for the next couple of nights. The bard traveled the same pathway, along the bank, back to the campsite. When she just got to the final treeline, near the glen, she spied a blackberry bramble. Gabrielle propped her staff up against the nearest tree and swung her pack around in front of her body. She opened the pack and using both hands began to pick the luscious dark purple berries from the bushes. The bard popped a few of the tasty fruits into her mouth.

"UMMMM!" These are going to make a wonderful 'welcome home' surprise for Xena, Gabrielle thought. She loves berry dumplings.

Being ever so careful to avoid the thorns, Gabrielle continued to pick the fruits and throw them in the pack. As she reached down to pick some berries from a bottom branch, she heard a twig snap. Gabrielle dropped the handful of berries and instinctively reached toward where she left her staff.

"Xena?" she called out, as she turned in the direction of the noise.

Suddenly everything went black...


Chapter 6: (late) Day 3 and (early) Day 4

"Wakey, wakey!"

From a star-filled blackness, Gabrielle awakened to the sensation of water in her face, cold water. The bard sputtered and mumbled a curse as the liquid found it's way into her nose. She opened her eyes and found herself staring at the pale yellow moon. Although she was still unsure of her whereabouts, Gabrielle knew she was lying flat on her back on the ground. Then her hands felt the familiar silky fur of her sleep pelt. She carefully raised herself up on her elbows. As she shook her head to clear her eyes of the liquid, her mind began to reel. The pounding in her ears was deafening. Dizziness overtook her and she dropped her chin to her chest. She tightly shut her eyes and kept them closed until she felt the lightheaded feeling pass. She took a deep breath and tried to will the haze away. Tentatively, she opened her eyes again. She blinked several times to clear her vision. The fog was continuing to clear and her eyes and mind began to focus. She stared straight down her prone body, ahead at her own feet. Looking beyond her own red boots she saw another pair. They were dull old black boots, obviously not Xena's.

Her heart seized and an all too common feeling of dread began to permeate her bones. The throbbing in her head began to increase as her heart rate rose. She struggled to maintain even breathing to both mask her fear and alleviate the pain in her head. Remembering more of the Warrior's lessons, Gabrielle tried to will a blank expression to her face. She slowly tilted her head back and her line of vision raised. Dark green, raggedy pants were tucked into the big black boots, as was a boot dagger.

The hilt was a very ornate silver swirl pattern with a star on each side. In the middle of each star was a blood red stone. Even in the firelight, the stones sparkled. The dark ebony handle had a less ornate silver swirl pattern inlaid. In the middle...was it a snake or signet of some kind...I *have* seen it somewhere before, Gabrielle thought. She quickly pushed the thought away.

A whip was fastened to his crude belt but no sword was visible. His arms held a waterskin. Gabrielle continued to raise her eyes further upward and found a ripped stained brown shirt. Tilting her head back further, she looked into his face. Dark black, greasy hair in a coarse cut surrounded his round full face. His nose was long and crooked, probably from being broken several times. A cheesy overgrown mustache covered his thin lips and a long ragged scar ran down from the top of his brow, across the bridge of his nose to midway down his cheek. Putting on her best warrior-face she finally focused on his eyes. A pair of coal black eyes stared right back at her.

"So, finally awake, dear?" He asked.

Gabrielle didn't answer, she just continued to stare at him. The pounding in her head began to sound like Amazon thunder drums after too much festival wine. Fighting her fears took every ounce of will power she could muster, but she knew she had to focus her thoughts. She quickly surveyed her condition...Okay, okay...I'm on the ground, but I'm not tied to anything. We are in my camp, it's nighttime, a fire is burning, I'm lying on my sleep fur, I have one *Hades* of a headache and I'm *definitely* not alone. Where is my staff? Fear gripped her chest; she was caught without a weapon. She wanted to look around but did not want to break her stare.

"Hey, you," he said, as he kicked her booted foot.

Gabrielle was quickly brought out of her roaming thoughts. She used this opportunity to conveniently chance a look. Her eyes darted from side to side and she rapidly determined the location of her weapon. Her Amazon staff was lying on the ground about four paces away.

"Aah, ah, ah...don't even think about it," he said, almost playfully and he waved his finger back and forth.

She knew then that she had been too obvious in her action. Her eyes returned to her captor. He was a big man, not exceptionally tall, but very stocky. He was muscular but not fit. Gabrielle contemplated her chances of getting to either her staff or his boot dagger. Xena's rules of survival suddenly flashed into her head.

The two companions hadn't been on the road together long before Gabrielle started begging Xena for sword lessons. The Warrior had always vehemently refused. This day, Gabrielle had been caught play/practicing with Xena's sword again. Xena roughly tore it out of her hands and jammed it back into the scabbard hanging on Argo's saddle. The Warrior reminded her that it was a weapon not a toy.

"If you are going to pick up a sword you must be prepared to use it," Xena chided the young girl. Xena then began to fuss with Argo's saddle cinch.

"I don't want to learn to kill, I want to learn to survive," Gabrielle retorted with a slight bit of sarcasm in her voice.

Xena took a deep breath, and turned to face the bard. She paused and took another breath. "Alright," Xena replied, matter-of-factly, "the rules of survival are: number one...if you can run--run. Number two...if you can't run--surrender and then run. Number three...if you are outnumbered, let them fight each other, while you... run. Number four..."

"Wait," Gabrielle questioned, "more running?"

"No. Four is where you talk your way out of it and I *know* you can do that," Xena said, with a slight lopsided grin. The Warrior returned to tending to Argo's tack. "It's wisdom before weapons, Gabrielle." Xena turned back toward Gabrielle and looked straight into her eyes. Her voice lowered in tone to signify the seriousness of her next statement. "The moment you pick up a sword you become a target...and the moment you kill..."

"The moment you kill..., what?" the bard asked innocently.

The lopsided grin was now gone, replaced with a deadly serious look. Xena's eyes were suddenly showing all the emotions the Warrior had always hidden so deeply. "Everything changes, everything," Xena said softly, with clear regret in her voice.

Gabrielle appeared to zone out for a few seconds and he kicked her boot again to pull her out of her pensiveness. She was surprised by the kick and her glare turned icy.

"What do you want?" Gabrielle spat out contemptuously.

"I want the Warrior Princess."

"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked.

"Where is she?"

"Who?" the Bard asked.


"Who are you?" she repeated.

"Look, little girl...I want answers..." he flung the waterskin aside, then reached down and across Gabrielle's body and grabbed her upper arm and pulled her off the ground and to her feet.

Just as he straightened back up to full height, Gabrielle punched him. The impact threw his face to his right. The man dropped his grip on her arm. The Amazon hoped that the surprise would give her a chance to dive toward her staff but the sudden jerky movement instead caused her head to begin to spin again. Swaying and trying to maintain her faltering balance, she didn't have the reflexes to stop it and as he turned back to his left, he backhanded her. The slap grazed her cheek as she continued to wobble. He again captured her arm, this time catching her by her wrist.

"Where is Xena?" he asked, menacingly.

"Who is...what did you call her?"

Gabrielle's question was answered by another backhanded slap. This one she expected and she rolled with it. It glanced off the same cheek. She continued to try to escape the hold on her wrist. As she twisted and turned his grip grew tighter. By now her head and her heart were fiercely pounding and the dizziness was overpowering. She knew she was no match for this hulk, even if she wasn't hurt.

Well, Gabrielle thought, as her head continued to swim, rules one, two and three are out.

"I know who you are...Gab...ri...elle...so don't lie to me. Where is she?" he asked again.

Gabrielle stifled her surprise; he knew her name. She could also hear the anger and the disgust in his voice. "Look, mister..." Gabrielle started to tell her tale, "I don't know where she is...she left me here days ago. We argued and she just left me here...can you imagine that...left me...she called me an irritating blond...irritating blond...I mean, anyone can see that I am more of a redhead..."

The first two earlier slaps were partly expected and did not connect solidly. Gabrielle's reflexes and, for the most part, dumb luck had softened the blows. This third slap was with definite purpose...he was tiring of the evasive game. The blow caught her solidly in the mouth. She moved her tongue to the left corner of her mouth and tasted the familiar metallic taste... blood, her blood. Her green eyes momentarily flashed in anger and then took on an icy glare. She spat the blood in his face.

This time it wasn't a slap and Gabrielle was helpless to stop it. An iron fist connected with her jaw and her knees buckled.

Gabrielle woke up with a start, as the cold water hit her face. Disoriented at first by the throbbing in her head, her aching jaw and the pain in her neck. As she went to clear the water from her eyes, panic gripped her chest. Her hands were not moving. She blinked her eyes and tried to focus her mind. She looked over and saw that her hands were bound. She was tied crucifixion style between two small trees at the edge of the treeline...and was totally defenseless.

Gabrielle took a quick look at her captor. He was standing close by using his boot dagger to clean under his nails. The expression on his face could only be described as...bored. She began to pull on the leather thongs. The bindings cut into her flesh as she vainly struggled to get herself free. Her eyes closed and chin dropped to her chest as she fought increasing dizziness and nausea. The pain from her head injury was getting worse. Gabrielle heard him step closer and heard the zip of the boot dagger as it was returned into its sheath.

"Where is she?" he demanded.

"Who?" Gabrielle answered, her eyes still pointed downward.

He gently lifted her chin. As she looked into his eyes, helplessly she watched as his fist moved toward her face. The impact caught her flush in the middle of her face. She could instantly feel the blood begin to flow from her nose. Her head bounced to the right and then fell back to her chest.

"Where is Xena?"

"I told you, I don't know," Gabrielle mumbled, as she coughed up some blood.

"Why do you insist on protecting her? Tsk, tsk, tsk..." his voice was a low growl, almost a purr. "Really, Gabrielle, where is she whenever you seem to need her...hmmmm? Like now..."

He lifted her head again. Another punch caught Gabrielle. Her face burned and she could feel her eye beginning to swell shut. Her mind began to reel.

"Maybe this will help your memory," he said as he uncoiled a whip and snapped it.

Gabrielle heard the snap and cringed. She forced herself to raise her head up and then just stared at him. He quietly walked behind the Amazon and asked the question again, "Where is she?"

Gabrielle didn't answer. She knew that telling him was not an option. She would never purposely put her friend in danger. She also knew that if she told him anything, he would kill her. Her only option was silence, stall and...hope. Xena was due back. She took a deep breath and held it. Gabrielle anticipated the contact.

The whip cut into her flesh as it caught her across the top of her back. The bard's body jerked forward. Gabrielle expected it to hurt...she just did not know how much it would. Gabrielle vainly struggled not to scream and her legs turned to jelly. The second lash caught her right below the first one. Again her body jerked forward. The strain it put on the bindings caused deep cuts into her wrists and they were now raw and bleeding. Gabrielle tried to wrap her hands around the leather straps to take some of her strain off. Her legs were semi-buckled beneath her and she futilely attempted to regain her footing, the fact that they too were bound hindered this effort greatly. She again tasted blood and realized that her own teeth had just bitten through her lip at the whip's impact.

He continued to ask the same question. When he didn't get a reply, each time, he whipped her again. By the third lash, a piercing scream filled the night; her struggle against crying out had failed. By the fourth lash the pain was unbearable and had begun to shut everything out. Warm red blood was dripping down her arms and her chin. Her eye was now completely closed and her nose was broken and bleeding. By the seventh lash, she didn't feel anything at all. Her body hung bonelessly from the wrist bindings, with her legs helpless under her. Her Amazon shirt was almost completely destroyed as the whip had cut through the material. As her mind slipped further away, she didn't even hear her own screams and moans anymore.

As she felt herself drifting, escaping reality, into the black recesses of her deepest darkness of her soul, she cried out in her mind, Xena, Xena, do you hear me? Please remember your promise to me...please remember, you promised...please...


Chapter 7: (late afternoon) Day 4

"Of all the damn luck... Hades! Son of a Bacchae! Hera's left..."

It was now late afternoon and Xena uttered yet another low curse and glared to no one in particular. She raised her left arm and winced. She tried it again. The pain wasn't too bad; she has had worse. The curse was more for the present situation. She should have been back at her camp candlemarks ago. Argo had slipped on an errant rock on the lightly snow covered trail and tripped. As the warhorse stumbled, it had taken all the riding skills the Warrior had to not end up on the cold hard ground. In the process of trying to hang on, she had managed to pull a shoulder muscle.

The horse nudged her in the shoulder. Xena turned to look directly into large hazel eyes. Her icy stare softened immediately. "Sorry girl, I'm not mad at you." Her right hand rose to stroke the golden palomino's nose. The horse nickered quietly, and then began to lip Xena's hair. "I was just hoping we would be back at camp by now."

It was getting late and as Xena looked into the valley below she saw the hazy shadows of the mountains. The sun was quietly setting behind her. Several sunbeams filtered down through the cracks and rock cliffs above to illuminate the glen with eerie javelin-like bolts of light. This in combination with the foggy mist created a beautifully ethereal sight. Xena sighed.

"I wish Gabrielle could see this."

Argo nudged her again and then neighed loudly. The horse shook her head from side to side.

"Yeah, you're right. She won't ride on you because you are too tall...no chance at getting her to climb a mountain, huh? I still can't believe she fed me that line about a Amazon climbing test...I almost lost it there." Xena chuckled aloud. She patted the horse's neck and stroked the silky mane. "Let's get going Argo."

Xena resettled the saddlebags on her right shoulder and continued to make her way down the pathway. Although the injury was not serious, Xena did not want to put any extra weight on the hobbling horse. But her carrying the packs and walking had put them way behind schedule. She was still a few candlemarks ahead of the storm. She continued to lead her trusty horse by the reigns. Xena got lost in her thoughts. She couldn't wait to tell the bard about Draco and his "army".

Xena had seen some bad warlord compounds in her days but not one as badly laid out as this one. This was an amateur's camp...and Draco was a lot of things but an amateur was not one of them. There were no sentries in the mountain paths, no guards on duty, no anything. Xena couldn't believe this was Draco but right in the middle of camp was a pike with his colors flying. Xena crouched in the treeline contemplating her next move. She could use stealth and sneak in, surprising Draco in his tent. Just like old times, she mused, with a wry smile. Nothing she had seen had convinced her that this was a threatening force. So why not take the direct route...

"Draco!" Xena bellowed as she walked right into his camp.

The tent flap flew open and out stepped Draco...or was it? Gone was the elaborate headdress and leathers, replaced with a simple tunic. He wasn't carrying any weapons either.

"Xena! Old friend, how are you? Where's Gabrielle?" he queried, as he looked all around behind Xena.

After a pleasant little chat, where Gabrielle's name came up at least twenty more times, Xena was satisfied that Cupid's spell was still as strong as ever. They had last seen each other about two seasons ago. Draco was scheming to kidnap and sell the Hestian Virgins to a slaver named Pinullus. Xena and Gabrielle, despite help from Joxer, managed to thwart his plans and they did it all while under a love spell. Cupid's son Bliss was shooting everyone in site with enchanted arrows, which in turn caused major havoc. Xena got hit with one and fell for Draco, Draco fell for Gabrielle, Gabrielle fell for Joxer and well, Joxer, was just Joxer. After Xena figured out why everyone was acting so strangely, she summoned Cupid to remove the boy's spells...from everyone but Draco.

"Love, suits him," Xena explained to a disbelieving, but cooperative, Cupid. She then convinced Draco that gentle Gabrielle could never love a bloodthirsty warrior. She told him he would have to change his ways in order to win her affections. Draco vowed right then to reform.

Xena never expected this. Draco gave up his warrior ways alright...and became an...actor. Draco was now the leader of Draco's Dramatic Traveling Troubadours.

"I just sent word ahead to Gregor's Kingdom that we were sending an 'engaging acting troupe' not ' invading active troops'," Draco said incredulously.

He assured Xena that he meant no harm to Gregor's Kingdom or any people for that matter. Xena left his camp with a broad grin on her face, stifling the laughter that was shaking her insides. She knew Gabrielle was never going to believe this one.

Before too long, the two weary travelers were taking the last few tentative steps off the mountain to the solid flat ground of the valley glen. Around the bend and through the sparse treeline would be their camp. Xena knew she was still back in time to move everything into one of the many caves in the area. As she mused, Xena's blue eyes began to sparkle and her face broke out in a lopsided goofy grin. She had one particular cave in mind. She quietly wondered if her companion had found the *one* at ground level with the natural hot spring and small waterfall. Xena practically dumped Gabrielle in the right area. She knew how much the bard's curiosity and childlike innocence loved moments like this, moments of discovery. It would give the bard lots of inspiration and new subject matter to write about.

So, this old warlord gets a needed break from the hero stories, Xena gave a small evil laugh.

Suddenly a shiver ran down her spine, but it wasn't the cold this time. An unexpected and unearthly feeling of foreboding settled quickly in Xena's gut.

"Gabrielle..." Xena mumbled quietly.

Somehow she just *knew* her friend was in trouble. She threw the saddlebags over the saddle, dropped Argo's reigns and took off running. Her cloak flapped in the breeze as her long strides ate up the distance. As she made her way around the last turn and through the treeline, the feeling got worse.

"Gabrielle!" Xena yelled, as she pulled to a stop at the edge of the campsite. "Gab...ri...elle!" Xena screamed again, as she got her first look around.

Even in the fading sunlight, Xena could see that the camp was vandalized beyond belief. The packs and gear were scattered all over the place. Xena saw Gabrielle's staff lying by the firepit. As she knelt to pick it up, she saw the feet print. She couldn't tell at first how many different sets there were in the dirt. Xena immediately recognized what caused one set, Gabrielle's red boots. The right heel had stitch marks on it where it had been repaired. The imprint showed on the ground. The other set of prints were different. Looking closer, Xena determined that there was only one other set and they belonged to... a large man. The Warrior's heart leapt into her throat.

"Gabrielle, where are you?" Xena cried out, her voice cracking with emotion.

Xena continued to try to quell her raging emotions and her mounting fear. She tried to focus on the prints on the ground, hoping for clues to her best friend's whereabouts. The sun had finally set behind the mountain, the moon had yet to rise. In the increasing darkness tracking was going to be very difficult. Straining her icy blue eyes, she stared at the faint prints and began to roughly decipher the events. She could tell there had been a struggle...

Gods! Gabrielle, please be all right, she pleaded silently. . Her eyes followed one set of prints as they set out of the campsite...the other pair were being dragged behind the first pair...in the direction of the eastern timberline. She squinted into the ghostly darkness of the trees; she thought she saw a slight movement in the shadows.

"By the Gods...Gabrielle!"

Xena took off in a sprint to the trees, although her long legs were covering ground at an amazing pace, it seemed like it was taking an eternity to reach her. By now her heart was thundering, drowning out all the sounds of the night. Xena could feel the pounding in her head. As she approached, Xena, at first, thought that Gabrielle was just standing between two saplings, but something was...wrong. She wasn't moving. It took two more strides, an instant, for Xena to realize that Gabrielle was not holding the trees up; the trees were holding her up. Gabrielle was tied between them. She was hanging by her wrists, her legs useless underneath her.


Xena stopped in front of the bard, her breathes were shallow and quick. Her heart shattered as she sensed the horror in front of her. Even in the almost complete darkness, Xena knew Gabrielle was hurt and hurt badly. She couldn't see the extent of the injuries but she could smell the coppery, metallic scent of blood. Xena could only pray that it wasn't all Gabrielle's blood.

"Oh, Gabrielle..." Xena sighed quietly.

She reached out and then pulled her hand back. She hesitantly touched Gabrielle's neck at the pulse point. Her heartbeat was weak, but she was...alive. Xena let out the breath she was holding. The Warrior pulled out one of her boot daggers and cut through the bindings that held Gabrielle's legs. Xena then leaned into Gabrielle's chest and slid one shoulder slightly under the bard's arm. Carefully holding Gabrielle up, Xena cut the binding from the tree holding her right wrist. She then did the same with the left. Gabrielle limply fell forward into Xena's arms. The Warrior caught her and slowly lowered her to the ground. She started to gingerly slap Gabrielle's face to try to bring her back to consciousness, when she noticed the bruise and swelling along the jaw line.

"MY GODS!" Xena cried out, emotionally.

The young Amazon had taken a terrible beating. She pulled Gabrielle up into a fierce hug, unwilling to ever let her go and felt the whip welts on her back. She then realized that she hadn't checked for further injuries. The moon had risen but the storm clouds moving in continued to filter the light. Xena needed firelight to see and treat the wounds. She carefully slid one arm under the bard's neck and the other behind her knees. Ignoring her own painful shoulder and cradling Gabrielle with absolute tenderness, Xena carried her as quickly as she could back to the campsite.

As she reached the campsite, she placed Gabrielle against the log seat. Xena knew that they needed to find shelter from the coming storm. Xena whistled Argo over. The Warrior quickly gathered up all their scattered belongings.

"Stay here and watch Gabrielle, girl," Xena commanded.

The horse immediately stepped over to Gabrielle's prone body and assumed a protective posture.

Xena ran the short distance to where she remembered the cave opening was located. The undisturbed brush indicated that the bard hadn't made the discovery.

"Oh well, Gabrielle, I tried..." Xena said resignedly.

Xena unsheathed her sword and hacked at the brush in front of the cave mouth, clearing a path into the cave. The dead brush would be used as kindling. She quickly made her way back to the campsite. By now the clouds had temporarily passed and the moon was shining. The whole valley glen took on a pale glow. Xena picked up the gear and loaded Argo's saddle. She was careful to tie some of Gabrielle's ready firewood to Argo's saddle.

"I'm sorry girl, I know you are hurt too, but I need you to carry this stuff," Xena told her horse.

Xena then gathered the bard up in her arms and carried her to the cave. The opening was just about as high as Xena was tall. Xena had to duck a little to walk in. Argo hobbled obediently behind her and stopped outside. She laid her down and leaned her into what was the closest thing to a corner, close to the cave opening. Gabrielle still hadn't opened her eyes. Xena gathered the cut dry brush and hastily built a small fire. Xena went back outside and removed some of the packs. In subsequent trips she brought in Argo's saddle and the rest of their gear.

Xena moved further into the cave and rolled out one of the blankets. She set Argo's saddle on one end and threw a sleep fur over it. She carefully picked up her friend and settled her onto the soft bedroll, leaning her semi-upright on the saddle. In the flickering, rapidly dying firelight she really couldn't see much but Xena tenderly cupped Gabrielle's swollen cheek. Fighting back tears, Xena closed her eyes tightly and willed herself to focus on her immediate tasks. She went back to the cave mouth and picked up some more dried brush and the firewood she dropped there earlier when she retrieved the saddle. Xena quickly built a bigger fire closer to the bard. The whole cave was aglow with bright light in a matter of moments. She finally turned toward Gabrielle; she needed to determine the extent of her friend's injuries. At the first glance at her injured companion, Xena gasped and dropped to her knees...


Chapter 8: (late) Day 4

Xena gasped at the horror in front of her eyes. Her chin dropped to her chest and as she choked back a sob, she closed her eyes tightly. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears and, in her thoughts, she was immediately, brusquely transported back to that fateful day in Thessaly. It was the worst day of my life. It was the day that changed...everything.

They were caught in a war between Minoans and Thessalians. Thanks to an off-hand flippant comment Gabrielle had made about not even "Xena, Warrior Princess being able to stop a war", Xena had foolishly put them both into the middle of one. Along the way, they had encountered a pregnant Ephiny, an Amazon chieftain friend, and Marmax, the wounded Minoan General.

Xena looked up and glanced over to the doorway of the temple, which was now serving as a hospital. Another litter was being brought in. Xena let out a deep breath, shook her head in disgust and turned her attention back to the Thessalian soldier she was working on. She and Gabrielle had been working nonstop for days on the wounded. She was tired, she was angry. She was angry at this war and even angrier with herself for getting involved in it.

Xena's heart stopped momentarily when heard one of the other healers cry out, "Xena! It's Gabrielle!"

She was so busy with the wounded that she hadn't noticed that her kind-hearted friend had left the protective confines of the temple. Gabrielle, answering to the desperate pleas of a wounded father, slipped out to rescue his Thessalian son. The boy was hiding by the river in an area under attack from Minoans. Gabrielle had taken her staff but it was no match for their swords. She managed to save the boy but sustained serious injuries in the process.

Xena ran to her friend. She was unconscious and covered in blood from multiple stab wounds. Xena's eyes glazed as she fought the emotions running through her, she *had* to focus on her wounded companion. With shaky hands and a heavy heart she began to administer to Gabrielle's injuries. Gabrielle, except for a few moans, remained unconscious throughout the doctoring. After doing all she could, Xena exhaustively knelt at Gabrielle's side, her head hanging down and her hand gently stroking Gabrielle's arm. She heard Marmax walk up behind her.

"My pride may have cost me my best friend," Xena said, remorsefully. "Oh, Gabrielle, I am so sorry. If I could do it again, we would take the southern route and bypass this damned war."

She continued to stare at Gabrielle for a few moments longer. Her attention was then called to another patient. She stood back up. Xena lovingly swept the red-blonde hair aside and leaned down and gingerly kissed her forehead.

After helping a few more patients and delivering Ephiny's centaur son, Xena's keen hearing picked up a strange gasp. Instinctively, Xena flew to Gabrielle's bedside and tried to comfort her. Xena held Gabrielle's right hand in her own. "Gabrielle, come on. You're going to be fine."

Xena stared incredulously, as Gabrielle began to have convulsions. After a few moments, the thrashing movements suddenly stopped and there was deafening silence.

"She's dead." Hippocrates, the young healer, said.

"She is *NOT* dead, " Xena said, in a broken, angry voice. "I wouldn't let her..."

Xena grasped Gabrielle's hand and raised it up. Her other hand then covered their joined hands. "Come on Gabrielle. Wake up!" The plea was in the same lighthearted tone that Xena used every morning to roust her sleeping buddy. It belied the seriousness and the fear flooding into Xena's thoughts.

"Come on, wake up. Come on, wake up!" Xena's voice began to crack with emotion. "You're scaring me." Tears began to trickle down Xena's face. "Wake up. Wake up!" The Warrior was now begging. "Gabrielle, breathe. Come on, breathe."

Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms and embraced her, sobs wracked her body and the tears now flowed freely. She carefully laid her back down. Xena's eyes quickly scanned the faces of those standing around the bedside. Her eyes conveyed all of her confusion; they were unfocused, dazed and glassy from the tears.

"Maybe she just needs air...I need to get some air into her lungs." Xena then leaned in and gave Gabrielle three breaths. "Come on, breathe..." Xena pleaded. Xena let out a heartbreaking sigh and leaned back sobbing. She, the Warrior Princess, supreme commander of her thoughts, actions and emotions, finally realized that she had no control over this situation or Gabrielle's condition.

"She's in a much better place," Hippocrates offered.

This angered Xena greatly and her tearful eyes lost their glassiness and turned back to an icy sapphire color.

"Get out of my way!" she screamed, as she pushed Hippocrates hard enough to knock him to the floor. As she stood over him, she added, "You don't know anything." She turned her attention back to Gabrielle. She slipped one arm under her neck and cradled her. Xena calmly brushed some errant strands of red-gold hair off her forehead. "Don't you listen to him, I know you are in there. Prove it."

With her free hand, she gently grabbed Gabrielle by the chin and caressed her softly. Tightening her grip, she lightly shook the bard's face.

"You can show them. Come on. Wake up and breathe."

The sobs were welling up again and Xena's voice was deep with emotion. "You never ran from *anything* in your whole life. Come on! ...Fight!...Fight!" Xena shook Gabrielle a little more forcefully this time. Xena's body quaked with intense sobs. She pulled Gabrielle into an embrace again.

Marmax spoke up. " Xena," he said gently. " Xena!" he said again, this time with more strength. "It's time to stop now. Let her cross over peacefully."

Xena looked into his eyes and locked into a feral glare. Her jaws clenched as her rage began to mount. She broke her stare and looked down at Gabrielle still lying in her arms. Then looked back up.

"What do you know? You've killed so many," Xena spat the words out, contemptuously.

"So have you...Let it go." Marmax countered softly.

"NO! No! Come on, Gabrielle. Come on!" Xena laid Gabrielle back down on the bed and leaned over and gave her three more quick breaths. Not seeing any change, Xena world began shattering, her emotional walls crumbling. Oblivious to everyone around her and unaware of her actions, she began to furiously pound on Gabrielle's chest. "Don't you leave me...Don't leave me...Don't leave me!" Between each heartfelt plea, her fist connected with Gabrielle's chest. "Wake up! Wake up!" she demanded. Xena was now completely out of control, verging on absolute hysteria, her body convulsing with angry, passionate sobs. "Wake up!" She screamed as her fist again pounded Gabrielle's chest.

Gabrielle let out a tremendous gasp and sat up, stiffly, her eyes staring straight ahead. Surprised and elated, Xena pulled the bard to her body, into a fierce hug. She continued to caress Gabrielle's cheek and stroke her hair, overjoyed at the miracle before her. Wrapped in the security of her best friend's arms, Gabrielle began to relax and breathe normally as she slowly became aware of her surroundings. Xena's tears continued to flow down her smiling face but these were now tears of joy not sorrow. She kissed Gabrielle on the forehead and continued to rock her gently, not willing to break the sweet contact.

No, I can't lose her again.


Chapter 9: (late) Day 4

Using every ounce of will power and emotional control she could dredge up from the pit of her soul, she forcefully pushed the awful, painful memories away. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Through grinding teeth she purposely blew out the breath she was holding. She stood up and stepped over to Gabrielle. Crouching down she got her first close-up look at the battered body. The shallow sound of her friend's breathing, the coppery odor of the blood, and the battered and bruised face of her beloved bard combined to send Xena into sensory overload. Xena felt her fists clenching and unclenching as she stared at the bard's angelic features...features savagely vandalized by some...some...

Xena felt a shudder run through her body and she forced a hard swallow to quell the nausea. She closed her eyes against the emotional pain, willing herself into numbness.

Focus, Xena, focus, she reminded herself, forcefully.

This time when she opened her eyes, the warm, brilliant blue was replaced by a cold, steely gray. She had successfully summoned the Warrior persona...all business, detached, unemotional. Her heart wrapped firmly in ice. She tentatively ran her long fingers down Gabrielle's jaw line. Xena gently grasped Gabrielle's chin and moved her head gingerly from side to side. She had an ugly red-purple bruise, on the left side, from the hairline on her forehead to the bottom of her cheek. The cut above her eye wasn't very deep but a few stitches would keep it from scarring too badly. Dried blood matted strands of her hair to the side of her face. Her nose was broken; two rusty-red colored rivulets, from her nostrils down her chin, were clear remnants of the damage. Her left eye was swollen shut and under her right eye was the familiar black circle associated with a broken nose. Xena carefully and tenderly ran her hands over the bard's face. Her cheekbone was very bruised but not broken. Her lip was split; the dried blood had run, from the corner of her mouth, down her chin and neck. Xena noticed the bite mark on the lower lip. She felt the first crack in the ice veneer. Her detached Warrior resolve softened momentarily and she stifled a low sob. Xena realized that it had to have been self-inflicted during the beating.

"By the Gods, Gabrielle. So much blood..." Xena said, as she bit her lip.

Xena took a few moments to regain her composure. Her mind was struggling with her heart for control of her emotions. A few deep breaths and the Ice Princess returned.

Xena leaned in and listened to Gabrielle's breathing. It was even but shallow. The Warrior ran her hands down Gabrielle's arms to her raw bloodied wrists. She reached into her boot and took out her dagger. Xena cut the remaining leather bindings from Gabrielle's wrists, first one and then the other. Dried blood held them fastly in place. She pulled at broken skin covered in dried blood as she struggled to remove the bands. Finally, she unwound the thongs and threw them aside. The wounds reopened and blood began to trickle. Xena put down the knife, picked up Gabrielle's left arm and examined, more closely, the damage to her wrist. The bindings had cut into the flesh deeply but there didn't seem to be any muscle damage. Xena then did the same to the right arm and wrist. Xena hand glided down Gabrielle's arm until she grasped her hand, her fingers curling softly around the bard's smaller one. Her other hand wrapped itself over their joined hands in an involuntary gesture of silent comfort. Immediately, she felt the swelling and she opened her hands to take a closer look at the bard's hand. Xena's warrior facade broke slightly and another tiny crack in the emotional armor revealed itself. Unconsciously, a small lopsided grin appeared on Xena's face at the realization that Gabrielle's knuckles were swollen. She knew the bard had gotten at least one good shot in. The grin faded as quickly as it appeared.

Xena put Gabrielle's arm back down and continued her examination. Xena noticed the ripped Amazon top was damp, covered in sticky red blood. The Warrior carefully looked for knife wounds and cuts but found none. The blood had to have come from her facial wounds. She then probed Gabrielle's ribs for breaks. Convinced that her ribs were fine and no threat to her breathing, Xena knelt down and carefully reached around Gabrielle to gently roll her onto her right side.

She knew she could not put off this part of the examination much longer. Even though she could not see the damage when she first found her in the woods, she *knew* the purpose for the way Gabrielle was hanging. She took a deep breath, swallowed hard and silently hoped that she would not find what she was sure was there. Gabrielle's back was a bloody mess. The whip lashes had cut through the woven green fabric, which was now stained a dark crimson. In some parts the material was imbedded in her skin. Xena guessed that he had hit her with at least a dozen lashes. The marks crisscrossed her back in uneven lines from her shoulders to the back of her thighs. Cleaning these wounds would be very painful. The worst would need stitching and, no matter how hard she tries, Gabrielle was going to end up with a few scars. Xena quickly ran her hands down Gabrielle's legs to check for broken bones. Gabrielle's knee-high boots had protected her legs somewhat from the whipping and the leather bindings.

Xena now knew what she had to do. She carefully rolled Gabrielle back over on the sleep fur. Gabrielle whimpered when her back contacted the saddle again, this caused an immediate reaction in Xena. She grasped Gabrielle's hand with both hands and patted it.

"Gabrielle...Gabrielle can you hear me? C'mon bard, talk to me..."

Xena's heart sank when she saw no reaction. Gabrielle was still unconscious. Her eyes remained shut. Little by little the icy veneer was being unceremoniously chipped away. She felt her resolve wavering. Act; don't react, she said to herself.

Xena set out to her tasks with quiet determination and unemotional movement, indifference. Xena pulled off her cloak and tossed it aside. Then she removed her sword scabbard and her chakram and laid them near the saddlebags. She walked with purpose to her medicine pouch and drew out the necessary salves, herbs, linen bandages, stitching needle, catgut, and a few drying linens. She then walked to the hot spring with two waterskins and filled them up.

Xena slipped her arm under Gabrielle's neck and gently moved her down off the saddle. She laid her flat on the sleep roll, carefully positioning her on her stomach and turned her head to lean on the non-bruised side. At the movement, Gabrielle instinctively reached out and weakly grabbed Xena's forearm. Xena allowed herself a half smile as she peeled Gabrielle's fingers off. Xena looked down at her face and brushed back an errant strand of red-gold hair behind her ear.


Xena felt the bump. Her fingers gently palpitated the knot. She winced when she heard Gabrielle's breathing quicken. She leaned in and took a closer look. It was a plum sized bump. The skin was broken and there was matted blood. Xena now understood the consciousness...concussion.


Xena knew that sleeping was not the first choice of treatment for a concussion. Some people slip into a sleep and never wake back up. She silently prayed to no one in particular, that her bard was strong and could survive this.

She drew out her boot dagger again and cut away what was left of the shirt. She knelt back down by the bard and began to clean the open wounds. Removing the dried blood and ragged, broken skin was slow and obviously painful. Xena methodically picked the remnant material pieces out of the lash welts. Disquieting moans murmured from the bard but yet she remained unconscious. Each whimper and low moan caused another tiny crack in the Warrior's icy veneer. Xena was glad that Gabrielle was out. With a concussion and this much blood loss, pressure point use was out of the question. The last thing Xena wanted to do was to mess with circulation. The blood on her back was caked on and ran from her neck to the back of her thighs. Her leather Amazon skirt was not damaged but was stiff and spotted with blood. It took several waterskins full of water and many pieces of cloth to finally get the stubborn blood to start flaking off. Xena filled and refilled the waterskin several times before the wounds were cleaned to her satisfaction. She didn't know how long Gabrielle was out there. She didn't need to take a chance of infection. Finally she applied a cleanser tincture and then Xena stitched the really bad cuts with tiny even stitches to minimize the scarring. Xena's mind flashed back to a time early in their travels.

Xena finished spreading the healing salve and tied a linen bandage around Gabrielle's upper arm. The wound was minor one; all Gabrielle needed to do for a full recovery would be to take staff practice lightly for a few days...just until the stitches healed.

"Am I gonna have a scar?" Gabrielle questioned, as Xena patted her arm indicating she was done.

Xena smiled at the hopeful and childlike tone of Gabrielle's voice. She turned to look at the young woman. "Not if I can help it," Xena spoke with a pride in her voice. "I did some of my best sewing there, bard."

"Aw..." Gabrielle said disappointingly, her eyes began to study the ground.

"Gabrielle?" Xena questioned. No answer. "Ga-bri-elle..." Xena said in a sing-songy voice, trying to draw her attention. "Did you want a scar?"

"Well...ummm, yeah... kinda...." Gabrielle let her voice trail off softly; her eyes now very fascinated with some invisible something on the ground. Her foot swung lazily side-to-side, kicking a light layer of dirt back and forth.

"Why?" Xena asked and she reached out and raised Gabrielle's chin so that she could look in the bard's eyes. This should be good, Xena thought.

Gabrielle stared up into her companion's azure blue eyes. The bard blinked a few times and nibbled on her lower lip. Her eyes scrunched up as she contemplated her answer. Finally, she took a breath and made her reply. "It's so. well...so I'll have something to add to my stories, y'know... show off...a kinda personal prop...a souvenir."

"Uh Huh..." Xena countered, not believing a word of it.

"Really... I can use it to illustrate, y'know, just how tough and dangerous our life is and..."

"Right..." Xena replied sarcastically, her eyebrow arched into a mild version of 'the look.’

"Well...okay...ummm....ummm...soIcanbelikeyou." The words ran together and rushed out in one breath, Gabrielle quickly closed her eyes, breaking eye contact and turned away from the Warrior.

"Me?" Xena asked. She was dumbfounded at the thought, her eyebrow arched into her hairline and she fought to hide the smirk now forming.

Gabrielle heard the tone of the question and swore she could feel the stare. "All Right, Sheesh! So, I can be a big, bad warrior. " Gabrielle added, sheepishly. Still avoiding looking at the Warrior.

"Ya got that half right". Xena snorted and chuckled. "*Bad* Warriors are the only ones with scars. The idea is to be good enough to give'em not get'em, Gabrielle." Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Hey Gabrielle," Xena's eyes began to twinkle and her voice got lighter... "It's a good thing the wound wasn't on your butt... You could be arrested for indecent exposure showing off your...sou...souvenir."

Xena had choked out the last part of that statement, trying in vain to say it without succumbing to the laughter bubbling up. She looked over at the bard. The stunned look on Gabrielle's face was priceless. Xena couldn't fight it any longer and began to dissolve into hysterical laughter. Her azure eyes began to glisten as the tears accumulated. Gabrielle just closed her eyes and shook her head. She kept trying, desperately; to fight the giggles she felt developing. She wasn't about to give her friend the satisfaction. Soon, however, the absurdity of it all was too much and after a heavy sigh, she began laughing too. She backhanded Xena lightly across the stomach.

"OW!" she said, as her finger contacted a sharp edge of Xena's armor. "I cut myself."

"Let me see that, " Xena demanded, seriously as she reached for Gabrielle's hand.

Gabrielle tried to jerk her hand back away from Xena but the Warrior's reflexes were quicker. She examined the small spot of blood on the finger.

"Oh bad, very bad, " Xena drawled sarcastically. "This one is only gonna be good for a short story," and Xena began to chuckle again.

Xena put salve on the whip welts and pressed a large clean piece of linen onto Gabrielle's back. Carefully she picked up a few long strands of linen. With one strong arm, Xena carefully lifted the bard upright, into a sitting position and held her up. She wrapped the strips around Gabrielle's chest and tied the bandage. She leaned Gabrielle back down on the fur and gently rolled her over on her back. Another whimpering moan escaped her lips but her eyes still didn't open. Xena carefully cleaned the wrist wounds and tied pressure bandages on them. She then set about the facial wounds. Xena expertly washed the dried blood off the bard's face. Her mind was silently pleading for Gabrielle's eyes to open. The water loosened the hair stuck to her face. Once all the rusty red crud was off, the bard began to look more like herself.

Xena tended first to the broken nose, she carefully and expertly shifted the nose back into place. Then she cleaned up and stitched, the cut over her eye and the bump behind her ear. Next she took care of the split lip. Lastly she washed the blood off Gabrielle's chin and neck and out of her hair, as best she could. Done with her cleaning, she sprinkled a few choice healing herbs on the stitched cut. Xena took a long piece of linen and tied a bandage around the bard's head, covering both the eye cut, the eye and the head injury. Xena then went to her saddlebag and got out her own sleeping shift. It would be oversized on the bard and much more comfortable. She removed the dirty Amazon skirt and her boots, then carefully slipped the shift over the bard's head and pulled it down her body into place, being very careful not to disturb the bandages and laid her back down. Xena then covered her with a blanket.

Xena got to her feet, her eyes never leaving the bard's face. For a half-candlemark she just stood and stared down at her. Xena then walked to the cave mouth and stared out into the forest glen. Snow was now falling and the moonlight cast an eerie pale yellow glow over the field. Across the glen, in the shadowy distance, she could see the two saplings where she found Gabrielle. Xena's last thread of resolve snapped, the veneer shattered and with it, every last bit of control over her emotions evaporated. She leaned back on the cave wall and slid bonelessly down to the ground. She pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them tightly. Her head dropped down to her chest, her body began to shake uncontrollably and she began to cry.


Chapter 10: (late) Day 4 and (early) Day 5

Xena didn't know how long she had sat there shaking and sobbing. Her arms were locked tightly around her legs and her chin was resting on her knees. Her leathers were damp from the tears and she could hear them creak with every harsh breath. The tempest wind swirled around her causing a deep shiver to move through her body. She lifted her head and wiped her tears on the back of her hand, first one side then the other. Stifling sniffles, she tried to focus her blurry, red-rimmed eyes out into the glen. In the pale moonlight peeking through the passing storm clouds, Xena saw Argo. The butter-colored warhorse was pawing the ground moving snow aside to nibble on the tender grass being quickly concealed by the winter storm. The snow was falling much heavier now and from the look of the sky, Xena knew it would continue to fall at least until mid-morning.

Xena watched the mare for a few moments; the reflecting moonlight bathed the mare in a silvery glow. The horse was a magnificent animal. Argo is beautiful, strong, loyal and smart. Xena smiled with pride. "Sometimes a little too smart, " Xena admitted aloud and chuckled lightly.

Just as quickly, her thoughts sobered, Argo was my only true friend...until Gabrielle.

Xena's eyes scanned the surrounding area. Argo was going to be in need of shelter soon. About 20 paces from the cave mouth Xena found what she was looking for. A small ledge jutted out from the mountain. It looked to be just big enough for Argo to fit under. It would provide a place for Argo to get out of the snow.

Xena was about to whistle her mare over when her keen hearing picked up a faint whimpering sound from inside the cave. In an instant, she was to her feet, one quick fluid movement. She ran to Gabrielle's side and knelt down. The bard's face was pale, which Xena expected for the amount of blood loss. The nasty red-purple bruises were the only color on the Gabrielle's face. Xena grimaced at the thought of the pain the bard had gone through. Xena stared at her sleeping friend. She noticed the lines around Gabrielle's eyes and the clenched jaw. Both surely caused by the intense pain. Tears were flowing from her closed eyes and sweat beaded on her furrowed brow. Xena lightly touched the bard's forehead. It was hot to the touch. Fever. Gabrielle emitted another low groan. She was still unconscious but in her hallucinating mind she was beginning to relive the beating.

"NOOOOOO!" Gabrielle screamed. Her body began thrashing about. Her hands were knotted into tight fists and her arms were flailing about in front of her, as if she was trying to ward off some invisible danger...

"I've got ya. I'm here, Gabrielle," Xena spoke in a comforting tone.

Xena grabbed one of Gabrielle's hands and squeezed gently. The fist quickly opened and before Xena could react, Gabrielle had grasped Xena's fingers in her own. Xena didn't expect it, but got a squeeze back. Gabrielle held on with an iron grip, as her body continued to thrash around. Each movement resulted in a moan of pain. Xena continued to speak to her friend.

"S'okay... Easy Gabrielle... I've got ya, you're safe... now." Xena grimaced at the last word. All the familiar insecurities began to surface. I should have been here... Why didn't I take her with me...? It's * my* fault...

Without letting go of the bard's hand, Xena wrapped her other arm around Gabrielle and pulled her up into a tentative hug. The Warrior was very concerned about the bard's state of unconsciousness.

"Gabrielle, can you hear me?... I know you are in a dark and scary place... I'm here... C'mon, Gabrielle...come back to me... Everything is going to be okay..."

Each word comforted and calmed the bard's movements slightly. Xena's presence and voice were getting through. Gabrielle's eyes remained closed. She ran her hand up and down the bard's arm, hoping the stroking contact would soothe the disturbed bard's psyche. . She immediately felt the bard's anxiety lessen. The jerky movements then stopped altogether. After a few calm moments, she laid Gabrielle back down and tucked her back in under the blankets. Xena stood and turned to get more healing herbs, bandages and some water. Xena was pretty sure, from some bloodstains on the shift, that some of the stitches were torn open.

Xena had just gotten the healer supplies out of her kit when she heard Gabrielle begin to thrash about again. Her body was acting as if she was searching for something...reaching out subconsciously for Xena. Xena was back at her side in a flash; again she clasped both of the bard's hands in her own.

At first contact, the movements slowed, Gabrielle recognized the calming presence, instantly. She began to babble...incoherent thoughts and phrases...

"What do you want? Noooooooo I told you... I don't know... Who?... Please...no...no more..." she murmured.

The bits and pieces seemed random and disjointed at first. Slowly a picture began to emerge to Xena. Each word and each phrase added another piece to the puzzle and another color to the picture. Xena was both horrified by what she perceived happened and fiercely proud of Gabrielle strength, courage, devotion and loyalty.

"Gabrielle, it's okay... Shhhhh....you're safe... Listen to me, nothing can hurt you...I'm here..."

Gabrielle fell into exhaustive silence again. Xena detached herself and gently pulled Gabrielle back into an upright position. She pulled the back of the sleeping shift down and quickly checked the bandages for bleeding. Gabrielle had not torn any stitches and the cuts were just showing the normal amount of seepage. Xena replaced a few of the bandages. She then readjusted the shift and gently laid the bard back down. The bard's nose was bleeding slightly and Xena carefully cleaned the blood off. Xena next checked the wrist wounds. She tied new bandages on those and then tucked the bard back under the blanket. She continued to whisper soft comforting words.

"Gabrielle, you're safe... Nothing is going to hurt you... I promise you..." Xena stood back up and turned toward the fire. She looked back over her shoulder at the bard. Her saddened eyes showed all the jumbled emotions Xena was feeling.

Gabrielle began to react to her absence again. This time the movements were much smaller, quieter and were accompanied by sobs and moans. Xena felt her heart break at each sorrowful moan; she knelt back down and began to whisper reassurances to her struggling friend. She held her hand and brushed the hair off Gabrielle's feverish forehead. Xena watched as Gabrielle's breathing settled somewhat and the anguished tension in her face started to disappear.

Xena contemplated her options. Although the heat from the nearby hot spring kept the cave relatively warm...it wouldn't be enough. The snow was falling, the temperature outside was dropping rapidly, and the harsh winter wind was picking up. Heat was going to be a premium. Gabrielle had lost a lot of blood, she was slightly in shock and she was feverish due to infection. Heat, she had to keep Gabrielle warm. She couldn't risk the cold doing any more damage to the bard's already fragile condition. Xena took a quick look around the cave and then figured out what she needed to do. Knowing her absence was going to cause a reaction in her friend, Xena quickly tried to gather up all the things she needed and hurry back to the bard's side. She brought all the necessary supplies over to where Gabrielle was laying.

Xena first stoked and banked the fire. She then took the heaviest blanket and held it up in front of her as close to the fire as possible. Once she felt the blanket was sufficiently warm she placed it over the bard, removing the one that was there already. Xena repeated with a second blanket.

Giving Gabrielle a quick shy look, Xena picked up the last blanket and moved quickly to the cave mouth. Her keen eyesight scanned ahead of her probing fingers for any cracks and small crevices. Xena pulled a boot dagger out and jabbed it through the corner of the blanket. She held the blanket up and forced the dagger into a small crevice. She pulled the other end of the blanket across the opening. Xena reached down and pulled out her other boot dagger. Using her left hand to hold up the blanket and to guide the dagger to the right spot, Xena quickly embedded the dagger into the cave wall. The warrior then scanned the cave floor for a couple of small rocks. Xena placed these on the bottom of the blanket to weight it down and hold it in place. Xena stepped back and admired her new curtain. A slight lopsided grin appeared. The warrior quickly turned and went back to the fire.

Xena removed her wool trousers, armor and leathers and boots. Quickly, she donned an old woolen tunic. Xena held up her heavy cloak to the fire in the same manner as the blankets. She pulled the cloak around her shoulders and tied the neck lacing closed. She walked a few steps over to the bard. Carefully she raised Gabrielle into an upright position and crawled behind her. Xena leaned back on the saddle and straightened out the cloak, as best she could. She pulled Gabrielle almost in her lap. Xena raised both knees on either side of Gabrielle to keep her sitting as upright as possible and to keep her from falling over. She quickly enveloped Gabrielle in the folds of the cloak and then resettled all the blankets over both of them. She pulled the bard back to her and felt Gabrielle, unconsciously, try to settle into as comfortable a position a possible.

Xena felt Gabrielle flinch when she leaned back against the warrior's chest. Xena mentally slapped herself. The woolen tunic would be warmer than her leathers but it was also rougher. She knew the whip cuts must hurt like Tartarus.

Damn! Stupid, Xena, very stupid.

Xena tenderly wrapped her arms around her beloved friend, as a silent message of comfort and safety. The warrior rested her chin upon Gabrielle's red-blond hair and she continued to murmur soft comforting sounds. Gabrielle was restless still and in obvious pain. Xena kissed the top of her head and, not knowing what else to do, began to hum an old Amphipolian lullaby. She cradled Gabrielle and began to rock back and forth slowly. Gabrielle's head rolled weakly to one side and nestled into the crook of Xena's shoulder. Xena turned her face, slightly, and rested her cheek upon Gabrielle's head. Immediately, she felt Gabrielle finally relax. Xena stopped humming and smiled. A single tear fell, when she realized that it was her heartbeat that the bard had instinctively sought out for comfort. Xena started to quietly sing and continued to gently rock until exhaustive sleep overtook both of them.


Chapter 11: Day 5

Xena violently shuddered as a gust of cold air blasted her awake. She instinctively pulled the cloak closer. Xena looked toward the cave mouth and saw the problem. Standing in the doorway was one, snow covered horse. Xena could swear the horse looked peeved. The blanket still hung from the daggers Xena had set last night but was loosely gathered up on the horse's back like an old cape. The wind began to whistle and the cold air blowing in was rapidly affecting the temperature inside the cave.


Xena teeth chattered as she fought off another shiver. Xena's eyebrow arched, and a sly grin invaded her face, as the solution to her problem came to mind.

"Argo...c'mere girl," Xena commanded softly.

As the horse stepped further into the cave the blanket slowly slid down her back and fell back into place. Xena would have to brace the bottom of the blankets with rocks again but this would help for now. Argo tentatively walked over to her mistress, still hobbling from yesterday's injury.

"Argo...I am so sorry girl."

Xena couldn't help but chuckle at the snow covered warhorse and it made her apology sound less than sincere. Argo's silky mane was wet and matted, on top of her head; between her ears was a small conical pile of snow. The warm air of the cave caused the snow to melt. As it thawed, it dripped down her the sides of her face in rivulets. Argo stopped right next to the warrior and held perfectly still. Xena pulled one arm out from under the blanket to reach up and scratch the mare's nose. Just then, the horse decided to shake her head. Xena noticed what was going to happen and reacted instantly to pull the blanket up over the bard's head, shielding her from the flying slush. Snow flew everywhere and the Warrior took the brunt on her face. She let go of the blanket, let out a large sigh and began to scrape the wet snow off her face. She continued to seethe, as she disgustingly flung the glop off. She looked up and leveled her best glare at the horse. The horse, however, was well conditioned to 'the look' and just blinked her hazel eyes as she stared right back.

Argo neighed softly, bearing her teeth in what could only be described as a sarcastic smile. The mare then leaned down to lightly lip Xena's hair. The Warrior's eyes softened immediately and in spite of herself, she began to chuckle lightly.

"It's alright girl..." Xena said as she scratched the horse's nose and cheek. "I guess I deserved that. Now back up...go over there..." Xena waved her hand toward the back of the cave. "And I'll see about drying you off and getting you some oats."

Xena laid back against the saddle for a moment. She wiped her cold, wet hand on the blanket and then she gently pressed the back of her hand to the bard's forehead. Gabrielle was still hot to the touch. Xena then realized they both were drenched in sweat. Gabrielle's fever had not yet broken and the bard was not yet awake. Xena was distressed. She needed to get her awake and soon. She knew some people slipped into a deep sleep after a head injury...and that they didn't always wake up. Plus, Gabrielle needed water and nourishment. The fever and infection would deplete both.

First things, first...

Xena disentangled herself from the bard, being very careful not to jostle her too much; she didn't want to aggravate the wounds. She gently lowered the sleeping Amazon back down and tucked her in.

Xena moved quickly and silently as she went about her chores. She built up the fire, using every last stick, twig and branch she could find in the cave. Xena knew she would have to find more wood and soon but she didn't want to leave the bard alone. Not yet.

The Warrior rummaged through her saddlebags and gathered up her things. She walked over to the hot spring, stripped off her cloak and wet shift and quickly washed. She then dressed in her normal leathers and boots, foregoing the bracers, gauntlets, greaves and armor. Her chakram and sword were still lying where she left them the night before.

Xena picked up the biggest cooking pot and walked to the cave opening. She one-armed the blanket aside and was instantly hit with a blinding, bright light. She raised her arm in front of her face to shield her eyes. She blinked a few times to adjust her sight and looked out into the glen. The field was covered in beautiful fluffy white snow. It was like a giant blank scroll, a brand new start. A wondrous, new world, full of endless possibilities. And hope.

How ironic, Xena thought.

Xena turned and wistfully looked back at the still unconscious bard. The snow also ruined any chance of finding clues or tracking whoever or whatever did this to her friend. Xena could only hope that Gabrielle could remember.

Xena finally felt the chill. She ran her free hand briskly up and down her arm. Then set about her work. She walked further out and quickly filled the pot with snow. Making sure she packed it down. Xena pushed passed the blanketed doorway and set the pot down on the cave floor. She then replaced the rocks on the bottom to hold the blanket from wafting in the wind. Xena walked back to the campfire and set the pot near the flames. The snow quickly melted and she poured some of the water into a smaller pot. She went back to the saddlebags and dug into the healer's kit for some willow bark powder. A tea made of this brown powder would help fight infection and bring the fever down. It tasted awful, but it worked. She rummaged around in the pack and smiled as she found some mint leaves. At least she could make it a little less horrendous. She set the tea ingredients aside. Xena positioned a few small rocks around the flames and set the large pot up to boil.

Xena then went over to the hot spring and filled a waterskin. Xena pulled the blankets off the still unconscious Gabrielle. The Warrior dampened a piece of linen and quickly washed the perspiration from the bard face and arms. Her hair was hanging in wet tendrils but would have to wait. Xena gently lifted the bard into an upright position. She stripped off Gabrielle's damp shift and proceeded to clean the whip wounds. The whip welts were red and puffy. Xena now knew what was causing the infection and fever. The warrior rechecked her stitches and slathered on more of the healing salve. Xena then reapplied a large bandage and rewrapped the linen ties around the bard's body. She quickly finished cleaning up Gabrielle and drying her off. Then she pulled a clean, dry shift over Gabrielle's head and resettled it down into place. Xena replaced the blanket and tucked her in. The dry top one replaced the sweat soaked bottom blanket that had covered the bard the previous night.

Xena then looked closer at the other wounds. Xena gently raised Gabrielle's head and unwrapped the bandage. The bruise was now a deep purple/black. Gabrielle's eyes were circled in black. Her eye was still swollen shut but, on the plus side, the swelling on her broken nose was going down. Xena gingerly probed the wounds. There was no sign of seepage on the head wounds and the stitches were holding fine. Xena gently applied more healing salve and replaced the bandages. By the time Xena was done, Gabrielle looked like she was wearing half of a linen helmet. Xena had wrapped the bands around Gabrielle's head, completely covering both head wounds and her swollen eye.

Xena then reached under the blanket for one of Gabrielle's arms. She unwound the linen wrist binding and looked at the cuts. They were healing normally and holding together nicely. Xena put more salve on it and retied the bandage. She replaced Gabrielle's hand under the blanket, giving it a last, heartfelt squeeze and reached for the other one.

Gabrielle lightly stirred and her unbandaged eye blinked half opened. Xena looked into the heavy lidded green eye and realized that there was no sign of recognition there; it was just an unfocused, blank stare.

"Gabrielle... Can you hear me?" Xena asked optimistically, as she patted the back of Gabrielle's hand.

Gabrielle blinked a few more times, her lips began to move but no sound came out. Finally a soft voice was heard.

"Help me..." Gabrielle's breath was shallow.

"Hey, I'm here." Xena replied comfortingly and began to unconsciously move the wet strands of Gabrielle's red hair off her forehead.

"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, hoarsely.

"Yes" Xena said, warmly smiling and she happily squeezed Gabrielle's hand. She's awake...this is great.

"Ya... gotta take me with you..." Gabrielle started to explain, her voice was raspy and dry, her breaths were shallow pants. She was fighting to get every word out and every thought finished. "Teach me...everything you know..."

Xena's mind now registered instantly that she had heard this before. Gabrielle had said this to her the first time they met. Xena's heart sunk and her eyes began to glass over with unshed tears as she realized that Gabrielle was still hallucinating. Xena swallowed hard, closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. She knew exactly what the bard was going to say.

"You can't...can't... leave me here... in Poteidaia...I want to go with you." Gabrielle was now pleading softly. "I've studied the stars... spoken with philosophers... and I have the gift of prophesy..." Gabrielle took a heavy breath. "I can be...be very valuable to you...take me with you...I want *so* much to be like you..." Gabrielle's eyes closed again and she fell back into unconsciousness.

Xena reopened her eyes when the bard fell silent again. She stared at her best friend, her companion, her strength, her conscience, her soul. Her hand slid down and cupped Gabrielle’s cheek gently.

"And I want to be like *you*..." Xena replied in a softly choked whisper, as two silver tears rolled down her face.

Xena closed her eyes tightly, trying in vain to stave off the flood of tears that were destined to fall. After a few moments, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and gathered her emotions. She still had to do so much. The fact that Gabrielle had awakened at all gave her some hope. Xena began to talk to the bard...anything to trigger another reaction. As she set about to cook some food and do the necessary chores, she continued to talk to Gabrielle. Xena dug through her food saddlebag. She found some jerky, a few mushrooms and some dried herbs and threw them in the boiling water. At least, she had the start of a broth.

As she curried Argo, she told Gabrielle the story of how she got the warhorse. She dug some oats out of the saddlebag and strapped on Argo's feedbag. Finally with all the chores done, she sat back down beside the bard. She reached down and picked up Gabrielle's hand. Clasping the smaller hand tightly in her own, she squeezed it gently and then began to run her thumb back and forth over the back of the smaller hand.

"C'mon Gabrielle... talk to me... Yeah, I know..." Xena chuckled. " I *want* you to talk to me." Xena was speaking in the lightest, most cheerful voice she could muster. "I gotta hear that voice... Y'know... most days I want to strangle you just to shut you up." Xena chuckled out loud and then her voice deepened with emotion. "Let's face it bard, who else would put up with a broken-down, moody ex-warlord, huh? Who's gonna keep this big dumb warrior out of trouble? C'mon...*RED*," Xena voice finally cracked, she purposefully chose that nickname, knowing it always brought about an angry reaction. "Please wake up...please... I need you..."

Xena leaned forward and lightly rested her forehead on the bard's forehead. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She leaned back and squeezed the hand she was still holding. She brought her other hand up to Gabrielle's face and slowly slid her knuckles down Gabrielle's cheek in a loving, gentle caress.

Gabrielle's eyelashes began to flutter lightly. The green eye opened and blinked to adjust to the new brightness. Xena leaned over to shield Gabrielle's eye from the bright light and, in doing so, brought her face directly into Gabrielle's line of sight.

"Hi," Xena said shyly, a small smile beginning to form. Her heart began to beat wildly. Please let her be okay.

Gabrielle's immediate reaction was to mirror a smile back. A wince soon followed.

"Ow..." Gabrielle tried to lift her hand to her face but Xena refused to let go of it and lowered it back down to the blanket.

"Lie still! " Xena instructed.

"No problem there..." Gabrielle replied, in a low husky voice.

"How do you feel?"

"Thirsty..." Gabrielle rasped.

Xena reached for the waterskin and opened it. She carefully slid one arm behind the bard's neck and helped her to sit further up. With her other hand she brought the waterskin to Gabrielle's lips.

"Not too much, you'll be sick... a little at a time...okay.... that's enough..." Xena said.

Gabrielle whimpered softly as the waterskin was pulled away. Xena began to lower her back into a reclining position. Gabrielle resisted and tried to sit up and protest when she was hit with a sudden wave of nausea. Xena quickly turned her over to one side and grabbed the nearest item she could use as a container. The warrior held her friend and watched, helplessly, as she retched. When the nausea ended, Xena set the pack aside and gently laid the exhausted bard back down on her back. Then she wiped Gabrielle's lips with a piece of wet linen.

"Better, now? How do you feel?" Xena asked, with concern in her voice.

"Like I was hit by a chariot... dizzy...sick to my stomach...I hurt all over...and I have a headache from Tartarus... other than that...I feel great...just great..."

Xena grinned at the bard. At least her sense of humor was still intact, Xena thought. A wave of relief flooded Xena's senses. Xena couldn't help it, the little grin turned into a big bright smile.

"Okay, let's play 'the game'... Do you remember 'the game'?" Xena asked.

'The game', Gabrielle knew was what they called the question and answer session that usually followed any incident where Xena, quite frankly, got her bell rung. It helped them to determine just how bad a hit the Warrior took.

"Yeah, but isn't *you* who usually plays?" Gabrielle replied.

"Yeah...well, there is always a first time for everything..." Xena said sardonically. Then she let out a sigh, and silently hoped... And a last time too. Right...okay, ready? Do you know who you are?" Xena asked.

"Do any of us really *know* who we are..." Gabrielle answered in her best 'bardly' tone.

"C'mon, just answer the question...Do you?" Xena inquired.


"Good! " Xena replied and asked the next question. "Do you know who I am?"


"Mind telling me?" Xena asked sarcastically.

"Don't you know?" Gabrielle gingerly turned her head, looked into the warrior's eyes and noticed the arched eyebrow. "Okay, okay...sheesh...you're Xena, Warrior Princess, hero-at-large, defended of innocents...saver of bardic butts..." Gabrielle rattled off in a dull monotone.

"Very funny...Do you know what year it is?" Xena asked.





"Ah..." Gabrielle paused, then offered, "Winter?"

"Know or guessing?" Xena asked.

"No, I'm guessing."

"Okay..." Xena said, the frustration in her voice was very apparent, and she blew out a breath. "What do you remember last?"

Xena really didn't want her to relive the beating but she had to know what happened. Xena continued to study the bard's face for any sign of discomfort and distress. If the subject got too painful, she would drop it until the bard was stronger.

Gabrielle thought hard, scrunching her face up and furrowing her brow.

"I remember stopping by a bush...and...oh, no...."

"And what?" Xena meekly offered, fearing for the worst.

"Xena, where's my bag?" Gabrielle questioned faintly, hoping against hope.

"Why?" Xena asked. Her mind was now reeling at where this was possibly going.

"Oh, no please...no...tell me I didn't just..." Gabrielle let the last part trail off quietly and she closed her eye. "Can I have my bag, please?"

"Gabrielle, I don't think that is such a good idea right now. It...uh, it...um, needs to be...um...cleaned." Xena said sheepishly.

"Oh Xena..." Gabrielle cried out exasperatedly, she was caught between laughing and crying. Her face took on the look of a lost puppy.

"What?" Xena practically shouted. She was now thoroughly confused by the bard's reaction.

"I picked blackberries for you..." Gabrielle let out a breath with a sigh. "They were in the bag...I was gonna make berry dumplings, as a 'welcome back' surprise."

"Oh, well..." Xena stared longingly at the bag, then looked at the bard, and then looked back at the bag. "Thank you...um..." Finally she just shook her head. "Damn," the Warrior said, with quiet resignation.

"Surprise..." Gabrielle giggled. Ignoring the pain, she raised her eyebrow in it's best warrior imitation and added, "well... it serves you right for calling me 'Red'."

Xena began to laugh. Gabrielle was going to be fine. Xena still had doubts and questions about what happened and why but they would deal with them soon enough. First things, first...


Chapter 12: Day 5

For candlemarks, Xena continued to sit by the bard. Their conversation was mostly light banter with Xena doing more than her share. Xena continued to hold Gabrielle's hand and occasionally would sweep an errant lock of hair off of her forehead.

This was quite a change in the behavior of the stoic warrior, the bard thought. The warrior...talking and the attempts at comforting touches were very out of character. The bard gazed at the warrior and realized that she had given her friend quite a scare. They both needed this...needed the reassurance. We *will* talk about this later, Gabrielle promised herself.

Finally Xena patted Gabrielle's hand and said... "Okay bard, we need to get more fluids in you. I have some willow bark tea..."

"Ah, Xena...don't you think I feel bad enough...that stuff tastes worse than..." Gabrielle started.

"Or, I also have some broth I made instead..." Xena interrupted.

"...your cooking," Gabrielle finished her thought but she found herself saying something else. "Tea is fine...yeah, tea is good," she said with a small grin.

Xena stood up and walked to the fire. She moved the large pot off to the side and put the smaller pot up to boil. She took some of the brown powder she had set aside earlier and added it to a cup. She poured the water on and let it steep. When she thought it was ready she crushed a couple of the mint leaves and tossed those in too. She held the cup up to her nose and took a sniff. Yeah, that should do it, she thought.

She walked back over to the reclining Bard and helped her rise up into more of a sitting position. Gabrielle grimaced in pain as her back hit the saddle. Because of the movement, she was hit with a sudden wave of dizziness too. Gabrielle closed her eye. Instinctively, she reached out, blindly, and grasped Xena's forearm trying to steady herself. After a few moments she opened her eye.

"Are you okay now?" Xena asked, her voice filled with concern.

"Yeah, can you make the cave stop spinning? And my still head hurts like Tartarus. I swear there are Amazon war drums between my ears. Can't you use one of those...those pressure point...um...thingies... for my headache?"

"Gabrielle, if I try to cut the blood flow off to your brain, how would I be able to tell if it worked?" Xena's grin completely undermined the serious tone in her voice.

"Very funny, Xena...I'm dying here and you're making jokes..."

"C'mon, drink the tea, it will help with the headache and the fever."

"What happened to me, Xena?" the bard was now serious.

"I don't know Gabrielle, but we will find out. Whoever or whatever did this to you will pay." Xena promised solemnly. "In the meantime..." Xena said aloud, as she thought we need to change the subject now... you get to lounge around, sleep as late as you want, eat as much as you like and work on your scrolls. I'll do all the chores. Think of it as a vacation."

"How long, healer?" Gabrielle inquired, stifling a giggle and a grin.

"A few weeks," the warrior answered.

"A few weeks?" Gabrielle struggled to get up; a new wave of dizziness hit and Xena guided her back down.

"Relax, my bard, you need lots of rest and plenty of good food...before y'know it, you'll be good as new."

"Are you planning on doing *all* the cooking while I heal? Gabrielle asked.

"Yeah... so? Ya got a problem with that?" Xena asked, her eyebrow headed into her hairline.

"Good incentive for me to heal faster...huh, Xena?"

Xena cuffed Gabrielle's head lightly.

"Watch it bard, be nice..." Xena growled. "I might even make you nutbread if you're good..." and then added softly, "with henbane, if you're bad."

"I heard that, Xena...*that* headache lasted for days."

The companions reminisced about the henbane-laced nutbread incident.

Xena's heart was pounding in her chest as she ran toward the caves. She had sent Gabrielle out with Icus to hide in those caverns, not knowing that the food she had sent with them was very likely poisoned. Stopping abruptly at the cave mouth, she ducked down and went inside. She listened for any noise but all she heard was her own heartbeat drumming in her ears.

"Gabrielle?" As she went further into the cave she spotted the limp form lying curled on the cave floor. Oh, no...please no... Xena rushed to Gabrielle and dropped down into a crouch, she picked the bard up to a sitting position and cradled her in her arms. "Gabrielle?" Xena checked, the bard was still breathing. "Gabrielle?...Gabrielle?... Can you hear me? Wake up. Hey," she said quietly and she lightly shook the girl's body.

Green eyes fluttered open, blinked several times and closed again. "UH..." Gabrielle muttered.

Before the bard could finish the thought, Xena pulled her into a hug. Xena carefully lifted one of the bard's eyelids up and held it open. "You all right?" she questioned, as she let out a sigh of relief

"Oh, Yeah...I'm great..." the bard warbled. "I can't see...but I'm good."

Xena held her out, by her shoulders, at arms length. "Try using both eyes," Xena said dryly.

Slowly two misty verdant eyes opened and she gazed at Xena dreamily.

"Oh...yeah... that's better...uh huh," Gabrielle said and smiled warmly.

"Think you can stand up?" Xena asked, seriously.

Gabrielle blinked solemnly. "You mean I'm not?"

Oh boy, Xena thought, we are in definite trouble here. "C'mon," Xena sighed and pulled the bard to her feet, still holding her up by her shoulders. "There you go. Ok?"

Gabrielle fought to steady herself and then glanced up at the Warrior's face. Her eyes widened. "By the Gods," Gabrielle exclaimed.

"What is it?" Xena snapped and turned quickly to look behind herself. In doing so she let go of the bard.

Gabrielle quickly lost her balance and fell back down to the cave floor with a thump. She leaned back and rested her weight on her hands and just stared up, in total absorption, at the Warrior.

"You are *beautiful*," the words just came tumbling out of Gabrielle's mouth.

Xena grinned, her lopsided grin.

"Uh huh... And you... are... drugged," Xena said matter-of-factly as she reached down and pulled the bard back to her feet. "With henbane, if I'm not mistaken...so the effects should be temporary." As Xena spoke she turned to look around the cave. Where is Icus? she thought. "But we've got to..."

Gabrielle had moved away, swinging her arms wildly, like she was directing a street band.

"Get you walking," Xena finished with a heavy sigh. "Get back here. Gabrielle?" She strode after Gabrielle and spun her forcefully around. "I need you to concentrate."

Gabrielle gave her an impish grin. "Okay...yeah...I think this is a big waste of time..." she said as she turned and walked away for a few paces. Her arms were spread, waving wildly up and down, helping her to balance on an invisible beam. Then she pivoted, throwing her body out of imaginary equilibrium. She flapped her arms even harder to regain her balance and walked back. "I've been walking since I was one."

Xena was now thoroughly frustrated and yet at the same time amused. "This isn't about walking, Gabrielle...it's about Icus... You do remember Icus? Don't you?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Of course, I remember Icus," she answered.

Xena walked over to Gabrielle and gently cupped her chin, forcing the bard to look into her ice blue eyes. "Gabrielle, where is Icus?"

The bard's hands came up and firmly gripped the warrior's shoulders. "I dunno know...where?" she asked in earnest.

Xena's growing frustration exploded and she shook Gabrielle. "I'm asking YOU!!!" Xena said sharply.

The bard broke free and wandered deeper into the cave. "Icus?...Icus?" the bard called out. She turned and gazed at Xena, with fright filled, anguished eyes. "I lost Icus! I lost him... I lost Icus!" Gabrielle collapsed, in a heap, on a nearby rock and began to cry.

Xena crossed to her friend and knelt down. "Gabrielle, calm down... it's all right," Xena said and placed a hand lightly on her shoulder.

"I lost Icus!" Gabrielle wailed and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, seeking comfort.

Xena returned the hug and began to pat the girl's back. "It's all right...S'Okay...Gabrielle...calm down. I'm sure you didn't lose him. He probably saw you pass out and went for help," Xena said in the most soothing tone she could manage. "By the way, how much nutbread did Icus eat?" Xena asked Gabrielle.

"None," Gabrielle squeaked. "You...He...I *really* wanted to share... it was just too good and he said he wasn't hungry... Next thing I knew...it was gone!" Gabrielle collapsed backward and slid off the rock to the ground.

Xena turned and looked toward the cave opening. "We need to find Icus," Xena flatly stated.

Gabrielle abruptly stood up. She wiped the tears on the back of her hand and headed for the cave opening. She looked back and called for the rocks in the cave to follow her.

Hades, we are in trouble, Xena thought and she went after the bard. "Gabrielle...I've got a better idea." She put her hands firmly on the bard's shoulders and stared into the green eyes. "I'll go get Icus...and you..." Her eyes scanned the cave. "And the others...can...um..." Xena bit her lip; she had run out of inspiration.

"Work on our song," Gabrielle chirped in. The bard slung an arm around the warrior's shoulder and led her further away from the rocks. "Just between you and me...the altos are slightly flat."

Xena bit back a big grin. "Perfect." She nodded seriously at the bard. "Gabrielle?" Gabrielle's eyes lit up at the mention of her name. "Gabrielle, now...don't you let..." Xena let her eyes roam around the cave again. "*Anyone* leave the cave, all right?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Have I made myself clear?" The warrior was insistent that this point was to be absolutely understood.

Gabrielle took a step backward and looked at the warrior. As she studied her face, she tilted her head first in one direction and then the other. Her eyes scrunched and little lines knitted her brow. "No. You're a little fuzzy around the edges." She then stepped forward again and patted Xena's arms lightly. "But you keep trying...you'll get it."

She then turned her back to the warrior and walked over to the rocks, she began carefully arranging them in a choral pattern and then started to, energetically, direct them in song.

Xena stood for a moment and watched. Stifling the laughter, she thought...she is never gonna believe she did this.

"I still can't believe I did that stuff," Gabrielle said incredulously. "I still think you made it all up?"

"Me? You told me I had no imagination? I couldn't possibly make up something that...that...cute..." Xena began to laugh. When she saw the bard's serious face, she put her hand over her mouth to smother the grin and laughter.

"Xena, that was embarrassing, not cute." Gabrielle began to pout.

"Stop that. Here, did you think you were going to distract me enough to get out of drinking this?" Xena asked.

"Worth a shot." Gabrielle retorted and grinned.

"Drink," Xena commanded and held out the mug.

Gabrielle began to wrinkle her nose and stick out her tongue. When she saw 'the look', she then thought better of it. She obediently took the cup and as she brought it to her lips, took a sniff. Her face brightened. Mint. Hmmmmm. Gabrielle sipped the tea. It still tasted bad but it was a little more tolerable.

"All of it, my bard," Xena ordered.

'The look' was still there and for added intimidation factor, Xena had her arms crossed in front of her. Gabrielle realized the warrior meant business and gulped the rest down.

"Now, bedtime for bardy." Xena said as she took the empty mug away. She then began to tuck the blanket snugly around her friend.

"I'm not tired," Gabrielle protested, as she tried to stifle a yawn. "Tell me a story...puleeeze?" Gabrielle whined in her best child-like voice.

"Gab...bri...elle..." Xena said, with mock annoyance. She looked at the bard who promptly batted her eyelashes a few times and then attempted a lost puppy dog look. Xena sighed, rolled her eyes and relented. She pulled the blanket up to Gabrielle's chin and gently tweaked her nose. Gabrielle grinned and closed her eye.

"Gabrielle," Xena spoke softly. "I only remember one story told to me when I was young. It was about two orphans who decided to search the world for their families. I don't remember all of the parts..." Xena tried to explain. "It's all about their adventures and how they kept searching. But the part I remember most is the end."

Xena paused and looked down at the bard. Her face looked so peaceful in spite of the bruising. The warrior also noticed her breathing had evened out...she was already asleep. The sleeping herb she put in the tea had already taken effect. The warrior continued her story anyway, speaking aloud in a soft whisper.

"When the first man reached the end of his journey, he found himself at the beginning. The family he had sought... had traveled the world with him... the only family he had ever known, ever needed."

Xena looked down at the sleeping bard and smiled.


Chapter 13: Day 6 to Day 9

Xena rose from her sleep fur and stretched her long body. She heard the familiar pop as her spine settled into place. She padded barefoot over to the saddlebags and got out her bathing supplies and linen. Xena quickly and quietly washed up in the hot spring and donned her familiar leathers.

It had been a long night. Gabrielle slept deeply, thanks to the healing herbs and sleep powder. Xena was grateful they still had some but their supply wouldn't last much longer. The bard needed sleep to heal properly. She also needed good food. Gabrielle had only eaten a little of the broth that Xena made yesterday. Xena hoped that the bard would be feeling better today and that her appetite would return. While Gabrielle continued to dwell in Morpheus' domain, Xena moved around the cave and took inventory of their supplies. They had plenty of dried vegetables but she knew that Gabrielle's battered body would need something more substantial. A short hunting trip was necessary. Xena hoped that since the snowfall came on suddenly that maybe, just maybe, the forest animals were not prepared for winter yet either. They would be out scrounging for food; this would make hunting a lot easier.

Xena put up a small pot of water and began to gather the makings of tea. She heard the movement and turned to see Gabrielle blinking awake. Xena smiled over her shoulder at the bard and continued to make the tea.

"Good morning, Sleepyhead" She said cheerfully. "How do you feel?"

Gabrielle yawned and gingerly stretched, cringing and stopping when she felt the pull on the stitches in her back. A small whimper escaped her lips and she looked up to find Xena frowning down at her.

"I...my...my body feels like I've been run over by a chariot," Gabrielle said with a half smile, "but the Amazon drums finally got tired and quit." Gabrielle yawned again. "What's for breakfast?"

Xena's frown immediately disappeared, and a knowing smile appeared in its place. This smile was instantly mirrored by the bard. She handed Gabrielle a cup and sat down cross-legged by the bard. She watched as her friend sipped the fragrant liquid. Their early wake up ritual banter returned and both relaxed into the familiar pattern of the morning. Xena began to tell Gabrielle of her hunting plans. The Warrior was totally surprised by the reaction. Xena watched as Gabrielle's relaxed happy look turned quickly into pure panic. She could actually hear the bard's thundering heartbeat.

"Gabrielle, we need firewood and we need food...especially you..." Xena said, "a lot," she added with a twinkle in her eye, trying to lighten the mood.

"Xena, we have plenty of dry stuff...you really don't have to go do you?" Gabrielle asked.

"Gabrielle, your body has been through...Tartarus," Xena swallowed hard. "You need nourishment. The quicker you heal the faster we can get out of here." Xena said and then thought...and the faster we find the bastard that did this to you.

"But Xena..."

"Gabrielle, I promise I won't be long. I just want to set a few snares and see what else I can find. Maybe some of those blackberries..." Xena mentally slapped herself when she realized the painful image those damned blackberries must have brought back to Gabrielle. One look at her face, confirmed Xena's thoughts. Xena stood and turned her back to the bard. "Look, I'll leave Argo to keep you company."

"Xena, Argo hates me." Gabrielle stated flatly.

"Gabrielle, Argo doesn't hate you..." Xena answered with a smile, "and besides, she talks more than I do." Just then the horse neighed loudly and shook her head up and down as if to agree with the Warrior. Xena walked over to the golden warhorse and stroked her nose. "See..." Xena continued, "I wish the two of you would get along."

"It's not like we're at constant war or anything," Gabrielle said. "Argo just doesn't like me."

"Sometimes you have to have patience with things that annoy you." Xena stroked Argo's silky mane.

"I never said she annoyed me," Gabrielle countered.

"I wasn't talking to *you*." Xena said looking over her shoulder at the bard.

Gabrielle tried desperately to force back the smile creeping onto her lips. For an instant she forgot all about the fear and panic of being left alone. The sound of Xena gathering her hunting gear jolted her back to reality.

The Warrior pulled her cloak on and fastened the laces. She then turned to offer one last bit of reassurance to the bard and found her staring off into space, her mind apparently roaming and a dejected look upon her face. Xena walked back and knelt beside the bard.

"Hey, c'mon..." she spoke in her lowest register as she lifted the bard's chin. "I won't be gone more than a few candlemarks, I promise." Then she stood and turned. "Argo, guard," she commanded and watched as Argo moved quietly into place by the bard. "You won't even miss me," she said casually, as she reached the cave opening.

The plea was low, just a whisper but Xena's keen hearing picked it up..."Don't leave me."

Xena's heart shattered. The Warrior's teeth clenched and she closed her eyes tightly. Xena silently sighed as she exhaled the breath she didn't realize she was holding. She turned and went back to the bard, making up an excuse for why she couldn't go out just yet. The smile on the bard's face was all she needed to see. A smile for which she would gladly go through Tartarus. She would go hunting a few candlemarks later that day but she would have to resort to drugging her friend into several candlemarks of unconsciousness first. Yup, Tartarus and back. She just didn't know just how prophetic those words would turn out to be....


Xena pushed the makeshift curtain open with her shoulder, her arms full of firewood. The movement against the rocks caused a small pile of snow from a ledge above to fall onto the warrior's raven black mane. She shivered lightly as some of the snow melted and worked its way under the cloak's collar and slid icily down her back. A slight chuckle escaped her lips. Although she had been gone longer than she had intended, she was sure the bard had not awakened from her herb-induced nap. A quick glance down at the still form of the bard, reassured her in a flash.

"Hey Argo, how are ya girl?" she asked, as she stepped around the horse. "Good girl, I see you kept an eye on things while I was gone." She set the firewood down and walked over and patted the mare's shoulder. Argo nickered softly and lipped Xena's hair. "Let me get everything settled and I'll give you a treat...how's that, huh girl?" Xena waved her hand, motioning the horse to move to the back of the cave. She watched with pride as the well-trained horse immediately followed her command.

The Warrior then turned around and strode purposefully back toward the cave opening. She needed to retrieve the rabbits and fish she had left outside the cave. Xena stepped back into the cave and set her precious cargo by the saddlebags. She made one more trip outside for the rest of her hunting gear. Xena returned and reset the makeshift curtain, then walked over and knelt, carefully stowing the gear back in the saddlebags where it belonged. She then stood, unlaced her cloak and, in one motion, pulled it off her shoulders and snapped it out clearing off the snowflakes that had accumulated. She tossed it casually in the corner of the cave. The tall Warrior let her chin drop to her chest and lightly shook out her hair. Her fingers finished the task of clearing it of any errant snowflakes. Turning quickly, she set about the job of cleaning and preparing the meats. As she reached down for her boot dagger, her vision caught a small movement down to her left. Her eyes quickly focused on a very intense green eye and gaze being returned. The bard was awake and apparently furious.

Gabrielle began her tirade with a few choice phrases that would even make an old sailor blush. Xena wondered just where she learned those...Aah, Cecrops' ship. Xena bit back a small grin. The Warrior silently stood looking down at her irate friend. She stood tall but with her hands behind her back, nervously shifting her weight from foot to foot. I have stood before Kings and Gods, and have never felt like this. Xena, once the Destroyer of Nations and ruthless Warlord... being...being scolded by a petite little bard! Gods, I'm glad no one else will ever find out... Xena stood drinking in the irony, still trying desperately not to show any outward emotion, knowing it could only make things worse. Xena continued to listen to the scolding, and found out that Gabrielle apparently had awakened a few candlemarks before and had figured out what Xena had done. She also knew it was hopeless to try to get in a word while Gabrielle was on a rampage. Well, Xena thought, and she wonders why I call her 'Red'.

Xena mind drifted to her hunting trip. We now have enough food stores at least for a while. Those snares yielded several rabbits that were probably out looking for their own tender grass dinners. The short trip to the river produced a nice string of fish. All in all, Xena, ya did good, She thought to herself and smiled inwardly. They now had plenty of meat to add to their stews and the snow would preserve what they didn't cook until they were ready to use it. Xena also managed to find a chestnut tree. They would make a nice treat, Xena thought. BUT, Gabrielle *is* angry and, boy is she letting me know it! Xena wondered, was it was worth it?

She heard Gabrielle stop and take a deep breath and knew from experience that the bard was beginning to wind down. Maybe now I can get a chance to explain, Xena thought.

"You left me alone!" Gabrielle screamed.

"Only for a few candlemarks...you were fine," Xena replied.

"You left me alone, I was *defenseless*, Xena," Gabrielle said angrily, emphasizing defenseless.

"Argo was here. I wasn't far away," Xena tried hard to explain, her voice began to take on a defensive tone.

"Xena, what if...if they came back...you left me alone... again" she said softly. The last word's implication hit Xena harder than any blow she had ever taken in a fight. The instant she said it, Gabrielle wished she could take it back. For the briefest moment, Gabrielle's eyes locked on Xena's and she knew she had gone too far. Gods, why did I say that? "Xena, I'm sorry," she said sadly. "I didn't mean that," she smiled weakly and swallowed hard.

"It's okay, Gabrielle," the Warrior said, "I'll live."

Xena turned around, away from the bard and took a deep breath. She quickly donned the Warrior mask and pushed down the hurt. She turned back to look at the storyteller.

Gabrielle winced at the now cold look in Xena's eyes. The bard had seen this mood before and knew it was fruitless to try and change it. Stupid Gabrielle, stupid, stupid, she thought. Maybe tomorrow...let's just try not to make it any worse tonight. The rest of the night was spent quietly; Xena completed the chores with silent precision. After cooking dinner and rebanking the fire Xena settled down to sharpen her sword and work on her armor. Since her bruised hand would not allow her to grasp a quill... writing for Gabrielle was out of the question. Gabrielle just rested and watched her friend. The silence was deafening and she half-wished for the pounding Amazon drums that plagued her head earlier.

The bard was sound asleep finally and a gentle snoring filled and echoed in the cave. Xena grinned a crooked half-smile down at her, then turned and walked over to the cave opening. She moved the rocks and makeshift curtain aside and stood in the opening leaning on the stony gray wall. The night's howling wind had died down and the air was dry and crisp. Xena blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the bright afternoon sunlight. She took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. She watched in silent fascination as the foggy mist swirled in front of her eyes. She gave a quick glance over her shoulder, back to the peacefully napping bard and then slid down the wall. She tucked her knees up in front of her and wrapped her arms around her long legs.

Xena's mind began to drift. It had been a long few days. Hades on Gaia. Gabrielle's wounds were recovering nicely; the baths in the hot mineral spring were helping tremendously. The fever and infection were gone but the concussion was apparently still causing problems. Or was it? Gabrielle was sullen at one moment and jovial the next. Her mood swings were wearing Xena down. She didn't know what to do. Seemingly, nothing she did was right. Gabrielle was sleeping very fitfully...they had long since run out of the sleeping powder which kept the nightmares at bay. Oh, the nightmares. The nightmares had returned with a vengeance and each time Gabrielle awoke from them, she claimed not to remember anything. When pushed to try, her mood changed and an argument ensued. It was almost as if Gabrielle doesn't want to remember, Xena thought.

Xena knew her friend was reliving the beating over and over again. The anguish on her face told the tale but Gabrielle refused to talk about it. As Gabrielle retreated further and further into herself, so did Xena. A weary silence grew between them. As Gabrielle's remoteness grew, Xena felt the darkness calling. The Warrior was anxious and determined to get to the bottom of all of this...who or what did this to her best friend.

Xena just sat there staring and brooding. Her bard was safe...yeah, right...her mind began to fill in all the possibilities. For now. She remembered Gabrielle's unintentional admission the other day. How many more times would I put her in danger? Every time I thought I was helping...leaving her safe...I end up hurting her. My past will always come back to haunt me...her...us.

By the gods, she almost died...again. Maybe this will be the final time...maybe she will leave this time...for good. Xena trembled at the last thought. She thought about all the other times. Gabrielle had left her three times. The first was to follow her dreams at the Academy. The second time she went home. Her confidence had been shattered by the incident in the ravine...she froze. Then there was her marriage to Perdicus. Xena shuddered at the thought of Perdicus. That was a whole other guilt. I created the monster Callisto. Gabrielle and Perdicus paid the ultimate price.

This is not about me...this is about her. Her body was healing but what about her mind. The bard was beaten almost to death...why? The mumblings that I heard while Gabrielle was delirious suggested that the...whatever ...was after me, not the bard. Another mess from my past.

She remembered asking the bard a short time ago, another time and another place ago...just how many more times would she follow her blindly into battles...how many more times would she allow herself to be hurt...forced into fights just because of the Warrior's past actions or reputation and her quest for redemption?

"Where you go, I go," Gabrielle answered.

"Just that simple?" Xena asked, disbelievingly.

"Yup, just that simple." Gabrielle stated confidently. "Xena, do you remember what I told you a long time ago?"

Xena stared into the bard's eyes, and then she smiled in gentle recognition as Gabrielle repeated the treasured words Xena had heard so long ago.

"That's what friends do, they stand by each other...no matter what." she said, with a broad smile.

Xena sat and stared out the cave opening. She watched a hawk making lazy circles in the clear blue sky. Then her eyes drifted down to the fluffy white snowfall and drifts. Gabrielle said that to me right after we met. Right after she started following me...we hadn't known each other long. I was still the feared warlord. She called me friend. What would she have been if I hadn't let her follow me? Or if I had never been born... She remembered the incident with the Fates at their temple...She saved the temple from a group of raiders and thieves and in the process killed a boy. She stumbled into the temple distraught and looking for answers. The Fates told her that they owed her a favor for saving the temple. They owed her and she asked for the favor. She wanted the boy's life back...she wished she had never become a warlord. She remembered telling the story to Gabrielle much later... a few moons after Perdicus's death.

"Gabrielle, do you remember what happened outside the Temple of the Fates?" Xena asked. Xena poked at the campfire with a stick.

Gabrielle thought for a moment. "You almost killed that boy and then you gave me a hug, for no reason...yeah, I remember, " Gabrielle said.

"It didn't happen that way, " Xena said and took a deep breath. "I killed the boy." She stood up and stepped back over to their log seat and sat down. She turned and looked into Gabrielle's green eyes. "I was so disgusted with everything that I went inside the temple and I asked the Fates to change the outcome. They made it as though I had never become a warlord. The only condition was that I never shed a drop of blood in anger...or everything...everything would revert back to...normal." Xena cringed at the last word.

Gabrielle looked at the Warrior's face. The stoic mask was gone. All Xena's emotions were there on the surface. Gabrielle's heart ached for her friend; she knew this was not easy for her. "What was it like Xena?" Gabrielle asked quietly with a bit of dread and a touch of fear.

"Mother was dead, " Xena said solemnly. "But Lyceus was alive and had grown up into an extraordinary man." The pride in her voice was quite evident. "I was ...different. I never picked up a sword...I was a simple innkeeper. Cortese, nor Caesar, nor Draco nor any of that...none of that ever happened."

"What's happened Xena?" Gabrielle found herself asking but she knew where this was headed.

"Well, I wasn't there...to prevent you from being taken by slavers, Gabrielle. Mezentius...had you," Xena's voice crackled with emotion.

"Did you see me there? Did we meet?" Gabrielle found herself tumbling down an emotional path that she knew she didn't want to go down but she was drawn anyway.

"Yes," Xena answered.

"What was I like? Did I know you?" Gabrielle asked quickly.

"No, you didn't know me...really. But there was still some kind of connection." Xena smiled a little half smile at the thought, and then sobered a moment later. "You were a very... angry person...they had done some really horrible things to you. I tried to help you."

Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She turned toward the bard and looked into her eyes for a moment. Then Xena dropped her eyes to the ground. "At one point you told me you hated me," Xena said quietly.

"No...Oh, Xena...no..." Gabrielle said then her hands cupped her nose and mouth. "I could never hate you," she said, emphatically after she removed her hands.

"Gabrielle, this wasn't you...you were very bitter, very angry." Xena lifted her head and looked back at the bard.

"What happened Xena?" Gabrielle's voice broke and her eyelashes filled with unshed tears.

"Mezentius, Krykus and Caputius formed an alliance to conquer everything in site... The Amazon nation was in ruins...they already had taken Potadeia and were now after Amphipolis." Xena silently chuckled and shook her head; she turned and stared at the crackling fire again. "Lyceus wanted to stop them. There was a fight...he was...begging...begging me to help...I wouldn't...I couldn't…then..." Xena paused to gather her emotions. Her tears were freely falling now.

"Then what?" Gabrielle inquired softly. She felt her heart breaking as she watched the Warrior Princess reliving those painful memories.

"I saw...well...it showed me that some things are worth any price. I picked up a sword and killed the next man I saw...everything righted itself."

"Lyceus died...everything went back, right?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes...Lyceus was...was dead, Mother was alive...I became and spent 10 long years as a ruthless warlord.

"What did you see Xena? What was worth all the peace?" Gabrielle reached over and gently turned Xena's face to hers. She softly wiped the tears from Xena's cheeks, trying to offer comfort and trying desperately to understand. What could cause her friend to give up everything...everything she has wanted for so long?

Xena blinked a few times and reached up and grasped Gabrielle's hand. She held it in her own and lightly squeezed it. She took a deep breath and continued. "I saw you kill Mezentius, Gabrielle...I saw you lose your soul. You gave into the hatred and the pain and the violence. I couldn't live with that, Gabrielle...I just couldn't..."

"You gave up your peace, a whole new life, your brother's life, your very soul...for me?" Gabrielle's tears began to flow, as she thought of the extreme sacrifice her friend had made for her.

"In a second, without a thought and I would again. You are the most important thing in my life, Gabrielle. You gave me back my soul, my self-respect...you taught me so much. All this time...you thought you were the one learning about life, Gabrielle...you taught me...how to live again, how to love, how to trust...I owe you so much. How could I trade all that...for..." Xena left the last part go. She took a deep breath and then softly added, "I finally learned that something good has come out of my dark past, something irreplaceable...you."

Xena shuddered...I wouldn't have been there for her. Gabrielle? A slave? What if I didn't let her follow me? What would she be now? Wife? Mother? I did try to get her to go home...she is so stubborn! Gods know I was rough on her but she just hung in there...kept chipping away, chipping away at all my carefully constructed walls. She stood up for me when no one else would, not even my own Mother. She taught me how to live and enjoy things again...how to trust, how to love...and this is my repayment...I put her life in constant danger...

Gabrielle forced herself to sit up. She looked quickly around the cave. The slight chill in the air and the bright light casting shadows on the wall told her where Xena was. She carefully turned her body and looked toward the cave opening. There she saw her best friend, her face firmly in the grasp of the stoic mask of the Warrior. Gabrielle hated times like these. She knew that Xena was brooding and would for a long time. Her warrior persona was fully intact. The darkness was calling. She practically knew Xena's thoughts.

Right now, Gabrielle thought, she is brooding about my injuries and she is getting way over protective. Yeah, thanks to me! Hades, she is contemplating parting again. I won't go...not now...not again. I have left her three times before. Each time she gave me her blessing and each time I knew it hurt her...

Doesn't she understand...we are forever joined...two halves to the same soul. We may go on to separate lives but we will never be really apart...never. I left the first time because of the Academy...I learned a quick lesson about dreams and reality and the differences. Why study adventures when you can live them. But I had to find that out the hard way. She welcomed me back, like I never left. The second time was different...I saw myself as a liability. I tried to convince myself that I was a danger to her...I proved a lot to myself that time. I realized I had learned a lot from her and put all my lessons to good use. The third time...Perdicus, sweet Perdicus...he was just a mistake. He said the right three words...the words I had wanted to hear forever. He paid the ultimate price. Callisto killed him. I got angry...I wanted to kill her. I tried to force Xena into giving me sword lessons. She reluctantly agreed. Then that night...oh, the prayer. Xena, you didn't think that I heard it, did ya? I'll never forget it...never.

I know you thought that I was sleeping but I just couldn't...all I could think about was Callisto and revenge. I watched as you silently walked off into a small moonlit clearing a short distance from our camp. I quietly followed. Why? I dunno...maybe because I thought you were trying to cheat me, somehow, out of my revenge...planning something without me. I was so wrong. I watched as you slowly unsheathed your sword and drove it into the hard earth in front of you. Then you knelt. I wondered what you were doing. I suddenly realized that you had tendered your sword, your most valuable possession, the symbol of your very identity as an offering to the Gods...you were preparing to pray. I continued to stare in disbelief and then... the words, in the softest, most disheartened voice I ever heard found my ears... I listened as you said...

If anyone's listening, you know I'm not much for praying, but I don't know what else to do. I was ready to give up once and Gabrielle came into my life. It is such a hard world out there. Please...please...don't let the light that shines out of her face go out. I couldn't stand the darkness that would follow.

The only time I ever heard her pray and it was for me. FOR ME! That's when I knew. Xena needed me. Three simple words. I always knew but I *needed* to hear them. Just as much as I came to depend on her, she needed me too. I grew up a lot that day...more than I should have had to.

By the Gods...I know I have been a pain the last few days. Turning on her in anger over the least little things, acting like a scared little child. What is bothering me? I remember the beating. How do I tell Xena I'm afraid? I failed myself, and her. How can she ever trust me again? I don't even trust myself or my own judgment and skills. How can I protect her, as I know I should? I let myself be taken. I should have paid more attention. But please don't send me away...please. What does Xena always say? Don't apologize; just improve. I swear by the Gods, Xena...I'll do better, I promise. Please don't make me leave...my home.

Xena felt a chill run up her spine and she realized instantly that it wasn't the cold. She blinked a few times and turned to stare at the green eyes she was certain would be staring back at her. Gabrielle swallowed hard as she looked across the cave into the Warrior's face. Even at that distance, she could see that the vibrant blues were now dull, dark gray and vacant of all emotion. Those eyes pierced right to Gabrielle's soul. The bard felt all the hurt, all the guilt, all the confusion, all the anger and all the darkness seeping into her partner. Gabrielle looked deep into the darkness of the Warrior and did the only thing she could think of to do... she stuck her tongue out.


Chapter 14: Day 9

Ice, that's what it is...blue ice, thought Gabrielle as she continued to stare into the pure coldness of the distant eyes of the Warrior. Gabrielle's tongue was defiantly sticking out. She waited for what seemed like eons, looking for a reaction...c'mon Xena...c'mon.

The Warrior had looked up from her intense study of her boots. Xena's head was tilted slightly to the side, her face was stoic mask, her eyes were blank and unemotional. Gabrielle thought that Xena was looking right through her. Xena turned back to her boots; her hand began to casually play with the lacings.

Unable to register a response, Gabrielle threw all caution to the wind...well, in for a dinar, in for a kingdom... "Pppppsssspttt!" she added the sound to the waggling tongue.

Xena, momentarily startled by the unexpected sound, turned and looked at the bard, blinked once then quickly looked away...slowly she let her eyes return to Gabrielle. Gabrielle watched breathlessly, desperately hoping for a reaction. Xena blinked several times slowly and continued to stare. The bard watched as Xena's eyebrow began to arch into her hairline. The tall Warrior pushed back on her hands and sprang to her feet in one swift motion; her eyes never breaking contact with the bard's face. Suddenly she turned, hastily one-arming the curtain aside, and stepped out into the cold air.

Gabrielle sat stunned. She silently pulled her tongue in, and then continued to stare at the swinging curtain and the empty space where her friend had been sitting. OH Hades, what did I do? She thought to herself, her hand began to sweep, in idle strokes, across the soft fur blanket.

Gabrielle closed her eyes trying to quell the forthcoming tears. It had been a rough few days. Both of them had been in bad moods for different reasons. She let her chin drop, with quiet resignation, to her chest. If this weren’t so sad it would be funny. She softly snorted a low chuckle at her own insensitivity and stupidity. How could I have been so dumb? She shook her head, incredulously, from side to side as the tears began to fall. Stupid, stupid, stupid... Gabrielle mentally slapped herself, when Xena gets in this kind of mood... Oh Gods, what a mess. She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled a quiet sigh.

She heard the curtain move and felt the slight chilling change in temperature of the air in the cave. She closed her eyes tighter and left her chin still resting on her chest. Gabrielle could feel the hammering pulse of her rapid heartbeat. She heard the soft footfalls and recognized instantly the gait of her partner as Xena approached the sleeping furs. She felt Xena crouch down in front of her; sensing her nearness by the change in the air and the slight breeze caused by the motion of the Warrior.

"Gabrielle?" Xena spoke quietly but commanding.

Gabrielle sighed but said nothing and moved even less.

"Gab...bri...elle," Xena said in a slightly more commanding tone. "Look at me. Please?" She added softly, as an afterthought.

Gabrielle shook her head no from side to side but did not raise her chin or speak. Her eyes remained tightly closed and her brow crinkled under the strain.

Gabrielle felt the soft, momentary touch of a hand on her shoulder. Just as quickly the whisper touch was gone. Then she felt a long, cold finger under her chin, gently lifting her face upward. Her eyes remained tightly closed.

Xena saw the tear tracks in the dust on Gabrielle's skin and her heart began to melt. For a moment, she had second thoughts to her next action... Nah, I can't do this... She paused for a split second. Oh, yeah I can... "GAB...BRI...ELLE," Xena commanded in a low, growly, all business tone. "Look at me."

Gabrielle gulped and reluctantly complied immediately. She prepared herself for the cool forceful glare she knew would be waiting for her. What she didn't expect was... a face full of snow. As she sputtered and sighed and wiped the cold, drippy white stuff from her face, Xena rocked back on her heels and laughed. Gabrielle was utterly speechless, her mouth continued to open and close but no words were escaping.

She flung the last of the wet slush off to the side and locked her eyes onto Xena's face. What she saw was one of the biggest, brightest full-face smiles she had ever seen in her life.

Xena continued to laugh and grin much to the chagrin of the embarrassed and flustered bard.

Xena moved forward and pivoted around. She dropped gracelessly to the sleepskin and forcefully bumped shoulders with Gabrielle.

"This seat taken, Red?" Xena inquired with a smile.

Gabrielle playfully bumped her back. Trying her best to hold a menacing scowl and losing more and more control by the second. She just lost it. Her body gave up and dissolved into quaking giggles.

Xena slid her arm around the shaking bard and pulled her in shoulder to shoulder. She leaned over and rested her head on Gabrielle's. Then moved back slightly and lightly brushed Gabrielle's temple with a kiss.

Gabrielle pulled back, looked over and suddenly felt very sheepish and embarrassed. Xena's smile was gone, replaced by a very wicked grin. She looked into the Warrior's twinkling eyes and at her incredibly highly arched eyebrow. Okay, Warrior, one for you...but I can't let you get too cocky, now can I? Well, I could always....umm, what to do...okay, okay, think Gabrielle, think...umm, let's try...nah, that won't work...umm, I know, I know... She lowered her eyes quickly.

Xena noticed the submissive posture of the bard. Using every ounce of control, she fought to maintain her feral appearance. Paybacks are Hades, my bard... The corners of her mouth defiantly turned upward, betraying the Warrior's control. Xena was glad that Gabrielle's eyes remained downcast as she fought again to hide the quirky grin that overtook her face.

Gabrielle continued her close examination of the blanket; her fingers proceeded to worry with a bit of loose stitching. Okay, now let's reel her in. The storyteller softly exhaled a breath and let her shoulders slouch forlornly forward. Oh, bad Bard, very bad.

Xena heard the bard gently sigh. AW, Hades, I can't do this... Then she watched as Gabrielle's bottom lip began to puff out in a heartbreaking pout. Oh no, no, not the lost puppy look...

"How ya feeling, my bard?" Xena asked softly.

Gabrielle couldn't believe the change in tone and looked up at the Warrior. She was rewarded with another dazzling smile and eyes that showed nothing but love and concern. Gotcha! Gabrielle thought, as she returned the smile. "That was snow wasn't it?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yup...Ya got that right...up close and personal..." the Warrior chuckled and then bumped shoulders with her again, playfully. "It's been snowing for a few days," Xena said. "You'll get to see more of it when you are up and around. It's cold...and damp..."

"Yeah, I kinda figured that part out, thank you very much..." the bard offered, cutting off the Warrior in mid-sentence.

"AND..." the Warrior continued, "it's beautiful outside. Y'know...it can be fun to play with too," Xena said, and then humorously lightly tapped Gabrielle on the end of her nose.

Fun, huh? Gabrielle thought as a glimmer of an idea began to form. She bit back a grin and pushed the idea aside for later.

Xena and Gabrielle sat side by side for a few short candlemarks, not talking, just being. Both of them wanted to approach the same subject but they didn’t know how. Gabrielle continued to play with the edges of the blanket and Xena began to fiddle and fuss with her gauntlets. The friends could feel the pall settling over them both. In the uneasy silence they continued to steal short glances at each other, looking quickly away whenever their eyes would meet.

Finally Xena cleared her throat and started. "We need to talk," she stated firmly.

"Whoa, you want to talk?" Gabrielle inquired sarcastically, trying to lighten the inevitable seriousness of the coming moments. "Are you fevered? C'mere..." Gabrielle commanded and she raised her hand to touch Xena's forehead.

"Gabrielle, stop that!" Xena replied as she slapped away the hand, playfully. "We do *need* to talk." Xena replied emphatically.

Gabrielle didn't have to ask what about...she knew. Xena wanted to know about everything that happened. Suddenly all the giddiness and playfulness was gone. Gabrielle shivered. The cave felt instantly colder and darker. A serious mood had firmly entrenched itself upon the two friends.

Gabrielle turned to Xena. She looked deeply into the blue eyes. She saw compassion and understanding. The bard also saw a glimpse of the anger and darkness lurking just underneath the surface. Gabrielle took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She contemplated her words carefully. Gabrielle reached for Xena's larger hand and gently enfolded it in her own smaller one. She looked down at their hands, relishing the immediate comforting feeling that enveloped her, and then back into the questioning blue eyes of her silent companion.

"Xena," she said quietly... "I'll tell you anything you want to know but first I have to ask you a question, okay?" Xena nodded and lightly squeezed the clasped hands. "Do you remember the promise you made me?"

It was a cloudless night. The full moon was high and it's bright yellow light cast picturesque shadows across the forest. Gabrielle was trying in vain to get Malis to settle in for the night. He had not slept since Callisto had killed his young son a few days earlier. His vengeance was all consuming. Gabrielle gave up after a short while and focused her attention on her stoic warrior friend instead.

Xena was sitting on a log staring blindly into the campfire, lost in her thoughts. Cirra, Xena silently snorted. It was just one of many villages I conquered as a warlord, or was it? I’ve never really given Cirra a second thought until now.

Gabrielle looked over at her traveling companion and quietly contemplated her next move. They had been traveling together for almost two full cycles now. She recognized the signs; Xena was obviously pained about something. Do I ask or not? Gabrielle contemplated. She softly bit her bottom lip, took a breath and walked over to the log.

"Hi," Gabrielle said shyly.

Xena looked up at her, and, seemingly right through her. No emotions were apparent, she said nothing and returned her gaze to the fire.

"Do ya want to talk about it?" Gabrielle asked lightly. She gently, but purposely, bumped Xena's shoulder as she sat down next to the warrior.

"What?" Xena asked, as she poked the embers. Her eyes never broke their gaze on the campfire. She didn't dare look at the bard, nor did she need to. She could feel the penetrating gaze.

"Cirra, " Gabrielle softly whispered.

Xena looked over at the bard and blinked a few times, then turned back to stare at the flames. Her mind raced and her heart lurched into her throat. She didn't *want* to tell her about this. This was part of her past. A past she just knew one day would cause the bard to turn away from her. How could she tell her best friend what a monster she was? Would this be the story that shattered their friendship? Would she leave her? Loathe her? Despise her?

Xena put the stick down and turned to face her friend. The Warrior looked deep into the green eyes that stared back. There was not a question or any doubt in those eyes, just concern and empathy and compassion. Xena took a quick breath, turned back to the fire and began her story.

"It was just another village to conquer." Xena said in a hard monotone, her eyes focused on the dancing flames. "Nothing out of the ordinary." She silently chuckled, a slight smile on her lips. She paused for a moment then continued. "A fire broke out and I don't know if it was one of my men, or just an accident." Xena's voice began to lose its hard edge. "There was a strong wind that day and the flames...they...they just *swept* through the town like a wave of death." Xena shook her head back and forth, as she spoke, her voice filled with self-disgust. Tears began to fall, and Xena wiped them away. She looked down at her wet fingers as she flicked the water away, annoyed at how her eyes were betraying her. "People were huddled in their houses because they were afraid of the... of my...my army. That was the one time that *my* army was responsible for the deaths of women and children." Xena voice began to harden again. "There were just a handful of survivors. Obviously, Callisto was one of them."

"I know she will do anything for revenge," Gabrielle stated.

"I don't blame her." Xena countered, her self-loathing apparent in her voice.

"I do!" Gabrielle quickly countered, in a tone that got Xena's attention. Xena turned to stare at the bard. "When will this end? Look at Malis...I *know* he is a good man, but this hate is making him an obsessed killer. Somebody has to say *no* to this lust for revenge."

Xena turned back to the flames. "That is so hard to do," she said knowingly, staring deeper into the flames.

"You did it, " Gabrielle offered, her voice full of the faith she had in her friend. "When your village was destroyed, you were..." Gabrielle paused as she carefully chose the right word, "*infected* with blood lust, but you overcame it."

"I was lucky. I saw what I'd become and I was able to turn it around, " Xena said and then turned to look at Gabrielle. "But if something happened to Mother...or Hercules...or..." Xena said and she turned back to the flames. "Or to you." Xena added softly. "I might do just the same."

"No!" Gabrielle emphatically asserted. "No, look, you..." Gabrielle pulled on Xena's arm to get her full attention. "No, look, you promise me...if something happens to me...you will not become a monster. There is only one way to end this cycle of hatred...and...it's through love...and forgiveness." Gabrielle's voice was filled with the innocence of the statement.

Xena and Gabrielle both half-heartedly laughed to ease the tension of the moment. Xena at the naiveté of the statement and Gabrielle at the fact she said it. The tension of the moment successfully dissipated.

"Don't you go changing, Gabrielle..." Xena said and she pulled the bard into a hug, shoulder to shoulder, their heads touching. "I like you just the way you are. Now go get some sleep."

Gabrielle pulled back and looked Xena straight in the eyes. The lightness of the moment was now gone and a serious tone was back.

"No." she shook her head. "No, you promise me, " Gabrielle pleaded.

Xena stared into the verdant eyes. Eyes she expected to see filled with disappointment, disgust, loathing, were instead filled with faith, forgiveness, and love.

"I promise, " Xena quickly offered, her heart over-ruling her brain. She didn't know if she could keep this promise but she would try...not only for herself but also more importantly for the bard...her greatest support, her greatest strength.

Gabrielle leaned in and started to wipe a tear away from Xena's cheek. Xena pulled back and waved her hand to shoo the young girl away. As Xena turned back to the flames Gabrielle leaned in and rested her chin on Xena's shoulder. Xena sighed at the stubbornness of her...her friend. She would have to try to keep the promise, how could she not repay everything Gabrielle has done for her.


Chapter 15: Day 9

The silence was deafening. The two companions sat quiet and motionless, each lost in their own remembrances of that particular night by the campfire. Gabrielle remembered her thought, at that time, that it wasn't fair to ask the Warrior to make a promise like that but she also knew that Xena needed to be asked. Xena needed to know that someone believed that she could keep that promise. It is easier to believe in yourself, after someone else has believed in you, Gabrielle remembered thinking.

Gabrielle looked down again at their intertwined hands. She squeezed the larger hand gently and watched as Xena immediately returned the pressure. Suddenly the cave did not seem so cold. Gabrielle took a deep breath and slowly raised her eyes. Xena cupped Gabrielle's chin with her free hand.

"Gabrielle, I will remember...the prom...my promise to you...always," Xena gently said. "You know you can tell me anything... Talk to me, Gabrielle...please..."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, leaned into the hand and nodded. She opened her eyes and gave Xena a wincing smile. The bard motioned Xena to move back and lean on the saddle. Xena scooted back, never breaking their connection. The two companions sat shoulder to shoulder. Gabrielle realized that they now were mirroring the position they were in that night they talked about the nightmare of Cirra. It was exactly as it was but this time it would be my nightmare and guilt. Gabrielle began her tale of the occurrences of the past few days.

The bard started calmly but soon the emotions and pain pushed through and surfaced. Her voice took on new dimension and strain as she recounted the horrible beating at the hands of that...animal. While often pausing to regain her composure, fighting her own tears and anger, Gabrielle would sneak short sideway glances at the Warrior. Xena was staring blankly at the gray granite wall of the cave. Her face was a stoic mask but her mind was reeling as it tried to balance the need for rational thought and the want of revenge at all cost. Xena continued to listen and absorb all the details of the beating.

Xena's thoughts began to clear...between what Gabrielle told her willingly and what she learned from Gabrielle's sleep talking...a very familiar picture was emerging...this ...bastard was after me, not the bard. Because of something I had done, Gabrielle was almost killed...again. My past is coming back to haunt her...just like always. When will it end? When will it be enough?

Xena's heart felt heavy, the deep pain grew as she thought about what happened...How she caused the pain ...pain, I so desperately wanted to protect Gabrielle from...always. Her need for vengeance was blanketing her heart, threatening everything with the darkness she had been fighting against for so long.

As the bard continued her all too real tale, she watched as Xena's free hand began to seriously worry with the fur on the bedroll. It clasped and unclasped the fur, plucking unconsciously. She looked at the Warrior's face and saw no emotions only the rhythmic clenching and unclenching of the strong jaw. When Gabrielle got around to describing the whipping, the last remnants of Xena's control and resolve slipped. The unbidden tears began to fall.

Gabrielle saw the change in Xena's posture as her body stiffened for a moment. Then she saw the tears. The bard could almost read her partners thoughts. I have to stop her from retreating into herself. She is blaming herself again. How can she? When the blame is mine. I wasn't paying attention. I failed.

"Xena?" Gabrielle spoke softly and she squeezed the Warrior's hand.

"Hmmm?" Xena replied, still staring unfocused at the granite walls.

"Xena, look at me...it wasn't your fault...listen to me...please, Xena...don't do this..." Gabrielle pleaded.

Xena turned and looked seriously at her friend. "Gabrielle, if I hadn't left you alone...if I hadn't...it's my past...it's always my past..." Xena's voice trailed off as she fought for the words. Xena quickly stood, dropping their clasped hands and stepped a few paces away. She stood with her back to the bard. "It is always going to be there...you...we...no one I care about will ever be safe from it."

Gabrielle stood up tentatively and wavered a bit but soon caught her balance. On unsteady legs she walked over to the Warrior. She reached her arms around her friend's waist and hugged her from behind. Xena immediately flinched and tried to pull away but Gabrielle just tightened her hold. The bard rested her cheek against the strong, leather-clad shoulders and she continued the embrace. Gabrielle relished the closeness and tried, desperately, to convey all her love and understanding to the Warrior through the contact. The bard continued to hold her. She could hear Xena's thundering heartbeat and after a few long moments her breathing began to calm. Gabrielle took a deep breath and exhaled it. Choosing her words very carefully, Gabrielle began to speak.

"Xena...the world is a dangerous place... You can't wrap me in lamb's wool, y'know? I am responsible for my own life...I know the risks... I have made my own choices. A long time ago, I accepted the consequences of our life together...that it might one day come to something like this...it has. I don't know how or why it has to be like this...I just know it does. But I'm not afraid, Xena...I have to learn from my mistakes, accept the consequences of my actions and go on. It's *my* destiny, Xena."

The bard squeezed once then lightened her hold and allowed Xena to slowly turn around. Xena stared down into the misty green eyes. She smiled and pulled her friend into a gentle embrace, being careful of her injuries. Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. She rested her chin lightly in the mass of red-gold hair.

"You always said I was the brave one, the strong one...look at you now," Xena said her voice filled with emotion.

Gabrielle stepped backward a pace. Her eyes met briefly with the Warrior's and then began a study of the ground.

"I'm not so brave...I'm not so strong...I surrendered Xena...I just gave up," Gabrielle said disgustingly and she turned around to face away from the Warrior.

Xena stepped forward and placed both of her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.

"No." Xena shook her head. "No...you listen to me...you did not surrender anything...what you did was a loyal and noble act," Xena countered.

Gabrielle snorted a slight chuckle, shook her head and looked over her shoulder up at Xena.

"Loyal? Noble? C'mon Xena, I was stupid. I wasn't paying attention. I made a terrible mistake. I got caught. Then I could have fought back, but I didn't." Gabrielle said and then turned her head and walked back to the bedroll.

She dropped gracelessly down, exhaling a sharp breath and wincing slightly from the pain. She pulled her knees up to her chest then rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her face into her hands. Xena walked to the sleep fur. She crouched down in front of the bard. She reached out and placed one hand on Gabrielle's knee.

"Gabrielle...listen to me...what you did was not 'surrender'...what you did was 'sacrifice'. There is a big difference and you know it. You freely sacrificed your safety to protect me. You could have told him where I was, you didn't...why not?"

"I couldn't do that to you, Xena...never," the Bard answered, the words muffled by her hands.

"But you knew that he would continue to...beat you... You could have surrendered, told him what he wanted to hear, and saved yourself. Yeah, well... Still watching out for me, I see..." Xena said, with a lightness in her voice.

"Always...you know how you get into trouble," Gabrielle answered and she looked up with a slight smile on her face. "Besides. I’m the sidekick...it's my job..."

Xena looked down and smiled.

"Gabrielle, you did the best you could do...you survived...you are here...alive...and I thank the Gods that you are." And you are more than a sidekick...much, much more to me, she added in her thoughts. Xena rocked forward and kissed the bard's forehead. She patted her knee twice and stood up. "How about some tea?" Xena asked. And a quick change of subject, she thought.

"Hmmmm, tea sounds good, " Gabrielle replied happily.

Xena busied herself with the tea preparations, fully aware of the growing silence again. Xena added a hefty amount of mint and honey to the bard's tea. She smiled and glanced over her shoulder, back at the bard. Gabrielle was sitting quietly, staring off into space, lost in her own thoughts. Her face showed no residual strain from the emotional conversation they had been having moments ago. Actually, she looked...relieved, Xena thought. Gods, she is amazing. Xena internally winced. She hated to bring it up again but Gabrielle never talked about the...bastard...that beat her. The bard had gone into painful detail about the beating, but still hadn't provided a physical description of her attacker. "Gabrielle," she said evenly, "are you up to continuing this conversation? I still need to know some things..."

Gabrielle snapped out of her daydream and turned her attentions back to the Warrior.

"Sure," Gabrielle sighed, "I guess..."

Xena brought two steaming mugs of tea over. She handed one down to the grateful bard. The Warrior then carefully, so as not to spill the hot liquid, lowered her body back to the sleep fur. She tucked her long legs up in front of herself and sat cross-legged. She lightly leaned into the shoulder of the bard, just enough to get her attention.

"How's the tea, huh?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle took a sniff, then a sip and her eyes lit up. "Mmmmmm, sweet...you do know I like a little tea with my honey, " Gabrielle kidded. "This is great, Xena...but tell me something... How come you can make great tea but can't cook to save your life?" Gabrielle gave her a big smile.

"Hey, ya gotta earn your keep somehow, don'tcha?" Xena kidded back, her eyes shining with hidden laughter. "Besides, I'm too busy catching all that food to keep the monster in your belly happy...the least you can do is cook it..." she playfully, gingerly poked Gabrielle in the ribs and smiled back at her. The two companions sat in silence for a few moments enjoying their tea. Finally Xena broached the subject again. "Gabrielle, what did that ...that...man look like?" Xena asked quietly. "Maybe, I'll remember who he is."

Gabrielle thought for a moment, her green eyes darkened as she recalled the details...and she described the man from his greasy hair to his dull black boots. Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes but could see no sign of recognition. "Oh, and he had this really strange dagger..."

"Strange?" Xena asked.

"Yeah...it...Xena...I got the idea that I had seen it before or something like it, anyway..." Gabrielle looked over to Xena; she knew her own face mirrored the same puzzled look that the Warrior's had.

"What did it look like, Gabrielle?"

"Well, it was smaller than yours...but fancier..." Gabrielle shrugged an apology.

"My daggers are functional...they don't need to be fancy..." Xena said in a mock defensive tone and a slight smirk.

"Anyway...it had a pattern on the swirl hilt...two stars, I think, yeah, stars... and in the middle of each star was a red stone... like a ruby. It was weird, Xena...maybe it was just the firelight but the stones looked like... they were glowing."

Xena's eyebrow shot up in surprise. The bard continued her description.

"The dagger's handle was dark wood and it had a silver pattern inlaid."

"Gabrielle?" Xena questioned, trying hard not to show any emotion in her voice. Just keep it even, she thought. "Do you...ummm...remember...what did the pattern look like, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle thought for a moment. She tilted her head to one side as she pondered. Then she gingerly rubbed the side of her nose. "Well, it might have been a...like a signet or maybe just a couple of entwined wavy lines,"she offered.

"Like snakes, maybe?" Xena inquired.

"Yeah, okay...maybe...why?" Gabrielle asked, the curiosity showing in her tone.

"Just wondering...thought maybe it would give me a clue...y'know..."

From the look on the bard's face, the Warrior knew she needed to give a further explanation. How much do I tell her? "Weapons are sort of personal...no two are alike," her voice trailed off. Well, at least it was the truth, Xena thought. Xena turned her face away from the bard. She set her mug down on the floor of the cave and pushed herself up. Her mind raced...No it can't be...the description...the stones don't fit but...but it's... it's impossible... but no one has a dagger like that...except... Xena tried unsuccessfully to push the thoughts aside...no need getting the bard all upset...I'm not even sure it is...It can't be... Xena turned and looked back down at the bard. She quickly forced a smile on her troubled face and was greeted with a returning one. "Hey, ya hungry...how about some stew, huh?" she lightly inquired.

Gabrielle looked at the Warrior. Gabrielle thought, okay, Xena...you are good...yeah, you have many skills...lying to me is not one of them, however...what are you *not* telling me? "Sure, sounds good," she replied, "and since when have I ever turned down food? Even your cooking, " she chided.

Xena chuckled and ruffled the red-gold hair. She turned and moved to the fire to begin preparing the meal. Her back turned to the bard, Xena's smile quickly faded as she was lost in thought about a vision from her past, or more precisely, a nightmare returning to haunt...No, not again...


Chapter16: Day 14

After the exhaustive and emotional rehash of the beating, the two companions just wanted to forget, if only for a little while. For Xena that would prove to be difficult as her mind continued to struggle with the idea that the impossible was happening ...again. This caused her to become even more protective of her friend. A point that did not go unnoticed by Gabrielle.

With each passing day the bard grew stronger in mind and body. Her injuries were much improved. The bruises on her face were now faded to a pale yellow. The swelling from her broken nose was gone. Although the whip wounds were by no means healed, Xena, in the past few days had begun to remove some of the stitches from the smaller wounds. As the swelling from the bump went down, Gabrielle's dizziness abated making it easier for the Bard to move around.

Xena and Gabrielle spent the days enjoying the beautiful crisp winter weather and the quiet solitude of the glen. Or as quiet as it could be with a talkative bard. They spent long candlemarks together walking through the snowy woods. Each day venturing further and further from the cave but always carefully avoiding the spot where the beating took place.

The peaceful nights were spent in the warm mineral spring or just lazing around the fire. Both had done a world of good. The hot spring had done wonders for Gabrielle's whip wounds and the time spent telling stories or playing guessing games had done wonders for her psyche. Gabrielle relished the return to normalcy.

Gabrielle, dressed in a long shift, was lying on her side stretched out on the sleep fur. The cave was comfortably warm thanks to the hot spring and the cozy fire that Xena had built. She had her parchment in front of her and she was leaning on her elbow, her head resting on one hand. The other hand held her quill, the point of which was being tapped, unconsciously, on her lower lip. The Warrior looked up from her own work and stared at her young friend. She watched as a big smile crossed the bard's face followed by the scratching of quill on parchment.

"Hey, whatcha writing about?" Xena asked lightly.

Gabrielle stopped writing and looked over at her friend. She gave her a dazzling smile.

"I was just writing down everything that happened today...while the details are still fresh in my memory," Gabrielle replied.

"Yeah, well be sure you put down that you got your butt kicked by a certain ex-warlord," Xena reminded her, then chuckled and grinned back.

"Seems to me I remember it a slightly different way, " Gabrielle countered.

"You would, " Xena mumbled, as she picked up her sword and sharpening stone.

Gabrielle sighed as she thought back to that morning, then turned back to her parchment and began to record the day's events.

It was a beautiful, crisp winter day. The sun was shining and it reflected brightly off the white snow. Xena let Gabrielle talk her into going to see the waterfall but only after agreeing to a few of the Warrior's demands. Xena made Gabrielle promise that if the walk got to be too much or if she began to feel too cold that they would end their exploration and come straight back to the cave. Because this was going to be a longer outing than the others both companions dressed in leggings. Gabrielle also wore a heavy woolen tunic and her long hooded cloak. Xena wore her normal leathers and had her hooded cloak on as well. The only weapons she carried were her chakram and her boot daggers. The sword was too unwieldy to carry atop her cloak. The Amazon carried her staff, as usual.

Xena had some apprehension about this walk. She knew that the path to the waterfall passed by the clearing where Gabrielle's beating took place. The Warrior was worried about how Gabrielle was going to react to seeing the area. Up to this point, they had avoided passing the spot. Xena watched as her brave friend stopped and looked at the clearing and the two trees. The bard leaned on her staff as she stared into the clearing. She closed her eyes and as she remembered, a visible shudder ran through her body. Xena stepped up and wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder.

"Cold?" Xena asked, knowing it wasn't the reason.

"No...not really, " Gabrielle replied and she patted Xena's hand on her shoulder. "I'm fine...now."

Both friends continued their journey without looking back. On the way to the waterfall, they explored the forest, stopping to watch a couple of squirrels as they dug through the snow in search of food. Xena found a chestnut tree and promptly picked some for roasting and eating later by the fire.

When they reached the waterfall, Gabrielle was in awe. It was more magnificent than she remembered. Underneath some of the rocks were tiny icicles, which captured the light and reflected it in a rainbow of colors. Xena watched as her friend's face lit up with a childlike sense of wonderment. It never ceased to amaze the Warrior how Gabrielle could see so much bad in the world and still retain a positive outlook, seeing only the good possibilities in everything and everyone.

On the way back to the glen, Gabrielle could hardly contain her exuberance. "Well, Xena, what did you think of that waterfall, wasn't it great?" Gabrielle asked cheerfully.

"Yeah, nice...look, Gabrielle, deer tracks," the Warrior replied flatly

"Just *nice*, Xena...c'mon...it was...magnificent," the bard replied in her best bardly tone. "Cascading water, a perfect cerulean blue...sparkling like diamonds of light as it falls into the deep pool of indigo at the bottom...and...those...those...icicles...like cold ice daggers..."

"Yeah, nice, Gabrielle," Xena replied. "Now will you please be quiet...I think we have a deer here," she added with a tinge of annoyance in her voice.

"Be quiet, Gabrielle...not now, Gabrielle... Xena, thank you for bringing me hunting ...you do know I love it so," the bard said sarcastically.

"Gabrielle, you brought me to the waterfall. Hunting on the way back is an extra. It's not my fault we ran across these tracks. We have to eat y'know?" Xena explained quietly.

The Warrior’s eyes shifted from side to side as she spotted her prey. A young buck was in the clearing about 50 paces away. The deer was calmly rooting through the snow trying to get at the tender shoots hidden underneath.

"But Xena..." was all Gabrielle could say before a hand hit her in the chest.

Xena had loosened her chakram and prepared to send it toward the grazing deer. She held her other hand out to stop the bard from moving forward. Gabrielle, not paying attention, ran right into the hand.

OOMPFT! The force knocked the breath out of Gabrielle. "Hey, what did you do that for?" Gabrielle asked in loud surprise as she planted her staff in the ground forcefully.

Xena watched as the deer's ears twitched and then his head popped up. It wasn't more than an instant and he was gone, running for the deep woods. Xena turned and in one motion swept off her hood. "Gabrielle, how many times do I have to tell you to be quiet?" Xena asked rhetorically. "Gods, Gabrielle, that deer would have lasted us for days and we could have dried the rest... Of all the careless...mistakes...voices carry...you have to be quiet when hunting..."

Gabrielle continued to look everywhere but directly at the Warrior during this tirade. Her eyes flicked up momentarily above Xena's head, and then she lowered them to make eye contact.

"And another thing..." Xena said.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, cutting Xena off in mid-scolding. "Are you mad at me? Are you a little hot under the collar?" Gabrielle asked, with a wicked smile beginning to form and she reached over to adjust Xena's cloak's collar.

Xena stood perfectly still and planted both hands on her hips as she contemplated the answer. The bard was up to something; the wicked smile and the gleam in those green eyes did not go unnoticed.

Gabrielle smiled brightly and pointed upward. Xena looked skyward at the same time Gabrielle raised her staff. She lightly touched a low branch on the tree they were standing under, dislodging snow that fell right onto the Warrior's exposed head. Xena lowered her eyes back to peer into the bard's face. Her eyes grew wide as the cold snow slid down her back caught between the cloak and her leathers. A small shiver ran down her spine. Being ever the stoic warrior, Xena tried unsuccessfully to fight it off, much to Gabrielle's amusement. She continued to stand there dumbfounded at the brashness of her young companion. Xena pursed her lips and then opened her mouth to say something. Then she closed it again. Gabrielle shook her head slightly, smiling and quietly laughing. She raised her staff a second time to the branch and dumped some more snow on the Warrior.

Xena reached up and ran her fingers through her hair, flinging as much of the snow off as possible. Gabrielle just gripped her staff harder as she fought to maintain her balance. She had dissolved into a fit of giggles that wracked her whole body.

"Gabrielle, you think that was funny, don't you?" Xena asked, with a slight menacing tone.

Just as Xena finished that statement, a small blob of snow fell from the tree and landed on the front of her head...quickly sliding over her forehead and down the curve of her nose. As Gabrielle spasmed into uncontrollable laughter, Xena quietly shook her head to remove the remaining snow.

"Heheheh...now, we are even for the snowball in the face," Gabrielle said and she began to laugh again. She closed her eyes as she shook with laughter.

Xena took a quick look above the bard. She quickly lowered her eyes back down and locked them on Gabrielle's face. She called up her best feral look. Once Gabrielle felt the stare and opened her eyes she sobered quickly from her revelry. She took a quick breath and swallowed hard. Xena reached out and gently took Gabrielle by the shoulders and moved her one step slightly to the left. Then she lowered the bard's hood. Xena backed up one step and crossed her arms in front of her chest. The bard was perplexed. Her eyes widened in an unasked question of 'now what?'

Xena dropped her feral look and replaced it with a big smirk. Then she answered Gabrielle's unasked question with her war cry..."YIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYI"

The sound reverberated through the forest. The tree branches quivered. Those closest to the Warrior shook the most and a large patch of snow fell in a heap from the branch above the bard, making a direct hit upon the red/gold hair.

"Oooh, you are such a..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off as she fought for the right word and hastened to remove the melting snow. Her green eyes were squinting in anger.

"What's a matter, bard...speechless?" Xena cut her off and stood there with a full face, tooth-bearing smile.

Gabrielle reached up and removed the last amount of snow from her head. She looked down at the small snowball she held in her hand. "This means war, y'know?" Gabrielle stated and she flung the small snowball directly at the Warrior.

The snowball hit the Warrior right at the loose cloak ties and Gabrielle watched as the slush disappeared into Xena's cleavage. Gabrielle bit her lip and raised her eyes to Xena’s; she shrugged her shoulders and gave a wincing smile. She gulped hard as she recognized the mischievous look in those blue eyes. The bard barely had time to step behind a tree as the first of the Warrior's snowballs was flung at her. An all out snowball fight ensued and escalated. They found themselves traipsing all over the glen in search of each other and the best advantage points.

Gabrielle found herself behind a large tree. She stared off at a bush about 10 paces away. Sure that Xena was hiding there, she contemplated her move. Just then an arm snaked out and grabbed her around the neck, another hand covered her mouth. Instantaneously, she knew it was her friend. She turned gently in her arms.

"There is a rider coming...only one...stay off the road and hide...go" Xena commanded and pointed her to the clump of bushes.

Gabrielle complied immediately. Xena stayed behind the tree until the rider was in sight. From his dress he was obviously no warrior. His clothes were plain, brown trousers and a dark black cloak. His hair was straight, medium long and raven black. The traveler sat tall in the saddle. His face was pink from windburn and the cold. There were no visible weapons. The horse plodded along through the snow. He reined the horse in when he saw Xena.

"Hello, is this the road to Gregor's kingdom?" he asked.

"Yeah, just continue on in that direction...in these conditions it will take you another day." Xena answered and she pointed up the road. Her other hand stayed firmly on her chakram.

"Thanks, my name is Tanian," he said and he offered his hand in greeting.

"I'm Xena," she answered and clasped his forearm, then waited for the normal reaction of loathing.

"The hero," he said brightly and he smiled. "My sister was one of the Hestians that you saved from Draco. My family owes you thanks."

Xena smiled sheepishly. "Tell me, did you come from the mountain pass?" Xena asked.

"No, I came from around the mountains... The snowstorm hit about a half moon into my trip... I thought it would be foolish to try to go over the mountains with all that snow," he offered.

Just then his eyes darted to a movement in the bushes. Xena turned, sighed and reluctantly waved Gabrielle over. "Tanian, this is Gabrielle," Xena said, as she made the introduction. Gabrielle waved at him but remained at a distance.

"Gabrielle, the bard...yes, my sister spoke of you too," he offered warmly.

"Tanian, can you take a message to Gregor's Kingdom for us?" Xena asked.

"Sure, anything for you...for you both..." he said and he smiled at Gabrielle.

"Go to the Silver Salmon Tavern and find the tavern keeper, Debinia..." Xena said. "Tell her that Draco's men are snowed in on the other side of the mountain."

Tanian startled, turned quickly to look over his shoulder at the mountains. "Draco? Is back there?" he asked.

"Draco is snowed in but, anyway...he is no longer a problem, okay?" Xena answered calmly. "Tell her I sent the message...Got it? Ask her to pass that message along to the King. Tell her we will be delayed but will explain more as soon as we can."

"Sure, Xena, I got it." Tanian replied.

"Go now, Tanian, pleasant journey," Xena said and offered her forearm again in a warrior's handshake. Xena watched as Tanian rode out of sight and then turned to her friend. "I thought I told you to stay hidden?" she asked exasperatedly.

"I got cold..." Gabrielle replied and shivered slightly. And besides I couldn't hear anything way over there, she added silently.

"Well then, let's get you back to the cave and a nice fire, okay?" Xena said warmly and ruffled the bard's hair. She pulled up Gabrielle's hood, then her own. Xena wrapped a strong arm around the bard's shoulder, enveloping her snuggly in the larger cloak and they began to walk quietly back to the cave. After a few paces, Xena abruptly stopped. She looked down at Gabrielle and smiled. "Truce, okay?" she asked.

"Yeah, sure Xena, no problem..." Gabrielle quietly agreed.

Xena was sure she saw something in those green eyes that would certainly mean trouble but she was content to let it go... for now. The two companions continued on to the cave.

Gabrielle finished her scribing with a flourish and put her quill down. She gently blew on the ink to dry it. Once more she glanced over it and smiled. "Kicked my butt, huh? Who asked for the truce?" she mumbled, just loud enough for her companion to hear.

The bard carefully got up and walked to the saddlebags. She rolled up her parchment and stowed her supplies inside. On the way back, she looked over at Xena. Xena's eyes shone a bright blue and her eyebrow was very nearly into her hairline. Gotcha! Gabrielle thought. Then she shrugged, smiled a wicked little smirk back and snuggled down to go to sleep.

Xena just shook her head and chuckled a little. Xena thought, it's nice to have you back, Red. Then she began her nightly rituals before turning in.


The Silver Salmon was a tavern like any other. It was in the middle of Gregor's Kingdom, with a livery stable on one side and a cloth merchant on the other. On good days when the wind was blowing right, the tavern was almost tolerable. On the bad days, the smell from the stables mixed with the stale smell of ale and sweat. This made the tavern almost impossible to endure for any length of time except for the few regulars who actually seemed to thrive on it.

The tavern was dark and dank. It was a bad day and from the smell, the stable must have been full. Debinia smiled, she owned the stable too. The tavern keeper was of medium height and muscular. A woman with medium blond hair, worn swept back off her face and tied with a leather thong. Her eyes were a piercing green. The rumors were that she used to be an Amazon Warrior but even her loyal regular customers could never get her to talk about her past. Ale flowed freely and the regulars were deep in conversations about past deeds. Most of the stories changed details daily but no one seemed to mind. Debinia looked up from her busy work wiping down the bar and concentrated her attention on the mysterious man at the end of the bar. He had been sitting there on and off for days. He was dark, with a full face and a long scar. Never ordering anything, just content to watch and listen. His expression was one of boredom. She quietly walked over. He heard her approach, his coal black eyes met hers and she felt a shiver run down her spine. It was like staring into pure evil.

"Hey, sweetie, can I get ya an ale?" Debinia offered meekly.

"No. Nothing. I do not believe in drinking…intoxicants...they dull the senses," he said quietly. "Besides, I like to experience life in all its misery," he added after a long pause.

Debinia's attention was then abruptly diverted to the door. In walked a tall, unassuming man covered in a black cloak. The man walked up to the bar and softly inquired for the tavern keeper.

"I am Debinia," she said.

"I am Tanian and I bring you a message from Xena."

"What is the message?" she inquired.

"Xena told me to tell you that Draco's men were snowbound. They are in the valley on the other side of the mountains. She was delayed and asked if you could get that message to the King."

"Where is Xena?" Debinia asked.

"Xena and her bard friend are about a day's ride from here, at the base of the mountains," Tanian answered.

None of the other patrons seemed to notice that the mysterious stranger had slipped quietly out the back door.


Chapter 17: (late night) Day 14 and (early) Day 15

The pale half moon shone softly down upon the tranquil glen. No sound, save a single wolf's lonesome howl disturbed the night. From the path a lone rider on a chestnut mare approached the clearing. As the horse neared the glen, the rider expertly reined the horse to a slow canter and quickly dismounted. As the boots compacted the snow, a light crunch disturbed the silence. Turning slightly, the rider lightly tapped the horse's rump. The horse continued rider less down the road to the mountain pass. The rider then adjusted the scabbard, resettling the sword and checked the knife sheath. Satisfied to the condition of the weapons, the rider silently began the trip through the treeline.

The cool night breeze blew wispy clouds past the yellow moon, filtering light down, casting eerie shadows throughout the glade and providing convenient cover as the mysterious stranger continued to approach the base of the mountains. As the stranger approached, a gentle stream of light flickered around the windblown blanket doorway. A feral grin, snarled the lips of the watcher and thoughts of revenge filled his mind. Here comes trouble.


A hand gently moved the blanket curtain aside and the stalker stealthily entered the cave. With the left hand braced flat against the wall and the right hand holding the weapon, the stalker slowly crept towards the Warrior. An evil grin and an equally wild glint appeared upon the stalker's face. The stalker continued to move quietly along, past the firepit and the gear, until nothing separated hunter from hunted. A wicked smile quickly appeared and disappeared. Taking one step forward, the stalker moved right beside the prone warrior. The weapon was raised, and then after letting out a long breath, lowered again. Reluctance caused a slight hesitation as the stalker had a fleeting second thought, however, it was quickly pushed aside as the weapon was raised again.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," a deep menacing voice growled.

One pale blue eye opened, and even in the dim light of the dying fire, a mischievous sparkle was apparent. The stalker immediately lowered the weapon and attempted to hide it behind her back.

"Hades Xena!" Gabrielle shouted and stomped one foot down in disgust. "How do you do that...? Yeah, yeah..." she said as she waved off any forthcoming answer with her left hand. "I know, you have many skills...sheesh!"

Xena only countered that statement with an eyebrow arched into her hairline.

Gabrielle looked down at the smug look on Xena's face. Both eyes were open now and a wicked smile formed on Xena's lips. Gabrielle brought her right hand out from behind her back. The bard stared at her hand, her brow furrowed in thought, as she bounced the small snowball a couple of times. She then glanced back down to the prone warrior. She returned the evil grin.

"Gab-ri-elle," Xena growled. "You don't want to do that..."

The Warrior's blue eyes locked intently onto the bard's gleaming green ones. She looked deeply, urging the green ones to follow her blue ones as they flicked to the side. Xena looked at the hot spring then back at Gabrielle. She then repeated the glance. This time Gabrielle followed the motion. When her gaze returned to the Warrior's face, she found the glinting mischievous blue eyes of her partner. She gulped...the meaning was clear...

"Now, Xena ... you wouldn't ... not to an injured woman," Gabrielle asked in a quiet child-like voice.

"You, my bard, are thinking about dropping a cold snowball on me and you are questioning whether or not I would retaliate by dumping you in the spring..."

"Aw, Hades, Xena." she said with resignation as she threw the snowball into the spring. "Y'know eventually, I'm gonna get ya..." Gabrielle countered, trying desperately to sound threatening.

"I know you will try..." Xena replied with a laugh.

Xena threw aside her blanket and got up to tend the fire. Gabrielle immediately dropped down and sat on the newly vacated sleep fur. She leaned her elbows on her knee and laid her chin on her hand.

"Okay, so when did you know I was there?" Gabrielle asked as she let out a frustrated breath. "I was so quiet."

"Let's see," the Warrior countered. "You stubbed your toe on a rock right before going out the door." She pointed to the spot. "There. And since when do you use *that* particular oath anyway?" she asked, with a tone only a mother would own.

The bard shrugged sheepishly.

"You moved the curtain aside and went out the door. I felt the change in temperature. Then you came back in, walked along the wall, behind the firepit and around the gear and moved closer to me."

The bard shook her head, laughing silently. Xena chuckled.

"Why are you up anyway?" Xena changed the subject.

"Just couldn't sleep anymore," Gabrielle replied.

"Okay, who are you and where is my friend Gabrielle?" Xena asked with grin.

"Ha, Ha," Gabrielle replied.

"Well, its daybreak...we might as well get the day started. Gabrielle, you want to go get some snow?"

Gabrielle raised her eyebrow in surprise.

"So we can have tea, Gabrielle... so we can have tea," the Warrior chuckled.

"Sure, Xena...be right back," Gabrielle said, as she stood up.

She moved over to the gear and grabbed a small pot to carry the snow in. Then she moved toward the doorway.

"Gabrielle?" Xena called out. The bard turned around to face her friend but continued walking backwards to the cave entrance. "You might want to pay attention to where you are going this time..." Xena began to say, not looking up, her attention still in the bags she was rummaging through. "And watch out..."

Gabrielle cried out in pain and grabbed her foot. Dropping the pot on her other foot. As she hopped up and down, the same oath as earlier escaped her lips...several times.

"The rock is still there," Xena deadpanned, looking up at the bard's outburst. She turned away quickly to cover her grin.

A few moments later, the bard, limping slightly, was heard still muttering low curses to herself as she pushed through the blanket door leaving the cave. Xena looked up from her breakfast chores when she felt the small draft caused when the blanket was pushed aside. The Warrior smiled, shook her head and chuckled. It was nice to have Gabrielle back...in all her glory...

A quarter candlemark had passed. Xena had all but finished the breakfast preparation and had dressed, donning her familiar leathers and weapons. She looked anxiously at the cave entrance and wondered about the bard. Where is she? She asked herself silently. Xena looked over and spied the staff still leaning up against the cave wall. Hades, Gabrielle, how many times have I told you to take that with you... Xena's sixth sense suddenly kicked in and she was overcome by a feeling of dread. She quickly grabbed the staff and exited the cave.

She pushed through the doorway and walked a few steps out into the snow. Her boot struck something and she looked down to find that it was the pot. Xena heard a slight gasp behind her and in one motion turned and drew her sword. Standing against the gray rock side of the mountain was her bard. A man was holding her. One of his hands was around Gabrielle's mouth, stifling any noise and the other hand was holding a knife at the bard's throat. The man removed the hand from the bard's mouth and quickly repositioned it to increase the hold on Gabrielle's squirming body.

"Xena!" the bard cried out. "Sorry, Xena, I didn't see him..."

"It's okay, Gabrielle..." the Warrior countered evenly as she took a small step forward. "Are you all right?"

Before Gabrielle could answer the man interrupted.

"Nice to see you too, Xena. But then it always is a pleasure... What's a matter Xena...hmmmm...getting careless?"

Xena took another small step forward.

"Hold it right there..."

Xena watched as the man jerked Gabrielle's squirming body back under control. The knife cut a thin line on the bard's throat and a small trickle of blood began to flow.

"Uh oh, look what I did...tsk, tsk, tsk," the man said sardonically.

"What do you want?" Xena asked, her voice reflecting her annoyance.

"What, Xena?" the man replied. "No small talk? No, how have you been? Oh, how I've missed you, Xee-nah."

Xena closed her eyes for a second and took a deep breath. The realization and recognition of the assailant flooded her senses. It was incredible to think it was possible. Xena opened her eyes and, leveling a steely gaze at her nemesis, asked, "How many times do I have to kill you for you to stay dead?"


Chapter 18: Day 15

Xena continued to stare, unblinkingly at her nemesis. Her jaw tightened and her ice blue eyes were menacing. A cold breeze continued to whip her hair around, but she ignored it, oblivious to everything but the sight of her beloved bard being held hostage by a madman. Nothing was going to break her concentration.

"Oh, Xena, you sound like you aren't glad to see me again...I'm hurt," the latter part said with a pout. "Well, y'know Xena...ya just can't keep a bad...ummm...girl...down..." was added, followed by a giggle.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, troubled and puzzled. Her brow furrowed. Girl?? She then tried to turn to look at the man, only stopping when she felt the steel blade move closer to her throat. A slight prick was felt as the knife nicked her again and she stopped moving completely. Unable to turn her head, Gabrielle turned her eyes back to Xena. Pleadingly she asked, "Xena who is this?" and she renewed her struggling.

Before Xena could answer, the man interrupted. "Well, Xena I see you don't keep her around for her brains, huh? What's a matter sweetie...don't recognize me? And after everything we've been through..."

"That's enough...Callisto...let her go," Xena demanded and took a step forward.

Gabrielle's eyes grew wide and again she struggled to look up at the man's face... unable to break his hold on her, she reluctantly abandoned that idea and returned her sight to Xena's face.

"When did you figure it out?" Callisto asked.

"When Gabrielle described the dagger, " Xena answered, her eyes never leaving the bard's face. Xena frowned when she saw the hurt look on Gabrielle's face and she knew her actions had put it there. Damn, I should have told her...I hated hiding this from her, but Hades, I wasn't sure and she was already in such pain...Xena regained her composure and took a half step forward.

"Ah, ah...no, no, no," Callisto warned..."stay where you are. We wouldn't want my hand to slip again...would we, Xena?"

"How Callisto...how did you get out of the lava?" Xena spat out.

Realization suddenly hit Gabrielle as her memories of the lava river and the struggle with Velasca came flooding back; her knees began to weaken and she slumped downward a little bit. Callisto felt Gabrielle's heartbeat increasing and her breathing become rough and shallow...she caught the bard as she slowly sank to her knees, increasing her tight hold on Gabrielle. She juggled Gabrielle slightly as she re-adjusted her hold and forced her to stand back up. Xena used her break in concentration to move another small step forward. She stopped quickly when she met Callisto's eyes.

"Oh, don't worry, Gabrielle...the psycho bitch is still in there... only I got out..." she paused and looked straight at Xena. "With a little help..."

Xena looked back at Callisto, her brow arched.

"How Callisto?" Gabrielle swallowed hard. "How did you get out?" the bard croaked out, her voice filled with panic and emotion.

"Callisto...your...business is with me...let her go," Xena interrupted in a commanding voice.

"No, Xena...I once told you that I was going to kill your soul... I intend to keep that promise." Callisto said, and then giggled again.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. Xena, seeing the renewed panic in those moss green eyes, took another step forward then stopped when she saw the knife move closer to the bard's throat.

"What do you want Callisto?" she asked.

"You Xena...only you. I want you to suffer...suffer like I did. But first, I'm gonna take your second chance away..." Callisto looked down at Gabrielle and then back at Xena. "...Just like you took mine." Callisto's eyes darted back and forth between her captives. "First, let's all get comfy shall we...hmmmm? Toss the staff over here in front of me and then your sword..."

Xena's teeth clenched and she fought to control her rage at the situation. Her eyes grew colder, steel blue and deadly serious.

"Oh yes, and the chakram too...must not forget that lovely thing."

Xena slowly tossed the staff in front of the bard. Her sword followed. Her hand hesitated as she reached for the chakram. She unhooked it from its belt holder, relishing the feel of its familiar bulk. She caressed the cold metal and silently contemplated throwing it.

Callisto appeared to read her mind and shifted Gabrielle in front of her, maintaining her grip around the bard's body. "Now Xena...you don't want to do that do you? You might just hit your...partner, here."

Xena's eyes closed to thin menacing strips and she tightened her smile. She reluctantly tossed her chakram on top of the sword...the metals clanked as they hit and the sound reverberated throughout the mountains.

"Now turn around. Gabrielle, darling, go stand over there..." Callisto said, sweetly. "I have to go tie your precious Warrior up. Don't even think about moving." Callisto removed her arms from around the Bard's body and shoved Gabrielle forcefully away.

OOOmph...Gabrielle barely had enough time to get her hands partially in front of her before her body collided with the rock wall. She leaned heavily against the rough stone as she sought to regain the breath that had been knocked out of her. Xena flinched at the sound of Gabrielle's impact and took a short step forward. Callisto waved her dagger, motioning a possible throw at the unsuspecting Bard's back and Xena abruptly stopped. Callisto walked slowly over to the unarmed warrior. Looking quickly back over her shoulder to check on the position of Gabrielle.

"Turn around and put your hands behind your back." Callisto reached into her belt and pulled a small leather thong. She looped one end of the leather thong over Xena's wrist, and then Callisto sheathed her dagger and grabbed Xena's other wrist. She quickly tied both hands together. Convinced that Xena was secure, she then pushed Xena to her knees. The snow crunched with the impact. Xena struggled to test the bindings. Callisto just laughed. "Now...everybody comfy?" Gabrielle had since regained her breath and had turned back to see what was going on between the warriors. She flexed her hurting hands, noticing the small cuts on her forearms caused by her collision with the rock face. "Oh goodie," Callisto clapped and said in a singsong voice. "It's story time. Hmmm. let's see," Callisto mused, one finger tapping her chin. She began to pace around the downed Warrior and the standing bard. She made no move to pull her dagger, secure in the knowledge of Xena's confinement and helplessness. "I guess I should answer little Gabby's question first... How did I get out of the lovely little lava bath you *two* put me in?" She turned to Gabrielle and scowled. "Wasn't that the question you asked? Well, you see my dears...someone wanted my help."

" Ares?" Xena growled as she continued to stare menacingly at the other warrior.

"Oh, no. Not tall dark and deadly. No, no." Callisto turned her gaze back to Xena. She smiled sweetly. "But it was a god."

" Who?" Xena spat out demandingly.


Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other...although Hera was not unknown to intrude upon their lives; they never thought she would have... The questions shone in their eyes...

"Oh, don't get me wrong...she doesn't really have anything against you", Callisto quickly added. "Well, except that you have a tendency to associate with Zeus' little bastard. No, she and I have a deal...I kill Hercules," Callisto paused, "and I get my life and my body back. Killing you, my dears, is my bonus." Callisto continued to walk around the two, pausing for a moment behind the bard. Leaning over Gabrielle's shoulder, she sighed deeply and then whispered into the bard's ear, "Delicious, no?" Callisto smiled, and then continued her pacing. She stopped a few steps later, turned back and winked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle swallowed hard, and tried, unsuccessfully, to shut down the shudders wracking her body. "Well, Mommy dearest, just didn't count on me going after you first... Oh, I'll still kill Hercules, but you are sooooooo much more important to me. Okay, I guess I owe you the story now. Why don't you get comfy too, Gabrielle," Callisto voice ordered and she pushed the bard to her knees as well.

Gabrielle gritted her teeth as her bare knees came in contact with the cold, wet snow. Although her boots provided some protection, she desperately wished she had worn her leggings this morning. Gabrielle shivered and sought out eye contact with her Warrior. Xena's eyes softened, she tilted her head slightly and offered the bard a comforting smile. She then broke eye contact and lowered her gaze to a point in front of Gabrielle. Then looked quickly back up, her eyes quietly begging Gabrielle to follow her sight line. The Amazon understood the gesture and looked down in front of her. Imagine her surprise when she discovered that her staff was only an arms length away. Her eyes lit up and she smiled at the Warrior. Xena gave her a quick almost imperceptible nod and silently willed her to tamp down her reaction.

"You know Xena...Cirra isn't the only place where our paths crossed...oh no, no, no... Doesn't this body look familiar? Look at this face... this face... oh what am I saying..." Callisto questioned sarcastically. "It's just one face of many...one of the sooooo many you have killed. This one didn't mean anything to you either...did it?" Callisto, in a few quick steps, closed the space that separated them and grabbed Xena by the hair. She forced Xena to look up into the man's dark eyes...she stared at the Warrior's face...hoping for something, some kind indication of recognition... "Well, did it?" she screamed. "Did *it*?" Just as quickly, Callisto let go and turned her back. "Well, he did to me," she mumbled in a low voice, then added in a whisper, "He meant everything to me." By the time she had walked over to where Gabrielle was kneeling, she had regained her composure and her voice took on an even, almost sweet, tone. "You see, Gabrielle, after Xena torched Cirra and killed my family..."

"Her army did that, not Xena," Gabrielle replied in a quiet but defiant manner.

"Oh, sweet misguided Gabby, is that what she told you?" Callisto, cupped and jerked Gabrielle's chin, forcing the bard to look up into her eyes. "Her? Her army? What difference does it make? "She killed my family...they burned alive," Callisto's voice increased in volume and venom.

As Callisto spoke, her hand began to squeeze the bard's chin. Gabrielle raised one hand and circled Callisto's wrist in an effort to get her to let go. Callisto just increased the pressure with each venomous word. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes tightly shut and cried out softly in pain. Gabrielle sensed a shift in the air and she reopened her eyes to a blur of dark leather.


Chapter 19: Day 15

Gabrielle felt Callisto's hand, which was grasping her chin, wrenched painfully away. She opened her eyes to a brown leather blur. The bard watched as Xena drove her shoulder into Callisto's midsection. The surprise and the force of the impact knocked the wind out of Callisto's body and pushed her back a few paces. Both warriors tumbled to the snow covered ground.

Xena quickly got the upper hand and straddled the bulky body, but with her hands tied behind her, was unable to do much. Wanting to stop Callisto, she did the only thing she could...she brought her head rapidly forward and butted her.

The sickening crunch of bone caused by the head butt was quickly drowned out by Callisto's scream of pain. Callisto fought to reverse their positions. She grabbed Xena by the shoulders and planting both feet on the ground, bucked Xena's body off of hers. Callisto then pushed Xena onto her back and threw herself over the prone Warrior.

Xena struggled to loosen the binds tying her hands but they were trapped underneath the weight of both their bodies. Callisto reached down and pulled out her other boot dagger. She reversed her grip and hit Xena in the temple, knocking her unconscious.

Callisto staggered to her feet, stumbling a few steps as she fought to maintain her balance and equilibrium. One hand was clutching the dagger and the other was clutching her bloody nose. She was breathing hard, evident in the cold induced fog generated with each raspy exhale. Callisto was forcing herself to take deeper breaths. Finally, she looked down at the unconscious warrior.

"AARRGGHHHHHH!" Callisto screamed and she began stomping around. "Damn, Damn, DAMN!"

Gabrielle, momentarily stunned by the events, regained her composure and threw herself, protectively, over Xena's body. "Please don't hurt her, " she pleaded. Gabrielle looked down at her partner. She tentatively reached her hand under Xena's head and carefully cradled it. With her other hand, she gently brushed the raven locks aside and examined the bump and cut. The bard removed her hand and looked at the sticky red blood. She frantically searched for something to use to slow the bleeding. Not finding anything, she carefully laid the warrior's head back on the ground and grabbed the edge of her skirt and tore a piece of cloth off. Balling it up she then returned to cradling Xena's head with one hand and pressing the bandage to the cut with the other. She looked back over her shoulder and said, "Please, don't hurt her anymore."

"Oh, Gabby," Callisto said sweetly, "I'm not going to hurt her... I'm going to *KILL* her..." Callisto paused, her dark eyes narrowing. "And you too. She's just gone and ruined my fun with that stupid stunt. I want her to watch...you...die."

The bard swallowed hard at the thought but put aside her fear and continued to look after the fallen Warrior. She removed the cloth and looked to see if the cut had stopped bleeding. Wary of where Callisto was standing, Gabrielle remained in a position to shield the Warrior's body with her own. Okay, Gabrielle, keep her talking...buy some time...C'mon Xena, you need to wake up...think Gabrielle, think... "Callisto, wait... You never told me...ummm...who this man is, or was," Gabrielle said, as her eyes raked up and down Callisto's body.

Callisto's demeanor changed immediately and drastically. The dark eyes lightened and a smile crossed the thin lips. Callisto sheathed her dagger.

"His name was Dimitri, " she said and she began her story. "After Cirra, I wandered in shock. First with a few other survivors but before a moon cycle, I was on my own." Callisto turned to face the bard. "Do you know what happens to innocent little girls, Gabrielle? Innocent little girls alone...on the road?" Callisto paused. Her lip curled in a sneer and her voice deepened. "Repeatedly."

Gabrielle's eyes dropped to the ground and then she closed them. She swallowed hard. "Callisto, I'm sor..."

"Don't say it!" she screamed. Gabrielle's face jerked up at the forcefulness of Callisto's voice.

"Don't even say it!" she repeated and shook her head. Callisto took a deep breath and continued, "Dimitri, and his wife Helena, found me after one of those *encounters*. The raider when he was through with me made a big mistake. He rolled over and went to sleep. Guess he figured I was no threat, that I would just wander away," Callisto said in a wistful tone. Then she chuckled.

Callisto's eyes closed to a menacing squint, her voice was pure sarcasm. "Guess he figured wrong. I took his dagger and I killed him as he slept. I cut his throat." She raised her hand and mimicked the motion drawing her hand from one side of her throat to the other. "Dimitri later told me that when he found me...covered in blood...I was rocking back and forth with the bloody dagger in my hands, humming."

She paused, as if to collect her thoughts. "That was the day I lost my blood innocence."

Gabrielle winced. She blinked her eyes a few times to rid them of the unshed tears that were accumulating.

"Helena managed to get me to surrender the dagger and Dimitri picked me up and carried me to their wagon. They took me home with them." Callisto started to pace around as she spoke. They had no children of their own. She tried to help me but I had such an attitude back then. I wasn't as calm and as stable as I am now." She barked a short laugh. "It took almost a full cycle of seasons. They were my...my...my new family." She smiled. "They loved me as if I was their own...they were so patient, so kind. Helena taught me how to sew and cook, a little... She was a wonderful cook. Dimitri taught me how to fish and to ride." Callisto's voice was light and childlike as she spoke of these pleasant memories. "Then one day... An army came through." Her voice began to harden again. "Do you want to guess whose army it was?"

Gabrielle sighed and took a deep breath...Oh Gods...she shook her head.

"They wanted half of the harvest. One of Xena's soldiers killed Helena when she fought back. Dimitri killed the pig responsible." She stopped her pacing and stood in front of Gabrielle. She looked down at the kneeling bard and the prone Warrior. "I watched as he was dragged before the 'Destroyer'...your beloved Warrior, here." She kicked Xena's foot. "She didn't care that he was just a farmer... or that he was revenging his wife's murder... no, she didn't care...at all," she said with disgust in her voice. "I watched as she gutted him... I saw it with my own eyes... she killed him."

"Callisto, it wasn't her...it was her army..." Gabrielle exclaimed.

"STOP!" Callisto screamed. "Just stop...STOP IT! Stop making excuses for her. It was *her*, *her* sword... she never even asked why he had done it... she just sentenced him to death. That...that...soldier was scum...he deserved to die for what he did...but...Dimitri... Dimitri was a farmer, a poor farmer protecting his own...His own family, " she added quietly. Callisto looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "So you see little bard, he was my second chance." Callisto turned her back and walked a few paces away. "Just like you are, " Callisto said, then paused and corrected herself, "were...hers. She killed him, I'm gonna kill you."

Gabrielle looked around. She saw her staff lying on the ground a few paces away. As Callisto turned her back, she carefully laid Xena's head down and dove for the staff. Rolling back to a semi upright position, Gabrielle swung her staff at Callisto's back.

Callisto, sensing the movement, stepped out of the path of the staff. Gabrielle was thrown off balance and as she tried to recover for another swing, Callisto grabbed the staff with her hands and wrenched it away from Gabrielle. She flung the staff away and quickly pulled her dagger. She pointed the weapon at the bard. Gabrielle, in an effort to avoid the point of the dagger, took a step backwards. Callisto continued to advance, forcing the Bard back until she tripped over Xena's foot. Twisting her body at the last instant, Gabrielle landed, on her hands and knees, across the Warrior's body. Callisto leaned over the bard, who had turned to look into Callisto's face. Gabrielle remained across Xena's chest, shielding the warrior's body. She pointed the dagger at Gabrielle's throat. Gabrielle swallowed hard and blinked a few times.

"It's all over little bardie... It's time to die, " Callisto cackled.

Gabrielle turned her face to look at her beloved partner's face one last time. Gabrielle raised her hand to smooth Xena's bangs aside but instead reached for her breast dagger. She turned quickly and threw it at Callisto.

Callisto screamed as the dagger penetrated her left shoulder. The surprise and the impact made her stagger backwards. She looked incredulously down at the bard and then to her shoulder. Callisto sheathed her dagger and grasped the one stuck in her shoulder. She pulled it out, hissing as the blade was removed. Blood poured from the wound and her left arm hung lifeless by her side.

"Ooh, Xena's little kitty has claws," she said sardonically. She looked the dagger up and down and slowly raised it to her mouth. Her tongue flicked out tasting the blood. "Oh, how nice..." She turned her dark eyes on Gabrielle. She tilted her head to one side. Her lips twitched into a maniacal grin. "I think I will kill you with Xena's own weapon." Callisto stepped forward, raising the weapon to strike downward. "Goodbye, Gabrielle," she said in a sickly sweet voice.

Gabrielle blinked twice and then squinted as a bright blue flash appeared behind Callisto. Her eyes opened wide and rounded as the painfully bright flash transformed into a brilliant shimmering light.

"Hades," Gabrielle exclaimed, in a low tone, as Callisto continued to move closer with the dagger. Gabrielle closed her eyes.

"Oh don't worry, little bard, I'm sure he'll be kind to you...after all, it's not like you have done anything," Callisto said.

"No, Callisto," the god interrupted, he removed his helmet and he placed his free hand on her shoulder. Callisto was instantly frozen in place. "I think she meant me."

Gabrielle opened her eyes again at the sound of the god's deep voice. She tentatively smiled up at him. She quickly looked back down at Xena.

"You still owe me eternity, Callisto. You have faced final judgment. Hera had no business helping you escape from the lava. I've been looking for you." He looked at the male body Callisto was in and said, "No wonder no one had seen you." Then, in a blink of an eye, Hades transformed her back to her own body. "My brother Zeus will hear about his wife's meddling. Come along Callisto."

"No...NO...This isn't fair," Callisto screamed. "What about Xena, what about justice?"

"Xena will face *my* judgment," Hades said and he turned and smiled at the bard. "When *her* time comes."

"She killed him...she killed so many, " Callisto protested.

"So have you, " Hades reminded her.

"She *made* me," Callisto continued, in a high-pitched whine.

"No. No, Callisto...you are responsible for yourself...your choices...your life...your destiny, " Hades said in a forceful voice. "Now, let's go..."

Hades and Callisto began to dematerialize.

"Hades, wait...please?" Gabrielle pleaded softly, her eyes flashed from his to Xena's body and back again.

Hades shimmered and then solidified again. He looked at the bard and his eyes softened. "Xena?" Hades asked.

Gabrielle nodded.

"She'll be fine Gabrielle," he replied, "It's not her time yet. I'll be seeing you....ummm, both...ahhhh, later," he said and smiled broadly.

"Much later," Gabrielle stated with some confidence and an equal amount of question. "I hope," She added softly and grinned back at him.

As Hades disappeared, Gabrielle turned to Xena and began her tasks of ministering to the Warrior. She smiled, secure in Hades assurances that the Warrior was going to be fine.


Epilogue: Day 16

The air was crisp and a cool, slight breeze was blowing across the glen. Gabrielle, dressed in leggings and an oversized long sleeve tunic, sat on a rock staring at the gurgling river. Absentmindedly, she cocked her arm back and flung *yet* another stone in *yet* another futile attempt to get it to skip.

PLUNK! It sank. She sighed and lowered her eyes to stare at her hands.

Xena silently approached.

"Hey, you ready to go?" Xena asked, nudging Gabrielle, who moved over to give the Warrior room. Xena sat down.

Gabrielle raised her eyes to the Warrior's face and half-smiled. She handed Xena a stone and then lowered her eyes back to her hands. "Do you remember the last time we did this?" Gabrielle quietly asked.

"Yeah, it was after that whole mess with Morpheus, " Xena replied. "My first attempt at wisdom...I was brilliant," she said lightly and smiled. "I hope you don't want more," she joked. Looking across at the bard's face, she quickly lost her joking demeanor. "Gabrielle? Is everything, okay?"

"I was just thinking back to what you said that day," Gabrielle said.

They had only been traveling for a few moons. Gabrielle was sitting on a log by a placid pond, silently contemplating the events of the last few days. She had been kidnapped and put through grueling, cruel mental tests...tests, which would ultimately determine her life or death as the bridal sacrifice to Morpheus. Xena had managed to find a way to enter the dreamscape and, against all odds, had saved her...again.

Gabrielle stared at the calm crystal water, lost in her thoughts. She didn't even hear Xena approach.

"Ready to go?" Xena asked, nonchalantly. She sat down beside her friend.

Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Xena, I could have killed someone. I mean...I was capable of it." The bard said seriously, her eyes shone a deep solemn green.

"We are all capable of it. The point is...you didn't cross that line." Xena answered thoughtfully.

"But, I got close enough to peek over...and what I saw scared me." Gabrielle stared into the understanding azure eyes, hoping for answers.

Xena thought for a moment and struggled to choose her words carefully. "See how calm the surface of the water is..." Xena leisurely pointed to the lake. "That was me once...and then..." Xena reached down to the ground and picked up a stone. She quickly sidearmed the rock into the water. "The water ripples and churns...that is what I became."

"But, if we sit here long enough, it will go back to being still again...it will go back to being calm." Gabrielle reasoned.

"But, the stone is still under there. It is now part of the lake. It might look as it did before but its forever changed," Xena answered.

Xena patted the bard's knee and gestured for them to get up. They rose and began their walk toward Argo. Gabrielle purposely bumped Xena, getting the required reaction from the Warrior Princess.

"Y'know for your first stab at wisdom...you did all right." Gabrielle said, good-naturedly.

"Hey, I was just saying that for your benefit...you didn't think I meant it did you?"

"Not me, I wasn't fooled." Gabrielle said as she continued on toward Argo, oblivious that Xena had stopped.

Xena looked back wistfully, at the calm lake and smiled.

"Xena," Gabrielle said, " I did more than peek this time. I would have killed her." Gabrielle paused. "I tried."

"Gabrielle..." Xena interrupted.

"No, Xena..." she countered. "It's all right. I've grown up and accepted my choices. And I will do whatever I need to do to keep us both whole and safe. Just like you do...everyday. I've accepted the consequences of my life. Someday, I may..." Gabrielle swallowed hard, "take a life."

"Gabrielle," Xena said quietly. "Look at me please?" Gabrielle raised her eyes and looked into gentle blue depths. Xena tilted her head to one side. "I don't want...that to happen. I'd give anything to protect you from having to make that decision... ever. But I know with the life that I...that we lead that sooner or later it will come down to it. If you stay with me...someday you will have to make that choice..."

Gabrielle looked at Xena and smiled. "I know, " she said, "and I love you for trying to protect me. You're my friend, my family and my home...you mean everything to me. Xena...I don't want to take a life...but I will if I have to...I believe in you and fighting for the greater good. Gabrielle stood up and took a step towards the river.

"I don't deserve you, y'know?" Xena said to Gabrielle's back.

"Yeah, I know..." Gabrielle said, her shoulders shaking with a chuckle. She turned back to Xena, and stepping forward, offered the Warrior her hand. Xena clasped it and was pulled to her feet. "C'mon, Xena, take me home," Gabrielle said, she turned and started to walk toward the camp. She was stopped when she felt Xena's hand slide from hers. Xena had not moved.

Xena stood, her face stoic. Did she just say...did I hear that right...she wants to go home? "Home?" Xena's voice cracked a little, and she held a breath. "You want to go...home?"

Gabrielle just stared at her, smiling.

"Poteidaia?" Xena asked.

" Uh...no," Gabrielle snorted, "I love my parents...but no."

Xena looked puzzled. "Amazons?" Xena queried.

"Xena...no, not the Amazons either," Gabrielle said.

Xena's brow furrowed. "Ummm...Amphipolis?" she hesitantly offered.

"Well, sure...that would be nice but no," Gabrielle replied, then added, with a little annoyance in her voice, "You haven't been paying attention, have you? I've come to realize that home is more than the place you were born and raised in. As a matter of fact, it’s not really a place, it's a feeling...a feeling of belonging, of acceptance. Home is contentment, happiness...a place where you are accepted as you are, where your soul can be nurtured, where your thoughts can grow." Gabrielle tugged on Xena's arm. "So, c'mon...let's go home...out there...somewhere...together."

The Warrior gently brushed a lock of hair from Gabrielle's face, then lightly laid her hand on her companion's shoulder. Xena closed her eyes for an instant. A grin tugged at her lips, then radiated upward. She sighed deeply and reopened her eyes. Smiling blue eyes connected with the beautiful moss green eyes of her bard. They quietly stared at each other for a long moment. Each, finally, seeing what she needed from the other.

"OK," Xena said, "let's go." The Warrior broke eye contact first; her heart lighter than it had been a moment before. She looked down at the stone in her hand and, deftly, sidearmed it into the river. Four skips and it sank.

"AArrgghhh! How do you do that?" Gabrielle asked in mock annoyance.

Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand and they began their walk back to camp.

"However..." Gabrielle added, "right now, wherever we go needs to have a real bed... a meal *you* haven't cooked..." Gabrielle bumped Xena, playfully. "And a real bath." They stopped next to Argo. Gabrielle patted Argo's neck. "Not necessarily in that order," she added.

Xena leaned in and loudly sniffed Gabrielle. Then grinned. Xena mounted Argo and offered her arm to Gabrielle. "I couldn't agree with you more, " Xena said, as she pulled the bard up behind her.

"HEY!" Gabrielle replied indignantly and slapped Xena's shoulder.

Xena and Gabrielle burst out in laughter as they set off for home.


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