Bound – Part 4

By Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Xena watched the sun creep lower and lower in the sky, spreading broad bands of reddening light across the small clearing they were sitting in. She looked up as Gabrielle returned from a trip to the creek, bearing a folded scrap of linen, and a full waterskin.

"Give me your hands." The bard said quietly, as she resumed her seat, and poured some water on the linen.

"You don’t…" Xena started, then stopped, and moved her blood-stained hands off her lap and over the grass towards her partner. She watched in silence as Gabrielle carefully cleaned all the blood off, making sure she got between all the warrior’s long fingers, and all the way up her muscular forearms. "Thanks." She murmured, when the bard was finished, giving her a little smile. "That feels a lot better."

"No problem." Gabrielle responded, handing her the waterskin. "You look thirsty." She waited for and got the amused look from the warrior. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Drink anyway."

Xena chuckled, and pulling the stopper out of the waterskin, did so. "Glad you thought to bring this with you on the way back." She commented, after a long drink.

The bard grinned. "Injuries required the medical kit and water. You drilled that into me, remember?" she settled back, pressing her shoulder against Xena’s and regarded the scene in front of her with a quiet sigh. "Wasn’t the ending I’d hoped for."

Elani had straightened out Ereth’s crumpled limbs, and made the unconscious boy more comfortable. She had coaxed Gennen into changing his cramped position, for one with his lifemates head cradled in his lap. Gennen had his eyes closed, and seemed to be whispering to his fallen companion. "Is he…" The bard whispered, knowing only Xena’s acute hearing would pick her voice up.

The warrior sighed, and settled a long arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. "I don’t know." She muttered, bringing their heads closer together. "He lost a lot of blood." She glanced up and over the bard’s head. "Here comes the stretcher." Suddenly she laughed. "Gods… look at that."

The forest dwellers were fording the creek, carrying the litter, and perched on top, small paws braced against the movement was Ares.

"Roo!!" He snorted, when his eyes fell on them. "Roo!!!" He scrambled down off the stretcher, and lolloped over to them, tripping over his paws in haste.

"Hello, boy." Xena said, ruffling his fur. "Did we leave you back there all alone? Sorry bout that." He crawled up her chest, and put his fuzzy muzzle up next to her mouth. "Hey.. cut that out."

"Grr." The wolf protested, and proceeded to lick her face.

"Ares." Xena sighed, rolling her eyes, very much aware of the snickering bard at her side. "Enough." She scowled at him, and started to get to her feet, aware of the sudden pressure of Gabrielle’s firm grasp on her arm in support.

Was really glad of it when the world around her abruptly dimmed as she stood and only that grip kept her from crashing back to the ground. "Damn." She muttered under her breath, closing her eyes and willing her head to stop spinning. After a minute it did, and she reopened her eyes and let them focus on Gabrielle’s very concerned face. "OK." She gave her head a slight shake, feeling a twinge in the back of her neck that worried her. "Better."

"You’re going back to bed when we get to the village." The bard said, giving her a direct stare.

Xena grinned. "Ok.. as long as you join me." With a twinkle, that got a grudging return smile from Gabrielle. "That’s better." As she patted the bard’s cheek.

The forest dwellers made fast work of loading Ereth carefully onto the litter, and, Xena was interested to note settled Gennen next to him.

"They did that for us, too." Gabrielle whispered in her ear, as they followed the procession back towards the village.

"I don’t.." Xena started to say, then fell silent for a moment. "Oh, wait. Yes I do. I remember waking up at one point." She smiled. "I remember you being there."

Gabrielle grinned. "Yep.. I sure was." She gave Xena a sideways look. "I guess It was my turn to take care of you for a change."

Xena raised an eyebrow at her, and lifted a hand to brush the errant strands of red gold hair from her eyes. "You always do a good job of that, love."

"Do I?" Gabrielle sighed. "Never seems that way." Her brows furrowed.

Xena stopped, right in the middle of the path, and took hold of Gabrielle’s upper arm, causing the bard to swing around and face her. "What?" The warrior said bluntly, giving her a very direct stare. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes. Damn, you and your big mouth, Gabrielle. Why can’t you learn to think before you talk? "Nothing.. never mind. I wasn’t… just forget it." Knowing full well that wasn’t going to happen. "Just… forget it."

Xena didn’t answer, just kept looking at her, with a gentle sadness in her eyes.

"I wasn’t.." Gabrielle sighed, having no defenses left against that look. "Sorry.. that trip up the mountain after you got hurt that last time still… " She hesitated. "There should have been something more I could have done." And that was a demon she’d never quite exorcised, having gone so far, given so much effort, to no good end.

Xena glanced over the bard’s shoulder, at the retreating forest dwellers, and dismissed them from her thoughts. "Look, Gabrielle – that wasn’t your fault. None of it was.. gods, you spent days, injured yourself, getting up that mountain. It’s not your fault I decided…" Now here, she stopped. "Gods. " Not your fault I decided to just give up. Not your fault at all.

"You would have found a way to make things right. " Gabrielle whispered, staring sightlessly over the warrior’s tall shoulder. "You always do. I just can’t measure up to that." She lifted her sea green eyes up, and flinchingly made contact with Xena’s intense look. "I’m so scared I’m going to fail you again."

The warrior wrapped her hands around Gabrielle’s face, and just looked at her for a very long moment. "Gabrielle.." she breathed, letting a faint smile twitch her lips. "Don’t you know that’s my biggest fear too?" She took a breath. "That one day there’ll be an arrow I can’t stop, a fall I can’t catch.. that I’ll fall short in your eyes?" She moved closer, and felt Gabrielle’s arms come up on reflex, settling about her waist. "I think we’re both in pretty good hands."

Long silence, while Gabrielle chewed on that, and finally ducked her head against Xena’s chest and breathed in the scent of the sun-dried fabric. "You think so, huh?"

"Yep, I do." Xena replied. "I feel very safe in yours.’

Green eyes blinked up at her with a tiny smile. "Really?"

Xena nodded, and kissed her forehead. "Really. You’re a very resourceful person, my bard. I would trust my fate to you anytime."

"Roo!" Ares sighed, from his seated position at Xena’s left boot. He nuzzled her calf, and tugged on a bit of the leather. "Roo?"

They both looked down, and laughed. "Boring you, Ares?" Xena asked, not letting go of Gabrielle.

"Roo." The puppy grumbled, settling down on his haunches and chewing a bootlace of Xena’s.

"Yeah.." Gabrielle softly agreed, feeling a surprising warmth flood through her. I know I was being a little insecure.. funny, after all this time, I thought I was over that.. but it was really nice to hear her say.. "Sorry I got all goofy on you. This whole thing kind of threw me for a loop."

Xena chuckled wryly. "Me too." She let her forearms drop to Gabrielle’s shoulders, and laced her fingers neatly behind the bard’s head. "Let’s go.. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a pretty long day for me." Admitting finally, grudgingly, that she was no where near up to her usual physical condition.

Gabrielle sobered immediately, knowing the admission for what it was. "OK – they moved us over to a quiet spot near Jessan’s place. Unless you need to go back to the healer’s.." A question in her voice.

"Nah." Came the reply. "Just need a warm bed, and you."

"Oh really?’ Gabrielle giggled. "Is that an invitation?"

"Uh huh." Xena responded, then ducked her head and captured Gabrielle’s lips in a long kiss. "Interested?" She asked, when they paused, and she felt the bard’s hands starting to wander across her body. "Guess so." She laughed lightly, tracing a finger down Gabrielle’s neck, and feeling her swallow hard. Feeling the racing pulse against her sensitive fingertips as they paused above her jugular.

Then her own breathing caught, as Gabrielle’s warm hands slid under her tunic, and began to move up her ribcage, her thumbs sliding gently over the taut muscles. "Gabrielle.."

"Mmm?" The bard responded, moving closer.

"In a forest surrounded by potential enemies is not the best place I could think of for doing this." The warrior reminded her with a quirky grin.

"Hey." Gabrielle giggled. "You started it." But she removed her hands reluctantly, and settled an arm around Xena’s waist. "But I guess you’re right."

"He’s sure it was Secan’s patrol?" Lestan asked, with a sigh. "Ares’ boots." He glanced at his son, who was perched on a corner of the table, arms crossed on his golden furred chest.

Jessan nodded, and shook his head. "Poor kids." He turned as Wennid entered the conference room, bearing a tray with large mugs on it. "Thanks mom." He said, as he took a steaming mug from her.

Wennid handed Lestan a mug, and took the third. "Elaini says he’s got a chance." She looked at them both. "Not a good one, but a chance." She stretched wearily. "I’m going to spend some time over there, in case." She turned to Jessan. "Elaini says he wouldn’t even have this chance if it wasn’t for Xena. Is that true?"

Jessan smiled, and ducked his head. "You doubt Elaini’s word?" He countered, raising one bushy eyebrow. "Of course it’s true."

Wennid sat down in the end chair, and propped her chin up on her pale furred hands, glowering at him over the tops of her eyes. "Look I am very sorry I have a problem reconciling the butcher I remember torching a village in the next valley with this person you seem to have such a fondness for, Jessan." She took a long sip of mulled cider, and stared broodingly into the remaining depths. "But I’m adjusting. Now I have to somehow picture her as a healer. It’s a bit much, dear."

Lestan snorted, and dropped his hands on her shoulders. "Life is just an endless series of adjustments, my love." He looked up at his son. "So, is Elaini another convert to the Xena cult?"

Jessan grinned. "I think so." He blushed a little. "I taught her how to swim today."

Lestan and Wennid exchanged glances. "That was nice of you, dear." Wennid remarked, taking a long sip of cider. "We’d heard you were all out on a picnic."

The forest dweller leader grunted. "And a good thing, too, for Ereth." He reminded his lifemate.

Wennid sighed. "I know. I know." She glanced up at both of them. "All right.." She took a breath, and looked inside her heart. Can I forget what I saw?

A cold and misty morning, and she was hidden in the trees, watching the activity going on around the human village. It was primarily a herding community, rich in livestock and crops, but not much else, and no commerce to speak of.

Of a sudden, there was the thunder of hooves, and then the raiders were on them, kicking and clubbing, setting torch to the thatched roofs, and scattering the frantic herds of both people and animals. It had started as an attempt at intimidation, but the stubborn resistance of the villagers had angered the raiders, and blows and kicks had degenerated into the ruthless and irreversible biting of naked steel.

The blood had been terrible, Wennid remembered, as she peered through the thick black haze of the smoking huts, and saw the running, screaming forms that passed in and out of sight, followed by laughing raiders, who ran them down like animals.

Wennid had gagged in disgust, and turned away, but not before she spotted the galloping figure approaching the village, and found her eye drawn to it. A female human, on a golden horse, but armored and weaponed as well as any of the raiders. She rode down to join them with a ringing laugh, that still sounded in Wennid’s ears, even after time had passed.

She’d never forgotten that laugh, or that form, or the hiss of live steel as she’d drawn her sword and disappeared into the clouds of black smoke. But Wennid had heard the screaming that followed, and had seen the ruins of the village, after.

A long walk down to the silent, death fogged town, safe, because she was sure she was the only living thing within miles. Her Sight had told her so. The raiders had long gone.. she’d only stayed for a moment, just long enough to imprint in her mind the impression she knew would last her all her life.

And then.. in the midst of the remembering, details long fogged in her memory surfaced, and cleared. Dead bodies, there’d been, yes - but raiders as well as villagers, and the raiders had been butchered as thoroughly as their victims had been.

She wondered. Would villagers have been able to take perhaps a captured sword from a fallen raider and cause that kind of damage? Did the raiders turn on each other?

Or, her mind logically, and ruthlessly presented. Was that laughing female human she’d assumed was their leader actually nothing of the sort? What if.. instead.. she was an avenger, riding in with the joyous laughter that warriors of her own kind exhibited when they went to war.. which was a mentality she had never understood.

What if?

What if I’ve been wrong all this time.. though all of her atrocities cannot have been mistakes. She did evil things. She’s said so. But they say she’s changed. What if she really, truly has?


"I think I want to talk to this paragon of yours." Wennid mused, startling the both of them. I think I want to look into those odd, pale eyes you all seem to find so mesmerizing, and see what kind of person she really is. See why the gods seem to mock our gift in bestowing it there.. "Yes, I do."

Lestan shrugged, and lightly massaged her shoulders. "Wanted to go ask her about Secan myself.. why not come along?"

Jessan stood up, and put a hand out. "No."

They both looked at him like he had sprouted a tail. "What?" Lestan spluttered, "You.. this morning.. I thought.."

His son quickly moved around the table and put a hand on his arm. "Not yet. "

"Whyever not?" Lestan asked, reasonably. "Jessan, you’re not making sense."

"I know her." Jessan responded quietly. "She’s still hurting, bad, father - and if you talk to her about Secan, she’ll want to do something about it. And.. You said we had a few days yet. Wait."

Lestan studied him in silence for a moment. "I’m just asking for advice from her, son. She can’t get involved in this, and you know that well. Not shouldn’t. Can’t." Can’t for three reasons, his mind detailed. She wasn’t of his people. She wasn’t of his clan, and she was, deny it though many would, one half of a lifebond. "But… if you think I should, I’ll wait until tomorrow or so.. I know those were wicked wounds she took."

But part of him knew Jessan was right. Part of him knew that once he involved her, things might happen that he’d have no control over. Because he had no control over her, and she hunted by her own rules, stalked her own prey without regard to anyone’s traditions. Part of him was scared of that. But a greater part felt the under the skin thrill, that stood his fur partially on end and made him think things.. were possible. She did that. And it was an intoxicating feeling.

Xena liked the little cot they’d been offered a lot. It was in an alcove just off the main square, with open space around it, but still sheltered from most of the village’s bustle by a ring of peaceful oak trees that rustled pleasantly in the evening breeze. Inside, the cot was simply provided, but had wide windows, and the weave mats on the walls were dyed a soothing blue color that matched the fabrics of the bed, and the wide, low couch that faced the main window of the living area.

"I like blue." Xena commented, stripping out of her blood spattered and now once again damp tunic and donning a soft sleep shirt. She folded the tunic for later cleaning, and sat down on the wide couch, letting her head drop and rest against its back. Damn. She sighed inwardly. The dizzy spells hadn’t abated, and she was starting to get worried about it. Blood should have been replaced before now and… her hand reached back and touched the sore spot on her neck, where she could feel a faint uneasy pressure that she’d noticed this morning.

That hadn’t gone away, and now she wondered, as a cold chill traveled down her, if she hadn’t done more permanent damage to herself than she’d first thought. Injuries to her back frightened her –she’d only had one once, and that… had taken many moons to heal, and even more to regain full use of her body. This.. was not a good time for a repeat.

The fabric moved, as Gabrielle settled next to her and she looked up. "Hi." The bard announced. "I’m back." From the communal kitchen, where she’d gone to rustle up some dinner. "You look wiped. Wanna just sit back and let me feed you?"

Xena’s eyebrow rose. "That’s pretty decadent. Isn’t it?" But she was smiling, and dismissed her worries for a while, as she relaxed and allowed the bard to settled a trencher between them, holding a huge bowl of gently steaming stew, and a pile of fresh baked bread.

Ares trotted over, and scrambled up onto her lap, seating himself and looking from one face to the other expectantly.

"See what you created?" Gabrielle teased gently, as she went to work with alternating forkfuls delivered to herself and the warrior. "A monster."

"Mmm Hmm." Xena nodded, chewing thoughtfully on a chunk of venison. "Terrible." She swallowed, and took a sip of the fragrant cider the bard had brought. "That’s not bad." She complimented the mug, and held it up to Gabrielle’s mouth for a try.

"Ooo.." The bard sipped appreciatively. "Not bad at all." She speared another large piece of meat, and offered it to her partner. "Come on.. lots more to go here."

"Uh huh." Xena mumbled, biting the piece in half, and giving the other half to Ares. "Glad you brought plenty." She grinned at the bard’s expression. "Hey.. he’s gotta eat too, you know."

"Roo." Ares agreed, and flopped down on Xena’s lap, clutching his prize between his growing paws and chewing, looking up every so often to see if more was forthcoming.

Gabrielle kept up a steady stream of chatter while they ate, including the village gossip she’d picked up while getting dinner. "Rumors about Jess and Elaini already." She snickered, as she buttered the last slab of bread and took a bite, then offered the slice to Xena.

The warrior chuckled, and chewed her bread, noting with surprise that they’d about finished that huge portion of stew between them. "That was pretty good." She commented, then took the bowl from the trencher, and offered the remainder to Ares. "Here you go, boy."

The wolf stood up on Xena’s lap, and stuck his head in the bowl, tail waving enthusiastically, finishing the contents, licking out the bowl, then transferring his rough tongue to Xena’s hand, which was still holding the container. "Hey…" The warrior protested. "Cut that out."

Gabrielle finished off the bread, and sighed happily, moving the trencher out of the way, and snuggling close into Xena’s welcoming arms. "I feel much better now." She admitted, sliding her arms around the warrior’s body and putting her head down on the convenient shoulder.

"Me too." Xena agreed, and reflected that it was mostly true, anyway. Other than the soreness in her neck, everything else seemed to have worked itself out, and she wasn’t even suffering any stiffness from the day’s activities. So that was sort of OK. And as long as she didn’t stand up… her mouth quirked a little. Well… that could be arranged… "Now.." She said, leaning over and removing the last few breadcrumbs from Gabrielle’s lips with expert skill. "Where were we?"

A low, throaty laugh from the bard, who shifted her hands over Xena’s form. "Well, I was right here…" She grinned as she felt Xena react to her touch. "And I think you were… " A long pause as Xena’s lips found her place. "Oh yeah." Gabrielle breathed. "bullseye." She closed her eyes as she felt the sensual jolt caused by the pressure of the warrior’s fingertips against her sensitive skin. "Definitely nicer than standing out in a forest." She mumbled, then let the warm wave of passion take her.

Long habit brought Xena awake before dawn, and she spent some minutes just quietly listening to the gentle sounds of the sleeping village that wafted in the wide windows, along with the sweet scent of wild flowers and the distinctive smell of a light pre dawn rain.

I wish I felt as peaceful as this village sounds. Her mind mused. She glanced down as Gabrielle stirred, and tightened her hold, burrowing her head more securely into the hollow of Xena’s shoulder. In the darkness, she could just make out the bard’s profile, and she lifted a hand up to smooth the hair off her face, her touch bringing a faint smile to her sleeping partner.

The warrior sighed, and leaned her head back against the soft fabric cushions of the wide couch, where they’d decided just to snuggle into last night after they’d spent.. Xena grinned to herself. Quite some time relieving the stresses of the day. She winced as she felt the pressure still gnawing at her spine, though, and tried gently rotating her neck, stopping when a sharp pain jerked through her.

Damn. She turned her eyes to the dark ceiling, and blew out a long breath. That meant nothing but trouble, though in one sense it might make her decision easier. Based on her last experience with a back injury, this was definitely something that would require quite a bit of time off to recuperate from, and no question that home would be a good place to do it.

It’s not like you weren’t thinking of doing that anyway. She told herself. But to have the decision forced on her… that, she didn’t much like.

Ares raised a sleepy head, and yawned, blinking up at her. "Shh." She whispered to him. "No one’s awake." She let a hand rest on his back, and the puppy obediently tucked his muzzle back down between his paws, and closed his eyes. "Lazy thing." Xena chuckled under her breath.

Isn’t that what I’m afraid will happen to me if this forces me home? An honest appraisal. It would be so, so easy to go back there, and recover.. but the last time, she’d had bleak necessity driving her hard to push through the injury, and regain her conditioning. What about now?

Xena sighed. Now, she knew, she’d go home all right, and fall right back into the daily routine, and she’d let herself lose it all.. her sharpness, her skills.. because there would be no urgent reason for her to force herself to go through the pain it would take to recover them.

She just didn’t seem to have the self-discipline to do that anymore, she had known that after a fortnight spent lazing around with Gabrielle at home. She hadn’t done a single drill the whole time, and what was scarier.. she hadn’t missed them. At all. And that was a hard truth to take. Toris had teased her the last day she’d been there, about her losing her edge; and she’d dumped him in a mud hole, then thrown him in the spring to prove him wrong. But he hadn’t been. And she damn well knew it.

Question was, did she care?’

Xena laid her head back, and thought about that for a long time, listening as the balance started to shift between night and day, darkness and daylight. A long still moment, when the whole world seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for the first faint tint of color on the horizon.

She thought about how she felt about what she did. And who she was. And knew that her abilities were woven so tightly into her image of herself, she wasn’t sure what would be left if she let that unravel.

Yeah, I’d care. Xena admitted to herself. So. I guess I have to figure out just how bad this is, and what kind of limitations it’s gonna put on me. Maybe if I keep reminding myself just how much I hate being sick, I can get motivated to get past this.

"When you’re ready to talk about whatever’s bothering you," A quiet voice startled her. "You know where to find me, right? I’m the short, light haired one that talks a lot."

Xena felt a smile pulling at her lips against her will, and she glanced down to meet the sleepy green eyes that were peering up at her. The bard’s words echoed her own, not so long ago, in a clearing not far from Potadeia. "Hi." She temporized, reaching up and stroking Gabrielle’s soft hair. "I was just thinking."

"Bout what?" Gabrielle asked softly, as she snuggled closer, and molded her body against the warrior’s. "Please." Her eyes searched Xena’s and she put a hand up to touch her chest. "Don’t lock me out of there."

"Never." Xena said, taking a deep breath. "You know better." She paused for a moment. "One of those rocks apparently hit me in the wrong spot." She stopped, and watched Gabrielle’s face tense.

"Those dizzy spells." The bard realized, her hands clenching unconsciously in the fabric of Xena’s shirt.

The warrior nodded a little. "I think so." She shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. "I can feel this pressure in my neck." She lifted a hand and indicated the spot. "Hurts."

Gabrielle chewed on her lip for a short time. "What does that mean? Are you going to be OK?"

Xena laid her head back against the padded surface, and closed her eyes. "I don’t know." And that was one of the hardest things she’d ever had to say to her partner. "Depends on just how bad it is, and how hard I need to work to get it fixed."

The bard was silent for a moment. "You’re scared." She finally whispered.

"Yeah." Came the quiet answer out of the darkness.

Gabrielle let her hands start a gentle movement over the tense body she was wrapped around. "Why?" She asked, hearing the racing heartbeat under her ear. "You’ve been hurt before… gods, Xena, I hate it when you are, but you always…" She shrugged, and knew the warrior felt that. "just work through it." She glanced back up.

"I know." Xena sighed. "Maybe it was what we were talking about earlier. About going home.. this kind of hurt.. Hades, Gabrielle, the last time I got one like this it took nearly half a year for me to get over it."

The bard shrugged. "So.. we go home, for a while. You were talking about that anyway, right?" Her brow furrowed. "I don’t see…" Then she got a good look at Xena’s face. "You hadn’t made up your mind yet. Right?"

A slow shake of the head in response. "I don’t want this to make up my mind for me."

"What makes you think it would?" Gabrielle asked, reasonably.

"It just would." Xena answered, tangling her fingers idly in the bard’s hair, which was spilling gently across the warrior’s chest. "I don’t know if I can…get it all back this time." She paused and shrugged. "Or if I’d even want to."

The bard pulled herself up on her elbows, and moved up until she could look directly into Xena’s eyes. "What is going on with you?" She shook her head in confusion. "All the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you doubt yourself. Fate, life, other people, me.. but never yourself. What’s up?"

Xena let out a long held breath, and scrubbed her face with one hand. "I don’t know." She admitted wearily, leaving her hand over her eyes. "I.. really don’t know what’s wrong with me." She raked her fingers through her dark hair. "Sorry. I must be driving you crazy."

Gabrielle moved one hand up and gently stroked her partner’s cheek. "After you went through with me in Potadeia, don’t you dare think anything you could do would drive me anywhere, Xena." She paused. "Look… I think you.. went through a really bad thing.. something that nobody else I know could have gotten through." Her eyes glistened. "And I want you to know just how very very grateful I am that you had the strength and the will to keep going even when anybody else would have given up."

"I promised, remember?" Xena’s tone caressed the bard’s hearing, and it brought a smile to her face. ‘Damned if I was going to let a puny mountain make me break that promise."

Gabrielle nodded, and brought the warrior’s fingers up to her lips, and kissed them. "I know." She whispered. "But, " in a slightly louder tone. "I think it took a lot out of you." She lifted a hand and gently touched Xena’s forehead. "Here too." Saw Xena close her eyes in tacit confirmation. "And you need to just let yourself replenish all that."

"Think so?" Xena mused. She could be right. Took her eyes to see it, though.

"I think so." The bard confirmed, putting her head back down on Xena’s chest, and winding her arms around the warrior’s body for a fierce hug. "Look…" Her head came back up, and their eyes met. "I can’t pretend I don’t get knots inside when I watch you do some of the things you do.. but you get such joy out of them, Xena.. don’t give up on that."

"I don’t get…." Xena started to protest, then stopped, and fell silent. A long pause. "Yeah, I guess I do." She finished quietly, letting her gaze search Gabrielle’s watching face. "Pretty sad. Huh?"

The bard shook her head. "No." And her smile turned a bit sheepish. "Because I’ve discovered that I love watching you do them."

"Hmm." Xena grunted, then laughed a little. "Well, in that case, I’d better go find out just how bad whatever this is wrong with my back is."

Gabrielle cocked her head. "By doing…what?"

"Using it." Came the short, practical response. "I need to know what my limits are."

And Gabrielle, capturing her partner’s face firmly in her hands, locked eyes with her, green to blue. "You don’t have limits." She declared. "That much, I do know."

In her eyes, I don’t. Xena mused quietly. Maybe I can just close my own eyes for awhile, and see through hers. Bound to be a more pleasant view. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" The bard responded, giving her a smile.

"Thanks." Xena said in a soft voice.

They looked at each other in silence, then Xena gathered the bard into her arms, and just hugged her for a long time, savoring the feel of her body, and the her familiar scent, and the warmth that just poured over her, taking away the fear, and the uncertainty, and leaving her for the first time since the accident at peace with herself.

"Are you sure you.." Gabrielle asked later, when they were both standing on the porch, looking out at the early morning light glance off the thatch cot roofs across from them. She hesitated, and gave her partner a sideways glance, taking in the quiet expression on her face. "Never mind. Just be careful, OK?"

Xena gave her a look. "C’mon, Gabrielle - give me a break. I’m just going for a walk." She laughed a bit. "Don’t think I could do much more than that. So… relax, all right?"

"Uh huh." The bard snorted. "You go for walks, and the course of history changes. Frequently. You forget I’ve lived with you for over two years."

Xena just shook her head, and stepped off the porch, giving Gabrielle a wave. "See you in a bit." She called over her shoulder, as her steps took her past the first ring of trees and onto a dimly seen path cut into the dense forest, aware of the faint pattering of Ares footsteps as he ambled along in her wake.

"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed, watching her until she vanished. Wish there was something more… Hades, Gabrielle. That’s one of the more complex puzzles in Greece you’re trying to unravel there. She straightened her tunic out, and hopped off the porch, taking determined steps towards the healer’s cot.

Admit it, you’re worried. She accused herself. You’ve gotten so used to her being able to deal with anything and everything, that this is spooking you good. Gabrielle’s eyes closed briefly, then opened again. I never thought about.. well, I mean, she does what she does, right? Right. But.. I never thought about whether or not she liked doing it - or if she ever thought about not being able to do some of the things she does.

Her brow furrowed. Maybe it’s like how I feel about storytelling. How would I feel if all of a sudden, I just couldn’t do any of that?

The bard stopped in her tracks, and gazed unseeing at the ground. "Wow." She muttered aloud. I always thought of the stuff she does as just hard work, and practice.. but the way she does it, it’s almost like an art, isn’t it? She gets pleasure out of it, just like I do when I write poetry. I never looked at it…

Then gave herself a very honest appraisal. That’s not true, Gabrielle. And you damn well know it. You told her that - when she moves, it’s poetry, remember? You’ve always known that, even if you never wanted to admit it to yourself. The bard resumed her walk, still deep in thought. But.. she thinks that’s all there is to her. How can I get her to see that’s not true… there’s so much more..

Remembering one warm morning when they’d been in Amphipolis about a week, and she’d just finished helping Johan unload some supplies they’d bought. She had dusted her hands off, and gone in search of Xena, whom she’d seen going into the main part of the stables earlier.

Heard voices as she cleared the door, and paused, hidden in the shadows beside the entrance, to observe.

Xena had been sprawled out on a haybale, leaning back against a second, with her long legs stretched out in front of her, and her dark head bent intently on the task in her hands. Next to her, watching in fascination, was one of the small boys that seemed to be forever running around the town, all of them looking pretty much alike.

The warrior was speaking in a low tone, and indicating something that was hidden by the curve of her left hand, using a small knife and tiny precise motions of her right hand to go along with her instruction.

"Wow!" Gabrielle had heard the boy mutter. "C’n you show me if I get a piece like that?" His high voice held more than a hint of excitement.

"Sure." Xena had said, with a low easy laugh, that sent a wave of warmth through the watching bard. "See if you can find one."

"OK." The boy had grinned, and hopped off the bale, making a beeline for the door and almost bowling Gabrielle over. "Sorry!" He called back, but was already out the door and running down the path.

Gabrielle had sauntered forward, and taken his still warm place on the haybale, peering over Xena’s arm. "What’s that?" She asked, giving the warrior a curious look, as she had closed her hand over the object when the bard had approached.

"Oh." Xena said, clearing her throat a little. "Well, nothing really… just.. " She stopped when she saw the look in Gabrielle’s eyes, and just opened her hand in silence, exposing a small, neatly carved wooden turtle in her palm. The wood had been cleverly worked around its natural dark and light spots, creating a realistic pattern of patches on the creature’s back.

Gabrielle gently picked it up and examined it, running one fingertip lightly over it’s ridged shell, then raised wondering eyes to Xena’s face which had gone quite still. "You did this??"

A slight nod.

"You never said you were a carver." The bard said, with a note of delight in her tone. "This is beautiful."

Xena had shrugged. "Just a little something. I don’t… it’s not something I do a lot."

"Why on earth not?" Gabrielle asked, peering closely at the carving, then up into her eyes. "Xena, that’s a real gift you have here."

The warrior had taken a breath, and looked away. "Not much use for that in the middle of a skirmish." She’d given Gabrielle a wry look. "And anyway.. I have to be really.. " she stopped. " I have to be in a certain mood to do it at all. Doesn’t come to me very often."

And Gabrielle had studied her face, seeing the gentle, introspective look about her eyes, and the relaxation of the usual sharp tension that always characterized her partner, and had smiled. "Then I gotta get you into this kind of mood more often." She had teased gently, and had started to hand the turtle back to its creator.

But Xena had shook her head, and smiled, and folded the bard’s fingers over the wooden creature. "Yours." Had been her only comment.

Gabrielle had given her a hug. "You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you." She sighed happily. "Maybe if I try really hard, I can get an entire Athenian circus out of you." And she had glanced up, catching a look of wistfulness in those blue eyes.

And once again she’d gotten a glimpse of the person her partner was, under all that blood, and the self-torment, and the memories of evil. The person who was gentle, and funny, and full of wonder, who only got let out for very few, very isolated moments. I want to get to know that person better. She’d thought at the time, and still did.

"Maybe you can." Xena had said, slowly, touching a fingertip to her nose. "Because just looking at you puts me in that kind of mood." And the expression in her eyes had warmed the bard all over.

And still did, even now, even weeks later. Gabrielle felt a little better, and mounted the steps to the healer’s cot with a confident grin. Xena would work through it. She would find a way to get around whatever problem it was she was having, even though it might take a while. That’s ok. The bard smiled inwardly. I don’t care if it takes a lifetime, as long as I get to spend that lifetime right alongside her.

She pushed the door open, and stuck her head inside, struck by the atmosphere of tense silence inside the building. Several pairs of golden eyes turned her way, and most turned back again.

"Hi." She said softly, moving all the way into the room, and finding Elaini’s bloodshot eyes still looking her way. The healer stood, and walked stiffly over to her, and patted her shoulder. "How is he? " The bard whispered to her, gazing around at the assembled forest dwellers in confusion.

"Holding his own." Elaini said with a smile. "It was touch and go most of the night, but he’s a little stronger this morning." She glanced behind her. "Support for Gennen." She continued, in a lower tone. "It’s traditional - when there’s a possibility.."

"Elaini." A cool voice interrupted her, and they both turned. One of the older forest dwellers, with mottled brown and gold fur was gazing at them. "No need to explain what can’t be explained, cubling."

"But.." Elaini started, holding up a hand. "You don’t.."

"No no.." The woman said clearly. "The humans are fortunate that they never have to worry about what the breaking feels like, so don’t distress Gennen by trying to explain." She spared a glance at Gabrielle, who was regarding her with a serious expression. "No offense to you, storyteller."

"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle asked, moving further into the room.

They all looked at her, with a strange remoteness in their glances.

Elaini sighed. "You don’t understand." She said to the woman who had spoken. "Gabrielle, they’re talking about what happens when you.. lose.. your lifepartner."

Gabrielle slowly moved her head in a circle, meeting all their eyes. "Has that happened to anyone here?"

A startled response. "No." The woman said, shaking her head.

The bard nodded slowly. "Then I understand it a lot better than any of you do."

Dead silence followed, and now even Gennen, curled up on the double pallet with his lifebond was watching her in fascination.

Eyelids fluttered, then opened again on shocked golden eyes. "Ares tongue." The woman gasped. She turned to Elaini with an angry look. "You never said.."

The healer raised an eyebrow at her. "I tried." She responded briefly, then turned to Gabrielle. "Would you like to sit down?"

The older woman waved a hand at her. "My name is Cessi." She held out a forearm to Gabrielle. "And I apologize, storyteller. I had no idea… but what did you mean you understood better than we about this?"

Gabrielle took the proffered arm, and seated herself on a low bench. "It’s a long story, and one best not told.. here." She glanced around, and gave Cessi brief smile. "I’m trying to learn more about this whole thing - everyone either assumes I know, or doesn’t think I need to know, and both of those things drive me crazy. "She paused. "My name is Gabrielle, by the way."

"Welcome, Gabrielle." Cessi said, with a smile, showing her canines. "And this is Berrat, and Legres, and Tobias." She indicated her three companions. "Elaini, you already know."

"We owe your partner a grateful thanks for helping out Ereth there, ay?" The small, very dark man Cessi had called Tobias spoke up.

The bard nodded. "We heard them calling for help. Right place, right time, right person, I guess." They were still ill at ease, and she was casting about for a way to relax them, when Gennen called over softly from his perch.

"Gabrielle?" The boy gave her a smile, which she returned. "Will you tell us a story?"

The bard grinned. "Sure. Any particular one you like?"

His eyes glinted. "Something with Ares?"

Oh boy. Gabrielle quailed.. then smiled. "Sure… have you heard of the one where he lost his sword, and became mortal for a little while?"

Now she had all of their rapt attention. "No.. did that really happen?" Cessi asked, cocking her head.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yep.. I was there." Now she couldn’t have shaken their rounded eyes with an earthquake.

"You know him???" Gennen breathed, and a low murmur went through the other forest dwellers.

"Yep." The bard confirmed offhandedly. "So, this is what happened.. we were traveling through several small towns, and we’d noticed how angry everyone was…"

The leaves had closed around her just a short way down the path, and Xena had stopped for moment, and glanced back through the leaves, watching Gabrielle take a deep breath, then head off towards the healer’s cot. A smile reluctantly crossed her face, and she shook her head before turning back around and heading down the path.

It was her balance that was off, she realized, which was above and beyond the pain causing her the biggest problem. The pain she could work through, in fact, had, more times than she was interested in counting. But the sense of being off balance.. that was something she had very little way of compensating for.

Because it tied into everything. It made walking, as she was now, uncomfortable, and would render just about anything else she did with a bladed weapon difficult at best. Impossible at worst.

Might as well find out. She thought grimly, and broke into a loping run, which sent jolts of pain up her back, but after a short while, that subsided and became almost bearable. Ares scrambled at her heels, tongue hanging out.

But it felt all wrong, and the ground didn’t seem to be in the right place, and she felt a distinct sinking sensation as she realized she might be in real trouble here. "Damn, Ares." She sighed.

"Roo?" The puppy answered, glancing up on hearing his name.

"Yeah, roo." Xena answered.

Then her head jerked as she saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and a rabbit, frightened out of it wits from Ares’ smell darted across her path, and the wolf bounded after it, tangling himself between Xena’s boots with a startled yelp.

She was moving too fast to stop, and suddenly saw the path dogleg sharply to the left. Managed to dodge the helplessly rolling wolf, but the last step threw her balance completely off, and she knew there was no way she was going to recover. This is gonna hurt. She sighed, as her momentum took her off the path and down the steep embankment.

And she lost all sense of direction, and just tucked in tight, and hoped she’d get lucky. She had no idea where the ground was until she crashed into it, and went bounding of and slammed her back into the tall, unforgiving bulk of an old forest tree.

The world went gray, then black for an endless moment, but she held onto consciousness with grim determination. Finally, her vision cleared, and she blinked slowly until the blurred outline of the dark green ferns in front of her sharpened into focus.

It was definitely one of the more depressing moments of her life, and for a long minute, she just let a dark wave of hopelessness wash over her as she was lying there in the musty smelling leaf litter, with the gloomy half light of the clouded sky filtering weakly through the heavy leaf canopy, and dappling her in dark shadows.

Gods be damned. Her mind cursed. Is this worth it? What in Hades am I doing out here, anyway… I gotta get my head examined. Get a grip, Xena – so you have a back injury. Been there, done that, get over it. Knock off this self pitying garbage and just get moving, go back to that damned village, and stay in bed for as long as this takes to heal up. Worry about getting back into condition later, and listen to Gabrielle for a change.

Finally, she rolled her head back a little and gazed up at the path, the edge curving away high over her head, and spotted Ares’ frantic form, dancing from foot to foot.

"Roo!!!’ He yelled, spotting her. He bounded to the edge, then back, then to the edge, and before she could open her mouth to stop him, leaped off the edge and came tumbling down the embankment.

Rolled to stop not an arms length from her, and sneezed. "Rrrr." He protested, stumbling forward and bumping his nose against her jaw

He sat down, and gazed at her, blinking, then leaned forward and started licking her face, cleaning the traces of mud she’d picked up on the way down, then moving up and scraping his rough tongue over her cheekbones.

Xena closed her eyes and swallowed. "Thanks, Ares." She cleared her throat. "Damned if I know why but that helps." Great. I wonder if I can even make it home. She thought in self disgust. Falling off a path in broad daylight.

Her eyes closed again. It would be easier just to stay here. She mused, forcing back a wave of self-pity. But I never did take the easy way out of anything, right? Right. So get moving.

Slowly, cautiously, she shifted her position, and flexed her body, relieved, at least, that everything seemed to be in relatively good working order. Lucky. She snorted, then raised her head and flexed her shoulders, and froze.

Uncertainly, she raised a hand to her neck, and flexed her shoulders again.

One eyebrow rose. No pressure. No pain. "Nobody gets that lucky." She muttered aloud. "Not even me. Not even on a good day." She gazed speculatively at Ares, who gazed back. "Right?"

"Roo." The baby wolf solemnly agreed.

Gingerly, she sat up and rocked forward, and paused. The other eyebrow raised. So far, so good. Gritting her teeth, she rolled up into a crouch, then stood, putting a cautious hand out toward the nearby tree and held her breath.

Nothing. Not a twinge, not a touch of dizziness.

"You gotta be kidding." The plaintive snort escaped her, and Ares growled in response. "I don’t believe this." Experimentally, she hopped gently up and down, once, startling the puppy. "Sorry." She muttered.


She put her hands on her hips, and lovingly studied the tree. "Can I take you home?"

No answer from the tree.

"Well, Ares, there is only one real way to test this." She addressed the puppy, who sat down, and cocked his head at her. "Right." The warrior added, and cast her gaze around here. "Here.. that looks nice and soft." She knelt, and patted the turf a short distance away from the tree, which was dense with moss. Cause if this doesn’t work, I’m gonna hit that ground real hard. Then she stood up, with pointed swiftness.


Xena closed her eyes, then opened them, and gave a little nod. "Wish me luck." She said to no one in particular, and dropped into a crouch, then shot skyward, waiting until the reached the high point of her jump, and lazily curled her body into a flip.

The world stayed exactly where she expected it to stay, and she landed lightly on her feet. And stood there, quietly staring at the ground for a long time. Then she sat down cross-legged on the mossy turf, and put her forearms on her knees, knitting her fingers together.

I will never. Ever take this for granted again. She promised herself. Gabrielle is right. I need to stop pushing myself so damn hard, and take the damage I’ve been doing to my body more seriously. Or one of these days I’m going to do something that’s going to really be irreversible.

She stood back up, taking a sensuous pleasure in the rock steadiness of the motion, and smiled. "Come on, Ares." She walked over to where the embankment rose above her head and chuckled. "Wanna ride?"

"Roo?" The puppy answered, standing up and putting his paws against her thigh.

She picked him up, and settled him across her shoulders, feeling his tail whipping against her ear. "Cut that out." She said, giving him a look. He licked her other ear in response. "Hey.. only Gabrielle gets to do that, so knock it off."

Feeling a fit of giddiness coming on, she shook her head, and backed off several paces, bouncing a little in place, then moving, four long strides and a very deep crouch and then she shot skyward, feeling a laugh bubbling up as she twisted in mid air, and landed neatly in the path, not far from where she’d left it originally.

"Did that feel good, Ares?" She chuckled. "It sure did to me." Oh yeah.. that sure did. My gods you don’t value something until you don’t have it anymore, isn’t that the truth? Ares panted a little, and blinked at her. "Oh..did I get you dizzy?" She started laughing at the expression on the wolf’s face. "Sorry."

She glanced down the path. "Now, let’s see. I was in the middle of a little run.. wasn’t I???"

And she took off, feeling the difference in the first steps, as her body settled into a familiar rhythm, and it all just felt.. right, for the first time in days. She sucked air down deep into her lungs, and just abandoned herself to an overwhelming sense of relief at the comfortable feeling of being in total control of her body.

The cool wet air slid across her body she felt her muscles loosen up, and her speed increased, causing the damp wind to whip her hair back and brush away the laughter that bubbled up in pure reflex. Been a while since I just did this for the fun of it… maybe I should do it more often… make this less of a chore than I have been.

After a few minutes of mindless running, punctuated by the occasional flip for no reason, she started paying attention to her surroundings again. "Better start heading back, Ares," She remarked conversationally to the puppy, who was still slung over her shoulders. "I think I want to see your other mommy, OK?" Gods.. did she ever. "I wanna pick her up, and toss her in the air, and she’s gonna be furious with me, you watch." For a minute, anyway. Xena grinned to herself.

The path sloped down, towards the end of Lestan’s territory, and fairly close to the area where she’d found Ereth and Gennen the previous day.

And her defensive reflexes came up, as she slowed her pace, and extended her senses, and heard the faint rasp of voices from not far ahead.

Now pacing in silence, she slid from tree to tree, and moved around a rock outcropping, freezing into stillness at what she saw there.

Two strange forest dwellers, armed, and standing with an unmistakably menacing posture. Facing a battered looking Jessan, who had both hands up in a gesture of defenselessness

"That was an amazing story, Gabrielle." Cessi said, leaning forward and bracing her hands on her thick knees. "Though I'm.. what's wrong?" She stood in reflex, reacting to the bard's sudden loss of color, and stricken expression. "Gabrielle?"

"Uhm.." The bard stammered, blinking hard and standing. "Sorry..I need to... excuse me." The vague uneasiness that had been unsettling her stomach since Xena had left had suddenly flowered into a dark flare of upset that brought her heart up into her throat.

Elaini put a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle.. take it easy. You're getting something through your connection with Xena."

Gabrielle turned and looked at her. "I know that." The bard snapped, struggling to stay calm. "You think I’ve never felt this before?"

"OK.. OK.." The healer backed off, raising both hands in a warding off gesture.

Then almost as soon as it came, it began to subside, and then to moderate. "Whoa." Gabrielle sighed. "Whatever it is calmed down." She paused "Ok.. I think everything's all right now." She shook her head to clear it, then glanced around at the silent room. "Sorry about that."

Cessi cleared her throat. "Does.. that happen often?" She asked, trading swift glances with Tobias, who stood, and walked over to Gabrielle. Ares' boots... she knows nothing about this... nothing, the poor cubling. "Sit down, little sister."

Gabrielle sank back down, and gazed at her. " happen often. Well..." She glanced down. "I don't... it's been happening a lot more, recently. I don't think it happened.." She paused, and thought hard. "Well, maybe it did, but not so strong that I knew what it was." She amended, as a memory floated up into her mind, that she hadn’t looked at quite that way before.

Just a vague feeling of apprehension.. that had gripped her for five days, when she'd been sidelined in a small village waiting for Xena to return from a fast ride out to help an old friend; after they'd been travelling together for almost a year. "Just a couple of days, nothing much." The warrior had said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'll be back before you know it." Two days more than a couple, but Xena had returned, and related a somewhat pedestrian encounter with an old warlord enemy of hers. She'd taken him in single combat, and his troops had scattered off, to rebuild and elect themselves a new leader. Time, she had said, was what she'd bought for the city they had been plaguing.

Gabrielle had studied her, finding nothing on first glance that seemed out of place. "Everything OK with you?" She'd asked, bringing over a cup of ale to the table they were sharing.

"Yeah, sure." Xena had answered, then paused. "Why do you ask?"

And Gabrielle had shrugged. "I don't know.. just had this weird feeling, that's all." She had laughed. "Just me being silly, I guess." Sitting down, and only then noticing the silence, and looking up to see an quietly serious expression on Xena's face. "What?" She sat down and put a gentle hand on Xena's arm, which was resting on the table, and only then did she pick up the faint signs all was not well with her companion.

Nothing much, just a hesitation in the way she moved, and a clouded look to her blue eyes, and an unusual tension in her face.

But Xena had just given her a brief smile. "Long day." She'd shrugged. "Long ride."

Gabrielle had nodded. "Let's go upstairs, huh? " But she'd been sure, then, that something had happened. '

So sure that as soon as the door had closed behind them, she'd turned and given the warrior an intent stare.

And Xena had ducked her head, with a faint smile, and held up one hand. "It's just a scratch."

" Uh huh." Gabrielle had snorted, and shook her head. "I knew it." She had paused. "I just felt something had gone wrong."

The 'just a scratch' had turned out to be an ugly arrowhead wound puncturing her ribcage, which had escaped being really dangerous only because the arrow had deflected off her breastbone and bounced back out. Xena had meekly lain down on the bed, and allowed her to take care of the wound, sighing in relief when she'd covered it with herbal salve, and settled a bandage over it.

"Thanks." She said, reaching out and squeezing Gabrielle's hand. "Can't keep much from you, right?"

"Teach you for trying. " The bard had retorted, watching her struggling to stay awake. "Would you go to sleep, already?"

"Your bed." The warrior had protested, starting to get up.

Gabrielle had pushed her shoulder back down, or tried to, anyway. "I don't think so. You're the one with the arrow hole in you." She laughed. "After all these months of sleeping on the hard ground, a wood floor will seem like luxury. Don't worry about me."

Xena had gazed at her for a long moment, then let a small grin quirk her lips. "It's a big bed, Gabrielle." And had patted the mattress at her side, and raised an eyebrow in invitation. "I promise I won't bite you."

And Gabrielle had found herself caught between shy reluctance and surprised happiness at this break in the oh so sturdy stone walls her companion kept built around her. "All right." she'd agreed softly, putting away the medical supplies and returning to slide into the bed next to the half asleep warrior, curling on her side and facing Xena. "Night." She'd said, giving her a little smile.

"Night." Xena had responded sleepily, then opened a sharp blue eye and regarded her. "Gabrielle?"

"Yeah?" She'd answered, just enjoying the closeness, and the quietness, so rare so far in their relationship

"Did you really have a bad feeling?" Curiosity in that tone.

The bard had nodded. "I really did." she had paused. "why?"

Xena had shrugged. "Not used to having someone worry about me, that's all."

Gabrielle had smiled, and felt a warmth flow through her that now, all these months later, she realized was the first gentle stirring of the connection that now bound their souls together. "Get used to it." She'd said. And they'd both smiled at each other, before Xena's eyes had closed and her breathing had deepened into sleep.

"Yeah, " Gabrielle admitted, glancing up into Cessi's red gold eyes. "It happens a lot now, because we're always in the middle of things."

Tobias patted her back, and crouched down next to her. "Little sister.." He gently said, casting a glance over his shoulder, to where Gennen and Ereth were now peacefully sleeping. "You said you'd experienced the breaking. How? Can I ask you that? It's such a serious thing for us... I'd like to understand."

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and gazed at him. Can I tell that? Gods, it was hard the last time. Never does get any easier to think about, either. "I'll try. But it's a hard thing to tell.. especially after what happened the other day." She answered honestly. "I might have to stop."

"All right." Tobias answered softly, settling onto the floor cross-legged. "Remember, we understand, Gabrielle - what you feel... we know this."

The bard smiled. "I know." she glanced down. "We were under attack." She started, looking off into the distance. "And I had been captured, along with some other village women by a tribe of flesh eaters.. we'd been tied up, but Xena found us and set us free, staying behind to fight off the rest of the tribe."

"Really?" Tobias breathed, glancing at Cessi. "Why didn't she just run away with you?"

Gabrielle stopped, and looked at him in puzzlement. "Run away? Because she just doesn't do that." she shook her head. "Anyway, she caught up to us, but so did some of the flesh eater tribe. She fought them off, but they set loose a log trap, and there was a little girl in the way."

She cleared her throat. "And, she got the girl clear, but the log hit her, and smashed her against a tree."

The forest dwellers all looked at each other. "You were there?"

"Sure." Gabrielle said. "I hit the last one of them with my staff, but he got me in the leg with his knife before he passed out. I got to Xena.." Remembering those glazed eyes, and the blood dripping from her ears that had gotten over.. everything. "And she was able to tell me to take her to a healer she knew up in the mountains" She paused. "Who might be able to save her."

"What did you do?" Cessi asked, wrapping her arms around her knees and gazing at the bard in fascination.

"I took her there."

"Alone?" Tobias asked, edging closer to her, until his fur covered shoulder was pressed against her leg.

"Yes, except for Argo." She paused. "That’s Xena’s horse." She paused. "But when we got there.. I guess… it must have taken too long, because I just…" And it hit her again, the memory of those agonizing hours watching Xena slip away from her. "Oh gods."

Furred hands gripped her firmly. "We’ve got you, Gabrielle. It’s all right." Cessi said gently. "We understand."

"She died." The bard said, in a pool of quiet. "And… I felt… like a really big part of me died with her."

Cessi circled her shoulders with one long arm. "It did, cubling. That’s not something you imagined. That was real."

"I know that now." Gabrielle whispered.

"Then… what happened?" Tobias asked, cupping her knee in one hand.

"I took her home." The bard answered, bleakly. "I promised.. her. That if anything ever… That I would take her back to Amphipolis and have her buried beside her brother Lyceus."

"Alone???" Cessi rumbled, a note of outrage starting in her voice.

"Yes." Gabrielle answered, looking up at her. "There was no one else." She shook her head. "She only has her mother and brother Toris, in Amphipolis. " She paused, and sighed. "And me."

"Gabrielle, you have to understand…" Tobias said softly. "that’s not how this is done, with us. You would have had the support of all your brothers and sisters here… that’s never, ever something you should have to go through alone. How did you survive it? "

The bard took a deep breath, and let it out. "I just did, because I had to, that’s all." She answered, simply. "Xena taught me that." She looked down at her hands, the fingers knotting together. "Well, anyway, on the way back, I was met by an Amazon escort."

"Amazons?" Cessi asked, one bushy eyebrow curving up.

"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed. "They wanted to render escort to Xena..they’d heard.. and also because they were looking for me."

"You?" Tobias queried. "Why?"

The bard smiled a little. "Well, because I’m their queen by rite of caste, and they needed me, I guess." She paused. "The previous queen had died in challenge, and the new queen wasn’t so.. well, there was a difference of opinion over who should run the Amazon nation. "

‘Wait." Cessi said, holding her head in her hands. "You’re the Queen of the Amazons???"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Good Ares’ boots and spurs." The forest dweller said. " But they rule by right of arms…and forgive me, cubling, but a warrior you are not."

The bard sniffed reflectively. "Well, no. But I had a champion to do the fighting for me."

They all looked at each other. "Oh." Cessi said, slapping her forehead. "Of course. Go on."

Gabrielle related the events in the village, and about Velasca, and finally got to Autolycus breaking into the hut they’d stored Xena’s body in and trying to steal it.

"What?" Tobias said, now resting his elbow on Gabrielle’s knee. "He said what??"

"That he was doing it under a cooperative effort with Xena." Gabrielle repeated. "I know, I thought he’d lost his mind too, until he stopped us from burning the casket, and took off with it. Then… what he was doing, the things he did… I can’t explain it, but that was Xena. I was sure of it."

"From beyond death???" Elaini spoke up for the first time, and that in a whisper.

The bard nodded. "Yeah.. I didn’t believe it until then, and I took off after him. And then.." She tipped her head back and swallowed, and bit her lips to keep them steady. "And then she told me to close my eyes..and think of her.. and I did.. and.. and… she was there."

"In your mind?" Came the whispered question.

"I.. I guess. I don’t really know." Gabrielle answered. "So real.." she added, in a hushed tone. "I started crying when I saw her there, it felt so wonderful."

"Ohh.." Tobias breathed, patting her knee. "You poor cubling.’

"Well, she told me what we had to do, to get to the ambrosia, and restore her body to life." Gabrielle sighed. "And.. I told her I couldn’t lose her again." She looked at the four sets of golden eyes glued on her. "I meant that." She added quietly.

"We know." Tobias and Cessi answered in concert. "We understand."

The bard smiled. "You do, don’t you." She felt her body relax at last. "And she told me she’d always be here." The forest dwellers exchanged glances. "And after we got the ambrosia, and she did come back.. I made her promise she’d never die on me again."

"Tis a terrible promise to ask of one of our kind, cubling." Cessi said gently, but her eyes were understanding.

"I know." Gabrielle answered, closing her eyes. "But she promised."

Xena lifted Ares off her shoulders and put him down on the ground, with a pat. "You stay here, boy." She muttered, then began moving towards the three forest dwellers, stopping just inside the last ring of trees and pausing to consider her options.

Which weren’t numerous, actually. She could leave. Not an option. She could pick up that long fallen branch nearby and just go in swinging. Sounds fun, possibly an option. She could walk in calmly and use threats to intimidate them into leaving. Entertaining, but they looked mean and that could possibly turn into a brawl.

Question is, am I in the mood for a brawl? She asked, as she started to move, then paused when she spotted a pile of jagged stones, evidently from a quarry nearby. Oh. Her mind chuckled. Now, I like this option better.

She picked up a handful of the stones, and gazed for a moment at the two strange forest dwellers. Then she wound up and let fly, her unerring aim directing the rock neatly into the forehead of the closer forest dweller.

He yelped, and spun, eyes darting around the ring of trees.

Xena grinned wholeheartedly, and let a second rock loose, catching the other forest dweller on the side of the face. A third and fourth rock followed, causing blood to fly from the enraged victims, who held their arms over their heads, and started to retreat, unable to see their attacker, and beginning to feel the deadly sting Xena had started to put in the rocks’ momentum.

Jessan had lowered his hands, and was starting to grin, letting his eyes also search the treeline without success. He waited until his attackers were out of range, then crossed his arms over his chest, and laughed, now catching the first sign of movement as Xena jogged towards him at an unhurried pace.

"Hey." She said, as she drew even with him. "What was all that?"

"Trouble." Jessan replied. "That’s some arm you have there.. were you all the way up on that ridge?"

Xena chuckled. "Yep. " She admitted. "Many years of my youth spent trying to best my brothers, actually."

"Did you?" He teased, sure of the answer.

"Uh huh." She cheerfully confirmed.

And Toris had been furious, too, she remembered, because she’d not only beaten him, she’d beaten his friends who he’d been trying to impress.

"You can’t play. You’re a girl." Toris had said, with a laugh, as he ran of with the village boys. "Girls can’t throw." It was a common game they played, standing on one side of the stream that bordered Amphipolis, and throwing stones across the surface of the water, trying to hit the row of sunken logs near the other side. The closer you got to the log, the more points, and hitting the log was the prize.

Every time she tried to join in, they chased her off, until she trudged downstream from them, and found her own spot on the bank to try her luck.

They had been a lot older, and she had never tried throwing stones, so it took her a long time to figure out how the best way was to throw the rocks, and what size traveled furthest, and just how hard she had to throw them.

At first, it was bad. Then it got a little better, and after a while, she knew Toris had been wrong. Girls could throw, all right. At least this one could, and she started throwing bigger and bigger ones until she was satisfied she could hit the logs, every time.

So she had gone up the bank, to where they were standing in a circle, egging each other on, and watched them for a while. Then, at a gap in their throwing, she’d picked up a nearby loose stone, and let fly over their heads, hitting the furthest log with a distinct sodden thump.

"Hey!" The largest of them had yelled, spinning around. "Who threw that?"

"I did." She’d said, crossing her arms and smiling.

"No way." He scoffed.

For an answer, she’d picked up another rock, and barely glancing across the stream, let her new found coordination between her arms and her vision find a target, and threw, hearing the resounding thunk of the stone hitting wood and smiling again.

The boy had laughed, and given Toris a shove in the chest. "She throws better than you do."

"Does not!" Toris had yelled, and shoved him back, and that had degenerated into a scuffle, until the older boy had had enough, and just picked Toris up and threw him on the ground. And had then aimed a kick at him that never fell, because he was knocked off his feet by a flying body, who was all yelling energy and small fists, and whose arms, wrapped around his body, held shockingly surprising strength.

"Get off me!" The boy screamed, as he felt the blows his groin. "Help!"

It had taken all of them to pull her off him, and then finally they pushed her back, and stood huddled in front of where he was stlll writhing on the ground, facing her.

She stood with her hands balled into fists, breathing hard, and ignoring the cuts and scrapes that covered her arms and legs from the rough ground, watching them staring at her with looks that mixed fear and respect in equal measure.

And she decided she liked that. So she looked down at Toris, who was just getting to his feet on the dusty ground. He glared at her.

She glared back. "Girls can too throw." She informed him, and walked off, to where she could see Lyceus crouched wide-eyed behind a tree.

"Wow." Ly had said, in his gentle voice as she drew near him. "Mommy’s gonna be mad with you, Xeney." He plucked at her worn tunic. "You gots blood all over this." He slipped his hand in hers and they started walking home together. "Will you teach me to do that?"

Xena had looked down at him, still thinking about what it had felt like, to fight, and win.. and get those looks. "Yeah, Ly. We’ll do it together, ok?"

Lyceus had given her his most enthusiastic grin. "All right!"

"But, this time Gabrielle will be proud of me." Xena commented, slapping Jessan on the shoulder. "I decided to take the easy way out for a change."

Jessan laughed. "Oh, the rocks?"

She nodded. "Yep… so, what was that/" Bringing the question right back around to him, but then she stopped, and stiffened. "Damn."

"What…oh." Jessan growled, as the faint sounds she’d detected came to his ears as well. "Well, you tried. Let me talk us out of this, Ok?"

But there was no time for talking, as the brush suddenly parted, and the two forest dwellers returned, springing on them with wild, angry roars that exposed white fangs and red mouths.

Jessan returned the roar, and met the first one, who bowled him over with his greater size, and slammed a heavy clawed fist against Jessan’s side.

Xena dodged the leap of the second attacker, and let him hit the ground and bounce up, right into a solid kick that snapped his head back and robbed him of breath for an endless instant.

Long enough for Xena to slip inside his reach, and slam an elbow into his jaw, causing his eyes to glaze in shock, and knocking him back several paces.

Then he shook his head to clear it, drew his sword, and came after her in earnest, weaving the blade in front of him like a scythe.

Xena felt the blood pumping in her veins, and the tingle that always came to her in this kind of fight, when life and death were equal partners, and the only influence to one or the other were her skills, and her determination. She laughed, and bounded to one side as he came on, crouching slightly and kicking away from the ground, flipping over his head and twisting in mid air, lashing out with one powerful leg to catch his head and snap it forward.

She heard the sharp crack as his neck broke, and he slumped to the ground lifeless, as she completed the flip and landed neatly on her feet, bouncing a little to bleed off the momentum. The remaining attacker was stumbling off, holding an obviously dislocated arm and she let him go, after locking eyes with him for a long moment.

"Jess.." She hissed, dropping to the ground and seeing the blood stained fur. "He got you?"

The forest dweller winced, and tried to roll over. "Ares’ blood." He gasped, holding his side. "Ribs, I think."

Experienced fingers probed, and Xena sat back with a sigh. "Cracked, and that’s a bad slice." She indicated the bloody cut on his side.

Overhead, the cloudy sky began to shed itself of its watery burden, and a light mist fell on their heads, drenching Xena’s tunic and beading in Jessan’s draggled fur.

"You..OK?" He gasped, golden eyes searching her face worriedly. He’d seen the effort she had to muster just to walk back to the village yesterday, and had been concerned.

Those blue eyes met his with a wry warmth. "Yeah, I’m fine."

His hand reached up and clasped hers. "Good.. cause I think I’m gonna need some help to get home." He glanced around. "We can’t stay here."

"All right." Xena said, standing and carefully surveying the surrounding forest. "Can you walk? "

Jessan snorted. "Probably. Can you help me up?"

And he got a smile at that, which charmed him. "Sure." The warrior affirmed, and extended both hands down to him. "Grab hold."

"Xena…" He hesitated. "If you’re still…" Ares.. I don’t want her hurting herself worse trying to help me. I’d rather rot out here.

"Grab hold." Xena repeated, giving him a look. "Or I’ll just grab your fur and pull. Your choice."

Golden eyes widened in mock horror. "All right.. all right…" He grasped her warm hands, and felt her fingers tighten on his wrists like iron bands. "OK.." He said marshalling his strength.

And felt himself being lifted up with a speed and sureness that startled him. He swayed on his feet a bit, from the blood loss and the pain, and she got a shoulder under his, and wrapped his arm around her neck. "Thanks." He grinned at her. Then his eyes glanced back. "They’re not going to forget a dead scout, I’m afraid."

Xena shrugged. "Not my problem. You attack an unarmed person with a sword, and you get what’s coming to you." She moved forward, walking very slowly in deference to his wounds.

Jessan snorted, then laughed a little. "Unarmed? Who are YOU kidding?" He shook his head vigorously, scattering the light rain about him and over her.l

Xena chuckled. "Well, you know what I mean." She flicked her own damp dark hair out of her eyes.

"Oh yeah.. right. If you were tied up from head to foot and then wrapped in a linen shroud, and then shackled with iron chains, and then dead drunk, maybe, just maybe, I’d think of you as unarmed. But I wouldn’t take a chance." Jessan stated, stumbling a little.

"Oh really?" Xena laughed. "I’ll have to remember that."

Jessan smiled. "Yeah." He took small breaths to reduce the pain from his ribs. "Hey Xena?"

"Hmmm?" The warrior answered, glancing at him.

"Could you… I dunno.. tell me a story or something to make me not think about how much this hurts?" The forest dweller asked, wistfully.

"Me?" Xena muffled a laugh, and rolled her eyes. "Oh boy, you don’t know what you’re asking here, my friend." She shook her head to move the hair out of her eyes again, and ducked a little to avoid the feathery ferns soddenly slapping her. The smell of the rain, and the wet vegetation rose around her. "I don’t do stories well."

Jessan sighed. "I know.. sorry ."

They glanced at each other.

Xena’s blue eyes took on a gentle twinkle. "What did you have in mind?" With this slow progress, I might as well.

"Oh, I dunno… what have you guys been doing since I saw you last?" Jessan asked, shyly.

Xena took a breath, and looked around her. "Oh. You wanna hear about the Amazons, huh?"

He nodded.

"Sure." Xena said, taking a firmer grasp on his arm, and starting up the shallow incline towards the path she’d been on. Ares trotted at her heels, sneezing as raindrops hit his furry face.

Gabrielle moved quietly to the back of the healer’s cot, and listened to the forest dwellers talk amongst themselves. The anxious, worried feeling she’d had in her gut was gone, she was glad to note, but she, herself, was still upset at her partner’s continued physical problems. "Elaini.." She said softly, as the healer walked past. "Can I ask you something?"

The forest dweller paused, and put down the basin she was carrying. "Sure.." She said, focusing her attention on the bard. "What’s wrong?" She paused. "Is it Xena?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Yeah." She glanced down to where her fingers were twisting a bit of linen around into knots. "She told me this morning she thinks she got hit in the wrong place by one of those rocks.. and that’s what’s causing those dizzy spells she keeps getting."

Elaini sat down, and a worried expression found it’s way across her face. "That’s bad." She sighed, looking at the bard. "She’s just resting, right?"

The bard gave her a look. "You’re joking, right?" She let out a breath. "No, she’s out trying to find out just how bad it actually is."

The healer looked at her in horror. "Gabrielle..that’s not funny. She can do herself… a lot of damage." Her brows contracted. "One wrong move.. and if it’s her spine that’s hurt, she can paralyze herself. " How can she risk… Ares’ boots, I don’t understand these humans.

Gabrielle took small, silent breaths. "That hasn’t happened." She said, but her voice shook. "I’d know." Would I? What was that horrible… she’d feel like that if she… oh gods. "I gotta go."

"Shh.." Elaini soothed her with a hand "You’re exactly right, Gabrielle – you’d know if something bad had happened, you know that." Gotta stop scaring her like that. Poor kid.

The bard sat down slowly. "I know.. it’s like a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.." She shook her head, then glanced up and noticed the odd expression on Elaini’s face. The healer brow furrowed, and she absently let a hand drift down to her abdomen. "What’s wrong?" Gabrielle asked, putting a hand out.

"Uhm. Nothing." Elaini said, giving her head a brisk shake. "What did Xena say she was going to do?"

Gabrielle studied her for a moment. "She said she was just going to go for a walk." Which probably means she went for a walk, that turned into something else, but I don’t’ think she’d be dumb enough to try anything too strenuous.. she was hurting, so bad that she couldn’t stop me from seeing it.

The smell of rich herbal tea spread throughout the cot as Cessi fiddled in the corner, pouring steaming water of a large basin of herbs. The rich steamy scent held traces of mint, and that brought a faint smile of remembrance to the bard.

It had been not long after Perdicus’ death, and relations were still… strained.. between Xena and herself. It wasn’t anything the warrior did.. or said, or anything Gabrielle did.. but she still heard Perdicus’ screams at night in her dreams, and her guilt, compounded by the guilt obviously felt by Xena, and combined with the whole mess involving Callisto and that body switching had caused the distance between them to lengthen.

And that, she had reflected sadly, as she sat near the fire on a cold winter’s night in the outlands, was the worst thing of all. It felt like she was losing something she’d come to count on. To depend on in a way that she hadn’t expected.

She’d thought that Xena was feeling it too – the warrior had taken to spending more time with her solitary drills, and often came back to the fire plainly exhausted, to toss her weapons down and just sit, staring at the fire with a look of… helpless sadness in her blue eyes that stung Gabrielle’s heart.

But she didn’t know the way back to where they were… they’d been through so much, and it still hurt so bad, she could hardly stand it sometimes. What she wanted was… something she couldn’t have, she knew, as she looked over at Xena’s closed, silent face and felt an anguished tug on her heart. She’d hugged herself closer, against the stinging cold wind that was sweeping through the campsite, and wanted very badly to just curl up in a ball and forget the world. Vaguely aware of Xena’s moving around, she focused her thoughts, or lack of them really, on the fire, and let the misty sadness that seemed to dominate her thoughts lately roll over her.

Until she’d been called back by the scent of steamy mint, and looked up into the shadowed blue eyes of the warrior now standing over her with a cup not far from her face. "Here." Xena had said. "You look a little chilled."

And instead of her usual offhand denial, or smart remark, she’d let out a tired breath. "I’m freezing." Had come out in a hoarse voice she hardly recognized, and that had brought Xena swiftly down on one knee.

"Let me get your cloak." The warrior urged, curling Gabrielle’s stiff fingers around the mug.

"It’s not the weather." The bard had whispered, unable to stop herself from speaking.

And Xena had stopped in mid motion, paused for a long instant, then slowly sat back down next to Gabriele’s too still body. "Look, Gabrielle.."

But the bard had put her other hand out, stopping her. "No.. there aren’t words for this, Xena. I’ve been trying and trying to come up with something.. anything I could say to fix this.. but I can’t." Her eyes raised up and found Xena’s, and stayed there, seeing the anguish she felt reflected back at her. "Are you mad at me?"

Xena’s jaw dropped slightly. It would have been almost funny if it hadn’t been so serious. "Me?" The warrior blurted, shaking her head a little bit. "What.. why… No." Then more gently. "No."

"It’s Perdicus, right?" Gabrielle’s voice was no more than a whisper. I abandoned you.. again, Xena. Don’t think I don’t know that. Don’t think I don’t know that hurt you.

And got silence for a response, and eyes that would no longer meet hers. "I tried, Gabrielle." Xena’s response was low and controlled. "I just didn’t… I didn’t think Callisto would.."

"Xena, its not your fault." Gabrielle had responded. "I shouldn’t have said yes to his offer." She’d taken a gulp of the half forgotten tea in her grasp, and was pleasantly surprised by the delicious taste as it rolled down her throat. "Mm." She murmured.

"Gabrielle… don’t be silly. You loved him. Of course you should have said yes. It’s not your fault Callisto… did what she did. It’s my fault. If you’d never met me, it never would have happened." Xena answered, in a tired voice, staring moodily down at her clasped hands, examining the callused fingertips as though they were a stranger’s. "Yet another thing to add to my list of regrets."

"I didn’t." Gabrielle had said, studying that half profile, lit by a scattering of dull crimson flames from the fire.

‘Didn’t what?" Xena had asked, finally lifting her head with a sigh and meeting the bard’s eyes.

"Love him." In a bare whisper, that nonetheless brought Xena to an abrupt stillness.

A very long silence had followed, in which they studied each other’s faces with a vivid intensity.

"Then…." Xena asked slowly, finally. "Why… Did you just want to go home? I would have.. you could…"

"Xena." Gabrielle had said, with a gentle smile.

"Hmm?" The warrior replied.

"I am home." She had allowed her heart free rein, and she knew a lot of things were showing on her face, in her eyes. I’ve been sitting outside the doorway for months now.. for the sake of the gods… please.. let me back in.

For a long, frozen moment, she thought Xena wasn’t going to respond. And if that was the case.. having put her heart on the line, maybe leaving would be her only option. Staying like this simply wasn’t.

But those blue eyes had gentled, and softened, and the warrior had allowed a little of her own heart to show as she raised a hand and cupped Gabrielle’s cheek. "You will always.. " Her voice dropped in pitch. "Always, have a place in here, no matter what happens." Xena’s other hand rose and tapped her chest. "You do know that, right?" A pause. "Gabrielle??"

"I was starting to wonder." The words came out strangled, as her throat closed, and long held tears started to track down her face.

But then she was physically lifted up and pulled into a hug so strong, and so fierce it blocked out the chill wind, and the dark memories, and the coldness between them. And filled her with a growing warmth that eased the knots she’d been carrying inside for months as though they had never been. She’d cried herself out, and they’d talked for hours, finally erasing some of the grief that had held them apart.

She’d woken up, groggily, the next morning, still wrapped in Xena’s arms, the warrior’s woolen cloak folded around both of them in a makeshift shelter. Her head had been tucked under the taller woman’s chin, and she had felt Xena’s steady, even breathing and resting heartbeat where their bodies were pressed together. It had been cold out, and warm where she was, and she had closed her eyes and just drifted back to sleep, with a smile, and the faint, remembered taste of mint in her mouth.

They both glanced up as thunder rolled overhead, and Gabrielle could hear the beginning patter of raindrops hitting the thatched roof. A glance outside showed them a cold drizzling rain, and Gabrielle shivered as the breeze blew in the door. "Brr… it sure got cold fast."

A yell outside caught their hearing, and they both turned to look out the open door. "Gods." Gabrielle spat, heading out the door and pulling up short with one hand on the porch railing and her heart in her throat.

Out of the falling, misty rain came two drenched figures, one supporting the other.

"Damn." The bard cursed, but her body relaxed when she realized which one of the pair was supporting the other. She stepped off the porch into the rain, and heard pounding footsteps behind her as Elaini leaped off the porch and powered past her, throwing up splashes of rain at every step.

"Easy, easy." Xena cautioned Jessan, as they came down the end of the muddy path and into the village. "Slippery here."

"Yeah, ok." The forest dweller panted, keeping his head down.

Xena looked up and spotted the running form heading towards them, and the smaller one not far behind. A smile appeared on her face. "Looks like helps on the way, Jess. A little bit more." She said quietly, as Elaini skidded to a halt next to her, and put a hand up. "Ok.. ok.. he’s got some cracked ribs, and a cut. It’s not major." She told the anxious healer.

"I’ve got him.. let me get that weight off your neck, Xena. For Ares sake, be careful." Elaini snapped, grasping Jessan’s arm and allowing the warrior to duck out from under it.

"Relax, I’m .." Xena got halfway through that when a pair of arms slid around her and she looked down into Gabrielle’s mist green eyes. "Fine." She finished, but in a soft voice that only the bard could have heard. "Really." She added, seeing the disbelief in the bard’s glance.

Thunder rolled in overhead, and they all glanced up. "Let’s get out of this." Xena said, sliding an arm across Gabrielle’s shoulders and moving towards the healer’s cot. "You’re shivering." She accused the bard, and felt her snuggle closer in response.

"How’s your back. " Gabrielle asked, watching her face for a response. Something’s different.

"Much better." The warrior reassured her. "You won’t believe what happened."

"Won’t I?" The bard smiled gently up at her. "Like impossible things never happen to you, right?"

They mounted the stairs to the healer’s hut, and went inside, where Cessi and Tobias were helping Elaini get Jessan settled in a cot on the far side of the big room.

"He looks like he’s in good hands." Xena whispered to the bard, who giggled. The warrior crossed over to where Gennen was snuggled down, watching the action on the other side of the room. "How is he?"

Gennen turned his face towards Xena. "He’s going to be ok." His mouth moved into a big grin, showing all his teeth. "I owe you two lives, eh? Mine and his."

"Nah." The warrior patted his arm. "I just helped a little. He saved himself."

Heavy footsteps on the porch, several sets, then Lestan and Wennid entered, and Wennid bolted immediately for her son. Lestan let her go, and stopped by Xena’s side, nodding as the warrior stood to meet him.

"Xena." He sighed. "What happened?"

Xena stood to her full height, and put her hands on her hips. "Suppose you tell me what’s going on with your northern neighbors, and I'll tell you what they did to your son."

Silence in the room, as all eyes studied the leader and the human.

Finally Lestan nodded. "It’s time." He replied. "Call a council." This to his aide, who had followed them in.



Continued in Part 5

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