Bound – Part 5

By Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

The council room was filled, by the time they got there, with a shifting mass of damp forest dwellers who sorted themselves out and settled down as Lestan strode in and took his seat, motioning for Xena to do the same.

A small silence followed, in which the steady sound of the rain outside punctuated by thunder rolled over them. "Well." Lestan said, putting a hand on the table, and gently playing with the handle of mug. "As some of you know, we had yet another incursion today. Secan’s rangers entered our territory, and ambushed my son."

Silence, as golden eyes flickered around and met each other with unease.

"Jessan is all right, besides some cracked ribs and a cut or two." Lestan continued, and felt a wave of relief roll around the room. His attention shifted to the silent, dark haired woman in their midst. "Can you give us any detail as to what happened, Xena?"

A quiet, controlled voice responded, with a vibrant low tone that carried easily around the large gathering. "Nothing really to tell, Lestan. I was out running along your northern border, and saw two strangers facing off against Jess." She shrugged. "Chased them off, but they hadn’t had enough, and they came back." She paused. "Jess gave one a dislocated shoulder, and he took off."

Glances traded around the room. "And the other?" Lestan asked, leaning forward.

No answer from Xena, but her mouth twitched into a feral grin.

"I see." Lestan replied, taking a breath. "That will… complicate things." Gods. She killed him. And it was probably one of his prize border raiders, and they had a witness.

She shrugged in apology. "Came at me with a sword, Lestan."

And she had been unarmed, he realized. "No fault to you, Xena." He smiled at her. "Wish I could have been there." And looking around the room, at the glints in familiar eyes, he realized he was not the only one who felt that way. But.. "That does put a spin on things, though." He glanced at Wennid. "Secan will want her."

Wennid’s eyebrows rose, and she shook her head. "Damn fool."

A loud bang shook the room, and they all jumped. "Now that I have your attention. " Xena said calmly. "Wanna let me in on just what in HADES is going on here?" She felt a gentle hand on her back, as Gabrielle leaned close to hear the answer, and she half turned and caught the bard’s glance, and the smile she was trying to wipe off her face. Liked that, huh? Xena thought, amused, then turned her attention back to Lestan. "Well???"

So he told her. About Secan, and his clan, who had sent an ultimatum, either capitulate, or fight, or send their best in single combat against him.

"So, we have a problem, Xena. We have no one that can match him, and his rangers are better trained, and more experienced than the fighters here." Lestan sighed. "And it would burn my soul to give into him, but I have lives to think of." His eyes met hers. "And now, sure as the sun rises in the morning, he’s going to demand I turn you over to him as part of the surrender."

Xena laughed. And the sound skittered around the room dancing off the woven walls and the watching forest dwellers. "I guess I’ll have to tell him I’m not yours to surrender." She remarked, letting her gaze travel around the room. "No chance of fighting them off? "

Warrin cleared his throat, giving Xena a direct stare. "We’d lose badly."


"Why?" Came the surprising question from the warrior.

Jessan’s uncle blinked at her. "Because they have the fire in the blood, and we do not." Not expecting her to understand the lust that fueled Secan’s rangers that made them almost unstoppable fighters. That let them kill without regret.

Xena nodded slowly. She did understand, probably better than Warrin knew. Probably better than Warrin himself understood. "Ares’ gift." She said, quietly. Feeling the stirrings of it in her own blood.

"Aye." Warrin replied.

"You don’t always need that." Xena remarked, as she sat back and let her arm rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "You can use intelligence instead."

Lestan watched both of them, aware he was viewing a fencing match as deadly as any with live steel. "What do you mean, Xena?" He interrupted them.

She turned and regarded his face. "I mean strategy sometimes will win a day when you’re outnumbered, outclassed, and outfought."

"You’re daft." Warrin snorted, and shook his head. "You have no idea what you’re saying. Would you ask us to go to our deaths on the chance of strategy?"

"Isn’t that what you want?" Gabrielle’s voice carried clearly across the table, and was followed by a deathly stillness. Her mist green eyes bored into his. "Why are you trying to convince everyone that there’s no chance? That giving up is the only option?"

Warrin stood, and walked slowly over to her, his face a mask. He stopped within striking distance, and felt his nostrils flaring as his temper began to rise.

Gabrielle rose smoothly to meet him, exquisitely aware of the hair trigger tension running through the shoulder she had a hand casually on. She squeezed the muscles gently. Give me a chance here, love. She waited for his response.

"I wouldn’t risk even a one of my brothers or sisters in a foolish plan that’s doomed to failure, you little idiot." Warrin hissed. "You have so little knowledge of what we are. Go back to your human city and let us take care of our own problems."

The bard calmly regarded him. "Sometimes you have to risk the things you love, Warrin." Her eyes bored into his. "I live with that risk every minute of the day, but that would never stop me from putting myself on the line for something I believed in. And if you don’t believe in yourself, and the freedom of your people, than what’s the point?"

Xena had half turned, and was watching them, with a quiet smile. Then saw Warrin’s body twitch, and pinned him with a stare. "Don’t." She snapped, a growl in her voice that was echoed by the small damp body at her feet.

One word, and she was unarmed, and in a room filled with potential enemies twice her size, and not one of them would have made a move towards her. They wanna see Ares’ gift? Fine. Xena mused, and let the fire rise up in her, and knew they felt it. That it was closer to the surface in her than it was in them.

"Fools." Warrin spat, and turned on his heel. But it was a retreat, and they all knew it. The scarred forest dweller left the room, and there was silence in his wake.

Gabrielle let out the breath she’d been holding, and flicked her eyes to her partner, and saw the swiftly hidden grin. "Well." She sighed, and sat back down, moving a little closer to Xena.

The warrior slid an arm around her and turned to face Lestan again. "Apologies, Lestan."

The older forest dweller shook his head. "Not needed." He grunted. "Warrin does not risk lightly, as you can imagine. He says what he feels is best for our clan.. and I value him for that." He hesitated. "But Gabrielle’s words ring true in my heart as well." A glance around the room told him that his sentiment was shared. "Is there a strategy that will get us out of this damned hole?"

Now all eyes turned to Xena, and Gabrielle watched her gaze go inward for a long moment. "Maybe." She finally answered. "I’d need more details on his fighters. And yours." She looked around. "Maybe I could teach you a few… " A grin curled her lips. "Tricks.. Secan’s never seen."

They grinned back, and a little thrill of excitement traveled around the table, responding to her air of confidence. "Tell you what." Xena took a deep breath. "I’ll take a look at the situation. If it’s as Warrin says.. if there really is no hope, maybe Gabrielle here can help work out some kind of agreement that’s not as bad for your clan."

The bard worked very hard to keep the look of utter surprise off her face. Wow. Didn’t expect that. But she felt a warm glow of pride at the words, and she slid her arm around the warrior and gave her a quick squeeze of thanks.

"But if there’s an honorable way out…" she let the thought trail off, and saw the response in their eyes. "I’ll find it."

Lestan reached across the table, and grasped her wrist. "You don’t have to do this, Xena. It’s really not your fight."

Xena laughed. "Seems to me I’ve heard that phrase around these parts before." Then she sobered, and met his eyes. "I know that." A pause, and a sly grin. "But I never could resist a good brawl."

They nodded at each other in understanding. "Very well." Lestan sighed, then realized his lifemate was poking him. "Oh. Sorry." A grin in their direction. "Will you join us for dinner tonight?" He ignored their smiles. "I can get all the information about Secan’s warriors and let you see it."

Xena half turned her head, and raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle, who nodded. "Sure." She said. "We’d be glad to." She glanced outside, at the sheeting rain, which still battered the conference room, and the lightning that lit the village in stark relief at frequent intervals. He’s right. This isn’t my fight, and I could, in all honor, just leave his territory and let him settle things their way. Once up on a time that's exactly what I would have done. But now… she searched her heart and sighed. I’ve changed too much.. very stupid, Xena. She smiled inwardly. But it feels… really good to know just how naturally that choice comes to me now. Maybe.. She cut the thought off. "Well, I need to go get wet again, then change into something dry, and so does my partner here. So.."

They broke up the meeting, and headed off into the cold rain, but not a few of them noticed that the chill didn’t seem to penetrate quite so deep, now that the warmth of hope was there to counteract it.

The rain hit them like a waterfall as they left the conference room, and stepped down off the porch. "Damn." Xena cursed, pulling Gabrielle closer and ducking her head. "I know I like a rainy day, but…" She felt the bard chuckle, then start to pull away. "Hey…?"

"Gotta get something for lunch." The bard shouted, nodding towards the communal kitchen. "You didn’t get breakfast."

"I’ll get it." Xena said, giving her a shove towards the cot they’d been assigned. "You go dry off and warm up."

Gabrielle took a stubborn grasp on her arm. "Look, I remember what you said this morning, and you’re the one who needs to go sit down. So go.. OK?"

Xena stopped, and wrapped her arms around the bard’s neck. "Gabrielle, I really, truly am fine. Would you go on, please… you know I hate being sick.. " Her hands gently cupped Gabrielle’s chilled face. "But you also know I hate you getting sick a lot more." She paused, seeing the look in the bard’s eyes. "You don’t believe me, do you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "Nope." She put her hands on her hips. "I think you’re pulling that stoic Warrior Princess routine on me like you usually do."

Got a sigh from the warrior. "Ok." Xena remarked, then quickly scooped Gabrielle up into her arms, and stood there for a moment, looking down at the surprised bard. "Look at me." She said, gently, and watched the green eyes track to hers. "This close, I couldn’t hide a hangnail from you, right?"

The bard studied her face intently, looking for the tiny tensions around her eyes and mouth that weren’t there, and felt the firm steadiness of her body and the arms that held her securely off the ground. "I don’t understand." She finally said, lifting a hand and stroking her face gently. "What happened?"

"Long story." Xena said. "I’ll tell you later. Once you go inside and dry off!" She let her voice drop to a menacing growl.

"But.." The bard protested, ""Look, that can’t just vanish.." She sighed in frustration. "Xena, would you put me down?" She growled, and tugged the front of the warrior’s tunic. . "I know you can put stuff out of your mind with no effort but.."

"Still don’t believe me, do you?" Xena said, with a momentary sad look in her eyes. "Hang on." She warned, and took a few powerful steps, leaped, crouched, and shot up into the air, diving foreword into a flip and landing in a mud puddle with an impressive splash.

Straightened up with no sign of discomfort, and stood easily, still holding the bard securely tucked in her arms. "Well?" she asked, watching the bard’s face through the rain.

Gabrielle let out a breath, and blew the wet hair out of her eyes, reaching for one wrist with her other hand and pressing sharply. "You’d better cut that out or lunch won’t be an option." She warned, but she couldn’t keep a smile off her face, and she wrapped her arms around Xena’s neck, nestling her head into her shoulder. "All right.. all right..I believe you.." She said, just absorbing the warmth. "But how.."

"Later." Xena said, giving her a hug. "Now, I’m going to let you down, and I want you to please, go and dry off. For me?"

Reluctantly, Gabrielle sighed, but kept her arms around Xena’s neck as the warrior released her and her feet touched the ground. "Only for you."

They stood there in the rain for a long moment, just absorbed in each other, ignoring the pelting water, the thunder, and the mud that was collecting around them. "Your lips are blue." Xena finally said, softly, ducking her head and solving the problem neatly and thoroughly. "Better?" she asked, after a bit.

"Huh?" The bard blinked, shaking her head a little. "What? Oh..lips. Right." She gazed up at Xena’ amused face with a dreamy look., then sighed. "Right.. I’m going." She headed off toward their cot at a brisk pace, and was soon lost in the sheeting rain.

Xena chuckled, and headed towards the kitchen, sloshing mud and water with her booted steps cheerfully. She ducked into the large double size cot, to see several forest dwellers clustered around the firepit in obvious dismay. "Problem?" She inquired as they turned to see who had entered.

"Xena." The closest one murmured, and spread a hand towards the firepit. "Uhm.. in a manner of speaking. Rain came down the chimney and put the fire out. We have nothing warm but some soup.. but you’re welcome to it. She cast an irritated eye towards the trays of cut ingredients waiting for cooking. "Ares’ blood. That’s going to spoil by the time we get this thing restarted."

Xena peered at the trays, then at the broth. Then grinned. "Can I take some of this stuff, too?" She asked, cocking an eyebrow at them.

The cook stared at her. "It’s raw."

"Uh huh." The warrior agreed. Now.. I can’t wait for the rumors of my eating raw meat to spread around. "That’s ok."

All four forest dwellers glanced at her, then at each other. "Sure." The cook said, sweeping her arm towards the trays. "Help yourself."

And Xena did, collecting a selection of raw meats and uncooked vegetables, a covered pot of the broth, and some of the various condiments the forest dwellers used for seasoning their sometimes bland meals. "Thanks." She said, then paused in the doorway. "Don’t try to relight that. Just clear the pit, and start from scratch."

Raised eyebrows. "Had this happen?" The cook asked, with the start of a smile on her face.

Xena chuckled. "My mother’s an innkeeper." She answered, then ducked out the door and disappeared into the driving storm.

The forest dwellers looked at each other. "She has a mother?" One snorted, with a surprised look.

Xena stepped up onto the porch of their cot, and shook herself, scattering water all over the already drenched surface. Bet I look a sight.. her mind thought in amusement. The door opened as she reached it and Gabrielle grabbed her dripping tunic and pulled her inside. "Hey.." She laughed as the bard closed the wooden panel against the storm.

Inside, the cheerful flames of a well-laid fire lighted the cot, and several candles were scattered about, dispelling the gloom from outside. Gabrielle was wrapped in one of her heavier shirts, and had her cloak around her for good measure. "Get in here." She ordered, taking the items Xena was carrying and putting them on the table. "Hold still." She added, starting to unfasten the dripping tunic Xena was wearing.

"Wa..." Xena started to protest, then stopped, and just stood easily, with her arms hanging loosely at her side as Gabrielle undid the belt of the tunic, and stripped it off of her, tossing the garment over the back of one of the chairs and stepping closer with a piece of dry linen. "What did I do to deserve this treatment?" She teased the bard, who was industriously drying her off.

"Who said I’m doing this for your benefit?" Gabrielle answered, then blushed. "Gods..I can't believe I said that." She finished her task, and tossed Xena the shirt she had slung over her shoulder. "Here." She sighed, trying to ignore the warrior's delighted laughter as she pulled the fabric over her head. "Now.. explain to me what happened out there."

Xena settled the shirt around her with a sigh, and pulled her damp hair out from under the collar. "Well..." She paused, as she sat down on the chair and started untying her boots. "I.. I felt pretty bad this morning." She looked up at the bard's face, which had sobered.

"I know." Gabrielle said quietly, as she pulled up the chair next to her and sat down, putting one hand out and rubbing Xena's arm.

The warrior finished removing her boots, setting them down on the wooden floor, and leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees and letting her head drop down between her shoulders for a moment. Then she took a breath, and propped her chin on her hands. "It was.. really discouraging.. even just walking was hard, Gabrielle."

"Because it hurt?" The bard asked, softly, moving closer.

Xena shook her head. "No." She gave the bard a half grin. "Balance was off. I can't.. describe what that feels like." She looked off into the distance for a moment. "Usually.. I always know where I am." A pause. "I don't have to have my eyes open.. or even think about it. I just always.. know. Up from down, that kind of thing."

Gabrielle stayed silent, not wanting to stop this unprecedented look at how Xena knew herself to operate.

"This was driving me nuts, really." Xena admitted, with a rueful smile. "It felt all wrong."

The bard linked her arm through her partner's and rested her head against one shoulder. "I know.. I could feel how frustrated you were."

"Could you?" Xena murmured. "Anyway, there I was, stumbling along.."

"I doubt that." Gabrielle interrupted with a sly grin.

"Do you want to hear this or not?" The warrior asked, raising an eyebrow.

The bard dropped her head against Xena's shoulder again, and quieted. "Sorry, love. Go on."

"Rabbit." Xena sighed.

"Excuse me?" Gabrielle asked, rubbing her cheek against the soft sleeve of Xena's shirt.

"A rabbit crossed the path in front of me, and Ares started chasing it." Xena replied gruffly. She paused. Well, it's embarrassing.. but this is Gabrielle, and she'll only laugh for a minute. "He tripped me, and I fell off the path and down an embankment." She waited patiently for the giggles, and gave the bard a sideways glance when they didn't materialize.

"Were you all right?" The bard asked in a gentle voice, straightening up, and lifting a hand to smooth the dark damp hair out of Xena's face. Gods.. how she must have felt. Ouch.

"More or less." The warrior shrugged. "I slammed into a tree." She leaned into the pressure of the bard's hand on her face. "Felt pretty bad about that." She admitted, quietly.

"I know." And Gabrielle realized she did - that it had been that moment she'd sensed during her storytelling. "Gods, Xena.. you should be more careful."

"Yeah, I know." Came the answer, on the heels of a quiet sigh. "So after I just laid there feeling sorry for myself for a bit, I told myself to stop being such a self pitying idiot and get going, and when I sat up.. " She shrugged her shoulders and laughed helplessly. "The pain, and the dizziness was gone."

"Just like that?" Gabrielle asked, in disbelief.

"Just like that." The warrior confirmed, with a wan smile. "I was really surprised."

"I just bet you were." Gabrielle snorted, shaking her head. "I don't.. Xena, for the sake of the gods, do you know what might have happened if..."

Xena lifted her head, and met the bard's eyes in a direct stare. "If that bounce had gone the wrong way and fractured my back, or done worse damage? Yeah I do."

Gabrielle's voice deepened with anger. "They why.. how could you deliberately risk that?" Her eyes blazed. "What on earth were you thinking of?"

Xena flinched, and drew back, blinking at her. "I didn't... I wasn't.." She fell silent, and just looked at the wooden floor, letting her fingers slide through her hair as she propped her head on her hands. "Obviously I wasn't thinking." She finally replied. "I'm not.. I'm used to making decisions and taking the consequences of them, good or bad, Gabrielle."

The bard took a shaky breath. "Do you understand what it would do to me if something like that happened to you?" There. In one sentence. Now it's out in the open. "Do you know how much I hurt... when you do?"

Xena stared at her hands for a moment, then looked up. "As much as I do for you, yes." She took a deep breath, and made a quiet decision. "But what I do.. is so much a part of what I am... that I’m not sure just how much I can change.. that." Or how much you want me to change it.

Gabrielle felt her shoulders relax slightly. "Can I tell you something?" She asked, gently.

"Anything." Came the expected response.

"I don't care what you are." The bard replied, and moved closer again, putting a hand on the warrior's knee, and feeling the aching tension in the muscles under the skin. "I wouldn't care if you were a beggar in the streets, or a cloth merchant in Athens, or an innkeeper in Amphipolis." She felt the tears well up and ignored them. "In case you haven't figured this out yet, I love who you are, Xena. The person you are, who has my heart so fully, and so completely that I don't have words enough to describe it."

Blue eyes opened wide and met hers. "I can't imagine why." Xena finally answered, after a long moment of searching her face.

"Because I don’t just love you." The bard answered, with a little smile. "I like you. A lot. I enjoy being with you just because you are who you are." She paused. " Because you’re smart, and you’re funny, and.. I just… you make me feel really good when I’m around you. That’s all." She hesitated, then let her fingers trace the muscular lines on Xena’s thigh. "I guess what I’m trying to say is.. you do a lot of unbelievable things.. but those things have nothing to do with why I love you.. and it wouldn’t matter to me one bit if you chose not to do them." She glanced up at the still and watchful face. "Is this making any sense?" She paused. "Do you believe me?"

Xena swallowed, and let out a long held breath. "That takes a lot of believing." Her eyes searched Gabrielle’s with stark intensity, then let a quiet smile cross her lips. "But yeah. I believe you." Just take it on faith, Xena. That’s a gift. "Look... " she sighed. "I know.. you were right, Gabrielle. I know.. I have to change the way I think.. about some things. The way I do some things. It just... it'll take a little time."

Gabrielle reached out and grasped the powerful hands resting between Xena's knees and interlaced their fingers. "We have forever." She said, with quiet confidence. "Take as long as you like."

Forever. Xena's mind played that through several times as she allowed herself to just get lost in Gabrielle's gentle regard. I think she may have enough belief in that.. to carry both of us. Hades... be gentle with me when we meet.. and if she's got a good argument, remember you owe me one for that helmet, and listen to her.

"So, " Gabrielle said, after a very long silence. "End result, you hit the tree, it fixes you?"

Xena cleared her throat, and shrugged deprecatingly. "More or less, yeah."

"Uh huh." The bard sighed. "And you persist in believing that there is no magic involved in any of this."

"Uhm." Xena's mouth twitched. "How about some lunch?"

"You're impossible." Gabrielle chuckled, and stood up, stretching luxuriously, then giggled as Xena tickled her ribs. "Cut that out." She examined the collection of things Xena had brought back. "I hate to tell you this, love, but that's raw." Her eyebrows rose, and she cast an amused glance back at her partner.

"Oh..yeah.I know." Xena drawled, reaching over and grabbing the pot of broth, and moving it over the hearth. "Back in my more..." Her eyes glinted "Uhm.. .back in the old days, when I used to take a little more time and effort over meals - sometimes I'd take a tray of this and that.. and just cook it in hot broth. Dip it in whatever I had around.." She glanced at the fascinated bard. "Nice way to spend a rainy afternoon." She paused. "Interested?"

Ohh.. she was right. Gabrielle later thought to herself, sprawled on the thick rug in front of the fire, leaning back against Xena's stomach, with one arm draped casually over the warrior's leg. "This was a great idea." She said out loud, accepting another cooked tidbit and swallowing it with pleasure."We gotta do this more often."

Xena chuckled, stretching a little, and settling herself again, half reclined against a soft pillow from the couch that she'd borrowed. "Not too often." She warned. "This is pretty decadent."

Gabrielle's eyebrow quirked, and she glanced over her shoulder at Xena's fire lit face. "You have a problem with that?" She asked, taking a piece of lightly cooked beef from the simmering broth, dipping it in a sweet sauce the forest dwellers had a particular fondness for, and offering it to the warrior, who took it neatly in her teeth and chewed it. "Like that?" The bard asked, knowingly.

Xena nodded. "Uh huh."

Gabrielle grinned, and poked a finger at her. "You have a sweet tooth."

For a minute, she though the warrior was going to deny it, then her partner relaxed into a chuckle. "Yeah." she admitted, rolling her eyes. "I've always had one. Just ask mother." She gave the bard a lazy scratch on the back. "So do you." She accused, dipping her finger in the sweet sauce, and touching the bard's lips with it.

Gabrielle's eyes twinkled. "Yep. I sure do." She cheerfully acknowledged, licking the sauce off with evident enjoyment. "And you have no idea just how glad I am that we run around like idiots out here, so I can safely indulge that, without worrying about the consequences."

"Oh.. so that's your real reason for hanging around me, huh?" Xena teased, sliding an arm around her middle and hugging her.

"Sure.. quality sparring." Gabrielle agreed, half-turning and snuggling closer. "Besides..." she ran her hands up the warrior's body. "You're a really good inspiration."

Got a raised eyebrow back. "I am?" Xena queried, reaching up and riffling her fingers through Gabrielle's now dry hair, which crackled around her hand and clung to it.

"You really are." The bard confirmed, sliding her hands slowly down Xena's arms. "I love the way you look." She breathed, and felt her body react sharply as she felt the warriors fingertips touch the bare skin at her hip, and travel up her side with a delicate, knowing pressure.

"You're not so bad yourself." Xena advised her, as she leaned over and nibbled the bard's ear, grinning as she heard the sudden intake of breath at the light pinch.

"You know.." Gabrielle had just the presence of mind to mumble, as she gave into her instincts. "I'm starting to have a real thing for rainy days."

"Uh huh." Xena's barely heard response. "Me too."

The harsh roar of thunder caused Xena to lazily open one eye some time later, as she gazed out the window, contentedly watching the rainfall. One hand made slow, soothing circles on Gabrielle's sleeping back, the other rested comfortably on her own stomach, rising and falling with her relaxed breathing. She yawned, and let her eyes close, as the patter of rain on the thickly thatched roof seductively urged her back into sleep. No no... her mind scolded, and she opened the eye again.

The candles had burned down, and now the room was mostly lit from the fireplace, and was shadowed in darkness from the storm outside. Xena shifted a little, and blinked open both eyes, running the council session through her mind.

A cold draft blew in the window, and she lifted her arm, pulling her cloak closer, and tucking the ends neatly around Gabrielle’s shoulder. Not taking any chances with you getting sick again, my bard. Her mind mused, not after that last time. You had me scared out of all good sense.

"I’m fine" The bard had said, for the third time that day, when Xena had questioned her, but this time the words triggered a coughing spell that left her hanging on Argo’s saddle ring for support, and brought the warrior sliding down off the tall horse’s withers at breakneck speed.

"Easy." Xena had said, supporting her shoulders until her chest eased, and continuing to grasp her as she took a cautious breath, and leaned her head against Argo’s flank. "Damn." Xena cursed, and crouched to put a sensitive ear against the bard’s chest. "Breathe." She ordered.

Gabrielle had done so, and watched as Xena straightened up, and put a hand on her forehead, not bothering to hide her worried expression. "We need to find shelter." She told the bard. "I’d like to get to a town, but we’re three days from the nearest." Her eyes searched the area. "Those cliffs over there might have some caves, though. Can you hang on till we get there?"

"Sure." Gabrielle had assured her. "It’s just a cough, Xena." But she had heard the rattling in her own breathing, and knew better. Knew that the warrior knew that even better than she did.

"You’re riding." Xena replied, in a voice that brooked no disagreement. She vaulted back onto Argo’s back, and put an arm out to the bard, shaking her head when Gabrielle reached up for the back of the saddle. "No… in front." She corrected quietly, and lifted the bard up, helping her to swing one leg over Argo’s neck, and moving back in the saddle to allow Gabrielle to nestle in front of her, with one of Xena's powerful arms wrapped around the her middle for support.

Gabrielle had stayed very quiet, and after a while she had given up all attempts at pretending wellness, and simply allowed herself to slump back against Xena’s chest, and had closed her eyes, wearily attempting to doze between coughing fits.

Xena had pulled Argo to a halt next to the cliff, having located a decent sized cave, one large enough for even the horse to enter, and slid off the golden back, gently pulling Gabrielle off as soon as her booted feet were secure on the ground. The bard had swayed, holding on to Xena’s arms for support, and the warrior had made a quick decision, sliding one arm behind Gabrielle’s shudders, and one under her knees, and lifted her like a child.

"Hey. .I can walk." Gabrielle had protested, stifling a cough. "Xena, you don’t." Another cough stopped her, and she curled towards the warrior’s body, resting her head against one broad shoulder. "Oh gods." She’d whispered, and Xena had felt her heart skip.

"Hang in there, OK?" She’d said, right into the bard’s nearby ear. She’d gotten Gabrielle settled, and camp set up, carefully collecting a large supply of firewood, and searching the nearby underbrush for healing herbs she knew she was short of.

Gabrielle had gotten worse that night, and worse again the following day, unable to hold down even the smallest amounts of liquid from the coughing, which allowed her no rest. No rest for Xena either, who had felt a solid knot of panic starting to build in her chest, at this enemy which she had limited strength against.

Going into the darkness of that following night, Xena had adjusted the fire, after having the bard breathe a little of the aromatic steam made from pouring boiling water over crushed eucalyptus leaves, which seemed to help a little. The bard was half sitting, half lying on her sleeping roll, leaning against Argo’s saddle, which the warrior had propped under her so she wasn’t lying flat, and she’d looked up at Xena as she walked back over. "Xena." The bard had said her voice hoarse from coughing.

"Don’t’ talk." Xena had replied, settling to the ground next to her, and putting a hand on her arm. "You’re a little warm."

Gabrielle had nodded wearily, and Xena had hurt to see the paleness of her face, and the darkness of the circles under her eyes. "Hard to breathe." The bard had whispered, and Xena had been able to see the movement of her shoulders as her lungs labored to drag air into her clogged passages. And for the first time, a cold, bleak, knot of fear had gathered in the warrior’s gut, that closed her own throat.

"Cold." Gabrielle had pulled her cloak closer around her body, giving the warrior a wry attempt at a smile. Then her green eyes had found Xena’s, and the warrior responded to the unspoken plea there by sliding onto the bard’s bedroll, and opening her arms.

"Come here." Xena had said, lifting Gabrielle’s body up, and sliding in behind her so that the bard was resting against her chest, with the warrior’s strong arms wrapped around her. "That any better?" She asked, and had heard the break in her voice.

Gabrielle had half turned, and buried her face in Xena’s shirt, and tangled her fingers in the fabric as well. "I’m scared." She’d whispered, then tightened her hands convulsively as a cough racked her body. When it was over, she just lay quietly for a moment, then lifted her head, and peered up at the shadowed face above her. "Glad you’re here."

"Wish I could do more." Xena had answered, with a sigh.

"Glad its you.. and not someone else." The bard had said softly. "So much I want to say…"

"No." Xena whispered fiercely. "Don’t you start that." She had tightened her hold, and abandoned all pretenses towards distance between them. Her careful rationalizations of exactly why she felt an insatiable craving for physical contact with the bard flew out the window, and she just gave into her instincts, and felt Gabrielle do the same.

"Understand.. why you had Callisto help.." The bard responded, stifling a cough with an effort. "Sorry I got mad about that. You were right."

"It’s not important, Gabrielle. You don’t need to bring that up now." Xena protested quietly.

"Owe you.." The bard couldn’t stifle the cough this time, and it had shook her hard, and Xena had been able to hear the rattling sound as she tried to draw breath after it eased.

"You don’t owe me a damned thing." The warrior uttered in a low tone. "You need to get some rest, Gabrielle – try to sleep."

The pale head shook slowly. "Afraid."

"Of what? I’ve got you." Xena had consciously gentled her voice.

"That I won’t wake up." Gabrielle had choked out, and taken a shuddering breath

The words had sent a shock wave of terror through Xena’s body, and her heart started pounding with painful speed in her chest. No….

Gabrielle’s eyes had opened, and her head lifted, to push aside the sickness and the pain, focusing her gaze on Xena’s face. One hand moved up, and settled gently on Xena’s chest, her expression shifting from weary discouragement to startled wonder.

"Yeah." Xena had finally said, "So now you know what scares me, too." She paused. "So don’t you be going off anywhere, all right?"

Gabrielle had blinked at her. "All right." She’d whispered, her gaze going inward.

"Promise?" Xena had replied, aware suddenly of the fragility of the life she held wrapped in her arms.

The green eyes had jerked back and met hers for a timeless moment. "Promise." The bard had finally said, with a quiet air of decision about her. Then she closed her eyes, and with more confidence, laid her head down on Xena’s chest, so that her ear was pressed against the spot right over her heart.

And for all that long, dark night, Xena had held her close, standing sentinel against the cold wind, and the insidious power that was trying to pull Gabrielle away from her, her blue eyes roaming the interior of the cave, daring anything corporeal or otherwise to threaten her charge.

In the deepest hours of the night, when the human body reaches it’s lowest ebb, and when the journey between this life and the next comes the easiest, Xena had felt the bard stir, and sigh, and lift her face to gaze up at her.

"Think I’m gonna try to sleep a little." The bard had quietly said, having had a respite from the racking coughs for a short while.

"All right." Xena had answered, getting her to drink a little water, and giving her a smile when she managed to swallow a few mouthfuls without coughing. "I’ll be right here."

Gabrielle had nodded, and settled her head back down, and after hesitating briefly, moved her arms from their cramped position in front of her and slid them around Xena’s body. "Can’t think of a better reason to wake up." She’d mumbled, forgetting the ethereally sharp hearing of her companion, who let an unseen smile respond to the sentiment, as she turned her head to focus her hearing on the gentle rasp of Gabrielle’s labored breathing.

The sun had found her still listening, and as the first rays warmed the cave mouth, Xena’s heart lurched as the gentle rasping stopped.

But the body securely clasped in her arms still moved, the chest rose and fell with gentle regularity, and Xena realized that the worst was over. She had felt the smile that had crossed her face involuntarily, and as the relief poured through her, it melted down barriers she had kept up for a long time. She buried her face in Gabrielle’s hair, and just let the emotion out, taking a deep breath as silent tears dampened the soft red gold strands.

And had gotten caught at it as the warmth of the sun and the growing light woke the bard, and she blinked open her eyes, glancing up and going still as the dancing rays of dawn outlined Xena’s half smile, and reflected off the tears still glistening on her cheeks.

The bard could have said.. anything. But what she chose to say was nothing, instead, she had closed her eyes, and returned the half smile, and buried her face back into Xena’s linen clad chest with a contented sigh. And that had been enough for both of them.

"Hey." A sleep-blurred voice interrupted her thoughts.

Xena glanced down at the bard in amusement. "Hey yourself." She answered, still smiling from her thoughts.

"Whatcha thinking of?" Gabrielle yawned, charmed by the smile on her partner’s face.

"You." Xena answered, watching the bard blush a little in response. Good answer, Xena. Her mind chuckled. "And a little about the council."

Gabrielle stretched, then snuggled closer, flinching a little at a loud clap of thunder. "What’s up with that, Xena? It sounds like a no win situation.. do you think you can really… no, forget I asked that…" She smiled apologetically. "What’s the plan?" she asked instead.

Xena chuckled appreciatively. "It’s ok to question me, Gabrielle. You’ve been with me long enough to know I’m far from infallible." She chided the bard gently. "Right?"

"Mmmm…" Gabrielle waggled her hand. "I don’t know about that, love. You take sidetracks sometimes, but Hades if you don’t end up in the right place when the game’s over." She gave Xena a smile. "So… what’s the plan?"

The warrior laughed, a sound that never failed to enchant her partner. "OK.. OK… " She said, tweaking Gabrielle’s nose. "They’ve got a real problem, my bard." Her expression sobered. "Secan’s troops, if you can believe Warrin, are better trained, and better armed, and they drill all the time. Lestan’s fighters don’t’ have a good chance against them, and unless I can uncover some hidden talent, he really doesn’t have a standout fighter to send for a one on one encounter with Secan." She took a breath and a sip of cooled tea from a mug resting to her left.

"Uh huh." Gabrielle mused. "No chance of a negotiation? Seems like a more productive course to me." Her eyebrows arched, and she grinned. "Not that I’m suggested anything, here."

Xena snorted. "No no.. of course not." But her expression went serious. "I have only Lestan’s account to go by, but it doesn’t sound like Secan is willing to discuss a settlement, when he’s pretty sure he can win what he wants by force of arms." Her eyes narrowed. "Have to have leverage, and Lestan has none."

"So…" Gabrielle said, fingers tracing the outline of Xena’s ribs under the linen shirt. "What, then?"

"Well." Xena said softly, studying the thatched roof with sudden interest. "There is the obvious solution."

Gabrielle’s mouth opened then quietly shut. Of course, Xena was the obvious solution, because Secan and his well-trained fighters or not, her partner was one of the finest sword wielders ever to walk the surface of Greece. She knew that, even though Xena had never once clamed any such thing. The best of the best, Meleager had even whispered to her, watching Xena work, and that was high praise from her friend.

But Secan was an unknown quantity, and Xena was, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, recovering from some pretty serious injuries. "Is that smart?" She finally asked, choosing her words carefully.

Xena shrugged. "Probably not. " She admitted. "And I’m pretty sure I won’t be allowed to directly interfere. Lestan inferred that I’d be disqualified due to the fact that I’m not a member of his people, or his clan."

"Oh." Gabrielle took a short little breath of relief. "That kind of makes sense."

"Mmm." Xena agreed, but her eyes were distant. "But… well, anyway. " She smiled at Gabrielle. "Plan so far is, I’d like you to continue what you were doing this morning – tell some stories, get some idea of how the clan feels about this whole thing. "

The bard nodded. "I can do that." She grinned. "But what will you be doing?"

A slow feral grin curled Xena’s lips. "What I do best." She smoothly drew her sword, resting close by her hand near the fire, and twirled the blade with smooth precision. "Maybe I can teach them a few tricks."

"I just bet." Gabrielle chuckled, then fell silent for a moment. "Xena.." She said, softly.

"Hmmm?" The warrior replied, resheathing the weapon with an economical motion, then meeting the bard’s worried eyes.

A short silence between them, then.. "Gabrielle.. " A gently reluctant smile. "You’ve been too much of an influence, my love. I can’t… I can’t walk away from this."

Gabrielle’s mouth twitched, and she glanced down, and studied her hand as it played with a button on Xena’s shirt. "Works both ways." She finally said, shaking her head a little. "Because I don’t want to see you walk away." She gave Xena a rueful smile. "But please be careful, all right?"

"Not a problem." Xena said, with a faint smile. "Too much here to stick around for."

Gabrielle blushed, and let her head fall back onto Xena’s shoulder. "Mmm.." She sighed, pressing closer. "This is nice." Her eyes twinkled. "What a great way to spend a rainy afternoon…" She quietly undid the button she’d been toying with, and slid a playful hand inside Xena’s shirt.

"Oh yeah?" Xena chuckled softly, feeling the sudden warm contact. "We’re a couple of lazy bums, I think." Her vague notions of getting up and doing a few chores dissolved like so much fog in the sunshine as the bard’s hands began a gentle exploration. Well… I could pretend I cared. Nah. I’m loving every minute of this.

"Got a problem with that?" Gabrielle smirked, lightly rubbing her fingertips in circles on her partner’s belly. "Hmm?" Grinned as she saw the smile start to creep across Xena’s lips. "Come on, Xena.. it’s raining like crazy, we’ve got nothing to do until dinner, and I don’t care what you tell me about the healer tree, you’re still recovering." She let her hand trace the fading bruises that still darkened the skin across most of the warrior’s midsection. "So close." She whispered, almost too quietly for Xena to hear. But she took a breath and resumed her smile before she looked up, stilling as she met the quiet anguish facing her. "No.. love, I'm sorry. I didn’t’ mean.."

Xena slowly put her head back down on the pillow, and let out a long breath. The dark images she’d been pushing to the back of her mind for days clustered close, and demanded entrance, and suddenly she had the overwhelming urge to share what she’d felt with Gabrielle. To feel those gentle hands, and hear that warm voice sooth away the lingering queasy terror.

"It was more than close." Her voice had a touch of hoarseness. "The air was running out, and it hurt.. so damn much… " She shivered, and Gabrielle immediately pulled the cloak tighter around both of them. "I t.. was dark, and part of me wanted so much to just give up. Let go. "

"But you didn’t." Gabrielle said, softly. "I knew you wouldn’t."

"No." Came the stark answer. "Because another part of me just got mad, and I.. " Her eyes fastened on Gabrielle’s. "Didn’t want to leave." A long pause. "I wasn’t ready.. there was so much I still wanted to.." She stopped, and swallowed hard, sliding her hand through the bard’s hair, and sighing. "All I could think of was how much I’d miss you."

Warm tears struck the bare skin stretched over the warrior’s ribs, and Xena moved her hand to gently wipe the bard’s eyes. "I couldn’t let that happen." She took a breath. "Then I could hear the rocks being shattered, and I felt them.. shifting around me. And I just…" Shaking her head. "Moved."

"I remember." The bard whispered, sniffling. "It was like…" She stopped, and shook her head. "I could feel you slipping.. away." Her voice broke on the word, and she had to stop for a long instant, taking several breaths before she continued. Felt Xena’s fingers tangle with hers, and gripped them hard. "And then you weren’t. Just like that."

"Just like that." Xena agreed quietly. "It was.. about the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through." And that admission seemed to bring the darkness into focus, as Gabrielle slid up, and put her arms around her.

"Gods." She groaned And felt again the horrible roaring as the mountain came down on top of her, and the closed, stifling blackness she’d endured for the better part of a very long day. All right.. all right… let it go past. C’mon, Xena, you know how to do this. Don’t scare Gabrielle.

"Easy." Gabrielle responded, feeling the shudder pass through her, and saw Xena’s face suddenly tense with the effort of dealing with the memories of her ordeal. Gods… when a mind that powerful decides to go off track.. what do I do? What do I say to her? "Take it easy, love." She tightened her hold, and for a second thought Xena was going to resist the contact, but then the warrior’s body relaxed, and she buried her dark head into the bard’s chest for an achingly long moment.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and swallowed, getting a sense of what her partner had been forced to go through. I couldn’t have… done that. She admitted to herself. When I was trapped in that coffin.. I just.. I gave up. The truth hurt, and she suddenly felt very small and a little ashamed. "I wish I had as much courage in my whole body as you do in a fingertip, Xena." She whispered, and that got the warrior’s attention, because she opened her eyes, and gazed up at Gabrielle’s face.

"I don’t…" Xena started, then sighed, and shook her head. "Feel very courageous right at the moment." She finished in a low tone of voice, closing her eyes and craving the bard’s gentle touch, which came then, a hand stroking her hair, and soft words of encouragement that trickled down her hearing and settled comfortingly into the stark coldness of her memories. I’ve never needed this before Her mind bleakly realized, and for a disturbing second she wondered if her experience had pushed her over a line there was no coming back from. Then common sense reasserted itself, and she relaxed a little Probably because she’s the first person I’ve ever trusted enough to allow them to see me like this. Be honest… strength you show everyone, but with her…

She abandoned herself for a time, just absorbing the warmth and love that Gabrielle offered with her voice and reassuring touch, soaking it in and letting it dissolve the dark walls that had suddenly closed in on her. After a bit, she took a deep breath, and leaned back against the pillow, giving the bard a half grin, that was immediately reflected back to her. "Thanks." Xena said, with quiet affection.

"Anytime." Gabrielle responded, flinching as a boom of thunder rolled over head. "Gods." She glanced back at Xena, who raised an eyebrow at her, and was gazing at her with a thoughtful expression.. "You OK?" She ducked again as lightning flashed, followed by a loud crack.

Xena thought about that. "I don’t know." She finally answered, facing what had been bothering her for days. "I think you were right…. I don’t… " I don’t know if I can even say this. Or what it means for me.. for her… "Something happened to me.. in there." Xena’s eyes went quietly introspective. "Something that’s made me doubt.. what I do.. why I do it… " A long painful pause. "Myself."

Gabrielle moved closer, and wrapped her fingers around Xena’s, her gaze all compassion. Gotta be careful here… she’s a field of hidden pits… one wrong step, and I can make this worse… Gods, I’m scared. "Xena.. that’s not an unusual thing when someone’s been through trauma."

Blue eyes studied hers. "Not for me." Xena quietly answered, glancing down. "Not sure why it’s so different this time." But as her eyes swept back up, and locked with Gabrielle’s, she knew the answer to that question. "Or maybe I do." A gentle smile. "I’ve never had so much to lose before."

Gabrielle’s mouth twitched into a small grin. "I think you just need to give it some time, love." She squeezed the warrior’s hand, and felt the strong fingers return the pressure. "I didn’t hear you hesitating when you had to defend Jessan. Or me, for that matter." Now she gave the warrior a real smile. "One word, and you had that entire roomful of hulking, fanged, overmuscled fighters shaking in their furry feet." A twinkle in her green eyes. "Don’t think I didn’t see that."

Xena’s brows creased. Damn. She’s right. Maybe.. it’s just making me think twice before I go risking my life.. hers… is that a bad thing?

"You may be right." Xena nodded slowly, and reached out a hand, snagging the bard’s shirt and pulling her closer. "I guess I just lost it there for a minute.. " She paused, and waited for Gabrielle to resume her favorite spot, and tucked the cloak back around her. "Are you OK?" She queried, feeling a shiver go through her partner’s body, on the heels of a sharp blast of thunder and a violent drumming as the rain came cascading down again, blowing in a cold wet smell through the windows, and carrying the scent of bruised vegetation and mud along with it.

"Yyyeah. " Gabrielle chattered. "Just got a chill." Because that crack of thunder is something I’ll never hear again without thinking about that landslide, Xena… this left scars on both of us, I think. "Better now." She assured the warrior, snuggling closer, Watched as Xena hitched herself up on one elbow, and reaching over, took the pot of still hot broth and tipped a good portion into a nearby cup.

"Here." She said, handing the cup to Gabrielle. "Take a good swallow of that."

The bard did so, and made an approving noise deep in her throat as she allowed Xena to pull her slightly upright, and settled herself back against the pillow, one hand curled around the mug, the other curled around her partner. Then she stopped, and glared at Xena. "Where’s yours?"

The warrior rolled her eyes, and grabbed another mug, chuckling as she poured herself a portion, then collected the scraps of their lunch and poured the remaining broth over it. "Here you go, boy." She commented, as Ares trotted over and plunged his muzzle into the bowl.

"Rww." The wolf mumbled.

Xena grinned, and leaned back with her broth, taking a sip and settling her free arm around Gabrielle. "Hey.. that’s not bad." She commented, taking a larger sip, enjoying the warmth and the taste. Aware of the fact that despite their recent lunch, she was still hungry, and that meant Gabrielle was right, her body was still using everything she was providing it for repairs.

"Here." The bard chuckled, tugging her arm down, and dumping the remainder of her own broth into Xena’s cup. "You need it more than I do." She patted her belly with a rueful grin. "I think I’m missing my sparring partner."

"Yeah right." Xena snorted, draining the cup and setting it down. "Like you have a problem with that. " She slid her hand inside the bard’s tunic, and tickled her ribcage, then moved lower and grinned as her partner’s giggles deepened, and her stomach muscles contracted under the warrior’s teasing touch. "A real problem there, Red."

Gabrielle squawked, and grabbed Xena’s tunic, rolling up and onto the warrior’s chest and baring her teeth. "What????" You did NOT call me that. Did Jessan pay you off? " She wrapped her hands in the soft fabric, and shook the warrior as hard as she could. "I’m gonna hurt you."

Xena was laughing so hard she had no defense against the bard’s tugging. "Ok..ok.." She finally gasped, waving a hand in surrender. "Forget I said that."

"Never." Gabrielle growled, pulling herself up so they were nose to nose. "If you ever…" and got no further, because Xena took advantage of her position and captured her lips in a long, teasing kiss. "Ever.." Gabrielle repeated, but in a much softer tone when they parted momentarily. And again was stopped. "Xena? " She finally murmured, after a slow series of escalations that had her entire body tingling.

"Yeah?" Xena drawled, moving her hands along the bard’s sensitive skin.

"You can call me anything you want." Came the mumbled response.

The healer’s hut was quiet, the heavy thatch roof absorbing the insistent rain, and the silence inside mainly broken by the scratch of a quill on parchment, as Elaini sat, updating her records.

Scratch scratch. Pause. Scratch. Longer pause, as Elaini let her head raise, and her eyes study her lone patient, peacefully asleep on his pallet.

Ares’ boots. Elaini sighed to herself, propping her chin on her hand and giving up the pretense of recordkeeping for the moment. It’s lighter in there. She’d convinced herself, better to do the records in the main room, rather than her own quarters. Right?

She snorted quietly. Stop fooling yourself, OK? You just wanted to be out here.. near him. And so she studied his face in profile, allowing herself the luxury seldom indulged in. He’s so cute.. she’d said to Gabrielle, but that wasn’t entirely true.

His face was too strong to be strictly cute, the jaw too decisive, and the eyes too deep set and piercing. Even in sleep, his features showed a slight tension, a testimony to the alertness of his senses. Elaini felt her eyes drink him in, and knew she was rapidly getting lost in an insane flood of… she didn’t know what.

I’m in love with him. In all that quiet, the thought seemed overdramatic, and she rolled her eyes at herself. Oh damn.

Footsteps treading on the porch, and she turned to see just who in the world was out in this weather. Pale fur, and shadowed eyes, scarred face and a powerful, sinewy body. "Warrin." Elani said with quiet sympathy. "Come to see your nephew? He’ll be fine."

"Not when I’m done with him." Warrin snapped, brushing by her, and heading towards the pallet. His heavy footsteps caused Jessan to stir as he approached, and the younger forest dweller turned his head and gave him a small smile

"Uncle War.." Got no further, as Warrin grabbed his chest fur, and tightened his fists. "Hey!"

"Exactly what happened out there." Warrin growled. "It could be the death of us. So tell me."

Jessan took a deep breath, and didn’t answer for a long moment. Saw Elaini standing quietly a few feet behind them, a watchful look on her face, and hid a grin. "Well.." Can’t give him the real story… "I was out running… and.. " He shrugged. "I got a little distracted, and rounded a blind corner without checking. They were waiting, and they jumped me."

"Distracted." Warrin spat. "Go on."

"It was more harassment than anything." Jessan remarked quietly. "But they were getting kind of rough, and then all of a sudden…" His lips twitched. "It started raining rocks."

"Rocks?" Elaini asked, from over Warrin’s shoulder.

"Uh huh." Jessan confirmed. "Rocks. Nailing them right in the face, too." He smiled a little. "They ran off, and then Xena came romping out of the forest, just checking things out."

"Romping?" Elaini muffled a grin.

"Well, she was." Jessan shrugged. "She was all kind of relaxed, and sort of bouncy, like she gets sometimes when she’s in a really good mood."

They both stared at him.

Warrin just shook his head. "Then what?"

"They came back." Jessan replied, not joking now. His golden eyes darkened. "No warning, no truce.. they just came at us." He licked his lips, and Elaini held out a waterskin without comment. "Thanks.." Their eyes met, and slid away from each other. "So.. one of them jumped all over me and we fought.. and.. " His face took on a feral look. "One had the misfortune to attack Xena."

Should I admit that’s how I got my ribs broken? Too damn busy watching her to guard against that last kick… "She vaulted over him and kicked down, and broke his neck."

Warrin grunted. "So." He said, staring at the floor. "Secan will want her." His eyes darted to Jessan’s. "Fight or no fight, he’ll want her. That one that died.. it was Elusha, you did know that."

Secan’s nephew, who, since the leader was sonless, was his choice for continuing his bloodline in the leadership. "Damn." Jessan cursed, wincing at the jolt in his side. "No.. I hadn’t seen him before."

"He’ll be through this village like a boar in the forest." Warrin stated flatly. "Unless he gets what he wants."

"He’ll never get that." Jessan said, quietly. "Father won’t allow it, Warrin. She saved his life." Not to mention SHE won’t allow it…

"Wont he." Warrin said softly, and his dark eyes slitted. "Perhaps you’re right.’ And he stood, his face going expressionless. "Perhaps." And with the scratchy sound of claws on wood, he turned and padded out, slipping out the door and into the driving rain.

Elaini and Jessan studied each other covertly for a moment, then Elaini gave in to her insistently driving instincts and knelt by his pallet, straightening the covers with a self-conscious twitch. "He sounded… " She said, lifting her eyes to his. "Upset."

"Yeah." Jessan muttered, wondering. "He’ll probably try and convince father to give Xena up to Secan." Aware suddenly of her closeness, and the pale softness of her fur. And the lovely spicy scent of her. Whoa… his mind blinked at him, surprised. What’s going on? This is Elaini, right? Right. "No chance of that." He assured her.

"No?" Elaini said, unable to resist putting a hand out, and touching his forehead, where an errant blow had put a deep bruise. "That’s a bad one." She observed, with a professional air.

"Yeah." Jessan answered, closing his eyes, and feeling her touch. Oh Ares.. this can’t be happening… "Little tired." He mumbled, needing time to think.

"Too true." Elaini said softly, removing her hand and standing up. "I’m sure Lestan will do what’s right." As she stood and went back to her table, and picked up her quill.

And used the whittled instrument to idly draw tiny flowers as she gazed unseeing out the window into the future.

Gabrielle reluctantly dragged her eyes open, and took a deep breath, enjoying the odd mixture of rain-wet air, smoldering wood in the fireplace, and the familiar scent of her soulmate . A sly glance up told that said soulmate was still fast asleep, and Gabrielle was careful to make no movement that would wake her up.

She needs this. The bard’s mind felt the truth of it .Even if she won't admit it, either to me or to herself. She paused a moment, just listening to Xena's steady breathing. Though I’ve gotten her to sit still this time a lot more than usual. She tilted her head carefully, and studied her partner, approving the return of her normal healthy color, and that she seemed relaxed, her body free from pain. You’re going to be all right, you crazy warrior. She mused affectionately. Gods, you scare me a lot.. But.. I think you scared yourself this time.

Gabrielle glanced out the window, and was glad to see the rain slowing. She yawned peacefully, and was about to snuggle back down when her world erupted in violent savage motion.

Never seeing Xena move, but finding herself tucked down flat on the floor, a warning hand on her back, and then the warrior was exploding through the air, powerful hand snapping closed on something then releasing it, and diving back across Gabrielle’s body, pulling her dagger from her armor and whipping it sideways.

Catching another invisible something in the air, then rolling, bleeding off her momentum, and shifting forward to launch herself towards the door, stopping in the entrance, and just watching, one hand resting negligently on the wooden frame.

Silence. Gabrielle stayed where she was, and waited for an all clear, which came in the form of a warm hand on her back, and a whispered word. She rolled cautiously over, and looked at her partner, seeing all traces of sleep gone from her body as though she'd been awake for hours. How on earth does she do that?

"Well." The bard said, taking several breaths as she sat up and gazed at Xena. "I’d say there’s nothing wrong with your reflexes, love." Trying to smile, and waiting for her heart to stop going double time. "That was… " Amazing, Incredible, Impossible. Still looking for more words for her, aren’t I?" "What was it, anyway?"

Xena’s face was very still, always a bad sign. "Someone wanted us very asleep." The warrior answered quietly, holding up a hand, and dropping it’s contents in front of where Gabrielle was sitting. It was a small, feathered dart, the tip stained an uncomfortable shade of crimson.

They looked at each other.

"Wow… so we have a mystery." Gabrielle said, picking up the dart carefully, and examining it.

"No." Xena’s face twitched. "I know who it was."

Gabrielle’s mist green eyes searched hers with unerring accuracy. "Warrin?" She guessed, quietly.

A nod from Xena.

"Why?" The bard asked. "I mean.. sure, he was mad when he left that council, but what would be the point of… Xena, I don’t understand."

The warrior sat down cross-legged on the thick rug next to her, and propped both elbows on her knees, leaning forward and playing with the fur. "I think I understand." She replied quietly. "He figures if he delivers us.. or at least me.. " Her lips twitched "to Secan, that might give him leverage enough to work out a deal." Xena shrugged. "It’s not a bad plan… might have even worked."

Gabrielle stared at her, appalled. "How can you just sit there and be so calm about that?"

Xena smiled a little. "He’s trying to protect people he loves, Gabrielle." Her eyes met the bard’s. "I might have done the same, if it were you."

"No you wouldn’t." The bard quietly answered. "Because I wouldn’t want my life bought at that price, and you know that."

And Xena did know it, and hoped and prayed that she’d never have to make that decision.. because to not act would lose her Gabrielle in this lifetime. And acting might lose her for longer than that. "Yeah, I know that." She acknowledged. "We should get ready for dinner. I want to stop by the healer’s cot and see Jess before we go over."

Gabrielle studied her for a moment. Do I let her get away with that subject change? She watched the blue eyes watching her and smiled inwardly. It was the ‘drop it, please?’ look. Yeah, this time. "Sounds like a plan." She stood up, and started to move towards their gear.

"Whoa!" A sudden yell, as Ares trotted into her path, and the next thing she knew she was falling. "Hades." She muttered, and closed her eyes. "This is gonna hurt."

But hands caught her in mid fall, and she found herself cradled in Xena’s protective arms instead of hitting the wooden floor, and she gave Ares a suspicious look. "Did you train him to do that?" She accused the warrior.

"Sure." Xena said, with an impish grin. "He’s got good timing, huh?" She noticed that Gabrielle was making no effort to escape her grasp. "Comfortable?"

"Mmm hmmm." The bard laughed. "I feel.. very protected." And her mouth twitched as she remembered the last time she’d said that.

A moonlit glade, in a heavily foliaged patch of jungle around the hidden temple where they’d found the ambrosia, and where she’d walked back out from under the shadows, and her life had changed again, this time for the better. She’d spent the first little bit of time after they’d gotten out of the temple just trying to convince herself she wasn’t dreaming.

That the person sitting quietly on that rock, bathed in silver light was no ghost, no figment of her sorely tested imagination, but was real, and alive, and who had pulled her close in a long hug after Autolycus had left, and the Amazons had started to set up camp for the night. They’d eaten dinner, and Xena had even come up with a few wryly humorous comments, surprising the Amazons and delighting Gabrielle. Then the fire had settled down, the exhausted Amazons had set a watch, and otherwise snugged down tight for some well deserved rest, and she’d found herself sitting on her bedroll, facing a quietly pensive Xena.

Who was seated on her own bedroll close by, leaning against a convenient rock, with both arms wrapped around one upraised knee. Those blue eyes had studied her for a long moment before the warrior cocked her head a bit, and spoke gently. "You all right?"

"Me? " the bard had said, "I’m not the one who’s.." And found she couldn’t say the words, couldn’t even think them. "Yeah." She finally sighed. "I’ll be fine. It’s just been… a really bad week." She had glanced up and searched Xena’s silent face. "How are you doing? You need.. water, or anything?"

The warrior had smiled ruefully. "I’m a little tired, I guess." She took a breath. "Feels funny."

"What does?" Gabrielle had asked softly, just wanting to hear her voice more than anything else.

"Breathing." Xena had answered. "Talking, moving…" She took a sip of the hot herbal tea in her mug. " I missed being able to.. feel things… " Her eyes locked on to Gabrielle’s. "Missed being able to just talk to you."

And that had hit Gabrielle hard, as she realized things were changing a little between them. That had started in that clearing with Autolycus, and hadn’t ended with her willingly surrendering control of her body when the warrior had asked her to. Had asked if she was willing. Gabrielle had to laugh silently to herself. What a question. That had been.. awesome. She hadn’t felt any fear, even when Velasca had almost forced her to fall into the flaming pit below, no fear, only a fierce racing of the blood, which had surged through her like strong wine. And she had felt protected, as though she was wrapped in a warm blanket, realizing that warmth had to be coming from Xena. "I really missed being able to talk to you, too." She answered in a small voice, but then smiled wryly. "Even though I talked to you anyway." A depreciating shrug. "You know me."

"I know." Xena had replied. "I heard you."

Then they’d just looked at each other, for a long time, until Xena leaned over, and tapped the bard on the knee, and smiled. "Missed being able to just do that, too."

And Gabrielle had captured her hand, and wrapped her fingers around Xena’s larger ones, and pressed gently. "Me too." Heard the crack in her voice that made her look down, and stare at their linked hands. And swallow hard. Damned if I’m going to break down now. She had thought fiercely to herself. Not after all that. And had taken a very deep breath, and forced a smile onto her face, and looked back up.

Xena’s eyes were fastened on her face, and there was a rare, gentle warmth there that had shimmered over her in a welcome wave. "You need to get some rest, my bard." Xena had said, and then her lips had quirked a little at Gabrielle’s shyly startled look at the endearment.

"Yeah… " Gabrielle had finally managed to respond, and had given that warm hand a final squeeze, and lain down facing Xena, as the warrior did the same, making the last thing she saw before surrendering to her exhausted body and mind a pair of blue eyes just… watching over her.

And the nightmares claimed her again that night, the same damnable scene seared deep into her mind’s eye but this time… this time, a hand shook her awake, and she surged up, heart racing, to see concern scrawled across a face she’d seen only in cold stillness in those nightmares for far too long. Before she could stop herself, she’d put a shaking hand out and touched Xena’s face, just to prove she was real, and it fractured her.

Her composure broke apart into a thousand shards, and the only thing holding her together was a pair of strong arms that wrapped themselves around her and kept her safe as she let out all the grief she’d held inside since she’d left Nicklios. "Oh gods" She gasped, when she’d taken a break to breathe "You’re here… it’s not a dream. You're really really are." Feeling the warmth of her body under shaking hands, and hearing the steady beat of the warrior's powerful heart under the ear she had pressed to her chest.

"I’ll always be here, Gabrielle." Xena’s voice gently reassured her, and that sound became a lifeline that netted her soul out of the dark waters it had been drifting in. "I promise you."

And with that, the exhaustion of the past while just took her out, and she didn’t even remember falling asleep, waking in confusion the next day with the late morning sun filtering through the trees, painting splotches of alternating light and dark over the leaf littered floor, and became aware of a warm, silent presence by her side, and a casual arm draped over her shoulders.

Looking up and watching Xena’s relaxed but alert face idly scanning the surrounding forest had to rank right up there as one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. "Hi." She said, reaching out a hand to reassure herself of her realness again. "It’s late."

Xena had smiled down at her, and patted her shoulder. "You looked like you needed the sleep."

"Been up long?" The bard yawned, and propped her head up on one hand.

The warrior had nodded. "Wanted to watch the sun rise." She said quietly, then paused. "Had a lot to think about." And there had been a hesitant, veiled sadness in her eyes. "So.. what’s it going to be like being the Amazon Queen?"

Gabrielle had looked up at her, studied the look of friendly interest there, and sensed the faint hint of… regret? fear? She couldn’t decide which that lay beneath the half smile and lurked in the back of that clear blue gaze, but it plucked a chord in her heart that she hadn’t expected.

So she had shrugged, and watched those eyes carefully as she answered, her decision having been made the instant she'd opened her eyes in that foggy dreamscape and seen Xena standing in front of her.. "Don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ephiny , I guess. " And Xena had merely raised an eyebrow, but Gabrielle had seen the tension in her shoulders relax, and a gentle warmth replace the shadows. "It was.. a refuge, and I would have done the best I could but.. " She sighed.

"You sure?" Xena had asked casually, but she’d been unable to mask the smile tugging at her lips, so she’d looked off towards where the main group of Amazons had been camped for a minute to regain her composure before returning her gaze to meet Gabrielle's.

And Gabrielle had reached up and clasped the hand still draped over her shoulder, and taking a deep, happy breath. "Yeah, I’m sure." She’d answered. "I like the Amazons.. but.. " She’d hesitated, then went on before her courage failed her. "they could never have begun to fill.. that great big empty space that had you in it."

‘Gabrielle…" Xena’s voice was gentle.

"I know." The bard sighed, shaking her head. "That was a goofy thing to say. Listen, I’m sorry. I’m just… I’m glad you came back, all right?" She gave the warrior a smile. "After all, the world needs you." Yeah.. Almost as much as I do.

In the next clearing, she could hear the Amazons moving about the camp, and the wind whipping the trees, the snap of the fire, a dim clanking as the armorer did repairs.. but the warmth of a hand grasping her jaw, and deep blue eyes capturing her own with vivid intensity suddenly jolted her senses. "Gabrielle." Xena said, slowly and clearly. "I don’t give a damn about the world."

And after a long moment of absolutely frozen comprehension, all she could manage to say was. "Oh." But from that moment, she cautiously began to allow herself to imagine.. some new possibilities.

"Hey!." Xena said, giving her a light poke in the ribs. "That’s an interesting smile you have there.. what are you thinking about?."

Gabrielle’s smile grew. "You."

The warrior chuckled, and stood, releasing Gabrielle to stand once she was upright. "I’m flattered."

They bantered while dressing, and were pleased to note that the rain had stopped. "You going to mention Warrin to Lestan?" Gabrielle asked as she was struggling with the laces on the front of her tunic.

"Here." Xena grinned, and took over the lacing. "Probably. He should know what’s going on."

They walked out into the reluctantly penetrating bars of weak sunlight that finally cut through the clouds, and stepped up onto the porch of the healer’s cot just as the door opened and Elaini peeked out.

"Hi." The healer greeted them, opening the door and moving aside. "Come on in… I need to go get some supplies." She moved past them, and skipped down the stairs, oblivious to the swiftly exchanged grins between warrior and bard.

"Hello, Jess." Xena said, as she and Gabrielle entered the cot, and moved over to where the forest dweller was propped up on his pallet.

"Hey." Jessan replied softly, giving them a toothy grin. "How are you feeling?" This was directed at Xena.

"Fine." The warrior replied, with a note of finality in her voice, which didn’t keep Jessan from glancing at Gabrielle for conformation, which he got in the form of a smiling nod. "How’s the ribs?"

The big forest dweller sighed. "Hurts. " His golden eyes dropped. "But not as much as my self esteem does." He took a shallow breath. "I owe you an apology, Xena."

Xena felt her brow crease, and she looked at Gabrielle in puzzlement, who looked back in equal confusion. "For… what?"

"I put you in danger." Jessan answered quietly.

The warrior laughed. "Please, Jess.. I do that all by myself just fine."

"That’s an understatement." Gabrielle muttered, ducking away from Xena’s playful cuff.

"No." The forest dweller shook his head. "I allowed my skills to erode to the point where I got myself in trouble that I couldn’t get out of. And that put you in danger, and we don’t… we don’t do that lightly with lifebonds, Xena."

Great. Xena sighed inwardly. This is all I need. "Look." She said firmly, getting a grip on his chest fur and pinning him with a glare. "Nobody gets me into or out of things, all right? ‘ she felt Gabrielle’s supportive presence, and a gentle hand on her back. "We know the risks."

"Do you?" Jessan asked quietly.

"We do." Gabrielle answered, putting a hand on his arm. "But what kind of people would we be if we didn’t help someone because we were afraid?" Her eyes met Jessan’s. "Life is one big risk."

Jessan studied them in silence for long moment. They do realize. Ares… that bond is so strong.. I don’t’ even need my Sight to feel it. He watched as Gabrielle moved closer, and put her chin on Xena’s shoulder in a casual gesture, and smiled wistfully at them. "I envy you guys." He sighed. "I wish… well, anyway." He forced a grin. "Thanks for the rescue."

"Anytime." Xena smiled, then her eyes took on a mischievous twinkle. "Besides… this’ll give you a chance to.. debate.. your opposing viewpoints with Elaini." She darted a sideways glance at the bard. "Right?"

"Right." Gabrielle nodded solemnly ‘Great opportunity."

They looked at him. He gazed back, then a blush colored his muzzle and he sighed.

Xena grinned. Nice to see him on this side of the coin for a change. "Nice blush." She commented, making it worse. "Aww.. c’mon, Jess. She’s a nice kid."

Jessan peeked at her. Tell me, Xena.. is this what falling in love feels like? I can’t remember… it’s been so long. Is it like drowning? Like standing under a waterfall? Like the sunlight in the morning? Tell me. What was it like for you? "I know." He said softly, and felt his lips move in an involuntary grin. "Better go. Mom hates serving dinner late."

Xena laughed. "We’ll be back later to visit. " She promised, then leaned close to him. "Enjoy it, my friend."

Their eyes met, and he understood what she was saying. "I’m scared." He said softly, searching her eyes intently.

And she nodded. "So was I." A hand on his shoulder, and a look so intense it burned him. "Do it anyway."

"Don’t think I could stop it." He responded, almost in a whisper.

"You don’t want to." Xena replied, aware of the still, silent form at her shoulder. "Believe me."

"I do." Jessan affirmed, and took a breath, as he heard the outer door open. "Thanks."

Xena nodded at him, and rose. "Anytime."

They passed Elaini in the outer room, as she was arranging some items on a tray. She looked up as they approached, and gave Gabrielle a wink. "You were right about the twinkle." She said, with a little grin.

The bard smiled. "Go for it." She advised, then leaned over and whispered something to the healer, which made her giggle. "Try it. Trust me."

"Ok." Elaini agreed, and gave them a nod, carrying the tray into the inner room.

‘What was that all about?" Xena asked, as they descended the stairs off the porch and headed towards Lestan and Wennid’s cot.

"Proper Care and feeding of Warriors, 101." Gabrielle answered innocently, shooting her partner a wicked glance.

Xena snorted. "Oh.. so we’re so hard to deal with, there’s a class?"

"Oh yeah. It’s a whole special wing at the Academy." The bard assured her. "The details… how to pick the right leather, how to polish armor, you name it."

They walked on in silence for a space, then: "You seem to have passed with flying colors." Xena remarked, with a slow grin.

"I had a private tutor." Came the immediate answer. "The best."

Xena chuckled, then felt her senses come alert, and she moved closer to the bard, sliding a protective arm around her shoulders. "Keep walking." She muttered, feeling Gabrielle tense under her arm. "We're being watched."

"Think it’s Warrin?" The bard asked in a very soft voice.

Xena shrugged, and kept moving, pinpointing their watcher just to the left of Lestan’s porch, as instinct had her shift slightly so her body was shielding Gabrielle’s. As they got closer all her defensive instincts rose up, and she could feel the nape hairs on her neck prickling, and the tension sing with deliberate speed through her muscles.

Closer, and now her hearing was picking up the watcher’s slight sounds.. the breathing, and the faint scratch where the tree branch the watcher was behind caught wiry fur, and tore slightly. "They’re cocking a crossbow." She said calmly to Gabrielle, who merely nodded, and let her eyes rest on the leader's cot directly ahead.

Heard the mechanism clink into place, and the watcher fit a quarrel to the weapon with a faint snick of wood on wood.

A piece of silence, and Xena could clearly picture the watcher pausing for aim. Six feet of me, and in a light colored tunic, too. Nice target. Her mind mused idly, as she prepared to let her instincts take over. Her eyes flickered briefly to Gabrielle's face. She's not even a bit concerned.. gods..does she trust me that much? Do I?

The scratch of the tight wound cord on the crossbow. A faint click as the mechanism cocked. She felt her shoulders tense, and the smaller muscles of her forearms and wrists What if I miss?’ The thought oozed into her mind. Then I’ll probably have a crossbow arrow sticking out of me. Her practical mind answered, but she felt a twinge of unease. Just when did I start doubting my ability to do this? That’s very dangerous, Xena.

Feathers in the wind, a faint shredding sound as the quarrel passed through foliage, then her right arm was almost lazily lifting up , the long fingers closing about a smooth polished shaft. Unmarked. A commotion in the underbrush and yelling voices told her that the crossbowman had been discovered, and as she watched, a tangle of forest dwellers tumbled into view, three of them obviously subduing a fourth.

"Guess I forgot to tell any of the stories where you catch arrows." Gabrielle remarked wryly, giving her back a little rub. "Nice catch."

Xena examined the arrow thoughtfully, twirling it between her fingers and smiling a little. Guess that particular skill is intact.. That’s.. a good feeling. And she felt a tingle of her customary confidence returning. "Thanks." She remarked, flipping the quarrel around a few times in her hand. ‘Let’s go see who our friend is."

"This isn’t a negotiation, Lestie." The tall, silver furred visitor remarked, in an amused tone. "In fact, I haven’t any idea why Secan sent me over here, instead of just getting it over with and trashing this place." Kelten turned around and regarded Lestan with a bored look. "Just give him what he wants, all right?"

Lestan tilted his head back and gazed wearily at the ceiling. "I’ve told you twice, Kelten. She’s not mine to give."

The taller forest dweller stepped up behind him and pitched his voice low, in a menacing tone. "What is it with you… I knew you went soft, but harboring a human? Lestan, they slaughtered half your home clan, and would have done the same for this one.. how could you bring a human in here?" He paused. "And one of us has been killed. Does that mean nothing to you?"

Lestan took a breath, and studied his hands thoughtfully. "Your precious Elusha decided to take bare steel to an unarmed human female. What honor was he hunting with that, Kelten? Was the human supposed to stand and be spitted like a pig?"

"Why not?" Kelten spat. "it’s all they’re good for." He turned and walked to the window, putting one hand on the sill and staring outside. "Stop stalling, Lestan. I want her. Let me get what I need, and get out of this stinking dung heap."

Lestan stood, and moved in back of him, glancing out the window and seeing the two forms approach. "Kelten, you’re an idiot." He remarked quietly. "For the last time, she’s not mine to give." He motioned with his jaw out of the window. "There."

Kelten peered out, spotting the two humans approaching and studying them with interest. Both women, he noted, one smaller, with pale hair the color of his sisters, who had a compact build and a confident way of moving. The other… his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Tall, almost as tall as one of their own, dark haired, with the shoulders and arms of a sword wielder, and long, muscular legs. And a way of moving that said she was no farmer or merchant. This.. his nostrils twitched. Was a hunter. And he knew why Secan wanted her.. because this hunter had no business sleeping in Lestan’s nest of grazers.

"I’m taking her, Lestan. Do yourself a favor and stay out of it, hmm?? " Kelten chuckled. "And maybe I’ll tell Secan to let your pathetic little dung heap here alone for a while." He watched as the warrior human put a friendly arm around her smaller companion, oblivious to his crossbowman hiding just outside the perimeter of the village, with orders to take the human females down like deer in the woods. Except the quarrels held a poison to bind them, and the bowyer was skilled enough to put the shaft into a non-vital part of their bodies. That’s it.. he crooned silently to the two. Closer now, just a little, you blindlings..

And watched in shock as the tall dark haired woman, in a flickering movement that his eyes barely caught, snared the quarrel out of mid air, and flipped it over in the air. Ares balls. He breathed. I can’t have seen that.

"Be careful what you ask for." Lestan drawled nearby. "You could find it burrowing under your cot." He watched the guard drag the archer from his hiding place, and move in their direction. "Get out of here." He ordered, quietly. "Tell Secan we’ll meet him where we agreed."

Kelten tore his eyes from the human with difficulty. "Not without that human.’ He stated flatly. "Thought I could save you some trouble, take her out of here asleep, but no matter. We can do things the hard way." He moved to the door and onto the porch, where the guard was bringing his still shocked looking archer. Idiot. He sighed to himself, and then went still as the two humans mounted the stairs and came within his striking distance.

Eyes bluer than the sky pinned his for a moment so long he forgot to breathe. He saw her face twitch, and the set of her shoulders change as she marked him, and shifted to put her body between him and the smaller human with such smooth instinct, he had to believe she wasn’t even conscious of doing it.

"We have a blood debt with you." He said, watching her face. One eyebrow rose, and the lip on that side of her face quirked upward.

"How could you?" The woman answered, in a low voice that tickled his ears. "I broke his neck, no blood."

Kelten felt his blood begin to burn. "You think that’s funny, human?" He let his fur bristle, and showed the tips of his canines in a feral smile.

She smiled right back, and moved towards him. "No. What I find amusing is that you send your armed raiders out against unarmed villagers, and then get mad when one of them dies.. " Her own smile turned feral, and her eyes glittered. "because he picked the wrong victim."

Silence all around them. Only the rustling of leaves overhead, and the faint settling creak of the floorboards, as even the forest creatures held their breath and waited. For him to decide, to follow the screaming demands of his honor and tear into her with fangs and claws and long, powerful arms. Or to listen to the ice cold warning his instincts was hammering him with; that this human was more than she seemed. That if he chose to attack, he’d better be prepared to.. lose? No. His mind coldly rationalized. He was what he was, and she was merely a human, and a female.

Kelten’s arm moved faster than thought, claws extended, in a arc that took in her neck. One swipe… would be all he needed. Secan had said alive… but no matter. He tensed for the blow, already feeling the eviceral sensation of his jagged nails tearing through her soft flesh.

And found his arm gripped. And stopped, throwing him off balance. Then a hand was curled in his chest fur, and he was being forced backwards, slamming against the wooden support post of the porch with a shudder, pushed by a strength that shocked him into stillness.

"Now you look." Xena’s voice was angry. "I’m not in the mood to wipe the floorboards with you. So you go back to your little leader, and tell him.. from me, that if his little boys can’t defend themselves, it’s not my problem." She leaned forward, getting right into his face, and daring him to snap at her. "Got that??"

No answer, but he didn’t move either. "Oh yeah. " Xena continued, taking a better grip on his fur and pushing hard against the support post. "And if I get any more arrows shot at me , I just might skin you and make myself a new rug. Got THAT?"

Kelten felt his resolve fading, as he looked into those eyes, and realized in sinking moment that he was playing with a fire that could burn him to cinders all unknowing.

"I got that." He said quietly, and started breathing again when she released him, and stepped back, not taking her icy gaze off of his face. He dropped his eyes, then glanced around, absorbing the silent attention focused solely on her, from the forest dwellers, form his archer. From the other human, who alone was smiling gently, and whose gaze held a brilliant range of emotions . Then those green eyes flicked to his, and he stopped breathing again as he felt the power they held.

"If I were you.." The younger human said, almost conversationally. "I’d take off. And you know, you might want to think about learning to control your temper."

This got a snort of laughter from the tall warrior, who relaxed a little, and gave her companion an amused look. "Gabrielle.." That low voice sounded the syllables with a lover’s gentle attention, and Kelten realized that’s exactly what they were. Then his Sight showed him they were something again more than that. And he decided he needed to get out of this village, and get back to his own, to take his lumps, and relate his news, which would probably offset each other nicely. She was the one factor Secan was worried about, and he knew now his leader had nothing to concern himself about.

"All right." He sniffed, trying to recover his bravado. "Until we meet, Lestan, when all this becomes… irrelevant." He made a disparaging gesture. "if you can even muster enough fighters to show up with." He turned and sauntered down the steps, grabbing the equipment straps of his archer and tugging. The villager holding him didn’t let go, but instead glanced up to Lestan.

The tall forest leader cocked his head, then gave a short nod. "Go on." He paused. "And Kelten?" Now his own smile showed all his teeth nicely. "We’ll be there."

They stood and watched the pair disappear into the forest . Silence reigned, until Lestan sighed, and the door opened to reveal Wennid’s tense face. "Ah, my love." He said, holding an arm out to her. "All’s clear now." His eyes turned to Xena, and he chuckled. "Wow."

Xena shrugged, and ignored the poke from Gabrielle, who had moved closer and was now leaning against the post, with a grin on her face. "The young are easily intimidated." The warrior stated, in an offhand tone. "Can I ask who that was?"

Wennid snuggled tight against Lestan’s side, and rubbed his belly. "I think his name used to be Kelten." She mused, giving Lestan a tweak.

"Used to be?" Gabrielle asked, pushing off the post and cocking her head in puzzlement.

"It’s mud, now." Wennid remarked, getting a round of chuckles from the surrounding forest dwellers, whose attention was still fixed on the tall, dark haired woman standing casually in their midst. "A rug?" Jessan’s mother chuckled against her will.

"Well.." Xena admitted, with a sly glance towards Gabrielle. "I try not to use the same threat twice. It’s kind of a game we play. Gabrielle keeps track."

This got a real laugh, and now the tension dissolved, and they started to move away.

Xena took a deep breath, and mentally shook her head. Damn… she grudgingly admitted to herself. That was pretty impressive, wasn’t it. Maybe Gabrielle is right.. and it’s all in my head. She looked up, to see the bard’s gaze fixed on her. "Hey."

"Hey yourself." Gabrielle responded, sliding closer and putting a hand on her arm. "Did I ever tell you just how guilty you make me?"

"What?" The warrior replied, her brows contracting in a puzzled scowl.

"Mmm." The bard said, linking an arm through hers, and giving her a nudge towards the doorway, where Wennid was waiting for them. "I love watching you do that. And I know, as the peaceful, gentle, bardly person that I am, that I really shouldn’t."

"I see." Xena murmured, as they entered the leader’s cot. But the confidence she felt in the bard’s glance kindled a warm glow inside of her that she hadn’t expected. And she felt the uncomfortably dark memories recede a bit further. "I'll have to keep that in mind." She finished mildly, and smiled at the bard, who smiled back.

Lestan kept the conversation light, through most of dinner, which consisted of huge portions of meat and bread, with a sparse scattering of vegetables in deference to what Wennid thought her guests might enjoy. Xena was touched and amused, though she was perfectly happy with the meat which would provide her still healing body with a good supply of energy. Gabrielle, on the other hand, cheerfully consumed the vegetables along with the rest, and kept depositing odd ones onto her partner’s plate, and poking her until she swallowed them in self defense.

"So, " Lestan sighed, as they finished eating, and settled back with steaming mugs of mulled cider and a plate of Wennid’s nut cakes. "You see that we’re not so different from your kind after all, eh?" His eyes ruefully met Xena’s. "Much as we pretend otherwise."

The warrior sat back, and crossed her arms over her chest , raising an eyebrow thoughtfully. "People are people, Lestan." She exchanged glances with Gabrielle. "They seem so much more violent than your clan is, though… why?"

Wennid spoke up, resting her chin on her hands. "When we combined our villages." She paused, giving her bondmate a smile. "Mine was a very peace oriented one. Lestan’s was more like Secan’s in its outlook. We decided to try and meld the two philosophies, and this is what we came up with" She shrugged. "Some say it’s neither one nor the other, and therefore loses strength because it lacks a real identity. I think it takes the best from both extremes, and meets somewhere in the middle. "

Gabrielle nodded, and rested her forearms on the table, nibbling a cake. "So.. your village isn’t typical of your people."

Lestan shook his head. "Not really."

"So.. what’s Secan’s goal here?" The bard asked. "What’s his point.. if he defeats you, will this village become like his?" She turned a puzzled look on them. "I don’t see what he gains in all this."

Xena gave her a little grin, which the bard knew meant she’d asked a good question.

"I don’t know." Wennid sighed. "Sometimes I think he just does it because he can, and because he likes fighting and killing."

A small silence fell around the room, and the scent of the mulled cider drifted across the table like a morning fog.

"That can be a very compelling reason." Xena finally said, studying her hands.

Wennid felt her breath catch, as she realized what the warrior meant. "Can I ask you something?" She said, leaning forward a little, and putting her hands on the table.

Xena looked up, and regarded her quietly. "Sure." Gabrielle’s hand closed gently on her knee beneath the surface of the table, and brought the faintest hint of a smile to her face. How does she do that, I wonder? She always knows when I need that support.

"Do you know a small village, called Reclon, in the next valley?" Jessan’s mother asked, her pale eyes fixing on the warrior’s face, now lit by the surrounding candles, and the glow from the fireplace.

"I do." Xena answered, her eyes shadowing in memory. "Small place, mostly farming."

Wennid took a breath. "I saw it destroyed."

Xena nodded grimly. "So did I."

Gabrielle stirred, and glanced at Xena’s still face. "I don’t’…"

A quick glance from the warrior. "You weren’t there." In a very quiet tone. "You were at home."

"Oh." Gabrielle responded, her gaze turning inward. Home. That meant… "When I left.."

Xena nodded. "Yeah." She turned her attention to Wennid, who was waiting silently. "Rigus was an old.. adversary.. of mine. He gave the village terms.. give him everything or he’d burn it to the ground."

"He did." Wennid whispered. "They slaughtered those people like sheep." They. You already know it wasn’t her, don’t you.

"I heard the screams." Xena answered, with a far off look in her eyes. "I was.. " she stopped and stared at her hands. "Anyway, I heard the noise, and rode into the village. Too late, though. To save them."

" But not too late to avenge them." The forest dweller said softly, with the beginnings of a smile.

A slight shrug from the warrior. "As you say." And I always wondered.. if it had been Draco, or one of the warlords I’d been friendly with, would I have joined them? She sighed inwardly. I didn’t hear them because I was too busy trying to convince myself just how lucky I was to be on my own again. That I’d gotten rid of my little tag along. She snorted at herself. How lost I was, those couple of days. "I was sorry it happened."

Wennid studied her, the golden candlelight catching the faint highlights in her dark hair, and reflecting off her pale eyes, and sighed. "I thought you were one of them, you know." She remarked, into that still quiet. "I didn’t realize until just recently that I’d seen as many raider’s dead as villagers. "

Gabrielle felt the tension under her hand, and she gave Xena a little squeeze. What was going on in that head, then… she never did tell me what she did while I was gone. I wonder if she felt.. She closed her eyes, and remembered. Wonder if she knew that leaving was the hardest decision I’d ever had to make… or that the further I got away from her, the closer I got to home, the more my heart was telling me it was a bad one.

"Not an unreasonable thing to think." Xena sighed, but kept her gaze level. "It’s what I was."

Another silence fell, broken by the snapping of the burning logs in the fireplace.

"Not anymore." Wennid finally said, not even needing her Sight to tell her that. She gave the warrior a small smile.

Xena felt the tension that had been building ebb, as she understood what the forest dweller meant. "No." She returned the smile. "Not anymore." Do I believe that? Really believe it? Xena looked inside her heart for a very long moment. You know.. I think I just might be starting to. "At any rate, for whatever reason he’s doing it, Secan is intending to attack this village. Tell me about your fighters, Lestan."

They talked long into the night, as the candles burned down and guttered, and Xena got an idea of the strengths and the weaknesses of Lestan’s forces. And the strengths of Secan’s, who outnumbered theirs three to one.

"Damn, Lestan." Xena sighed, examining the scouting reports spread out all over the council table. "This doesn’t look good."

They were alone, since Wennid had gone to check on her son, and Gabrielle had elected to join her. "I know." The forest dweller said, rubbing his face with his good hand. "I don’t see any way out, Xena." His mahogany eyes met hers, and he let his despair show.

The warrior stood, and stretched muscles stiff from sitting so long. "I can think of one possible solution." She said softly, putting her hands on her hips and looking at him.

"No." Lestan said, with a ghost of a smile. "You can’t. Your lifebonded." He walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. "Not that I don’t…" he sighed. "appreciate the offer, Xena." He glanced down. "And, it has to be one of us, a member of my clan."

"Why are you eligible, Lestan.. you’re lifebonded too." Xena asked, quietly.

The man shrugged. "Comes with the job. I’m the exception.. I knew that when they elected me." He smiled grimly. "But with this arm.. I have no chance. And.." His eyes met hers, honestly. "Even with two good arms, I’m not his match."

"Am I?" Xena asked, giving him a level stare.

Silence. And a flare of his nostrils, as he drew in a deep breath.

"Yes." His face grimaced. "You have a skill with the sword that I have never seen equaled." He paused and studied her. "I would have said he had the margin in strength, but after watching you stop Kelten… Xena I really don’t know about that." He smiled at her diffident shrug "But he won’t accept you as a legitimate challenger, and besides, you can’t. We don’t allow lifebonded to challenge."

Don’t you. Xena mused to herself. Unless you happen to be the clan leader, hmm? "So.. his clan is a lot more violent.. I guess that’s how he got elected, huh?"

Lestan breathed a sigh of relief at Xena’s apparent willingness to drop the subject of challenge. Not, he thought for the thousandth time, that he didn’t harbor a closely held, secret wish to see her just.. take him. "Uhm… well, sort of. He wasn’t elected. He chose the other way of gaining leadership among our kind." He smiled grimly. "He forced the old leader to yield in front of the entire clan, then cut his head off."

Xena’s eyebrows shot up. "Nice." She muttered. "Reminds me of the Amazons." She smiled at his look of astonishment. "Yeah, they do death challenges for the queen’s mask."

Lestan blinked. "Really? " He let out a short laugh. "Well, Secan didn’t have to kill Urtus. He just had to force him to yield. But I guess he wanted to eliminate any possible competition."

Click. And that was the steel-trap mind of an ex warlord snapping shut on all the essential details needed for a plan. "Nice guy." Xena shook her head. "Well, I’ll do my best to teach your troops some tactics, Lestan. But there’s not much time.." She paused, and looked at him. "Would he call off this attack if I gave myself up to him?"

The question came from around the corner, and hit Lestan so hard and so suddenly that he answered it without thinking. "Yes." Then he realized what he’d said and his eyes widened. "But not for long." He added quickly, seeing the look in those blue eyes. "And… by Ares’ hands, Xena, I will chain myself to you if you even think about doing something so stupid."

A raised eyebrow. "Stupid? Why is saving lives stupid?" Xena asked, in a reasonable tone.

The forest dweller sat down on the chair next to her, and leaned forward, resting his weight on his elbows. "Xena." His voice was very gentle. "I want you to listen to me, all right?" He took a breath. "I know no one of us has talked to you about this yet, because a human with our gift is so rare, we hardly know what to say to you."

Xena remained silent, but leaned forward to match his stance, and waited. I don’t know that I want to hear this. Her mind echoed quietly. But I think I’d better know now.

"Xena.." Lestan looked down at his hands, which were knotted together tensely. "My brother Warrin."

She nodded. "I know.. he’s very resentful of us. He…" Her eyebrow quirked. "I forgot to tell you, in all the excitement. He tried to shoot us with darts before we headed over here. Had some kind of drug on them, knockout stuff I think."

Lestan stared at her. "All the more reason for you to hear this, then." He blinked. "Wennid and I love Warrin. He was… very much like your Gabrielle, when he was younger. All laughter, and full of stories. " He swallowed. "He had a joy in life that made you glad to look at him. " Can you see where this is going, my human friend? Do you understand the risk? "When his lifemate was killed, we thought he was going to die."

Xena swallowed, and looked down.

"Maybe it would have been better if he had." Lestan went on quietly. "I know I would have wanted to, if something had happened to my Weni." He could see the shadows on her face move, as her jaw muscles tensed. "Do you understand what would happen to Gabrielle, or to you, if your bond is broken?"

Xena studied the floor, idly tracing the wood grain for a long time before she answered. "Gabrielle’s already had to face that once, Lestan." She looked up and met his eyes, forcing herself to just answer the question, and not think about the subject. "It would be… really hard.. for her, but she’s a very strong person. She’d survive… and go on."

The tall forest dweller swallowed audibly. "And you?" He asked quietly. "Warrin was bonded only a few months before his lifemate was killed, Xena. How long have you and Gabrielle been together?" He hesitated. "After a certain point…."

"Two years and some." The warrior replied. And allowed herself to imagine, for one very long and very agonizing moment, the possibility of life without the bard. Then admitted consciously what she’d known in her guts for a very long time. "I’d never survive." No.. I’d crawl off, somewhere dark, somewhere alone.. and just wait.. wouldn’t take long, I don’t have a lot of reserves. I'd just.. go to sleep and not wake up. End up in the flames, and maybe.. just.. damned.. maybe, I’d look out across the sheet of fire, and see her looking back at me.. from the Fields. Her throat tightened. And.. she’s so stubborn, she’d find a way to wherever I was, just so she could yell at me for doing something so damn stupid. And I'd love every word of it.

They studied each other in silence for a time. Then Lestan sighed. "Neither would I." He smiled a bit. "I thought you understood.. but I had to make sure. You can see why putting yourself at risk like that isn’t an option."

And she looked at him, with a shadow in her blue eyes he didn’t understand, and patted his hand. "Right. Makes sense, Lestan."

Except that you can’t live your life in fear. She felt the knowledge settle quietly onto her shoulders. And hiding in the shadows when lives are depending on who I am and what I do is worse than dying. Gabrielle taught me that. "More cider?" She said, raising an eyebrow at him. " I think I hear Gabrielle and Wennid coming back. Hope Jess is feeling better."

Lestan looked warily at her. At her calm, interested smile, and casual conversation. She appeared to accept what he’d said, accepted the limitations that all his kind lived with, those who were bound together. And yet.. He smiled inwardly. She lives by her own rules, and not ours. And… I’m not sure those rules allow her to stand by and watch death come hunting. A shiver of excitement lifted his fur involuntarily. "Yeah, thanks. I think I hear them too." He returned her smile, and they both relaxed, as the door opened, and Wennid lead the way in, and Gabrielle’s clear voice followed her, in the middle of some story or other.

"Lestan, Jess needs some of his paints to make the time pass. Can you help me find them in that rag pile he calls a room?" Wennid rolled her eyes, and shook her head. "Please?"

Lestan rose, and stretched, chuckling. "Surely." He took Wennid’s arm and led her out the door an down the hallway, and their voices trailed back. Into the room in a fading cascade.

Gabrielle closed the door, and crossed over to Xena, seating herself on the edge of the conference table and sighing. "Did you get the lecture?"

Xena smothered a grin. "Uh huh."

They regarded each other. "What did you think?" The bard asked, idly playing with a lock of Xena’s hair.

The warrior examined her knotted fingers closely. "I’m wondering if you still think this is so awesome." There was quiet resignation in her voice. "And if you don’t… I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I never meant to …" She stopped, leaving the thought unfinished.

Dead silence from the bard, and then a faint rasping noise as she slid off the table, and dropped to her knees on the wooden floor, folding her hands around Xena’s, and gazing up into the painfully shuttered eyes. "I need to know something. Would you change this, if you could, Xena?" Her voice was steady, and she patiently watched shadowed face for a response.

A deep breath, and a slight shake of the head. "No."

"Good thing." The bard whispered, leaning forward and touching her forehead to Xena’s. "Because if you’d said yes, I was going to have to hurt you." She tilted her head and kissed the warrior. "Yes, I still think it’s awesome. " Another kiss. "No, I wouldn’t change a single thing, either." A third . "Don’t ever bother asking me that again. Ok?"

"OK." Xena responded, with a low chuckle..

"So." Gabrielle sighed contentedly, rubbing her cheek against the warrior’s. "How are you… " she stopped. "How are we going to get them out of this rotten situation?"

Continued in Part 6

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