Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Well… this is a more or less violence lite story. Now.. you've got Xena in it, and Amazons, and Gabrielle with that staff.. so it's not all sweetness and light, but no one gets their heads cut off in this one. (Sorry MaryD)

Subtext - Do I really still have to disclaimer subtext? Someone asked me if I thought Xena: Warrior Princess was a romantic show. My answer was, when a show has one main character state in no uncertain terms to the other main character that she would rather die at her side than live without her, that show cannot be defined as anything less than a romantic tale. Yeah, there's subtext.. maintext… under the table text.. whatever you wanna call it.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair.

So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story, and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:


Festival - Part 6

By Melissa Good

Low voices echoed gently against the stone as they made their way back into the main chamber. Gabrielle spotted her soulmate leaning against the wall, arms crossed as she spoke with Eponin and Ephiny. Elaini had settled down in a small curve of the outer rock wall, her furs spread around her, and the three tiny bundles tucked near the head of them. The bard left her tall friend to go towards his family, and continued on her way, pausing to grab up a handful of dried fruit bits as she passed the box they'd dug the dinner supplies out of.

Across the cavern, a disgruntled looking Paladia had claimed a thick blanket, and was sprawled on a box next to the table Cait was resting on. The bard noticed that a clean, soft layer of cloth was now lining the table, and its ends were tucked neatly around the young Amazon's sleeping body. She smiled to herself as the ex renegade popped an eye open, scanned her companion, and then closed it again with a wrinkle of her nose.

"Sounds like they took over the existing guardposts." Ephiny was saying as she came up next to them. "Bastards.. I can't believe they took us by surprise like that." She sounded disgusted. "Maybe she was right, in a way… what were we thinking?"

Xena shook her head. "Don't dig yourself a hole, Eph… you weren't expecting trouble, and she had the passwords… no reason for your sentries to suspect her until she clobbered them."

The regent didn't look mollified.

"They probably took advantage of Pony not being there." Gabrielle commented, bumping the dark haired Amazon gently. "And the festival…. Look, sometimes, things just happen." She laughed gently. "I should know, right?" She nibbled on a piece of dried apple. "Let's get some rest… tomorrow we'll figure out a plan to get everyone out safely."

Ephiny sighed and ran a hand through her curly blond hair. "Yeah… I just keep thinking of all those people in there."

Pony snorted softly. "Yeeeahh… they're probably sitting on their butts waiting for us to rescue them." She gave Ephiny a knowing look. "Taking bets on how long it's gonna take."

The regent's lips quirked in acknowledgment. "All right… so I'm being a broody hen." She glanced at them. "After all.. they've got.. what… fifty, sixty guys? Boy are they in trouble." She backhanded Xena in the belly. "Leave some for me, huh?" She edged past them and went over to a gap between the crates, where Pony had stuffed some of the thick packing to make a little nest. The weapons master followed her silently, and as they sat down together, fair head and dark bent together in quiet conversation.

Apologies, I guess.. Xena chuckled, then looked at Gabrielle, her brows inching up. "Shall we?" She gestured towards a shadowy bend in the cavern wall, which hid a pile of colorful woven blankets she'd scavenged and built into a comfortable place to lay down.

With a wolf curled up in the exact center of them. Ares looked up as they approached, and lifted his head, poking his pink tongue at them and stretching in complete comfort. "Hey!" Xena put her hands on her hips and mock glared at him.

"Roo?" He snuffled at her boots.

Gabrielle laughed, and dropped down next to him, rubbing his head affectionately. "Did you steal mommy's bed, huh?" He rolled over and presented his belly, which she scratched thoroughly.

Xena slid down the wall, and curled up on her side, letting her head rest against one propped fist. "Sure…sure…side with him, huh? I see where I stand."

A green eye winked at her. "You're lying down." The bard dryly reminded her, sighing. "Gods, Xena… it's killing me to know those guys have our stuff… my diary." Her face tensed into a profound wince.

The warrior put a finger on her nose. "My armor." She reminded her partner. "And the chakram."

"Eek." Gabrielle covered her eyes. "I hope they don't try to use it. That could get messy."

"Save us some trouble." Xena muttered. "Hope they've got the sense to leave Argo alone." The battle trained mare wouldn't put up with a strangers hand, and she was well able to protect herself with sharp teeth, and dangerous hooves.

"She'll be all right." The bard soothed her, gently. "Do you have a plan yet?"

Xena waggled her hand. "Gotta see what the situation is in the light… frontal assault's out.. they've got too many hostages. Same thing for picking them off one at a time.. I don't want her to start tossing bodies outside of the gate." She saw the flinch. "Sorry."

"No no… you're right." Gabrielle murmured. "So you have to outsmart them."

The warrior hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah.. more or less."

The bard shrugged. "Well, I can sleep in peace, then." She regarded her partner quietly. "When you do, I think it's not going to be a case of will the Amazons accept you, love." A smile creased her face. "It'll be more like, will you honor them by joining the Nation?"

"Gabrielle… " Xena rubbed her eyes. "It's not about that… this is a group effort. I'm not… " She stopped. "Not… "

The bard was just looking at her, a knowing smile on her face.

Not the key to this? Don't be idiotic, Xena. She wryly mocked herself. Of course you are. "I guess this means I don't have to have a fistfight with Pony then, huh?" She muttered. "Figures you guys would take out the only fun part of it."

"Tch… have pity on the poor thing, Xe… she gets clobbered, and captured, then has to live with Paladia rescuing her, then you surprise the leathers off her and now she and Eph are in a spat. Be nice." Then she gently nudged Ares to one side, ignoring his grumbling growl, and curled up against the taller woman with a sense of deep content. Xena let her arms close around the bard, and Gabrielle just lay there for a long moment, enjoying the warm, loving sensation.

From that safety, she finally relaxed, and allowed herself to think about what Jessan had told her.

From his view, they were just… different.

That might be true, Gabrielle mused. But then, it might not. She knew what the odds were. She knew the realities of life, and after all, it had been her choice to go with Toris. But…..


Today, for the first time really, she'd started to feel a little tiny bit different. It wasn't much, just a sensation in her gut of… well, of a kind of full feeling. A little like what it felt like just before her cycles started, but without the edginess that usually plagued her around that time. Half the time she thought she was just imagining it, and then the other half of the time she was so sure….

"Dinar for your thoughts?" A low, vibrant voice tickled her ears.

Gabrielle reluctantly let her eyes slide open. "Hmm… lemme see the dinar." She teased. "Can't be too careful with you ruthless warlord types."

Xena smiled at her, glad of the moments of peace after a long, frustrating, anxious day. "Oh.. you know we're always after you gullible young village girls." Her voice was warm with affection.

"Mm." Gabrielle snuggled closer, with a smile. She let out a breath, thinking. Should she tell Xena her thoughts? Or would the warrior just… Gods, she didn't want Xena to think she had an obsession about the subject, and her partner had been visibly discomfited by her expressed wish about Xena's role in the existence of her.. of their child. But….

But. Tomorrow they'd go into danger, again, and she'd sworn to herself that she'd never hold back again, never keep her thoughts silent, waiting for a 'good time' to air them, when their lives were filled with so many stretches of 'bad times.' She nodded a little to herself, and let her fingers roam idly over the strong body she was cuddled against. "It's nice to see Jess." She started, ordering her thoughts.

"Hmm? Oh… " Xena pulled her attention back from it's wandering and rested her cheek against the bard's hair. "Sure is.. I couldn't believe it when I found them… " She hesitated. "Nice of him to think of us. "She went on quietly.

"Yeah… " Gabrielle agreed, twining her fingers with her soulmate. "You know.. he figured out I was pregnant before I told him… he was so cute about it." She felt the soft vibration against her as Xena chuckled. "I was telling him about us sharing stuff."

"Oh… I bet he laughed.. I remember the stories he told at Solstice." The warrior commented, with a smile.

The bard paused, nibbling her lip. "Well… actually, he was surprised."

Xena was silent for a long moment. "He was?" Her voice was puzzled. "I don't… "

Gabrielle turned over, and looked up at her, drinking in the way the faint light from the fire slid over her skin. "Yeah… he was, because.. with them… that doesn't always happen."

Intelligent blue eyes studied her. "Really?"

The bard lifted a hand, tracing the familiar planes of her face, and enjoying the moment. "No.. it.. apparently only happens when…they're both the child's parents."

Xena went quite still, only tiny movements of her eyes disturbed her bearing, as she looked down at Gabrielle, her breathing suddenly unsteady. "W…what?" She stammered softly. "B.. Gabrielle, that's just not… "

A gentle exhale warmed the warrior's skin. "I know." Gabrielle acknowledged. "But you…. I was thinking, Xena… you know, I do that sometimes, just sort of sit down, and try to puzzle things out, make sense of stuff.. kinda like you do, only I… "

Xena's hand very gently cupped her cheek, a quiet look of grief on her face. "Gabrielle… I know how much you want this… but I… " She let the words fade to nothing.

"Xena.. answer me this one question." Gabrielle whispered. "Just answer me this.. if Dahok… could use the pure essence of evil to… create.. a child within me… " She made Xena's blue eyes her entire world, and let her heart reach out across the small distance between them. "Then why couldn't the strength of our love do the same thing?" Her voice had dropped to a pleading whisper. "Evil isn't stronger than good, is it?"

The warrior blinked at her, truly stunned.

And as the moments lingered on in a silence that held possibilities unlooked for, Xena knew that for her, for them, there was only one answer to that question.


"N… no it isn't." She heard herself say hoarsely.

Gabrielle's eyes seemed to light from within. "Than… anything's possible, isn't it?"

Was it? Xena was suddenly conscious of her own breathing, the air rushing in and out of her lungs in an almost palpable stream. She was a practical person, and had always maintained that the only thing a person could depend on, really, was their own abilities. Accepting what Gabrielle was saying meant deliberately letting go of that, and admitting the possibility that there were things out there she had no control over.

Things she just had to take on faith. And her logical mind, disregarding that, placed the inevitable evidence before her, built on the knowledge of just how unlikely it was that her partner's one meeting with her brother, so close to her cycles, could have resulted in her condition.

And, unable to stop herself, felt in her heart the wonder and magic of a certain night. In a certain tree, when she'd experienced a connection with Gabrielle so profound, it took her breath away remembering it.

Was anything possible, the bard asked? She could have made the argument that Dahok wasn't mortal.

But then that opened areas neither of them had ever brought up, regarding what, exactly, mortal was, in relation to the things they'd lived through. In relation to areas of herself she usually preferred not to think about.

Was anything possible?

"I guess it is." She murmured, in a wondering tone. They would never know, one way or the other, but did it hurt to let Gabrielle believe? To indulge her own wistful wishes? She tried the idea on for size, and felt a quiet happiness fill her. No. It didn't hurt at all.

"It feels good, doesn't it?" Gabrielle's fingertips caressed her cheek. "Just thinking that?"

Xena leaned into the contact, and nodded in silence, as a smile slowly crept across her face.

Their foreheads touched, and they breathed each other's air in a contented silence.

"Just between us, okay?" Gabrielle brushed her lips against her partner's. "It gets too complicated otherwise."

Complicated. Xena almost started laughing, at her soulmate's understatement. "Oh yeah." She returned the kiss, not caring that they were on the hard, rock floor of a dusty cavern, in the middle of a besieged Amazon territory.

Tomorrow was soon enough to worry about that. Right now, there were candlemarks before dawn to be spent in silent, joyous wonder, and she wasn't going to waste a moment of it.

The barest embers were feebly glowing, casting only the tiniest bit of light across the floor. Outside, it was still dark, in the quiet stillness of the hour just before dawn. Even the crickets were sleeping, dew beading neatly on their hard green backs and trickling down to the thick, tough grass they rested on.

Ares was lying curled up on the blankets the Leader had put there, his back pressed against Xena's knees as the warrior curled on her side with Gabrielle wrapped firmly in her arms. Both women were sleeping, but the wolf wasn't. His ears twitched, then twitched again, detecting a soft, scuffling noise.

Instantly, his head snapped up, yellow eyes widening, their color almost disappearing as the pupils dilated to suck in all available light. His nose lifted, sniffing delicately, and detecting the range of odd smells that circled the chamber.

Food, of course, the soup from last night that the Leader had given him a large portion of. The odd, musky scent of the big ones. The suspicious scents of the Amazons. The comforting and familiar smells of his pack.

The sound again, coming closer. Ares ears pricked. The scuffling hesitated, and he sniffed hard, but the draft was blowing over his back, and he could smell nothing but his family. A slither, hair against rock, and now his head lowered, and his ruff came up, along with the thin, dark lips on either side of his imposing canines.

He growled.

A tiny, fuzzy face popped up in front of him, and growled back, it's fangs glinting.

Two natural carnivores stared at each other

Ares yelped, and scrambled back, colliding with Xena's body, and getting half squished as the big warrior reacted in half dazed instinct, one hand reaching for her sword as she rolled up onto her knees, and crouched, her senses casting about for an enemy.

Their adversary giggled.

Xena let her sword drop back down and glared at the cowering wolf. "Damn, Ares!" She looked down as a sleepy Gabrielle poked her head under the warrior's arm and peered into the gloom.

"Oooo.. " She crawled forward, and laid down on her belly. "Hello there…" She wiggled a finger in the baby's direction, and the tot grabbed it, holding on with surprising strength. "I think this is your little namesake, Xena." The bard giggled.

Xena collapsed back onto the blankets, and rolled over onto her back, letting her sword rest on the rock floor. "Great." She muffled a yawn. "Good thing I looked before I swung, huh?"

"Tch." Gabrielle scolded her. "C'mere, honey." She picked up the infant and cuddled her close, tickling her belly with one finger. "Did you come over to wake us up?"

"Bck." The tot poked a tiny tongue out at her. "Poo!" She waved an arm at the glowering Ares, who was hiding behind Xena's legs.

"'s not a poo, he's a wolf." Gabrielle chuckled. "You can't play with him.. he doesn't like it." She leaned closer to the baby. "He thinks he's soo tough." A tiny fist grabbed a handful of her pale hair and pulled. "Hey!" She swallowed a yelp.

Xena grinned, as she watched her beloved soulmate grimace, her fingers working at untangling herself. She sniffed lazily at the air gently blowing in from the entrance, and detected the heavy scent of rain on it. Oh well. She petted Ares with one idle hand. I like mud. "Hungry?"

Gabrielle gave her a wry look. "Nah." She rolled her eyes, as she got her hair free, and tickled the baby's nose with a lock of it. She sighed. "Of course I am….Xena, where are you going?"

The warrior had rolled up onto her feet, and stretched. "I, am going to go outside, and surprise some unsuspecting fish, which I intend on bringing back here for breakfast." She told the bard firmly. "Would you mind building the fire up a little, and shaking everyone else awake?"

Would I mind? Gabrielle was a little surprised at the phrasing. "Sure… but, gods, Xena.. it's raining out.. you don't have to go fishing.. we can find stuff in here." She stood carefully, still holding little Xena in her arms. "I'd feel a lot better if you'd just stay put.. we'll be out of here soon enough."

Xena regarded her in silence, then acquiesced with a nod. "All right." She agreed mildly. "Lemme hold her?" She held her arms out, and accepted the tiny bundle her somewhat startled soulmate handed over. "Hey…." She rocked the fuzzball, tickling her feet.

The baby giggled softly, clutching at her leathers. "C'mon, cutie… let me get you back over to you mother before she misses you, huh?" Xena gazed down at her, smiling at her wrinkled, snub nose and cute pink ears. She continued whispering at her as she ambled off towards the corner where the rest of her family waited, still asleep.

Gabrielle let out a breath she hardly realized she was holding, and shook her head in mild bemusement. Then a happy little grin crossed her face. She's gonna be such a great mother. The bard stretched, herself, then headed for the fire, detouring towards the nook Ephiny and Eponin had huddled down in. Quiet as she was, both women's eyes were open and blinking by the time she got there, and she smiled at them. "Morning."

Ephiny let her eyes slide half closed again. "Is it? Who can tell." But she yawned and stirred. "I don't remember you being a morning person, Gabrielle."

The bard chuckled. "I didn't used to be, no… but I've had a good influence on my lazy habits." She crouched down, and grinned at them. "It's still dark out.. but I know we need to get a jump on what's going on…wanna give me a hand scraping up breakfast?"

With a good natured grumble, they did.

The rain had slowed down, but not stopped as they readied themselves, the dull gloom outside hardly broken by the faintest of light from the coming dawn. Xena tightened the straps on her leathers, and waited, as the Amazons carefully loaded crossbows. Elaini ambled over to her and regarded her husband, who was bouncing on his feet nearby.

"Listen… I'll stay here and watch things… fighting in the mud isn't my idea of fun." A pause. "Unlike other people I know."

Jessan glanced around, his golden eyes taking on an innocently injured air. "Me?"

Xena chuckled. "All right… I changed Cait's dressing.. she could use some soup in her if you can wangle it." She looked up as Paladia turned up, her pale, straight hair half obscuring her eyes.

"Can I go?" The ex renegade asked bluntly, as Eponin and Ephiny reached them.

The two Amazons regarded her coolly, and their fingers tightened unconsciously on their weapons.

Paladia noticed, and turned her attention to Xena. "I can throw rocks."

The warrior considered the matter, quietly aware of the confident touch against her back, that warmed her skin even through her leathers. She'd caught the tall blond woman bringing fresh water to the injured Cait, without being asked, and the two of them had been in deep conversation for a long time, pale heads bent together, Paladia leaning over the table to hear the younger girls' weak voice.

"Sure." She decided, ignoring the sharp look she got from Eponin, listening to an inner voice instead. "Cait'll be jealous."

A quirk moved the woman's lips, but she remained silent.

Xena took a breath, and flexed her hands, her eyes falling on her soulmate as she turned towards the entrance. Gabrielle was carrying her staff, and had a quiet, serious look on her face. For a long instant, Xena wished she had the guts to order the bard to stay here, safe in the cave with the patient Elaini, and the children, but she decided not to waste her breath trying. "We ready?"

Gabrielle lifted a hand off her staff, and patted her partner's side. "Lead on, blue eyes." She gave her an affectionate look. "Onward into the mud." She half turned. "Ares, you stay here, okay? Take care of our friends?"

The wolf gave her an evil, frustrated look, but sat down, curling his tail around his paws in evident irritation.

Xena's face relaxed momentarily into a grin, then she eased out of the entrance, testing the wind with sensitive ears before she allowed the rest of the group to exit behind her. The cool rain hit her, but she ignored it, moving away from the rock face into the murky darkness. She was aware of Jessan close at her heels, and Gabrielle pacing along beside her, and a familiar shiver of anticipation lifted the hair on the back of her neck.

They moved through the forest, six silent forms that took advantage of the shadows, and they made good time until they reached the first outpost. Xena held a hand up, and they halted. "Stay here." She uttered softly, not whispering, Her voice sounded eerily like the rumble of thunder that was rolling overhead.

"No way." Several voices contradicted her firmly.

"Guys." Gabrielle interjected. "Do what she says." The bard sounded very serious. "This is dangerous, and you have to listen to Xena. Argue later." A lesson learned the hard way.

Obstinate silence answered her. The bard sighed inwardly. "First person who tries to follow is gonna get my staff up their butt." She warned, hearing the soft breath that was Xena's almost inaudible laughter.

A touch against her hair, a warm hand on the side of her face, then the warrior was gone, disappearing into the mist like a wraith of Hades. They settled down to wait, the rain dripping through the leaves and running over their skin.

Xena crept forward, grabbing a branch and lifting herself up onto it, then crawling out over the outpost, and laying down flat, as she watched the activity under her. Despite the rain, and the early hour, the sentries were active, and there was an evident air of tension among them. They had put up lattice as a barricade to errant arrows, and they were peering out into the forest, hands clenching on weapons nervously.

Hmm. The warrior rested her chin on a forearm, and crossed her ankles. I think they figured out there's something nasty out here. White teeth flashed as she grinned. Experimentally, she stripped a nut from the branch she was lying on, and dropped it into the foliage. It made a gentle thud, and drew six sets of tense eyes, and three arrows which went tearing off into the leaves. Oh yeah.. I feel sorry for any squirrels around here. She cocked her ears.

"D'ja hear that?" The short, dark haired man whispered. "Ya think you hit it?"

A thin blond man with a dirty face sniffled and spat into the brush. "Hades, I dunno." He glanced around carefully. "Damn that bitch for comin in her, and scaring us all half t'death."

A dark skinned older man carefully loaded his crossbow. "Don't be damning her.. if it really is Xena out there, I'd rather know it." His voice was faintly familiar to the watching warrior, and she started sorting through her memories to find it. "Hope her plan works, or we'll all pay for it."

The blond scratched his chin. "Didja see what she did to those three Amazons? Man.. that was bloody."

Xena's good humor vanished.

The swarthy man shrugged. "Didn't do her no good. Them women didn't tell her squat… I think she just kept whipping them cause she likes it." He peered out into the dark again. "Them Amazons are tougher than leather britches."

The short man sniggered. "Ya think we'll get a chance to try em on for size?"

A snort answered him "You cracked? You wanna lose your man's parts, ya idiot?" A sound of a fist hitting flesh carried faintly to the warrior. "These ain't common whores… their plucking dangerous.. .good thing we brought that dope with us, or we'd never make it back with them."

Xena had heard enough. She debated quietly with herself, then took a breath, and gathered her body up, releasing the branch and springing forward like a large, leather covered cat.

They never even knew what hit them. Just a dark, hideously powerful shadow with claws that gripped their bodies, and hammers that pounded them, breaking bone, ending in the chilling crack of vertebra snapping in the gloom. It was silent, and they died in terror, without even the glint of gray dawn on steel to mark their attacker as human, or something else.

Xena rose to her feet, surrounded by limp forms, and regarded them coldly. The rain beat against her, and she shook her head to clear her damp hair out of her eyes. The river ran close here, more a stream, really, and she made a quick decision.

The thunder covered the splashes as she tossed the bodies into the swiftly running water, and watched emotionlessly as it carried them away. Then she turned, and put the outpost back in order, carefully stacking the weapons in a neat manner, and returning the lattice to it's protective position.

A faint smile crossed her face.

Gabrielle hunched her shoulders, wishing the rain wasn't trickling down her back, and sighed. It was past dawn, but you couldn't tell that, because the clouds were so dark, only the palest glimmers painting their features in faint silver streaks. She let out a held breath as she felt Xena approaching, and smiled a little as the gloom suddenly moved, then resolved itself into her partner's tall, muscular form.

Xena came up next to them, the cold, edgy energy fairly rolling off her. "Outpost's taken care of." Her voice held a low, fierce anger. "Eph.. they know we're out here." Unconsciously, one arm went out and settled around the bard, drawing her close.

The regent edged forward. "We figured." She replied in a quiet tone, her eyes searching Xena's shadowed face.

The warrior paused a moment. "There's been some… bad stuff in there." Gabrielle looked up at her words, her face tensing as she laid a warm hand against Xena's stomach. "She was after information she didn't get." The tall dark haired woman finished, very quietly.

A grim silence fell. Jessan's lips curled back, exposing his fangs.

"Come on, let's go." Xena finally said. "I want to get closer, and see what's going on in there myself." She reluctantly separated herself from Gabrielle's warmth and started back towards the village.

They followed her, eyes drifting to the silent, empty outpost as they made their way past.

No one asked about it.

Ephiny held up a hand, stopping them, as she peered ahead through the mist. "Hold it.. there's another outpost just behind that large tree."

Xena took a breath, and edged forward, then found herself held in place by a furry hand.

"Uh uh uh.. .my turn." Jessan objected, closing his clawed fingers around the straps on her leathers and tugging her back. "You don't get to have all the fun."

The warrior looked about to protest, then subsided, as the tall forest dweller wagged a finger in her face. "Just hurry it up." She muttered, leaning against a nearby tree. They watched as Jessan slipped forward, amazingly silent for such a large man. His fur, dappled in the meager light, seemed part of the surroundings as he moved through the bushes towards the dripping roof of the small outpost.

Gabrielle took a better grip on her staff, which was getting slippery in the rain. She leaned on it, then looked up in surprise as Xena's arms captured her from behind and she was being drawn towards her partner's body. "Mm." She smiled in appreciation at the warmth, and let herself rest against the warrior, who slipped her arms around her belly, and rested her chin against the bard's head.

It was a little startling, but she wasn't about to complain. The cold rain had been chilling her, and it was infinitely more pleasant to be resting against Xena's warm body. She caught the amused look from Ephiny, and stuck the tip of her tongue out at her, as they waited.

Jessan paused outside the outpost, and went very still. They could hear the patter of the rain against the leaves, then broken words, and rustlings as the men on duty stirred out of their hiding place.

Oblivious, two men moved a woven thatch aside, and peered out, searching the surrounding forest carefully and somehow missing the seven foot tall, befurred man standing right outside their post. They stood up, and took two steps past him, still searching the trees nervously.

Jessan reached out, and tapped them on the shoulder.

They whirled, and he opened his jaws fully, showing every single one of his sharp, white teeth and spreading his arms out wide, claws extended. A bass roar exploded from his chest, and shook the leaves, as the two men leaped in shock, then tumbled over, passing out in pure fright.

Jessan paused in mid leap, and dropped his hands to his hips, blinking in total startlement. "What was that ?" He asked plaintively, then lifted his arms and extended his hands, palms up. "Xeeeeennnnaaa????"

The warrior spared him a wry chuckle as she released the goggling bard, and padded forward, examining his victims with a shaking head. "Pony.. you got some rope?" She hesitated at leaving them alive, but the thought of killing two unconscious men… even her battle hardened sensibilities flinched. "C'mon… Eph, are there any more of these between here and the village?"

The regent strode forward, carefully checking the now empty outpost. "No.. not on this side.. if we move up to that ridge there, we'll have a pretty good view down into the central area." She regarded the rise in question. "I was gonna have those bushes scythed right after the festival… makes too good of a hiding place."

"Nice timing." Gabrielle patted her back.

They left the bound and gagged men behind, Eponin making extra sure they wouldn't be moving by tying the cords around their wrists, bound behind them, to their private parts. "Guys." She brushed her hands off efficiently. "They just got too many weaknesses."

"Hey." Jessan scowled, offended.

"You don't count." Eponin and Ephiny replied together, as they pushed past him, and started climbing up the ridge.

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged amused looks, then stepped around the two men, and headed after them. Paladia paused and regarded the prisoners, then chuckled softly, and shook her head as she followed.

Ephiny reached the ridge first, and dropped to her belly, inching forward under the thick leaves cautiously as she peeked over and down into the village.

Xena, hearing her virulent curse, threw herself down against the turf, and crawled quickly forward, ending up shoulder to shoulder with the regent, whose body was tense with anger. "Damn." The warrior closed her eyes briefly, then glanced back as Gabrielle's arm pressed against hers. "Gab…."

Gabrielle blinked, as she tried to make the entrance to the village conform to her memory of it. The opening had been closed with overturned wagons, and was fortified with various pieces of wood torn hastily from buildings. Over the top of the barricade she could see a platform, made of a few wooden planks on top of a couple of tables, with three ragged, bloody forms limply lashed to them. "W…"

Paladia let out a startled oath, her gray eyes widening. "Damn… what a bitch."

Ephiny let her head drop to rest against her forearm, and Eponin laid a hand on her shoulder.

Xena felt a coldness settling on her, as she evaluated the situation. There were three or four guards around the beaten women, who she'd recognized as Solari, Menelda, and the young kid Gabrielle had beaten in her second staff bout. "All right." She said quietly, setting aside the upset she could feel all around her. "We’d better back off, and see if we can get closer around the back side, near the river."

Footsteps interrupted her, and she glanced up, to see Arella appear at the barricade, looking over it and into the forest with what Xena recognized as apprehension. The warrior let a grim smile play over her face. So… you remember me, huh? The tall Amazon hadn't changed much.. Xena could see her arrogant sneer even from where she was, though she was wearing thick leather armor, looking more like her men than she did any of the Amazons.

Arella turned behind her, reaching out her hand and picking up a leather megaphone, used by the training masters out in the field. She lifted it to her lips. "All right!" Her voice echoed through the rain, and made Xena's eyes narrow.

"I know you're out there.. so you listen. I don't get Ephiny and darling Gabrielle in here before noon, there's gonna be dead bodies starting to pile up outside the gates here. I'll start with those three, and just work my way up." She paused. "Or maybe down.. there's lots of bratty little kids in here that are starting to get on my nerves."

"Think she really knows we're here?" Gabrielle whispered softly to her partner.

"Mm… probably not.. she's gonna repeat that for a few candlemarks.. figure we're gonna hear it sooner or later." Xena replied.

"Noon." Arella repeated, then tossed the megaphone to one side, and paced away, ducking behind the embattlements and disappearing.

They all looked at each other. "She'll do it." Eponin commented, her face a quiet mask.

"Bitch…I should have had her… " Ephiny hissed, her fingers clenching in the turf. "I should have had her hands cut off."

Jessan propped his rounded chin up on a fist, and blinked. "Xena?"

"Mm?" The warrior turned her dark head and looked at him.

"I think I just realized that in your kind, the females are lots nastier than the guys." The forest dweller commented thoughtfully. "I gotta remember that."

Xena snorted softly. "Thanks… " She turned her eyes back to the barricades. "All right.. we've got to find another way in there… a frontal assaults gonna get a ton of folks killed."

Paladia shrugged. "They'll deserve it."

"She means Amazons." Gabrielle informed her, in a low tone.

"Oh." The ex renegade subsided. "Is that the one with you, and the arrow crap.. and all?"

The bard nodded. "Yeah."


A fair brow lifted. "Yeah." Gabrielle turned to her taller partner. "What do we do?" She peered over the ridge. "We don't have much time… because I'm not going to let people die like that." Her eyes met Ephiny's. The regent nodded at her. "We'll have to go down there."

"You will not." Xena's voice dropped and deepened. "Don't be a fool, Gabrielle."

Green eyes sparkled with anger.

"You go down there, and then what?" The warrior continued, ignoring the rest of them, and concentrating on her stubborn soulmate. "You think that will stop her from killing people?"

"Yes." The bard shot back. "It's what she's asking for."

"And when she puts a sword against your throat, then what?" Xena snapped back.

"She won't." Gabrielle answered, quietly. "We're her ticket out of here… she knows you won't attack her if she has me." A pause. "Alive."

Xena's nostrils flared. "I'm not going to take that chance." A growl entered her voice. "I'll go in there and kill every single one of them with my bare hands first."

A small silence descended, as they all realized Xena meant exactly that, and the warrior wasn't going to back down, not even before the fiery will of her younger partner.

Gabrielle took in a breath. "Then we'd better figure out another way." She whispered. "Before we have to test that theory out."

Xena tore her eyes from the bard's grim face, and returned her attention to the village. "Ephiny, the village is on a slight rise, isn't it?"

The regent cleared her throat nervously. "More of a slope, really… down to the river on one side, and with this ridge on this one…they've probably blocked up the spaces between the sections." Her eyes kept drifting to the three injured Amazons, who occasionally stirred.

The warrior nodded slowly. "All right… from where the guards are.. they've got everyone confined to the dining hall… you've got root cellars under that, right?"

Now they were all looking at her. "Yeah…" Ephiny agreed. "So?"

"Let's get around to the rise on the other side, there…" Xena didn't explain. "Come on."

Eponin stayed close by Ephiny's shoulder as they inched their way around the besieged village, where they could see helmeted heads over wary eyes watching the surrounding thick foliage. "You okay?" She finally muttered, in a very low voice.

Hazel eyes flicked to hers. "No."

The weapons master rubbed her back with awkward gentleness. "S'gonna be all right." She glanced furtively ahead, to where Gabrielle was grimly sticking close to her partner. "I…I know it's kind moot… but.. I.. think Xena's right. You guys going in there is nuts."

Ephiny looked at her, then exhaled, and squared her shoulders. "Gabrielle's got a good point… it's a safety line for Arella."

Eponin closed her hand around Ephiny's arm, pulling her to a halt. "She is, yeah." The caramel colored eyes were very serious. "I don't wanna see you hanging from that gate."

The regent sighed, and put a hand up, covering hers. "I can't let her go in there alone." She replied, simply. "Let's just hope whatever it is Xena has in mind works." They crept on, and came up on a soft, muddy ridge, a cut that rose above the sandy bank of the river, and extended up past Jessan's furry head. It blocked their view of the village, but by the same token, it blocked any view of them, and they gathered around it, regarding the layered mud in silence.

"How close are we?" Xena asked, quietly.

Jessan jumped up, and grabbed the edges of the tough bushes on top of the rise, lifting his body up to peer over the top. He jerked back a little, then let his body fall back down. "Wow… " He dropped his voice to a bare whisper. "The walls are right there… I can see crossbow arrow tips through the palisade.

Xena leaped up, and levered her body against the mud, cautiously poking her dark head up and peering through the grass. Sure enough, the village walls were within a body length from them, and she could spot the walls of the dining hall just beyond. Soldiers lined the walls, protected from attack, and alertly watching the space between the walls and the trees. They didn't suspect, Xena realized, that the bushes covered the gully, where the river had undercut the banks - they assumed the ground ran right down to the water's edge, and would give them ample warning of anyone coming up that way.

She dropped down, satisfied. The rain was getting harder, and the mud ran off her in a smear of red and brown as she stood in it, tipping her head back and letting the cool water center her, and focus her energies. After a moment, she straightened, and put her hands on her hips. "All right." She glanced around. "Find some flat rocks."

Gabrielle stepped up, and put her hands on the warrior's chest. "Xena, what's up?" The bard's eyes met hers, with quiet insistence. "What's the plan?"

Xena's hand gestured towards the bank. "We're gonna dig."

"Dig?" Eponin put a finger against the thick, crumbly surface. "Where to?"

The warrior smiled. "Right into the root cellar." She knocked her fist against the dirt.

It really was, Gabrielle reflected as she clawed the clay like mud out of her eyes for the nth time, a clever plan. Not a comfortable one… not an easy one… the Amazons were covered in head to foot encasements of the red stuff, and Jessan looked like a walking bog monster, with his thick fur standing up all over. But clever, and after all, since Xena was in there digging too, there wasn't much they could say.

They'd managed to hollow out a person sized indentation in the bank, and were now almost two body lengths deep into the tunnel. Gabrielle estimated that it would take another candlemark or two before they were under the fence itself, then… she chewed her lip and looked up at the sun. They weren't going to make it by the deadline.

A hand touched her arm, and she jerked out of her thoughts, to see her partner's pale blue eyes looking at her out of a dirt covered face. "Oh… sorry.. I was… "

"Thinking we're running out of time." Xena finished for her, quietly.

Gabrielle let out a breath, and studied her. "Something like that, yes." She reached out and grabbed Xena's leathers as the warrior turned to redouble her efforts, and held her there. "Wait…. " They looked at each other. "Xena.. it won't be for long… we're almost through here.. I can distract her for a candlemark or two… that's all it's gonna take."

"You saw what she did to Cait… she's got no regard for life, Gabrielle.. she almost killed you the last time." Xena replied, in a sharp tone.

The bard stepped forward, ignoring the mud and laying a hand on the taller woman's chest. "I know." She replied softly. "But you taught me about the greater good, Xena.. I can't let those people in there be killed on my behalf…don’t ask that of me."

A quick glance around, to insure they were alone. "I can't watch you walk in there and maybe get spitted by an arrow I can't stop… don’t ask that.. of me." Xena answered softly. "Please, Gabrielle." The warriors hand lifted and covered the one resting against her skin. "Please?"

Angry resistance she was prepared for. Stubborn obstinance she was ready for, and had arguments against. But she looked up into those pleading blue eyes and felt them conquer her completely, as she recognized the anguish, and the fear there. She felt terribly at war with herself, with her conscience urging one thing, and her heart and soul just as firmly tugging in the other direction, and she almost welcomed the faint clearing of a throat nearby.

Jessan edged up, trying fruitlessly to wipe some of the mud out of his fur. "Hi."

"Hi." Gabrielle answered, seeing her partner had no intention of doing so.

"Listen.. I figure we need a distraction." The forest dweller drawled, spitting a rock out of his mouth. "And I need a break or my fur's gonna fall off… mind if I stir these guys up a little?" He grinned, a startling show of white teeth against red stained hair. "Give em something to worry about?" He gathered in the look of heartfelt gratitude from Xena and tucked it away, smiling inwardly.

Gabrielle cocked her head. "Sure… just don't get into any trouble.. okay?"

The forest dweller ambled down the river bank, then turned to look at them. "Where's the fun in that?" A flash of teeth, and he was gone, slipping among the trees with startling speed.

The bard watched him go, then returned her attention to her soulmate. "You planned that."

Mild blue eyes regarded her. "No… but I would have."

Gabrielle leaned forward, and rested her mud covered forehead against her soulmate's chest. "It's all right.. I was caving in anyway." She admitted softly, wanting Xena's embrace and getting it, despite the grime. "That was a terrible thing to do to me, Xena."

The warrior hugged her close. "I'm sorry." She replied in a hoarse whisper. They rested together for a moment, then Xena took and released a large breath. "Okay.. let's get digging… " She started to steer Gabrielle back toward their tunnel, when Arella's voice floated over the trees.

"Time's almost up!" The mocking tones grated unpleasantly.

Eponin and Ephiny came scuttling out of the hole, listening intently as Paladia followed them, flicking a clump of mud from her arm.

"I guess you don't much care about these people in here… and I know I sure don't." Arella went on. "If you don't…. crap!"

Ephiny raised a muddy brow. "That's a weird threat."

"What in Hades…. What is that… ouch!" The woman's voice cut abruptly off, and they heard pandemonium inside the compound.

Xena smiled. "C'mon… let's get to work… Jessan's gonna keep them occupied."

The air was getting really close inside the tunnel. Gabrielle paused, as she handed another handful of dirt to Eponin and watched the Amazon relay it back outside. They were in a single line now, with Xena in front using her greater strength to good advantage, and digging out dirt armfuls at a time.

Then Gabrielle would pass them back to Eponin, who would give them to Ephiny, who would pass them to Paladia who had the job of making sure they got put somewhere out of the way. Too much mud floating down the stream might attract unwanted attention, so the ex renegade was carefully packing it against the bank.

The tunnel was taking it's toll on her soulmate, though, Gabrielle realized with a wince. Xena had stopped twice in the last half candlemark, and just rested her head against the close roof, taking slow, ragged breaths. Gabrielle had sent Eponin out for some water, clearing a little space, and the breeze had blown in, easing the warrior's distress a little.

They were almost through. No more yells had come from the village, and they'd heard the odd volley of arrows shredding the leaves as they fired at an elusive, furry form. Gabrielle hoped Jessan was being careful…but his antics had given them the small slice of time they'd needed to get as close as they had.

Abruptly, Xena's digging stopped, and she cocked her head wearily. "Think we're there."

The warrior put her hand against the dirt and pushed, feeling the surface give under her fingers. She poked an experimental hole in the wall, and peered through.

Darkness. A scent of roots, and dried vegetables came to her, though, and she nodded. "We are." She announced, as they clustered forward eagerly.

"Hey." Paladia's voice interrupted in a hissing whisper.

Xena pushed back from the wall. "G'wan.. see if you can get in there." She told Gabrielle in a low voice. "I'll see what's up." Any excuse to be out of this damn hole. Her mind seethed, as she wriggled out of the crowd, and headed for the opening, where she could see the ex renegade's pale head. "Yeah?"

Paladia backed up, allowing the warrior to exit into the light of day. "Heard a racket."

The warrior spent a moment just sucking in the cool, wet air, before she listened for the sounds. Her eyes fell on the entrance, which Paladia had artfully enhanced with the dirt they'd taken out of it, shaping the substance into a curved, fanciful shape replete with curls and knobs and a scroll like bottom. Her blue eyes blinked in startled amazement. "Damn."

Paladia shrugged, then pointed towards the forest. "Listen."

Xena did, hearing a loud crashing sound. Cursing, she grabbed her sword, and shifted it, motioning the other woman to get inside the tunnel. "Give em a hand.. I'll keep watch out here."

The tall, blond woman took one look at the mud covered, almost unrecognizable apparition holding a longsword and grunted. "No problem." She ducked inside, leaving the warrior alone in the misting rain.

Xena heard a splash, then a chorus of yells, and she shifted her grip on her sword in anticipation. Her eyes remained glued on the stream, and she blinked as she saw a dark, furred head break the surface and head in her direction. "Aw… centaur poop." She cursed, seeing the arrows piercing the water behind it.

Jessan broke quickly across the stream, stroking against the current and ducking under a fallen tree that had spanned the stream and was a favorite plaything of the younger Amazons. He pulled himself out of the water, and turned, gasping, as a wall of armor clad bodies crashed through the underbrush, and headed their way. "I think I overdid it." He managed to cough out, giving Xena an apologetic look.

Xena took one look at the angry soldiers, and sighed. "Yet another legend in the making." She muttered to herself, as the first arrows reached them.

Gabrielle watched her partner squeeze out, and gave a little sigh of relief, as she returned to the wall and attacked it with determination. The dried mud crumbled under her hands, and she pushed against it, feeling a whole section give way and fall to the floor inside the dark chamber. "Bad onions in there." She commented, as a strong, pungent scent floated out.

"Ugh." Ephiny agreed, pulling at the wall with anxious fingers. "C'mon.. we'll worry about the vegetables later." They both shoved hard with muddy shoulders, and the wall of the tunnel collapsed inward, causing both regent and bard to stumble into the root cellar and drop to their knees in the inky darkness.

Gabrielle struggled to her feet, moving away from the tunnel and into the room, and held out her hands uncertainly, walking forward until she bumped into an opposite wall. She felt above her, until she detected the roof. "Okay… okay…. I think I feel a latch here."

"Careful." Eponin's voice came to her out of the darkness. "We don't know what's going on up there." They clustered around her, and she realized Paladia had joined them. "What's going on outside?" She asked the woman.

A shrug. "Don't know… heard a noise, got told to come in here."

The bard chewed her lip, then regretted that as she tasted the banks of the river on it. "Okay." She felt the latch with her fingers. "I'm going to work this.. Paladia.. you're the tallest here, you peek through the hatch and see if you see anything.

Slowly, she slid the bar which held the latch in place to one side, knowing the other side had a twin to it, and would be moving also. She inched it up, as a meager, candlelit illumination flickered through, and outlined Paladia's blunt features.

"What do you see?" The bard whispered.

"A stake, about to take my damn eyes out." The ex renegade answered, then ducked as the hatch was jerked open, and a row of murderous faces peered down at them. A loud roar hurt their ears as bodies shifted forward, and hands grabbed at them roughly.

"Hey!" Gabrielle yelled, her strong voice punctuating the chaos. "Cut that out!"

Silence settled, and the faces looking at them blinked in startlement. "That's Queen Gabrielle's voice." A torch was held close, outlining distinctive pale green eyes in a mud covered face. "Poop.. it is!" Hands reached down. "Come on!"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No.. we've got a tunnel out." She said in a low voice, seeing startled amazement on the Amazon's faces. "You guys come this way."

'There's still some folks being held by the gate." A quiet voice objected.

Ephiny stepped up. "We know." A murmur rose as her name was whispered. "Come on… let's get outta here, then we'll work up a plan to retake the place."

The hatch opened fully, and the captive Amazons milled around, grabbing what they could in the way of weapons. They were all naked, and some had injuries, but their faces were grim, and they were very obviously glad to see their queen and regent. Slowly, they started to drop into the cellar, and Gabrielle backed away from the opening, returning her attention to the tunnel, and the muted sounds worrying her, and her absent soulmate.

Catching arrows was really… more of a tactic than a skill. And it really didn't work too well if you had dozens of people shooting at you, missing a couple was always a possibility. Xena knocked another shaft aside, feeling the flesh tear in her leg as she lunged forward and engaged a determined soldier. The first ranks of the men had closed with them, fighting hand to hand, and the rest were clustered behind trees, shooting them with crossbows which fortunately hit their compatriots just as often as it did their two determined enemies.

Jessan's luck had put him behind the tree crossing the stream, so the shooters were mostly concentrating on her, and she was starting to feel the strain of battling them off and keeping the arrows from plowing through her, all while protecting the mouth of the tunnel. With a sigh, she drove her sword hilt against her current opponent's, and pushed him back, then got a quick thrust in that ended his life and for a moment cleared her for an unobstructed targeting by the archers.

She had no idea, afterward, how she managed to get them all. It was kind of a blur, and she thought she remembered her sword moving, deflecting the shafts as she twisted out of the way, but …

Then everything stopped. The men rushing them halted, and their eyes grew round.

Xena took a breath and looked behind her, taking in the sight with a sense of profound relief. "Never thought I'd be so glad to see a pack of naked, dirty, madder than Hades Amazons." She commented to Jessan, who wiped a hand across his head, smearing red mud over it.

The Amazons spotted their targets, and yelled.

Xena just got out of the way, and leaned against the bank. Then she turned her head, and searched for Gabrielle, her eyes not finding her. Cursing, she forgot about the fight, and bolted for the tunnel.

Gabrielle had hopped up into the dining hall, and was urging the Amazons to move quickly, and quietly down into the cellar. It was an almost surreal experience - this line of sweating, naked women disappearing into the ground and not coming back.. the room was getting emptier and emptier… until at last, she was the only one in it.

Momentarily, because Ephiny jumped up into the room, and got to her feet, joining the bard as they paced silently across the floor and peeked cautiously through the front window, which was barred shut.

Through the cracks in the wood, they could see the central area, where the platform was. Men were running here and there, and it seemed to be very chaotic. "Less of them than I thought." Gabrielle murmured.

Ephiny nodded, her eyes on the platform. "Good plan, Gabrielle." She commented softly, patting the bard on the back. "Now we've just got a detail to take care of."

"Not my idea." Gabrielle corrected her firmly. "You know that, and I'm going to make damn sure everyone else does too." She glanced behind her, hearing a scraping sound, and was surprised to see Paladia hauling herself up out of the cellar. "They all out?"

"Going." Paladia confirmed. "Eponin's about at the end of the tunnel… getting too stinky in there." The tall woman joined them at the window, peeking out of a higher gap in the boards. "Huh.." She grunted, spotting the captives, and the scurrying soldiers. "Where're they going?"

Ephiny squinted. "I don't.. oh, they're headed out to the other entrance… Jessan must still be keeping them busy. " She smiled a little. "We're going to have to make an exception for him, aren't we?"

Gabrielle smiled back. "Yeah…I was thinking that." She looked out. "Hey.. we can get to the platform…they're all gone." She moved to the door, and put her hand against it, then tugged. "Oh.. duh.. it's locked."

"Got a solution for that." Paladia commented, still peering out.

"Yeah?" Gabrielle turned, and cocked her head inquiringly. "What is it?"

The ex renegade blinked at the small group of soldiers running towards the building. "Well… they're gonna open that door from the outside.. better move."

The bard dove for her staff, which she'd dragged down the tunnel with her, and slammed up against the other side of the door, with Ephiny right behind her carrying a thick piece of chair leg. Paladia pressed herself against the other wall, and they waited, tensely, as the lock worked noisily and the door was flung inward.

Six men rushed in, and stopped dead, staring in bewilderment at the empty room.

Gabrielle reached out with her staff and tapped one of them on the shoulder. He whirled. She smiled. "Hi there."

His sword got partway up, then was neatly taken out of his hands by a swift jerk of her staff, and she swung the other end around, whacking him on the side of the head with it. He dropped, and there was a moment of shock, until the rest of the soldiers recovered, and charged.

Ephiny grabbed the nearest one, and flipped him over her shoulder, letting him land with a thud as she grabbed his sword out of his hand and turned to engage the next attacker. She disarmed him quickly, then reversed the sword in her hand and slugged him in the jaw, watching in satisfaction as he slid to the ground. "Ouch." She shook her hand, turning to watch as Gabrielle neatly took care of their last adversary, his partner already being pummeled by a mildly delighted looking Paladia.

Gabrielle took a breath, letting the end of her staff fall to the ground, and gave them a brisk nod. "Okay… now the door's open. This is a good thing." They slipped out, noting the nearly deserted area with surprise and suspicion. "Wonder where everyone is?" The bard muttered, under her breath.

Ephiny shook her head, and shifted the sword in her hand, glancing around. "I'm going to go get those guys." She started around the perimeter, not willing to cross the open area. Gabrielle and Paladia followed long behind, and the bard noted that the ex renegade and taken the opportunity to take a mace from her unconscious victim.

They were halfway there, when a tall, rain drenched form lunged in front of them, the fitful light glinting off a longsword. "Oh no… there you are you… "

"Arella." Ephiny let her sword rest on her shoulder, and regarded the renegade sourly. "You're little game's up."

Arella shifted her sword from one hand to the other. "You're wrong… I've got what I really wanted now." She moved forward.

Gabrielle stepped unexpectedly in front of the regent, and, in a flickering motion, whipped her staff up and around, and slammed the weapon right out of Arella's hand. "I'd say… what you have is a lot of trouble." She informed her, watching the woman shake her stinging fingers and curse. "You've got a lot to answer for." She turned her head. "Like those people… and Cait."

Arella glared at her, a tinge of madness in her eyes. "You're not going to win again, green eyes… and you have no idea how good it felt to put an arrow through that little girl.. just because I knew she was a friend of yours."

"Hey." Paladia ambled forward, and tapped Gabrielle on the shoulder. "That's the one.. the one with the arrow, and all that crap?"

The bard darted a look at her. "Yeah.. can we talk about this later?"

"Nah." Paladia handed her mace to the bard. "Hang on to this, willya?"

Gabrielle barely had time to get her fingers around the mace handle before the tall blond was hurling herself at Arella, startling the Amazon and taking them both to the ground. Paladia pounded her with heavy fists as they grappled.

"Damn you.. " The blond growled, getting a headlock on her heavier rival. "Gotta have me hear that damn, mucking, sappy pain in the butt piece of centaur dung plucking story every single damn night for the last plucking MONTH!!!" She rolled them both up onto their knees, and slammed an elbow into Arella's face. "I'm gonna kill you for that!!!!"

Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged startled glances. The bard leaned on her staff, and dropped the mace, scratching her head in puzzlement. The two woman battled, grunting and screaming as they tumbled over the refuse from the absent army, until finally Arella wrenched herself free, and rolled over, grabbing hold of a crossbow with a scream of triumph, lifting it and pointing it at Paladia.

A hand closed over the mechanism, over her shoulder. It was a big hand, covered with mud, and gore, and it was attached to a muscular forearm likewise stained. Furious, she looked up, into ice blue eyes that robbed her of any voluntary motion. Then everything went black, as something large, and hard, hit the side of her face.

For a moment, the only sound was the rain falling. Then Xena sighed, and brushed her hands off against her leathers, as Ephiny moved to the platform. After a moment, Paladia got up out of the mud and joined her

Gabrielle walked over to her partner, and touched a bleeding gash on Xena's arm. "Are… you all right?" The bard asked, softly.

Xena put her hands on her hips, and exhaled, giving her soulmate a wry, tired look. "I have about a dozen arrow holes in me, a couple of cracked ribs, more pulled muscles than I wanna talk about, and headache that would drop a centaur at thirty paces." She paused. "Yeah.. I'm fine. You?"

A tiny smile appeared on the bard's face, and she leaned against the taller woman's shoulder. "Well.. half a loaf… " She sighed, letting her eyes roam to the gates, which were being thrust aside to reveal a marching group of mad, mud covered, drenched and naked Amazons, surrounding a stumbling group of half conscious captives. "I think we won."

The warrior nodded, turning her face up and letting the rain wash it clean. "Yeah." She put an arm around the smaller woman. "C'mon.. let's give Eph a hand." They walked towards the oncoming group, seeing Jessan's tall form bringing up the rear and Eponin breaking out of the ranks to dash over to the platform.

Gabrielle let a long breath out. "Xena?"


"I'm going to have to do something about her this time, aren't I?"

Blue eyes rimmed with mud regarded her. "Yes."

Gabrielle only nodded.

Xena leaned back; closing her eyes as gentle fingers patched up her torn and battered hide. She was inside the healer's hut, having followed the quiet group who had carried their three fallen comrades inside, and taken a few moments to evaluate them before she herself was pushed down on a cot.

After she'd detoured to make sure Argo was all right, of course, and to check out their quarters. They'd been trashed, and their possessions thrown around, but her armor hadn't been touched, and neither, she was surprised to note, had been her chakram.

Gabrielle's diary had been found in Ephiny's quarters, which Arella had taken over for herself. The bard had taken the book back with a quiet smile, but her eyes had been stormy, and she'd inspected the bound volume carefully for damage. She'd turned to one page, and stood in the pale light coming in the window reading for a moment, before she closed the diary, and tucked it under her arm.

Jessan had scooted out, and returned with Elaini and the triplets, and Cait whom he'd laid down carefully on a pallet here where Xena was sitting. The Amazons had spent a moment or two goggling at their strange guests, but between those of them who'd met the tall forest dweller at Amphipolis, and the first sight of the children…. It had been one large bunch of cooing Amazons, that's for sure.

Arella had done a savage job on the three women. They'd been tied to the planks over night, and whipped, and by the cut marks on Solari's body she'd had a dagger taken to her as well. But they were Amazons, and they were tough, and Xena was pretty sure they'd be all right after some patching up.

Warm water coursed over her skin, and she wistfully wished she was soaking in a tubful of it, to finally get all the stinking, sticky mud off of her. Reluctantly, she pried her eyes open and gazed at the pale head bent close as Gabrielle meticulously stitched the one bad arrow slice just over her collarbone.

The bard bit off the end of the thread she was using, and gave Xena's arm a pat, then straightened up, leaning one hand against the wall. "That's the worst of it…"She ran her fingers through her soulmate's dark hair and pushed it back off her face. "I think you need a bath, honey."

Xena nodded. "Yeah… " She reached out and pulled a bit of twig from the bard's leathers. "You too." With a sigh, she sat up, wrestling down the pain from her ribs, and sorted out her options. "We're gonna need cleanser, ointment…

Two Amazons who had been standing by came over, and knelt in front of her, resting their arms against their knees. "Tell us what you want, Xena… we'll get it." The older one said quietly. "Whatever you need."

One dark, if obscured eyebrow lifted. Xena darted a look at her soulmate, whose face twitched in reaction. "Um… " The warrior collected herself. "All right.. " She named six or seven items. "That'll do for now… oh yeah, water heated to clean off some of those whip marks. They've got leather embedded in them."

The pale haired Amazon in front of her winced at that. "Poor Soli… she was so gutsy, too. Told Arella she'd have to roast her alive before she'd tell her where Eph and you all were."

Xena's eyes flicked to the dark haired Amazon, stirring feebly on the pallet. "She'd have had to.. Solari didn't know." The warrior stated quietly. "Why the other two?"

The woman, Selene, Xena remembered, looked at her. "Menelda mouthed off to her. " She gave a nod at the warrior's wry look. "Yeah.. and the kid… the kid told her it was too bad you hadn't broken more than her jaw the last time." Selene shook her head. "Not saying I don't agree with that… " She turned. "Come on, Evie. Let's go get this stuff… and we'll bring back something from the dining hall, you guys must be hungry."

Xena felt a tiny, wry grin edging across her face, so different was the Amazons attitude towards her. "Thanks." She herself was wincing at the thought of putting food in her sore stomach, but she suspected her soulmate was about due for a feeding, especially after all their activity. "I know her Majesty here would appreciate that."

"Tch." Gabrielle gave her a look. "I can go get my own, thanks…besides, I want to find Eph, and see how things are going."

"Hey, Elananora.. " Selene had stood, and called to another Amazon crossing the floor. "Get some water heating, all right?" She turned and inclined her head towards the bard. "Can we escort you?"

Gabrielle stifled a rolling of her eyes. "Sure… let's go." She patted her soulmate's knee. "You stay here.. okay?"

Xena nodded amiably. "Okay… " She'd had her eye on a water cistern at the back of the healer's hall for some minutes, since her leathers were starting to really itch from the mud. "Have fun."

The bard sighed, and followed her two escorts out the door, heading across the compound. Already it looked more normal, with now clothed Amazons moving around in purposeful patterns. The scaffolding had been taken down, and several women were breaking it up, stacking the wood into a firepit for later burning.

"So… Queen Gabrielle.." Selene cleared her throat. "Mind if I ask a quick question?"

The bard turned to her, surprised. "Sure… sure.. go ahead."

The blond woman rubbed her neck." Um.. so.. about the food.. any particular type I should bring her?" She gave the bard a mildly embarrassed look. "I mean… Hades…. We all feel so… last time it was so bad, we were so… and then you guys go in and rescue Ephiny.. and now this… "

Gabrielle stopped, and put a hand on the woman's arm. "It's all right." She reassured her. "Xena understands what went on… and so do I." She took a breath. "But we're past that now.. so let's just go on from here." She went on, giving the woman a nod. "As for your first question… well.. pick three things that are really bad for you, and I guarantee that'll be fine with her."

Selene let out a surprised laugh. "Really?"

"Yeah… "The bard started walking towards the dining hall. "Trust me."

"Well.. we've got some leftover ribs.. with all that gooey sauce.. and some of that cake.. " Selene offered, hesitantly, still not sure if the bard was joking or not.

"Perfect." Gabrielle told her dryly. "But do me a favor, okay? Stick a carrot in with that.. maybe I'll get lucky."

"You're serious." The Amazons both looked at her.

"Oh yeah." The bard smiled a little, as she reached the door and pulled it open. "Believe me, there's a person under all that leather and armor.. just like you and me."

A ragged cheer rose as she was spotted, and she stopped, puzzled. "What?"

Ephiny rose, and gestured her over. "I was just telling everyone our side of story.. but now that you're here… "

Gabrielle pushed aside her exhaustion, and nodded. "Okay… let me get something to eat, then… " She sat down next to Ephiny and pulled over a tray of bread, breaking off a piece and dipping it into a dish of herbed olive oil. "So.. where did you stop?"

Xena wearily stripped of her leathers, and, using a wooden bucket, dumped pails full of cold water over her body with a sense of utter relief. She scrubbed gingerly with a bit of soap end she'd found, and managed to get most of the river mud off of her, before she doused her leathers and threw them over the railing to dry. Gabrielle had brought back her padded gambeson when she'd put away her diary, and the warrior slipped into the worn, soft fabric gratefully.

That, so she'd be able to wear her sword, which Gabrielle had correctly assumed she'd want to, until the situation was completely stabilized. She clipped the scabbard to its clips on the back of the gambeson, and buckled the chest straps, tightening the garment around her body and giving it a twitch to settle the fit.

Wow.. that feels good. She ran her fingers through her dark hair, flicking the damp locks to rid them of excess water. A sound a the door made her look up, and she spotted Elaini ambling in, with Ares trotting at her heels. "Hey there." The wolf immediately jumped up against her, nuzzling her chest with a happy whine. "Hey Ares… how are you doing?" The damp fur ruffled under her fingers.

The forest dweller waved a furred hand. "Thought you could use some help in here." She knelt beside Solari and hissed as she saw the whip marks. "You're a cruel kind, you know that?"

Xena sighed. "Yeah, I know." She admitted quietly. "Thanks… the kids settled okay?"

Elaini snorted softly. "Oh yeah.. they got dozens of aunts… gonna spoil them rotten." She got up, then walked over to Xena and pushed her into the light from the window, and examined her carefully. "You look like deer droppings."

"Nah… " The warrior shrugged her off. "Just a few arrows.. nothing major." She felt a bit of energy returning, which she suspected was probably mostly a phantom result of her being clean. "Got them bringing some herbs… some stuff that got taken out of here. Looks like they were going to loot the place clean when they left."

Elaini nodded, deciding not to argue with the aggravating human about her physical condition. "That was a pretty clever plan of yours…Jess is having a grand old time embellishing it."

Xena rolled her blue eyes. "Oh great." She looked up as the door opened, and the two Amazons came back in, laden with trays. "You can set that stuff over there." She motioned towards the worktable with one hand. "Thanks." An intriguing scent caught her attention, and she wandered over, poking among the contents of the tray and uncovering some ribs emitting a spicy, sweet smell.

Did I say I wasn't hungry? She picked one up and started chewing on it as she rummaged further. "They got all those guys locked up?"

Selene hid a grin at the warrior's selection, and cleared her throat. "Pretty good, yeah… stripped all their clothes off, and stuck them in the threshing barn."

Xena looked up. "With all that grain chaff?" She pictured the naked men milling around with all the sharp-hulled seed, which tended to stick to the skin.

The Amazon grinned evilly. "Yeah… "

"Ouch." The warrior let out a faint chuckle. "What about Arella?" Now her smile disappeared.

"Hog tied in the root cellar." Selene informed her.

"Didja take those rotten onions out first?" Xena started on a second rib.


The warrior chuckled, swallowing quickly. "Good."

The Amazons left to finish their chores, and a quiet settled, broken by the soft murmurs of the patients. Elaini started sorting the medical supplies, and snitched a rib herself, as she prepared a cleaning solution, and added several soft linen rags to soak in it. "Here." She poured half of it in a bowl for Xena, who accepted it with a nod. "By the way… congratulations."

Blue eyes looked up at her, a trifle startled, then Xena's face cleared. "You mean Gabrielle?"

The forest dweller nodded. "Jess told me she's pregnant?"

Xena smiled. "Yeah." Her eyes twinkled gently. "She is." She stirred the contents of her bowl, then looked up. "I… I think it's great."

Elaini let a crooked grin show her fangs. "So I See. " She remarked wryly. "And.. he says you've been.. um… having symptoms yourself?"

The warrior finished off her rib, and wiped her hands, then cleaned them with a bit of linen and cleanser. Then she walked over and knelt down at Menelda's side, motioning Elani to start with Solari. She set to work cleaning the whip strikes, gently removing bits of debris from them with a pair of wooden tweezers. "Yeah… I guess I am." She finally answered Elani's question.

Elani continued to work over the dark haired Amazon, digesting this. "When did you notice?"

Xena exhaled. "Few weeks back, I guess.. I started getting sick to my stomach… smells were stronger, they bothered me more." She spread a bit of soothing ointment on a particularly deep mark on Menelda's neck. "I.. was losing track of things…eating weird stuff." She chuckled a little. " Finally one morning… I guess I started to figure out something was wrong, then Gabrielle told me she was about a week late."

Elaini watched her thoughtfully, a she gently swabbed the cuts on Solari's arm. "Sounds… familiar." The forest dweller admitted. "That's.. more or less how Jess found out." She looked down as her patient stirred, then waited, as Solari's eyes blinked open, and she stared foggily up at Elani.

There was no panic in the Amazon's eyes, which kind of surprised her, and she gave the woman what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "Take it easy.. everything's okay now."

Solari slowly inched her head around, and spotted Xena's kneeling form. A tiny smile twitched across her lips. "Took… ya long.. enough."

The warrior turned her head, and gave Solari a look. "Who won the bet?"

The dark haired Amazon just nodded a little. "Everybody okay?"

"Everyone's fine." Xena confirmed.

Solari turned her head the other way, and spotted Cait's sleeping form. "Hey… "

"They shot her." Elaini told her gently. "She's going to be all right."

The dark head looked up straight. "Elaini?"

A smile. "Hey.. and here I thought all us fuzzballs looked alike."

Xena exhaled, and returned her attention to the injured healer, who was also beginning to stir. She'd gotten most of the lashes taken care of, but Menelda also had a broken wrist she was going to have to set. As she watched the older Amazon's eyes fluttered open, and tracked to her face. Conflicting emotions flowed across her features, and settled on a resigned grimace. "You.."

"Yep." Xena kept her voice carefully expressionless.

"Bastards must be outta here then."

"They are." A pause. "Hang on.. I gotta set your wrist." The warrior pressed a point on the inside of the injured Amazon's elbow, and felt her jerk in response. "Just hold still."

"I know what to do, damn it." Menelda growled. "I could do it myself now that you turned the pain off."

Xena gave her a level glance, then quickly set the fracture, feeling the cracked bone ends slip into place with a faint, squeaking grate. She wrapped up the arm, then released the point, seeing the older woman's face tighten as the pain returned. "Should be all right."

Menelda sniffed, then glanced over Xena's shoulder, spotting Elaini. "What the Hades is that?" She blurted, startled.

There had been times in the past, when Xena had felt the urge to just reach out and hurt someone, just because they were getting on her nerves. Most of the time, she'd surrendered to the craving, which had resulted in a lot of brutal injuries, and eventually had lead to her army learning not to get on her nerves. She'd thought she'd left that behind.

Apparently not. "She's a friend." The warrior could feel her jaw muscles tightening, and it brought a dangerous pitch to her voice.

"Figures." The woman sniped.

Xena let herself breath in and out a few times. "You know something, Menelda?"


"Fifteen years I've been roaming around the nastiest places on earth, and I never have run into a sorrier piece of horse manure than you." Abruptly, the warrior stood up, and paced across the room, settling on one knee beside Cait. She busied herself checking the young Amazon, ignoring the frozen silence at her back. That was petty. She chided herself. And the damn woman's hurt… gods, Xena.. get a grip on the temper, willya?

Cait's eyes drifted open, and blinked at her. A tiny grin tugged at the girl's lips. "Missed everything.. didn't I?"

The warrior let her irritation slide off somewhere as she gazed down. "Just about, yeah."

"Rats." The girl managed a mini scowl. "Did you smash that blithering Arella again? I wish I'd seen that."

"Nope." Xena admitted, with a quiet smile. "Your friend Paladia did."

Cait's gray eyes opened wide, in mild astonishment. "No way." She breathed. "Really?"

"Yep." Xena assured her, as she replaced the dressing on top of the girl's shoulder. "Really." She watched a series of emotions trickle over her young friend's face. "She got Eponin outta trouble, too."

The Amazon stayed silent for a moment, then her brows scrunched. "Did you drug her?" She asked, accusingly.

The warrior let out a surprised chuckle. "No." She tucked the blanket back in around Cait. "She did it all on her own."

Cait considered that. "Why?" She asked, bluntly.

Xena laid a hand on her shoulder. "I dunno, Cait.. you'll have to ask her." She hesitated, debating on getting involved. Aw, what the heck. "You know.. she was.. um… pretty concerned about you."

A soft, definite blush colored Cait's pale skin. "Get out."

Xena's dark eyebrows lifted. "Sorry.. it's true." She patted the girl's arm. "Take it easy."

The girl's face took on a pensive, somewhat confused look, but she nodded. "Is Gabrielle all right… oh, that's a silly question.. you wouldn't be here otherwise."

The warrior chuckled. "She's just fine." She leaned closer, and lowered her voice. "Get some rest." She hauled herself to her feet, and peered around. Elaini had finished working on the other young girl, and was now washing her hands at the basin. Xena joined her, letting out a sigh. "Busy day, huh?"

The tall forest dweller peered at her. "You do the understatement thing really well, Xena.. has anyone ever told you that?" She replied wryly. "Come on.. let's go finish up that tray before Gabrielle gets back and yells."

They removed themselves to the back of the infirmary, where there was a small worktable next to the window which let in a wash of gray light. Xena seated herself in the chair against the wall, and rested her forearms on the table's surface, turning a rib in her fingers several times before she selected a starting point and started eating it.

Elaini nibbled on her own portion, and watched her curiously. "So.. is this sharing thing causing problems for you?"

A shrug. "Nah.. not really.. once I realized what it was." Xena replied, chewing unconcernedly. "It's… I guess it makes me feel a part of the whole thing…I kinda like that."

The forest dweller nodded a little. "Yeah.. I always felt it brought Jess and I closer together… and it gave him a feeling of what I was going through." She nibbled a claw. "Xena… "

"I know." The warrior said softly. "I'm not supposed to be experiencing this." She stared at the table. "But I'm not imagining it, Elaini."

The forest dweller reached over and put a hand on her wrist. "I know that." She lowered her voice. "I'm going to tell you something… I.. I don't know much about humans, you know that. You .. and Gabrielle.. and these people are almost the only ones I've ever met." She paused. "But I do know about our people.. about what I see… when I look at them, and how that changes after two people join together, how that's different from lifebonds.. and how different even that appears after two people have brought themselves together and produced a child."

Xena just looked at her. "What are you saying?" The warrior asked, slowly. "Elaini.. you know we're different than you are."

An exhaled breath. "But you're not." She glanced around. "Xena, if I close my eyes and Look, I can't tell the difference between you and Gabrielle, and me and Jessan." Her jaw worked a few times. "In any aspect."

The warrior exhaled, and ran a hand through her hair in agitation. "That… is not.. physically possible, and you know it."

Golden eyes gentled unexpectedly. "I know that… but Xena…. There is so much to you that isn't physical." Elaini told her, with a quiet smile. "Don't worry about it…I didn't mean to get you upset."

The warrior gave her a small shake of the head. "It's not…. It's just that Gabrielle wants that to be true so badly, and after everything that's happened to us… " She stopped, and rubbed her eyes. "Maybe I do too."

The forest dweller shrugged. "Then believe it." She replied in a normal voice.

Xena let out a mirthless chuckle. "Just like that."

Elaini nodded. "Yep." She patted Xena's arm. "Given the other possible choice, you're not going to be able to tell the difference anyway.. and if it'll make you both happy, why not?" She considered for a moment. "Until the kid gets big enough to pick up that round thing of yours, that is."

"No." Xena firmly shook her head. "Not the sword.. not a warrior. No."

Elaini got up. "Okay." She peered out of the window. "Here comes some trouble." She chuckled, then gave Xena a quick look. "So.. no fighting, huh?"

"Nope." The warrior responded. "There are other things to teach."

"Mmhn." Golden eyes twinkled in ancient knowledge, as she studied the strong, sharp profile. Ah… there are things born in us, Xena… and we can't deny them. That will be your blood telling, indeed. "Better eat your carrots. The boss is coming."

She ducked as the carrot in question hurtled towards her with deadly accuracy.