A Warrior by any other Name, Part III
by: Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"The harvest has been good." Hectator was commenting to Xena as they rode briskly towards the city, surrounded by his bewildered guard. "and we've started building on an annex inside the city walls. You'll see it. " He glanced towards the woman riding next to him. "You will stop in for a few days, right? I owe you at least a banquet."

Xena laughed. "Sure" she glanced over her shoulder at the momentarily silent Gabrielle. Probably planning yet another story. "We were headed your way before we got sidetracked." She stretched in Argo's saddle, and resettled herself. "I was serious - I would have rather been contributing to your local economy."

Hectator chuckled in response. "Well, it turned out OK." He glanced ahead, to where a small dust cloud was rising. "Ah. A welcoming party. " They watched as the dust cloud grew larger, then Xena stiffened . Her sharper eyesight had seen what Hectator's hadn't - the panicked faces and lathered flanks of the riders and horses headed their way.

"Looks like trouble, Hectator. " She kneed Argo into a canter, followed quickly by the prince and his guard. They met the oncoming riders in a flurry of shifting haunches and snorting beasts. The lead rider flung himself off his animal and went to Hectator's stirrup, chest heaving.

"My lord...an army..headed for the city." He coughed. "my lord, there are thousands of them." He stared up at Hectator, eyes all white and pupil.

"Hades." the prince breathed. "Must be Ansteles." He turned to Xena. "Get out of here, Xena - I mean it. This isn't' your fight, and I can only muster about 400 men." He fought the reins of his now restive horse, who sensed Hectator's emotions. "At least we have a chance to scatter the noncombatants."

Xena sat quietly on Argo for a moment, studying him. She was painfully aware of Gabrielle, waiting with held breath just behind her. Finally, she sighed. "Sorry, Hectator." a slight smile, a sudden tenseness in Gabrielle's arms. "You're stuck with me for while." A squeeze from the bard. She responded with a light chuckle she knew Gabrielle could feel. "C'mon. We've got planning to do." A thought occurred to her, and she turned her head to speak to Gabrielle.

"Oh no." the bard barked, giving Xena a warning look. "Don't you even think about it."

"Gabrielle.." Xena began, making a calming gesture with one hand.

"I said, no. That's it." Gabrielle answered, glaring. She opened her mouth to say more, but Xena forestalled her by putting a hand over it.

"Shh. I'm not sending you out of harms way." She cautiously removed her hand, and was rewarded with relative silence.

'You're not?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"No." Xena answered. "But I would like you to take Hectator's horse, and warn Lestan. If Ansteles takes the city, his village will be next." She saw the gathering storm clouds in her companion's eyes. "Then get back here as soon as you can." Her eyes pleaded with Gabrielle. "They deserve a warning."

The bard, slowly, finally nodded. She swung a leg over Argo's quarters and slid to the ground. To her surprise, Xena followed suit, so that they were out of the sight of the waiting guardsmen. Gabrielle hesitated, searching Xena's eyes for an explanation. "What?" she asked, when the warrior didn't speak.

"Look" Xena answered, very obviously searching for words. "If it were up to me, you'd stay in Lestan's village. This isn't going to be pretty, Gabrielle." She held up one hand to forestall protests already springing to her friend's lips. "But I know it's not up to me, and you won't. So, please, hurry, and be careful"

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and nodded. "OK. I'll be quick." I hope. She reluctantly accepted the reins of Lestan's roan from Hectator, who offered her a leg up. She gave him a wry grin. "S'okay, thanks. I don't like to do this, but I do know how." She swung herself up onto the horse, and patted his neck gently. "C'mon horse. Let's get you home."

Xena watched her go with a mixture of wistful pride, and genuine worry. Well, that went better than I had any hope of expecting. she snorted quietly to herself. My technique must be improving. She turned to where Hectator was remounting one of the horses ridden by his guard. "Let's go." she said. "that army won't wait."

Hectator glanced at her "Xena..." his handsome face went grim. "I don't have the forces to stop Ansteles, if that's who it is. And we have an old, old hatred for each other. There won't be any chance for negotiating." he kneed his mount over to Argo and lowered his voice. "Please...I don't want to be stuck in Tartares with your death on my shoulders too."

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "One, if you think you're going to die, you will." Her gaze unfocused for a moment, then sharpened again. "Two, there are always possibilities." She allowed grim smile to twist her lips. "Three, if I get stuck in Tartares with you because of this, I guarantee you'll regret it." She cuffed him on the shoulder. "Let's see what our options are before we start planning our afterlife"

Hectator hesitated, but noticed his watching guard were gazing at Xena with something approaching relief. He glanced at her, then sighed. "Well, I had to try." he muttered sheepishly. "And I'll keep on trying." he turned his mount's head and motioned his guard to start moving. "Let's go then."

Gabrielle didn't hesitate when she reached the boundary stream, but plunged right through. The horse's hooves kicked up a light spray, drenching her with icy cold water. "Brr." It only lasted a second, though, and she was through and up onto the grassland again.

She had made it partway to the treeline, when a large form rose up in front of her mount, and held up a hand to halt. " I need to talk to Lastan." she called to the guard. "it's important." The tall forest dweller regarded her solemnly, then waved her on.

"You have safe passage" he rumbled.

"Thanks." she nodded. She grimly turned her mount's head, and headed for the trees. Urgency now took hold of her, and she did something she had never done before - pushed the willing horse into a gallop. It was terrifying..and exhilarating. she was honest enough to admit to herself. She was not in control of the massive animal - he had smelled home, and was willing to run. It certainly looks much easier when Xena does it, though. Xena looks so natural on horseback..gods I wish I had her skills....it must be nice to be able to just *do* all that stuff.

Gabrielle could feel the horse stretching out in a flat run, whipping her hair back painfully. She held on to his neck for dear life, he didn't slow until they reached the village gates itself and even then it was not by much. He thundered through, and Gabrielle could barely get him turned in the general direction of Jessan's home. Footsteps were now thudding all around her, reacting to her violent arrival.

Gabrielle pulled her sweating horse to a ragged stop, and tumbled off his back, holding onto his thick mane for support. She glanced around, and spotted Jessan headed her way, leaping off the porch with a stunned expression on recognizing her.

"Gabrielle!" Jessan yelped, bewildered by her sudden appearance. "What are you doing here? Did something happen on the way back?" He gently grasped her shoulders, searching her eyes with a worried expression.

"No, well, yes, but not like you're thinking" Gabrielle managed to gasp out. "it's an army"

Jessan paled under his fur. "Wait." He turned to his nearest cousin. "Get Lastan"

"I"m here." the low rumble came from over his other shoulder. Lastan peered over his son's shoulder in concern. "an army?" He gazed at Gabrielle. "Whose? Where? When?"

The bard explained quickly, now that she had her breath back. "So, Xena wanted me to warn you -because she figures if they take the city, well..." she finished.

Lastan looked at her, suspiciously. "And, what is it that she wants us to do?" Ally or no ally..this is not our fight, little bard.

Gabrielle stopped, and stared at him. "She didn't ask me to ask you to do anything." she answered, puzzled. "She just told me that you deserved a warning." She looked around at the gathered forest dwellers, noting the interest in their faces. "Is there a problem with that?"

"Ah" was all Lestan answered. "We take the warning seriously. Thank you." He motioned several people ahead of him into his conference room, and shut the door, ignoring the rising, interested buzz.

Jessan looked down at her in concern. "And does Xena think he'll take the city?" he asked, quietly. He still had his arms wrapped around her in support, and she was making no protest.

Gabrielle thought for a long moment, of Xena's parting words, and the look on her face. "Well, she didn't say, but, yeah..I think she does. " She gnawed on her lip. "Hectator can only muster 400 men." She looked back up at him. "I've gotta get going. I promised Xena I'd be quick."

Jessan threw his golden head back, and regarded the stars in thought. "Wait a moment." he said softly to the bard. This is it, I can feel it. I'm meant for this. The gods conspired to bring us all together for just this moment. I smell Ares' fine hand...I know, and I walk into this with eyes wide open, and sword raised. "I'll take you back." he finally said, dropping his chin to his chest, and peering at her. "Let me just get my gear." He guided her into their dwelling, and pushed open a door in the rear area. His room, apparently.

Gabrielle looked around, curiously. The room was fairly small, and not as cluttered as she'd expected. There was a large round bed in one corner, rather like the one she and Xena had used, covered with thickly quilted spreads in blues and greens. The walls were hung with reed mats, covered with well done representations of the forest around them. "Pretty" she commented.

"Thanks. I painted them." Jessan answered, absently, as he pulled various items out of a trunk at the foot of his bed. "sword, battlecoat, leg armor...I think that's it" He stood up with his arms full, and grinned at the surprise on the bard's face. "What...did you think all we could do is make arrows or something?" His golden eyes twinkled. "And here I thought you had an open mind."

Gabrielle blushed. "I deserved that.' she acknowledged with a sheepish smile. "I should know better, after traveling so long with Xena."

"Oh." Jessan said, with a wicked grin. "Does she paint too?" His eyes danced merrily. "I had no idea."

"Paint? No." Gabrielle giggled. "But she has many skills." Another giggle at his mock innocent expression and raised eyebrows.

"Now that..." Jessan drawled with a grin. "I can fully believe." He lifted his armor again, and turned towards the door just as it slammed inward from the force of Lestan's hand.

"Jessan..." He stopped short, seeing what was in his son's arms. "What is this? Where do you think you're going?" He stepped further into the room, glancing at Gabrielle in some suspicion.

"I'm going to fight with our new allies, father." Jessan answered, putting down his burden, and instead, starting to put the gear on. "They could use the help." He avoided his father's eyes.

"What??!!" Lestan's roar shook the dwelling like an earthquake. His amber eyes burned a fiery path through his only son, as Jessan stood, calmly arming himself. "This is no concern of yours!" He moved closer to his son. "Are you mad? You're as likely to get killed by our new allies as by their enemies!" He slammed his fist against the trunk. "No, Jessan - I forbid you to do this."

Jessan paused, then looked up at Lestan. "You can't." he said, quietly. "I choose this path knowing it's end, father." He slid into the knitted battlecoat, and settled the layered armor plates over his broad shoulders. He turned and looked Lestan in the eyes. "Besides, what more tangible symbol of our new alliance could you possibly wish to have than your son fighting in defense of their city?" He bared his canines. "Father..this is calling to me. I have to go." He donned his swordbelt, settling the long broadsword from a long off battle securely at his back. Then he turned and, fastening his eyes on his father's shadowed face, knelt before him. He heard Lestan's sudden intake of air.

"Bless me." Jessan pleaded, softly. The traditional plea when a son of the forest took to the battlefield for the very first time. "You are my father, and the river who spawned the very stream that I am." He swallowed and went on. "Send me to battle with your blessing. Honor my choice." He thought for a moment that Lastan wouldn't do it, then saw the tears in his father's eyes.

"You are my son." Lastan managed. "You are the torch lit from the very fire of my heart, and you go forth to your future with my blessing." He laid both hands on Jessan's gilded head. "My heart cries out to send you on this path, Jessan, but...Ares...your choice and my choice would have walked as one in the forest." He grasped Jessan's face, and studied his son's eyes for a long time. "I honor your choice." He finally added, hoarsely. Then he was gone, and the room was in silence. Jessan rose, somewhat shaken, and glanced back at the silent Gabrielle..

"Time to go." he whispered.

"Are you sure, Jessan?" Gabrielle whispered back. "This really isn't your fight."

"Ah...Gabrielle." her tall friend smiled. "how wrong you are. It is just very exactly my fight." He gestured towards the door, then hesitated. "But..you could remain here, you know. You're quite expert with your staff, but that's not much against mounted swordsmen." He knew her answer before she spoke it. Of course. Silly of him even to mention it. She could no more stay away than he could.

"No." the bard sighed. "No, I have to go." She moved ahead of him towards the door. "I can't really explain it...."

Jessan laughed softly. "No, you can't ,can you." he murmured to himself, but she heard him, and gave him a startled look. "Uhh..I mean..Well, let's go." He gestured for her to proceed him, when his mother stopped them, gazing at him with aching sadness. Their eyes searched each other, and she wordlessly took him in her arms and rocked him like a child. Then she pulled back, and kissed his head. Only when he returned the kiss did she turn to Gabrielle.

"Child, bring him back again in one piece, and I'll explain it to you. I think I have a better perspective than my son." Wennid smiled sadly at her. She doesn't even realize!. How blind humans were.

Gabrielle waited until they were outside, and in fact, until Jessan was up on Eris before she managed to blurt. "What on earth was that all about??" She took Jessan's proffered arm, and was hoisted up onto Eris's broad quarters.

Ugh. Jessan was caught in a trap now. Should he explain? Wow...that was a subject he didn't think he should get into with her..not now, not on the eve of battle. Not..without also talking to Xena. "Don't ask me that now, please, Gabrielle." He turned Eris' head towards the gate, and started the long ride to the city. "Ask me after this is all over."

Gabrielle glowered at his back. Secrets, again. She hated them. What on earth were Jessan and his mother talking about? She knew she was involved, in some vague way. Explain what? Better perspective on what? What did Wennid have that she would need her to explain a per.....Oh. Wait. The bard sat, stunned by a sudden thought. Nah. That's silly. She shrugged her shoulders, and settled back for this fourth version of what was becoming a very unpleasant ride. She had more than plenty enough time to think about how silly her idea had been.

Xena and Hectator stood on his rampart wall, watching an approaching far cloud, and listening to the snapping as the wind ripped his banners to tattered shreds. They were both in a somber mood, having but 392 men to garrison the castle with, and faced with an approaching army that numbered near 1200, and was well armed, and well mounted. Xena had donned the extra armor she rarely wore anymore, and settled a few extra daggers into sheathes about her person. She sat calmly on the upper wall, her eyes gazing at the oncoming troops.

Hectator glanced at her, impressed despite himself. She knew this was a losing cause. There would be no amnesty, no treaty - not with Ansteles. His bone with Hectator was old, and well gnawed. He could only hope to make a brave stand, and send all the non combatants scattered over the surrounding countryside. He would die on this field tomorrow, as would his troops, and quite probably, this lovely woman sitting with deceptive tranquillity on his battlement.

One more time. "Xena." He, daring, grasped her shoulder, and she turned to gaze into his eyes. He shuddered . "Don't do this. You have nothing to prove, here. Leave..take Gabrielle with you." He touched on her weak point gently. He knew it, so did she. "Don't make her watch this."

Slowly, she smiled at him. "Hectator, I appreciate your thoughts. Really, I do." She returned her gaze to the horizon. "Gabrielle knows what the stakes are. It's not like we don't do this all the time." She's watched me die twice. Old news. "Let's just say, I'm betting my life, on my own better judgment." She stood and walked across the narrow wall, and stood looking towards the castle gate. Out of the forest gloom, tiny with distance, emerged a cantering black animal whose foremost rider caught the last rays of the sun which turned his golden coat ablaze. Glancing down, Xena smiled quietly to herself.

"There's the castle." Jessan remarked, turning towards a largely silent Gabrielle. She hadn't had much to say on the ride in, which was unusual. "You OK?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Pretty much." She gazed at the tower turrets, where she could just make out a tall figure outlined against the sunset stained sky. She couldn't see the face at this distance, but the shape and an inner sense Gabrielle had just recently begun to notice told her who stood there, watching. A faint grin etched her face. "Let's go inside."

The gate guard was startled by Jessan, no doubt about that. Gabrielle hastened to reassure him, as the tall forest dweller looked on in silence. The man nodded as she explained. "Yes, we know of the treaty. We just didn't expect..." He glanced up at Jessan. "Not that we couldn't use the help."

He was frightened, Jessan thought, surprised. Ah..the humans didn't really enjoy battle, except for a few. I had forgotten. "May we enter?" He asked, mildly, raising a golden eyebrow at the guard.

"Sure..sure." The guard, embarrassed, moved out of the way. "Uhm.." he turned to Gabrielle "Xena told me to keep an eye out for you..she and Hectator are.."

"On the upper battlements., Thanks." Gabrielle answered, absently. She moved past the gate and headed towards the large entrance, being prepared for siege.

Jessan trotted after her, grabbing an arm and slowing her progress down. "How did you know that?" He asked, tilted his big head in a comical expression. "Where they were, I mean?" At this distance, he certainly couldn't sense Xena, so...

Gabrielle shrugged "I saw her up there, of course." She glanced curiously at him. "How did you think I knew?" Her brow creased. "You're not going to go all mystical on me, are you? I mean, it's a perfectly reasonable explanation."

"Ugh." Jessan stuttered. "Yeah. I mean, no. I mean...oh Hades." He placed a hand on her shoulder and urged her towards the stairs. "Forget I asked." Knowing she wouldn't do anything of the sort. Knowing he was going to have to provide some kind of lame explanation. Ares, he was so stupid sometimes. "No, I mean, don't forget I asked."

Gabrielle just looked at him, and waited, continuing the long walk upwards.

"Uh. ok. " He finally sighed. "I thought maybe you could....I mean, we can..kind of...sense..people." Jessan peeked at her face. "So...I thought maybe..even though humans usually can't..but you guys are pretty unique, so maybe...er..you could too."

"Oh." Gabrielle chewed on this for a bit. "Well, sure. I mean, Xena does that all the time." she commented. "And, I guess I sort of can, with her at least, a little bit." She glanced at him, relieved. "Is that all? You could have asked before, you know. The way you were carrying on, I thought it was something...I don't know. what I thought it was."

"Xena does that all the time." Jessan repeated, blankly. "All the time?" He climbed in silence for a long moment. "Amazing."

"Well, yeah." Gabrielle laughed a little, grabbing the banister to help pull herself along. "I thought it was one of those, you know, warrior things. Like what they teach you guys in warrior school, or wherever it is you go to learn all that stuff." She eyed the top of the steps far above in irritation. "Top of the tower, huh Xena? I'll get you for this."

Jessan plodded upward, deep in thought. Finally, "Gabrielle."

"Yeah?" the bard answered, looking over at him. "What?"

"Can I ask you a question, and you won't get mad at me?" Jessan eyed her, apprehensive. Xena is much easier to gauge than this one. She has depths that I have no understanding of.

Gabrielle stopped short, and put her hands on her hips. "What? What could you possible ask me that I'd get *mad* at Jessan? "

The tall forest dweller stopped as well, and faced her, a serious look in his golden eyes. "Remember when I was telling you the story of my parents?" He watched her brow crease.

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, slowly. Where was he going with this? Do I really want to know? Probably not.

"Remember when you asked me if they had fallen in love? And I said a lifebond is more than love, it's a link that endures beyond.." He stopped, seeing the look on her face. A mirror to what he had seen on the first telling. "Why does that mean something to you? " Jessan waited, uneasily, not sure she was going to answer. He cursed himself for meddling, for opening his mouth in the first place. This was none of his business. She wasn't going to tell him, anyway, he could see it in her eyes.

Gabrielle turned and continued to climb the stairs. After a moment, Jessan joined her. "I'm sorry." He said, carefully. "I didn't mean..."

"No, it's all right, Jessan." Gabrielle muttered. "It was just the beyond death thing. We've been through that ." She glanced at his shocked face. "I guess it just touched a nerve."

"Oh." Jessan answered, in a very small voice. "that expl..gosh. I"m sorry, Gabrielle." So. Lesson one. Don't assume anything about humans. Especially these particular ones.

"S'okay, Jessan." Gabrielle replied. "I can deal with it pretty much OK now." She smiled at him. "Just one of those things, right?"

"Right." Jessan answered, in exactly the same tone Xena herself used when she meant precisely not right at all. They came to the top of the stairs, and Jessan reached out one huge hand to push the door open.

Footsteps on the upper stairs. They both turned to watch as the door to the upper garrison opened, and Gabrielle stepped out, followed by the unmistakable bulk and hue of Jessan. Xena caught the bard's eye as she moved towards them, noting the slightly strained expression on Gabrielle's face. "You OK?" she asked her in a low voice as they got closer.

"Fine." Gabrielle answered briefly. "Just a little tired." She gave Xena a quick grin. "Way to many horses in one day." Xena nodded, then turned her attention to the forest dweller.

"Jessan". The Xena spoke his name as if tasting it. "You have no obligation here." She gazed up at him. "This won't be any sparring match." Her blue eyes captured his golden ones.

"I know." Jessan answered, a low laugh rumbling in his chest. "As I told my father, I walk into this with open eyes." He smiled, giving his ferocious face an unbelievable sweetness. "He has blessed me, and sent me into battle, and I'm loving it already." His face lit up . "I"m looking forward to fighting on the same side as you."

Xena pursed her lips thoughtfully. then let her gaze warm briefly in kindred understanding. "I feel better already." She commented, watching his face light with pleasure at the compliment. Unlike Hectator, unlike the vast majority of the troops preparing below, Jessan alone felt the intense stirring of excitement that she, too, felt. His eyes saw it in hers, and acknowledged it with a solemn twinkle.

She stood up, and gestured to the door. "We should get some rest while we can. " She cast one last look at the horizon. "they'll be here by sunrise." She glanced at Gabrielle, who was leaning against the nearby wall, looking exhausted. "You too. How much horseback riding did you do today?" the warrior added, teasingly. " Think you're developing a taste for it?"

Gabrielle managed a grin, although she failed to see anything that required one. The sight of the extra armor strapped around her companion had sent a chill down her spine in reflex. She also sensed the suppressed, rising fever in Xena, and knew this was one side of the warrior she had no window into, no possible understanding of, just as Xena couldn't fathom how she assembled scattered details into a powerful narrative story. Well, no time for that now. "I know I'll regret it tomorrow." She pushed off the wall, and crossed over to them. "Did I hear someone mention dinner?"

Xena chuckled, and guided her towards the stairwell with one hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Well, you're consistent." She motioned for Hectator and Jessan to proceed them down, and watched as they disappeared into the darkness of the stairwell. Then she turned to Gabrielle, and her face lost it's humor. "You sure you're OK?" Xena studied the bard's face."You look a little rattled."

Gabrielle gave her a brief smile. "Yeah, I'm ok. I'm really just tired. Thanks for asking, though." She started down the stairs. "And I'm starving." she added, with a sly grin in Xena's direction.

Xena snorted. "When aren't you?" she said, muffling a laugh.

They descended into a courtyard filled with somber activity. Now that dark had fallen, even sounds seemed muted, as the soldiers and citizens of Hectator's city prepared for the fast approaching attack. The courtyard itself was full of piles of arms and armor, and the sound of torches being whipped in the steady wind.

Jessan was aware of the surreptitious glances in his direction, surprised there wasn't more animosity than he sensed, then realized these people were far more preoccupied with thoughts of loss and dying than of strange forest creatures walking into their midst. He could see it in their faces, in their steady, deliberate motions, in the grim looks. So strong was the feeling it sat over this place like a shroud, clouding his Sight more than his vision. He glanced at Hectator, who strode along, lost in his own dark thoughts, and sidled a bit closer to him. "Hectator." he murmured, softly. The prince looked up , a bit startled. "I know this isn't much comfort, but I'm really glad I"m here to help." the forest dweller continued, quietly. "Maybe things will go better tomorrow than you expect."

Hectator sighed. "Jessan, I don't know why you're even here. Not that I don't appreciate the act." He looked at the taller man with despair in his eyes. "Why? Why throw your life into this, when two days ago I was preparing to attack your village? Why help us? I don't understand. I don't understand you, and I don't understand her." He threw a quick glance over his shoulder at the dimly seen following women. "If it were me, I'd be riding out of here as fast as my horse could take me."

"Would you?" Jessan asked, mildly. "I doubt it." He smiled his warm, sweet smile. "Life is a struggle, Hectator. We all know that. I guess when you can choose your places to take a stand, you do." He glanced at the ground and back up. "At least I do." A glance behind him. "And, I can't speak for Xena, of course, but I think she does too."

"Have you known her long?" Hectator asked, diverted from his melancholy for a moment by a dim curiosity.

Jessan laughed. "A fortnight." His eyes sparkled. "that feels like forever." He met Hectator's amazed glance. "She rescued me from a village on the other side of the region." He read the unasked question on the princes face with ease. "And, yes. I'm doing this more for her than for you. Satisfied?"

Hectator remained silent for a bit, digesting this information. Then he nodded, and gave Jessan a tight smile. "I can...understand..your motivation." he allowed. "But I think you'd be here anyway." He raised an eyebrow at Jessan, who gave him a toothy grin in response.

"You humans are not so bad after all." He noted cheerfully. "Some of you, anyway." The forest dweller raised one hand to push open the door to the inner chamber, where the castle workers had assembled food for the denizens of the city. "Hmm..smells good." he noted appreciatively.

Hectator led them towards the head table, lifting his hand in acknowledgment as his captains noticed his presence. Small knots of men and women were clustered around the trestle tables scattered across the hall, some of the women holding small children, obviously family members spending time with their solder fathers and husbands. Hectator grimaced. He had no lady, as of yet, though there were several prospects in the offing. I'll miss having known that. He thought to himself. He held no illusions of surviving - Ansteles would see to that, even if he allowed part of his forces to surrender and disperse. Sighing, he pulled out a chair at the high table, and seated himself, as his three companions did the same. A castle steward glided up, carrying a pitcher and a bread trencher.

"Thanks." Hectator murmured, absently, as he passed the bread towards Jessan. A hand touched his arm and startled him - he looked to his left, and was captured by Xena's pale blue eyes. He raised an eyebrow in question.

"Hectator." Xena said, in a low voice. "You have to snap out of it. You can't lead troops like this."

"Like what." Hectator answered, mildly, propping his chin up with one hand. "Sorry, Xena, I can't pretend either enthusiasm or optimism when I feel exactly none." he gestured around the room. "Would it be fair to them? They know, Xena. Look at their faces. Look into their eyes. We don't have a chance tomorrow. And some of them may even escape to the forest." He lowered his voice and returned her intense gaze. "So, for the last time, would you please get out of here! And take Jessan with you."

"Look" Xena said, reaching over and grabbing his lapels, startling him with her sudden violence. "I've been around a while, long enough to know that anything can happen in war, Hectator. Anything. But if you go in defeated, you'll come out that way. If you want to believe you're going to die out there, fine. But you have to give everyone else here a fighting chance. That includes Jessan. That includes me. I am not going to go out there tomorrow thinking that I'm not coming back. I can't. " her voice dropped to a sibilant whisper. "I can't." She flashed a glance to her right, where Jessan was talking in a low voice to Gabrielle. Hectator didn't miss the glance. "So you'd better decide if you can put on a good enough act for your people, or I'm going to have to do something about it. You hear me?"

Hectator studied her in silence, getting a glimpse for the first time of an understanding about this very extraordinary woman. "All right." He answered, throwing his life, his beliefs, his honor into the swirling currents of fate. He didn't believe in his future, but, inescapably, he believed in her. That would have to be enough, at least for now. "I hear you." He took a deep breath, and then released it. When he raised his eyes, defeat was no longer in them. He scanned around the room, exchanging glances with his captains, giving those scarred faces a little nod, a small smile. Unaccountably, the pall in the room lessened, voices rose to more normal pitches. Hectator felt a small thrill, chasing down his spine. I did that.He glanced at Xena, saw the faint smile chasing across her lips, and returned it. "I keep forgetting you've been here before." He admitted, sheepishly.

Xena snorted. "Yeah. Once or twice." she leaned back and bit thoughtfully into a chunk of meat as she listened to Gabrielle relating some story or other to a fascinated Jessan. Suddenly the words caught her attention, and she smiled. She would be telling him that story. Wait. The woman's a bard..."Gabrielle." Xena interrupted, leaning forward to catch her attention.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle answered, tilting her head towards her companion. "What's up?"

"Feel up to giving this lot a story?" Xena jerked her head to encompass the room. "I think they could use some encouragement." She watched Gabrielle scan the room, then nod in understanding.

"See what you mean." she commented, taking a deep breath. "Ok. I think I've gotten my second wind here. Let me see what I can come up with." She sat silent for a moment, then a smile crossed her face. "I think I have one."

Xena watched the bard as she gracefully crossed the to the front of the hall, and perched on a low table, gathering the eyes of the citizens on her. As she started to tell the story, and the crowds attention became focused on her, Xena recognized the tale. Oh Gabrielle..good choice. she laughed in delight to herself. Another tale of a small force against impossible odds, where the outnumbered, outclassed victims overcame the odds, the opposition, and their own natures to win the day. It was one of her own personal favorites, and the bard knew that. She settled back to enjoy, keeping Hectator's now engrossed face in her peripheral vision.

Gabrielle sat in the room they had been shown to after dinner, watching Xena make some last minute preparations with armor and weapons.

"Great job with that story, by the way." Xena commented, glancing at her over one shoulder. "it was perfect."

"Thanks." Gabrielle answered, absently. "I know you like that one, too. " She started to say something else, but fell silent. After a moment, she started again, only to close her mouth uncertainly. "Xena." she finally managed.to ask. "There's no way we're going to win tomorrow, is there?"

Xena looked up at her companion, noticing the expression in her face. She quickly finished what she was doing, and walked over to the bard, sitting down on the bed facing her. Gently, Xena..don't scare her to death. "Nothing is impossible, Gabrielle." She glanced down at her armored bracer, then back up to meet the bard's green eyes honestly. "But, no. It doesn't look good."

"Oh." Gabrielle murmured. "You'll be careful, won't you?" What a dumb thing to say, Gabrielle. "Remember, you promised me." she added, with a weak smile.

Xena sighed softly. "Yes, I did, didn't I." She examined the bracer again. "I'd rather not be known as a person who doesn't keep promises." She looked up and found herself gazing right into Gabrielle's eyes at a short distance. Well, it's now or never. I hate doing this, but I'm not sure I have a choice. Not and have a hope of keeping that promise. "Will you do something for me?"

"For you? " Gabrielle blurted, puzzled. "Anything, sure..what..." What could she possibly ask for?

"No matter how it looks...Gabrielle, don't come out onto the battlefield tomorrow." A clipped, precise, deadly serious tone.

"Wait a minute." Gabrielle snapped. "You are NOT going to do this to me." she clenched her fists. "No way. I am not going to be left behind here like so much baggage. We've been over and over this, Xena. No way."

Xena's voice hardened. "Gabrielle..." she started, a low warning in her tone.

The bard threw her hands up in upset outrage. "Look! I am really tired of being treated like some little kid! I can take care of myself, Xena!"

Ok. Wrong tactic. Let's try plan B. "Please." Xena captured her hands, and leaned forward, softening her voice and eyes. ."Gabrielle, I've never asked you for anything. Have I? "

Gabrielle was caught by the question. "No." she finally whispered. "Don't ask for this. Don't ask me to stay on the sidelines while you go out there, gods, Xena please.."

"I"m asking." Xena's blue eyes sparked as she let loose the reins on her forceful personality for just a moment. "Promise me." Her voice dipped a pitch lower. "PROMISE ME."

"OK..OK.." the bard answered, gritting her teeth. . "I promise." Her eyes were stormy. "but..Xena, why ? I mean, I know it's dangerous, but everyone including the farmers with pitchforks are going to be out there..." her voice trailed off at the expression on Xena's suddenly still face. Uh oh. I don't think this is about my skill with a staff, is it....

Xena dropped her eyes for a long moment, then let out a long held breath. Plan B does require an explanation, Xena..that's why you hoped Plan A would do the trick, right? Right.

"Look, It's going to be...pretty rough out there tomorrow. I"m going to need all the concentration I have just to..well, anyway. " Xena finally said, watching Gabrielle's face as she gently chafed the bard's hands, still held in her own. "And If you're out there, Gabrielle, my mind will be wherever you are, not with the guy with the sword in front of me." She lifted her eyes and met Gabrielle's startled gaze. Never figured that out, did you?.She smiled, briefly. "And I'd like a fighting chance at keeping that promise."

The words rang in Gabrielle's ears, in a sudden, still quiet. I always wondered why she always makes me stay out of things. Now she tells me. "Oh." she sighed. "I never realized" A flash of countless close calls presented itself to her minds eye, where Xena just happened to be in the right place at the right time to stop an arrow, a knife, a sword... 'I guess I should have." How much denser could I have possibly been? How much blinder? Gods.

In a silence so profound, Xena swore she could hear the stones in the building settling, they just sat and looked at each other. Finally, Xena looked down at their still linked hands, and sighed. She squeezed once, then released the bard. "We need to get some rest before tomorrow."

"Yeah." Gabrielle responded. "I guess we do." Her voice sounded choked.

Xena removed her armor, then settled against the headboard, half reclining. She folded her hands across her stomach, and turned her head slightly to watch Gabrielle, who was curling up next to her, far too slowly, a stricken look on her face. OK OK...now what? I've used up all my clever sayings this round - not that I have many... She tilted her dark head, and met Gabrielle's troubled gaze. "Hey" she said softly, lifting one arm and reaching around the bard with it. ""C'mere." she continued, pulling Gabrielle into a hug. With a small choking sound, her companion complied.

That just scared me worse than that battle tomorrow. Xena mused to herself. Gods, I'm so unprepared to fight on this battleground, it's pathetic. She regarded at the top of Gabrielle's head, as the bard relaxed . At least I made her feel better. I know she likes hugs Her lips quirked into a wry grin. I never thought I'd get used to that.

She settled back, idly remembering her early travels with Gabrielle. She'd explained, and explained, until she was about blue in the face to the stubborn girl that touching or especially grabbing Xena was a bad, if not deadly idea. My body doesn't know you're a friend, Gabrielle. It assumes everyone is an enemy, and it doesn't stop to ask my brain what to do. You could get hurt. If you do it just the wrong way, you could get killed. And Gabrielle was pretty good after that, always making sure she approached Xena from the front, no surprises - and when she occasionally forgot and reached out to grasp an arm, Xena at least saw it coming, and kept from knocking her into next week.

So, then one day, after they'd been traveling around for a while, they met some bad guys trashing a village. Which one? Who knew. They stopped the pillaging, and scared off the marauders, but it had been a hard, tough fight. Xena had been sitting by the fire not long after, tired, sore, and depressed, when Gabrielle, thinking who knew what, had just walked up behind her, grasped the back of her neck with both hands and started kneading.

Xena laughed to herself now, thinking of it. Right after an ugly battle, and me in one of my darker moods. I should have broken half her ribs. But she hadn't, and the bard's hands had released tension in her shoulders by their very touch.. Not a twitch from her dependably hair trigger reflexes. Not a twitch from her much vaunted defensive instincts. Nothing.

I should have known it then. Xena thought, gazing down at her companion affectionately. Was I ever surprised. So was she. What sarcastic comment did I make? Oh yeah..."Guess I was more tired than I thought. You were lucky" Xena mentally rolled her eyes. Now look at us.. She shook her head in disbelief. And I could even lie to myself and say I only do this for her sake. Right. And just exactly how many people in my life blindly trust me, like this?

How does she know? Gabrielle wondered, as she willingly snuggled close, throwing one arm over Xena's waist, and letting her head rest on Xena's shoulder, where her ear could detect the steady heartbeat. She always knows when I need this. Not words, not explanations, just...this. Blessed if I don't spend most of my time just peeking in the window, and then she just opens the door and invites me in. And it's so warm and safe in here, I don't ever want to go back outside. "Thanks." she whispered, glancing up."I know you as a rule don't like this kind of thing."

Xena gazed down at her with an unfathomable expression. "As a rule, no." She drawled, coolly. Then she smiled all the way to her eyes. "But you're an exception to the rule, Gabrielle."

"Am I?." the bard breathed. glad that Xena couldn't see the dumb look she was sure was on her face.

"Mm hmm." Xena confirmed.

Gabrielle was silent for a bit, drinking that in. Then she asked, thoughtfully "Xena, are you ever scared? I mean, when you know you're going to have to..."

"No." Xena replied, thoughtfully. "Not when I'm fighting." She hesitated. "There really isn't time to be."

Gabrielle blinked at her. "Any other time?" she asked, curious. With one ear pressed against Xena's chest, she could hear Xena's heartbeat pick up a little.

An extremely simple question, with extremely complex answers. "Sometimes I get scared when I think about the consequences." The warrior finally answered, in a measured tone. "Will my plans work, how many people will end up dead because of them, what happens to the people who are left..that kind of thing."

"Oh." The bard considered for a moment. "Well, your plans usually work out..but, do you ever...I mean, are you ever..." Gabrielle paused. She had a captive audience here, and she was going to ask this question.

Xena looked down at her with a surprising amount of compassion. "Am I afraid of dying?"

Gabrielle fell silent. She was really glad Xena didn't have the opportunity to hear her heart right now, because it was pounding so hard she was surprised it wasn't audible. "Yeah. Something like that." she mumbled, and felt Xena's chest move as she took and released a long breath.

"I didn't used to be." Xena finally admitted, a smile beginning to etch itself on her face, unseen by the bard. "In fact, at one time I would have welcomed it." She felt Gabrielle stiffen under her protective arm. "There really wasn't much to worry about leaving. Now..." she laughed slightly. . "Let's just say it's an area of serious concern for me."

"Please be careful. " Gabrielle said quietly. "I'd really miss you."

"I will." Xena replied, just as quietly. "I'd really miss you, too." She reached out with her free arm, and doused the candle by the bedside. "Get some rest." Xena added, and gazed thoughtfully at the bard, who showed no signs of moving an inch. The warrior grinned resignedly, then firmly closed her eyes.

It was still dark out when Gabrielle was woken by a soft pat on the back. She blinked sleepily, then looked up to where she could just make out the glint of Xena's pale eyes in the low candlelight. "Oh..sorry." she mumbled, realizing she'd fallen asleep on her companion's shoulder. "You shouldn't have let me do that, Xena. It couldn't have been comfortable " She looked up at the window. "How long did I.."

Xena chuckled. "It's almost dawn." She gave the bard's dismayed expression an amused look, and shrugged. "I slept just fine. Don't worry about it." she yawned slightly. "I'm going to go wash up before I have to put all that armor on."

Gabrielle watched her pad silently into the bathing room before she sat up and stretched. Hmm. Not as sore as she had been expecting, given all that blasted riding yesterday. Maybe she was getting used to it. In fact, she felt amazingly good, considering..incredible what a good night's sleep...her thoughts paused. A good night's sleep without nightmares, she realized with a start. Huh. that hasn't happened in a while. Not really surprising, she mocked herself. Hard to have your worst nightmare when you fall asleep with the subject's very alive heartbeat pounding in one ear, huh. Too bad I couldn't do that all the time she muffled a sigh as she tugged her boots on, and selected a piece of fruit to munch on as she walked to the balcony to peer out at the darkness.

"See anything?" Xena voice drifted out towards her, and she turned to see the warrior emerge into the room carrying her leathers and wringing excess water out of her dark hair. Gabrielle grinned at the sight.

"Nope." She commented, biting into the crisp fruit. "That was quick." she added, stepping back inside the room.

"Very cold water." Xena drawled, wryly, as she slid into the leathers, and fastened the shoulder straps. "Now I'm really awake." she commented, walking over to where she'd left her carefully arranged armor, and lifting the shoulder and breastplate sections over her head.

"Here, let me get that." Gabrielle put down the piece of fruit and reached for a strap. She snugged the buckle tight, glancing at Xena's face for an indication of correct fit. Xena nodded, busy with her right vambrace, which was always a nuisance. Gabrielle finished the other shoulder strap, then took over lacing the stubborn bracer, with a faint grin. "This stuff is worse than an Athenian puzzle box, sometimes."

"Sometimes." Xena grinned, and stood patiently as the bard finished lacing. Then she strapped on the extra upper leg and upper arm plates, slapping the shoulder protection into place with practiced ease. Extra daggers, the chakram, and finally her sword, fastened securely at her back. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet once or twice, settling all the pieces. "OK." She took a deep breath. "Let's go." She riffled her fingers through her dark hair, and freed it from it's entrapment under her armor, then moved towards the door, as a soft knock came from the other side.

Jessan opened the door to Xena's room, as he heard the warrior's voice call out to enter. The scant candlelight in the room reflected off the armor plating she was wearing as she crossed towards him. He moved back into the hallway to let her pass, and grinned a hello at Gabrielle who was following.

"They're still about two hours out" He commented to Xena, who nodded. "Looks like they'll try a full out frontal assault - we're not going to be able to hold the walls. We need to meet them in front, if we've any chance."

Jessan's calm analysis matched Xena's own, so again she merely nodded. Hectator's troops were, at least, all mounted, and fairly experienced soldiers. She could have worse to work with, and had before. There just weren't enough of them. She matched Jessan's long strides down the hallway towards the courtyard, where she began to make out the orderly activity of battle preparation. Hectator spotted them, and left his men immediately, crossing towards them with a brisk stride.

"My friends." Hectator said, as he drew even with them. "My allies." He nodded shyly at Jessan. "The time as come to go forth." His eyes searched theirs. "It gives me no joy to have you here, preparing to go under arms in a fight that is rightfully not your own."

"Hectator." Xena said, forcefully. "Stop telling me what fights I should, or should not get involved in." She gazed into his eyes. "Look at me, and tell me you don't want me fighting on your side."

Hectator's mouth twitched. That blue gaze saw right through him. "No.' he smiled. "I won't tell you that." he dropped his gaze, then lifted it again, this time pleading with her. "In fact, may I ask a great favor of you?"

Jessan quirked an eyebrow at the human, amused. He had a good idea of what Hectator was about to ask, and wondered if Xena would agree. He certainly agreed. Already, the rising tension around him was making his hair prickle. Little tingles of excitement traveled up and down his arms, and he sniffed the rising dawn wind in eager anticipation.

Xena eyed him warily. "Sure. Ask."

"Since I can't convince you to leave, would you do us a great honor?" Hectator paused, waiting. It was going to be a very ugly day, and he wanted to have at least one bright moment to take into it.

"I don't know" Xena said, raising both eyebrows. "You haven't told me what it is you want!"

"Lead us." the prince asked, simply.

Xena was stunned. She studied his face in silence, as they all waited for her response. Finally, she flicked her gaze to the horizon, then back. "All right." Saw relief in Hectator's eyes, and glee in Jessan's. A grim smile from Gabrielle, but a little nod as well. "Let's get going, then. They won't wait all day." Silently, she glanced up at the stars. Ares, I hope you're watching. This one's payback for keeping your word and giving me my body back. She swore she heard an satisfied chuckle in response.

"We won't be able to hold them for a siege." Xena said, as they headed towards the assembling troops. "We need to form up on the little slope between those two hillock arms." She gestured towards the front of the castle. "If we can funnel them between those escarpments, we can slow their advance." She slowed to a stop beside Argo, who snorted at her. The golden mare wore a woven padded coat under her saddle, along with leg and chest protectors. Xena stroked her neck lightly, and prepared to mount, aware of Hectator and Jessan moving towards their own steeds. Gabrielle stepped up quietly and grasped Argo's bridle to hold her still.

Xena paused, and let her hand rest on Argo's back, while she regarded her companion. Gabrielle returned the look, for once seemingly without words.

The bard cleared her throat finally. "Take care." she said, her voice slightly hoarse, and released Argo's bridle, stepping back out of the way.

"I will" Xena answered, moving away from Argo and opening her arms. "Don't squeeze too tight." She cautioned. "You'll get poked." She clasped the bard to her gently for a moment, and felt Gabrielle's arms tighten convulsively around her, regardless of her armor. She closed her eyes, and let her cheek rest on the top of the bard's head until she felt Gabrielle's grasp relax and only then released her own hold. They both stepped back a pace, gazing at each other, still loosely linked in each other's arms.

Something passed between them. Not in words, perhaps not even in thoughts. Xena smiled a little, then bent forward and gently kissed the bard on the forehead. "Be good." she warned.

Gabrielle nodded a little. "Be careful."

"See you later." Xena drawled, and mounted Argo in one fluid move. "I promise." She grinned, and headed the horse towards the gate.

"You promise." Gabrielle echoed, softly. "I'll remember that." She took a breath, then turned and headed inside the castle, where the castle steward was frantically trying to prepare for the worst. Gabrielle gently took over for him.

Lestan turned away from his oldest friend, despair set in the line of his broad shoulders. "Mika, I can't do that. You know I can't" he turned and spread his good arm out, in supplication. "Yes, I was taken with the woman. Yes, my son is involved. Yes, Hectator is now an ally. Yes, Yes, yes..but risk one drop of the blood of our village, no" He sat down. "How could I call myself a leader, if I lead where my heart takes us, and not in the good interests of our people?"

Mika sat, stroking the soft tan fur on his chin. "And your heart takes you with him, doesn't it?" He smiled in deep understanding. "As does mine." He restlessly stood and paced. "As does mine." Finally he whirled and went to his knees in front of Lestan. "Please." His pale, pale eyes pleaded. "I love your son as if he was my own. I can't...Lestan, I can't let him go alone."

"Mika" Lestan groaned. "I can't do this. I can't command this. I just can't do it. I..." His eyes sparked. "I...can go myself." He looked at Mika, kneeling before him. "I can't command anyone else to go." He whirled and looked at the near dawn sky. "And anyway, it's probably too late."

"Ask them." Mika answered, a glow in his eyes. "Ask them, Lestan - ask the warriors of the people what their choice is. It's only fair." He glanced up as Wennid entered, having heard the last of the conversation. She walked over to Lestan's chair, and circled her arms around his neck, resting her chin on his shoulder. They floated peacefully in their bond for a moment, then she spoke.

"I love you." Her low voice carried to the far corners of the room. "More than life itself." She closed her eyes, and rested her cheek against his. "I would go to the end of the world to keep you from harm. You know that. " She paused. "But this will shatter your heart, my love, if you don't follow it." She whispered in his ear. "I feel it in you. We are what we are. Mika is right. Ask them."

Lestan sat, frozen for what seemed an eternity. Finally, he sucked in a huge breath, and blew it out again. "All I will do, is ask them." He growled. "And take their answer, as my answer as well." He turned and matched looks with his lifebonded. "and, I love you too." He kissed her, then turned and headed towards the door, missing the glance that crossed between Wennid and Mika. They watched his face, as he threw open the door, calling back, "Ask the people to gather in the courtyard."

"No need" Mika murmured, as Lestan turned his head, and looked out the door.

Torchlight scattered wild shadows across the large space, the only sound that of the breeze snapping the battlecoats on 300 mounted, armed, silent warriors. A horse snorted. Deggis appeared, leading Garan towards him, stopping 10 paces away, waiting. Eyes glowing.

Lestan felt tears rise in his eyes, and stop the speech in his throat, as he spread his arm away from his body to allow Mika to slide the battlecoat over his head. His people. Chills started running down his back, and he felt the battle fever rising. Mika buckled the longsword across him, and gave the straps one last tug. He turned and faced him. "You knew."

"Aye." Mika answered, eyes shining. "I surely knew." He fastened the buckles on his own gear, and whistled for his trusty Esten.

That left him on the porch with Wennid, who slid her arms around him. "Bring back that son of ours." She teased him, squeezing hard. "I have a few things to say to him." They kissed, and separated, looking deep into each other's eyes. Lestan felt their bond ignite, filing him with a deep warmth, which he returned in full. "I'll come back." He vowed. Breaking the lifebond was...unthinkable.

"You'd better." She warned, trailing one finger across his cheek. "Or I'll just have to come after you." Beyond understanding, beyond better judgment, beyond death itself. The old saying played itself in her mind. Truer than they had ever known.

"Let's go." Lestan shouted, as he turned to Garan, and vaulted to his back, lifting one arm to his waiting people. A many voiced yell answered him, and they moved out."If we're in time at all."

Dawn broke over a still, silent plain. Xena had placed her troops where she wanted them, and now sat on Argo at the point of the two escarpments with Jessan and Hectator at her side, waiting. The approaching army was swelling across the horizon, and it had become evident that they were not going to stop and negotiate.

Xena raised herself up in Argo's saddle, and gestured towards the waiting troops, who yelled back in response. She cantered Argo to the center of the mounted line, and turned her around, facing the troops and holding up her hands for silence. All eyes were on her.

"This isn't about territory." She shouted, her voice carrying across the plain almost back to the castle. "This isn't about trade, or plunder, or crops." Xena put force into her voice. "This is about your homes, and your families, which are going to be taken if you don't defend them." Their eyes were fastened on her, drinking in what she was saying. "Your families love and depend on you, and nothing..NOTHING in this world is more important than that." She paused. "Do you hear me?"

A yell in response. "This enemy has nothing to fight that with - make it your strength, and they will not defeat you!." Xena could feel the chill start up her spine at the low growl that came back from the soldiers, a growl that built and built and built into a wall of sound that crested over her like an ocean wave. She whirled Argo, as Hectator and Jessan cantered up to join her in the very front line.

"Whatever happens, Xena...it's been my honor to know you." Hectator spoke, keeping his voice low. He reached across his saddle, and extended his hand. Xena shook it without a word.

Jessan swallowed hard, containing his excitement. He could see the advance troops very clearly now, and the rumble of hooves was shaking his very bones. He glanced at Xena, who was settling her bracers and checking Argo's straps. She turned her head and met his gaze, then smiled. He smiled back, in perfect understanding.

She raised up on Argo's back, ready to give the signal to advance, when motion behind them caught her sharp eyes. As she saw what it was, a grin formed on her face, and she laughed. Hectator turned, startled, and saw what she was looking at. "Well, I'll be...."

Jessan also turned, and stared, and stared, in delighted disbelief. His people. hundreds of them., armed and mounted, were adding to the numbers behind them. Lestan threaded Garan forward to join them at the front, giving his son a little nod, and what looked suspiciously like a wink.

"Lestan" Xena said, with a slight laugh.

"I heeded your warning, Xena." The forest leader commented, drawing his sword. "And now, I think we have company."

Xena turned again, and raised her arm for the advance. She gestured, and the anxious Argo forged ahead, leading now nearly 700 mounted fighters towards the advancing troops.

Jessan kept Eris' head even with Argo's tail, watching as Xena set her knees firmly into the saddle rolls, and drew her sword. She had spotted what looked to be the leader of the approaching army, and was headed straight for him. Jessan drew his own sword, and grinned in intense wild pleasure. He tipped his head back, and let out a roar, which was immediately echoed by the following forest dwellers, then, as if in tandem, came the answering, higher pitched yell of the human fighters. Oh..this was going to be glorious.

Xena drove powerfully towards the advance guard, spotting the telltale signs of a stupid battle leader. He was surrounded by heavily armored retainers, and they all held banners. She met the first of the leading soldiers, and swept through, sweeping her sword in tight arcs. A yell bubbled up out of her chest explosively, as she let the battle fever take over, and just went with it. Jessan to her right was cutting soldiers in two with that greatsword, and Hectator had just cut the head off one luckless rider with a single cut.

The guards were too slow - they were no match for her speed, much less her skill. Behind her, she was aware that Hectator's troops were carving a big hole in the advancing army, fighting with a fury which overcame their lesser numbers.

She unseated one of Anseles's personal guards with a well placed kick, then a second fell to her sword. She wove a net around herself they just couldn't penetrate, and when they tried, Jessan was there, sweeping them off their mounts with his great strength alone.

One guard was good - he launched off his saddle, and caught her in the chest, trying to pull her off Argo. She slung him over Argo's sweat drenched shoulders, and off the other side, then slid down to meet him, as he whirled and cut. Her sword just parried it, then she ducked and slashed again, this time catching him across the wrist. He cursed, and slammed his hilt against her chest armor, trying to push her down.

Xena grinned, and pushed back, surprising him. He came back off balance, and she caught him on the chin with the hilt of her sword. He went down again, and this time didn't get back up. She looked up as Ansteles was about to behead a stunned Hectator, too close for effective range of her chakram. Instead, she launched herself at him, catching Ansteles on the downstroke, inches from Hectator's bared neck. She hadn't had time for finesse, just a basic body block, but it worked. They rolled over and separated, and Xena bounded back up and struck the sword from his recovering hands.

Ansteles stared at her, in disbelief, then grabbed a pike from one of his gaping guards, and came up off his knees in a blind fury. Jessan yelled a warning, but the pike met clean air, as Xena launched herself up and into a tight somersault, clearing Anstele's head, and landing behind him. She took the opportunity to kick him in pants, so hard he cracked his head into a tree stump and slumped to the mud.

Then a wave of the fighting rolled over them, and Xena was hard pressed to keep her skin whole, as 100 of the enemy army, in a group, surrounded them. She found herself back to back with Jessan, matching strokes with him as though they'd been fighting together for years. They cleared a circle around themselves, then started in on the now retreating enemy soldiers. They went shoulder to shoulder, then, forcing the troops backwards, Jessan's booming roar and her wild yell unnerving the men to the point that they started running.

Jessan stopped as the enemy soldiers took to their heels, and paused for breath. Beside him, Xena also paused, and took a moment to adjust a slipping bracer. "Not as bad as I thought.' Xena commented, then stiffened, as she spotted a knot of enemy soldiers surrounding what she could just barely make out as one of the forest dwellers. Cursing, she vaulted onto Argo and bolted towards them.

Anstele's soldiers didn't hear her coming.All of their attention was focused on their target, the tall, unmistakable form of Lestan. He was holding them off, just barely with powerful one armed sweeps, his back to a large boulder.Two soldiers teamed up against him, though, and he was losing the ability to keep their swords from his body. Wennid...his mind called out, beloved...

The large soldier finally knocked Lestan's sword from his exhausted fingers, and caught him a blow against the side of his unprotected head. Lestan collapsed, and the solider grinned grimly. and raised his weapon for a final stroke. The blade descended...and fell crashing against the rock face as the soldier was knocked to the ground senseless by a hurtling, yelling, leather clad body nearly as big as his own. Xena rolled, and came up slashing, taking the head off the second soldier in one clean slice. The startled ring of soldiers paused, then gathered their courage and descended on her like a pack of wolves.

This could possibly have been a mistake Xena thought, grimly, as she fought hard to keep her feet in the rush of bodies and moving weapons. She stood over Lestan's unconscious frame, and by force of will alone kept the mob back, cutting and slashing until the flying blood nearly blinded her. She reached down deep, to reserves of strength she seldom had to call upon, reserves which responded more readily than she had anticipated. No two bit mangy half armored scuz petit soldiers are going to take me down., not today. she vowed grimly to herself. Not today. Still they came at her, still, stubbornly, she kept them off, laying down a carpet of bodies all around her, refusing to give ground, refusing to let them inside her guard, until, finally, finally, it was over. The soldiers were dead, or dying, or being scattered by the arrival of reinforcements from Hectator's troops.

Xena leaned back against the boulder, and took a deep breath, trying to calm her pounding heart. She closed her eyes and waited for her body to stop shaking, gripping her sword tightly to keep from dropping it. She glanced down at Lestan, who had come to groggy consciousness, and was gazing at her with bright eyes. She crouched down next to him, and examined a long gash along his bad shoulder. "You'll be ok." she assured him, clapping him on the opposite arm.

Lestan studied her face, memorizing every detail.He had opened his eyes to see her standing over him, solid as a granite outcropping against which the enemy soldiers broke like so many ocean waves. Like he had once stood over Wennid. He didn't even care that she was human, it was so very, very glorious. "Xena." he said, hoarsely, nodding. "by Ares name, I"m glad I didn't challenge you at the fording of the stream." He grinned at her, delight in his eyes. "Looks like my family is sliding ever further into your debt." He gazed into her eyes. "My lifebond also thanks you. Again."

Xena grinned crookedly at him. "Anytime, Lestan. " She glanced around, then back at him. "After all, I couldn't let that bond be broken, now could I?"

They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Lestan smiled, and so did she. "You do understand." he breathed. "At last. One of your people who sees what we see. " He struggled to his knees, then upright with Xena hauling on his good arm. "Maybe there is hope for us after all."

The battle lasted all day, most of the rest of which was Hectator's forces tracking down and eliminating little pockets of resistance. The survivors of Anstele's troops deserted the field after the sun was dropping to the horizon, and only some mopping up was left to be done.

"So." Xena asked the weary Jessan, as they slowly walked through the bloody battlefield. "How did you like it?" She was covered with dirt, blood, and sweat, some of the blood her own, but not much. He had several cuts, a few deep ones, and was also liberally coated with mud and grime.

"Loved every minute of it." Jessan answered, from his heart. "You gotta teach me that one across and back slice you do. It's killer." He grinned at her. "You are just poetry to watch, you know that?" His eyes glowed intently. "I was stuck in a mob of them when you went to save my father, and I gotta tell you, I was so busy watching you decimate that crowd I almost got my leg cut off. " He shivered in excitement. "Never, never have I seen anything so...." he hesitated, l.looking for the right word. "beautiful" Jessan finished, sighing.

Xena burst out laughing. "Jessan, I"m sure only you would describe me that way." She shook her head. "But I'm glad you enjoyed yourself." She patted him on the back. "Your people saved the day, you know."

"No.' Came Jessan's surprising answer. "We would have won anyway." He looked at her, something not human glinting in his golden eyes. "You saved the day."

"Give me a break, Jessan." Xena scoffed, rolling her eyes. "I'm only one person. Remember?" She waved her left arm to indicate the battlefield. "We won because your people tipped the balance in our favor. I just....helped." She hesitated. "and..I had a promise I had to keep."

"Uh huh." Jessan answered. "OK, believe what you want, then, Xena..but when they put a statue of you up in both Hectator's city and my village, maybe you'll see my point of view." He ignored the outraged expression on Xena's face. "yes, and see all the children named after you..."

"Jessan." Xena growled.

"And imagine the story Gabrielle will make out of THIS..." Jessan continued, enjoying himself probably more than was good for him. "yes, I can hear it now..." He stopped as Xena turned slowly to face him, arms crossed, a menacingly chill expression on her face. "uhh...sorry. I'll stop now." he squeaked, backing away from that icy glare.

Xena held the gaze a moment more, then quirked her eyebrow at him. "Nice to see that still works." she commented dryly.

They continued on in companionable silence, and he took the opportunity to slit his eyes shut, and use his Sight to See her with. Quicksilver, as he had first seen her, with hidden, shifting currents. Suddenly, as he Watched, she took on a softer, golden sheen to his Sight. Intrigued, he opened his eyes, and looked at her, wondering what caused the shift, and the corresponding smile on her face. Being an artless cub, the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.

"Xena, what are you thinking about?" He could have clapped his hand over his own mouth, but it was too late. She was turning to look at him, puzzled.

"Why?" Xena asked, wondering what made him ask at just that moment. At just exactly that moment.

"Oh." Jessan recovered. "Just asking." He avoided her stare. "you just had a smile on your face,that's all." Well, she had. "It just looked like you were thinking about something that made you really happy."

Xena looked at him, thoughtfully, then slowly smiled. "That's very true." she allowed., then "can you read minds, Jessan?"

"No." the forest dweller promptly answered. "No, well, my mother can, a little. Well, mine anyway." He made a face. "But the rest of us, no." He swallowed. "We can...sense..the life force in the things around us..whether a person is good, or bad, and if they're close by, we can sense emotion, sometimes." He glanced at her, trying to decipher her expression.

"Is that why you decided to trust us, after we rescued you from the village?" Xena asked unexpectedly, now really curious.

Jessan gave her a little smile. "No. The head injury knocked out my world sense,for most of the time we journeyed. I only got it back the night I told you my parent's story." He glanced at her, noted the interested expression. Oh boy. "No, I had to decide that the old fashioned way."

"How?" Xena pursued, caught up. "What made you decide? You knew who I was." She raised an eyebrow at him, waiting for his answer.

Shall I tell her? I wonder if she realizes what her eyes show, to me at least. Probably not. Humans are..so unaware. Jessan mused thoughtfully, before raising his eyes and meeting hers.

"The first night." He enjoyed the surprised look on her face. "When Gabrielle had nightmares, and you got her out of them." Now her blue eyes were guardedly astonished. "The look on your face. I knew..anyone...who had that much love in them...wouldn't hurt me."

He had gotten to her, saw the reaction to his words. Maybe too much. Time to back off. "I'm sorry." He put a conciliatory hand on her arm. "Have I made you angry?"

Xena walked on in silence for several paces, then let out a low laugh. "No." She glanced sideways at him. "I'm not angry." A few more paces. "You're very perceptive." A reluctant smile was crossing her lips.

"It's a gift of my people." He answered, glancing at his blood stained boots.

Xena snorted. "Your people have a lot of interesting gifts." She peered at him out of the corner of her eyes.

Jessan chewed on his lip for a moment. "Yes, we do." he paused., and took a resolute breath. "You know, Xena, there's something that I...can see..between you and Gabrielle."

"I know." Xena answered, turning her head fully and looking at him with a grim smile.

"Oh." Jessan answered. "You do?" Why am I ever surprised at this woman? This human?

"Yeah." Xena sighed, her expression resigned but peaceful. "But it's not in her best interests, so I try not to dwell on it.

Jessan started. "What? Wait..Xena..you don't understand."

The warrior looked at him. "Yes, I do." she glanced off into the distance. "But we''re not your people, Jess. We have a choice." Now she turned a looked him in the face, and the weight off all her years and the times of her life was in her eyes. "And I choose not to allow her into a future that only offers darkness, and danger and.." She lifted her arm and gestured around them, "this."

"She could change that" Jessan said, gathering his courage.

Xena shook her head. "No." She gave him a half smile. "I can pretend otherwise, but this is what I am." She patted his arm. "Besides, she's a great bard. I need to get her someplace where she can let that gift grow. Not out wandering the countryside."

Ah Xena. Jessan mused quietly to himself.You only think you're in control of this. My parents thought so, too. For a while. "Whatever you say, Xena." He responded, lightly.

She fell silent, and regarded the looming doors to Hectator's stronghold. She was spotted by several men at arms, and cries of her name began to ring out across the open courtyard. She glared at Jessan, who just shrugged sheepishly.

Two pages ran up, offering to take their horses. Xena knelt down so that she was eye to eye with one. "Do you know how to take care of battle injuries in horses?" she asked solemnly. He looked round eyed at her, then showed her his pouch, which contained wrap bandages and cleanser. "Good' she said, then handed him Argo's reins. "Take good care of her." She tousled his hair,and received a look of utter worship in return. He and his partner led off the two weary animals, leaving their riders to cross the castle forecourt and climb the stairs to the main doorway.

The courtyard was full of battle debris, and walking injured, along with their whole companions. Xena could feel their eyes on her as she crossed the stones, and she made an effort to make eye contact with as many of them as she could before starting the long climb up to the door. So. This is what Hercules must feel like all the time. She mockingly told herself. Funny. If I'd have been at the head of Anstele's army, I doubt they'd be so enamored. I could have taken this city, forest people or no forest people. I wonder if they realize that. I wonder if they care. Don't they realize they need to worship heroes who bring life, not a gods cursed, darkness steeped war-horse like me, whose greatest skill is killing people?

A dark form crossed her path. "Alaran." Xena said, stopping to peer down into his face. He had gotten some minor injuries, but was essentially in one piece. "I"m glad you made it out of there." She smiled at him wearily.

"Xena." The grizzled solider breathed. "You know, I had forgotten just what it was like to fight under you. " He reached out a hand and touched her battered armor. "You made me forget the odds again, Xena. You said we were unstoppable, and we were. I'd forgotten you could do that." He laughed a little. "They didn't have a chance. You haven't lost a step, you know that? In fact, I think you've gotten better. How did you manage that?"

Xena sighed in resignation. Then she got a mischievous look, and whispered something in Alan's ear that made him choke in laughter. "But don't spread that around." She cautioned, and gave him a quick embrace. She chuckled a little as she and Jessan continued up the broad stairs towards the lighted doorway above.

Gabrielle had started off watching the battle from the upper turret, but stopped after she spotted Xena diving off Argo and going into hand to hand fighting. She had been glad to see the forest people, but realized that Hectator's forces were still outnumbered. She spent the time organizing the healers and the people running supplies,and tried to ignore the sounds from the outside.

After the wounded and the dying started coming in, she hadn't had time to think about much except for trying to save as many of the soldiers as they could, and she spent her excess energy on making sure all the resupply was going on as scheduled. The battle leaders had been the first ones to go out, they would be the last to come in, she knew, and that was how Xena operated anyway. She knew Xena was alive - that much had filtered in from the battlefield, that all the battle leaders had survived, though Lestan was in here getting his shoulder bandaged up, and Hectator was supposed to have a pretty bad knock to the head. Knowing didn't help the huge knot in her gut, though. She wanted the evidence of her own eyes.

They had won, most of Anstele's army was scattered or destroyed, and they had a relatively low level of loss themselves, so Gabrielle guessed that it was a success, so far as that went. As she assisted the injured, she started hearing stories of the forest people, of Hectator, of Jessan, but especially of Xena, and what they'd done in a fight that none of these men had expected to survive. She had won some staunch friends in this group of soldiers, and they were telling some pretty unbelievable stories. Curious, Gabrielle went in search of Lestan, finally finding him surrounded by mostly forest people, along with two human battle surgeons.

"Gabrielle!" Lestan shouted, as she came into view. "Oh boy, are you going to have stories to tell about this battle." He chortled, ignoring the surgeons attempt to stitch up his wounded shoulder. "And I'm an eyewitness to one of the best ones."

"So I've been hearing' Gabrielle grinned, settling herself on the stool next to the pallet he was lying on. "But each time I hear it, the number of enemy soldiers keeps getting larger." She glanced at some of the surrounding forest people. "It was, oh, around 200 or so the last time I listened. So...what 's the real story?"

Lestan settled back with a smug look. "I don't know, exactly." he admitted. "I was facing a ring of enemy soldiers, and got my sword knocked out of my hand, then took a flat blow to the side of my head. I went out like that." he snapped his fingers. "I figured that was the end of that." He took a sip of the water one of the other surgeons was urging on him. "Thank you. Anyway, next thing I know, all I can hear is yelling and swords clashing, but none of them are touching me. I look up, and there's Xena, holding off..oh..what seemed like..I don't know. Hundreds of them, for hours. I have never." He shook his head. "never seen anything like it. " His eyes showed amazement. "There were so many of them, and gods, they tried, but she just wouldn't let them get close. It was incredible."

"It was idiotic." A low, wearily amused voice corrected him. Eyes turned towards the doorway, where Xena was leaning, arms crossed, watching them.

Gabrielle felt the tight pressure she'd had in her chest since that morning evaporate, making her almost lightheaded with relief. Covered in blood and dirt, but whole, with blue eyes smiling into her green ones. "As promised." Xena commented, with a twinkle. "Though I think I carried half the battlefield back here on me." She grimaced ruefully, glancing down at the mud and grime, then looked up at Gabrielle and shrugged.

The bard laughed. "I wouldn't care if you came back covered with black ooze from the River Styx." she said, as she walked over and gave Xena a hug, armor, dirt, blood and all . "But it would probably ruin your armor." She tugged on the armor in question. "Come on. Let's get you out of this before you rust in that spot."

Xena followed peacefully into a little alcove, where she sat down on a crate and started to undo the armor straps. She looked up as Gabrielle came back in from a storage room off the alcove, hands full of cloth. Xena lifted off her shoulder armor, and heard Gabrielle's quick intake of breath. "Wow." the bard breathed, getting a closer look at the gash on the side of the warrior's neck. "That was pretty close."

'Yeah." Xena winced, flexing her arm on that side. "Didn't have a choice - Ansteles was about to take Hectator's head off. The only thing close enough to stop him was me." She busied herself removing her vambraces. "That stroke was headed for the back of his head - it just nicked me when I crashed into him."

"Let me get some cleaner." Gabrielle answered, in a quiet voice. She left the room, and Xena started working on removing her leg armor. Gingerly, she eased the left one free, exposing the bruising she expected from deflecting that guard who tried to pull her off Argo. Not too bad, actually. She looked up as Gabrielle returned, carrying a set of bandages and some herbal cleaner.

Xena sat quietly, eyes shut, as the bard cleaned the long gash, and put in a few stitches to keep it closed. "Thanks." she sighed when Gabrielle was finished. "That feels better already." She smiled at her companion. "You have good hands."

Gabrielle flushed slightly, and glanced at the ground, then lifted her eyes back to meet Xena's. "Tired hands." she admitted, clearing her throat a bit. "So many..." her gaze drifted back into the large open room, and she shook her head. "We lost a lot..there was just too much damage...I.." she paused, and lifted a shaking hand to her temple, then sighed, and took a deep breath. "A few slipped away while I was...Anyway, .I was just glad that...I didn't know any of them." She raised her head, and glanced at Xena's still, quiet face. Quite without her conscious permission, her hand reached out and she laid her palm against Xena's blood stained cheek.

Xena later told herself she had just been too tired to move when Gabrielle reached out to her, too tired to pull back away from that gentle touch, too tired to keep her eyes from gazing into the bard's misty green ones for what seemed like far too long a moment, seeing far too much reflected back to her. Finally, she blinked, and Gabrielle moved her hand down towards the long gash she had so recently dressed, fussing a bit with the bandage.

"Any more of these?" The bard asked softly.

Xena tilted her head thoughtfully. "No.." She winced slightly. "Mostly bruises everywhere else. A few scratches, the usual." Her tone was light. "Less than I expected, to tell you the truth." she grinned. "I haven't had to do that in a long time. Thought maybe I was getting a little soft."

Gabrielle chuckled. "You?" She poked one of Xena's muscular shoulders. "Yeah, right." Her face had relaxed, as she fell into a bit of their usual banter. "You'd better get those leathers off, though, before they stiffen."

"Uh huh." Xena surveyed her blood and grime covered body with a grim chuckle. "I'm going up and wash all this off." She glanced up at Gabrielle, who had leaned back against the counter nearby. "You..." she narrowed her eyes at the bard. "Are going to get something to eat, and sit down for while. You're white as a sheet.." The bard rolled her eyes. "Don't make me pick you up and put you in a chair." she added, with a mock glower.

Gabrielle smothered a grin. "Ok..Ok..." She gestured towards the broad stairs leading up. "I'll compromise. I'll get some food, and bring it upstairs so we can both eat." She returned Xena's mock glower. "Go on, tell me you don't need it."

Xena just smirked, and padded out in silence. Gabrielle remained in place for a moment, thoughtfully examining her laced boots, then shrugged, and twitched her shoulders as she picked up a trencher on her way out the door. Boy, I must be way overtired to have done *that*. she mused. And all I did was help out here. Imagine how Xena must feel. She's been fighting since dawn, and it's after dusk. Soft, huh? Gabrielle laughed to herself. She saw the eyes of most of the soldiers, humans and forest people alike follow Xena out the door, recognized the stark adoration reflected in their faces. She enchants people so effortlessly, the bard mused, as she slipped past the still working surgeons. I should know. she admitted privately. And she has no idea she's doing it. These men would follow her to Tartarus now..they don't even mind that she's a woman. They just fall in love with her. Truth. On more levels than she was willing to think about.

Water. Xena mused, as she doused herself from head to foot to remove all the blood and dirt from her body. Not a bad arrangement, either, did Hectator have here. There were large stone conduits running through the center of the building, which channeled water that could be heated for bathing or drunk when thirsty. Xena forbore the tedium of heating, and had hers ice cold. Not that she didn't like hot baths she chuckled to herself. But clean was clean, and if it took ice cold water to achieve, so be it.

She finished scrubbing off all the dried blood, and took a final rinse before shaking herself partially dry, using a piece of soft linen to finish the job. The relatively warm air of the room felt nice against her chilled skin, and she paused for a moment to study her reflection in the room's mirror. The result was a self depreciating snort. Ok. So Gabrielle has a point. she mocked her reflection. not much softness here. No wonder you scare people when you walk into a room. Xena shook her head in wry amusement, and pulled a soft linen shirt over her head, the tails of which fell to her knees. Then she sat down cross legged on a small carpet near the room's fire, and started the involved process of cleaning her armor. Most people would have left that for the morning, she realized. Guess that's why I'm not most people.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle said, in a tone oozing with sarcasm as she pushed the door open a short time later, and stepped into the room. "I can't believe you're cleaning armor....no, scratch that. I can believe it. I can't believe I'm actually surprised that I can't believe it." She stopped and reviewed her last sentence. "I think I got too many negatives in there somewhere." she finished, and crossed the room to where Xena was sitting, now with her chin on one hand, watching her companion with an entirely too amused grin.

"Hello to you too, Gabrielle" The warrior drawled. "Your turn to get the blood off you." She nodded at the bard's crimson stained clothing. "Hope you like cold water." she added, with a sly twinkle.

Gabrielle groaned. "You're lucky I'm too tired to care." she sighed, and deposited the trencher loaded with food at Xena's side. "Here. start on this while I clean up." She moved off towards the bathing area, with a stifled yawn.

Xena picked up another piece of armor with one hand, and a chunk of cheese with her other. She balanced the piece on her knee while chewing, using the linen scrap to clean the last of the grime off the dully gleaming metal. She had finished both cheese and armor bit before Gabrielle returned.

"Brr." the bard chattered, hugging her clean shirt around her. "How do you stand that?" she asked, plaintively, as she crossed the room and collapsed on the rug next to Xena.

"Here" Xena answered, passing over a cup. "That should help." She watched as Gabrielle sniffed at the contents, then grinned and sipped, warming her hands on the outside of the cup. "Better?"

Gabrielle took a moment to breathe in the warm steam rising from the herbal tea. "Yeah. Thanks." She leaned back against the hearth. "So." she eyed Xena. "Tell me about the 200 enemy soldiers you defeated." She asked, with a grin, as she took a big bite of bread.

"Oh, don't you start." Xena groaned, rolling her eyes. "Please. I had Jessan giving me that all the way back to the stronghold." She put down the last bit of armor, and captured another piece of cheese. "What was I supposed to do, let Lestan be chopped into a dozen pieces?" She leaned her head back against the hearth, and looked at Gabrielle. " I wasn't trying to give you story fodder. Really."

Gabrielle laughed. "I"m sorry I didn't get to see it first hand." She liberated a grape, and popped it into her mouth. "On second thought, if there really were 200 of them, I think I"m glad I didn't see. it. I would have been scared half to death."

Xena just looked at her, a very tired grin tugging at her mouth. The end of a very long day was finally catching up with her. "Uh huh." she muttered, then closed her eyes and laid her head back against the hearthstone. "OK, Gabrielle. If you want there to have been 200, there were 200 of them. " She rolled her head to one side, and reluctantly opened an eye to gage the response. "Right now, it feels like there were 200 of them. At least." she admitted.

"Come on." the bard replied, dropping her bantering tone, and laying a hand on Xena's arm. "Time to go to bed. " she started to stand. "If I can get up that is."

Xena gave her a lazy grin, then collected what energy she had left in reserve, and smoothly stood up, carrying the bard, still hanging on her arm, up with her. "No problem." she drawled, earning a disgusted look from Gabrielle. "You said you wanted to get up." The warrior yawned and headed towards the bed, wincing a bit at the now stiffened bruising. She laid down carefully, avoiding jarring her neck, and watched idly as Gabrielle fussed with the fire, then joined her, curling up on her side facing Xena.

They looked at each other for a moment, then Xena tilted her head to make direct eye contact wit the bard. "You OK?" she asked, gently, watching the minute reactions of the well known face next to her.

Gabrielle nodded mutely. Sure, I"m fine, now. Now that my worst nightmare is over, and I can wake up again, and have it not be real. But I can't say that, can I? How can I tell you what it's like to watch you die in my dreams every night, without having you take that guilt, too, on your shoulders? "Yeah, I"m fine." she whispered, finally. "now." That last word slipped out unintended, went to far, she knew, told too much. A hand reached out, and smoothed the hair from her eyes, a touch that almost, almost undid her resolution to tough it out. Gabrielle kept her eyes closed, knowing that opening them would mean eye contact, would mean she'd break down and cry like child in simple relief. And that, she gritted her teeth and swore, she was not going to do, not going to burden Xena with after a day like today.

Xena banished her fatigue temporarily as she studied the bard's face, seeing the tension, the emotion written there, no matter how hard the woman tried to still herself. She's really good at getting me to open up, yeah...and I"m so really bad at getting her to. Ok..let's try plan A.

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice was low, and compelling. The bard felt it rumble down her eardrums, touching a chord in her that no other voice did. Damn. A hand now on her chin, feeling those blue eyes focusing on her, even through closed eyelids. Damn. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes, and met Xena's steady gaze, and felt the tears begin to well up.

"I"m sorry, I'm just really tired." Gabrielle mumbled, passing her hand over her eyes. "It's been a really long day." She took a deep breath, and released it, and felt no relief from the suffocating pressure on her chest. Damn. Grow up, Gabrielle. She just killed I don't know how many people, is injured, is tired, and doesn't need to deal with your hysterics. "I'll be fine. Really."

"Gabrielle?" Xena said, Gently, gently... "look at me for a minute." Ok..ok..plan B, then.

The bard sighed, and glanced up, blinking a little. "Yeah?" She managed to whisper, hoping she could hold it together for just a few minutes more.

"Thank you for caring." Xena said, simply. "It means a lot to me."

Caught between a breath and a heartbeat, Gabrielle just froze for a long moment, then closed her eyes, and felt tears slide down her face. Fingers brushed the tears away, and she somehow found herself being cradled in a hug that she wasn't sure how she got into, but knew, with a sudden blinding clarity, that she never wanted to get out of.

I shouldn't do this. her mind scolded. I should pull myself together, and just make her go to sleep after the day we had. I should...but gods..it feels so wonderful to just let it out..and I can't help it..I need this..A very long moment later, after the tears had finally stopped coming and Xena released her, settling her back on the bed but keeping a protective arm curled over her shoulders, she reopened her eyes, reluctantly.

"Xena, I'm sorry.." Gabrielle sighed, wiping her eyes in quick irritation. "I didn't mean to do that. I don't know what came over me." She rubbed her temples with one hand, willing away the ache from crying. "Like you needed to deal with that. " The bard shook her head in disgust.

Xena remained silent, but shifted one hand to the bard's neck, and started working out the tenseness she found there. After a few minutes, she felt Gabrielle's muscles loosen, as the bard let her head drop forward against the bed. "Better?" the warrior commented, keeping her voice light.

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, in a muffled tone. "Thanks."

"Anytime." Xena said, drawing the word out. "We ex warlords have to be good for something, right?" She got the expected snorting chuckle from the bard, and grinned in response as Gabrielle glanced up at her from beneath damp eyelashes. "Don't judge yourself by me, Gabrielle." Xena said, softly. "After a day like today, that was a normal response from any sane person."

The bard mulled this over. "Hm. I guess." she finally admitted, settling her head down on one arm. "I just feel so...useless..sometimes." She shrugged slightly.

"Gabrielle..." It's too late, and I'm far too tired for this...I know I'm going to say something awkward... "You're not useless..not to me." She hesitated, then bowed to an overtired mind and continued. "You're a very important part of my life. I don't know what I'd do without you." Did I just say that??? I must have...it sure sounded like my voice..question is..did I mean it? Damn..I think I did.

"Really?" A tenuous whisper from Gabrielle, a sudden stillness to her body that Xena could feel under her casually draped arm.

"Really." came the reply.

"Good." the bard sighed. "Because you mean more to me than anything else in the world, and the thought of losing you again scares me to death." There. She got it out all in one breath, almost like she had rehearsed, several thousand times.

Gabrielle reached up and laid her hand on Xena's arm and continued, before she could think about stopping. "Did you know last night was the first night in months I haven't had that same old dream...I think my brain was so overloaded by what was going to happen in the morning, it just blanked out. "

Xena battled with several conflicting emotions. Unexpected warmth at the bard's confession, anger at herself for provoking it, regret for causing the woman nightly terror. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle." she sighed.

Gabrielle took a breath. "I'm not." came the surprising answer. She answered Xena's puzzled look with a gentle smile. "Some people go through their whole lives and never get to feel anything at all, Xena." Absently, her thumb rubbed against the small fine hairs on Xena's arm. "They never get to experience the kinds of anger, fear, despair, joy, or love that I have.." her eyes flickered to meet Xena's at the last. "That's pretty useful for a storyteller, don't you think?" She saw an answering smile in those blue eyes. "It makes it all real..and you have to have that in order to be able to make other people believe it."

Xena chuckled. "You never cease to amaze, oh bard of mine." She ruffled Gabrielle's hair and received a tired grin in response. "Time to get some rest" She reached out an extinguished the candle, leaving only the fireplace light in the huge room, then let her eyes drift shut. As always, her other senses intensified to compensate for the lack of vision. She could hear the small sounds outside in the courtyard, subtle thumps and rattles inside the stronghold, the sounds of horses in their distant stable, and the ugly sound of scavengers out in the battlefield. Beside her, Gabrielle stirred, and Xena felt the faint shiver from the cool breeze playing about the room shake the bard. "You cold?" she asked

Too long a pause. "No." Gabrielle answered at last. "I'm fine."

Xena glanced at the unseen ceiling, and smiled, then shook her dark head. She leaned close to the bard's ear. "You're lying." she whispered, trying to keep a chuckle from tainting her voice.

"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed. "But I"m way too tired to get up and get a blanket. I"ll survive." She yawned, and curled up into a tighter ball. "I don't seem to have some sort of mystical internal heat source like certain Warrior Princesses do."

'Very subtle, Gabrielle." Xena commented wryly. She flexed the arm already around the bard's shoulders, and pulled her closer in fairly impressive display of strength, given the circumstances. "I've been called many things, but this is a first for being a hot water bottle." She directed an invisible though no less affectionate glance at the bard.

"Mmm." Gabrielle mumbled, relaxing into sleep at last, curled up against Xena's warmth. I think I'm losing control of something here...she laughed softly to herself. but I'm not sure I care.

Continue to Part 4

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