Winter's Ending - Part 4

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Granella pulled her cloak up around her ears, and glared at the slate gray sky, shaking her head to scatter the heavy rain droplets from the hair plastered to her head. "Getting dark." She sighed, feeling a dull ache in her gut begin to grow. They'd found no sign of the teaching party, and the scouts with her had grown very quiet and pensive.

They were exhausted, she realized, and had to stop for a while just to recharge, lest they miss some small sign, so she'd called a halt under a bare rock outcropping which afforded them at least a little shelter.

Granella let her head rest against the cold rock, considering her options. Earlier that day, they'd found the barest remnants of a rude overnight shelter, and she'd realized the small group had gotten caught out in the ice storm of a few nights previous. She knew they could keep looking all night, but she was tired, and she was so scared they might overlook something. "All right." She finally said quietly. Five sets of eyes turned to her. "There's a glade overlooking the river not far from here. We use that as a camp sometimes... let's look there, then we'll quit for the night and shelter in."

It was a surrender, and she knew it. They knew it, and shoulders slumped as they silently gathered their gear up, and prepared to move out. It was a very quiet journey to the camping place, the only sounds the rustle of leaves underfoot, and the incessant patter of cold rain on the forest canopy. Granella padded along in the lead, with Gelas next to her, and the rest strung out single file, eyes devouring the surrounding areas looking for signs.

"So.. what's the plan?" Gelas said, breaking the silence in a low tone.

"You guys will go on searching." Granella muttered, pausing and peering closely at a piece of bark. She reached out and plucked a long strand from it, holding it up to the meager light. "Horse." They all clustered around and examined it. "There aren't any wild around here... and this isn't exactly a well traveled area." A chill ran through them. "We're just at the edge of our range..." She went off the path, and deeper into the brush, kneeling beside a slate outcropping where she brushed her fingers over the rock and touched a fresh nick in it. "Shod horse."

Gelas knelt beside her, and sniffed. "Wonder who had the guts to be wandering around in this weather in our territory."

Granella looked up at the lowering sky and felt her guts tighten in anger. "Maybe they ran into Ephiny and the kids."

"Come on." Granella said, standing and heading back towards the path. They found the glade easily, and dropped down into it, stopping short and freezing as soon as their eyes focused on the contents.

"Twisted tail of a Centaur." Gelas cursed softly, as she moved cautiously into the cleared area. There was a positive remnant of a campfire there, hastily put out, and other indications of rapid flight from the area. "Gran, look." She pointed, and they all focused on the rain-darkened fabric spread over a nearby branch.

Granella took a deep breath, and approached the item, circling around it before reaching out a tentative hand and touching the fabric. "Arneta, come here." She quietly said, waiting for the grizzled scout to come close and peer over her shoulder. "Help me spread this out."

They spread the woolen shirt open, and stared at it. "Big." Arneta grunted, examining the shoulders. She held the shirt up and measured it against her body. "Gods." An unpleasant picture started to form in Granella's mind, of a shadowy dark figure, on horseback, finding Ephiny and the girls.. Her heart started to pound. Ephiny was a more than competent warrior, she'd faced her on the practice grounds more than enough times to know that.. but the person who wore this shirt would top her by a hand and more, and outweighed the Queen by a considerable amount.

"Spread out." She ordered quietly. "Let's search this glade." All tiredness now gone, as adrenaline replaced the sodden despair, and the group started to search with a grim intentness.

"Gran." Gelas called, in a low urgent voice, as she knelt by the drowned fire. She held up something, and Granella felt her heart sink. She walked forward and took the cloak clasp, turning it over in her fingers. Ephiny's.

"Oh gods." Arneta said softly, from behind her.

"All right." Granella said, grimly. "Let's just stay calm, and keep looking. They aren't here, but they were, and they had to go somewhere because there's no blood, and no bodies."

They spread out, searching intently, and slowly found indications that the party had, before they left, been intact. They had left hastily, though the fire had been secured.

Gelas went to the edge of the clearing and knelt, where a patch of ground had been protected by a thick overlay of leaves, and she brushed them aside gently to reveal the bare ground. "Granella." She called sharply, and waited for the slim dark haired Amazon to come to her side. "Here's our horse again." Her fingers traced the marks. "And here's our friend." Boot prints in the mud, showing a long but narrow foot and braced a good space apart from each other.

Both looked down the path. "They're headed downrange." Granella said quietly. "Towards the river basin.. good.. " She gave Gelas a grim look. "Let's get going."

Darkness had fallen by the time they reached the pass, after which it was all downrange towards the flood plain. They passed through the densely wet foliage without a sound, cold, angry eyes scouring the surroundings for the faintest trace of their missing friends. Suddenly, Gelas stopped, and held up one large hand. "Wait." The tall ginger haired woman tilted her head. "Horse."

A thrill ran through them. "Either side of the path, three and three." Granella snapped. "I don't care who it is, we stop them."

Silence then fell, as the sodden muffled sound of hoofbeats continued towards them. They crouched down in the twilight, shivering a little in the damp cold, and waited.

The path was wreathed in mist and shadowy darkness and slowly, steadily, a form started emerging. The horse was chestnut, barely discernable in the gloom. "Blond mane" Arneta breathed in Granella's ear. "And look at that rider.. would fit that shirt."

Granella nodded, shivers of excitement warming her body. "Get ready.. weapons out." She muttered, feeling her whole body tense.

Swords loosed from sheaths, and she heard the sensuous whine as Lena cocked her crossbow. The rider was almost even with them, and Granella could see the tall form crouched in the saddle, saw them lean forward and pat the horse's neck, and murmur something to the fretting animal. "Male." Lena's bare whisper.

"Now." Granella said, and hurled herself onto the path.

The chestnut reared, as the six Amazons surrounded him, swords pointed inward. "Hold!"

The tall, dark figure on the horses back pulled his mount to halt, and slowly, carefully spread his hands outward, showing his lack of weapons.

"Get down." Granella ordered, moving a step closer, and shifting her sword to the side. "Move!!"

The man freed his foot from his right stirrup, and swung his leg over the horse's neck, then slid down and landed on the muddy earth. "All right." He said, his voice low and steady. "I'm not your enemy."

Granella straightened up, the familiarity of his voice tickling her memory. She stared at him, trying to make out his features under the hood of his cloak.

One long arm slowly, cautiously moved up and swept his hood off, exposing his face in the dim twilight.

Granella dropped her sword, and closed her eyes. "Toris." She shook her head. "It's all right. Stand down. I know him." She walked forward and sheathed her sword, waiting for the rest of them to cluster near. "What are you doing here?"

Toris ran his hand through his dark hair. "Looking for someone named Solari or Eponin." He held up his hand, and showed her the signet. "Official business, I guess."

"Granella, who is this?" Arneta asked, scowling at him.

The slim Amazon sighed. "This is Toris. He's Xena's brother." She looked up at him. "Toris, we're looking for some friends of ours that went missing. We think ...they might have gotten into some trouble."

The tall man smiled. "Well, I guess I can tell you, then.. if it's Ephiny you're looking for.. " He glanced around, seeing the brightening faces. "And I guess it is, then she and the others are safe in Amphipolis."

A chorus of voices surrounded him. "Where.. why?" "What did they.. how.." "What happened?" This last from Lena, who fixed Toris with an intent stare.

"Look." Toris said, glancing up. "Is there someplace we can get shelter? I'd be glad to tell you the whole story, but I'm freezing."

They found a small thicket of trees, which afforded some protection from the rain, and built a quick branch shelter, enough to afford them space for a small, cranky fire.

"Better." Toris said, rubbing his hands. He looked around the circle of faces, all of them intent on him. "Ok.. where do I start..." His face went still for a minute. "First of all, I have to tell you something.. " He hesitated, seeing the tension race around the circle. "All of them are safe, but not exactly sound."

"Artemis." Granella breathed from right next to him. She put a hand on his arm. "Did they get attacked, Toris? What happened?"

He sighed. "No.. it was.. well, let me just tell it. We got word, night before last that a rider was inbound.. on Argo, but it wasn't my sister. " He glanced down. "I don't need to tell you how nervous that made us all."

Murmurs ran around the fire, and Granella passed him a cup of hot mulled wine that she'd been fixing. "Here."

"Thanks." He took a sip. "So Argo comes in, and she's got our Cait up, with Ephiny." He glanced at Granella. "She'd fallen through the ice into that river not far from here, apparently."

"Eph had?" Granella blinked. "Damn... was she.. "

Toris shook his head. "I won't go into details, because I wasn't there, but apparently my sister was nearby, and heard her yell. She got her out of the water, but it seems Ephiny had been sick before she fell in and.. well, she wasn't in good shape when she got to our place."

Silence, then Lena sighed explosively. "Hades." She paused. "Is she ok now? You have a healer there?"

Toris smiled. "Well, no.. we didn't at the time, but you may or may not know that Xena's a pretty fair healer herself, and when she got back with the rest of your party, she pretty much knew what to do. We.. that is, Gabrielle and I, went out with horses and met them to speed things up a bit."

Granella nodded. "Well, that's not good news, but it's far from the worst I've heard." She broke off some trail rations and offered it to Toris. "Hungry?"

The tall man smiled. "Uhm... actually.. " He rummaged in the bag he'd unslung from his horse and pulled out a fair sized package. "Maybe I can share with you." He opened the package, and handed out the meat pastries inside. "My mother made them." He took one, and munched contentedly, watching the surprised, then pleased expressions around him as they sampled the offerings. "Xena asked me to pass the word up to you all.. she knew you'd be worried."

"Xena did?" Arneta asked, in a cool tone. "Why not our Queen?"

Toris raised an eyebrow at her in an expression weirdly familiar. "Because Gabrielle would have insisted on coming herself... and one of your Queens in danger at a time was enough for her." The same blunt statement Xena had given him when she'd asked him to go.. and he knew she was right, because Gabrielle was just like that.

Granella laughed softly. "She's right." She gave the circle a wry look. "Remember who ran down to the Centaur Village alone." Her expression sobered. "How is Ephiny?"

Toris studied his hands, then looked up at her. "Xena says.. she'll probably be all right." He took a breath and released it. "She got water in her lungs, and she's pretty sick right now, but my sister says she's strong, and she thinks we got to her in time."

"She thinks.. probably.. " Arneta leaned forward. "Then she doesn't really know."

Startling blue eyes focused on hers. "No.. she doesn't. She thinks, she hopes.. she's doing whatever she can... my sister doesn't pull her punches." A pause. "Any of them. " His voice took on a tinge of anger. "She had to break through a foot of ice to get to your Regent, and risked her own health pulling her out and getting her to safety.. so what's your problem?"

"Toris." Granella put a hand on his arm. "Please.. there's no criticism intended.. we're all just really tired. We've been searching nonstop since yesterday." Then she smiled a little. "Your sister has quite a defender, I see."

Toris gave her a level stare. "Both of my sisters do." He stated in a milder voice, taking a sip of the wine. "So don't you start on Gabrielle either."

Granella outright grinned. "All right.. point taken." She leaned back. "Ok.. we'll send one of us back to the village with the news.. Solari and Eponin must be about chewing their arms off by now." She considered. "Then the rest of us can just head on down to Amphipolis.. if that's all right by you, Toris."

The man nodded. "Sure.. I'd be glad to get home. I've had about enough rain to last me a lifetime." He yawned, then passed out another round of meat pies, which no one turned down. "Here seems as good a place as any to get some rest."

Granella eased the kinks in her back, and sighed. "All right." She glanced outside the shelter. "And the rain's stopped for a minute. Let's get a better roof over our heads, and bunk down."

They did her bidding, as she sat quietly next to Toris. "Hey.. sorry about that." She said to him. "Arneta's just… kind of touchy about tradition.. and it got stepped on a lot with that whole Right thing."

Toris turned his pale eyes on her. "They're supposed to be friends of the Amazons." He studied her critically. " Now I understand the look my sister gets when you all are mentioned."

Granella winced, picturing in her mind the very look Toris was referring to. "Hey.. don't judge us all by one little remark, ok?" She scowled at him. "After all, Gabrielle is our queen, right?"

The tall man leaned back on his hands, and blinked at her. "She's not like you. She not like anyone else I know."

Ahh.. Granella sighed inwardly. So.. it runs in the family, does it? She leaned closer, and lowered her voice. "Toris, tell me.. how is Ephiny really?"

He straightened, and rested his forearms on his knees. "She's.. very sick, Granella." He answered quietly. "I could hear her coughing through the walls in our inn.. and Xena's using some pretty strong stuff on her to keep her knocked out so her body can fight this.. without her having to waste a lot of energy." His eyes found hers. "Xena's worried.. she said she had to dive under the ice to pull her out, and that she'd stopped breathing."

The slim dark haired Amazon gasped softly. "Is Xena OK?"

That got a grim smile from Toris. "Yeah.. you know her. Tough as the day is long. She had a fever the first few hours after she got back, but she was fine before I left."

Granella sighed. "Well, Eph's tough… if anyone can pull through this, she can. I mean, Hades.. the woman birthed a centaur." She shook her head, giving the returning Amazons a nod. "Come on.. we'd better get some sleep."

"Gabrielle?" Cyrene's voice slowly burrowed through her thoughts. The bard turned around from the window she was leaning against, and shook her head a little. Whoops.. day dreaming again…

"Hi mom...what's up? I was about to.." She looked around, and realized it had been quite a few minutes since she'd come in. "Uh..."

Cyrene patted her cheek. "It's all right honey." She gave the bard a fond look. "I've got some broth for your friend."

The bard smiled at her and took the container. "Thanks.. I'll go give it to her.. " She took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes a little. "Hope I'm not coming down with something myself." Uh.. yeah. Coming down with a case of the I'm missing my warrior blues, I think… She rolled her eyes at herself.

The innkeeper put a cool hand on her forehead. "No.. you don't feel hot..." Then her eyes twinkled. "But you do look a little frazzled.. let me get you something cold to drink." She walked over and poured a short glass of ale, and walked back over. "Here.. "

Gabrielle took a deep swallow, feeling the cold liquid roll down her throat with a familiar tingle.

"Wow.. that's nice." She complimented the innkeeper, as the coldness of the ale spread into a lingering warmth in her belly on her second mouthful, and sent a relaxing wave through her. "That feels better." The bard grinned, as she drained the glass. "Thanks."

"Anytime, cutie." Cyrene chuckled, and took the glass back from her. "Here, let me get you some more."

The bard regarded her thoughtfully, and remembered Xena's gentle warning. "No.. thanks mom, but that's enough for me." I could get to like that too much.. that's kind of scary. A lingering memory of her father sent a sobering thought through her.

"Let me go take this in to Ephiny." She strode across the floor, glancing around at the sparse crowd on this cold and rainy day. Everyone's inside.. probably sleeping. She reasoned, as she pushed the door open to the Amazon's room.

Ephiny was groggily awake, and hitched her body up a little when Gabrielle approached. "Hey." She forced her pale eyes open wider and stifled a cough. "She off OK?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Fine, if a bit damp. Now sit back." She pushed Ephiny's shoulder. "I've got some soup for you here." She settled on a small stool she dragged close to the bed and put the warm soup pot on her lap.

"Ungh." The Amazon groaned, pulling herself up a bit. "Gods, I'm so tired." She rolled her head towards the bard. " Was it like this for you?"

Gabrielle waggled her hand. "Well… " Thinking of the long hours spent resting quietly in Xena's arms, as the warrior made sure she ate and slept in turn, rocking her gently when she was racked with coughing. "Kind of… I know it's really tough."

"Yeah." Ephiny sighed, reaching out with both hands. "Here.. let me see if I can handle this for a little while." She took the soup pot, and rested it against her chest, taking small sips with the spoon Gabrielle handed her. "Wow.. this is good." She mumbled, glancing up. "This Xena's mom's stuff?"

A nod from the bard. "Sure is." She replied cheerfully. "She's a great cook, isn't she?"

"Mmm…" The Amazon agreed, gazing at her appraisingly "Looks like you've been enjoying her skills." She teased gently. "You look great… you had me worried when we had you by us." And had the cooks frantic, thinking they just couldn’t please our young queen…

The bard chuckled. "Yeah, Xena gave me a hard time about that too.. " She sighed. "I was just… I don’t know. I had an upset stomach most of the time. Kind of puts you off eating, you know?" She stretched. "It's been great being here… " A grin. "I'd forgotten what it felt like to just.. have a regular schedule for a while."

Ephiny smiled. "So I see… it's done all right by you." A sideways glance. "How's Xena taking all this enforced rest and relaxation?"

"A lot better than I'd expected." Gabrielle paused, and gave Ephiny an honest look. "I think she actually likes it." She added with a little laugh. "She's loosened up a lot."

Ephiny grinned back. "She looked pretty healthy." She commented, then sighed and put the spoon down. "Gods.. I can hardly lift this." She commented in disgust, as she took an ill-advised deep breath. Her body seized up in a fit of coughing, and Gabrielle swiftly grabbed the soup back from her just in time, putting it on the table and reaching over to steady the Amazon by her shoulders. "Ugh" She sighed, as the coughs trailed off, and she could lie back down, trying to ignore the unpleasant gurgling in her chest.

"You should try to get some rest." Gabrielle advised, pulling the blankets up around her. "Do you want me to let you be?" Not that I want to leave but…

Ephiny shook her head. "No." Her voice was hoarse. "Rather you give me something else to think about." Her eyes looked exhausted. "Like what you've been up to.." A tiny smile quirked her lips. "Y'know.. you coulda told me you and Xena were an item before you came by us… woulda saved me a lot of lectures and worrying." I know she's kinda shy about that… but gods

"We weren't." Came the quiet reply, then Gabrielle got up from her stool, and moved it aside, walking over to the high backed chair and dragging it with her back to the bedside. Damn… She glanced at the window, rattling under the onslaught of the wind outside. A chill passed through her, and she briefly wished she'd… Her eyes fell on the seat of the chair, where her cuddly forest green shawl was neatly folded. She picked it up and removed the scrap of parchment tucked inside a fold.

Thought you might want this. X

A warm smile crossed her face, and she looked up, to see Ephiny staring at her.

"What you do you mean, you weren't?" The Amazon coughed "I don’t'… I thought… but.."

Gabrielle sighed, and sat down, wrapping her shawl around her shoulders and relaxing into its comforting warmth. She waited for Ephiny to stop spluttering, resting her head against the back of the chair in resignation. I hate talking about this… I could just tell her to mind her own business.. but I know she means well. Kind of. "Just as simple as that, Eph. We weren't.. I mean, we were moving in that direction… and the last couple of weeks before we met up with you.. " Her body flushed warm with remembering. "But no.. that little.. " Her eyes rolled. "exhibit.. in the Centaur Village was.. well.. a first."

"Great Hera's breastplate." The Amazon sighed, slapping herself weakly in the forehead. "I can't believe it… you two were so comfortable with each other.. I thought.. we all thought.. I don't understand.. you didn't act much differently than… I mean…"

"Ephiny, take a breath, OK?" The bard chuckled, a little embarrassed. "It's not like we both woke up one morning and realized.. well, you know." She handed the Amazon back her soup. "Here.. try and get a little more of this down." She waited until the blond woman took the soup from her, giving her little disbelieving looks before she continued. "We just… it was.. " she sighed. "Gods. I held back because I thought she couldn’t possibly be interested in me. She held back because she though I was a young, innocent, hero worshipping kid."

Ephiny sipped her soup, eyes wide and fascinated. "And you weren't?" A blunt question, around a mouthful of the rich stock. "So what happened?"

Green eyes caught hers, in remembered sadness. "She died." She swallowed. "And it was more than if I'd lost a friend, Ephiny. Even a best friend."

The Amazon put a hand out and patted her knee. "I know that was a really rough time for you.. and we didn't make it any easier." She glanced down. "I thought.. it was.. going to help." Her eyes darted back up and searched the bard's. "But I knew you were hurting pretty bad."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I was." And now I know why.. but I can't really explain that to her. "And then she came back.. after we left the village, we stopped, and she… it was like a dream, almost. I closed my eyes and she was just.. there."

Ephiny had stopped eating, and was just watching her. "Y'know, that's pretty extraordinary, what she did."

The bard glanced at her. "No kidding, really?" She said, in her driest tone. "Anyway, at the temple, she had to.. use me.. to defeat Velasca. And so she got to see just.. exactly.. how I felt about her." Her smile turned a bit wry. "Things started to change a little after that." She shrugged a little. "It just took a really long time.. mostly because we were scared, I think.. at least I was.. because her friendship means everything to me. I didn't want to risk that.. and I think she was reluctant to move forward just because she is who she is."

The Amazon nodded quietly. "I can see that." She studied Gabrielle's face. "So what.. pushed you on?"

The bard flushed a little. "Oh well.. I can't say really.. it just sort of.. we were at Cirron, and Xena said later that she really just got tired of fighting.. uh.. it. And she started to let things go after that." She shifted in her chair, and tugged the shawl around her. "Things kind of progressed from there.. and then we got your note."

Ephiny nodded, as she finished off the soup, and let her head fall back. "Thought there was something different about you two then.. just couldn’t put my finger on what it was." Then her eyes took on a gentle twinkle, and she turned her head to gaze at her friend. "No wonder you had such a rough time."

Gabrielle blushed a deep crimson. "Here, let me get some of that herbal mixture on you.' She changed the subject, and plucked the covered dish from the table, scooping out some of the salve and trying to ignore Ephiny's mischievous grin. "Hold still." She worked the salve into the Amazon's skin for a bit. "Yeah, that made it tough." She finally admitted. "I missed her so much, on top of everything else that it just… made everything twice as hard."

Ephiny sighed, and clasped a hand over the bard's. "Gabrielle, you should have told me. I knew there was something really bothering you.. but I never guessed…" She studied the gentle profile of the bard's face, outlined in the golden glimmer from the fireplace, seeing lines and planes that had not been there before. "I wouldn’t have asked that of you if I’d known."

Gabrielle looked up, meeting her eyes with the direct, powerful force she was capable of when needed. "You were right to ask.. I have a responsibility to the Amazons, remember?"

Ephiny's pale eyes returned her look for look. "So do I, Gabrielle. And that responsibility includes your safety.. and I failed you that day." The air intensified between them. "You would have died, if Xena hadn't performed some physical miracles that I still can't believe I saw." She paused. "I have nightmares thinking about what I would have said to her.. if that had happened."

The bard's eyes dropped, and she nodded a little in resignation. "I know." She said quietly, shoving aside a bleak mental picture of that herself. "So do I." She took a breath and looked up. "But it didn't happen.. she didn't let it." Now a tiny smile etched it's way across her face. "That was really something, wasn’t it?"

A driving rain, and the water fogged her vision so badly she had to keep shaking her head to clear it. The path was muddy, and kept slipping from under her boots, but she kept running at full speed anyway, wrenching muscles as she tried to stay upright along the endless, sloping path.

Finally cresting the rise, and seeing down into the Centaur Village, where blood and rain and mud made it hard to see the difference between attackers and defenders. Where the lightning flared, shocking the view into stark black and white shadows.

Holding her side, and trying to catch her breath, as she peered down into the savage mess, and feeling her heart stop as the fitful light showed her a nightmare beyond her imagining. Arella's tall, blood spattered form, rising triumphant in the driving rain, aiming a crossbow at a kneeling, battered Gabrielle, arms outspread to protect the cowering Centaur children huddled around her.

Ephiny had screamed "No!" And hurled herself down the path, ignoring friend and foe alike, driving relentlessly towards a scene she knew in her depths she had no chance in Hades of stopping. Was close enough to see Arella's finger tighten on the trigger, and see the small, infinitely courageous lift of Gabrielle's head as she looked her killer unflinchingly in the eyes.

Close enough to see the sudden intake of breath as the bard steeled herself for the shock of the arrow.

Close enough to tear her eyes from Gabrielle's face, when her peripheral vision caught a dark, irresistible, moving force, as the arrow released from the crossbow, and a flash of lightning outlined a tall, blood spattered, mud covered, dauntlessly moving body that dove into the path of that arrow with a speed, and a power that went beyond the merely human.

She'd fallen then, dropped to her knees, trying to tame her ragged breathing as she watched the most powerful Amazon warrior she'd ever known batted aside as though she were only a child by a snarling Xena, who stalked her like a big cat would a deer and who picked her up and threw her around like a sack of wheat.

Her biggest surprise was that Xena had left the woman alive. Her second biggest surprise was all that dark, primal power tamed to gentleness in Gabrielle's welcoming arms, as the sheer joy of that reunion echoed across the battlefield, so strong, and so profound that even the most hard hearted amongst them had felt it. .

"Yeah." She finally answered Gabrielle. "It sure was something." She dredged up a smile for the worried looking bard. "Hey.. did you have to show her that note? She's gonna kill me over that old war horse thing. So much for confidentiality."

Gabrielle's body relaxed, and she leaned back into the chair, snuggling into her shawl. "Oh, chill out Eph. She's not mad.. she can take a little teasing." She thought about that for a minute "Most of the time." She amended with a wry smile. "So.. how was Kaleipus?"

The Amazon cocked her head, and regarded her with some interest. "He's.. fine. I didn't know he knew you both that well.. and that kid of his too. " Her curiosity was perked, and had been since the Centaur's odd reaction to her news, and the boy's enthusiastic sending of greetings.

Gabrielle stood, and walked over to the worktable, assembling the ingredients for another draught of medicine. "We met them the last time we… when we helped defeat the Great Centaur.." She kept her back towards Ephiny, feeling the eyes on her. "Solon got kidnapped.. Xena rescued him." She turned around, bringing the cup back with her, stirring it a little. "You know, the usual."

Ephiny nodded slowly, studying her closely. "Uh huh… I see." She accepted the cup, but kept her eyes on Gabrielle's face, and noted the faint flush creeping up her neck. Hmm… something's up… "Cute kid." She drawled, getting a notion in her head. "Just hitting that growth spurt.. has that dusty blond going dark kind of hair, and really nice eyes." Saw the blush intensify, though the bard gave no indication she felt it. "He's going to be tall."

Now Gabrielle's eyes met hers, sea green depths reflecting back the burnished glow of the fire. "He's a very nice kid, Ephiny. I'm looking forward to seeing him again if they do decide to show up." She paused. "I know Xena would like that too." Her voice closed with a note of finality in it, which warned off the Amazon from further probing.

All right.. my bardic friend.. I know a 'back off' when I hear it. "Well.. should be a good party, then." The blond woman smiled, toasting the bard with her mug of medicine, and taking a sip. "Ugh…" She winced. "But I guess it's helping, isn't it? I feel.. lousy.. but.."

"But without it, you'd feel a lot lousier. Trust me." Gabrielle assured her, tucking the blankets around her shoulders. "Listen.. I've gotta do some staff practice.. then I'll be back. I promised you some stories, right?"

Ephiny's eyes darted to the window, then back at her. "In this weather? Gabrielle, are you nuts?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Rain or shine, Eph… Xena taught me that." She stood and stretched, feeling the familiar move of muscles up and down her body. "Hard work.. keeping up with her. I gotta stay in shape." She winked at the Amazon, then laid one hand on her flat stomach. "Besides.. it's the only way to stay ahead of Cyrene's cooking." She added with a rueful smile.

The Amazon chuckled a bit. "Well.. just don't you get sick too, OK?" She stifled a yawn. "Sides.. I think this damn stuff's putting me to sleep again."

The bard took the mug from her, and set it on the table, arranging the covers and fluffing Ephiny's pillow for her. "Good." She said quiet. "Let your body rest, Eph." She patted the Amazon on the shoulder. "I'll be back later."

"Night.." Ephiny's voice trailed off as the drugs took her under, and her face relaxed into sleep.

Gabrielle stood there for a long moment, regarding her, then sighed and turned for the door, slipping her cloak over her shoulders, and glancing out at the weather.. wondering how Xena was enduring it, every step taking her further from home. "Take care, love." Her voice whispered to the uncaring wind. "You know my thoughts are with you."

Iolaus huddled down into his cloak, glad beyond measure for the long tunic he'd borrowed from Xena's brother. The cold damp wind cut into him remorselessly, whipping the hood back from his tousled blond hair, and blowing the mane of his horse back against his hands with a harsh sting.

They'd been riding all day, and well into darkness, and now were just starting into the foothills of the range which divided the fertile area Amphipolis lay in from the high craggy peaks where the castle was nestled, protected by sharp drops.

Xena had said little all day, maintaining her glowering aura with little effort, and muttering to him only when necessary. Which wasn't a bad thing, he thought grimly. As he had no idea what to talk about with her anyway. So.. Xena.. just how many left handed bald men have you killed? His tired mind imagined the conversation. 824, Iolaus, why? Would have come her growled answer, he was sure.

He looked up at Argo's returning hoofbeats, and shivered as the golden mare materialized out of the foggy gloom like some wild specter, her coat eerily reflecting the few slivers of moonlight that got through the fast chasing clouds. "There's a cave, just south of here. We'll be sheltered for the night." Xena's voice was calm. "Come on."

"Sure.." Iolaus sighed, stretching painfully in the saddle. Gods.. the woman was inhuman. They'd been riding all day, and he'd had to actually ask her to stop twice, much to his own embarrassment. Was he ever going to be sore tomorrow.. but the thought of all the ground they'd covered, bringing them back closer to his best friend.. made him feel it was worth it. He guided his mount after Argo, and sighed in relief as they came to the dark opening to the cave barely a candlemark later.

He dropped off the horse with a feeling of utter relief, flexing his aching knees, and rubbing his hands, raw from the cold. "I'll see if I can find some firewood." He offered, reaching for the ax tied securely in his pack.

"No." Xena answered, her form barely visible in the dark. "I'll do it… you go on in, Iolaus." A sliver of moonlight caught her blue eyes, and danced off the barest hint of a smile on her face. "Go on.. take Argo in there too. It's big enough for all of us." She unslung a wickedly curved hand ax from Argo's saddle pad, and moved off into the gloom, leaving him with the horses and a feeling of distinct gratitude.

"Well, how do you like that?" He remarked, conversationally to Argo, who poked him in the belly with her nose and whuffled. "Doesn't talk to me all day, then does something nice like that." He captured the mare's reins, and led both horses into the large cave which was, as Xena had said, more than large enough for them, their horses, and all the Furies and Fates, in fact. He lit a torch, and studied the place with a feeling of minor satisfaction. It looked like it was used as a hunter's camp frequently, as there was a fire circle already marked with blackened stones.

"Very nice." He sighed. "For a cave, anyway." He muttered, as he led the horses to one side, and found a crevice to wedge his torch into . Turning to his horse, he unslung his pack from the animals haunches, and tossed it towards the wall, then unsaddled the gelding and used a bit of linen from his bag to rub him down. "Hang on.. I don't know if we.."

Bootsteps at the entrance to the cave interrupted him, and he looked up to see Xena entering, a large load of wood balanced on one shoulder. She spared him a brief glance, then dumped the wood in the fire circle, dropping to one knee and arranging it with expert hands. "There's a bag, on Argo's back that has grain in it for the horses. Help yourself."

He stood quietly, watching her for a minute before he moved towards Argo's warm side. The flickering torchlight outlined her powerful body and threw highlights that glinted off her dark hair, and he realized she had a sheer physical presence that went beyond her reputation that intimidate him more than he cared to admit. "Thanks." He took a deep breath, and found the bag, with two feedbags clipped to it. "Do you think of everything?" He laughed a little, holding up the extra feedbag.

Xena gave him one of those raised eyebrow looks. "Pays to be prepared, Iolaus." She stated, turning back to the fire and striking sparks to light it.

They got camp set up, and he was grateful just to sit quietly on his bedroll, munching on the travel rations they'd brought, facing Xena's shrouded eyes across the fire. "We made pretty good time." He ventured, more to hear noise than anything else.

Xena considered this statement, then gave a judicious nod in agreement. "Not bad." She commented, leaning back against the wall, stretching her long legs out and crossing them at the ankles. She'd taken off her armor, and was now occupied with sharpening her sword, a thin rhythmic scraping that jarred his nerves. Hercules didn't carry a sword.. though he knew how to use one, as did Iolaus.

"Tell me about the castle layout." Xena's low voice broke the uneasy silence, as she finished her task and sheathed the long sword with a slithering of leather and steel. She watched Iolaus shift uncomfortably, and with a sigh, took a little pity on him. "Look, Iolaus.. " She waited for him to look up, and he did. "We'll find a way through this, all right?"

"Oh.. yeah… well, I know we will, Xena.. it's just that.." He hesitated, wishing he were anywhere else, she made him so nervous. "I.. I don't…"

The warrior suddenly realized what his problem was, and mentally chastised herself. "Hey." She said, letting her voice warm perceptibly. "Wait.." She pulled a bag close to her, and rummaged through it, finding a package she suspected would be there. And a tiny one that she hadn't, which she pulled out curiously and examined. A slow smile crossed her face, quite without her permission. She set the small item aside, and unwrapped the larger, exposing some of her favorite pastries. "Come here." She gave Iolaus a stare, which caused him to scramble to his feet and trot over, kneeling at her side. "Here…"

Iolaus couldn't hide his surprise. "Uh.. wow.. uhm. . thanks!" He carefully selected a pastry, and retreated to his bedroll, munching absently on it, while giving her curious looks. "Your mother is really a great cook, Xena." He ventured conversation again, emboldened by her offer.

This time the warrior opened up a little, and gave him a more peaceful look. "Yeah, she really is." That came with a gentle chuckle. "I missed her cooking, all the years I was.. " She paused thoughtfully. "Away from here." She paused again, then picked up a small item next to her and regarded it. "Though, Gabrielle's not bad herself."

"Really?" Iolaus commented, feeling a little better. "And I guess you don't.." He left the thought hanging.

"Not one of my many skills, no." Xena responded, with a quirky grin. "I can do the bare basics." She idly unwrapped the package in her fingers and removed the shiny stone it held, running her fingers over it. "On the other hand, Gabrielle hates hunting.. and she's really lousy at it. So.. it works out."

Iolaus laughed. "We try to stay in villages, to avoid the question." He looked up and caught an unguarded expression on her face, as she studied the small piece of parchment in her hands. Her face had relaxed into a warm smile, which lit up her dark features as though she was touched by sudden sunlight, rather than lit by the ruddy flickering of their fire. What on earth… he wondered, as he watched her tuck the small piece of paper away.

Gabrielle.. her mind caressed the name, imagining the bard writing the words, her fire tinged golden head bent over the task, with just the tip of her tongue sticking out in concentration as it always did when she wrote. It brought on a warmth inside her that dismissed the cold, and the day's long journey, and her body's protesting over the sudden abuse after a month of decadent comfort. She realized abruptly that Iolaus was calling her name, and looked up, giving her head a little shake to clear the pleasant fog. "Yeah?"

Iolaus stared at her, a puzzled frown on his agile face. "Are you all right?"

The warrior glanced down, then back up, with an odd, half smile on her face. "Yeah.. sorry. I just.. um " She bit her lip. " Was thinking for a minute. About the best route to take tomorrow. " C'mon, Xena… this isn't the place, and certainly isn't the time for this stuff. Get a grip on yourself. "You were saying you and Herc stay in villages all the time? " She crossed her arms over her chest. "We do sometimes, but there's lots of nights we're not near any inhabited places."

"Ah. Well, yes.. and as long as we're talking about Gabrielle.." He started, figuring his angles out.

"Were we talking about Gabrielle?" Xena asked, all innocence. Her eyes took on a mischievous glint that Gabrielle would have recognized immediately. "She kind of likes being outdoors."

"Oh.. " Iolaus said, taking a breath. "Really? Well, you know, Xena.. um.. she's a very talented girl."

Xena's jaw clenched as she tried to keep a grin off her face. "Yeah, she's a great bard." She agreed solemnly. "You should hear her tell your stories."

"Uhm.. mine.. ours…really?" Iolaus said, allowing himself to be sidetracked for a minute "Right.. uh.. well, I'm sure she does a great job."

"Mmmhmm." Xena intoned seriously, giving him her best judicious ex warlord look. "She does a great imitation of you."

"Uh… me?" Iolaus squeaked. "She does?" Trying to imagine that, and utterly failing. "I don't see how…" He recollected himself with a shake. "Anyway, that's my point. She's a very, very talented girl."

"You said that." Xena commented, drawing her breast dagger and starting to clean her nails with it. "And Iolaus?"

"Yes?" He responded, furiously trying to marshal his tactics.

"She's not a girl." Xena replied, studying the dagger, then glancing up at him. "She's a woman."

Silence from Iolaus. She looked up at him, to see him gazing at her in bewilderment. "Would you like me to call you a boy?"

He shook his head, then nodded at her. "Ok.. ok.. yeah.. I see… well, she has grown up a lot lately."

"She certainly has." Xena replied, returning her attention to her dagger, and biting her lip to keep from laughing. Oh.. I wish Gabrielle were here to hear this.. she'd love it.

"Right." Iolaus agreed hastily. "Uh.. you know, Xena.. a woman.. a person.. as talented as she is.. well, you know there are schools in Athens that would just love to have her." There.. it was out. He mentally wiped his brow, and glanced over at her, to see if she'd taken his meaning.

"Yes, I know." Xena answered, unconcerned. "But she doesn't want to have them." And how damned long did it take me to understand that? No.. to believe that.

"She doesn’t?" The blond man asked, nonplussed.

"No." Xena answered, putting the dagger up, and stretched, swearing in silent disgust at the stiffness after one measly day of riding.

"Oh." Iolaus sighed. "Well, I mean.. no offense to you, Xena, but I'd think she'd want to pursue her talent.. I don't see…"

The warrior rolled over onto her side, and propped her head up on one hand, gazing at him in mild amusement. "I dunno, Iolaus. Maybe she just likes my jokes."

Pale eyes blinked at her. "Your… jokes.?"

"Yeah." Xena intoned, deadpan. She held out the package to him again. "Cake?"

Iolaus gave up. "Sure." He quipped, with a grin, scuttling over and snagging two of them. "Sorry..I don't mean to butt into Gabrielle's business, Xena.. but I like her.. she's almost like a little sister to me."

That got a relaxed grin from the fire-shadowed face across from him. "Yeah, Toris feels the same way about her." Her eyes danced, but he didn't know her well enough to see it.

"Ah.. really?" Iolaus chewed that over for a bit. "It's nice that your family kind of adopted her, Xena… I know she appreciates that."

"Iolaus.. " Xena said softly, watching his eyes glance at her. "She is part of my family. There is no 'kind of.'"

"Oh.. right." He nodded. "Sorry." He paused, drumming his fingers on his thigh. "But.. is that fair to her?"

Xena's finely drawn eyebrow inched up. "Is what fair to her?" Y'know, I think old Iolaus here has been hit on the noggin once too many times.. gotta talk to Herc about taking some time off after this and just letting him relax for a while.

The blond man sat forward, knotting his hands together. "Well… keeping her.. um.. attached to you that way now before you start yelling Xena I know you said not to mention it again but… " he stopped and drew breath. "She's in love with you." He presented his case triumphantly. "And she wont' go out and find herself because of that."

Xena tilted her head, and gazed at him, with a gentle smile. "Iolaus, you're such an idiot."

"Huh?" He said, not expecting this reaction. "I am not.. tell me it's not true, Xena. Tell me she's not hopelessly in love with you."

"Oh, I hope she is." The warrior said lazily.

"Huh??? You do? Why??? " Iolaus demanded, leaning forward.

"Because I'm hopelessly in love with her." Came the quiet answer.

Silence dropped over the cave, invaded by the dull stamps of the horses, and the faint, far off rattling of small pebbles falling down somewhere deep inside the mountain.

Iolaus opened and closed his mouth a few times, and rubbed his temples hard. "uhh… uh… ab.. du…" Was all he managed to get out, when he was startled by an unfamiliar sound. He looked up, realizing he'd never heard Xena laugh before. Not like this.

Before his eyes, the warlord disappeared, to be replaced with this smiling young woman, whose eyes sparkled with humorous intelligence. He felt his entire world go upside down, as he struggled to cope with his changing perceptions. Finally, he looked up, tentatively meeting Xena's patiently waiting gaze.

"You all right?" The warrior asked in a faintly amused tone.

"Hmm yeah. " Iolaus rubbed his head. "I didn't.. expect that.. sorry. " He gave her a chagrined look. "I didn't think… I didn't know you… I mean, you've…"

"Yeah, I know. " Xena sighed ruefully. "It was kind of a surprise for me too."

They looked at each other. "Wow." Iolaus finally said, breaking into a relieved chuckle. "Well.. that's great!" He smiled. "Wait till Herc hears…" Then his face fell, and he glanced away. "Yeah."

Xena gazed at him with those penetrating blue eyes, which seemed to see right through him. "Iolaus."

Reluctantly, he met her glance, flinching only a little.

"It's going to be all right." The warrior stated firmly. "I promise you."

This was the woman who had seduced him.. and tried to destroy Hercules. Who was Ares' Chosen one. Who killed people with no more regard that he would an ant. Whose potential for destruction was so great, she'd held the land under terror for years. And she was asking him to believe in her promise.

Strangely, impossibly, he was shocked to discover he did.. because there was a kernel of something in her that was very familiar to him. A spark in her eye, maybe, that brought to his mind a certain tall, brawny, impossibly noble friend of his.

"Thanks." He said, with a smile at her. "Ok.. that wore me out.. I think I need to get some sleep now."

Xena gazed at him with a quirky smile. "Goodnight, Iolaus."

He rolled over on his bedroll, and cast a last look at her, outlined in the flames. "Good night, Xena." And he was instantly asleep, giving his thoughts up to Morpheus' realm, and his physical safety up to Xena's watchful senses.

The warrior watched him for a minute, then rolled over onto her back, and gazed at the ceiling with a satisifed grin. You'd have been proud of me, my bard. The bard was still getting used to this new facet of their complicated relationship.. and the growing notoriety she had in her own respect.

It was on their way out from Potadeia… and they'd stopped in a small village for a night's rest off the hard, cold ground. Xena had walked Argo to the lone stable, and made her comfortable while Gabrielle had gone inside to negotiate room and board. She'd taken her time with the mare, currying her, and picking a few pebbles out of her large hooves, then picked up their bags, and sauntered inside.

And heard raised voices from the front, one of which being Gabrielles. She'd walked up to see the innkeeper arguing with an obviously angry bard, in time to hear him answer her.

"Look, I'm not having two women stay alone here. It just causes too much trouble." He'd seemed an honest sort, his voice was not vicious, just frustrated.

Xena had walked up behind Gabrielle, and settled her arms around the bard's shoulders, resting her chin on her partner's pale head. "What kind of trouble?" She' d asked, watching his eyes bulge. She felt Gabrielle giggle. "Don't tell me this is one of those places I have to promise not to beat anyone up."

"You should have just said." The innkeeper mumbled, not meeting the ice blue eyes gazing at him. "Thought you were…"

"What?' Gabrielle asked, now annoyed. "Thought we were what??"

"Traveling prostitutes." Xena answered calmly, with an amused grin. "Right?"

His pale brown eyes darted to hers. "Uh… well… " he paused. "You're Xena, right?"

She'd nodded. "What tipped you off, the leather or the attitude?".

He blushed, then looked at the fair haired woman she had her arms wrapped around. "Then you must be Gabrielle, the bard."

Xena had felt the intense blush heat her partner's skin and smiled. "Two for two."

The innkeeper grinned. "You should have just said who you were." He shook his head. "Trade you a room and dinner for some stories then, all right?"

Xena had enjoyed the moment thoroughly, glancing down at Gabrielle's profile, which was edging into a delighted smile despite herself. "I'd say you'd get the better part of that bargain, innkeeper." She'd drawled, watching the bard's blush deepen.

"Sometimes, you just get lucky." The innkeeper agreed with a cheeky smile. "Besides, I can guarantee myself at least one night without any trouble in the place." He put out a huge hand. "Hector."

They'd both shaken it, and gone up stairs, silent until they were behind the door of the small, but pleasant room he'd given them. Then Gabrielle had turned, and put her hands on her hips. "Traveling prostitutes?"

Xena shrugged, and tossed their bags on the bed. "Well… " She'd crossed over to her partner, and gently traced the outline of her face with a knowing finger. "It's not a totally unbelievable conclusion.. seeing you, anyway." She'd smiled at the bard's exasperated expression. "And, it's how some make a living, my bard. Bearing no other skills." She'd shrugged. "You should have just told him your name."

"I'm not used to that meaning something to anyone." Gabrielle had muttered, blushing again. "Yours, sure But not mine."

"Better get used to it." She'd informed the bard, with a sympathetic smile. "Besides, I'd rather them know yours.. and not mine."

Gabrielle had looked up at her, and given her a gentle smile. "Oh no, Warrior Princess. If they know mine, rest assured, they'll always know yours."

Xena chuckled to herself, remembering. Then she pulled out the scrap of parchment, and leaned nearer the fire, to read the words again.

Darkness falls, cold decending

The air outside chills with frost,

As though the world itself abandoned life.

But where I am, no ice can touch me, no frost can settle.

When I close my eyes, and think of you.

Appropriate for the season. Xena thought, as she felt the same warmth spread through her. Folding the paper up small, she tucked it into the palm of her hand, and closed her fingers into a fist, then settled herself down to sleep, gazing thoughtfully at the crackling fire for a timeless moment before letting her eyes close.

Gabrielle let her head rest on the pillow, her arms wrapped around it, as she gazed sightlessly out the window at the morning sun. At least there was sun today, her mind idly considered It had been a long night, after she'd left Ephiny peacefully sleeping, and spoken with the healer. Then come back here to the cabin.. which was very large, and very quiet without it's other occupant.

Not that Xena was an exceptionally noisy person - no - quite the opposite. But her presence always seemed to fill the room, even when she was just sitting quietly by the fire, or sprawling on the bed, watching Gabrielle write. Or just.. All right, Gabrielle, cut that out, and get a grip on yourself.

It hadn't been a peaceful sleep, though she'd avoided nightmares, her body so used now to Xena's comfortingly warm presence that she found it hard to forgo it and sleep in this very large bed without her. Sighing, she rolled over, and rubbed her eyes, then stretched her body to its full length on the bed and sat up, running her fingers through her hair. "Morning, Ares." She mumbled to the wolf, who rolled over, and presented his belly for a scratch.

"Arrrrggroooo." He sighed, wagging his tail as she complied.

"Yeah, same to you." She laughed, grabbing his muzzle and shaking it. "Come on, let's get dressed and get some breakfast. " she slid off the bed, and padded over to the fire, swinging the water pot over it, then moving to where a basin of water stood. Holding her breath, she plunged her face into it, letting the icy water shock her wide awake. "Yaaaagghh!!" She yelled, as she pulled her head up. "How does she DO that???" Thinking of Xena's so very casual plunge into the basin every morning.

"Roo?" Ares asked, sitting on his haunches behind her, his dark head cocked to one side.

"Brrrr…" Gabrielle chattered, grabbing a towel and drying herself off. "She usually warms it up for me." She felt a smile crossing her face at the thought. That quietly unexpected consideration from someone she had always though oblivious to little things like that… and when that started to change..

She'd first noticed it after.. that whole thing with Velasca and Callisto.. after they'd fought, and finally repaired their friendship for what seemed the dozenth time. They'd had a routine.. she knew what was expected of her.

To keep her stuff cared for, and tidy. To help set up camp, and find firewood. To do most of the cooking, because Xena was, truly, horrible at it. Xena's job was to find a secure spot to begin with, and take care of Argo, keep up all her weapons and armor, to hunt for them, and collect herbs and other vegetation because she could without getting them both poisoned.

She began to notice little things.. like finding her bedroll already laid out. Or something mended without comment, and put back in her pack. Tea made for her at night without her asking for it.

She found herself almost irresistibly reciprocating.. bringing Argo neatly plucked river grasses, bringing Xena her dinner. Making little things she knew were her companions favorites.

Some things were inviolate - Xena never touched her scrolls, she never went near the warrior's arms or armor. But she could feel a.. blurring of boundaries between them, and she thought about it late at night, looking up at the stars, seeing Xena's nearby face looking up as well. That was the other change.. they'd started sleeping side by side, by mutual unsaid consent. It just.. happened one night.

So they could talk. Or make pictures with the stars, without having to shout across the campfire. Or so Xena could more easily protect her if they were attacked at night. Yeah, sure, that was it.

She thought about how she kept close to the warrior's side during the day, and how Xena seemed to like walking more and more often lately.

Arms just brushing. Close enough for her to catch the spicy scent of Xena's leathers, and the biting tang of the brass armor she wore. Close enough to hear her gentle, even breathing. They played "Who'd you kill?" and she rehearsed her stories, or sometimes they’d just talk.. about anything. Everything.

One night, she'd gone down to the river, to wash out the cooking pot after dinner. Had just started her task when she heard familiar footsteps behind her, then a warm presence knelt at her side. "Want a hand?" That voice that had started reaching for places deep inside her, carefully casual, unconcerned with her answer.

"Sure." The setting sun had colored them both in a crimson wash, and she'd paused for a minute, closing her eyes and just letting herself feel the beauty of the day. The wind brought to her the rich scent of pine, and the distinctive smell of the river, and the warmly milky smell of the soap Xena was using. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" She'd asked, opening her eyes and turning, finding blue eyes shaded almost to violet in the rich sunset regarding her.

"Yeah." With that quirky half grin. Then the eyes had flicked across the water, and down to her task. "Sure is."

She'd put her attention to the task, just accepting the sparkling chill she felt as their hands touched. Squawking as Xena finished up, then flicked a handful of water at her. "Hey!" She'd yelled, splashing back.

Never really knew how it happened.. just one minute she was fighting furiously, the next she'd lost her balance, and tumbled off the ledge she was kneeling on, and was headed for the water. She'd braced herself for a cold impact, but somehow.. something big, and warm grabbed her first, and with a rush of air she was back on the bank, and rolling in the grass all wrapped up in Xena's arms.

She knew she should untangle herself, and brush it off with a laugh. But that warmth, and that heady scent, and her own nature betrayed her, and she slid her arms around her companion and hugged her instead. It felt wonderful.

A long stunned instant, then she felt arms closing over her, and returning the pressure. And a voice very close to her ear. "What's that for?" Meaning the hug, but in a tone that did wonderful things as it slid down her hearing. .

"Just cause." She'd answered back. Just cause I'm falling head over heels in love with you, Xena. Just cause you make me feel so crazy.. I can't hardly think. Just cause I sit up at night and write poetry about your eyes. Just cause. .."Xena?"

"Mmm?" The pressure around her relaxed, and she was free to move away. She very deliberately didn't, and after a hesitant moment, felt the pressure return. "What?" The warrior asked idly.

"I l.. uh.. thanks for catching me." Just a few more seconds of this.. just a few.. And then they would get up, and dust themselves off, and return to the camp.

"Anytime, Gabrielle.." Came the lazy answer, and she felt Xena's chest move as she took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, and then the warrior stood up, and collected the pots, and extended a hand down to her to help her up.

Just.. kind of.. forgetting to let it go as they walked back in silence, with the setting sun warm on their backs and the growing sense of what was between them making Gabrielle’s heart lurch in happy wonder.

Gabrielle realized she'd been standing there in a daze for several minutes, and shook her head, laughing a little. "Oh gods.. I need to cut that out." She let a held breath out slowly. "Come on, let’s get on the ball here."

She finished getting washed up, and dressed quickly, heading out the door and patting her leg for Ares to follow. "Come on, boy. You stick with me."

"Grrr. " Ares confirmed, as he slipped out the door ahead of her.

"Morning, mom." She poked her head inside the kitchen "Hi Johan."

"Hey honey." Cyrene looked up from her task. "C'mere a minute." Keep an eye on her, Xena said. All right. "Did you have a good night's sleep?"

"Yeah, fine thanks." The bard assured her, moving into the room and stopping by the work table, leaning against it and crossing her arms. "Nice weather this morning for a change."

Johan smiled. "That it is, lass. Good traveling weather, thank the gods."

Gabrielle thought about Xena's reaction to waking up to the improved weather, and smiled contentedly. "Yep, that it is." While her warrior partner carried on in all sorts of weather, and never complained, her reaction to a fine, sunny morning was always perceptible. Not that she'd ever admit to that, of course. Might ruin the image. "I'm going to go in and check on Ephiny."

"Ah ah ah.." Cyrene interrupted. "The lady is sleeping, honey. The healer was just in there. " She handed Gabrielle a plate. "Here… you go tuck into this. There's time enough after that."

The bard gave her a warm smile, and took the plate. "Thanks mom." She turned to remove herself to the main part of the inn, then stopped at the door, and peeked back. "Oh..and mom?"

"Hmm?" Cyrene looked up.

"She's not a lady, she's an Amazon." And the door swung shut behind the bard's grinning face.

"Scamp." Cyrene chuckled, and shook her head. "Goodness, I hope she goes and corrals those youngsters…" She exchanged a slightly exasperated look with Johan. "Did you see what they did to that poor goat?"

Johan just shook his head, and kept at his task.

"Oh.. look. There's Queen Gabrielle." Sharra whispered, giving Cait a nudge. "She's really cute, isn't she?" They watched the young woman cross the front area of the inn, and push the kitchen door open, leaning in and speaking to someone inside

Cait studied the bard judiciously. "I love her hair." She commented, taking a spoonful of cereal and chewing it thoughtfully. "Especially when she lets it all loose like that."

Megan watched the queen disappear into the kitchen and grinned. "I wonder if that's how Xena likes her to wear it?"

They all giggled. "Wow.." Elianas sighed. "And how about that kiss yesterday? I can't believe they did that, right here in front of everyone."

Deep sighs around the table, and Megan let her head hit the surface with a thump. "I melted." She moaned, pretending to slide under the table. "That was sooo hot."

"Shh..." Lista hissed. "Here she comes." They all looked up, presenting bright and innocent faces as Gabrielle crossed the floor and approached their table.

"Hi." The bard said casually. "Mind if I join you?"

Five shaking heads

"Good." Gabrielle put her plate down, and pulled out a chair, seating herself and looking at them. "So.. what's up?"

Cait leaned forward, by unspoken agreement their spokesperson due to her vast experience of both Amphipolis and its daunting inhabitants. "How is Queen Ephiny?"

The bard took a mouthful of breakfast, chewed, and swallowed before she answered. "Mmm.. Ephiny is doing as well as we could expect. She's pretty sick, and she's coughing a lot, but Xena's been giving her some pretty effective medicine, and I think she's going to be OK." She reached behind her, and snagged a mug off the counter, then poured some cider into it and took a sip. "We sent a note back home, so people there won't worry too much. But Ephiny's going to be stuck here for a little while so she can recover."

That was more information than they were apparently expecting, and Gabrielle was left in peace for a few minutes to continue eating.

"Is it true Xena went off to go rescue Hercules?" Megan piped up finally, twirling her fork in her fingers, and watching the bard's expressive face.

Gabrielle looked up, and studied her, then let a small grin move her lips. "It's true." Sorry Xena.. but I really do think that's just too funny, you going off to rescue the son of Zeus. Again. I know..I know.. it's serious, and Iolaus was very upset.. but… I know in my heart you'll fix everything, and this'll be a great story. Just wish I was there to see it.

They all looked at each other. "So.." Megan continued. "Why didn't you go too?"

"Oh.' Gabrielle casually sat back, and put a bit of honey on the muffin in her hand. "Well, I have to stay here and take care of Ephiny.. and you guys too. My responsibility, remember?" She took a bite of the muffin, and chewed it, watching their reactions.

Sharra grinned, and leaned forward. "Bet you wish you didn't have to stay."

Gabrielle blushed, remembering their faces the day before. "No no.. " She laughed. "We're not tied to each other like that." Liar.. she scolded herself. "I'm going to wait for the escort I know Eponin and Solari will send down here, then join you all in going back to the village."

"Really?" Elianas asked, taking sip of her cider. "You mean to take charge while Ephiny recovers?"

The bard nodded. "Yes." She cleaned her plate, and took a last swallow of cider. " So.. what do you say we go over the boundary treaties after breakfast? I need to keep you guys away from mom's goats."

Five sets of abashed faces. "Sorry about that." Cait muttered. "It did look awfully cute though." She peeked at the bard's face, which had a mildly indulgent look on it. "But oh..I hear you're just the best with that staff.. can we do that instead?"

Four utterly grateful pairs of eyes turned to Cait, and Megan gave her knee a squeeze under the table. "It's grand weather." Cait added with a hopeful smile.

Gabrielle felt a tingle of surprise at the request, and found it touched her pride a little. "Sure." She agreed, with a laugh. "If that's what you want to do.. sure... I can do that."

"Grand." Cait sighed. "It's ever too nice to be indoors today."

Megan slid forward again. "And. .will you tell us some stories??"

They all leaned towards her like a pack of vultures. "Uhm.. what kind of stories?" Gabrielle temporized.

"Gory ones." Cait chirped, with a grin. "Nice and gory ones with lots of battles."

"Ah." The bard let a understanding look cross her face. "You want Xena stories." They all blushed. "I see." She let them stew a minute. "Well.. just so happens I do have a few of those." Her green eyes twinkled. "And you know something?" She leaned forward and added in a hushed voice.

"What?" A chorus.

"They're my favorite kind." Gabrielle whispered, then stood up, grabbing her plate and mug. "Give me a few candemarks to tend to Ephiny, and we'll meet outside, all right? There are some practice staves in the barn. Then we can go for a walk down by the river, and I'll see what I can do about some stories."

Five grins, which remained as they watched the queen take her plate and cup to the washbasin, then dry her hands off and head towards the small back room.

"Gosh, she's got nice eyes." Sharra said dreamily, putting her chin on her hand.

"And a cute walk.'" Elianas added, with a smirk. "Pity it's so cold.. she looks gooood in that halter and skirt."

Megan slapped her. "Hey. .that's the queen you're talking about!"

Elianas slapped her back. "And your point is what???" The taller girl snorted. "That being queen prevents you from being adorable? No chance.. besides, she's not really an Amazon."

Silence prevailed for a long moment while they pondered the statement. "Well... " Sharra sighed. "That's true.. she's not. I mean.. not like Queen Ephiny. Or Solari, or Eponin... she's too.. "

"Gentle." Cait supplied, finishing her cereal. "She's never killed anyone."

Megan studied the sometimes enigmatic Cait. "You have, though. Right?"

Cait nodded her blond head. "But she's different." She played with her spoon thoughtfully. "She doesn't have that in her, I don't think."

Megan chuckled. "She doesn't much need it, right? She's got just about the greatest fighter alive taking care of her.. I’d feel pretty secure." She poked Sharra. "All she's got to do is yell for help and the wrath of the gods comes down."

A laugh ran around the table. "True.. true..'" Elianas agreed. "Come on.. let's get changed.. you volunteered us as pell practice."

Cait grinned. "More fun than reviewing dry old treaties, right?"

Sharra poked her back as they headed out the door. "Yeah, well you didn't see her toss Eponin on her butt last time, did you."

Gabrielle leaned against the wall of Ephiny's room, trying to erase the piercing, high voices from her mind. She'd tried not to listen, but it was too quiet in the inn, and her hearing had grown sharper lately, maybe just from plain practice. Her reaction ran rapidly from embarrassment to a dull anger as she considered their words.

Well.. it was true, wasn't it. Gabrielle sat slowly down in the chair, watching Ephiny's drawn face, pale and still in a labored sleep. She wasn't really an Amazon.. not like Ephiny.. not like Solari, or Eponin, or Granella... she wasn't a warrior. She regarded her hands for a long moment. Was she?

Those hands had calluses.. on the fingers where she used her quills, sure.. but mostly on the palms and sides from her staff work. The wrists were thicker than she remembered, as she moved her fingers, the tendons moved under the skin almost like Xena's did, and she knew when she looked in the mirror nowadays, the body she saw looking back at her was no soft, quiet scholar’s. Far from it. Put her in an Amazon's leathers, and eyes couldn't tell the difference, not anymore, save that she was a trifle on the short side. Put her staff in her hands, and not even her height would fool anyone, not with them watching her take out men twice her size.

So.. what am I? I'm not only a bard anymore, right?

Xena says.. weapons equal responsibility. When you learn to use one, you take responsibility for understanding what you are capable of doing with it. She takes that very seriously..she's really aware of just how dangerous she is.

Am I dangerous? She'd been thinking about that a lot lately.. as she got stronger, and felt her skills increasing. Just last week, she and Xena had been sparring, and she'd lost her balance while swinging full force. Xena had managed a minor miracle in preventing her own staff from connecting with Gabrielle's body, but in doing so, she'd been unable to prevent the bard's blow from hitting her. It had impacted the warrior's skull just over the ear, and taken her to her knees. Xena had stood up almost immediately, and brushed the injury off, but Gabrielle had seen the dazed look in those blue eyes, and it has scared her more than anything else she'd ever done, because she knew damn well just how tough Xena was, and what it took to hurt her.

She'd stopped, right there, put both of their staves up and walked Xena back to the cabin, aware of her whole body shaking in reaction. It had taken two days for her to get up the nerve to spar with the warrior again, and even then she wouldn't let herself go full force until Xena deliberately pushed her.

It had unnerved her almost as much as the day she realized Xena was no longer going half speed against her, the first time she'd looked across their crossed staves and seen the competitive fire strong in those eyes, that made her freeze, and back away, suddenly knowing what it felt like to really go up against her partner. She knew right then, in a very definite certainty, that she never wanted to repeat the experience for real.

So they thought she was helpless without the certainly daunting Xena, did they? That she hung around getting into trouble, and depending on Xena to get her out of it? She sat back in the chair, and stared out the window. That was true.. once. She admitted, and quite recently, too. But not anymore. She nodded a little at the incoming sunlight, letting her hands trail in Ares' warm fur. All right.. I’ll show them.

"Hey." Ephiny's drowsy voice interrupted her musings. "Dinar for your thoughts.. you look grim."

Gabrielle let out a long breath. "No.. just thinking.. of stuff. You know.. how are you feeling?"

The Amazon blinked at her wearily. "Lousy." She admitted. "Not coughing as much, but I feel like I've been run over by a chariot." She paused. "Being pulled by centaurs."

The bard scooted her chair over. "You look it." She informed the blond woman mercilessly. "Think I need to get some solid food into you." She smiled at Ephiny's wince. "Or at least some more soup."

The Amazon nodded a little. "How's the girls?" Her eyes flickered to Gabrielle's, noting the brief shadow that crossed the bard's normally open and friendly face. "Gab?"

"Fine.." Gabrielle answered, stirring a small pot on the fire. "Causing trouble.. they tied rabbit ears on the inn's goat.. and one of them fell in the henhouse and squashed a bunch of eggs."

Ephiny colored in embarrassment. "Gods. Sorry."

The bard looked over, and grinned. "Not your fault.. but I'm taking them out for some staff practice this morning, and then I think we'll all take a long walk out to the river and back this afternoon. Maybe that'll tire them out."

The blond woman sighed. "Thanks... didn't mean to saddle you with the little monsters." She gave Gabrielle an amused look. "Try not to break any of them, ok? You swing a mean staff."

The bard brought some soup over to her, and settled back down on her chair. "I'll try not to." Her brow creased. "Were we ever that young?"

Both of Ephiny's eyebrows shot up. "We??? Speak for yourself, you little sprout." She laughed, barely avoiding another coughing spell. "Listen to most certainly were that young, and not to damn long ago, either."

Gabrielle snorted softly. "I guess.. but I never acted like that...guess I just had other things to do.. besides.." She shrugged. "There weren't that many girls my age in Potadeia." Her gaze dropped, and she rested her elbows on her knees. "I had a lot of people to play with, and to do things with .. dances, that kind of thing." Her green eyes lifted and met Ephiny's. "But I had to go and almost get captured by raiders to find my first real best friend." She smiled, and gave her head a little shake. "Funny how life is."

"Yeah." The Amazon agreed softly. "Here.. let me see what I can do with that." She eased herself up a little, and took the small bowl of soup from Gabrielle's hands. Gods.. here I am always thinking that Xena is the one with all the skeletons in her mental closet. I keep forgetting how much Gabrielle's been through already..looks like she has a few sore spots too. "Well, if you don't mind me saying, if you had to wait until then at least it was worth the wait."

This got a brilliant full smile from the bard. "That's true, isn't it." She laughed. "That's so true."

Ephiny sipped her soup, and watched her friend's face from the corner of her eyes. "Did you guys hit it off right away or...? " A long pondered question resting in the back shelf of her curiosity.

Gabrielle snorted and rolled her eyes, then grew thoughtful. "I usually say no, because I had to chase her down. .argue with her for hours.. gods knows what to get her to let me stay with her but..." She paused and shook her tawny head. "Eph, there was something there from the first time we set eyes on each other... we both felt it."

The Amazon smiled, and sucked on the back of her spoon, having finished her soup. "Hey.. that's a wonderful thing to hear." She watched as the bard took the bowl back from her, and set it on the table. "Where did you say you were going to take them later?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "Oh.. down by the river, probably - it'll take us till after dark to get back. That ought to be enough."

The Amazon's eyes clouded. "Are you sure you.. " She hesitated, feeling the bard's hackles start to rise. "I mean, those brigands are out there.. I don't.."

"Look." Gabrielle's green eyes snapped. "Ephiny, I can take care of myself. ."

The blond woman raised a hand. "Not saying you can't.. but what's the point in taking needless risks? If something happens.."

"If something happens, I'll just have to deal with it." The bard answered. "Or are you saying you don't think I can?"

"Whoa!!!" Ephiny rasped. "Hold on. that's not what I'm saying at all." What brought THAT on?? "Just.. be careful, ok?" She took a breath. "Have pity on poor old Ephiny.. will you? Cause I'm the one who's going to have to face Xena if something happens to you." She waited a beat, watching the anger drain out of Gabrielle's face. "And I don't want to ever have to do that."

"I know." The bard said very quietly. "We're just going for a walk.. and yes, I'll be careful."

"You all right?" Ephiny asked, just as quietly. "You seem really on edge."

"Yeah, I'm fine." Gabrielle sighed, then patted her arm. "Sorry.. I'm just a little sensitive about that... I hate being treated like a kid.. as you know."

Ephiny gave her a look. "I know." She reached out and gave her a little poke. "But you do have the damnedest knack for getting in trouble."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Don't go there." She warned, standing up. "I gotta go change.. I'll be back after dinner, so you get some rest, OK?" She smiled a little. "Have I told you the story about Cecrops yet?"

Ephiny perked up. "The Lost Mariner? No.. "

"Later." The bard promised, and slipped out the door.

Xena opened one eye, and peered at the opening to the cave, pleased to see it was still dark out. Well.. that still works. She considered, then rolled onto her back, and stretched tentatively. Hmm. A moderately pleased look crossed her face. Not as bad as I'd expected. She glanced across the banked fire, at Iolaus' peacefully sleeping face, and a smirk crossed her own, remembering their conversation of last night. You owe me for that, bard.

Silently, she moved her blanket aside, and sat up, sitting cross-legged and folding the blanket neatly, then standing up and walking across the cave to the opening.

Dry air met her nose, and she grinned. The pre dawn sky was only beginning to lighten, but she could see a full compliment of stars, and knew the weather had, at least temporarily, cleared. That's a good sign. She nodded quietly to herself, stepping outside and feeling the brisk morning breeze picking up, lifting the hair from her shoulders and sending a pleasant shiver down her leather clad back. With a satisfied nod, she turned and moved back into the cave, stopping to pull a small pot from her kit, and filling it with water from her waterskin. She knelt and stirred the fire, enjoying the pleasant warmth on her face, and set the pot on to warm, then went back outside, and headed in the direction of the river.

Halfway there she decided a run to loosen up her muscles would be a good idea, so moments later she was bounding over the pine scattered ground, letting the wind push her hair back off her face, as she felt her heart move into that low, strong rhythm that sent a warming rush of blood to the edges of her skin.

Gods.. this feels good. She felt the ground begin to slope downward towards the water, and increased her pace, feeling a low laugh begin to bubble up as she leaped a runoff gully without missing a step, and felt the wind become charged with the river's moisture.

She rounded the last bend in on the turf, and almost stopped short, seeing what was ahead of her.

Horses. Wild ones, who were sipping at the river's edge, moving in ghostly shadows in the grayness of the dawn. Too late - they spotted her, and took off running, heading at an angle towards her, moving away from the river.

A wild glint sparked in her eyes, and she launched herself after them, picking up speed in her first few strides and moving across their path, causing them to scatter and slow, and allowing her to draw even with the snorting stallion, a great gray beast taller than Argo, with a coal black mane and tail.

He bolted, and ran for the trees, and Xena went with him, straining herself to the limit to stay even with the frantic beast, and realizing she was running out time, and room as the trees loomed close.

One powerful lunging stride, and she was next to him, reaching up , and grabbing his mane. Another coiling leap and she was up on his back, sliding her legs around his barrel chest, and hanging on for dear life.

He screamed, and bucked, showing his teeth and corkscrewing sideways, as all four feet left the ground at once, but the legs that clamped around him were relentless in their power, and he took off running again, trying to lose this annoying burr clinging to his back.

Xena let out a wild yell, and stuck with him, as the wind brought tears to her eyes with it's harsh coldness, and burned in her lungs. The stallion hurtled back towards the cave, shaking his head, unable to dislodge his rider, as the rest of the panicked herd followed along. He circled back towards the river, and this time drove towards it with manic intent, thinking to drown whatever it was that was on top of him.

Xena crouched low over his back, and enjoyed the ride, timing her leap with relentless precision as the animal thundered down the bank and into the water, leaving her high and dry and laughing in delight, as she fell back into the long river grasses, turning her face into the rising sun and feeling it's warmth on her closed eyelids. Oh.. wow.. that was great. Her mind sighed in contentment. What a way to start the day.

The stallion snorted, and plunged out of the water, making a wide circle around her and rolling his eyes in her direction. He led the herd down the river, occasionally turning his head to keep an eye on her sprawled form.

The warrior laughed softly, and rolled to her feet, padding down to the water, and plunging her head and upper body in, scrubbing herself vigorously. The icy liquid sent chills down her, but they felt good after the heat of her ride, and she twisted her hair to wring the excess water out of it, then shook her head to scatter the extra water over the area she was standing in. Oh yeah. She felt herself grinning. No cabin fever, huh ? You fraud. She mused in rueful self knowledge. This would have been just perfect if Gabrielle was here.. but then.. A darkly amused thought. She'd have killed me for jumping on that horse.. and it probably was a really dumb thing to do.

She broke into a jog back towards the cave, reveling in the morning sun, and the cold wind, and just being alive, opening her senses to the surrounding land and soaking in everything it had to offer. I wonder if there are any more of those little notes.. her mind mused, as she headed up the slope leading to the mouth of the cave, and saw Iolaus standing in the opening, hands on his hips. Just watching her.

No, no.. Xena, you are not going to tear apart your packs until you find them. No. Absolutely not. We have things to do, and places we have to be. Hercules, remember? "Morning Iolaus." She drawled, as she slowed to a halt near the entrance.

Iolaus had woken at the sun's first rays penetrated the cave mouth, and glanced around, surprised to see the other bedroll empty. He'd always assumed Xena woke up at dawn, like the rest of Western Civilization. Silly me.. he chuckled. Guess that's yet another assumption I can toss out with the bath water, huh?

Xena and Gabrielle. He laughed to himself. Who'd have thought it? And.. boy.. o boy.. o boy.. could he ever have fun with Hercules over this. Assuming Xena could get the big guy out this mess, that is. Iolaus paused, examining his thoughts. Well, if anyone can, it'd be her, right? He stood up, and stretched his small frame, rocking his head from side to side and listening to the painful cracking with a wince. Oh… Hera.. I forgot just how much I hate sleeping on the floor. Every bone in his body ached, and he briefly felt nostalgic for that nice soft bed in Xena's mom's inn. With a sigh, he walked over to the fire, charmed to see that Xena had put up some water before she'd left to..

Left to what? He wondered, and walked to the mouth of the cave, looking out on a beautiful day. Ah… that's more like it. A satisfied smile crossed his face, and he was about to turn around and go back inside when movement below him caught his attention. He walked a few steps from the cave entrance, and peered down, spotting what had caught his attention. Xena. Running. For no apparent reason other than because she could. Her body caught the rising sun and sent sparkles off the water which still beaded on her neck and chest, and danced off the brightness of her eyes.

Those eyes found his, as she ended her run right next to him. "Morning, Xena." He commented casually. "Do you always.. uh… run around in the dark before sunrise?"

The warrior snorted. "Depends." Then she allowed a faint grin to form. "Not lately."

"Ah.. too cold, huh?" Iolaus sympathized, rubbing his arms.

"Nope.. I've had better things to do." Xena drawled, watching a flush creep up his neck as he caught her meaning. She wiped a mischievous grin off her face, and jerked her head downslope. "River's that way. I'll brew up some tea, then we can pack up and get going. If we keep going until after moonrise tonight, we should be almost there."

He nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

Xena watched him trot down the path, and shook her head a bit, reentering the cave and crossing to her saddlebags, kneeling beside them and pulling out a warm tunic and leggings to put on over her leathers for traveling. Her hand paused over the neatly packed items, then dropped gently, and prodded them with one curious finger. No.. you are not going to hunt through this bag, you mushball. She paused. But I could look for that extra armor catch pin I was sure I packed in here…

Uh..right. She laughed helplessly at herself, as her fingers searched deftly, and fell on another neatly wrapped bundle. Gods.. I’m hopeless. With a satisfied chuckle, she pulled it out, and tossed it up once before catching it and stowing it with an air of martyrdom in her belt pouch. Later… later… come on now.. let's get going. She coaxed herself into standing, and sliding into the clothes, then stowing her bedroll and carrying both it and her bags over to where Argo was patiently waiting. "Hey girl.." Xena slapped the mare on the withers. "How are you feeling, huh?"

A snort from the mare.

"Aw, come on.. it's good for you." The warrior chuckled, walking over to the fire, and dumping the contents of a handful of herbs in the steaming water, sitting down next to the warmth to wait for the herbs to steep. Almost without her consent, her hand dropped to her pouch, and drew the little packet out, and she studied it carefully, then delicately unwrapped the bundle, and spread the parchment out flat on her knee. The stone she kept, fiddling with it unconsciously as she read.

I stand at the dawn of the world,

As the whole of creation waits in silence unending,

For the first ray to pierce the darkness,

The first sound break the stillness,

Then I stand here knowing the one thing that has always been

And always will be is my love for you.

Xena let out a little sigh, and gently touched the surface of the parchment with the tip of one finger, tracing the letters in that firm, distinctive hand. So beautiful.. I can't believe someone would write that.. for me. I don't deserve this. Oh gods. .I don't deserve her. I don't.. I know I'm going to do something to screw this up.

She closed her eyes, and just let the emotion crash over her for a moment. Then she drew in a deep breath, and straightened. No. This was meant to be… regardless of what I did before, or what I do later, this… was part of my destiny. I can't avoid it, I can't disregard it. We're part of each other.

Her pulse calmed down, and she reread the scrap, this time letting a smile form, then folded the paper up, and carefully tucked it away, as she heard Iolaus coming up the path. She poured the tea into two travel cups, and handed one to the blond man as he walked in shivering. "Gods!" He gasped, taking the cup gratefully. "That water's damn cold, Xena!"

Eliciting a derisive snort from the warrior. "Get over it, Iolaus. Hades, men are such wimps."

"What?" He protested, warming his hands on the cup and taking a deep swallow. "We are not." He gave her a look. "We’re lots tougher than women."

Xena's eyebrows curved up, and a competitive glint formed in her ice blue eyes. "Oh yeah?"

"Well.. yeah!" Iolaus answered, realizing too late what he was saying. Oh.. shit. "I mean.. well, you know.. what I mean, Xena.. I mean.. the average guy might be a wimp.. but us unaverage hero types… that's a different story.. and of course, I certainly wasn't referring to YOU when I said guys were tougher.. uh.. no.. everyone knows you're about the toughest thing going, right? Men, women, dogs,.. trees.. you beat them all." He paused, out of breath. "Right?"

A devilish gleam in those clear blue eyes, that even he could recognize. "Don't hurt me?" He squeaked, closing his eyes tightly. "Please?"

Felt a hand on his shoulder. "Relax… I was just kidding." Xena assured him, with a grin. "I'm sure you're very tough, Iolaus. After all, you survive traveling with Hercules, right."

He cracked an eye open and regarded her thoughtfully. "So.. what does that say for Gabrielle?"

Xena rolled her eyes. "Come on, let's get going."

Gabrielle settled her staff into it's accustomed corner, and dusted her hands off as she entered the cabin, a pleased smile on her face. "That felt good, right Ares?" She pulled the wolf's ears gently, and took a deep breath. "Five energetic young Amazons, and I just ran them into the ground."

She ran her fingers through her damp hair, and smiled a touch smugly, feeling pleasantly tired but not much more. "Time for lunch, then we go down to the river." She informed the wolf, as she stripped off her workout tunic, and crossed to the water basin, dampening a scrap of linen, and running it over her body to rinse off the sweat and dust of the practice yard.

Finishing, she caught a glimpse of her profile in the mirror, and gazed at it for a minute, resting her hand just below her rib cage and running her fingers down her belly.. She laughed shortly, then shook her head. "No.. I don't think they'd mistake me for the village milkmaid, Ares." She moved and watched the muscles shift under her skin in idle fascination. "No wonder Lila freaked out." She felt a wondering smile cross her face.

It seemed strange to see that in herself, though she was more than used to seeing that shift and play under Xena's darker skin. "That's kind of cool." She concluded, finishing up her washing and pulling on a fresh tunic, then dropping onto the bed to rest for a minute, lying flat on her back and spreading her arms out wide.

It had felt really good.. seeing the slowly growing respect in those young eyes facing her, as she ran them through teaching drills she used with the villagers. She'd had to.. Her face broke into a smile. She'd had to go half speed with them, since her full force strikes would have taken their staves from their hands, but it was a fun session. She shifted her shoulders, feeling the tightness and pleasant ache in her muscles and spared a wistful wish for her partner, whose skilled hands would be very much appreciated right now.

"Wonder if she found any of the poems, Ares? You think?" She mumbled to the wolf, who had jumped up next to her on the bed and was curled up against her side contentedly. "Nah..I'm sure she's way too busy for that... she doesn't really have time for that stuff, right?" She sighed ruefully. "I'm the dreamy eyed romantic one of this partnership." Which.. was understandable.. and she had come to accept and appreciate her partner’s coolly logical mind and pragmatic sensibilities.

She rolled over, and pulled her scroll case from the small table on the side of the bed, and opened it, taking out her diary and a quill. As she pulled the diary out, a small object fell out onto the bed, and she stared at it.

A small wooden bear stared back at her, seated, it's tiny legs outstretched, and it's front paws clasped in front of it. Clutched in the paws was a tiny, dried sprig of buds, which sent up to her the vaguest scent of summer.

"Oh." She breathed softly, taking the object up in gentle fingertips and studying it. "That's so adorable." She grinned, and caught her lip between her teeth. "Just when I think I have her figured out... " Lifting the bear to her lips, she gave it a kiss, then settled him down on the bed's uneven surface, and opened her diary, reveling in the warm happiness that settled over her.

She wrote steadily for several minutes, smiling a little at her words and stealing the occasional glance at her silent ursine companion. Ares lifted a curious head, and sniffed the bear, then gave it a solitary lick, and went back to sleep, with a little sigh.

All right.. so it's what, one full day now? I already miss her so bad it's making my teeth hurt. Is that the dumbest thing ever, or what? I keep wondering what she's doing..if she's punched Iolaus yet.. did they find shelter last night.. I hope so. I'd hate to think of her sleeping out in that weather, though we've both done it before.

This is silly. We're two adults. We should be able to spend a couple of days away from each other without behaving like a pair of lovesick kids. Right? Sure. So that's why I tuck little notes away for her, and why I get surprises like my cute friend here. Am I a woman, or am I just a stuffed cuddly mush toy? Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Guess that answers that.

I love her. I guess I can put that down a thousand times in this diary, and I'll never get tired of seeing it.. or shaping the words She loves me. And knowing that means more to me than anything else ever has. Or ever will.

Now it's time for me to switch gears, and change from warrior to bard, from teaching a weapon skill to teaching history through my stories. The challenge is making as big of an impact with words as with wood. I think I enjoy the challenge.

After a bit, she sat back and reread her entry, then blew gently on the damp ink, and let it dry. "All right. Ares.. let's go get some lunch, OK?" She ruffled the wolf's fur, and he raised his muzzle and nudged her. "Then you can go with us to the river. You'd like that right?"

"Roo." Ares agreed solemnly, as he rose and stretched, jumping off the bed and joining her at the door.

She entered the inn, blinking a little in the cool darkness, and made eye contact with Cyrene who waved her over. "Hi." Gabrielle smiled, and settled herself into the chair across from the innkeeper. "That's a really pretty shirt." And a new one, I think.. hmm…..

"Thanks, cutie." Cyrene laughed. "It's a new one.. Johan took pity on me."

Gabrielle's sense for intrigue sharpened, and she studied the older woman's face. "That was really nice of him." She drawled. "What the occasion?" Her eyes sparkled.

Got a pair of raised eyebrows from Cyrene. "None, that I know of.." She muttered. "Just being nice I guess..."

"Oh." The bard smiled knowingly. "I see." She pulled her bear from her belt pouch and set it on the table. "See what I found mysteriously tucked in with my scrolls?" Let's see if I can poke this out from another direction.

Cyrene reached over and picked the bear up, turning it in her fingers with a deep sigh. "Did she do this?"

The bard nodded. "Yep.. I didn't even know she could carve until we were home last time."

The innkeeper gave her head a little rueful shake. "She was just starting to.. do that when Cortese came." She studied the wooden bear. "Looks like she kept up the practice." Her eyes flicked up to Gabrielle's curiously. "What's the occasion?"

Gabrielle cupped her chin in her hands, and grinned. "None that I know of... just being nice, I guess." Her green eyes twinkled, as Cyrene caught the deliberate mimicking and blushed. Bullseye…. Ooo.. Gabrielle, when you are good, you are really bad. Bad bard.

"Gabrielle, you wipe those thoughts right out of your cute little head." The older woman scolded her, shaking a finger at the bard.

"What thoughts, mom?" Came the innocent reply. "I don't know what you're talking about." She stood up, and recaptured her bear. "I'm gonna go grab some bread for lunch.. "

And got about two steps, before Cyrene was hauling her down from behind. "What? I saw you out there all morning, you scamp. Sit down."

Agreeably, she complied, sitting down and leaning back in her chair, idly listening to the subdued hum of voices around her. The door opened, and Cait slipped in, spotting her and gliding across the wooden floor to her tableside. "Hey Cait.." The bard waved her towards a seat.

"Hello." Cait said, with her quiet smile, and settled herself. "That was a grand time. Thank you."

Gabrielle smiled back at her. "Anytime, Cait... it was a good workout for me, too." She looked up as one of the inn servers strolled over, with a large pot of something, and a few plates. "Whoa.. what's all that?"

The girl, Sophia, grinned. "I was told to bring this out.. I think it's your lunch." She set the covered pot down, and lifted the lid, stirring the contents and letting a delicious steam waft over the table. "Lamb stew, it is." She put down a loaf of bread. "Tuck in." She added cheerily, and sauntered away.

Gabrielle peered into the pot, and shook her head with a laugh. "She's overestimating my capacity, that's for sure. C'mon, Cait - give me a hand with this." She ladled a large portion into a bowl, and handed it over to the blond girl, then served herself an equal portion. They both took chunks of bread, and started eating.

"Gosh, this is good." Cait sighed. "I do like living with the Amazons, but their food's ever so bland." She glanced up at Gabrielle, who swallowed a mouthful and grinned.

"I know." She whispered. "Shh."

"Listen, I'm really sorry about the goat." Cait said, with a grave look. "And they really didn't mean to pull *all* the feathers out of that rooster's tail."

Gabrielle grinned. "Just some of them, huh?? Don't worry, worse things have been done to roosters around here." She commented wryly. "Any particular story *you* want to hear today?" She leaned forward and smiled. "Oh.. and I hear you tell a mean story yourself, by the way."

Cait grinned back at her. "It was a lovely subject." She spooned in a few more mouthfuls. "I like any kind of story.. though I do like to hear about battles." Her pale eyes found Gabrielle's shyly. "Everyone is terribly jealous of you, I'm afraid."

"Of me?" The bard questioned, gazing at her. "Why?"

Cait giggled. "Why? Oh.. well then.. let's see. You're a Amazon Queen, you're terribly lovely, you're simply the best with that staff, and you live with Xena." She snorted with laughter at Gabrielle's expression. "Did I leave anything out??" She paused. "You do blush, don't you."

The bard took a breath, and folded her arms across her chest, waiting for the heat in her face to subside a little. "Thanks, Cait." She muttered. "But... being a queen isn't always fun, I'd don't think I'm particularly good looking, I've got a lot to learn about that staff, and..." Here she paused. "Well, I wouldn't trade Xena for anything or anyone on earth." She blushed again.

Cait kept silent for a bit, then cleared her throat. "Someone once told me that... life is a very hard thing.. and that you go through all the rough bits to make the good bits all that much better. " She paused thoughtfully. "They said.. the brightest spot is having someone else to care for, who cares for you, and that will let you endure all the darkness in the world."

Gabrielle smiled to herself, and gave Cait a little nod. "That was a very wise person, Cait."

The girl looked up directly into her eyes, and grinned. "That was Xena."

The bard felt her breath catch. "Was it?" She breathed, then laughed softly. "Imagine that."

They finished lunch in relative quiet. "Cait, I'm just going to poke my head in to check how Eph is doing. Can you get the girls together, and we'll head off? I'll pick up some traveling bread to tide us over until dinner, OK?" The bard put a hand on the blond girl's shoulder. "I've decided to take you all up to a favorite place of mine." The quiet, hidden dell, where she could get them focused on her.

"Right." Cait smiled. "We'll meet you back here shortly then." She glided out of the room, and headed up the stairs, pausing on the landing and looking back. "You made them all need to take a nap, you know." And the girl winked a sober gray eye at her.

Gabrielle laughed to herself. Now I know how Xena feels. A little. She pushed the door to Ephiny's room open, and peeked in, seeing the healer Renaas at her bedside. The healer half turned, and put a finger to his lips, then rose, and moved towards her, backing her out into the inn and closing the door.

"She's sleeping… it looks better." Renaas said softly, giving her a smile. "Not that I had anything to do with it… she's a strong woman, and that mixture you've been giving her is nothing short of brilliant."

Gabrielle smiled. "Tell Xena when she gets back. It's her own stuff." She gave a sober nod. "I'm going to take the kids out for some lessons.. I should be back shortly after dark.. she'll be ok till then?"

Renaas nodded. "Sure.. I'll look in on her again.. and don't you worry. Get out and get some fresh air, while we have the weather for it. Gods only know how long this will last."

Several candlemarks later, she was outside the inn, gathering her little group up, and waving a wry goodbye to a relieved Cyrene. "Be back for late dinner, mom." She called.

"You'd better be." The innkeeper threatened. "I'd hate for this whole batch of cakes to go to waste."

"Ohhh…" The bard laughed. "Say no more.. we'll be here." She turned, and led the way out of the village, already starting on a story as they walked.

"You know Xena…' Iolaus commented, shifting to ease the strain on his back from very long hours in the saddle. "Not that I need it, right.. but oh say.. a stretch might be a good idea.. you know, in case we have to.."

Xena turned her head and looked at him, curving one eyebrow up. "Iolaus, it's ok to ask me to stop. I'm pushing on because we're trying to get to Hercules… I'm not trying to kill either of us." A pause. "OK?" She reined Argo in, and kicked loose of her stirrups, swinging a leg over the horse's arched neck and sliding to earth with a snort, bending her knees to take the impact of her body hitting the ground. "C'mon, Argo.. I hear a stream over there."

She walked the mare over to the trickling mountain stream, and dropped the reins, then seated herself against a nearby tree, and sighed. It was already dark, but they'd made very good time, and would be within visual range of the castle by dawn if they kept moving. Her eyes studied the stiffly walking Iolaus, and glinted with humor momentarily. Guess I didn't lose as much conditioning as I thought.. She mused idly. I feel pretty good.. guess all that running around hunting counted for something after all. She uncapped her waterskin and took a long pull, feeling the cold liquid sink down her throat and into her stomach, which, it suddenly reminded her, was mostly empty. "Hey Iolaus.." She called, rising to her feet and going to Argo's saddlebags.

"Ah.. yes?" The blond man ambled closer, putting his hands behind his head and rocking backwards. "Ouch." He hissed.

"Let's stop and eat something." The warrior commented, pulling a few bricks of trail food from her pack and tossing Iolaus one. She studied his face, then chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Listen.. let's make a fire, and rest for a while.. I'd like to keep going tonight, so we get there at dawn. You think you can do that?"

His pale eyes jerked up, and met hers. "Um… sure." Stuffing the bar in his mouth, he looked around. "Let me get some wood." He gathered dry kindling, while she carefully cut out a circle in the sparse turf, packing the ground down and handing him her flint and iron. "Here.. start that." She paused. "You like fish?"

"Fish?" Iolaus glanced up, a surprised look on his face. "Well.. sure.. I love them, but we really don’t have time to do any of.. Xena? What.. where are you… "

The warrior just walked away, heading towards the stream, and settling on a rock at it's side to pull her boots off, and twist her dark hair up out of the way. "Be right back." She cast him an amused look, and waded into the creek.

What on earth is she doing? Iolaus wondered. Maybe she's swimming. She seems like the kind of person who would like swimming, right? He watched her go still, and the dark head cock to one side, barely visible in the moonlight. Gentle pale beams caught the skin of her arms, then shivered into wild reflections as she moved, and he heard a splash, and then a chuckle.

Then she was wading back out, and holding up one hand, which was tangled in the gills of a large trout, flapping helplessly in her grasp. "Looks like dinner to me." She walked barefoot back over him, and deftly killed and cleaned the fish, then pierced the flesh with two sharp sticks and set it over the newly dancing fire to cook.

"Wow." Iolaus laughed, sitting down hard on the ground and regarding her. "You're quite the hunter, aren't you ?"

One dark eyebrow rose. "You forget.. I have to keep Gabrielle fed. Keeps my skills at a razor's edge." She rose and carefully buried the fish cleanings, then went back and pulled her boots back on, resettling the heavy armor with a swift thump. "If you want to put some water up, I've got some tea left. "

The blond man hauled himself to his feet, and retrieved the small water pot from Argo's pack, dipping it in the creek and returning to settle it near the heat, and resume his relaxed posture on the ground. Well… he mused. This isn't really so bad… I can't believe I was so intimidated by her.. must be old, bad memories. She's actually kind of OK.. "Hey Xena?"

"Mmm?" The warrior walked over, having washed her knife and hands in the creek, and settled down near him, reaching over and turning the fish a bit. "What?" She rested her elbows on her crossed knees, and turned her gaze towards him, watching the firelight flicker off his face.

"Um.. listen, I know we've.. kind of had our differences sometimes.. but I want you to know how much I appreciate you coming out here like this." He studied his hands, not able to meet those piercing blue eyes he knew were looking his way. "It means a lot to me, knowing I had somewhere to turn." Now he finally glanced up, and was captured by her smile.

"Iolaus… I'm glad you thought of me when you needed a f.. needed help, I mean." She changed course in mid sentence, knowing there was too much between them to talk of friendship. "I hope I can fix this… for your sake as well as his." She plucked the fish from the fire, and handed him his half, giving him a slab of bark to hold it over. "Here… it tends to fall to pieces."

Iolaus took the stick and bark, and began to chew on the fish thoughtfully. "Xena?" He stopped, after a few swallows, watching her pick pieces off her own portion, and put them in her mouth, a distracted look on her face.

"Huh?" The blue eyes snapped back into focus, and fastened on him. "Sorry.. just thinking." She gave her head a little shake, and blinked, letting a tiny, rueful grin cross her face. "What did you want?"

Iolaus hesitated. I want to know what you were just thinking about.. but I guess you won't tell me.. so.. "The castle is supported by a mining colony. That's how they make their living - the miners are conscripted from the surrounding villages, and taken to the pits.. if they misbehave, then they're taken to the dungeons." He stopped, fiddling with his now empty stick. " That's where Herc is." He finished quietly.

Xena considered this. "So.. the fastest way to get to him would be to get conscripted, then punch someone." She boiled his theory down to it's essentials.

"Well… " Iolaus chuckled in a surprised way. "Yeah.. I guess you could put it that way." He shrugged. "It took me forever to get into the castle.. I had to wait for a merchant train and sneak in with them. So… do you mind?"

"Mind being captured? Or punching someone?" Xena gave him a little grin. "I guess I can survive being press ganged.. and the punching thing I think I have down pat." She leaned back on her hands and sighed. "It's not a great plan, but it's a plan, and it's fast… I just hope we can figure out what to do with him once we're in there. What if.." She paused thoughtfully. "Iolaus, was there anything different about him? Other than the obvious, that is."

The blond man's brow creased. "Different.. hm…. He'd changed clothes.. had some soft leather stuff on, very dark. " He said, slowly. "Other than that.. no.. well, some jewelry.. that was strange, you know he doesn't go for that kind of thing usually."

Xena absorbed this in silence. "Interesting." She finally commented. "And you said he told you he'd found the place he was meant to be?"

Iolaus nodded mutely, watching the thoughts whirling obviously behind those intense eyes. "What.. do you know what's…" He broke off at her shaking head.

"No.. I'm just trying to think of what in Hades could cause that kind of personality change." The warrior replied with a sigh. "I don't know of any herbs.. or drugs.. "

"The dragon poison.." Iolaus ventured, seeing her scowl at the words. "No?"

"You two and your monsters." Xena sighed. "Not that I ever heard of.. it usually kills."

Iolaus considered that for a minute. "Well, he's half god…"

The warrior sighed. "Maybe… I don't know. We'd better get going though.." She glanced up at the prominent stars. "Glad the weather held."

Iolaus nodded, then started to rise, and hissed in pain. "Oh.. Gorgons." He gave Xena an apologetic look. "Not really used to riding…"

Xena regarded him, and let a half grin shape her mouth. "Iolaus, do you trust me?"

That got a long, long look back, from wary pale eyes. "Uh.. well… yes." Came the answer finally, doubtfully.

"Turn around." That low voice sent chills down his back, but he did what she asked, facing the path, and turning his back on the fire. And her. A faint sound of movement, then suddenly warm hands were clasping his shoulders and kneading with a fierce stregnth. "Yahh.. what… oh." He fell silent, as the pressure moved down his spine, sending little tingles across his body, followed by a relaxation of the tense soreness from the long day's riding. I can't believe I'm letting her do this… but it feels too good to stop. He felt Xena complete her task, then rest her hands briefly on his shoulders again.

"Better?" Quiet, matter of fact.

"Much." He answered honestly, turning his head to look at her. "Thanks."

"No problem." Xena clapped him on the back and stood up. "Let's get going."

They doused the fire, and carefully scattered the branches, then repacked the gear and mounted, heading their horses back towards the dim path heading ever upward.

"That was a lovely one.. can we have one more?" Sharra begged, as Gabrielle checked the rising moon. "I know it's late but.." She snuggled down into her thick cloak, and smiled, as the bard ducked her head in acquiescence. Well.. I said we'd be back after dark. It's not that late yet…

"All right.. one more, but then we have to go. It's late, and they're going to worry about us." Gabrielle scolded them, but settled back and stretched her legs out before her. "Have you heard the one about.." Her voice, slightly rough around the edges from use, carried over the dim, cool glen. She was enjoying the rapt attention of her small audience, and the opportunity to tell some of her partner's most heroic tales without having to face the pained eye rolling from their subject.

And the girls were eating up every word… she sensed a distinct glazed hero worship floating around the glade, and with a slightly guilty pleasure, indulged her own usually well hidden share of it. Not that she, more than anyone else, didn't know and understand her partner's faults, but…she shrugged and continued the story.

They had made a fire, and were seated in a circle around it, avidly listening to her weave stories and enjoying the solemnly quiet surroundings. The dell was an interesting place.. a round circle of trees that surrounded a depression in the ground, forming a kind of bowl. There were rocks to sit on, and a small trickling pool on one side which had cut into the limestone ground and made odd shapes around it's edge.

Gabrielle loved this place, it being a usual afternoon haunt for her and Xena, a place for them to sit in private solitude, just listening to the forest around them, and watching the light change. Right now, it was bare of leaves, winter setting the dry branches to rattling on each other, but that didn't diminish the wonderful atmosphere of peace. She knew Xena sometimes came here late at night, after her drills, and simply sat and looked up at the stars and she'd found handfuls of tiny wood shavings, no doubt from the warrior's carving work.

Finally, she wound the story to a close, and stifled a yawn. "That's all.. my voice is going." She smiled at them. "We'd better get back."

They put out the fire, and tidied up the area, chattering softly between themselves and gathering their stuff, then joined her at the small path which led up out of the bowl. "This is a great place." Elianas said, with a grin. "Do you come out here all the time?"

The bard motioned her to go up the path ahead of her, and stood easily, weight half resting on her staff as they did so. "In good weather, sure. I do.. um" She paused, then blushed a little. "We.. do all the time."

That got five knowing grins back, and she just waved them on. "Come on.. let's get moving." Kids. Her mind sighed. One track minds. Then she laughed at herself. Yeah.. sure.. and just exactly what were you thinking about at exactly that moment? Hmm?? The warm memories swirled around her, and she abandoned herself to them for a short time, remembering the pressure of arms around her, and the comforting presence of her absent soulmate.

Then she sighed deeply, sensing the subtle ache of their separation, and followed the girls out of the dell, and onto the narrow, tree shadowed path leading back to the village. Cait walked at her side, glancing from side to side with an easy alertness that put a smile on the bard’s face. Ares trotted off into the brush, sniffing at something, then moved out of sight.

The only warning they had was a rustling of dead leaves, and then a night mare of intent faces surrounded them, with arms reaching, and weapons brandished. Gabrielle backed up, and brought her staff up, catching the first of them soundly in the head, then swinging around to deal with the next, but felt the sudden burn of ropes as a net settled over her. Hades.. Her mind panicked, and she struggled hard against the net, lunging forward and slamming her staff against the man who was holding one end, and hearing him gasp and curse as he dropped to his knees.

Cait had whirled, and was trying to pull free from the two shadowy figures who had grabbed her, twisting and writhing, and putting several well placed kicks to good use. But the man to her left raised one arm, and slammed it against her head, and she went limp.

Gabrielle saw, and redoubled her efforts, but the straining against the rope and the multiplying hands around her were beginning to take their toll, and she made one last, desperate rolling move, seeing the club coming at her seconds too late to avoid it. "No…." Her voice cut off as the wood made contact with her skull.

The impact shook her to her very soul, and sent a wave of painful blackness over her senses.

Continued in Part 5

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