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

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence – Where there is Xena, there will be violence. It’s just one of those things. But this kind is not too graphic, and we avoid mentions of limbs being chopped off and used for kindling, or any description of eyeballs being gouged out by an errant chakram, or anything like that.

Subtext – Subtext R Us. This story, as was the last one, and the one before that which flowed like a sargassum monster from my terminal , based on the supposition that it’s about two women who love each other a whole lot. Once again, there is nothing graphic, but the theme does wrap itself throughout the story, and if you can’t take this, go read some other nice piece of fan fiction. I will make my usual statement – if love offends you, drop me a note with your snail mail address, and I will send you some authentic, found in Southernmost Florida only, key lime pie. (just the thing for hot summers.) Because I really do feel bad for you.

There are characters in this story that originated in a little ditty I wrote called A Warrior by Any Other Name. Don't feel bad if you don't know who they are. Don't feel that you have to read the original story to figure them out - I've tried to give lots of hints.

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

Melissa Good

Bound – Part 1

By Melissa Good

The edge of the lake lapped eagerly at the rock strewn shore, making small gurgling noises as it cascaded in and out of the granite outcroppings that lined it’s edge. Its cold depths were irregular, formed from the removal of tons of stone for building down range in the large cities that lined the plateau below.

Around the lake was a dense circle of old forest trees, with aging bark thick with fungus, and hanging with delicately airy moss that lent a musky scent to the already richly textured air. Small chitterings attested to the presence of squirrels, but their activity was slow and lethargic, in this, the winter of the year that urged them more to sleep than industry, living off the nuts stored securely in their knotted lairs.

One squirrel sat perched on a tall limb, and curiously watched the goings on in a small, neatly laid camp just below, having gotten used to the steady rhythmic thunks of steel on wood being generated by a tall, dark haired human who was patiently reducing fallen, dried limbs to kindling, as the dying light of the day turned her dark leathers golden, and flashed warm highlights off the smooth movements of her broad shoulders and muscular arms.

 Xena glanced up and watched her partner out of the corner of her eye as Gabrielle trudged over and gathered another armload of the wood she was chopping, and carried it over to the cleared fire circle, laying the sticks down with a practiced hand. The bard had been pretty quiet all day, and her face and movement indicated, to Xena at least, that there was something bothering her.

Do I call her on it? She mused, turning her attention back to the task at hand. Or do I let it be? After all, everyone’s entitled to be in a bad mood now and then. Gods knows I often am, and she has the sense to let me be when I get that way. I should do the same, right? She chopped another large limb down, moving the ax with negligent skill. On the other hand, she’s not being obvious about it, and she deserves there right to keep some thoughts to herself. Though.. Her lips twitched slightly That’s been pretty hard for both of us, lately.

"Xena?" The bard’s voice carried, from near the fire circle. "Sorry.. don’t know what’s with me today, but I can’t get this started. Could you.."

The warrior smiled, and flipped the ax into the next branch, then dropped the limb to the ground and dusted her hands off. "Sure." She padded over to where Gabrielle was kneeling, and crouched down, taking the flint and striker from her, and giving them a sharp blow together, dropping a small cascade of sparks onto the tinder. Another strike, and more sparks, and then Gabrielle was blowing gently on the tinder, and setting it to the kindling, with a sigh of relief.

"Thanks." She patted Xena’s knee, and let her hand rest there. "You have a real knack for that."

"Practice." Xena chuckled, and covered the bard’s hand with her own. And was unable to stop herself from asking. "You look a little down. Everything OK?"

Gabrielle’s fingers curled around hers and squeezed. "Yeah..I’m just a little tired." Her eyes searched Xena’s with warm attention. "Thanks for asking, though."

And then again, sometimes I just get lucky. Xena thought to herself. "Why don’t you go relax for while. I’m going to see what I can find to add to our cold stuff for dinner. How’d you like some hot soup for a’s a little chilly tonight."

"Hot soup." The bard repeated, letting a grin slowly form. "That would be…awesome." Hot anything.. at this point. She sighed to herself. She hated having her cycles, and this month’s was the worst she could recall in recent memory. The nagging cramping was making her tired, and irritable..and she hated being both. Damned if she was going to complain to Xena about that, though. No way..the woman suffers through broken ribs in silence..she doesn’t need me whining about a stomach ache.

"You sure.." Xena studied her closely. "something else isn’t wrong?"

Gabrielle sighed in vexation. Sometimes.. "Yes." She gritted out, between clenched teeth. "I’m very sure." Hearing the irritation in her voice, and wincing at the reaction in Xena’s eyes.

But the warrior merely patted her hand, and nodded. "OK. I’ll be back." She said, as she stood up and took breath, before walking to where Argo was cropping the sparse undergrowth and taking a shortbow from her pack. Turning before she walked off into the woods and gazing back, taking in Gabrielle’s blinked apology, and returning it with a slight quirk of her lips. "If you want to heat some water…"

The bard nodded. "I will." And watched her back until she disappeared into the growing gloom of the forest. Feeling her heart following, which caused a smile to cross her face. With a groan, she stood, and, grabbing the smaller of the cooking pots, crossed over to the lake and tested a handful of the water before filling the pot with it. Not bad..she mused. A little tangy. She straightened up, with a wince, and carried the pot back over to the fire, letting it rest firmly on two flat stones nestled in the wood put there for exactly that purpose.

"Well, that worked." She remarked to the attentive Ares, who was curled up on the sleeping fur, watching her every movement. Walking over to the supplies, she picked up a bag of assorted dried vegetables, and dumped it in the water, with a satisfied sigh. Even if the unthinkable happened, and Xena actually managed to not catch anything.. the vegetables would at least provide a tasty broth. And the thought of hot liquid warming her aching belly was very welcome.

She left the water to heat, and, grabbing her scroll case, collapsed on the sleeping fur next to the wolf. "Move over, Ares." She sighed, and curled up on her side, resting her head on one elbow, and pulling out her diary and a quill.

The darkening forest closed it’s fragrant leaves around Xena’s shoulders like an embrace, and she stopped for a long moment, to breathe in the scents around her. The musky moss made an interesting counterpoint to the thick smell of decomposing vegetation that littered the floor, making the ground slide under her boots, and causing her to step cautiously. Her mind, however, returned to her partner, and her bad mood. Xena considered a moment, then her face cleared, and an understanding grin lit her face. She chuckled as she started pacing deeper into the forest, keeping her ears cocked. First things first. She mused. Let’s get dinner, then….

Heard the faint double thump that said rabbit to her sense, and froze, waiting. Until she saw the barest hint of motion upwind of her.

Tender shoots, a rarity for this time of year, had coaxed the wild hares out of their snug dens, and two of them were making their cautious way into the tiny clearing just in front of where Xena was watching. Her eyebrow curved up, and she gripped the shortbow, pulling an arrow out of the quiver strapped to her back with smooth economy.

They were a beautiful black and white pelted variety that Xena had never seen before, and she spared them a moments admiration before she nocked the shaft, and drew it back, until the feathers were even with her ear. And waited, with a patience natural to the wilds around her, until the animals were side by side, and had their bodies lengthwise towards her.

Releasing the shaft, she watched with cool interest as the arrow sped true, and took them both in the chest, pinning them together in death.

One would have been enough for dinner.. but somehow.. the thought of separating the two creatures, obviously mates, had never crossed Xena’s mind, until she was crouching over them, and removing the arrow. And she sat down hard on the ground and considered that, letting her fingers ruffle through the soft, blood stained fur. So.. my perceptions certainly have changed, haven’t they. She mused to herself, with a brief smile.

The month since they’d left Potadeia had been one of adjustments for both of them, and the most profound adjustment had been to the almost overwhelming sensitivity they now had to each other. It was an openness that was at once frightening and exhilarating, and that neither of them had any defenses against. Xena found herself continuing their usual bantering and teasing, but even in her most irritable moods, she found her biting comments tempered with an automatic gentleness that surprised her.

And Gabrielle… the warrior smiled. She’d be in one of her full fledged outraged tantrums about something Xena had done, or said, or… and then she’d just look over at her, and their eyes would meet, and she would lose her train of thought, and end up just coming over and usually resting her head against Xena’s shoulder with a helpless laugh. "I keep trying.." she had said. "but I just can’t get mad at you anymore."

Xena shook her head, as she set to work skinning the rabbits, taking care with the pelts, and removing the heads. She got them bundled up neatly, and stood, collecting her bow, and started back for the campsite. Halfway there, she caught a familiar smell, and stopped, sidetracking into a thick copse of low-lying bushes. "Thought so." She laughed, as she spotted the berries, two kinds, both of which Gabrielle had an inordinate fondness for.

"Two with one stone, too." As she examined one kind, and collected a handful of the leaves, which she tucked away in pouch slung from one of the buckles in her leathers. She put the rabbits down, and pulled off a fronded leaf from a nearby tree, expertly weaving the leaves together to form a rough basket.

"OH yeah..I think this’ll be a good idea." Xena sighed, as she filled the basket with blackberries and raspberries. Besides.. her mind added wryly I like them too. And I forgot that we usually cycle together, when I do at all. She was too hard on her body, she knew, for any kind of regular cycle, but on the rare occasion she did, it was always in sync with Gabrielle. Wonder why she just didn’t say that was the problem..she’s usually not shy about that. Xena’s eyebrows drew close in puzzlement. "Guess I could just ask her." She remarked to the berries, which winked richly back at her. She popped one in her mouth, and chewed. "Oh boy..I’ll be lucky to get any of these." She mumbled, then stood and picked up the rabbit, and broke into a casual run back towards the camp.

It’s been a time for changes, for both of us. Gabrielle wrote, then paused and chewed on the edge of her quill. And it’s been wonderful. We are, really, partners now.. I can feel the difference, and I don’t feel like some tagalong kid anymore. I know she’s still afraid for my safety.. gods, do I know..we’ve got so much more to lose now. Her heart clenched, as it always did, when she though about that. And I’m afraid for hers, because the more we let this go, the more we become part of each other, the more frightening our lives become. But I wouldn’t give up one single moment of this, not for anything in the world. Even with the risks. And.." She felt a smile appear unbidden on her face. I think she feels the same way. No.. Gabrielle sighed, and looked up at the darkening sky. I know she does.

She stretched a little, and groaned, waiting for a spasm to pass. She was usually luckier than this, and Xena.. she rolled her eyes. Didn’t have to worry about it most of the time. She took a breath, and continued writing. I’m sorry I snapped at her. I shouldn’t have.. I know she’s just.. she knew something’s wrong, and she just wants to help. But.. how can I explain to her that I want to live up to her example, not have her have to coddle me? I want to be able to stand what she does, and bear up under impossible conditions, and keep going on , in the face of problems. Not have her have to solve my problems for me.

Felt the warrior’s presence a long beat before she appeared, and was looking in the exact place she moved out of the forest in, fading from a faint pale blur into the reality of her leather clad form, carrying two bundles, and sporting a relaxed grin that went right to Gabrielle’s heart. Must have been a good hunt. She mused, then lifted a hand and waved. "Hey… that was fast."

Xena shrugged, as she knelt by the steaming pot, and sniffed appreciatively. She unwrapped the rabbit, and slid the parts into the water, putting the skins aside for later washing and tanning. Then she grabbed the small water pot they used for tea, and crossed to the lake sure, scrubbing her hands and arms well before filling the pot with water, and moving back to the fire.

"Yeah, found a couple of rabbits not far from here." She remarked casually, removing the leaves from her pouch, and tearing them into thin strips, depositing them into a cup she set down next to her. And waited, patiently, for the water in the small pot to boil, then poured the water on top of the leaves, and let them steep.

Stealing occasional glances at Gabrielle, who had gone back to her writing, taking the opportunity to admire the way the now dancing firelight outlined the supple smoothness of her face, and cast shadows from her brows, drawn in concentration over what she was doing. Ok..ok.. let’s get this show on the road, now Xena. Stop daydreaming. She laughed at herself, and added a good dollop of honey to the cup she was stirring, then picked it up and carried both it, and the leaf basket of berries over to the sleeping fur. "Mind if I join you?" She drawled, lowering herself to one knee, then settling cross-legged next to the bard’s curled form.

"Don’t be dumb." Gabrielle sniped, poking her knee with the quill. "What do you have there?"

Xena got control of the grin on her face and handed the bard the cup, watching her sniff suspiciously, then sigh.

"Is it that obvious?" She gave Xena a disgusted look. "I was trying not to be."

The warrior shrugged, and stretched out next to her, reaching out and giving her knee a gentle squeeze. "Nope. I had to spend a while figuring it out." She studied the bard’s face as she took a long sip of the tea and closed her eyes in pleasure as she swallowed. "You could have said, Gabrielle.. it’s not like it’s your fault, or something."

"Mmm.." The bard mumbled, taking another long swallow. "Gods, that feels good." She opened her eyes and looked at Xena. "I feel like an idiot complaining about a damn stomach ache, Xena…I mean, come on here, I didn’t even find out until three days after we left Potadeia that the minotaur had broken your ribs, and then only because I felt the never say ANYTHING when you’re in pain." Her plaintive protest wound down. "I don’t want you to think I’m a baby." She finished, and gazed into her cup.

Xena leaned over, and touched her hand, causing her to look back up. "Gabrielle." She said, her voice deepening on the name, turning it into a verbal caress that the bard never tired of hearing. "It’s not the same thing.. most of the time, when I get hurt..there’s nothing you can do for it. Nothing I can do for it.." she shrugged. "Just something I have to live with until it heals. Which it usually does, as you’ve noticed, pretty fast. " She reached out and cupped her hand around Gabrielle’s calf, massaging the tenseness she found there with strong fingers. "But if there’s something bothering you that I can do something about.. like make you raspberry tea, then by the gods, say something and let me do it." She paused, then grinned. "And I don’t ever think you’re a baby."

Gabrielle let out a light laugh, and cupped her hands around the warm mug, taking another sip. "Ok..ok..I see your point." She said, after she swallowed. "That’s what I get for trying to be noble and self sacrificing, I guess." With a rueful grin in Xena’s direction. ‘But if there’s anything I can ever do for you… you gotta tell me. Please?"

"In a heartbeat, love." Came the affectionate answer. "Now that we have that settled, how are you feeling?"

"Ow." Gabrielle sighed, closing her eyes. "I usually don’t get it this bad, but gods…I feel like I’m one big knot." She sipped from the cup. "But this is helping."

"Uh huh. " Xena nodded, then stood up , and crossed to their supplies, picking up one of the leather water skins, and walking back to the fire. Setting it down next to the soup pot, which Xena took a moment to stir. A delicious waft of the soup traveled back to where Gabrielle was curiously watching, and made her mouth water.

Xena fussed with the soup a bit more, then sat down for a few minutes, and waited, putting her hand on the waterskin from time to time. Eventually, she seemed satisfied, and picked it up, bringing it back with her to the sleeping fur.

"Turn over." She told the bard, dropping back down on the fur.

"Huh?" Gabrielle asked, but did as she was told at the raised eyebrow she got. "Ok..ok.." She rolled over onto her other side, and felt Xena move in behind her. Then she was lifted, and found herself settled back against Xena’s chest, in a very comfortable position.

"Comfortable?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

"As I can be." Gabrielle answered, relishing the warmth of her partner’s body. Then Xena lifted the waterskin over her side, and gently put it against her stomach, letting the warmth of the heated water travel straight through her. "Oh gods." She breathed, as her body went limp against Xena’s.

A grin from the warrior. "Here, hold that there." She waited for the bard to comply, then slid a hand between them, and used strong fingers to ease the tense knot she could feel in Gabrielle’s lower back. ‘Better?" She whispered, into the bard’s nearby ear.

"I’m an idiot." Gabrielle answered, letting her head roll back against Xena’s shoulder. "Next time, you bet I’ll ask, instead of suffering all day."

"Good." Xena answered, reaching behind her and moving the leaf bundle up next to their heads. "Now here’s your reward." She unwrapped the leaves one handed, and exposed the glistening berries.

"Oooo…" The bard chuckled deep in her throat and selected one, popping it into her mouth and chewing with evident enjoyment. Then she swiveled her head, and regarded her partner. "You like doing this, don’t you?"

The warrior nodded, with a twinkle in her blue eyes. That gaze studied her with unnerving accuracy. "And you like having it done, don’t you?" She playfully accused, watching the blush spread across Gabrielle’s fair face. "Thought so."

"I try to fight that." The bard muttered, waiting for the blood to stop rushing to her face. "I don’t want to be so dependent on you."

"But?" Xena asked, elevating an expectant eyebrow.

"But." Gabrielle answered, with a resigned sigh, and a smile, and a contented snuggle into Xena’s chest. "Yeah, I like it. " She admitted, as the tea and the warmth of the waterskin, and the strength of the arms cradling her did their magic, and she felt her pain ease and dissolve into nothing. "I love this feeling."

"Glad we got that settled." Xena commented, watching the lines of tension ease on the bard’s face, and feeling her own shoulders relax in response. She leaned forward and let her breath move against Gabrielle's ear. "So do I.'

They lay there in quiet peace while the soup created itself, sharing the berries and each other with equal enjoyment. "Great berries." Gabrielle mumbled, as she shared one with the chuckling warrior.

"Mm…" Xena neatly captured the bit out of her lips, and let it slide down her throat. "You are definitely spoiling me."

"I do my best." The bard answered, biting another berry in half, and inviting Xena to remove the remainder. "You’re a tough assignment."

"Oh really?" The warrior questioned, with a chuckle.

"Yeah. But I’m persistent, or so I’m told." Came the answer, complete with another half berry.

"That you are, Gabrielle." Xena assured her, taking the offering, and giving her a kiss on the nose. "I think the soup is ready. Interested?"

Later, when the fire had burned down to embers, and she was pleasantly stuffed with two big bowls of the soup, along with the rest of the berries, and was once again cradled in Xena’s protective arms, Gabrielle found her amused thoughts turning to Jessan. How he’d laugh if he could see them now…Wonder what he’s up to? Her mind drowsily reflected. Guess I’ll find out soon enough – over this last mountain range and then we head down the plateau toward the coast and Cirron. "Hey.." she said, glancing up at the half asleep Xena.

"Hmm?" Xena opened an eye and regarded her.

"Did you know that jewelry maker in Cirron?" An old question, just now surfacing to her consciousness.

Xena smiled. "Why?" "Did you?" The bard insisted, seeing the smile. "You did, right?"

"He’s an old friend. Yes." The warrior admitted, with a twinkle in her eyes.

"Hmm.. he wouldn’t take any money for those bracelets, you know." Gabrielle quietly commented. "I wondered." She paused. "Did he make that necklace, too?"

Xena shook her head. "No, but I did show it to him."

Gabrielle remembered being steered towards the window, and appraised. "Oh.. I get it." So then.. Xena must have gotten the necklace earlier. But when? "He was nice."

"Uh huh." The warrior agreed. "He made that ring you’re wearing."

Felt the bard start in her arms, and smiled quietly to herself. Yeah..figure it out, love. That was before…

"But that was…" A long pause.

Xena knew she was being studied intently, and kept her eyes closed. "Yeah. But it takes a while to cast that sort of thing. He delivered it to me when I was home."

"Oh." Gabrielle mulled over that. "I love it."

Xena just hugged her tighter, and silence fell, over a quiet campsite warmed by a banked wood fire and an solid blanket of love.

Life, Xena mused, was a series of compromises. She snuggled down more comfortably under her heavy cloak, feeling Gabrielle tighten her hold instinctively, and settled back to watch the sun rise, as she did most mornings nowadays. After a long argument with herself, which she’d lost, she eventually stopped trying to pry herself away from Gabrielle’s warmth in the pre dawn, and just adjusted their schedule to start later in the day.

And found, to her secret chagrin, that she was enjoying the change, and the opportunity to laze around in the morning as much as Gabrielle was. Oh well… she rationalized. It’s not like it matters.. our schedule is up to us anyway – not like I’m running an army anymore. Besides, the extra time in the morning meant she had extra time at night, to finish the extensive drills she’d tasked herself with as compensation.

So far the compromise was working – she knew herself to be in top condition, and the bard’s staff skills were steadily improving under the workouts as well. That gave her the confidence to allow herself a lot more playtime when they weren’t actually travelling nor doing camp chores. Like last night, for instance.. Xena’s mouth quirked. And, in between saving small villages, which they’d done several of during their journey to Cirron, and helping out people in distress, ditto, and the odd getting caught in some altercation or other, she found she was enjoying herself.. a lot. More than a lot.

The first rays of the sun began to peek over the treeline, and Xena closed her eyes as they raced across the ground, and slid across their bodies, dancing stripes of warm amber light across her face, and the bard’s. She smiled into the warmth, and felt the gentle movement of Gabrielle’s hand against her belly. Opening her eyes, she glanced down, and met the bard’s smiling gaze. "Good morning." She commented, letting her eyes drift over Gabrielle’s peaceful face. " Feeling better?"

"Perfect.’ Gabrielle answered, taking a deep, contented breath. "Thanks.. I owe you for that one." Her smile turned mischievous. "I’ll try to think of something to do for you in return."

Eyebrows raised. "That sounds dangerous."

"Could be." The bard laughed, and wrapped her arms tightly around Xena’s chest. "Ergh…feels so good to do that."

Xena kissed the top of her head, and returned the hug. "Feels good to have it done." She admitted. "I think we have some of that soup left for breakfast, if you’re interested."

Gabrielle grinned, and sat up. "You bet." She cheerfully commented, getting to her feet and stretching, then extending a hand down to the still reclining warrior. "You gonna hang around here all day?"

And got a shake of the head and a laugh in response, as Xena took the proffered hand, and allowed herself to be hauled out of bed.

"This range curves off towards the coast, doesn’t it?" The bard asked, hours later as they climbed a long, steep path up the side of a towering granite face.

"Mmm." Xena agreed, carefully watching Argo’s step on the rock strewn ground, as the mare walked beside her. "This pass will take us down range of Cirron, really, and it’s kind of a short cut into Jessan’s territory." Saw the look on Gabrielle’s face and grinned. "Don’t’ worry, we’ll stop there on the way out. I still want to head up towards Athens."

Gabrielle gave her a sideways look. "I don’t want to just stop and shop, you know."

"Of course not." Xena replied amiably. "I want to see Hectator, too."

Long pause, and then they looked at each other. And burst out laughing. "Ok..Ok.." Gabrielle gasped, backhanding Xena in the midriff. "So I like shopping…kill me."

"Nah." The warrior replied, then glanced at the sky. "Rain coming." Her eyes started searching ahead. "Looks like we’re going to have to shelter in until it passes, unless we want to get very wet."

Gabrielle chewed on this for a moment, then grinned. "You know, I think I’ve developed a real.. liking.. for rain."

"Oh really?" Xena asked, giving her eyebrow a quirk. "Doesn’t have anything to do with a certain Centaur Village, does it?"

"Could be." The bard replied, moving closer, and wrapping her arm around Xena’s waist, feeling the expected weight of the warrior’s arm settling across her shoulders, and smiling. "Yeah, I think it does." A rolling peal of thunder rumbled over them. "Whoa…"

"Yeah." Xena sighed. "Come on, there’s an alcove we can get some cover in." She pointed off to the side of the path, and they moved in that direction. It was an overhang, hardly more than a crevice in the tall granite walls, but it was enough to shelter their gear, and put some kind of cover over their heads. Xena stripped off Argo’s bags, and tossed them in the back of the alcove, moving the mare as close to the granite wall as she could. "Sorry, Argo, not enough space in there for you, girl."

"Roo!" Ares protested, as Gabrielle pulled him out of his carry bag, and set him on the pebbled floor.

"Hush." She scolded him, digging out a handful of dried meat scraps and offering them to the puppy.

"Grrrr." Was the enthusiastic response, as Ares laid down, grabbing one piece between his two growing paws, and started chewing. He barely looked up as Gabrielle settled next to him, with her back against the stone wall.

Xena finished settling Argo as best she could, and joined her partner under the granite ledge just as the rain started down, changing the dusty pale rockface to dark slate, and sending the occasional spatter into their sanctuary. "Well, it’s better than nothing." She remarked conversationally to the bard, who was gazing out at the hard falling water with a dreamy expression.

Gabrielle kept silent, but leaned over slightly and rested her head on Xena’s shoulder with a sigh, then let her glance slide up to study the face above her. "You have a really nice profile." She commented, lifting a lazy hand to gently trace a line across the warrior’s cheekbone.

"Think so?" Xena replied, smiling at her. "I kind of like yours better." She ducked her head and captured Gabrielle’s lips for a long moment. "Especially that part of it." She whispered, as they parted, and looked into each other’s eyes.

A loud boom of thunder startled them, and Xena heard Argo moving restlessly outside. "Easy, girl.." she called, as a sharp flash of lightning lit the mountainside like a sudden sunrise, and another crash of thunder followed it. They glanced at each other, and Gabrielle huddled closer, snuggling tight against Xena’s leather clad side, and wrapping her fingers firmly around her armor.

Xena laid a protective arm over her shoulders, and put a restraining hand on the back of the growling Ares, as the storm lit the sky again, and the booming roar that followed cause the chips of granite to vibrate between her boots, and the wall to shiver behind her. Damn… Xena took a quick look out at the wild-eyed Argo, and cursed silently to herself.

Then the flash went sheer white, and a loud crack sounded right over their heads as lightning struck the side of the mountain, and sent a shower of granite shards downward, cascading over their ledge, and pelting the defenseless mare.

It was too much for Argo, trained though she was. The mare screamed once, then took off running down the path, trailing her reins.

"Damn." Xena growled, shaking her head and standing up. "Stay here, Gabrielle, l gotta go stop her before she runs off the mountain."

Gabrielle felt a nameless fear grab her. "Xena.. be careful, please?"

The warrior smiled. "Always. You be careful too. Stay under here.. the storm shouldn’t last much longer." With that, she left the overhang, and moved into the driving rain, headed off after the mare at a determined run., not realizing until long after that Ares had scrambled out and followed her.

"Great." Gabrielle sighed, after trying to stop the wolf from leaving. "Well, no question who he takes after. " She settled back against the wall, and wrapped her arms around her knees, and waited.

Xena could still hear the faint echo of Argo’s hoofbeats, and she sped up, giving her head a quick shake to remove the dark hair from her eyes. Gods..I’m going to be forever drying off this armor again. She sighed to herself, as she kept her eyes on the path, not wanting to misplace a boot, and take a tumble down the rock-strewn path. "Argo!" Her voice barely carried over the rolling thunder, and she just shook her head, and ran faster.

Ah. The mare had spotted a much larger overhang, and was huddled under it. "Good girl." Xena laughed, as she slowed down. "Should have let you find a place to stay, eh?"

The streak of lightning exploded over her head with a sound that blocked out all other noise, as it impacted the rock wall over her head and loosened a centuries worth of boulders on the ledge above where Argo was sheltered.

Xena only remembered the horse scrambling out from under the rocks, and the ear shattering roar that was almost a physical blow, as she glanced up and saw a wall of rock headed her way.

No time to stop, or dodge, or get out of the way, and now she saw the dark furred form of Ares scoot between her legs and stop, frozen in front of her. Without thought, she thew her body over him, and curled up in a desperate ball as the first shower of rocks slammed into her body. And she had only one, tiny second in which her only thought was of Gabrielle, as the rest of the wall buried her, until one merciful rock connected with her head and sent her into the darkness. She heard nothing more, felt nothing more as the rocks piled up over her, and finally only silence settled on the scene.

A quiet unbroken, except for the odd, occasional skittering of an errant granite pebble tinging off the deathly still pile of stone.

Gabrielle rubbed her arms against the sudden coldness that had descended on her, and looked up at the approaching sound of hoofbeats, brows drawn down in concentration. She’d become so used to sensing Xena’s presence, that not doing so now seemed odd to her. An icy finger touched her soul as she saw Argo’s approach, and realized her mistress wasn’t alongside.

She bolted out from under the overhang, and ran to Argo’s head, running her hands over the multitude of small cuts on the mare’s neck and back. "What happened, Argo? Where’s.." A sick feeling just happened in her gut, and she felt her eyes mist up for no apparent reason. "Oh gods." Her eyes searched the mares. "Show me what happened, Argo.. " She whispered, turning the mare and leading her back along the path, stumbling on the stones and not caring. Something had happened, that’s all she knew. Something that was causing her entire body to coil up in knots, and making her heart pound all out of proportion to the energy she was expending.

They rounded the last bend, and she saw the pile of rocks. Saw the blocked path. Heard Argo’s soft whicker. Was close enough to see, at the very edge of the slide, the barest glimmer of light off an object she knew.

She never remembered walking those last steps, didn’t remember holding on to Argo’s mane for support. She was just somehow standing over a large boulder, whose cruel edge trapped a chakram motionless.

Her fingers went out, and gently touched the rock. "No." As gently a whisper of sound from her lips. "Oh no." The whisper cracked, and broke into a sob. "Please no."

Gabrielle crumpled to the ground, wrapping her arms around the rock, and let the shocked tears just roll down her face. Her heart shattered, as every one of her worst nightmares came down on top of her like that rockslide had come down on top of her partner. please… Her thoughts moaned. Not now.. no.. This can’t be happening. You can’t be under here. You can’t be gone. I can’t have.. oh gods help me please…I never got a chance… we were just…She could still feel the pressure of Xena’s arm around her shoulders, smell the rich tang of her leathers.. she was just here..…please… don’t take this away from me..oh gods…

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The howl of anguish slid from mental to vocal, as her throat went raw with the emotion that wracked her.

"No." She whispered again, letting her fingers stroke the ugly rock face. "Why didn’t you take me too? " She waited for the empty darkness to come over her. "I can’t bear this, not again." She slammed her head against the rock. "Not again. I can’t.. I can’t…"

And from the furthest corner of her tortured mind, there came just the barest hint of a familiar warmth. That nearly stopped her heart in her chest, and set her body to shivering. ‘Xena?" Gabrielle suddenly realized that what she wasn’t feeling was… that emptiness.. the one she’d felt after Xena had died the last time. As though half her soul had gone. Which it had, she now understood, and she knew that feeling intimately. What if… her eyes studied the rock pile. She can’t have possibly… but I should know better than anyone else not to give up on her so fast. Or am I just lying to myself?

Gabrielle sniffed back her tears, and sat down, and looked deep inside her heart.

But if anyone could, it would be Xena. Her heart knew. And I can’t move these rocks. Now her heart started hammering for a totally different reason. Gotta get help..but… A picture of Jessan formed in her mind. Jessan, whose strength she knew. She managed to get to her feet, and got three steps towards Argo, when she turned around and went back, laying a hand on the rocks.

"You.. stay for me, Ok, Xena? Please? " Her fingertips traced the surface gently. " What I told mother was true.. I can’t live without you." Tears darkened the stone surface. "Please don’t make me try.. OK? I’ll bring back help."

And felt the ghostly touch of hands on her shoulders, and the brush of lips against her forehead, which could have been the fitfully gusting wind from the aftermath of the storm. But Gabrielle didn’t think so. She clutched the sensation to her soul, and moved to the uneasy Argo’s side.

"Listen." She said, stroking the mare’s soft cheek. "I know we usually don’t get along. And I know your best friend’s not here." Her voice caught. "Mine isn’t either. So.. we’re going to have to work together on this, Argo."

Sighing, she took a look at the high stirrup, then shook her head, and walked Argo over to a boulder, climbing up on it, then onto the mare’s tall back. It felt very lonely up there, by herself, she realized as she gathered the reins up, and tried to remember what Xena had taught her about directing Argo. Who wasn’t like a normal horse, which she could just nudge around. Cautiously, she pressed a knee into the horse’s warm side, and was relieved when Argo started down the path, not without a backward glance.

Which was ok, because she was doing that herself. But a sense of urgency began to stir in her, and she gave Argo’s side a little more pressure, and felt the mare increase her pace.

Silently, Gabrielle sent up a prayer to all the gods who might be listening. Just let me get back in time. Please. And if you don’t.. take me with her. And realized, in a far off way, that she meant every word.

Darkness. And more pain that she’d had in.. a very long time. Those thoughts drifted to the surface of her mind as Xena came to groggy consciousness and took very shallow breaths in response to the vise like squeezing of her ribcage by the rocks around her. Trouble. Lots of it. Her mind panted, feeling the closeness of the rock, and the dangerously still air around her. Oh gods… I can’t believe that didn’t kill me.

The rocks had pinned her in place, but by the luck of the slide, had stacked themselves in such a way that there was a tiny space in the pile, with her in it. And..her fingers, the only part of her arm she could comfortably move touched warm fur, and Ares whimpered in response. "We’re in big trouble, boy." She managed to gasp, wincing at the lances of pain that drove through her.

Cautiously, she tested the rest of her body, and felt her heart sink. Rocks pinned her on every side except for directly below her, and she knew from the feeling in her gut that the blows had done some serious internal damage. The realization settled into her, bringing a wave of dark emotion. She was going to die here, whether from a further shifting of the rock, from her own injuries, or from running out of air..her time was running short.

Damn. And her thoughts turned inescapably to Gabrielle. She felt a searing pain in her heart that had nothing to do with damage from the rocks, and an answering anguish echoed back to her from an outside source. From her partner, who was surely nearby, and might have even…

The rocks vibrated faintly with an unearthly howl. Ares whined in response, and Xena froze, knowing its source. She thinks I’m…Xena’s eyes closed, and her soul responded, reaching out in agony to touch its other half, so very close by, and so impossibly far away. Gabrielle.. I promised you.. forgive me, love. I didn’t plan this… but don’t give up yet… listen to your hears mine still beating.. I know it does…it has to…if you hear it.. it’s a slim chance, but…

The anguish from outside lessened, as if by magic. Good girl.. Xena breathed, as the darkness began to fill her senses again. Not much time… but I’ll try to wait.. for… you…

Silence fell again, save for the rustled of a small fur covered body, who squirmed until he could reach his target, and then the soft rasp of a tongue against flesh as Ares patiently cleaned the still hand resting near his rumpled head.

"Jessan!’ Wennid called, for what seemed the hundredth time. "Hey!"

The tall forest dweller started, and turned from where he was standing on their family porch, gazing off into the distance. "Huh? Sorry.." His face crinkled into a smile. "Just thinking." He ambled over to where his mother was standing, and gave her a warm hug, wrapping his fur-covered arms around her.

"Hmph." Wennid snorted, wrinkling her snub nose. "Daydreaming is more like it. You’ve been wandering around all afternoon. What on earth is up with you?"

Jessan bared his canines in a laugh, and looked down on her from his near seven-foot height. "I don’t know.. maybe the weather?" He glanced off towards the mountains, seeing the cloud tops clustered around the highest peaks. "Looks like there’s some storm going on up there."

Abruptly, his face went serious, and his gaze focused on the far off slopes. "Something.." he whispered, clenching his big hands around the porch banister.

Wennid circled around him, studying his face, and brushing his arm with her lighter furred hands. "What is it, son?" She focused her Sight on him, and found only vague confusion, and a simmering apprehension. "Raiders?"

"Mama, I don’t’ know." He answered, turning his golden eyes on her. "Just… something." He shrugged. "Or maybe I’m just imagining it. What’s for lunch?"

His mother gave him a look, then shook her head. "Jessan, what am I going to do with you?" But her burring voice was warm with affection for her only son. Tall and powerfully built, as were all of their kind, his bearded and maned face still retained an air of childhood to it, in the openness of his golden eyes, and the almost perpetual smile on his snub nosed face. Now, she added to herself. But for a long time after humans had killed his wife, her son had been a dark, angry presence.

Only after his meeting with, and saving by the most unlikely of human allies had he returned to the sunny natured boy she’d raised. Xena. Still, even after this time, unbelievable. Even after they’d signed a treaty of peace with Hectator, the prince of Cirron, and fought by his side. Even after the Warrior Princess and her companion had visited them. Even after Wennid had seen wit her own eyes, and grudgingly accepted the fact that this was not the same woman she’d seen slaughter a village in the next valley. Even after she’d been forced to admit that a human, a hated human, of all things, shared the precious gift that she was sure was unique to her people, and only some of them at that..even then, it was still unbelievable to her.

But it was all true. And so was the fact that Xena had risked her own life, and her own bond, try as she would to deny it, to save Wennid’s lifemate, Jessan’s father Lestan.

"What are you thinking about?" Came a deep, rumbling voice, that ran fingers down the harp of her soul. Warm arms circled her, and Lestan’s chin rested on her shoulder. "Hmm?" He winked at his son. "Such serious expressions on the both of you."

"Jessan is having some storm warnings." Wennid replied, letting herself lean back into her lifemates’ strong arms, and feeling their bond ignite, and send a golden flow of love throughout them both.

Lestan cocked his head at his son. "Eh?"

Jessan shrugged. "Nothing definite. Just.." His eyes drifted towards the mountains again. "A feeling." He walked to the railing again, and stared across the village square, past the central fire pit, around which some of his peers were practicing sword drills. Past the stableyards, where he could see his Eris’ shaggy head peering at him. Far off in the distance, he caught the rumble of thunder, and the very sound ignited a feeling of apprehension in him. Something was wrong.

But the long afternoon hours passed with no incident, and he’d about relaxed, and told his overactive imagination to cut it out. Even the storm had dissipated, and missed them entirely. Shrugging, he belted on his practice gear, and headed to the yard for some sword work.

Argo was nervous, Gabrielle realized, whether due to the absence of her usual rider, or perhaps because the sensitive animal was picking up her own agitation, she didn’t know. "Easy, Argo." She murmured, patting the mare on the neck, and getting an ear flick in return. "That’s right..take it easy."

Worrying about Argo helped keep her mind off what she was really worried about. And that served no purpose –she was already headed in the only direction that would help, as fast as Argo was able on the rocky ground.

But she couldn’t help it – every time her mind was empty, the memories would start bursting in with ever increasing vividness. And that led to her being scared- very scared those memories were the only thing she’d have left.

Now, at last, they were off the pebble strewn path, and onto a long grassy sward, and she bit her lip, and dug in her knees, and Argo responded, lengthening her stride, and making the long grasses whip against Gabrielle’s legs. Faster… her mind urged, and felt that urgency echoed from far away. "Come on Argo." She grasped the reins firmly, and asked the mare for more speed.

And Argo, snorting, complied, bounding over the grass at an ever-increasing gallop. "Go, Argo.." she whispered, bending low over the mare’s back. "You don’t want to lose.." Her breath caught in her throat. "No.." Her chaotic mind threw up a vivid picture – she and Xena sitting, with their backs against a tall rock, watching a sunset. Her eyes closed and she let the memory run. It had been after that kidnapping, when Xena had lost her eyesight.

Her heart had been in her throat, for a what seemed like forever, but had only been short minutes, after she gently washed Xena's eye's out with the pungent mixture of senna.. and they waited. Waited to see if it wasn’t too late after all – if the price of her life was going to be Xena’s eyesight. Gabrielle couldn’t bear it… watching her sitting there so calm – but she saw her heartbeat. It was going so hard its wonder the bard couldn’t hear the rapid thumping.

Then those unfocused blue eyes took on clarity, and expression, and had focused on her.

That smile. Sight for sore eyes, huh? That sight had almost passed out from relief, and wouldn't that have been a sight.

And later, watching the sun set, scattering crimson daggers of light across the springy river grass they were sitting on, light that kept catching darting sparkles in a pair of restless blue eyes that seemed to drink in.. everything with quiet appreciation.

Eating dinner, then Xena’s gaze was suddenly on her, and there was that smile again. "I had time to think about all the things I'd miss seeing." She’d said. "Lakes, trees, sunsets." And she’d paused. "You." Grinning at the bard's blush, and slipping an arm around her shoulders.

And Gabrielle's heart had almost stopped beating, because that was the first time she'd ever heard that.. note.. in Xena's voice. …She’d watched that sunset as though it was the first one she’d ever seen, and maybe it was, since it was the first one she’d ever watched with Xena’s arms around her. And it was the first time she'd cautiously let down her guard, and let herself believe that they were both moving in a direction she'd only daydreamed about before.

If she closed her eyes, she could still smell the rich scent of the elderberry bush they had sat near. And shared the fruit from, in an easy familiarity that had sent tingles down her spine, among other places.

Then she forced her tearing eyes open, and blinked to clear them, feeling the panic start building in her. I can’t lose this. She whispered to whoever was listening. I can’t lose her. Not again. She focused on the thunder of Argo’s hooves, and steered the mare down towards the small valley that would eventually let out near the river that marked the boundary of Jessan’s people.

Waking up again in the darkness was about the worst thing that had ever happened to her. Xena groggily reflected. Even her heart beating hurt. She took shallow breaths, her chest hardly moving in the still air, so as not to jar anything.

Heard a tiny whine. "Easy, Ares." And winced at the hoarseness in her voice. She felt his soft tongue against her thumb, and willed her hand to move, giving him a gentle rub behind his ears. "Sorry you got stuck in this."

She swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. "Guess it’s not more than I can expect, though, huh?" Feeling a profound sadness. "Joke of the gods, Ares. Maybe he was upset about you after all." The puppy looked up, as something hit his head, and blinked. "Knew it was too good to be true." Ares shook his head as something fell on him again. "Wish I hadn’t waited so damn long."

Ares shook his head again, then crawled closer, inching his way up her arm until his moist nose touched hers. With a little whine, he started licking her face.

"Thanks." She whispered, pressing her cheek against his soft fur. "I’m not ready for this, Ares. I always thought I would be. When you do what I do.. you kinda get used to the thought." She shifted her shoulders, causing an ominous creak in the rocks, but easing the pressure a bit on her back. "I can’t.. stand.. the thought of leaving her." She let her head rest back against the cruel rock, and closed her eyes, as Ares kept his industrious licking up. "You must be thirsty, huh?" " I’m not.. and that’s a bad sign. My body must be shutting down. "Glad I could help." The puppy nuzzled her ear, and squeezed his body up next to her shoulder, settling down with a sigh.

At least we had some time, though. She took a shuddering breath. And if this is my time, then I thank all the gods in Olympus we finally said something to each other. Because if I had to die without her knowing…no.. I swore last time that wasn’t going to happen. And it didn’t’, and if there is only one thing I can be glad of in this pitiful excuse for a life, it was what we shared. Her heart clenched painfully. But I don’t want to give that up.. just yet.. so I think I’ll just hang around here.. a.. little.. longer.

Argo's speed slackened, as they entered the serpentine valley, and followed a small stream along the center of it. The walls rose on either side of them, reflecting the bright sun off their sloping sides. It would have been a pretty place, Gabrielle mused, but right now she hated it. Hated every long intervening mile between herself and help. Between herself and the mountain back there. Urgency burned in her, and pressed her knees harder against the warhorse's sides, causing the mare to snort.

"Listen." She pleaded with Argo. "I know it's hot, I know you're tired.. so am I.. but you just gotta,OK?" She stroked the lathered neck, and wrapped her fingers in Argo's wheat colored mane. "Please?" Gabrielle knew the mare couldn't understand the words, but her pace increased again regardless, and they sped down the path.

Think positive, Gabrielle, she reminded herself. Think about what it’s been like, the past couple of months. And how much you want that to continue. So she did, and lost herself for a short time in the warmth of remembering the moment when she realized their friendship was deepening.. faster than either of them had anticipated.

It had been a late night, after a very long day fighting off bandits that had attacked a small trading town. They’d both taken a long soak in the nearby lake, and she’d been concerned with the exhausted look she’d seen on Xena’s face. So she’d quietly made some herbal tea, using the fruits she knew Xena liked, and brought it over to her as she sat gazing into the fire, one long arm wrapped around her upraised knee.

She looked up and responded to the concern in the bard’s eyes with a smile. "What’s that?" She’d asked. "Made you some tea. You look kind of wiped." Gabrielle had answered, and to her surprise, Xena had patted a place by her side. On her bedroll. "Share it with me." That voice had said, and Gabrielle could still feel it, right down in her gut.

So she’d sat down, and they’d shared the cup, back and forth, and she’d somehow found herself brushing against the warrior’s tall shoulder. And Xena, instead of moving away, had leaned back, and stretched her arm out along the log behind them. And as though this had been the plan all along, Gabrielle had settled in the suddenly friendly, warm space against her, and, hardly breathing, put her head in the hollow of Xena’s shoulder.

Not a word from the warrior, just that gentle smile, and the surprising comfort of her arm lifting off the log, and curling around the bard’s waist.

It was nothing really much. And it would have seemed almost normal.. they were two very close friends, and gods knew she got hugged as much as Xena would allow herself to hug anyone. Would have been, except that they’d made the mistake , in all that closeness, of looking into each other’s eyes.

And that, Gabrielle remembered, with aching clarity, had changed everything. From then on, they’d stopped even trying to find excuses to be close. And not long after that, she’d been called to the Amazon village to mediate a dispute. And the rest, as she often said, was history.

That brought a wistful smile to her face, as she rounded the last bend in the valley, and her body froze, as she spotted the thin line of leather clad men strung across the path.

Instinctively, she reached for her staff, only to realize it was under the alcove high up on the mountain, and cursed herself. Never get caught without a weapon. Xena's insistent drilling had told her again and again. Damn, and now I am, and when her life...... Gabrielle felt her throat close. I screwed up. Figures. You were crazy to depend on me, Xena.

The line of men got closer, and she could now see some of them grinning, as they started waving long sticks at the galloping mare, waving her off.

A flickering image dove into her mind, of a day not long past when she'd sat in the shade of an oak, and watched Xena put the mare through her paces. Long arms comfortably relaxed at her side, the warrior had used just light leg signals to direct the horse through a makeshift labyrinth, ending by jumping her, still without holding on, over a tall haybale left to moulder in the field. "How high can she jump, Xena?" She remembered asking, and that put an insane idea in her head. I can't do that. Her eyes darted to the line of men, now closing in on her. But I can't let them stop me either. She closed her eyes, and concentrated, remembering exactly what Xena had done - yes.. she'd sat low, just like this..

Gabrielle snarled her fingers in Argo's mane, and drove her toward the line of men, not slowing a bit. The mare seemed to sense what she was doing, because the bard could feel her collecting herself under her aching knees, and she only hoped she could hang on and not fall off the mare if and when she jumped.

She leaned forward, moving her body over the mare's shoulders, and saw the horrified surprise on the first man's face as she dug her heels into the horse's sweating sides, and felt her explode up off her haunches into the air. The wind lashed at her face, as she saw the sky swing wildly around her head, then her face smashed with stunning force into Argo's neck as she landed, and stumbled a step before continuing on.

Gabrielle almost blacked out. She could feel the grayness on the edge of her vision, and her hearing faded, but she kept her death grip on the thick springy hair and managed somehow not to slide off. She felt wetness under her nose, and freed one hand, wiping her face, and watching in fascination as her hand came away covered with blood. Then she turned her head, and saw the dust of horses following her, and realized the men were coming after her.

No.. Her tired mind groaned, and she laid her hand against Argo's hard working neck. "Sorry girl.. wouldn't have put you through that if I knew they were going to chase us down. I know you're tired.. you can't outrun them."

She wearily started to pull back on the reins, but Argo had other ideas. Whether infected with her urgency, or just from her own stubbornness, the mare refused the request, tossing her head and pulling the sweat soaked leather through the bard's fingers. They drove on through the end of the valley, hearing the closing hoofbeats of the raiders, but now the cool breeze lifted her damp hair off her forehead, and whipped the stiff mane against her hands, reviving her spirits.

Far ahead, she saw the welcome glint of sun on water, and the surrounding wild meadow resolved itself into welcome familiarity. "Oh.. gods.. it's so close. Come on Argo, you can do it." She lay down over the mare's neck, and wrapped her hands in leather and hair, feeling the heat rising off Argo's skin. And as her hands encircled the mare, she felt a faint brush of arms wrapping around her in a feeling so warm it made her soul ache to feel it. "Stay with me." Her lips formed the words. "Please."

Deggis yawned, and stretched his long arms over his head, listening to the joints pop with a wince. "Trees alive, I shouldn't have done that much drill yesterday." He sighed, getting a grunt of assent from the pale haired Olanis who was leaning against the guardpost tree and scanning the horizon.

"I told you that." Olainis rolled his eyes. "You have to keep competing with Jess, don't you. Give it up already, OK?"

"Someone has to go toe to toe with him.. otherwise he'll just get lazier than he already is. Did you.." Deggis halted, as his eyes caught an unfamiliar movement coming towards them. "Hey, you see that?"

Olanis straightened, and peered in that direction. "Horse." He muttered, squinting. "Not one of ours."

The darker furred forest dweller shaded his eyes, and cursed. "No..not one of ours." He looked over his head, then crouched, and leaped for the first branch, pressing himself up onto it, and getting a better look at the approaching rider. "More than one." He hissed, as he spotted the trailing cloud of dust. "And.." He blinked, and his brow creased. "I know the one in the lead.. I think.. Ares, it is. It's Argo."

Olanis pulled himself up on the branch and stared. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah...." His eyes longfocused. "Uh oh. Looks like the storyteller's riding. This is trouble. You better pass the word back."

Olanis grunted. "Looks like the others are pulling up."

"Good." Deggis sighed. "I wasn't looking forward to a fight today."

Olanis dropped off the branch, and headed for his stallion at a run, jumping on the animal's gray back and urging him toward the village.

Deggis continued watching, now that the mare was coming on unhindered, and waited.

"Come on, Procci, stop being such a grazer and hit me, already." Jessan sighed as he circled his smaller opponent, whisking his broadsword back and forth in vexation.

"Easy for you to say." Procci spat, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth. "You're not getting beaten up." He darted in, and slashed sideways, hoping to catch the taller Jessan at knee level.

"Grazer." Jessan laughed, and blocked the shot, twisting his wrist as he did, and sending Procci's sword flying. He bounced on his feet a few times while he watched Procci trudge over and pick up the sword, then stopped as the vague feeling of apprehension flooded over him again. Damn..what was that? Hoofbeats caught his attention, and he swiveled to gaze at the village gate.

A flash of gray, and he recognized Olainis, who was standing post guard this week - though relations with Hectator were excellent, and that was the only real approach to their territory, they still kept watch.

Olanis looked around, and spotted him, digging heels in the gray's sides and galloped in his direction.

This is it... his mind breathed. I knew there was something. I should have listened before. "What's up?" He yelled, as Olanis pulled up next to him..

"Rider, coming in fast, from the mountains. Looks like it's Xena's horse Argo, and Deggis says the storyteller's up on her." He paused. "Alone."

Jessan muttered a curse, and started running, whistling for Eris as he did so. He managed to scabbard his sword without cutting his arm off, and reached the gate as Eris reached him. "Come on.. come on.." He groaned, as he vaulted to the black horse's tall back, and grabbed his mane, pointing his head towards the sentry post and letting out a wild roar. Eris' body jerked, and he bolted into motion, scattering a group of returning hunters willy nilly across the path.

Argo was tiring badly, Gabrielle knew. She could feel the mare's labored breathing under her knees, and the lather from her head and neck whipped back and flecked the bard at odd intervals. But they'd lost their attackers - she had heard the hoofbeats drop off a little while back, and now they were almost upon the boundary stream that marked the edge of the forest dweller's territory.

The splash of the icy water shocked her to alertness, and Argo snorted wearily as the liquid cascaded up her flanks, shaking her head as she stumbled out of the stream on the other side, and kept going. Gabrielle felt a wave of fatigue wash over her, and she put her head down on the mare's neck, and just hung on, letting Argo go where she would. The sound of a running horse drifted into her ear, and she felt Argo change direction to head towards it. The noise became a loud thunder and she was about to lift her head when Argo stopped suddenly, and reared, and she tumbled off her back onto the sweet smelling grass of the meadow.

Silence then, save for Argo's heaving breaths. Then a muttered curses from a voice she knew, and the sound of a heavy body landing on the earth nearby. Two footsteps, and she felt the soft fur of Jessan's arms as he lifted her up. She opened her eyes, to see his golden ones peering at her anxiously, and felt the barest quiver of a smile twitch her lips.

"Gabrielle.." His voice was gentle. "What happened.. is everything all right?"

"No." She managed to answer. "Everything is all wrong." She sat up, and took a breath. Come on, Gabrielle. You've come this far, don't go to pieces now. "We were.. up in the mountains. And there was a storm. Big one." She cleared her throat. "Argo got spooked, and Xena chased after her." Her eyes fogged. "And there was a cave in.. Jess. She got caught in it. I need... " Another breath. "Your help. To get her out." She paused. "Please."

More hoofbeats, and now a group of the forest dwellers were surrounding her, faces tense with concern.

An older man dropped to his haunches next to her, and put a hand on her knee. "A cave in, you say, Gabrielle." Lestan’s voice was quiet, and the leader of the forest dwellers eyes were sympathetic.

She nodded. "Not much time. I got here.. as fast as I could."

Jessan gently took her face in his big hands, and made her look into his eyes. "We'll come, you know we will, Gabrielle.. But..." His eyes glistened. "That's a cruel mountain.. it doesn't like to give back what it's taken."

They all waited, gazing at her. She knew what Jessan meant. "No.. she's still alive." She took a deep breath. "I'd know, otherwise." And turned to look at Lestan with her heart in her mouth. "Wouldn't I?" Please..please tell me I'm not imagining this. That I just didn't ride through Tartares for no reason. Please..don't take my hope away. Not yet.

Lestan let his eyes drift shut for a bare moment, then fluttered them open. "Yes, you would." He answered quietly, with a note of surprise in his deep rumbling voice. His hand reached out and cupped her chin. "You would indeed, little sister."

A murmur ran through the watching forest dwellers, but fell to silence as Lestan stood up. "We need to move quickly. Call up a climbing patrol, and have them meet me here. Now. Go." He poked a finger at the first of the sentries that had followed him. "And you, take this horse in, and get her cared for." Detailing off a second, who carefully approached the exhausted Argo, and took her by the bridle, crooning soothingly at her.

"You'll ride with me, OK?" Jessan murmured to her, visibly upset. "Here." He took the waterskin a cousin was offering him and opened it, reaching out and holding it to her lips. "Drink something, Gabrielle, please."

Gabrielle sipped on the water, then sighed, and put her head in her hands, propping her elbows on her knees. "I’m scared, Jess."

"I know." He looked at her with an aching sympathy. "I know she means a lot to you.." He took a scrap of linen from his pocket and, wetting it with water from his waterskin, carefully wiped the blood off her face.

"No.." Gabrielle managed a strangled smile. "It's more than you know. A lot has changed since you last saw us."

Jessan gazed at her, then let his eyes close, and extended his Sight. Then his golden eyes opened, and a smile creased his mouth, exposing the tips of his canines. "Oh..gosh." They did it. Damn.. I knew it was becoming deeper when I left them..but.. Xena said she'd never.. wonder what changed.

"I promised.. I'd keep you from teasing her about that." The bard said, with quiet despair.

Jessan clasped her hand, and rubbed the iciness of it. "I swear to you, Gabrielle, I won't even wink into those baby blues. Not a word."

That thought was almost too much for her, and she had to bite her lip hard to keep from breaking down. She looked up at him. "Oh Jess.. what am I going to do if.." Couldn't finish the sentence.

"Shh." The forest dweller put his long arm around her. "Don't think about it. We'll get there. She's hands down the strongest person I know - and she'll hang in there until we can get her out. Believe in her, Gabrielle. You know I do."

The bard felt her load lighten. "You're right. I lost sight of that... what's a mountain against the strength of her will, right? It'll be lucky it doesn't end up as rock garden decorations."

Against his will, Jessan grinned. That was so like Xena, too. He looked up as the climbing patrol approached, and offered his hand to Gabrielle."Time to go."

They were mounted on Eris by the time the patrol reached them, and Lestan took the lead, as they splashed back across the stream, and headed for the high granite peaks.

The air was getting stale, Xena realized, as she prodded herself into consciousness again. She wondered how long it had been - her internal clock didn't seem to be working, and she had no idea how much time had passed.

Ares was drowsing near her head, and she could feel his soft breath against her cheek. Poor little guy. Her mind mused tiredly. Hasn't hardly had a chance, has he? First a panther kills his mamma and all his brothers and sisters, now this.

She stretched her body out a little, ignoring the pain, and sighed. Well, the internal damage seems to have stabilized, at least, since she no longer felt the harsh throbbing and tense swelling that had been present before. Gabrielle always teases me about being a fast healer..maybe I’ll heal up just in time to suffocate. Gallows humor from someone who'd been on her share of them.

Cautiously, she tensed her limbs, feeling the muscles howl in agony from being stuck in one place for so long, but they responded, and she realized she'd somehow escaped any major broken bones. She felt an ironic laugh bubble up, and let it run, even though the effort made her head pound.

Damn. The darkness settled down around her again, a thick inky blackness that made her long for even the tiniest hint of sunlight. Worse than when I was blinded, for that while.. at least then I could see shadows..this...I hate this. What I wouldn't give to see... Her chest contracted painfully, and she didn't finish the thought, because this time, even in an unconscious stupor, she remembered, her mind had turned to Gabrielle - she recalled half formed dreams of sunlight, valleys, horses, and an icy cold splash of water that had seemed so real...

I'm gonna miss her. She felt a quiet anguish. And I don't want to die here, alone in the dark, and never get a chance to see her again... and I don't think I will. A profound sadness filled her. Because I'm pretty sure we're not going to the same place.. And she stared inside her soul with honest eyes, judging the darkness of her life against the relative pittance of the last few years, and knew it for the truth. And it really will be never again, as much as she wants to believe otherwise. And I know she does.

Something inside her shattered at that thought, and the shards of that shattering hurt worse than any of her injuries ever could have.

Ares stirred, and licked her ear. "Hello, boy. You'd have been better off staying asleep." She whispered, in a choked voice. More than anything, she was just so tired. Of fighting, Of hurting. Of losing people. She couldn't win, and maybe it was just time to stop trying.

The air was starting to get hard to breath, and Xena realized, in a far off kind of way, that her time was coming to a close. She tilted her head, and gently kissed Ares on his moist nose. "Sorry, boy... gave you a few more months, anyway, huh? " He licked her face, with a little whine. "You never really had a chance..but..I guess neither did I."

She felt the darkness growing closer, and the still, empty air settled on her like a blanket. And she took a deep breath, as though in defiance, dismissing her fear, and focused her thoughts to one place. To one person. Damned if I'm going to let something as insignificant as dying stop me from saying goodbye to her.

Hear me, Gabrielle… Listen to this poor dark soul you brought up into the light, for a little while.

I want you to take care of yourself, Ok? Because I can't be there to do it for you.. though I'd give anything to be able to.

I want you to live the rest of your life knowing you made a difference, for me, and for everyone else you touch with your grace, and your honor, and your selfless gift of giving.

I want you to know you'll always have a part of me tucked away in your heart - because I gave that to you, and I never regretted it for a second.

I want you to know that you've brought a wonder into my life that I didn't deserve, and will never forget. The memory of that will carry me through an eternity in Tartarus, and I'll smile. And they won't understand, but I don’t care.

I want you to know that I love you, and that I always have, and I always will. Think of me, once in a while. You know I'll be listening.

The forest dweller patrol thundered through the pass into the valley, and the raiders started spreading out to stop them. Lestan, in the lead, stood in his stirrups, raising his fur covered arms and baring his canines. A bass roar burst from his throat, and the raiders broke and ran, leaving their horses and gear behind.

"Sometimes, the fangs really do the trick." Jessan whispered in Gabrielle’s ear, with a crooked grin. "And it's a lot faster than stopping and fighting with them."

Gabrielle smiled, and rested her head against his arm, trying to ignore the churning in her stomach. They were headed fast as they were able..there was no more she could do right now.. but that didn't help the cold, creeping grimness that was casting a shadow over her soul. She could feel it. They were running out of time.

Don't you dare leave me. She thought fiercely towards the mountain. Don't you dare, Xena, not after I had to ride Argo half to death, and jump her over some filthy murderous raiders. Me, jumping Argo. So don't you even think about it. You stay put, you hear? But despite the strength of her thoughts, she watched the setting sun with heartsick eyes. It took me too long..

They started the long ride up the narrow path, moving at the fastest speed possible, but it was twilight before they rounded that last bend, and saw the rockslide.

Jessan's breath drew in, before he could control it, and he groaned. No one..not even Xena... and yet, if I close my eyes, I can see that bare...slim connection still there. Gods help me..I don't want to see that break. I can't..

"Jessan." Gabrielle's voice was a bare, strained whisper.

"Yes?" He answered, leaning close to her and looking into her eyes, flinching at the haunted look there.

"Hurry." Came the answer.

Half the group pounded torches in, and got them lit. The other half started clearing out rocks, taking the smaller ones in hand, and working in teams on the larger ones.

Gabrielle helped, for a while, but found she was more in the way than anything else, and found a rock as close as possible to where they were working and crouched on it, staring into the growing indentation in the pile. Xena.. not much longer.. please..I can feel you hanging in there. I know you are. Don't leave me... I don't know what I'll do without you.. Please?

Jessan brushed the hair back from his eyes, and surveyed the pile, from his position on top of it. His heart sank, as he realized just how much rock they had to move before they even had a chance of reaching Xena. If she was alive, and though his Sight insisted that was true, his intelligence told him nothing, no one, could have lived through the crushing of that many tons of granite.

And when my ax breaks that last one..and I uncover her..then what? What am I going to do when I have to carry her lifeless body out of here? Because, by my honor, it will be done by no hand other than mine. Whose life she owns.

He glanced back at Gabrielle, huddled on her rock, eyes unseeing. I teased her about this. Gods damn me to Tartarus. I teased her.

The tall forest dweller turned his attention back to the rocks, swinging his pickaxe, and sending shards flying over the pile, showering the his working cousins and brothers with sharp shards of the stone. Showering Gabrielle with them, but she showed no signs of feeling it.

Suddenly, she looked up, and directly into his eyes, and he saw the beginnings of despair there.

No.. his mind whispered, and he swung the ax with panicked strength, shattering a boulder almost his size into three large chunks, and kicking one aside, to continue his frenzied assault. He swung again, and again, and again, every time with increasing power that he tapped from deep within himself.

Now he was close enough to sense her life force Felt it slipping away. And let out a howl of anguish that echoed sharp and harsh against the rock wall he faced.

Panic lit his body on fire as he let loose one final blow, that crashed like thunder into the cold stone, and moved an entire section of rocks to one side.

Lost his balance, and tumbled backwards as the slipping and sliding rocks exploded outward, moved by something more than their own momentum.

And a single moment of shocked silence followed, before he was scrambling over the piles of rubble, towards that one last hidden pocket in the stone, and a still, dusty, leather clad form.

It was a suspension between shadows, Xena knew, as one part of her understood it was trapped, and dying. And another part began to break free, and drift as a buzzing filled her ears, and the useless air moved in and out of her still working lungs.

She felt that tug from without, and hesitated, a growing part of her that wanted to just let go battling with the part of her that belonged to Gabrielle and rejected that parting and was fighting it tooth and nail. She was so tired... but Gabrielle was asking something of her.

I can’t say no to her. A single agonized thought floated free and that was enough to trigger her inborn fighting instincts, the ones that never gave up. Never stopped. Never let go.

She called on her will, and pushed back the darkness, holding on tight to the one thing she knew was beyond question. No.. I am not going to allow this to happen. Tapping deep into unknown reserves, into the dark strength that came from anger. From what made her what she was. From the wildest parts of her that were more Ares than anything else. Where her true strength lay.

I promised. The words rang clear as a bell in her mind, driving out the buzzing, and letting her hear the sudden, vibrant sound of urgent pickaxes exploding against the stone nearby. I promised, and no damn mountain is going to make me break that promise.

It was a fierce growl, that ignored the spent air, and the darkness, and the pain, that gathered everything she was and set it against the force that was dragging her apart from her soulmate.

A fire that ignited in her, and as the piles of rock above her collapsed down under the assault from without, she coiled her suddenly released body and shoved outward, forcing a boulder the size of her own body outward, freeing her at last from her dark prison.

And felt a ethereal roar of light and darkness, as the cold outside air slammed into her, and the wind whipped snapping of a row of torches brought painful sparks to her eyes, and a scent of burning tar that filled her lungs.

She landed with a painful crash on a pile of granite shards, and the impact nearly sent her unconscious again. But she clung to awareness with tenacious power, tilting her head back, and forcing her eyes open to see the stars she knew were blazing over her. And they were, so she drank in their light, and the blessed fresh air, and the smells of hot granite chips, and sweating forest dwellers with an overwhelming sense of relief.

Pairs of furred hands were on her, she knew it, but ignored them as she just lay there, sucking air into her starved body, listening to Ares do the same, curled up in the protective circle of one arm. It took what seemed forever for the roaring grayness to subside, but it did, and then was cut through by the sudden feel of hands her body knew, hands whose touch she craved more than the air and the light.

Xena turned her head, and met the misty green eyes of the person who was cradling her face with infinite gentleness. Felt an involuntary smile twitch her lips, and saw the response in Gabrielle's expression. "Hey." She barely managed a hoarse whisper.

"Hey yourself." The bard replied, seemingly unaware of the tears coursing down her face. "Had me worried there for a few minutes." I felt you slip away.. I felt it.. and then you.. "Should have guessed it would take more than a measly mountain to beat you, huh?"

"I had a promise to keep." Came the barely audible answer. "Didn’t want to…disappoint you."

"You didn’t." Gabrielle softly responded, gently moving the dark hair out of her eyes. "You never do."

"Try.. not to." The pain was getting worse, again, and she knew she only had a few minutes left, before it would take her back into unconsciousness. So she fastened her eyes on the bard, and drank in the sight of her. "Thanks.. for coming back for me."

"Thanks for sticking around." Gabrielle’s voice wavered. "We need to get you back to the forest dwellers’s village, Xena. You’re hurt."

Xena nodded a little, reaching out and twining her fingers with the bard’s. "Know that. Think.. you’re going to get a chance.. to spoil me good this time."

That got a tense smile from Gabrielle. "You bet I am." Her voice steadied. "Xena.."

The blue eyes fastened on hers, and took on a ghostly twinkle. "I know."

They both nodded a little at each other.

Xena shifted her head and met Jessan's glowing gaze. ""Hello, Jess. "

Jessan lifted her hand to his lips, and kissed it, then pressed it to his cheek. "Good to see you, Xena. In fact, it’s the best thing that’s happened to me all day."

That got him a smile too.

"Grr." Ares growled weakly, lifting his head and staring at Jessan.

"Sokay, Ares. He's a friend." Gabrielle soothed the puppy.

"Ares?" Jessan asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Long story." They both answered, in unison.

Then the pain could be held back no longer, and Xena felt herself going out again. "Sorry.. been a rough one." She blinked at them. "Gonna have to go out for a while." And finally let the darkness retake her. For a little while.

Gabrielle watched in silence as Xena’s eyes closed, and her body relaxed. Only then did she allow herself to sink down next to the warrior’s battered form, and release a long, shuddering sigh of relief. "Oh gods." She whispered, lifting a shaking hand to her head.

Felt Jessan’s gentle hand on her shoulder, and looked up into his concerned eyes. "Gabrielle.."

"Thank you." She replied softly. "From the depths of my heart, Jessan, thank you."

Jessan didn’t answer, just put his hand on her cheek and smiled his fierce smile. Then they both turned their eyes to Xena’s quiet form. "Gods.. how did she ever.." Jessan breathed, eyes tracing the bruises, scrapes and cuts covering the tall warrior’s body.

Gabrielle carefully ran her knowing hands down the granite dust covered arms and legs by her side, and let out a sigh of relief. "Nothing major broken." Incredible. She gingerly turned Xena’s head and studied the dark bruise that started over her right cheekbone and disappeared into her hairline. "That looks bad."

Her eyes found Jessan’s and his brow creased as he let light fingertips touch her chest, then her midriff, putting gentle pressure. "She’s pretty pale, and I can feel some damage in here." He commented. "I think she may be bleeding inside." He lifted his hand and touched Gabrielle’s face again. "But she’s… Gabrielle, most people with that kind of injury don’t make it past the first hour. Maybe two." His eyes lifted to the dark sky. "When did this happen?"

"This morning." The bard confirmed, moving the dark hair out of Xena’s closed eyes with infinite tenderness. "But she’s not most people." Her eyes lifted up and found his with utmost confidence. "She’ll be all right."

And Jessan, faced with green eyes that seemed to see beyond his own, joined his belief to hers with no hesitation. "I know she will." I felt that fire ignite in her, and it was like looking into the heart of the sun, because Death came to take her and she just laughed at him. "She’ll hang in there. But we have to get her back to the village. Stay here with her for a minute – I’ll see if the litter is ready."

The bard nodded, and turned her attention to the groggy Ares, who was slumped by Xena’s shoulder, half cradled in one of her battered arms. "Hey, Ares. How are you doing?" She crooned, gently lifting him up and holding him.

"Rrrr." The puppy complained, giving her hand a half hearted gnaw.

"Yeah, I know." Gabrielle sighed, and carefully ran her fingers through his thick fur, searching for injuries. "Wow, looks like you got lucky." She told the wolf, who continued his chewing. ‘Your mommy protected you, didn’t she." The bard tickled his chin. "She’s a good mommy, huh? Likes to protect everyone." Her eyes lifted and traveled over Xena’s unconscious body. "Except herself, of course."

She extricated her hand from Ares’ jaws, and slid around, gently cradling Xena’s head and putting it in her lap. The warrior stirred, but quieted when Gabrielle added a warmly protective arm across her bruised shoulders and felt the taut muscles relax under the touch. The intimate awareness of her lightened her mood, and she managed a slight grin, as she ran her fingers through Xena’s tangled hair and straightened it. Xena.. her mind mused. You’ve had such a rough time, love. She felt her awareness slipping, and focused on the still, pale face . It must have been a nightmare for you.. I know how you hate closed in places. Her thoughts drifted Even though I’m the only one who knows that. Even though it was my dumb clumsiness that forced you into letting me know.

It had been another rainy day, not long after they’d left Cirron, before they had gotten Ephiny’s message about the Amazons. This time it was just one of those long, annoying, drizzlingly rainy days that gets everything wet, and the minute you dry it, gets it wet again. After watching her get more and more irritated by the dripping water down her back, Xena had, without comment, found them a cave to shelter up in.

A nice one, actually, with a soft sand floor, and a fire pit already dug. Xena had set up camp, changed out of her soaked leathers, and was patiently cleaning and oiling her sword. Gabrielle had decided to do a little exploring after she got the stew started, which was bubbling away and casting a rich meaty aroma into the pale walled cavern.

She found a small crevice in the dark rear corner, and scrambled through it, curious as to what was on the other side.

Lost her balance, and fell headlong into a cold natural well, with a startled scream, as she couldn’t feel the bottom nor see anything in the darkness around her.

Bare seconds, and the low light from the outer cave was blocked out, and a powerful hand grabbed her, pulling her out of the water, gasping, and into Xena’s arms. She sat there dripping quietly, waiting for her heart to stop hammering, and then realized Xena’s was beating even harder, and the warrior was shaking.

"What’s wrong?" She asked, straining to see Xena’s face in the dim light, with the roof of the crevice brushing against their heads.

"Sorry." She’d finally answered, after taking a few deep breaths. "Too close in here."

"Gods." Gabrielle had cursed, hauling her out of there, and was almost scared witless by her shockingly pale face and rapid breathing. But Xena had closed her eyes, and concentrated, and moments later it seemed, was fine.

And the bard had kept an unobtrusive eye on her after that, realizing when the warrior said she hated big parties, or crowded squares, exactly where that was coming from. It didn’t really bother her all that much, though now.. Gabrielle’s brow creased. Now it would be worse. She knew.. since she’d developed a sensitivity to that herself, after being caught in that coffin.

It’ll be all right, Xena.. though I know just how much you hate admitting any kind of weakness. Even to me. I’ll get you through it. I promise.

It had bothered Xena , that night in the cave. Gabrielle had known it, from her expression that the bard was learning to read, the tension in her shoulders, and the restless motions of her hands. The bard had tried to distract her with stories, asked her questions – nothing . She finally just went over to her, and put an arm around her stiff shoulders, and sat like that in silence, until she felt the tense muscles relax, and her breathing deepen, and saw her eyes close in gentle surrender.

‘Gabrielle." She’d said, in that wonderful, deep tone the bard never tired of listening to.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle had answered, laying her cheek against Xena’s upper arm and gazing at her, knowing her heart was showing in her eyes and deciding she really didn't care.

Blue eyes met hers, an arm slipped around her, and then came the jolt as Xena’s lips had touched hers for one searing instant. "Thanks." Xena had said, close enough for them to still be breathing each other’s air. Close enough, Gabrielle had been sure, for Xena to have heard her heartbeat which was pounding inside her hard enough to make her shake.

Close enough for her to walk a fine tightrope for what seemed like forever, before she could take a breath, and bring the intensity down. "Anytime. Thanks for pulling me out of trouble. Again."

Gabrielle smiled fondly at the memory, and looked up as Jessan and Lestan approached, walking quietly so as not to startle her. "We ready?" She asked, not moving her hands.

Lestan crouched down next to her, and put a hand over hers, where it rested on Xena’s shoulder. "We are, little sister." He paused. "How are you doing?"

Gabrielle thought about that for a long minute. How was she doing? Good question. "Better." She answered.

"We can take you both on the litter." Lestan replied, with a slight smile.

As though he knew that was exactly what she wanted, to not let go of Xena, not even for a short time.

"That’s silly, Lestan." She gave him a grin. "I’ll be fine."

"It’s not silly at all." The older forest dweller told her, looking her right in the eyes. "You want to stay with her." Tips of his canines showed as he smiled. "And that’s exactly right."

"Oh." The bard whispered, closing her eyes and biting her lip. Someone who understands. "Yeah…ok."

So hard for them. Lestan sighed to himself. No training, no traditions, just…and yet, they’d managed. "All right. Come on then, you get up there first, and Jess will bring Xena down. He peered down at Ares. "Hmm… do you want to take up your friend, there? I think he’s probably not going to like it if I do it."

"Sure." Gabrielle smiled, and scooped up the still somewhat dazed puppy, who did have the presence of mind to growl at Lestan as he got a better look at the forest dweller. "Ares, cut that out." She scolded, shaking his paw. "He’s a friend."

Lestan’s eyebrow rose. "Ares?"

"Roo!" The puppy responded. "Grr." He added, giving Lestan a suspicious look.

The bard shook her head. "Don’t ask. Or better yet, ask Xena. She named him."

Gabrielle waited until Jessan had Xena’s body cradled in his powerful arms, then walked with them down the slate scattered hill, where the rest of the patrol was waiting. The bard had always felt welcome by the forest people, but the look she was receiving from them now was filled with an understanding and respect that hadn’t been there before.

The litter had a short back, and low sides to keep its contents in. Lestan lifted her up with negligent ease, and laid her down in a reclining position, against the low wall. She settled Ares down near her knees, as Jessan leaned over, and ever so gently put Xena down so that her head and shoulders were cradled against the bard’s chest.

It felt wonderful, but Gabrielle didn’t stop to figure out the reason. She just lightly wrapped her arms around the warrior, and settled back with a contented sigh. Jessan ruffled her hair, and stepped back with a grin. "Never thought I’d..well, anyway, Deggis picked up the rest of your gear, Gabrielle.."

She turned her eyes to the shorter, darker forest dweller. "Thanks."

Deggis blushed, and shrugged his dark furred shoulders. "Anytime."

The forest dwellers mounted up, and they started off, with the two advance scouts going ahead with torches lit and held high, scattering flashes of amber light from the gray granite cliffs. They rode in silence, broken only by the fitful wind whipping against horse’s manes and the ragged flame of the torches, and the steady, purposeful footfalls of the large horses.

The gentle swaying motion of the litter nudged Xena back into a gray fuzziness in which the faint sounds of the journey were coming at her at a far distance.

The pain was first and foremost, and took up quite a bit of her attention, but pain was an old acquaintance, and she'd developed techniques over the years to allow her to let the pain sort of float past her, in some back part of her mind that acknowledged it, but didn't let it prevent her from paying attention to what was going on around her.

And what was going on she took in from senses other than sight, as opening her eyes would have taken far too much effort right now. So the wisp of oily smoke and the warm smell of nearby horses combined with the familiar woolen texture of her own cloak that her fingers identified assured her she was safe.

Which she already knew, because her body had no problem recognizing the unbelievably comforting presence of the person she was leaning against, whose arms were loosely clasped around her.

She was aware of being thirsty, now. Good sign, her mind mused, but she realized it also meant she was going to have to make the effort to open her eyes and drink something, and she didn't know if she had the strength to do even that. On the other hand, it would probably make Gabrielle feel better if she at least made the attempt, so...

She pried her eyes open reluctantly, and blinked a few times to clear them, realizing she was looking almost straight up at a blanket of stars that twinkled in the clear night air. It was beautiful. Her mouth twitched into faint hint of a grin. Then she felt a feather light touch on the top of her head and the grin became more definite. She experimentally took a breath, found it uncomfortable but bearable, and took a second. "Think I could get used to this." She winced at the hoarseness in her voice, but was rewarded by the convulsive tightening of the arms that cradled her, which hurt, but she didn't care because the feeling that came along with it was worth every painful moment.

"Hi." Gabrielle's voice floated next to her ear. "How are you doing?"

"Lousy." Came the faint answer. No point in pretending, not with Gabrielle, at any rate, who knew when she did with unnerving accuracy these days. "Got any water?"

One arm released its hold around her, and picked up a waterskin tucked against the bard's hip. "Just might." Gabrielle uncapped the spout, and held it to her lips, grinning when Xena found the energy to lift her head a bit and take the waterskin between her teeth, and pull down a few mouthfuls.

"Hey..take it easy." The bard laughed, and got an eyebrow twitch in response.

Xena kept going until she ran out of strength and had to stop, and settled her head back, blinking up at Gabrielle's dimly lit face. "Thanks." Her voice sounded clearer. "How'r you doing?"

The bard put down the waterskin, and put her arm back around Xena, squeezing very gently and burying her face in Xena's hair. "All right." Her voice was muffled, but Xena could still hear the catch in it, and she could feel the ragged edge to her breathing. She stayed silent for a while, and eventually Gabrielle took a long shaky breath, and sniffed.

"Sorry." The bard sighed. "Just relief, I guess."

Wincing, Xena lifted her arm and covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "S'allright."

"Not fair, Xena. I'm supposed to be comforting you." Gabrielle couldn't help but smile, and saw an answering grin tugging at Xena's mouth.

"Habit." Xena admitted. "'sides, you are." She laid her cheek on Gabrielle's chest, and closed her eyes, breathing in the bard's familiar scent. "A lot." And felt Gabrielle's lips touch her forehead, as she drifted back down into the twilight and the warmth of her partner's enclosing arms.

Continued in Part 2

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