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 –It’s a Xena story. There are forest dwellers, bad guys, pregnant bards, sly Amazons, several troublemakers, and one very persistent mincemeat pie. Of course there is violence. Not too much though. Maybe one head, maybe two.. it depends on how it goes.

Subtext - I’m not disclaiming subtext anymore. If you’ve gotten this far in the series, you know what it’s about. I don’t personally think there’s anything in their relationship that needs disclaiming. It’s not like they’re vegetarians, or something.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair. And a good book. I can recommend some excellent altfic bards for you if you drop me a note.

If you read this story, and are offended by the love portrayed within, too bad. No raspberry brownies for you.

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


The dawn found them up, washed and dressed before the rest of the family. Xena volunteered to help Rebekah with the morning chores the girl was assigned to, while Gabrielle joined Sarah in the kitchen. "Try to give her a few tips while you’re there." Xena muttered, getting a poke in the ribs in return. "After breakfast, we’ll get together with the others, and see what kind of plan I can come up with."

Rebekah seemed glad of the help, since her outside chores had mostly to do with dragging firewood, and carrying buckets of water. She dutifully lugged the heavy buckets until Xena took them from her, lifting them over her head and telling her to get the smaller sticks of kindling. "You ever get any help with this?" The warrior inquired.

Wide, brown eyes peered up at her. "What do you mean?"

"Help… from your brothers, or anyone?" Xena repeated, pouring the buckets into the horse trough, then grabbing two large logs and lifting them up to her shoulder.

"My brothers are in school." The girl replied softly. "But I wish I was as strong as you.. then it wouldn’t take me so long to do everything, and I could… "

Xena put the logs down, then looked around for a hatchet. "Could what?" She asked, spotting the tool and walking over to it.

"Oh.. no wait!" Rebekah held up a small hand. "No… you can’t touch that."

Xena stared at the hatchet, then at the girl. "Why not?"

"The men do that… I just bring the wood over." She explained. "Girls can’t cut wood."

Xena was in the mood for a little subversion. She put a hand on the ax and jerked it free of the wood it was resting in, then lifted it over her head one handed, and brought it down on the log’s end, splitting it partway. She pulled the ax free, then sank it again, twisting it as it hit and separating the two halves. "Sure they can." She smiled at the girl, as she finished splitting the firewood. "What would you do if you were out in the woods by yourself, and no one else was around?"

Rebekah goggled at her. "Why would I be out in the woods alone?" She asked, confused. "Has that happened to you?"

Xena crouched down, resting her hands on the handle of the ax, and gazed at her. "I’ve been in the woods alone, yes." She told her. "But what I mean is, sometimes you can’t depend on other people to do things.. you have to do them yourself."

"Oh." The girl studied the large, muscular hands at her eye level, then she looked at Xena’s face. "Has Gabrielle been in the woods alone too?"

The warrior smiled. "Not as often, but yes, she has.. and yes, she can cut wood, but she doesn’t like to."

"Oh." The girl said again. "What does she like to do?"

"Well.. " Xena stood, and tossed the split logs on the pile sitting close by. "She likes to write stories… and she likes to talk with people, to get them to agree with each other… she likes to cook and fish, but she hates sewing or mending boots."

Rebekah was staring at her. "She can write?" Her voice turned a little excited. "Can you write?"

Xena looked at her, puzzled. "Yes, I can."

She stepped closer, and her voice dropped. "Can you read?" Her eyes widened.

The warrior nodded, a little taken aback. Then she put together the girl’s earlier comment about school, and realized what was gong on. "You can’t."

"Shhh… don’t you tell anyone you can.. .it’s real bad." Rebekah tugged on the sleeve of her new friend. "Will you teach me?"

Uh oh. Large wagonfuls of Uh Oh, in fact. Of all the things she’d been asked to teach, this… "We’ll see what we can do." She promised, reflecting that ignorance was its own, insidious shackle. Gabrielle’s comment the night before about awareness nudged itself to the front of her mind and she felt guilty, all of a sudden. "I don’t know if your parents would like that."

The girl’s shoulders slumped, then she looked up. "If someone didn’t want you to do something, I bet you’d do it anyway." Her brown eyes analyzed the tall warrior shrewdly. "Wouldn’t you?"

It captured her rather in a nutshell, Xena ruefully acknowledged. "Maybe." She couldn’t keep a small smile from moving her lips. "C’mon.. let’s get this finished up."

Sarah peered out the window into the small yard outside. "Rebekah seems quite taken with your sister." She smiled at Gabrielle, who was deftly peeling vegetables. "It’s nice of her to help that way."

The bard smiled quietly. "She’s good with children." She commented, as she lifted the bucket of potatoes and set them by where Sarah was working. The woman had spent a good half candlemark explaining the rules in her kitchen, and Gabrielle was still pretty confused. It had, she gathered, to do with cleanliness, and not mixing stuff like goat’s milk with stuff like dried beef.

It didn’t make much sense to her, but it wasn’t her kitchen, so she just kept quiet.

"She has none of her own?" Sarah seemed surprised.

Funny. Even after all these months it still felt like a dagger in her side. "No… " Gabrielle realized her face must be showing something, and she cleared her throat. "She had… a son."

"Oh." Sarah gave her a deeply sympathetic look. "I’m so sorry… it’s so horrible to lose a child.. I’ve lost two myself."

Gabrielle studied her. "Really?"

She nodded. "At birth.. it just… it didn’t go right." She glanced up in horror for a moment. "My goodness.. listen to me talking about this to someone’s who’s expecting… I’m so sorry, Gabrielle.. "

The bard managed a smile. "It’s all right.. I know the risks." She replied softly.

An awkward silence fell. "You’re so good at telling stories." Sarah finally said, changing the subject. "I really enjoyed that last night."

Gabrielle started cleaning some carrots. "Thanks… I have some more written down.. if you’d like to read them I could leave them with you for a while."

The woman stared at her, then laughed a little self-consciously. "Read? Goodness, I don’t have time for that, Gabrielle." She turned and added some spices to the pot she was bending over. "I leave that to my husband and his friends… they do the reading."

The bard stopped what she was doing, and looked at her. "You don’t know how to read?"

"Why would I need to know that?" Sarah asked, lightly, wiping her hands. "Much better that I know how to cook, and sew.. and it’s not our way, Gabrielle… " She looked at the bard kindly. "Women are not permitted to read… we have other tasks."

Gabrielle looked stunned, she was sure. "I.. um… I’m sorry.. I never thought about what it would be like not to… I mean, I’ve been reading and writing since I was very small." She cut the carrots up and put them in water. "I find it a great comfort.. I can just sit down and write about what I think.. and how I feel… or a bit of poetry… I don’t know."

"Goodness." Sarah laughed. "You must have had a lot of spare time… I have to warn you it won’t be like that here.. we keep ourselves very busy. " She pointed a stirring stick at the bard’s belly. "And after you have a little one.. well… you won’t be writing, I can tell you that."

"Yes, I’m sure that’s true." The bard replied quietly. "Um… I’m going to go find my friends… see how they’re doing.. then I’ll come back here to help some more, all right?"

Sarah looked around. "Well.. we’re all done for now.. it’s nice to have a few minutes of quiet. You go on, Gabrielle… it’s very nice having someone to chat with."

The bard nodded, and smiled, then edged around the table and headed out the door, her eyes sweeping the village in search of a tall, dark form.

"Ah.. Xena.. there ye are." Johan came from around the barn and spotted her. He came closer at her motion, and saw three of the Amazons heading that way as well. "Let’s go inside a minute… less ears about." He opened the door to the stable and lead the way inside.

"Gods be damned pieces of sanctimonious horses butt.. " Solari started in, spitting the words like pebbles against the wooden walls.

"Solari." Xena gave her a warning look. "All right, listen up." She put her hands on her hips. "They’re in a cavern at the back of the village… it’s guarded by one guy, and a bunch of people who are praying around Jess. I don’t see any problem with sneaking in there tonight, and letting them loose, then just fading out of here. "

Everyone was nodding, their heads bobbing like cattails in a sharp wind.

"So.. no arguments, right?" Xena stated, crisply.

Heads swung back and forth like weathervanes in a storm.

"Good." Xena started, as the door swung open behind them and revealed Gabrielle. The bard strode towards them, her short, powerful stride and the flashing green eyes projecting an atmosphere of indignant outrage. "Uh oh." Xena muttered under her breath. "Hey… "

"Xena… " The bard stopped at her side, and put her hands on her hips, glaring up at her soulmate. "They don’t let women read or write here."

Xena scratched her nose. "Um… yeah, Rebekah clued me into that." She admitted.

"That’s barbaric." Gabrielle snorted. "It’s not a life.. that’s slavery."

Everyone has their own scales to judge by, eh? Xena put an arm around her shorter partner’s shoulders. "I know… I didn’t realize either.. Rebekah asked me to teach her to read."

"There you go… we can’t just leave these people like this, Xena.. they need our help." Gabrielle stated, glancing at the Amazons and Johan. "If we just leave them, they’ll go on like this forever."

The warrior sighed. "Gabrielle… this is their way… it’s not against the law, and we don’t have the right to force them to change."

Green eyes snapped with anger. "So you think we should just let them be, and go back to our cozy village, knowing these people here are condemned to a lifetime of ignorance, is that it?" She shrugged off her soulmate’s arm, and waited.

"Gabrielle.. " Xena shot a glance at the wide eyed Amazons watching them.

"Don’t Gabrielle me." The bard stated firmly. "Just because it’s their traditions, it doesn’t make it right."

"Look… " Xena put a hand on her arm, then cupped her cheek, and forced eye contact. "This is our way.. what would you do if someone told you it was wrong, and said you had to stop it?"

"Xena, that’s not the same thing and you know it." Her partner shot back. "And besides, I’d tell them to go to Hades."

"Which is what they’re going to tell us." Xena insisted. "It’s their customs.. Listen, the gods know I don’t think it’s right, but Gabrielle, I can’t force them to change their lives just because I don’t agree with how they raise their children."


"What are you going to do.. start teaching classes? Those men will toss you out of the place, and then I’ll have to kick their butts. And where will that get anyone?" Xena argued reasonably. "We’ll have to break Tor and Jess out, people will get hurt, and those kids still won’t be able to read."

A stark silence, with green and blue eyes fencing glances of startling intensity.

"Xena, that SUCKS." Gabrielle yelled suddenly, then she stalked off to where one of their horses were, stroking it’s nose with intense concentration.

Xena sighed. "Yes, it does." She turned to the group, who were staring round eyed at her. "What was more amazing.." She asked wryly. "That she argues with me, or that I won?"

That broke everyone’s frozen stillness, and a round of nervous chuckles

"All right.. let’s suffer through another day… I don’t like it here any more than Gabrielle does…and if I saw any way to change things.. I’d do it, so if anyone has any ideas…??" She waited, and got silence for a response. "Go on… just… be subtle.. try to talk to the people… especially the younger ones…let them know there’s a wider world out there."

Quick nods of agreement, then the Amazons and Johan filed out, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone.

Silence settled down again, and Xena seated herself on a nearby hay bale, watching her partner whisper to the phlegmatically chewing mare. After a long moment, Gabrielle turned, and leaned back against the horse, regarding her quietly.

"I shouldn’t have done that in front of everyone… sorry." The bard sighed.

Xena shrugged a little. "It’s all right… I just wish I could do something about it."

Gabrielle walked over, perching herself on the edge of the bale, and laying her hands on her lap. "Xena, there has to… "

"Shh… " The warrior put a hand on her arm. "Gabrielle.. they’re not far from where we live.. we can do it a little at a time.. make some contacts here.. and when trading caravans go through, arrange for teaching materials to be sent.. if you want that."

"If I want that? You don’t think it’s important?" The bard shot back. "Maybe you think they’re right."

"Whoa." Xena lifted a hand. "Just hold on a minute… where is all this coming from?" Her voice deepened and lowered. "Maybe I just think people have to want to change.. and from what I’ve seen, that’s not the case here."

"How would they know?" Gabrielle countered. "If I’d never known what it was to read, and learn, and explore things… if all I knew was cooking, and taking care of the house, and… maybe I’d be content too." She sighed in frustration, seeing the not quite hidden flinch in the face across from her. "I know.. we talked about that last night.. and I don’t mean to take this out on you, Xena.. I just… I don’t know."

"All right.. look… " Xena leaned against the hay, and regarded her. "Let’s get the boys out of here, then we’ll plan and see if there’s anything we can do."

Gabrielle sighed. "You’re saying that to make me feel better."

"Yes, I am." Xena admitted readily. "Did it work?"

A trickle of sunlight came in between gaps in the boards, and spilled across Gabrielle’s face, dancing over her clear eyes and lining her skin with gold. A gentle smile finally curved her lips. "Yeah, it did." The bard confessed., as she moved through the liquid stripes and settled against her partner’s body for a quick hug. "But now you have to go tell the Amazons that you did not win this argument." She tapped the warrior in the ribs, and felt the faint chuckle move through her.

"All right." Xena patted the back of her head. "It’s too bad you don’t have any children’s stories you can leave with Rebekah… she’s smart.. I think she’d learn fast."

Gabrielle smiled suddenly into the soft fabric over Xena’s collarbone. "Oh… well… now that you mention it.. maybe I… yeah, I’ve got just the thing."

"Yeah?" The warrior pulled back, and regarded her in question.

"Mm… " The bard was in a much better frame of mind. "Stories about just the right kind of little girl, in fact."


"Isaac, my daughter here was wondering if you’d show us around the place." Johan studiously didn’t look at Xena, who was peering out of the window blandly. "If you have a moment, that is."

The village elder looked up from his task and grunted. "Surely." He set his knife down carefully, and wiped his hands on his apron. "You were up fore me, did you not sleep well, Johan?"

" fine.. I’m just used to being up before the sun." The ex merchant did his best not to wince as he tried to work a kink out of his back from the meager bed. "Long habit, you know how that is." He got the hint of a wry grin from Xena, who knew better. "I’m not a lazy thing like my daughter here."

A dark eyebrow lifted.

Isaac snorted, and settled a cap on his head. "Wouldn’t put up with that from my get." He grumbled. "But as ye will.. c’mon now."

Xena followed the two men out, startled but not surprised when a familiar fair head popped around the corner as they emerge. "Hey."

"Morning, cutie." Johan gave Gabrielle a fond smile, not at all feigned. Xena he held a true regard for, tempered with a healthy respect, but there was a special place in his heart for the young bard. "We’re taking a tour."

"Great." The bard fell into step next to her soulmate, giving her a bright smile. "Hi sis."

"Hey." Xena gave her a wry look. "Thought you were doing chores."

"I finished those… I was just coming to look for you and the others." Gabrielle advised her cheerfully.

Isaac paced in front of them, pointing things out to Johan. "That there is the birthing barn… we’ve got six herds of sheep… a herd of mixed cows, and two big herds of goats." His voice was unmistakably proud. "Had a good year this… a big crop of youngsters."

"Good stock." Johan commented, pacing along with his hands behind his back.

"That’s the common garden… my wife’s in charge of that. She organizes the women to bring plants in, so we have plenty of herbs for our healer." Isaac pointed. "Over there is the common workroom." His eyes fell on Xena and Gabrielle. "That’s where the women meet to attend to their duties." There was a note of censure in his voice. "You’ll be expected there on the morrow."

"What kind of things do they do?" Gabrielle took the opportunity to question him, as they walked across the open spaces.

For a moment, she didn’t think he was going to answer, then he cleared his throat in annoyance. "Women’s things… cleaning, sorting.. mending… looking after the children… you’ll find out tomorrow, young lass." He blinked. "Matthias tells me you tell a good story."

"She’s a good storyteller.. like I told you." Johan interjected. "Held the whole village with their mouths open, she did."

Isaac grunted. "Be sure you’re not filling the young one’s ears with outlandish tales, then." He told her sternly. "We have stories from our good book.. I’ll have someone tell them to you.. stick to righteous tales."

Gabrielle blinked, and decided to be a troublemaker. "Well.. I could just read them for myself, if you want.. no sense in taking up someone’s time." Her green eyes blinked innocently.

Isaac stopped, and looked at her. "Men only read the scriptures. They’re not suited for women’s eyes."

The fair head cocked to one side. "Then.. how do the women know what’s in them?" She inquired.

"We read them, and study their meaning, and we tell them." He told her firmly.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Seems like a waste of effort to me… wouldn’t it be easier just to let them read for themselves?"

Isaac didn’t answer her, instead, he turned to Johan. "And that’s what comes from educating your women Johan…insolence and foolishness." He stomped on. Johan gave Gabrielle a wry look, but the bard remained unrepentant. She stuck her tongue out at the irritated elder, and kept walking, catching up with him and starting in on a new tangent.

"Did she have t’start that now?" Johan muttered to the warrior, who was taking in the surrounding area in daylight.

"One thing I’ve learned about Gabrielle, Jo.. when she get an ideal between her teeth, the only way to stop her is to knock her out." Xena replied with a wry look. "I’ll see what I can do, though.. no sense in getting them all riled up before we’ve got to get those guys out of here." She lengthened her stride, and caught up to where Gabrielle was probing the elder on children. Unceremoniously, she clapped a hand over her soulmate’s mouth, stifling her words. "What is that place?" She asked Isaac, who gave her action an approving look.

"Tis our hall of worship." He answered gruffly. "Matthias has been given the task of instructing you in our ways.. pay heed to him, for we hold our beliefs very sacred." He opened a side door on the opposite side of the building than Xena had entered on last night and allowed them to peer inside. The same smell of wood and parchment poured out, and Gabrielle edged past him into the building, having shaken off her tall dark and deadly gag.

"Oh.. it’s nice in here." The bard gave Isaac a kinder look. "Will you show us around?"

The elder seemed glad of her interest. "This is the women’s side, the men sit on the other side of that wall."

"Why do they sit apart?" Gabrielle interrupted.

"The Lord’s truth is different for men, than for women." Isaac answered, brusquely. "Women are weaker in mind, and in belief… it was their weakness that lead to our being thrown out of the Lord’s garden… of course they worship apart."

One blond, perfectly shaped eyebrow edged up. "Excuse me?"

Isaac sighed. "Matthias will instruct you in our beliefs.. but in the beginning of the world there was one man, Adam, and one woman, Eve.. they were given house in the Lord’s garden, and told they could have all, yet not the fruit of one tree." He cleared his throat importantly. "For that one tree was forbidden.. yet Eve, weak in mind, heeded the Lord not, and ate of the tree, which was the fountain of the knowledge of good and evil, and she got Adam too to eat, and so the Lord was angry, and expelled them from the garden, and sent them out to the wild world."

A hand lifted. "Okay." Gabrielle stated. "Let me get this straight…. Everyone in the world comes from just two people?"

"Yes." Isaac shifted impatiently. "Look.."

"Just one minute.. just… okay, and these two people lived in a beautiful garden, and they were told not to eat fruit from one tree, because that fruit represented knowledge?"

"Er… the knowledge of good and evil, yes."

"Okay… so.. the woman was curious, and wanted to know what was going on, so she munched on one, and got the guy to munch on one too, so they knew what was going on, and your god got mad at them for that, and tossed them out on their ear?" The bard’s voice was tinged with disbelief.

"That is not how we speak of it, but.. " Isaac shifted again. "Yes."

"Uh.. huh…so because of that, in your culture, women are forbidden to seek knowledge?" Gabrielle reasoned. "You won’t let them read, or interpret your scrolls, or go to school.. or stuff like that?"

Isaac was silent for a moment. "I hadn’t considered it that way, but perhaps.. yes.. that is the law."

"As.. punishment… for getting everyone kicked out of the nice garden, right?"

The elder backed up a little. "It’s not punishment.. it’s just our way.. women have other tasks." He protested, then thought a moment. "I will have to consult the scrolls though.. that is a curious thought." He looked at Gabrielle with a touch more respect. "Knowledge is a risky, and dangerous thing, as we know."

"Ignorance is bliss." The bard responded, with a faint smile.

Before Isaac could take offense, Xena caught his attention with a sweep of her hand. "What is that…it’s really beautiful."

The elder cleared his throat, giving Gabrielle a wary look, but responded. "That is our tabernacle.. where our most sacred scrolls are kept." He gave Gabrielle a look. "None but the rabbi can touch them.. or God will smite them down into dust."

"Really." Gabrielle murmured.

"Really?" Xena asked, a faint twinkle in her blue eyes.

"Tis the truth." Isaac nodded solemnly. "Came a strike of lightning when a doubter came up into the tabernacle two seasons back, and struck him dead."

"Goodness." Johan stated, impressed.

Isaac seemed gratified by their response. "We take our laws, and our ways from the scriptures.. it gives us the strength to face the hardships of this life, knowing there’s a better place we’re to go to."

"That’s a very comforting thought." Gabrielle replied, in reflective tone. "I’d like to hear more about it."

"Matthias will instruct you." Isaac replied, but in a friendlier tone. "We keep our laws very strictly, but you must understand it is for the best.. we want the Lord to judge us all well, and the harsher we punish transgressors in this life, the less chance they will be judged into Hell in the next." He ushered them out and gestured across the square. "Come w’me."

Johan ambled along next to him, leaving Gabrielle and Xena to walk behind.

"Gabrielle, do you have to antagonize him?" The warrior asked, plaintively.

"That’s not what I’m doing.. " The bard protested. "I’m trying to get him to think about what they’re doing here… you may be satisfied with rescuing Toris and Jess, but I’m not."

The warrior sighed. "Can we get them out of here first, please?"

"Xena, damn it.. if you wanted to get them out, you could just walk in there and do it…we’re not in any danger here and you know it." The bard gave her a sideways look. "Don’t make me think I’m the only one who cares about what happens to these people."

The warrior slowed a bit, and let Johan and Isaac move ahead of them. "Look, Gabrielle… it’s not that I don’t care.. it’s just that this is their culture, and their beliefs, and they’re entitled to them. These women aren’t slaves, and maybe, just maybe, they’re happy with their lives." She expelled an irritated breath. "They’re not asking for our help."

The bard fell silent, drawing away a little and pounding her steps a bit more heavily.

"Stop stomping." The warrior muttered.

"I’m not stomping." Her partner shot back. "I’m sorry, Xena.. I can’t sit by and watch people be lead into ignorance… accepting the word of someone just as fallible as they are." She stared ahead. "I know what that feels like.. it feels so good to believe in something and not question it."

Her mind focused in on her bitter memory of Krafstar, and she glanced at the ground, before she let her eyes flick to Xena’s face.

Where her partner was almost successful in hiding a quiet, but profoundly hurt look.

Sometimes, Gabrielle.. you really do just open your mouth and let crap come out of it. She cursed herself silently. "I didn’t.. " Mean that? Well… if she was completely honest, it could apply to their relationship too. But the last year had been a hard learning experience for both of them, and that was not all a bad thing.

The warrior just sped up her steps. "Come on."

"Xena?" Gabrielle doggedly trotted to keep up, tucking a hand into her partner’s elbow.

The warrior glanced at her. "Hmm?"

"I meant Krafstar." The bard squeezed her arm.

The warrior’s jaw tightened. "You wouldn’t have been so open to him if I hadn’t given you reason to be." She admitted quietly. "And I’m sorry for that."

Gabrielle kept quiet for a moment, tacitly acknowledging both the truth and the apology. Then she tucked that thought away, and changed the subject. "So…what do you think?"

"About what?" The taller woman replied quietly, accepting the new direction.

"Their way."

Xena shrugged. "They obey rules, and if they don’t, they get punished… at the end if they do the right thing they go to a nice place, the wrong thing they go to a bad place… it’s not too much different from our way, Gabrielle."

"Mm." The bard mused. "But to strike someone down for touching a scroll?"

"I don’t believe that." The warrior stated flatly. "It’s just to keep knowledge in a small number of hands.. that’s power, Gabrielle."

"Tch… you’re so quick to not believe, Xena.. " The bard chided her. "How do you know it didn’t happen? We’ve seen gods be more vindictive than that.. why not give their beliefs a chance?"

The warrior flicked her eyes around. "Because I went in there last night and unrolled one their scrolls, and I’m still in one piece." She told the bard in an undertone. "That’s why."

A pause. "Oh." Gabrielle backhanded her in the belly. "I should have known." They walked along a few more paces in silence, before the bard eased closer, and looked up at her companion.

Xena glanced back at her. "What?"

"Forgive me for being so stubborn??" Gabrielle pleaded softly.

A grudging smile twisted the warrior’s features. "Gabrielle, I wouldn’t have you any other way." She admitted, circling the bard with a friendly arm and exhaling. "C’mon.. looks like we’re gonna get a tour of the jailhouse."

They followed Isaac to the cavern and ducked inside at his request. "This is where we punish those that break our laws." He intoned seriously. "For what terms we think needful. "

Gabrielle gazed into the small cells. "What did they do?"

"That one stole his neighbor’s lamb." Isaac nodded. "And that one had lustful thoughts on another’s wife."

Xena observed the scene, much the same as it had been last night. Her friend in the second cell was sleeping, fortunately. "You treat them both the same?"

He glanced at her. "Penance is penance, lassie." He moved along the line. "And we found some blasphemers in the woods outside the village… one is in here, but the other is too awful for your gentle eyes to see."

They peered in the cell. Toris peered out, a wry look on his face.

"Certainly looks depraved." Gabrielle stated seriously, getting a glare back from her brother in law. "What did he do?"

"Tis not a fit subject for women to hear." Isaac gave Toris a disparaging look.

"You know.. given that we give birth to live children, I think you’d really be surprised at what our little minds can withstand." Gabrielle responded, her hackles rising again as she felt her soulmate sigh behind her.

"Y’ve got a smart mouth on ye, young lass." Isaac stared at her disapprovingly. The bard stared back at him, equally as disapproving.

"If you don’t stop pouring that crap on me I’m gonna throw up all over you!" A bass yell reverberated through the cavern, familiar in its timbre.

Gabrielle started towards it, neatly evading Isaac’s restraining hand. "What’s that?" She called back, as she headed towards the bend in the rock, responding to the level of frustration in her friend’s voice.

"Wait… ye can’t go in there." Isaac yelled, starting after her. Xena and Johan exchanged looks, then Xena gave her brother a pat on the hand before she followed her partner, shaking her head in wry disgust. What in the world’s gotten into her today? She broke into a jog.

Gabrielle lengthened her stride, easily outdistancing the older man and trotted around the corner, stopping short when she almost piled into two elder men, who were moving away from a large cage. Inside, her friend was standing, dripping wet, his fur plastered to his body.

The two men tried to grab her, but she slipped past them, and walked right up to the bars, putting her hands on them. "Jess." She called softly to him.

Jessan blinked back at her miserably. "I wanna go home." He told her piteously.

Gabrielle felt a deep anger start inside her. She turned and faced Isaac. "Why are you doing this to him?"

"Get away from him, young lass." Isaac ordered. "He’s dangerous."

The bard whirled and yanked the lock on the cage open, pulling the door aside and entering. Her eyes found her soulmates, and she gave Xena an angry look. "I can’t believe you left him in here." She scolded the warrior, who lifted her hands up and let the fall to her sides.

"C’mere, you poor thing." She reached up and pushed the fur out of her friend’s eyes. "Poor Jess." She sniffed at him. "What in the heck did they put on you?"

An uncomfortable silence fell at her back. "You… know.. this creature?" Isaac stared at Johan in disbelief.

Xena felt her plan unravel, and she rubbed her temple briefly. "Yes." She finally said, stepping forward and putting her hands on her hips. "He’s…. um… his people live on the other side of the mountains."

"His people?" One of the older men blurted. "You mean.. there’s more of them? He’s not a…"

"That is what I’ve been trying to tell you." Jessan stated, through gritted teeth. "You keep thinking I’m an.. ugh… human." He poked his tongue out.

"Hey." Gabrielle nudged him.

"Oh.. well, you’re an exception." Jess told her, tipping his head back and gazing up at her face. "But I think you just messed up the plan."

Gabrielle gazed at her soulmate, standing half in the shadows. "We’ll figure out another plan." She answered softly. "I didn’t really like this one anyway." Disappearing into the night was efficient.. yes.. but it didn’t teach these people anything, and she could always apologize to her partner later.

Xena sighed. "He’s harmless." She got a wide, indignant, golden eyed look. "Mostly."

Isaac glanced between all of them. "What is going on here?"

"Xena, go let Toris out, will you? We might as well just.. " Gabrielle started, then glanced up as running bootsteps brought a younger man into the area, breathless.

"Isaac.. Isaac… the women… there’s a riot at the workhouse… Malka just got thrown in the horse trough.. it’s those new ones!"

Xena exhaled. "I knew I should have just done this myself." She shook her head, then pointed at Gabrielle and Johan. "Stay here. Get Toris out. I’ll go find out what’s going on, and we’ll meet back here. Got it?" Her voice snapped with command.

"Got it." Gabrielle replied, gazing fondly at her. "You think you could find a bucket of warm water or two while you’re out there?" She pointed at Jess. "He needs a bath."

Blue eyes gave her an exasperated look. "Later, Gabrielle." Xena pushed past the gaping younger man, and broke into a run, her powerful strides echoing as she left.

They were left staring at each other in uncomfortable silence. Finally Johan sighed. "Let me go let the lad out."

That shook Isaac out of his stupor. "Hold on there.. you have no right to do anything here.."

Johan put a hand on his arm. "Laddie, let me just tell ye something. If that tall dark lass wants something done, don’t you be standing in the way now, all right?" He gazed directly into the older man’s face. "She’s not one to be trifled with, and the lad in question’s her brother." He moved past Isaac and headed down the corridor.

Isaac stared after him, stunned. Then he looked back at Gabrielle. "You lied."

Clear green eyes gazed back at him. "Yes, we did… we knew you had our friends in here, and we wanted to get them out without causing a lot of trouble." She stepped out of the cage and left the door open. "I just couldn’t stand seeing poor Jess there in a cage… and I decided that maybe some trouble is exactly what you’d need." She paused as Toris came around the corner, and she smiled. "Hey, bro."

"I’m depraved, huh?" The tall, dark haired man came over and hugged her. "How are you doing?" He touched her belly in a gentle gesture.

"Just great… though I think your sister is about ready to fry me." The bard chuckled.

"She’ll get over it." Toris assured her. "Hey Jess… " He gave the forest dweller, who had just emerged from the cage a wry look. "Gods.. what is that all over you?"

Johan came back, almost colliding with Isaac. "There.. that’s done."

The elder was just standing there, staring at them. "Done? Aye… you lot are done, it’s true. I’ll have the marshals on you in the Lord’s name!" He yelled angrily. "Guards!" Running feet answered him, and five large young men pelted in, evidently having been sent in by the elders who had left. "Lock them up!"

Xena strode out through the outer cavern, shaking her head as she passed two of the elders, who gave her outraged looks. Damned Amazons. She cursed silently, as she shoved the door open, and headed towards the noise, which echoed across the small village from the work house.

She turned the corner and spotted the problem. "Centaur poop." A sigh. She started towards the large cleaning trough outside the building, where three dripping Amazons and six dripping villagers were squaring off.

"Keep your hands off me, you rotted piece of centaur’s hoof." Solari was growling, twisting an arm that had a villager’s hand wrapped firmly around it.

"Be still, woman!" The man shouted, just before he was unceremoniously dumped in the trough. Three other men pounced on Solari, who was grabbing and punching . Aileen and Cesta took exception to that, and jumped on them, causing the entire pile of people to go crashing down into the black, sticky mud that surrounded the trough.

Xena muttered several curses under her breath as she shoved her way past the watching crowd and planted herself in the middle of the melee, picking up two of the Amazons and shaking them like water rats. "All right… settle down and cut that out."

A dripping, mud covered Solari blinked at her. "Oh poop."

Cesta winced. "We’re in a pile of crap up to our ankles, huh?"

"And we’re upside down." Solari confirmed wryly. "Listen, Xena… "

The men scrambled to their feet. "Ungrateful wenches." One spat, wiping mud off his face. "Take em in, and look… pathetic vagrants."

Xena straightened to her full height, and eyed them coldly. "Why don’t you let me sort this out, all right?" She commented. "I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding." She dropped her gaze to the muddy Amazons. "Right?"

"Wasn’t no misunderstanding… " The man disagreed. "They just don’t want to do an honest day’s work, that’s all… should have known." He spat again. "Godless."

Xena drew in a breath, and held tight to her patience. "Let me deal with this." She kept her voice steady.

"Aye, that you will." The man answered. "And pay for my shirt, and his as well." He motioned his companions towards the path, and they stomped off.

Solari winced as Xena released her arm, then she flicked a clump of mud off her chest. "They figured we were new.. wanted us to clean their damn boots and socks." She muttered.

"And figured we were ripe for the picking." Cesta interjected angrily. "Poking and prodding us like a damn sheep… " She glanced at Xena. "You would have done the same thing."

The warrior put her hands on her hips and sighed. "No… because I’ve learned over the years how to control my temper." She enunciated carefully.

"Xena, there was no way we were going to put up with that." Solari objected.

"Yeah, it was really slimy." Aileen chimed in.

"It’s irrelevant." The warrior muttered.

"They just have this attitude like they can treat women like dirt, Xena, and I.. ." Solari paused. "Huh?"

A sigh. "It doesn’t matter… Gabrielle just blew our cover anyway." Xena explained, reluctantly. "We’re going to have to do this th… "

Approaching footsteps, lots of them, caught their attention, and they turned to see a squad of male villagers headed their way, ropes in hand.

Xena sadly regarded the mud puddle. "Shoulda done this myself… I knew it…" She eyed the approaching mob. "Listen, just keep quiet, and let’s see what they say."

"Xena!" Solari protested.

"Just do it." The warrior growled fiercely. "I’d like to get out of this without killing someone for a change."

Us or them? Solari wondered, but kept her mouth shut. She watched in wary silence as Xena stepped in front of them, and raised her hands in a calming gesture.

"There’s the lying heathens." Isaac pointed. "Put them in the lock down with the others."

The men with him charged ahead, moving towards Xena and the others purposefully.

"Wait a minute." Xena protested.

"No.. nothing more from you… we’ve heard enough of your lies." The man stated. "Today is the Sabbath… you’ll spend the night thinking about how you tricked us, then we’ll pass judgement on you after the Sabbath ends, tomorrow night." He motioned the guards forward.

"Look.. we just wanted to get our friends out of here safely." Xena argued, backing up a step. "So that no one got hurt."

"Be still, woman." The man nearest to her spat, as he threw a loop of rope over her head.

A hand reached out and enveloped his lapel, balling itself into the cloth, and lifting him up to dangle with his feet above the ground. Ice blue eyes pinned him remorselessly. "Be nice." Xena sent her voice to its lowest register. "Or I won’t be." She pulled the loop of rope off with her other hand, and tossed it to the ground.

Solari rubbed her nose, smearing mud all over it. "What was that she was saying about her temper?" She muttered in an undertone to Aileen, seeing the sudden narrowing of the warrior’s eyes, and the shift of edgy muscles under the festive dress she was wearing.

An uneasy silence fell, broken by a shout from the gate. Xena released her victim, and turned to see a young man heading towards them at top speed.

"Isaac! Isaac! An army is coming!!!"

The cell was… crowded. Gabrielle had settled in the back corner, on a small bench where she was perched, her elbows resting on her knees. Toris was sitting next to her, and Jessan was slumped against the wall opposite, his furry hands lying on his thighs. Johan was pacing up and down near the front of the cell. "We could have just overpowered them. " He finally turned and glanced at Gabrielle.

The bard nodded slowly. "I know.. but Xena really did want to do this without anyone getting hurt.. and I screwed up her plan enough already... I owed it to her not to start kicking butts." She sighed. "She’ll get us out of here, in a few minutes probably. Don’t worry."

"What’s up with that?" Toris asked, bluntly. "I know my sister… she’s never had a problem with just busting heads… I don’t get it."

Gabrielle sighed. Xena was acting strangely, and she knew it. She wished she knew what was going on inside that intelligent mind.. having her troubled soulmate seeming so hesitant was scaring her a little. "I don’t know." She finally said. "I wish I did."

But deep down she did. A part of her knew, and recognized that there were areas of her partner that had been cruelly shredded when she’d thought Gabrielle had died, and those parts were very slow in healing. Xena would never admit it, even to her, but a lot of the warrior’s sturdy self confidence had been damaged, and it was a struggle for her to maintain her usual tough façade.

Just like there were parts of her that had been beaten almost beyond recognition at having to once again go through the agony and heartache of Hope’s death at her hands. She’d just been hoping that time, and the birth of their child would help to heal both of them. "She’ll be all right.. she’s got a plan." She stated softly. "She always does."

The outer door banged open, and they all looked up, to see a crowd entering, forcing their friends forward at crossbow point. Xena was in the lead, and her face was set in an expressionless mask, and the other Amazons were covered in mud.

"Oh, Hades." Gabrielle muttered, as they approached and hesitated.

"Put them all in that one." Isaac ordered. "I will not have them mixing with our people, no matter how penitent." The guard unlocked the door, and waved them in, though Gabrielle noted they were careful to steer clear of her soulmate. The wooden cell door swung closed, and they locked the huge, iron lock. "Rot in here for all I care." He turned and lead the rest out. "We have a defense to arrange."

Xena walked to the back of the cell silently, and sat down next to Gabrielle, leaning back against the stone wall and snorting softly. "Another fine mess." She folded her arms across her chest and glared at all of them.

Everyone looked at each other, awkwardly. The Amazons retreated to one corner, trying to scrape some of the mud off themselves, while Johan joined Toris against the opposite wall.

Gabrielle exhaled softly, then turned, and regarded her grumpy soulmate. "So.. what’s the plan?"

Sullen blue eyes glanced at her. "Beats me.. you all seem to have your own.. so have at it."

Everyone looked at the ground.

Except the bard, who merely let her shoulders drop, and mouth purse a little. She knew her partner was truly angry, and that sent a little uneasy shiver through her. She also knew she was the only one who could reasonably be expected to defuse that. She put a hand on the warrior’s tanned arm. "I’m sorry." Her voice was quiet, and contrite. "I lost it, and I was wrong."

She could see the shift of muscles in Xena’s jaw as she chewed her lip, and glanced down at the bard, a perceptible softening immediately obvious. "Yeah well.. ‘ Xena moved a touch closer. "Everyone did.. so don’t feel bad. Problem is, they’re under attack."

"What?" Johan and Jessan barked at once.

"Guard came up… said there was an army headed this way." Solari told them. "Looks like fifty, sixty mounted soldiers… I think it’s that warlord Baracus we’ve been hearing about."

Gabrielle eyed her partner. "Xena… we can’t just sit here."

A dark brow edged up. "I offered, they declined." She shrugged. "They think they can handle it by themselves."

Another awkward silence. "She did offer." Solari muttered. "Got told if they wanted a woman’s opinion, they’d ask for one."

The bard considered that, seeing the tensing jaw muscles in the angular face next to her. "Okay.. so they’re clueless as well as obnoxious." She sighed. "But we can’t just sit here and let them be overrun… besides, we’re stuck in here, too." She continued, practically.

The warrior snorted. "We can defend this cavern.. that’s not a problem."

"Xena." Gabrielle curled a hand around her partner’s, and interlaced their fingers. "Come on.. I know this went bad.. and it’s my fault.. but we have to get out of here."

"They don’t want our help, Gabrielle." Xena argued stubbornly.

"No.. but we should give it to them anyway." The bard insisted.

They locked gazes for a long moment, while the rest of the crowd waited in silence. "Fine." Xena finally said, standing up and moving across the cell, approaching the door without so much as slowing down. She took a long step before she got there, and slammed the wooden construct with a savage kick, ripping through four of the supports and sending it off at a drunken angle, hanging from the iron locks on the other side. Lifting it up, she tossed it to one side, then entered the echoing cavern without looking back.

With a silent sigh, Gabrielle stood, and followed her, stepping carefully out past the wooden barrier. "C’mon." She motioned to the others. "Let’s go."

The outer square was full of rushing men, most carrying weapons of some kind, either bows, or scythes, or the occasional pike. No one noticed them until they were halfway across the area, then a man grabbed Isaac, and pointed.

He turned, and stared, then motioned some of the men towards them. "Get them back inside."

Ten men rushed towards them, and Xena just kept walking, taking them all out with kicks and savage blows, until the last two, whom she simply grabbed, and slammed their heads together, letting them fall in her wake as she kept going, right towards Isaac.

"All right. You listen." She snapped, bearing down on him. "I don’t have time to sit here and debate with you. If that’s Baracus heading down here, you’re going to be overrun, and you need all the help you can get."

Isaac stared at her, then turned as Matthias came up, peering at the groaning men on the ground. "We need no help from you." The younger man stated, firmly. "We can hold our own here."

Xena eyed him evenly. "Those are soldiers coming in here. You’re farmers."

"And you are nothing but a stupid woman." Matthias replied. "Because we practice war, and are very skilled at it." He added. "These men will see our defense, and ride away."

"Really?" Gabrielle came up next to her soulmate, whom she sensed was about to explode. "Are you a betting man?"

"What foolishness is this?" Isaac interrupted. "We have little time to play games."

"Mm.. well, I’ll bet you your best fighter here… can be defeated by…oh… say… a pregnant woman." The bard smiled at him. "With a quarterstaff."

"Gabrielle." Xena uttered softly under her breath.

The bard patted her back. "C’mon, Xena… I could have been really mean and made you put on a blindfold and tie one hand behind your back." She walked over and picked up a stray staff, hefting it. "Are we on? I win, you let us help you, I lose, we walk out of here and leave you to it."

"You’re mad." Isaac snorted.

Matthias picked up a staff, and motioned to her. "All right, you’re on.. we don’t have time to play games, and I want this over with." He walked forward and aimed a blow at her.

She took the staff out of his hands with lethal precision. "You know, I really don’t like you." She commented idly, waiting for him to pick up his weapon again. She moved towards him and engaged his staff, slamming it back then whipping her own down and around to take his feet out from under him. "You let me know when you’ve had enough, okay? I don’t really want to strain myself… I get yelled at." This with a tiny, apologetic look at her glowering soulmate.

He got up and leaned on his staff, then came at her again, swinging right at her head. She deflected the blow, then let him come past her and slammed him in the butt, sending him sprawling. This time he stayed down. "Now… can we start working on how to keep those soldiers from overrunning this place?"

Isaac threw his hands up. "I haven’t the strength or time to deal with you now… if you wish to help carry things, do what you will." He turned away and went back to his planning.

Xena exhaled, and shook her head. "I’m gonna go get my stuff." She glanced at the Amazons, Jessan, and Johan. "Jess, make a circuit of this place, and find out what kind of trouble we’re really in.. take Solari with you."

He nodded, giving her a toothy grin. "I’m going to stop and dive in the lake. I hope no one minds the smell of wet fur."

"Gotta be better than what it smells like now." Solari commented, with a wince.

The warrior turned and headed for the barn, keeping her eyes on the ground and her thoughts to herself.

Gabrielle leaned on her borrowed staff, and exhaled. "Frendan, did you notice if there were lots of cloth for bandages, and herbs when you were in the workroom?"

The tiny Amazon shook her head. "I didn’t… should I go check?" Her eyes fell on Gabrielle worshipfully.

"You’d better." The bard said grimly, then she glanced towards the barn. "I’m going to go see if I can sooth some very ruffled feathers." She moved off in that direction, taking her staff with her, and leaving the remaining Amazons to stand and listen to the plans of the villagers.

The barn was quiet, save the soft whickers of the horses, and the shift of hooves against straw. Xena went directly to where the wagon was stowed, and unlatched the hidden compartment, feeling it swing loose against her hand. She knelt beside the edge of the cart and pulled out her weapons and armor, feeling the leather and brass cool against her skin. She stood up and put her belongings on the wagon seat, then pulled out the leather armor and shook it, clearing bits of straw from its dark folds.

A soft creak alerted her to company, but she didn’t need it, her senses telling her before any sound occurred who it was that stood at her back. The soft footfalls came closer, and now she could hear Gabrielle’s breathing, and smell her distinctive scent.

A gentle hand touched her back, warming it through the fabric of her dress, enhancing the connection she always felt with Gabrielle near.

"Hey." The bard’s voice was soft, and reflective.

"Hey." Xena answered, grudgingly, aware that it was almost impossible for her to remain angry with her partner for any length of time. She kept her eyes on her work, though, and shook the leathers out again. "Happy now?"

The bard eased between her and the wagon, forcing eye contact and pressing their bodies together. "Xena." She put both hands against the warrior’s chest. "Am I happy that we’re being attacked? Am I happy people are going to get hurt? What kind of a question is that?"

Blue eyes regarded her. "Everyone keeps saying they don’t understand why I don’t bash some heads and get it over with.. well… " She glanced at her hands. "I guess that’s what I’m going to do now."

"Xe?…what’s going on with you?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Listen.. if you feel like that, the Hades with that.. we’ll just leave."

"And leave your precious villagers?" Xena shot back.

The bard felt her heart start to pound. "I don’t understand what’s going on here… Xena, we help people all the time, remember?"

The warrior’s eyes dropped.

"Look.. I’m really sorry the plan got screwed up… and I admit it’s my fault, okay?" Gabrielle peered at her. "I’ve apologized a half dozen times already… I lost my temper, and I’m not sure what more you want from me."

Xena remained silent, but her body shifted, the shoulders slumping and the muscles in her jaw bunching and relaxing.

"Are you.. not feeling well or something?" The bard hazarded. "Did something else happen… that I don’t know about? This isn’t like you." She was encouraged by the fact that Xena hadn’t moved, or backed off, instead she’d remained quietly still, almost as though she was taking comfort from their contact. "C’mon, love… level with me.. what’s going on in there??"

"I… " Xena felt her defenses eroding, and the almost irrational anger drain out of her, leaving a quiet sadness in its place. "Sorry… I’m not really sure why I reacted like that." Her eyes lifted finally, and the very concerned green ones facing her. "And it’s not your fault, Gabrielle…I don’t blame you for going off like that when you saw Jess.. I should have just let them out last night, and gotten us all out of here."

Gabrielle let out a breath she hardly realized she was holding in. "Honey, don’t scare me like that." She let her head fall forward and rest against Xena’s chest, feeling her legs start to shake.

Xena embraced her, feeling the shivers going through her body. "I’m.. sorry." She whispered, rubbing the bard’s back, and savoring the touch of Gabrielle’s skin against her own. "I get…I think I’m getting tired of fighting, Gabrielle… I wanted to do this without any of that… I really did." She explained quietly. "It’s so easy to use force… I… "

The bard lifted her head and studied her partner. "Then let’s leave… we can’t save everyone." She knew Xena. "Let’s just go home."

Wryly, blue eyes regarded her. "You say that, knowing I won’t do it." But a tiny smile edged Xena’s lips.

Gabrielle sighed. "I know that you’re hurting… and I wish I could fix that." She gazed up into Xena’s face. "And I know that’s my fault."

A shake of the dark head. "No."

The bard lifted her hand and gently caressed her partner’s cheek. "Yes."

Xena swallowed. "You know.. I almost went after you." Her voice cracked. "Down that pit."

Gabrielle went still, and merely watched her face.

"Ares stopped me."

"Of course he did." Gabrielle’s eyes darkened with anger. "For his own reasons."

"He told me… that I wasn’t ever going to get to the Fields." Xena murmured softly.

"Xena, you know he’d say anything to get you to do what he wanted." Gabrielle objected urgently.

A hand gently cupped her cheek. "He’s done a lot of horrible things, Gabrielle.. but he’s never outright lied to me."

An aching silence. "So you believed him." She watched the warrior nod briefly. "And you didn’t believe I’d find you wherever you ended up?" It hurt, and she didn’t deny that to herself.

"No… I did believe it." Xena corrected her softly. "He asked me if you really deserved that."

Gabrielle breathed in and out. "That bastard."

Xena stroked her face. "It’s a valid question, Gabrielle.. and the only answer I could come up with was no." She swallowed. "So… what I was trying to do was to find your… spirit.. so I could tell you face to face, and hoped you forgave me." She shook her head. "And then… when I found out you were still alive… I had to start asking myself, what was the point?" She lifted the armor and let it drop. "Why am I doing this? I can’t ever make up for what I did.. I can’t ever be forgiven, or forgive myself.. I… "

"Xena… " The bard fell silent, unsure of what to say.

"All I can do is.. just try to live, and try to make you happy… and I can’t do either of those if all I do is fight all the time." Her partner finished, in a miserable tone. "I don’t know what to do anymore."

Gabrielle sighed, and rested her forehead against her soulmate’s shoulder. "Why didn’t you tell me?"

Xena had no good answer for that, so she just touched her head to Gabrielle’s.

"Let me guess.. you didn’t want to worry me." The bard murmured into her shirt.

"I thought I was just… " Xena exhaled. "I thought it was a reaction from what happened… and that it would kind of fade… after a while."

"But it hasn’t." Gabrielle guessed.

"No." The warrior sighed. "I don’t know where to go from here."

Gabrielle stroked her mindlessly for a moment, thinking. "Wait a minute." She looked up. "Ares said you weren’t going to the Fields?"

A nod.

"But.. he didn’t say where you were going." The bard reasoned. "Did he?"

Puzzled silence. "Well, the inference… "

"No.. forget inference, Xena… he didn’t say it." Gabrielle insisted. "That sneaky bastard tricked you… all he said was you weren’t going to end up in Elysia."

Xena thought about that for a minute. "That’s true." She reluctantly admitted. "He didn’t say anything else." She felt a tiny easing of the dark depression that had caught hold of her, and that she’d been stubbornly pushing back. Her eyes flicked around the barn. "Guess we’d better get going… listen, I… "

A finger touched her lips. "You listen. I love you." Gabrielle stated firmly. "And if I have to turn the world upside down and find a… way of believing.. that allows for forgiveness.. for both of us.. then that’s what I’m doing to do, Xena." Her voice firmed. "I’ll find a way."

The warrior cradled her face. "You are my way." She told her simply. "Nothing else matters to me."

That responsibility settled on her shoulders. "We’ll go home after this, Xena… and there’ll be no fighting there. Just you, and me, and our child." She stroked the taller woman’s shoulder. "Okay?"

A faint smile. "Okay… The blue eyes lost some of their haunted expression. "Sorry.. this is really bad timing." Xena acknowledged softly. "I thought I had a handle on this."

Gabrielle pursed her lips a little. "Just don’t close up on me, okay?" She pleaded. "We’ve been through too much for that, Xena… and I know we’ve both still got some sore spots."

The taller woman drew in a breath, and released it, with a small nod. "You’re right…let’s get out of this mess first, then… " She untied the laces holding her dress closed. "Maybe Baracus will bypass this place.. not much to it." A lace stuck, and she pulled at it impatiently, only to have her hands gently removed from the fabric.

"Let me do that, before you start just ripping it." Gabrielle worried the knot free, and pulled the laces out. "There." She watched her soulmate pull the dress off, the dusky sunlight streaming in the barn’s high, waxed windows dusting her shoulders with golden sparkles, and throwing her face into shadow. "So.. what were the Amazons doing?"

"Fighting." Xena sighed, as she slipped into her leathers, and unconsciously straightened her shoulders as the hide warmed to her skin. "What else? They took offense at being asked to do scutwork." She fastened the straps then reached for the armor that Gabrielle was already handing her. "And apparently some of the men thought they would do a little shopping."

Gabrielle ducked under her partner’s left arm to fasten the strap on her chest armor. "Oh yeah? Guess they didn’t get a bargain."

A soft snort. "More than they bargained for, I think." Xena muttered, as she tugged her upper arm bands on, and then her unlaced bracers. Gabrielle immediately closed in and started tightening them. They stood in peaceful silence for a moment with the sunlight draped over them, then the bard looked up

"Well, for one thing, they’re going to have a different opinion of women as fighters before we leave."

Xena allowed a reluctant smile to cross her face, as she settled her chakram and fastened her sheath to her leathers, reseating the sword more comfortably. "Oh yeah." She agreed wryly. "At least we’ve got a pretty good little force here, between us, the Amazons, and Jess."

"You’re forgetting your brother." Gabrielle reminded her.

"No I’m not." The warrior replied, with a sly grin.

The bard returned it, then put her arms around her taller partner and squeezed gently. "Feel better?"

Xena rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s head, and hugged her back. She could feel the pressure of the bard’s rounded belly pressing against her, and a tiny motion telegraphed its way through her leathers. That’s the important thing, Xena… get all the rest of this crap out of your head, and try to remember that. "Yeah." She breathed out. "I’m all right."

"Good." Gabrielle folded her dress up, and tucked it inside the wagon, then stepped back to let her partner pull on her leg armor and boots. Standing there in the fractured sunlight, half darkness, and half golden brilliance, the duality of her nature seemed sharply defined for the bard’s watching eyes. She reached up and flicked Xena’s bangs into place, neatly arranging them, then smiled. "So I’m forgiven for throwing a goat in among the chickens?"

The warrior’s stern look gentled. "Yeah… besides, given what just happened it’s pretty moot anyway." She admitted. "Guess I should ease up on the Amazons too, huh?"

Green eyes glinted in the sun. "Oh.. I don’t know.. chastened Amazons… I kinda enjoyed that." Gabrielle teased gently. "Maybe you shouldn’t forgive them just yet."

Finally, that got a smile out of her soulmate. "Chastened or chaste? I’m not sure you’ll be able to manage the latter."

"Says the woman who sent one screaming into the night." Gabrielle shot back, putting a hand on her hip and raising an eyebrow.

Another smile, this one edging towards a rakish grin. "C’mon… let’s get out there." Xena wrapped an arm around her partner’s shoulder. "I’m sure your reputation’s about to jump a few notches.. having tamed me so easily."

"Tamed you?" Gabrielle burst into laughter, as she took hold of Xena’s waist, and rubbed a thumb against the familiar leather. "As if." They continued on arm in arm, and eased their way out the door into the disordered courtyard.

"How does she do that?" Aileen whispered to Solari, who was busy cleaning off her arms.

"Huh?" The dark haired Amazon jerked her head up and looked in the direction Aileen was pointing, to see Xena and Gabrielle making their way across the yard, the warrior now dressed in her familiar leathers and armor, and the two of them looking like freshly baked lovebird cakes. "Hera’s left tit, I’m sure I don’t know." Solari muttered, shaking her head. "Must be that love thing.. but you know what, I don’t care.. it worked."

"Mm." Aileen agreed. "Boy, she was mad."

Solari rubbed the back of her neck, where Xena had grabbed her. "Oh yeah…but you know, whenever I think of her, that’s how I see her." She nodded towards the tall, leather clad figure. "In those, with Gabrielle by her side."

"They’ve been through a lot." Aileen commented softly. "Hard to believe they lasted through it all."

A soft laugh from Solari. "One of the great, unexplained mysteries of the world, you got that right." She fell silent as the two stepped up next to them.

"Well?" Xena eyed her in question.

"Eh." Solari waggled her hand. "Turfed wall around the perimeter, with decent clearance, but they’ve only got about a dozen longbows, and about a half dozen arrows per.. a couple of quarterstaves, three pikes, a handful of farm implements, a dozen bells we could probably throw at them, and a pile of rocks."

Xena sighed. "It’s never easy."

"It gets worse." Jessan stated, dripping up next to them, the water glistening off his golden fur. "They’ve got silver and gems here."

Everyone looked at him. "What?" Xena’s brows hiked up into her hairline.

A nod of the fuzzy head. "Yep… buckets of em… musta dug them out of that mountain in there… all hidden away in that worship place of theirs." He paused, as everyone blinked. "You said look everywhere." He continued, in an injured voice. "I was wondering why they put up all that stuff, and were so secretive.. well.. they aren’t guarding sheepies, that’s for sure."

The warrior snorted. "Damn." She shook her head. "You think Baracus knows?"

Jessan lifted both hairy arms then let them fall against his thighs. "I doubt he’s headed here for the food."

"Hmm.. definitely a good point." Solari muttered. "Gotta tell you guys.. I don’t know what you ended up with, but Eponin’s cooking’s better than what we got."

A moment of reverent silence followed that profound statement. "Ew." Gabrielle bit her lip.

"He’s not just going to raid then.. he’ll take the place." Xena exhaled. "Damn." She glanced up to where the men of the village were clustered around Isaac. "If he gets those funds, he’ll be able to hire every damned mercenary in the territory.. and we’ll be in for big trouble."

Everyone gazed respectfully at her. "Didn’t think of that." Solari admitted.

"You didn’t used to be him." Xena told her, bluntly. "I know if I found out about a mother lode like that, I’d have taken this place to bits for it." She thought for a moment, then took a breath. "Let me go get this over with."

"Right behind you, Ch… " Jessan cut off his words, giving Xena an apologetic look. "I mean.. "

A hand on his arm. "It’s all right." Xena squared her shoulders, and started towards the agitated group, and the two Amazons at its periphery, waiting with her brother.

They followed her, and Solari bent her head close to Gabrielle’s. "What was he gonna call her?"

Green eyes flicked towards her grimly. "Chosen."

"As in.. " The dark haired Amazon’s eyebrows lifted. "But I thought… "

"It’s what his people call her." The bard explained, in a low voice, watching her partner out of the corner of her eye. "They worship him."

"Oh." Solari said, in a small voice. "How about that."

"Yeah." Gabrielle noted the fluid bounce come back into her soulmate’s walk as she headed towards the conflict, and her shoulder shift, as she moved into a characteristic swagger that the bard knew well. "But in a time like this.. that’s the side of her we need." She lifted her head, and lengthened her stride to catch up with the warrior.

"Three of you go outside the walls, and keep guard.. the rest gather up all your weapons, and we’ll meet in front of the gate." Isaac pronounced weightily.

"He’ll charge the gate." Xena’s voice interrupted.

"Woman, I said if you want to… " Isaac turned towards her angrily, then he simply stopped speaking, and his jaw sagged as he faced a six foot tall, glaring, armed to the teeth fighter.

"My name… " The warrior sauntered over to him, putting her hands on her leather clad hips and glowering. "is Xena." She paused meaningfully. "Use it."

"Dear god, what are you?" The older man breathed. "You’re.. no.. not one of those horrible Amazons, are you?"

"No." Xena replied mildly, pointing a thumb over her shoulder. "Those are Amazons." She gestured to Gabrielle who was watching in silence. "That’s an Amazon queen." A finger towards Jessan. "That’s a forest dweller." A pause. "I, am just a fighter." Another pause. "A fighter in a damn bad mood." She pushed her way through the crowd and glanced at all of them. "And you’re in a world of trouble, because my guess is, that warlord knows your little secret, and he’s comin to tear this place apart."

The men all looked at each other. "How did you know of this?" Matthias challenged. "Maybe you’re a spy for them!"

"Don’t be dumb." Jessan ambled forward. "I looked in your little box."

Shock. "What?"

"See?" He pointed at his golden eyes. "They’re functional." Then he held out his hands. "Opposable thumbs, too."

"You’re an animal!" Isaac threw up a hand.

Jessan gave him a look, then he suddenly shook himself, scattering lake water all over the men. "Ah. That felt good." He gave them a smile then turned to Gabrielle. " That was pretty animalistic, huh??"

"Look." Xena rubbed her temples. "Your only chance is to either divert him, or run." She glanced at them. "He’s got fifty or sixty mounted mercenaries…fighting him’s not an option."

"For them." Jessan muttered, under his breath.

Blue eyes flicked to his face, then a tiny, twitch of a grin edged Xena’s lips.

"We won’t leave our home." Isaac shook his head. "God will see us through this… he’ll protect us from these men."

The warrior considered this. "Oh.. well, okay then.. I guess we’ll be leaving.. you don’t need us." She shrugged. "C’mon, folks.. we got what we came for.. let’s get on the road home." She turned and started towards the barn, circling Gabrielle’s shoulders and turning her to follow before the bard could open her mouth.

They got seven or eight paces when Isaac called out.


They stopped. Xena turned her head and raised a brow.

"Perhaps.. I was wrong.. perhaps God led you to us in our time of need." The older man acknowledged. "He works in… very.. mysterious ways… but it is not ours to question him." He cleared his throat. "You may stay, and help us."

"Xena’s been called the answer to a prayer many times." Gabrielle informed him with a straight face. "We’ll see what we can do." She ignored the poke in the ribs. "How far away is the army?"

The scout looked uncertainly at her, then at Isaac, then he shrugged. "A day… they overtook a merchant train not far from here, and they’re still figuring out what to do about that."

"Bastards." Johan muttered. "Train was probably heading to Amphipolis."

Xena exhaled. "Yeah.. and we don’t want to have to fight him there, either…" She felt a tinge of worry. "Even with the militia… all right… first thing’s first.. get supplies into that cavern of yours, we can defend that if nothing else works." She ordered. "Barrels of water, dried fruits.. anything you can use to live on."

"Matthias, get the women to start moving everything." Isaac pronounced. "It will give them something to do, and keep them from fretting." He turned. "Take the cart, and bring water barrels.. hurry. It will be Sabbath soon."

"What does that mean?" Gabrielle asked curiously.

"It is the Lord’s time.. when we may do no labor, only rest, and worship him." Isaac explained. "From sundown tonight, until sundown tomorrow."

Xena stepped forward. "Hold on.. you do realize you’re going to have to work tomorrow, before those guys get here, right?"

"Our duty to our Lord comes first." The man told her. "He will protect us as he sees fit.. as he has by sending you to us." Isaac turned and gestured to the other men. "Come.. let us engage ourselves in prayer and meditation.. that God may know our intent." They left the women standing in the open spaces, and walked off towards the worship hall, heads together, speech rising and falling.

"Good grief." Gabrielle blurted.

"Well." Jessan tugged his furry beard. "Isn’t that the biggest walking clump of rabbit droppings you ever did see."

"These people are nuts, Xena." Solari chimed in. "You were right to begin with.. we shoulda just grabbed the boys and ran."

"Hey." The forest dweller poked his lip out. "I am not a boy."

"Neither am I." Toris complained.

Xena looked at them. "Gabrielle, would you write something down in your diary for me?"

The bard blinked. "Sure."

"One is simple, two is company, three is asking for trouble." Xena enunciated. "Double that if it’s Amazons or members of my family."

"Gotcha." Gabrielle gave them an apologetic look, then edged closer to the warrior. "Can I safely assume I’m the company?" She asked, in a low voice.

Blue eyes twinkled solemnly at her. "All right… give them a hand moving all that stuff into the cavern.. and try to see if there’s a back exit out of that place, just in case." She pointed at the Amazons, Jessan, and her family. "And you, " She glanced at the bard. "Come with me."

"Where are you going?" Toris inquired, putting his hands on his hips.

Xena settled an arm around her soulmate. "I’m gonna go pray and meditate." She stated. "Maybe I’ll get lucky and I’ll get hit in the head with a clue as to how we’re gonna get out of this."

"So." Gabrielle leaned back against the tree they were sheltered under. "Do we have a plan yet?"

Xena was sprawled in the grass at her feet, gazing up at the clouds with her hands folded over her middle. "We don’t really have many options." She stifled a yawn. "We can desert the village… we can scare him off or we can fight him."

"Xena, I don’t think these people are going to want to leave their place." The bard ran her fingers idly through her partner’s dark hair. "And I know you would rather not fight him."

A shrug. "If I have to.. I have to, Gabrielle… he’s got fifty soldiers, I’ve got you and me, a forest dweller, six Amazons, and a herd of sheep." She paused. "I figure it’s about even."

The bard laughed.

"But.. you’re right.. if we fight him, and drive him off, he’ll only be back, with more men, and in a bad mood the next time." The warrior analyzed. "And we don’t want him going off and hitting Amphipolis… what we need is something that will drive him out of this area, and make him not want to come back."

"How about the cooking?" The bard remarked wryly. "Just kidding… um… " She thought quietly. "What about just hiding everyone?"

Xena regarded the clouds, tiny, puffy ones that drifted lazily across the blue sky. "What if Baracus thought he could get really sick here?"

"Sick?" Gabrielle’s brows knit. "We could pretend to have fevers, I guess.. but.. "

"No.. it has to be scarier than that… " Her partner mused thoughtfully. "All those guys have beards, right?"

"Um.. yes."

"Heh." Very slowly, a smile crossed Xena’s face. "What if Baracus thought his men were in dangers of becoming… nice, big furry teddy bears?"

The bard snorted, covering her mouth with one hand to stifle a laugh. "C’mon, Xena.. no one would buy that.. even if we have poor old Jessan as an example."

"No.. not if he were the only one… " The warrior rolled up onto one elbow, intelligent blue eyes sparkling. "But if we could show a progression of the sickness.. starting with..oh… a little craziness like bowing and talking to yourself, then group singing… then finally a couple of the local forest dwellers… what about that?"

"Oh Xena.. those guys would never agree to acting like that." Her partner laughed. "Not that it wouldn’t be funny… or work, for that matter."

"Act?" The warrior smiled. "They don’t have to.. it’s what they were doing to Jessan anyway.. it’s part of their worship." She argued. "All they have to do is what comes naturally.. it’ll be so strange to Baracus, he won’t know what to do."

‘Well… ." Gabrielle thought about it. "What about all the women?"

A grin. "Guess they’d have to be in charge, huh?"

The bard gazed worshipfully at her. "You are an awesome human being, you know that?"

Xena blushed a little, and glanced down, and embarrassed grin taking over her face. "It might not work." She warned.

Gabrielle traced her finger down a planed cheekbone. "Worse comes to worse… we can fight."

A nod. "Gabrielle.. I… would you do something for me, if that’s what it comes down to?" Xena gazed up at her seriously.

"If I can, sure." The bard responded .

The warrior captured her hand, and chafed it gently. "Please.. don’t fight this time." She requested. "You know it’s not because I don’t think you can."

Gabrielle took a breath, then let it trickle out. "But…"

"Please." Xena asked intently. "Stay with the children.. defend them.. but for the sake of the gods, Gabrielle.. don’t put yourself in front of a lance if it comes to that."

The bard considered the request, acknowledging it’s legitimate nature. "All right.. but you have to promise me something."

"If I can, sure." Xena hid a smile of relief.

"You don’t get yourself into any trouble I could have helped stop." Gabrielle put a fingertip on her nose. "If you get hurt, I won’t be able to live with myself."

"I’ll do my best." The warrior promised. "Okay?"

"Okay." Gabrielle agreed reluctantly. "But I hope your plan works.. because it’s going to be really, really funny.. and it’ll make a great story." She leaned forward and kissed her soulmate. "C’mon.. I can’t wait to hear you tell them what they’re going to have to do.. the stuck up, pretentious, overbearing sheep’s butts."

Xena pushed herself up, then hauled the bard up after her, as they headed back towards the village.

"You want me to what?" Jessan’s voice rose almost to a squeak, goofy in the extreme coming from a seven foot tall fanged man. "Xeeennaa! Even if I could find them.. who says they’d do what I asked them to?"

"Try." The warrior advised him shortly. "If it doesn’t work, just come back.. we’ll use you, and maybe paste some sheep’s wool on my brother."

"Hey." Toris put his hands on his hips. "I am not into sheep, Xena.. I thought that’s what got us into this in the first place."

"Just… do.. it." Xena growled softly, as she gave her brother a look.

"I don’t know, Xena… you want me to act like a hibernating bear.. " Jessan objected doubtfully. "I mean.. they’ve got these.. " He waved his claws. "And their faces.. " he pantomimed a snout. "And they kinda waddle."

Hand wrapped themselves in his chest fur and pulled hard. "Look.. if I can act like a feckless village girl, you can act like a bear. Got me?"

"Uh…. Roar." Jessan rocked from foot to foot. "See? I can waddle."

"That’s better." The warrior released him. "Now listen up… we can’t slip up with this. Baracus is not a stupid guy… and he knows what I look like, so I’m gonna stay out of sight." She glanced up. "All the stuff moved?"

Solari flexed her arms. "Yeah… half of it was frigging bricks, I think… every damn thing became a priceless heirloom." She looked out the window at the silent, twilit courtyard. "And all of them sure disappeared." She turned to Gabrielle. "What’s that all about?"

The bard was sitting at a makeshift table, in the stable they’d taken over as a command center. It was more comfortable than being the object of all the furtive curiosity in the homesteads, and, as Solari noted, they could at least munch on their travel rations in relative peace. Gabrielle was writing in her journal, and now she paused and looked up. "Near as I can tell, they take one day a week as a day of rest.. their religion dictates that. All work stops.. that includes cooking, cleaning, farming.. anything except for rest, and worship."

Everyone considered that. "Well…" Solari made a face and shrugged. "I’ve heard of worse customs.. it would be nice to have an excuse to loaf around once a week."

"Oh? What’s the excuse you usually use?" Cesta commented, from the end of the table, with a wry twist of her lips. "I’ve seen you guys sneak off after lunch.. let me see.. was it.. uh.. patrols?"

Xena snorted. "I can’t understand how they need to be ordered to rest."

Gabrielle started laughing, then quickly covered her mouth and went back to writing, not looking at her partner. Her shoulders shook gently, however.

The warrior cleared her throat. "All right.. so… tomorrow we let them just go about their usual routine… Gabrielle, you know what to do when Baracus gets here?"

"I welcome him in." The bard replied promptly. "And I tell him a strange sickness is spreading madness through the village." She made a note in her journal. "I try to convince him it’s something in the mountain that we’ve been digging out."

"Right." Xena nodded. "Solari, you guys can handle the sheep?"

The Amazon cracked her knuckles. " Yeah… but that’s gonna be messy."

"S’allright.. I thought you liked mud." The warrior replied, with a wry grin. "Toris, you and Johan stay in the cavern.. if Jess doesn’t find any of the local forest dwellers, we’ll need to use you."

"Xena, I’m not really good at this kind of thing." Her brother protested. "Can’t I just.. "

"No." The warrior cut him off. "Look, all you have to do is curl up and go to sleep.. how hard is that?"

"Naked.. with a bunch of armed, pissed off dudes looking at me?" Toris shot back. "Could you??"

His sister let a sly grin cross her lips. "Sure." She drawled. "But you’ve already got fifty percent of the hair…and a few other attributes that I fortunately lack."

The door creaked open, and they all looked up. Sarah was standing there, in a long skirt and painfully white shirt, her hands clasped in front of her. "Matthias sent me… to see if you would like to join us in our worship."

They all looked at each other, then as if by common consent, at Xena.

She blinked. "Um… "

"We’d love to." Gabrielle replied firmly. "Wouldn’t we?" She closed her journal and stood. "New experiences broaden the mind, right guys?"

"At this rate mine’s gonna be the width of the River Styx." Solari muttered.

Xena gave her partner a dour look, but sighed. "Sure, Sarah… um.. we still have some planning to do.. is it very long?"

"Not very…we’ll have our service, then Isaac will speak on the scriptures, and we’ll go to our homes for a cold dinner… you all are welcome." The young woman mustered a wary smile, trying not to look at the nearly naked Amazons.

"We’ve.. um.. we’ve got stuff with us." The warrior hastily told her. "We’ll be fine here… are you ready now?"

Sarah nodded. "Yes… he sent me to see if you would come.. and to show you where to sit."

"All right.. c’mon." Xena waved at them, and moved towards the door. "Lead on, Sarah."

The woman glanced at her, then at the Amazons, then back to her. "Um… you can’t… go into the house of the Lord so."

The warrior’s brows knit. "So.. what??" She asked, puzzled.

Sarah appeared very embarrassed, and she turned her eyes towards Gabrielle. "Our laws forbid us to bare ourselves so." She cleared her throat a little. "It’s unseemly."

The bard strolled forward, and cleared her throat, forestalling the sarcastic response she could feel tickling her partner’s tongue. "Sarah.. see, it’s like this.. you know the blacksmith?"

The woman blinked at her. "Of course, but what does that have to do with this?"

"He wears an apron, and hide trousers, because his job makes it necessary for him to do that, right?" Gabrielle told her. "It’s kind of like a tool."

"Yes." Sarah nodded.

"Okay.. well… Xena’s job is being a warrior, and these are her tools." The bard ran a hand over the dark leathers. "They protect her, and keep her safe." Her fingers traced a brass whorl. "And since she’s working to try and protect your people, I don’t think your Lord would mind if she wore this to listen to your service."

The woman studied the silent warrior for a moment. "If she wears that for protection, though, why is there so little of it?"

Ah. "Well.. " Gabrielle scratched her nose. "That’s because she’s such a good warrior, she doesn’t need that much protection." She let her touch linger down Xena’s thigh. "If she wore more, she wouldn’t be as fast as she is."

"I see." Sarah glanced at the Amazons. "What about them?" She looked closer " Are those feathers?"

"They’re Amazons." Gabrielle took Sarah’s arm and started guiding her outside. "It’s part of their sacred customs.. in fact, when Xena was inducted into the Amazons, she had to undergo a trial that involved feathers."

"Really?" Sarah mused. "It’s all so different.. but you don’t dress as they do."

Gabrielle glanced back at the group, now strolling along behind them with smiles on their faces. "No.. well, actually, when I’m not pregnant I do.. in fact, I wear less than the Amazons."

Sarah looked at her. "Your husband did not object?"

"I didn’t have one." The bard found herself saying, before she could stop the words.

"I thought you said you were… " The woman faltered. "Or was that a lie as well?"

Gabrielle sighed. "No.. I am married.. I just don’t have a husband." She could hear the soft chuckles from the group behind them.

"Would you do me a great favor?" Sarah finally responded to that.

"Uh.. okay."

"Please don’t explain yourselves any further. My head is aching."

"No problem." Gabrielle agreed briskly. "So.. tell me about this service? "

The worship hall was packed full, and they entered in the rear of the building, as Sarah directed Toris, Johan and the very reluctant Jessan to the men’s side before she timidly led the rest of them to the women’s side of the divided room.

A low murmur was ebbing and flowing, which ebbed right out of the building as the demure Sarah edged down a row followed by her exotic looking companions.

Xena made a point of standing there, collecting the torchlight and returning all the disapproving gazes before she seated herself, and folded her arms across her chest. She was used to being stared at, for one thing, and for another, the benches were damned uncomfortable. She gave Gabrielle a steely eyed look as the bard tucked her booted feet under the seat. "Broadening the mind. Huh?" She uttered softly.

Gabrielle simply patted her on the thigh. "You lived through the Twelve Acts of Sophocles with me outside Thebes.. you can live through this."

"Oh please… Xena… I never ask you for stuff like this.. " Gabrielle had begged, tugging on her companion’s leather skirting in her eagerness. "I’ve always wanted to see that…"

Xena had sighed. "Gabrielle, we don’t have time… come on now, you know we told Hercules we’d meet him and Iolaus tomorrow night.. we’ll stop the next time we’re here, I promise."

The young girl’s shoulders had slumped. "I know." She’d admitted, dropping her eyes. "All right.. I’m sorry… I… I wasn’t thinking." She’d picked up her bag, and her newly acquired staff and straightened up. "Okay.. let’s go."

The warrior had silently sighed in relief, and finished fixing Argo’s tack, then started out of town, vaulting to the horse’s back and settling her boots firmly in the stirrups. They’d gotten a little ways beyond the buildings when she’d glanced back, not really sure why, and caught Gabrielle glancing wistfully behind her, the young girl’s face tensed in a faint scowl as she turned forward again, and nearly tripped. Xena quickly turned her own head to face Argo’s bobbing ears and sighed.

Damn it. She’d thought. I became a warlord so I wouldn’t have to deal with cranky, stubborn kids. I could just crack their skulls in, and leave em lie. She’d plucked at a dark hair in the mare’s mane irritatedly. I didn’t ask for a tag along, and I’ve got no intention of pampering her, and coddling her.

A few more steps. She’d peeked over her shoulder, to see the pale green eyes fixed on the road, a look of self absorbed concentration fixed on the girl’s expressive face. Her lips were moving a little, as though she were talking to herself.

Convincing herself, just like she always tried to do with Xena.

The warrior had studied her hands, then, with a silent, inward curse that would have stood Argo’s tail on end, pulled the mare up. "Hold on." She jumped down, and knelt at the horse’s side, picking up her off hoof and examining it. A flash of silvered sunlight danced over her hands as she pulled her dagger out, then she was standing, holding a slightly bent horseshoe between her strong hands. "Damn."

Gabrielle had edged around Argo’s front end, and peered over her shoulder. "Oh.. what happened?"

"Must have cracked a nail." Xena had studied the shoe in evident disgust. "And I don’t have extras.. this metal’s bent, too. I’m gonna have to get the smith back there to beat it back into shape." She’d exhaled in frustration. "All right.. .let’s go on back… can’t go on this road like this."

She’d gathered Argo’s reins, and started back the way they’d come, juggling the horseshoe as she walked along. Gabrielle had fallen into step next to her, handling her staff a little awkwardly as she paced over the dust covered surface. "Wow.. I mean.. that’s shame… but it won’t take too long, will it?" She’d carefully asked, pretending the answer didn’t matter to her one way or the other.

Xena had sighed. "I don’t know… depends on if I can find that guy…. " She’d looked up at the sun. "Guess we’d better count on sticking around here tonight… we’ll have to ride hard tomorrow to make up for it." She’d turned a scowling look on Gabrielle. "That means you riding too."

The girl had nodded, pushing her hair back behind one ear. "Okay."

A few more grudging steps. "Guess you could go see if you could see your whatever that is." The ex warlord had muttered. "As long as we’re stuck here."

Sparkling green eyes had suddenly peeked at her, an excited smile just under the surface of Gabrielle’s carefully sober face. "I guess I could." She’d said. "If you don’t mind."

The soft, hot wind blew Xena’s hair back, and she squinted up into the sun. "Damn.. it’s hot… " She grumbled. "That thing’s outside, right?"

"Yeah.. but not until just before sundown.. " Gabrielle chattered at her. "So it should cool down by then… and there’s no clouds, so I don’t think it’ll rain, or anything." She exhaled happily. "It should be perfect…not too windy either."

Xena let out a disgruntled sigh. "Might as well go with you…it’ll be cooler than in that damn inn." She muttered disgustedly.

" you mean it? That would be great! " Gabrielle’s eyes had lit up. "I mean, I know you’d probably rather be arm wrestling or beating up some guys or something.. but I could get us some sandwiches, and we could have a lot of fun!" She skipped twice to keep up with Xena’s long strides. "I’ll go to the inn, and get dinner.. and I can meet you over by the amphitheater, how’s that?"

"Sure.. sure.. whatever." The warrior had replied, as they reentered the town and she angled off towards the blacksmith’s shop. "Just be careful, all right?"

"I will.. " Impulsively, the girl had given her one of those startling hugs. "Thanks, Xena.. I mean.. I’m sorry Argo threw her shoe, but… "

Xena had given her a look of dour sufferance. "Go on… I’ll meet you over there." She’d watched Gabrielle scamper off, almost smacking a donkey with her staff, then she’d glanced down at the shoe, and then at Argo. "Perfectly good nail, Argo.. I don’t know what the Hades got into me."

The mare snorted, and poked her shoulder.

"Yeah.. yeah.. I know… well, c’mon… let’s go find a man about a shoe." She glanced off. "Then I’ll go watch a play, I guess." She’d sighed. "How bad could it be, anyway?"

Xena winced, remembering the production, then glanced around at the group of women. They were all now pointedly directing their attention the woven screen which separated them from Isaac, and the room settled.

A poke in her ribs. "Don’t look so grumpy." The bard muttered.

The warrior inclined her head. "I feel like a lion in the middle of a flock of sheep." She grumbled.

"Baaa. " The bard replied very softly. "Xeeennnaaas beeen a baaaaad girrrl."

"Stop that." Xena bit her lip to keep from laughing

They both quieted down, after several disapproving stares from their neighbors, and listened as Isaac started to speak.

Which didn’t do much good, because it was in a different language. "Great." Xena gave her partner a wry look.

"Do you understand it?" The bard whispered.

"No." Her soulmate replied.

"Good.." Gabrielle answered. "Then the dogma won’t bother either of us."

She had, Xena realized, a point, and she contentedly turned her thoughts to the plan, ignoring the rising and falling of the melodic, fluid language.


Continued in Part 4