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

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Well… this is a more or less violence lite story. Now.. you've got Xena in it, and Amazons, and Gabrielle with that staff.. so it's not all sweetness and light, but no one gets their heads cut off in this one. (Sorry MaryD) Note - I was wrong. ONE person gets their head cut off. Sorry. Nobody important, though.

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

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

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

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


Festival - Part 5

By Melissa Good

Paladia carefully licked the end of the tiny brush, pointing the hairs to a fine edge, before she dipped it in the meticulously mixed colors in her meager collection. She painted another hair on the fox's soft, reddish gold coat, and paused, studying the effect before she went back for more paint.

The sunlight was good, and she'd gotten a lot of progress done on the picture, letting the work absorb her completely until she became aware of how stiff she was, and that footsteps were headed her way. She cocked her head to listen, expecting Cait, but the steps that approached were heavier, and more rhythmic than the girls, and she swiveled curiously as a soft knock came on the door.

Knock? Nobody knocked. "Yeah?" She called out, uncertainly, watching the door.

It pushed open carefully, and Gabrielle stuck her pale head in. "Hi."

Paladia's brows lifted a little. "Yeah?"

Gabrielle came all the way into the room. "I'm looking for Cait.. has she been around?"

The ex renegade considered the question. Cait's errand, whatever the Hades it was, had seemed secret, and she saw no reason to blab it out to the bard. "No."

Gabrielle regarded her. "I'm not going to yell at her.. I know where she went.. I just want to know if she got back here okay."

Paladia scowled. "Hasn't been back" Then she gave the bard a grudging look. "Where'd she go?"

The bard sighed, and nibbled her lower lip. "Looking for a friend… maybe she found her." She shook her head. "Thanks.." She turned to leave, then her eyes caught the picture Paladia had been working on, and she walked over, her eyes blinking in wonder. "Wow."

The taller woman drew back, uncertainly, but watched her as she examined her work.

There was the fox, a coy, sweet look on its masked face, seated on a patch of grass, bathed in gentle sunlight. Behind it in the shadows loomed a large, silky coated cat, its eyes half lidded as it looked out at the viewer. The cat's huge paws were circling the fox, one of them with sinuously tensed muscles that exposed the sharp, glinting claws.

"That's beautiful." Gabrielle glanced at her, and smiled. 'But it's kind of an odd combination, isn't it?"

A quirky smile edged onto Paladia's face. "Yeah." She admitted. "But it works."

Gabrielle laughed softly. "Well… I think it's incredible." She backed off. "I can't wait to see it finished." Parts of the picture had yet to receive their color, and she could see it would take a while yet to complete. "See you later."

Paladia just nodded, as the door closed behind the bard, and studied her work, then picked up her brush and carefully mixed two colors, working for a while to get it right before she started to apply the resulting shade to the fox's large, intelligent eyes.

"I'm gonna go pick up my sword." Xena said quietly, watching her soulmate emerge from the area inhabited by the youngsters without success. "Be right back." She turned and broke into a run towards their quarters.

Ephiny watched her go, then turned her head as Gabrielle returned. "No luck?"

A shake of the bard's fair head. "No.. maybe she found her…" Gabrielle suggested. "They're probably trading gory stories out there somewhere." Her eyes followed her partner. "Where'd she go?"

The regent crossed her arms, a disturbed look flowing onto her face. "Get weapons."

They looked at each other, then Gabrielle's eyes drifted over Ephiny's shoulder as she spotted her soulmate headed back, this time dressed in her dark blue leathers, and carrying a small pack strapped to her that the bard recognized at once. Her stomach sank, and she let out a breath as the warrior reached them, lifting her hands to catch the staff that Xena tossed her way. "What's up?"

A shake of the dark head. "Dunno.. but two people are missing, and I'm not taking any chances."

Ephiny looked alarmed. "C'mon.. they're just out there razzing us, Xena… I'm sure nothing's happened." But the uneasy feeling in her gut which had been bugging her for a few candlemarks erupted into a full-fledged sense of impending disaster. "On the other hand.. never hurts to make sure." She muttered, running her fingers through her curly blond hair. She lead the way out of the village, and into the shady forest, pacing along the familiar trails that circled their home.

"Going anywhere in particular?" Xena asked casually, adjusting the shoulder strap on her leathers. She'd been content to follow the regent, who obviously had a destination in mind. Her senses drifted out, taking in the sounds of the forest, and analyzing them as she walked.

"No.." Ephiny muttered. "I know which trails she likes to go stomping off on… could be a couple of places."

The warrior nodded. "Fair enough." She padded along behind the regent, her boots placing themselves with silent skill along the dirt path, her eyes flicking restlessly through the underbrush. "It's quiet."

Gabrielle glanced around them, then up at her soulmate's angular face. She noticed the small muscles just under the skin twitching and alive, as Xena's senses absorbed everything, flaring her nostrils and moving her ears back and forth to catch the smallest sounds, and it put a faint grin on her lips as she recognized the crackling air of alertness. Doesn’t get buried far, huh Xe? In a way, the emergence of her partner's familiar edginess reassured her. "Yeah… I hear a few birds, but…"

"No animals." Xena replied succinctly.

Ephiny glanced around. "It is getting on in the afternoon…they usually get quieter around now." But her hazel eyes carried a hint of worry. "Maybe it's your damn wolf, huh?"

Xena's brows quirked. "Maybe." She conceded, knowing the sudden introduction of a large predator like Ares would tend to shake the local fauna up a bit. "Hopefully we'll find the bunch of em toasting grubs and grumbling." A sound rattled against her reflexes, and she'd drawn her sword and cleared space around her before she realized what it was, in time to resheathe the weapon as Ares came barreling out of the underbrush, covered in mud and stickers and plowed right into her.

"Ouch." The warrior fended him off. "Ares… hey cut that out.. what in Hades happe…" She lifted her hands off the wolf's thick coat, and stared at them. "Hey boy.. did you get hurt?" The rusty stains dripped of her skin, as a copper tang rose to her nostrils. "Blood." She knelt, and anxiously checked the wolf's body, running her hands over it as he danced impatiently in place. "Hold still."

Gabrielle dropped down next to her and stroked the animal's head, trying to calm him. "Is he okay?"

Xena looked up, then her eyes found Ephiny's. "Blood's not his." She grasped the excited wolf's head, and turned it so her eyes and Ares were locked. "Find." She said softly, intently.

"Aggrrrooooo!!!" Ares twisted away from her in frustration, dashing back the way he'd come, then whirling at the edge of the path, and looking impatiently back at them.

They looked at each other. "Gabrielle… " Ephiny let out a breath. "I'd feel a lot better if you went back to the village."

The bard's face tensed, and she hesitated, considering which argument to use, though she understood the regent's reasoning.

"I'd feel a lot better if she was with me." Xena interrupted shortly, as she wiped her blood stained hands off on the foliage. "Come on."

Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged looks, and the bard shrugged a little in apology, her mouth twisting in a wry grin as she turned to follow her soulmate. "I'll just go crazy worrying anyway." She muttered to the silent regent, who merely shook her head.

The wolf bounded impatiently ahead, returning frequently to glare at them, as they struggled over the rocky, muddy ground still slimy from the preceding day's heavy rain. They saw no other signs of anyone's presence, until Ares scrambled up over a rock ledge, and hurled himself down into a small clearing, crashing through the brush.

Ephiny saw the huddled form lying near the river and surged ahead, only to be held back by an iron grip on her arm. She turned to protest, but Xena's face stopped her cold, and she subsided, as the warrior carefully edged into the area, examining everything with all her senses extended. Gabrielle, she noticed, had anticipated this, and was waiting tensely, one hand resting on Xena's back.

"All right." The warrior finally said, and they scrambled down the rocks, Xena merely leaping off the last ledge, and twisting in mid air as she landed down next to the marshy ground the bordered the river bank. She turned the still form over with gentle hands, and a soft groan escaped her. "Damn.. Cait."

The blond girl was curled up, her hands in the vicinity of a long arrow shaft that protruded from her chest. Her leathers were stained with blood, and her skin was very pale. Xena touched a gentle hand to her throat, and felt the faint flutter beneath her fingers with an anxious relief. "Still alive."

Ephiny studied the scene, and her face hardened. "Arrow doesn't look familiar." She rasped. "We have to get her back to the village."

Xena examined the wound carefully, turning her head to judge the angle the shaft had entered from. The arrow had impacted the young Amazon from the front, and torn a hole through her right shoulder, penetrating bone and muscle, but.. Xena felt a tiny sense of relief. Not going through Cait's lung. She had a chance, albeit a small one, if they could get her back, and get that arrow out of her.

Cautiously she broke the end of the shaft off, trying not to jar the girl's wound too much, then she carefully packed a piece of linen bandage around the seeping remnant and lifted Cait's body up in her arms. "Let's go."

Ephiny paused, looking around. "You two go on." She decided quietly. "I'm going to look around here.. see if I can figure out what happened." She looked up as Ares came splashing out of the river, shaking his heavy coat vigorously, a sodden bundle in his jaws. "Agrewrf."

Gabrielle dropped to a knee, and called him over. "C'mere, Ares… whatcha got??"

Xena stiffened, as the wind blew her way, and her ears picked up subtle rustlings. "Shh." She glanced around, looking for shelter, and cursed softly. "Need to take cover… someone's headed this way."

Ephiny grabbed her arm and pointed to the rockface. "There's a little cave under that.. not much room, but.. "

"Good enough." The warrior strode towards it, dropping down onto a knee and peering inside. "All right… Gabrielle, get in there.. give me a hand with her." Ares trotted in first, sniffing suspiciously.

The bard scuttled inside, blinking against the darkness, then turned and grabbed Cait's shoulders, easing her down as her partner edged under the rock ledge, followed by a nervous Ephiny. They got out of sight moments before the sounds became louder, and several male voices echoed across the water in rough laughter.

Xena kept her attention strictly on her patient, bending her dark head close to examine the arrow's damage, doing her best to ignore the warm, almost breathless closeness of the tiny cavern. Only the cool breeze at her back kept the shivers at bay, and she tried to shove that aside as she evaluated Cait's condition.

The voices grew louder, and they could now make out the words.

"That was damned easier than I thought… after the reputations those Amazons had… Hades, it was like herdin sheep."

Another man laughed. "Timing… she was right, we caught em all in the bath, and didn't give em time to get their weapons." The sounds of rummaging came through. "Damn… that kid's gone.. musta crawled off into the rivah… Ah wanted that pair o daggers she was carryin."

"Hope we brought enough shackles.. " Another, higher voice interjected. "D'you think we got all of em?"

"Who the Hades can tell? We got enough though.. they're still lookin for the one in charge… guess she'll start killin people until they tells her where she is." Something splashed into the river. "Let's see ifn we can find that kid… you look over there."

Three sets of eyes exchanged shocked, and bewildered glances. Ephiny's jaw moved several times, but no sound came out. Finally her throat started working. "They took the village?"

"We've been…. How..???" Gabrielle whispered in disbelief. "We've only been gone a candlemark.. how could… who are these people?"

Xena held a hand up. "Coming this way." She motioned them both back. "Stay here with Cait, and don't move." She warned. "These guys see you two, and they're gonna want you bad." Slowly, she drew her sword out, making not even a whisper of sound as the metal cleared her scabbard, then waited, her body settling into tense readiness.

Ephiny chafed, but realized they didn't have the space to argue, and Xena was closest to the opening anyway. She watched the leathers shift silently across the warrior's back in time with her breathing, a slow, even rhythm. Beside her, Gabrielle was cradling Cait's head, her eyes fastened firmly on her partner.

Boot scuffing on rock. "Hey… I see a crack under here.. maybe she crawled inside."

Xena's muscles coiled in readiness, as the sounds came closer, and now she could smell the man, a combination of rusting metal and dirty leather that was wearily familiar to her. She tightened her fingers on her sword hilt a little, angling the blade, and felt her nape hairs rise as the footsteps paused, then she heard a little thump as the man settled onto a knee before the cavern's entrance.

He ducked down, and peered inside. "Hey.. there's some…"

The sound of metal shearing through bone cut his words off, and he dropped without another sound, save the whistling gurgle of his last breath dribbling through the slash Xena's sword had made in his windpipe. Blood spurted out, as his body collapsed, and fell bonelessly down in front of the opening.

"That blows that cover." Xena shook her blade, to rid it of the excess gore. "I'm gonna go take care of the rest of them… do me a favor.. just stay here, all right?" She glanced quickly at her soulmate, and Ephiny. "Better they think I'm alone if any of them get away."

She judged the running bootsteps as the rest of the men headed towards them, and waited until she knew they were clustered before the cave. Then her body surged forward and exploded into the open air, bringing death with it.

It was too quiet. Paladia lifted her head, and listened, then put her brush down with a grumble and stood up. The sun was going down, and still no sign of that damn girl… hesitantly she poked her head outside the door and glanced across the compound.

It was empty, and if she concentrated, she could hear a faint hint of noise coming from the bathing hut. Ah. She shook her head and pulled it back inside. They were so into baths.. Cait dragged her along sometimes, but she'd found it mostly a sticky, moist, noisy pit of flying gossip.

Which.. was fun to listen to, sometimes, but it gave her a headache, mostly. She heard a rustling sound, and peeked back out, glancing off into the forest with mild interest. Her eyes grew wide and round as she spotted a line of lethal, silent attackers, with loaded crossbows moving into the central areas.

No alarms? No guards? What in Hades was going on? She took a breath to yell a warning, then bit her tongue when she saw a young Amazon round the corner and spot them, moments before she was spitted by five or six arrows. The girl dropped without a sound, and the line moved on, heading forward.

Paladia backed away from the door, and edged over to the window, peering out quickly and breathing a sigh of relief when she saw no creeping attackers. She carefully stowed away her picture, and put her paints in their box, then hoisted herself to the window sill, and dropped to the ground, crouching there for a long moment before she straightened, and crept over to the edge of her quarters, peering around the corner cautiously.

A line of men were going from hut to hut, and she pressed herself back against the wall as she heard her own door bashed open, and heavy footsteps trampled around inside.

"Empty. Let's go." A gruff, male voice rumbled, then the door inside slammed, and she heard them move on to the next building.

She nibbled her lip, trying to figure out what to do. Behind her, the forest stretched quietly, offering an enticing escape, and she turned to it, moving out into the brush until it covered her, and she could look back onto the village from relative safety.

Well. She drummed her fingers on her leg. Whaddaya think of that? No chance of the Amazons fighting off that crowd, not caught with their leathers untied like they were gonna be. It was a good chance for her to get outta there, and escape her captivity.

Right.. good idea. She decided. No more rules, no more doing boring chores, she was free to make her way back…

She sighed. Going home wasn't an option.. well, maybe… hey.. if the Amazons were outta commission, maybe she could get that Cait to go with her… kid didn't really belong here anyway, she was as different from most of the Amazons as Paladia was. She looked around her speculatively. Guess I could poke around for her for a few minutes… couldn’t hurt. She made up her mind. She'd sneak around to a few places she knew the kid liked, and if she didn't find her, well, she'd be on her way.

She didn’t' need to worry about the Amazons.. they could take care of themselves, and even if they couldn’t, they had Xena roaming around out there somewhere.. she'd take care of things.

Satisfied, she slipped quietly back, until she could no longer see the village, though she could hear the yells of the surprised Amazons, and the sound of fighting. Briefly, she wondered if she should go help, then realized she had no weapons, and what was the point?

She heard sounds, and went really still, hugging a tree until two men with crossbows crashed through the brush no more than a bodylength from her, and walked on. Yeah. Time to get outta here, all right.

They were expecting an injured Amazon girl. What they got was a demon from Hades, who seemed to flow out from under the rock and attack them with unbelievable speed. Xena caught the first one with her sword's tip right in the gut, then quickly withdrew it, and cut the second one's head off with a powerful stroke.

The next two stumbled back, pulling swords from their sheaths and regrouping as the warrior kicked her victims out of the way and headed for them, jumping off the rock ledge and landing in their midst with a low growl.

They engaged her, but found their weapons useless, against an almost primitive force which cut through them like a warm knife through herbed butter. They died, collapsing together and leaving only one man, who turned and ran for the edge of the clearing as fast as his legs would carry him.

Xena cursed, and bolted after him, covering the ground in long strides that brought her even with her quarry as he reached the trees. She leaped, and caught him around the ankles, bringing him down with a grunt. "Hold on there ya bastard." She caught him by the neck and hauled him over, knocking the dagger he'd drawn out of his hand with a negligent swipe of her own.

"A.. al right… " He held up both hands in a defenseless gesture. "Look.. I haven't done anything to ya.. just take it easy, all right?"

Xena straddled him, shifting her sword around in her hand, as she decided on a course of action. "What are you doing here?"

He turned coy. "Who wants ta know?"

The warrior moved swiftly, setting her sword down and jabbing him painfully on both sides of his neck. He started gagging, and his eyes bulged. "I'm not in the mood to play games. Talk, or die, your choice."

"Ahh… all right… all right… " He choked. "We're… we're here to catch us some Amazons."

Xena released him, and leaned on his chest with her elbows. "Why?"

"Guy… port town near Athens.. he's paying top dinars for em.. as many as we can bring over." He stared up at the ice blue eyes regarding him. "Hey… you wanna cut?" A hesitant grin edged his face. "Could use you.. bringing em back.. I hear they're ornery."

"What's he want them for?" Xena asked, leaning harder.

"Didn't ask." The man coughed. "Hey.. you're squishing me." He squirmed a little. "Got one of their own… she said she could bring back a whole load of em.. said she knew the place.. and she did.. it was sweet… c'mon now… nice lady like you.. you could use a few extra dinars, huh"

Xena sat up. "Two things."

"Yeah?" He responded, hopefully.

A long, slim finger raised. "One, I'm not nice." She lifted his head off the ground with one hand, and slammed her fist into his jaw, hearing a solid crack as her knuckles broke something. He lost consciousness, and she stood, pulling him up with her, then kneeing him in the groin as hard as she could. "And two, I'm no lady." She shook her head in disgust, then tossed his body from her, bouncing it off a tree.

"All right." Her call brought a familiar red gold head popping out of the cavern, and she watched as Gabrielle scrambled over the rocks, and trotted over to meet her, grimacing at the blood which liberally soaked her body.

"Any of this yours?" The bard asked quietly, peering around. "Cait's coming around a little, I think she's in a lot of pain, Xena."

"No, and I'm not surprised." The warrior replied, glancing around as Ephiny joined them, her face set in anger. "All right.. we got a boatload of trouble here." She put her hands on her lips. "First, we need a safe place to take Cait.. so I can get that arrow outta her." She held up a hand to forestall Ephiny's protest. "Can't help the village right now… let's let dark fall, then we can see where things stand.. no sense in getting ourselves shot, and you know they're looking for you."

Ephiny exhaled. "They said they're going to shoot people if I don’ t show up."

Xena looked her right in the eye. "They're gonna shoot people if you do." She replied bluntly. "And you'll probably be first.."

"Eph.. " Gabrielle rubbed her arm. "Xena's right… let's find out what's going on before we go charging in there." She looked around. "What about the supply cave for a place to take Cait… it's pretty hidden."

The regent thought a moment, then nodded. "All right.. we'll go there." She jerked her head up, and regarded them fiercely. "But not for long."

The roughness of the tree bark against her bare back eventually brought her around, and Eponin spent a few moments just mentally cursing to get it out of her system before she stretched her senses out. She kept her eyes closed, not wanting her captors to know she was awake, but the sounds she heard indicated none of them were around her, so she risked cracking one eye open to see.

Sure enough, she was lashed to a tree, outside a ring of what was a small camp. Three or four men sat inside it, laughing and sharing a wineskin, paying no attention to her. She let her eye slide closed again, and willed her head to stop pounding, as she listened to what they were saying.

Her jaw tightened as they made jokes about the taking of the village, but her heart lifted when she heard of the conspicuous absence of Ephiny. She wondered where her lover was, though, since her up and just leaving… A thought occurred, which brought a tiny quirk to the weapons master's lips. Wonder if she was looking for me?

She listened further, hearing no mention of either Xena or Gabrielle, which was another good sign, but she knew Arella would figure it out eventually.. either through questioning people or simply checking the stables, where Argo's distinctive shape would be found.

Her mind started clicking. If Xena, Gabrielle and Ephiny were out there, they'd need help. She tested her bonds, and cursed softly, feeling the almost strangling tightness around her wrists, pulling her arms back so fiercely her shoulders were numb.

A familiar voice caused her to cease her struggling and she stared ahead of her as Arella walked over, stopping a body length away and studying her. "Hello, teach." The woman chuckled, coming a step closer. "You missed a great party… all your pathetic little Amazons caught in the buff, slipping and sliding everywhere. It was like shooting perch in a puddle."

Eponin remained silent, just watching her.

Arella stepped closer, and unsheathed her dagger, tickling the smaller woman's neck with it. "Now.. you're going to tell me where your precious Ephiny is, or I'm going to carve my name in your skin, okay?"

Caramel colored eyes didn’t so much as blink. "I have no idea." She answered, with complete honesty. "Haven't seen her since this morning.

The blade sliced through the skin above her collar bone, sending a stream of fire down her nerves. "Not good enough, little Pony."

"Suck centaur butt, you piece of dung." Eponin answered evenly. "I knew we shoulda killed you."

Arella laughed, slicing deeper, and making a turn, which carved a u shaped cut in the older Amazons neck. "But.. I was right… that little settlement you sent me to? Got taken over a month back… guy that did it is crazy for Amazons. Willing to pay very good.. and what I'll make off this will let me take some friends, and start the kind of Nation I want." She ran a finger through the blood dripping down Eponin's neck, and wiped it across her face. "I couldn’t think of a better place to get some for him.. and I knew I wouldn't get a fight."

Eponin's head moved like a snakes, her white teeth snapping shut on the taller woman's finger, biting down savagely and jerking her jaw to one side as flesh tore under her grip.

Arella screamed in shock, then she ripped her hand loose, and backhanded the older woman, watching her slump against the tree limply. "Bitch." She grabbed her hand, which was pulsing with violent pain, and hissed. "I'm gonna flay you in the center of that damned village." She cradled her hand against her chest, and stalked off, brushing several men out of her way.

One amber eye opened, as Eponin lifted her head up, a look of feral satisfaction on her face. She spat out a fragment of skin with a sense of distinct pleasure, and let her head lean back against the rough bark. She could feel the warm blood trickling down her skin, and she winced, as the cut spread a fiery pain through her. She was just wondering if it was bad enough for her to bleed to death, and thus cheat Arella, when she heard a faint rustle.

Very slowly, she turned her head, and focused on the underbrush, scanning it until her eyes detected something out of place.

Blond, straight hair, and expressionless gray eyes peered back at her, regarding her with deliberate thoughtfulness. Eponin drew in a breath. Paladia, who was someone who owed her no favors.

Who might even join Arella's gang, given the opportunity.

The tall ex renegade crept closer, pausing every time a sound drifted over from the camp, until she was right up next to the tree. Her eyes flicked over to the camp, then back to Eponin's face. "Ya bit her." Paladia whispered.

Pony nodded. "Yeah… tasted like crap."

That got a quick, almost invisible quirking grin from the taller woman. "Ya want outta here?"

Eponin nodded again, but remained silent. She felt a cold pressure against one wrist, then felt the ropes give way. She lowered her arms slowly, rubbing them as Paladia knelt and cut through the bindings on her ankles. She waited until she knew she could move without stumbling, then slipped around the tree, motioning the renegade to go before her.

There was no speech for at least half a candlemark, as they made their way in the growing darkness, keeping off known paths and making for the wilder parts of the forest on the south side of the village. Finally, Eponin stopped, by a small spring surrounded by thick, old growth trees whose branches dipped into the water gently. She knelt beside it, and doused her head with the cold water, rinsing off the still bleeding cut in her chest, and taking a long drink of it between cupped hands.

Paladia crouched next to her, also dipping into the water.

"Why'd you stay?" The weapons master finally asked, letting her forearms rest on her thighs.

The big woman shrugged. "Wasn't going to.. just was looking around for that kid.. thought I'd say so long.. she drove me nuts, but.. " She took another drink of water. "Came up on you and saw the knife work.. she's a bitch, huh?" Her finger drew a pattern in the dirt. "What's she got on you?"

Eponin regarded her. "Used to live here… she got in trouble about a year back, we farmed her out to a little outpost.. thought she'd be all right there." She shrugged. "Guess not." She paused. "So.. you taking off, or what?"

Paladia considered the question, realizing the Amazon wasn't going to stop her if she wanted to leave. Finally she shrugged. "Wanna see what happens." She decided. "You got any ideas?"

The Amazon smiled wearily. "We gotta find some allies." We. She saw Paladia's brow lift thoughtfully at that. "Eph's out there somewhere… so are Xena and Gabrielle."

A nod. "And Cait." Paladia mentioned, offhandedly. "She went off lookin for you."

"Damned persistent little mucking fool." Eponin cursed.

"Mph." The ex renegade agreed. "How do we find em?"

The weapons master peered off into the growing darkness, a thoughtful expression on her face. "We'll find a way." She winced. "We got a cache not far from here… a little place we store stuff. I gotta get a bandage on this damn thing."

They slipped off together, under a blanket of leaves that brushed their shoulders, and left a cool, rich scent behind.

The cliff face loomed before them, and Gabrielle was glad to see it as they crept closer, listening hard for anyone's approach. Xena had Cait cradled in her arms, and had insisted on carrying the girl with no stopping, anxious to get her wound taken care of.

"All clear." Ephiny appeared from the darkness. She'd gone to check the opening, and felt comfortable with the lack of any recent footprints. "Come on."

They entered the cave through an opening so narrow it scraped Xena's shoulders, and went down a short, uneven corridor that opened up into a larger chamber. The warrior stood very still as Ephiny struck a light, blowing gently on the torch to get it burning steadily.

The torchlight revealed a long, narrow chamber, stacked neatly on both sides with supplies, with a corridor down the center to give access. Ephiny moved to the wall and lit a few more torches, then settled the one in her hand into a nearby sconce. "Well.. it's rough, but it's fairly safe.. unless they decide to loot this place."

Xena spotted a small table, and she walked over, settling Cait on top of it gently. The girl was ominously still, and the warrior hesitantly probed her pulse point, sighing a little when she felt the continued, faint flutter. "Hang in there, Cait." She unstrapped her kit, and laid the contents on the table, rubbing her eyes as she selected what she'd need to remove the arrow. A warmth at her back made her look up, to see Gabrielle's gentle eyes peering at her. The bard put both hands on her shoulders, and massaged them lightly.

"How's she doing?"

The warrior pursed her lips. "Not good." She answered honestly. "She's lost a lotta blood…it hit a bad place."

"Mm." Gabrielle rested her chin on her soulmate's shoulder. "Well.. she's in the best of hands." She gave her a gentle squeeze.

Xena swallowed twice. "She asked me to teach her to catch arrows." She whispered.

The bard rubbed her back, feeling the tension under her fingertips. "You'll teach her." She replied, with quiet certainty. "You need some help?" She indicated the warrior's current task. "Can I get you some water?"

Xena leaned her head against the bard's briefly. "Yeah.. that would be great… is there a source in here?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah.. in the back… it's not much, but it's pretty clear.. I'll get some, and get a fire started." She gave her partner a last, tiny pat, then moved off, pushing her hair back as she picked up an empty earthenware jug and headed towards the water.

Ephiny had been standing near the entrance to the cavern, her hands on either side of the opening which lead to the outside. Now, she crossed to where Xena was working, and stood watching quietly, as the warrior's skilled hands carefully cleaned around the arrow stub. The angry red area looked strange against Cait's pale skin, and Ephiny couldn’t help but notice how faint the girl's breathing was.

Xena drew out her dagger, and set it to one side. "Can you bring a torch over here, Eph?" She said quietly. "I'm going to need to cauterize that."

Ephiny flinched in reflex, then did as she was asked, bringing the torch back over and watching as the warrior ran the edge of it through the flame. The smoke from the torch headed upward, gathering in the crevices of the ceiling, and escaping out somewhere above.

Soft bootsteps approached, and Gabrielle appeared out of the dark gloom, moving from a shadow to solid reality as the torchlight hit her. "Here." She handed the earthenware container to her partner. "Do you want me to hold onto her?"

Xena nodded, and waited while the bard slipped under Cait's head, cradling her upper body with a firm grip. The warrior took the knife, pausing, then making three rapid, accurate cuts around the arrow. Cait writhed in semiconscious reaction, a low moan coming from her throat.

Gabrielle stroked her head gently. "It's okay… she'll be fast, Cait.. I promise."

The warrior took in a breath, then worked the point of the knife in, and cut around the arrowhead, removing it quickly and dropping it onto the table. It was a cruelly barbed thing, with both forward and backward facing prongs.

"Gods." Ephiny stared at it, shocked.

"Yeah." Xena muttered. "That's why I didn’t just push it through." She cleaned the wound carefully, holding the girl down as she struggled weakly in Gabrielle's arms. The blood pumped sluggishly from the gaping hole, and she let it for a moment, then she reached out and held the knife into the torch again.

A spatter of sound, and the sharp scent of burning blood filled the small area. Xena looked over at her soulmate, who was whispering comforting words to her patient. "Hold onto her, love… this is gonna really hurt."

Ephiny knelt and braced her hands on the girl's shoulders, her face an expressionless mask. She watched as the warrior let the blade heat until it was reddening, then closed her eyes as Xena brought the metal close, and plunged it into the wound.

Cait screamed, and it took all three of them to hold her, as Xena counted grimly to herself, then pulled the hot metal back out. The smell of burned flesh got into her nose, and an almost overwhelming wave of nausea followed. She clamped her jaws together hard, and swallowed, as Cait's almost convulsive struggles faded, and she slumped into Gabrielle's strong arms. "Damn." The warrior managed to get out.

The bard hugged the girl gently, tears running down her face in pure reaction. "It'll be all right, Cait… it's over now."

Ephiny touched the young Amazon's pale hair with a shaking hand. "When I find those guys, little Cait, I'm going to cut their hearts out." She whispered. "I promise you that."

Xena stood abruptly, needing fresh air. She crossed to the entrance, and passed through it, stopping outside the entrance to the cavern and letting the cool breeze soak into her. She leaned against the rock, which had not quite given its heat back to the air, and willed the queasiness to subside.

After a moment, the sounds around her penetrated her senses, and she lifted her head.

Someone was coming.

"Are we there yet?" Paladia inquired, as she slipped down a muddy incline for the nth time.

Eponin turned and glared at her, a large smudge of dirt obscuring half her face. "You got a fondness for that saying?"

The ex renegade shrugged. "M'brother used to drive my parents half crazy with that on wagon trips."

Caramel colored eyes narrowed. "You saying I remind you of your mother?" Eponin's voice dropped dangerously.

Paladia regarded her stolidly. "Nope."

The Amazon snorted softly, and returned her attention to the slick root she was trying to pull herself up by. "Good."

The taller woman waited until her companion had gotten a good foothold, and was clinging to the slope firmly. "She had a sense of humor." She commented, pulling herself up one handed and shielding her still healing arm.

"That's not funny." Eponin growled.

"See what I mean?" Paladia muttered back.

They got to the top of the slope, and pressed on, ducking through the thick undergrowth and avoiding the more well used paths around the village. As they approached the tall cliff face which housed the storage cache, Eponin paused, holding up a hand cautiously. "Shh."

Paladia stopped, and leaned against a tree, waiting as the Amazon made a show of examining the area thoroughly. Finally, she nodded. "All right… looks like they haven't found the place yet…no sign of anyone."

Regardless, she paced forward silently, keeping close to the overhanging trees as they made their way towards the entrance, half hidden in a fold in the rock. The breeze blew the branches to and fro, and an owl kept them company, hooting mournfully as they passed underneath him.

"Keep quiet.. just in case." Eponin muttered, as she studied the shadows around the entrance, watching the moonlight shift slowly over the surface as the trees swayed. "Okay.. let's go."

Their own path was dark, and they were under cover until the last moment, then Eponin darted for the entrance.

Paladia blinked, as she stopped short. One moment the Amazon was creeping along like a monkey, then next she was suspended and up against the rock wall making noises like a duck.

"Gods be damned, Eponin… d'you want to get yourself killed?" Xena's voice hissed.

"Put me down, you… " The weapons master squawked. "You… damn it, Xena!"

The warrior released her, then stepped back, looking over and spotting Paladia waiting in the shadows. "C'mon… let's all get inside before someone spots us."

The renegade ambled forward, giving the tall, dark haired woman a look of veiled amusement. "How? She didn't spot you, that's for sure."

Xena shook her head, then pushed them gently before her, towards the entrance. "G'wan… " She followed them inside, stopping short to avoid crashing into them when they paused just inside the door. "Look who I found outside." She remarked, pushing past them roughly and heading for the table Cait was lying on.

Ephiny got up, her face a cross between relief and anger. "Where in Hades have you been."

Paladia saw a spat coming, and deftly avoided it, moving quietly over to where Gabrielle was still cradling Cait's head in lap. "What happened to her?" The ex renegade asked, in a small voice.

Xena looked up, studying her face for a brief instant. "She got shot." Her fingers closed over the arrowhead, and held it up.

The tall, blond woman's eyebrows scrunched together, as she gazed down at Cait's pale face. "Those same guys?" She sat down on a box next to the table. "The village ones?"

"Yes." Gabrielle answered, stroking Cait's hair back gently. "We found her near the river."

A bit of silence fell, as Paladia considered that, and Xena continued cleaning the now cauterized wound. "She gonna be okay?" The ex renegade finally asked. "She doesn't look so good."

Xena sighed. "She lost a lot of blood…I dunno."

Paladia scowled. "Damn." She settled her chin on her fists and glowered. Then her eyes darted up to Gabrielle's. "She's the most annoying bitch I ever met, but she don’t deserve no arrow." She paused. "She's even more annoying than you are."

Bard and warrior exchanged quiet looks. "We understand." The both said, together. "Listen.. " Xena picked up her kit, and cast an eye towards Eponin and Ephiny, who were standing near the entrance in heated, if whispered debate. "Lemme go… "

"Xena." Ephiny called over, her hands settling on her hips. "We've got trouble."

Gabrielle turned her head in surprise. "Like.. we didn't before?" She queried, with a puzzled frown.

"Arella's in charge of that raiding group." The regent replied. "That's how she got in.. she had the passwords to the outer guardposts."

The warrior exhaled, a quiet, dark mask settling on her angular features. "That… makes more sense." She allowed. "Pony, come over here and let me get that cut."

"Nah.. it's just a scratch." The weapons master waved her off, as she crossed the room and dropped down on to a dusty box.

Xena looked at her dourly.

"Annoying, isn't it?" Gabrielle had let Cait's head down onto the folded blanket she'd found, and crossed to her partner. She patted the warrior on the arm. "Remember that, okay?" She walked over to where Ephiny was still standing, and regarded her. "So.. we need a plan."

Ephiny chewed her lip. "Yeah… that bitch.. I shoulda… " She let the thought trail off. "Damn… I couldn’t sworn things had turned around for her." She looked up at Gabrielle. "I'm gonna rip her apart for the simple reason that I was damn well looking forward to tonight, you know that?"

The bard rubbed her arm gently. "Yeah.. me too." She admitted softly. "But.. we'll get this taken care of.. then have a really big party to celebrate, okay?" She turned, to see her partner grimly cleaning off Pony's 'scratch' despite the older Amazon's vocal complaints. "Pony, hush." She could see the grousing was getting on Xena's last nerve, and her partner was already edgy from the cavern, and the fighting and.. She watched Xena's jaw muscles working, and let out a sigh. "Eph.. you got any.. oh.. herbs… food.. stuff like that here?"

The regent rubbed her forehead. "Um…. " She hesitated. "I don't usually keep track of this… but… I think, yeah." She moved off towards a set of boxes. "If you wanna give me a hand with those.. we got dried fruits and meat… and a bunch of stuff like that." They dragged the box down, and opened it, and the bard dug into its contents judiciously.

"Hmm.. " She pulled out a wrapped package that smelled like venison, then a few that had a milder, fruitier scent and handed them to Ephiny. "Hang onto these.. " She dug further, and came up with several packets of herbs. "Hmm.. good.. yeah, this one Xena uses for fever, we might need that and.. ah." She retrieved the two powdered herbs she was looking for and mixed them in her hand, then disappeared back into the darkness of the cavern.

Ephiny scratched her head in puzzlement, then her face cleared. "Oh." She chuckled quietly. "Yeah.. I forgot what that's like." She carried the packages back and sat down on the box next to Eponin, putting them down next to her. "I guess we should get a bite to eat, and a breather, then decide what to do, right?"

Xena didn't answer for a moment, but Ephiny could see her throat working. Finally the warrior leaned on her knee, and looked up. "Yeah." She agreed, then paused. "This changes things… she'll know the village.. know how things work." Another pause. "If we go there tonight, we run the risk of stumbling into a trap.. I don't like it." She looked up as Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder, and offered her a cup. "Thanks." She caught the sharp scent and took a sip with a feeling of utter relief.

Ephiny's brow creased, but she made no comment about that. "Okay… so .. you're saying we do nothing?" She stood and paced. "I don’t know if I can do that, Xena. I have a lot of friends in there, and most of them will be targets of hers."

"It won't do us any good to get caught." Gabrielle reasoned, her hands resting lightly on her soulmate's shoulders. "That gives them more ammunition.. and if they know we're out here somewhere, it'll throw their plans off." She bent her head. "Right?" She muttered softly.

Xena gave her a tiny grin. "Right." She raised her head, as the nausea subsided at last. "They'll be nervous tonight… expecting something. If we make them wait, they'll maybe think nothing's gonna happen.. they'll relax a little." She gazed at them. "We'll go at first light, and scout around.. then decide what to do."

It was as though a subtle shift had happened, though Gabrielle had seen it many times. Xena simply, unconsciously, took command as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Which, she reflected, it was.. though both Eponin and Ephiny were skilled, veteran warriors, it was obvious that Xena expected them to follow her lead. It was equally obvious that the two Amazons seriously disagreed with this course of action.

"That makes sense to me." The bard stated firmly, casting her vote, though she knew the other women expected no less of her. And it did make sense, in the cool, studied, practical mind working just under her fingertips, which were stroking the dark hair. "We have to be careful, Eph.. they're all depending on us." She added softly. "If anything happens… there's no one else to help them."

And, as always, Gabrielle found the right words. The regent's shoulders slumped, and she rubbed her eyes. "I know… " She exhaled explosively. "I just hate knowing she's in there, with those bastards… damn it, Gabrielle, that's my home."

"We'll get it back." Xena spoke quietly.

An uncomfortable silence fell, until finally, Ephiny nodded. "All right." She muttered. "Gods.. I don't know how I'm gonna last the night though."

Gabrielle's brow creased, and she glanced at the silent Eponin, the white bandage stark on her tanned skin. The various strained emotions in the cavern troubled her, and she cast around for a way to ease them. "If someone wants to help me a get a few sticks.. I'll make a fire, and heat us up some tea… soup.. how about it?"

Xena leaned against her for a moment, then straightened up, and got to her feet. "You.." She pointed at the bard. "Stay here.. I'll go get some wood." Impulsively, she pulled Gabrielle's head towards her and kissed it, the ruffled her hair affectionately as she ducked her lips close to the bard's ear. "Get em to loosen up a bit, huh?"

"See what I can do." The bard replied, with a bemused sigh.

The warrior crossed the shadowy chamber, and dropped to a knee, studying Cait's pale face. She touched her skin, then shook her head a little, and tucked the blanket Gabrielle had put over her more closely around her arms.

Paladia was seated in the same place, her elbows resting on her knees, just watching. She blinked at Xena. "She likes you."

Pale blue eyes flickered up and met hers. "She's a good kid."

"She's a little cracked, y'know." The renegade commented. "Or is that just how ya grow them out in Fishyplace.. or wherever it is you're from?"

"Amphipolis." The warrior corrected, flatly, then her brows lifted slightly. "Look… you take that water, see? If she wakes up, try and get her to drink it."

"Me?" Paladia snorted. "Not likely."

Xena merely waited in silence.

"I ain't no healer."

Steady, intense blue gaze.

"Aw, crap." Paladia sighed in disgust. "Yeah, okay, fine."

Xena smiled at her. "Good." She picked up the smaller basin, which had a piece of linen soaking in it. "Here.. take this too. " She watched as the woman took the bowl in pure reflex. "Wipe her head off if she starts sweating."

"B.. wh… " Paladia spluttered. "Waitaminute."

The warrior stood up, and shook herself. "Be right back… " She glanced down as Ares joined her, rubbing against her legs. "You come with me, boy?" She winced as the wolf dropped a still damp bundle on her boot. "Oh.. gods." She lifted it, shaking it out, and peering at it uncertainly. "Pony.. I think this is yours." She tossed the sodden leather at her. "From the race."

Eponin glanced at it, then let it drop. "Yeah." She replied quietly. "Thanks."

Xena gave her a look, then headed out the door, first exchanging glances with Gabrielle.

"Hurry back." The bard advised, them mouthed. "Please?"

They ate in a uneasy quiet, after Gabrielle successfully managed to dig up a small pot and throw together a collection of odds and ends into some kind of soup. The hot food seemed to help, even with her grumpy soulmate who found a spot near the outer wall by the fire and settled back against the stone, cradling her cup in both hands.

Ephiny and Eponin had traded several rounds of sniping, and had finally settled on a tense silence, as they picked separate crates to sit on.

Gabrielle decided she'd just about had it. "What in Hades is wrong with you people?" She put her hands on her hips and let her mist green eyes pin each one of them. "It's like you all have red ants in your leathers. Isn't what happened bad enough without us all glaring at each other?"

"Gabrielle.. it's been a rough day.. "Ephiny protested wearily.

"Yeah…been there, done that." The bard responded instantly. "And let me tell you, it makes it a whole lot easier if you have a friendly face to look in the bad times." Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the swiftly hidden look of hurt on her partner's face. "I should know." She amended.

"How?" Pony asked, her voice laden with sarcasm. "Don't tell me you mean her."

"Look, cut it the Hades out." Ephiny snapped at her. "That's what started this whole damn mess, you and your never-ending crap with her. Enough already."

"I didn't do a damn thing!" Pony responded angrily. "I'm not the one.. "

"Hold it." The low voice rolled over them, dark with menace, so vibrant it echoed off the walls. "Everybody shut up."

In the silence that followed, they could hear the faint trickle of the water in the back of the cavern, and a rattle of a pebble falling.

Xena stood, rising to her full height and letting her imposing presence make its usual impact. Damn it, here I go again. I tell everybody to shut up, now I've gotta figure out what to say next. "Look." She consciously gentled her voice a little. "This is a lousy situation.. and I know everyone's pissed off, but we shouldn’t take it out on each other."

Gabrielle's eyes widened, and she batted her lashes at her taller partner. Xena, doing the sensitive chat.. I gotta record this. She tried not to think about her diary in enemy hands.

Ephiny and Eponin exchanged glances, then looked at the warrior.

"So.. listen… I'm sorry I pulled your shirt off." Xena said, quietly.

Eponin blinked a few times. "Um… woulda been better if you'd just dumped me on my butt."

The warrior lifted one shoulder. "I really just honestly wasn't in the damn mood." She pronounced the words with careful exactness.

The Amazon's eyebrows knit together. "Yeah.. sorry I pushed you… but.. " She shifted a little. "You sick or something? You've been acting real weird."

Xena looked down at her boots, then peeked up at Gabrielle, who rubbed the side of her jaw. "Um.. " The bard pushed her hair behind one ear. "Actually.. she's fine.. it's me…I'm expecting."

Eponin looked at her in utter confusion. "Expecting what?"

Ephiny chuckled a little, and edged a bit closer to the dark haired Amazon. "She's pregnant, you goof."

Honey colored eyes went to her, then to Gabrielle, then back to her, then darted to Xena's face. "Buh." Paladia snorted softly from her position near the table, then she turned her attention back to Cait's still face. Eponin licked her lips. "Pregnant.. . as in.. like.. a baby?"

"Uh huh." Gabrielle assured her. "So… the whole thing's kinda throwing us both off, I think… we're kinda sharing stuff."

Eponin let out a breath, her angry mood evaporated. "Wow."

The bard smiled. "Yeah… wow."

Slowly, the weapons master turned her head. "You knew?" She asked Ephiny.

The regent nodded slightly. "Yeah… but I was sworn to secrecy." Hazel eyes flicked to Gabrielle's shadowy form. "Our friend here wanted to kick booty fair and square."

Eponin leaned back, and let her hands rest on her knees. "That's incredible… and you sure did kick some, too." She let a wry chuckle escape her lips. "You can't be much though… what.. a month?" Her eyes flicked to the bard's slim form.

Gabrielle laughed. "More or less… though I gotta tell you, Pony.. you're the first person who hasn't asked me who the father is."

The Amazon shrugged nonchalantly. "I assumed it was Xena."

The warrior lifted her hands and let them drop. "Ephiny, don't you go over the birds and bees with these people?" She put her hands on her hips and gave Eponin a look. "I am not equipped to be a father, all right?" She exclaimed, exasperated.

Eponin grinned. "Gotcha." She chuckled. "Nah.. actually.. Gran told me about the deal you cut.. I figured the rest out myself." She tilted her head. "No offense to your bro, Xena.. but I think you'll make a better father than he ever would."

Xena had seated herself again, and now she gave Eponin a faintly embarrassed grin. "Thanks."

Gabrielle sighed in relief, as she felt the tension in the chamber relax. She picked up her soup and walked over to her partner, settling down on the ground next to her and leaning against a convenient shoulder. Xena immediately switched her cup to her other hand, and slipped an arm behind her, pulling Gabrielle gently back against her chest.

"Mm." The hard ground faded out, as she let her body relax against the warrior's, and Xena's arm tightened around her waist. The long day was catching up with her despite her nap earlier, and it was nice just to sit quietly and gaze into the tiny fire and not think about what was going to happen tomorrow. She drank her soup, chewing on the bits of fruit and meat contentedly. "I can't believe she'd sell out her own people… that's really disappointing."

Ephiny shook her head, leaning back on the box behind her, and pulling her legs up to sit cross-legged. "I know… damn… I wonder what happened. I really thought she'd decided to just play it straight." She turned to Eponin, who was perched on the next box over. "Didn't you think?"

The weapons master studied her soup, then made a waggling gesture with one hand. "Yes and no… I thought she'd decided to behave, yeah.. but I always kinda thought it was for her own reasons." She took a sip. "And after Erika left her… I was glad you decided to send her to the outpost, thought maybe that would keep her mind off things."

Ephiny grunted. "Yeah… " She gazed at her cup, then glanced up. "This is great, Gabrielle.. thanks." She looked a touch sheepish. "Don't know how you do that.. you make odds and ends taste better than anything our kitchen puts out."

The bard laughed softly. "Practice." She ran a hand down Xena's thigh, tickling her skin gently. "I had to get pretty creative out there.. we didn't have a lot of variety." Her eyes flicked momentarily to her partner's face. "Poor Xena had to suffer through a lot of trial and error, unfortunately."

The warrior looked mildly back at her. "I never complained." She stuck her nose in her soup, and nibbled a piece of vegetable. "You wanna talk bland? You should see what an army comes up with for food." Her eyes were amused. "I got used to carrying spices just to cut the taste of it…half the time I'd just go out and hunt something down, to make sure I wasn't being poisoned by mistake." Or on purpose, her mind added, wryly.

"Oh.. so the fishing skills are self preservation." Gabrielle teased her, then looked back at the fire. "They certainly preserved me more than once… after dumb food disasters." She paused, then sighed. "I shouldn't have said that.. now I'm hungry for a fish."

They all chuckled, and Xena squeezed her middle. "Where'd you say that water was in the back?"

The bard half turned and shook a finger at her. "You are not going fishing, you hear me?"

Big blue eyes looked innocently back at her. "Did I say I was?" Xena drawled, lifting an eyebrow. "Maybe I wanna take a bath."

Gabrielle put a fingertip against the warrior's nose, her mist green eyes sparkling gently. "I know you." She watched Xena's face relax into a smile and returned it, letting her surroundings just sort of fade out for a minute. Then Ephiny cleared her throat, and Pony snorted, and the bard turned, poking her tongue out at them impudently as she settled back in her comfortable spot.

They finished up and Xena rose, reluctantly letting go of her soulmate, and went over to check Cait. Paladia watched her as she approached, summoning up a scowl. "Hasn't woken up."

The warrior dropped down onto one knee, and leaned against the table, gently checking the young Amazon's wound. "Damn."

"What does that mean?"

Xena ignored her. "C'mon, Cait… you're tougher than that, I know you are." She replaced the dressing over the ugly, red gash, then stood, drumming her fingers on one hip. "Lemme try… " She walked over to the box of herbs, and dug inside, riffling her fingers through them and selecting several. She touched the small leaves in the palm of her hand, then sighed. "Pretty dry."

"That's bad?" The ex renegade was watching her cautiously.

Xena grabbed a cup, and put the leaves inside it, taking the hilt of her dagger and crushing them thoroughly. "It's better if they're fresh." She explained absently. "More potent."

Paladia remained silent for a moment. "Any around here? Maybe… it's a full moon outside…" She stopped abruptly, as cool blue eyes turned to her in mild surprise. "Not that I care.. I was just asking."

A faint twinkle appeared. "Right." Xena nodded somberly, as she poured some of the hot water over the herbs and let them steep, swirling the cup rhythmically to combine them.

"Lemme see how this works." She muttered. "Listen… I need you to hold her up there.. so I can get this in her."

Paladia's eyes widened. "Uh… no.. I'm not good at that stuff."

Xena looked at her. "At what stuff? Just get over here." She put a trace of impatience in her voice. "Just get your hands under her shoulders." A pause. "Now."

The blond woman hesitated, then moved to the table, and awkwardly slipped her hands under Cait. "Now what?"

"Lift." Xena drawled. "I'm sure you know how to do that."

Colorless gray eyes glowered at her, but Paladia flexed her arms, wincing as her injured one protested. She raised the girl's head up, and watched as Xena perched on the edge of the table, and gently opened the unresisting Cait's mouth, slowly pouring some of the mixture in, then tipping her head back and touching a pressure point on her throat that triggered a swallow. She waited a moment, then repeated the process. "All right." She finally said, with a sigh. "You can let her down."

Paladia did so, pulling her hands back as though she'd been bitten. She peered down at the still face. "Didn't do nothing."

Xena waited, watching patiently, then nodded a little to herself as she saw a faint flush creep up the girl's neck. "Give it time." She stood up, and regarded the taller woman. "Talk to her."

"What????" Paladia's voice rose half an octave. "I don't got nothing to say to her.. she's the one who talks."

Xena shrugged. "All right, don't" She tucked the blanket back around Cait's shoulders. "I'll send Gabrielle over here to tell her a story, then.. she likes those long, romantic ones." She pretended not to see Paladia's wince.

She padded across the cavern, to where Gabrielle, along with Ephiny and Eponin was rummaging through boxes in search of weapons. "Find anything?"

Gabrielle held up a miniature crossbow. "Well… some Solstice toys." She tested the point of a tiny arrow gingerly. "Gee… you guys really believe in starting young, huh?" She handed the toy to Eponin, and dug further, coming up with masks, extra feathers, folded blankets, wrist shackles, tiny swords, three stuffed centaurs, and one lonely, mop haired doll. "What are these for?" She held up the shackles curiously.

Eponin stared off into space, and Ephiny cleared her throat. "Um… enemies." She replied. "You know.. to lock people up."

Gabrielle dangled one, which had tiny beads hanging from it, and was lined with fur. "Hmm." She gave Ephiny a look. "And here I thought the Amazons treated prisoners harshly." One finger lifted and flicked the beads.

"Well.. " Ephiny put her hands behind her back. "They're for.. um… long term confinement… you know, we don’t want to cause someone to get gangrene or something."

"Mmhmm." The bard put the handcuffs down and dug further. "Ah." She pulled out a set of chobos. "That’s more like it."

Eponin had busied herself with another box. "Got some real crossbows here." She muttered. "Oh ho… here you go, Xena… I bet you'd like this." She hauled out a coiled, leather whip, and tossed to the warrior, who examined it judiciously.

"Maybe." She uncoiled the dark length, and let it snake along the floor, then flicked her wrist and took the ceremonial dagger right out of Eponin's hands. "Not bad."

Gabrielle caught the end of the whip, and wrapped it around her partner, tying it off in front of her. "Stop that.. you're gonna hurt someone." She patted Xena's belly. "Be good."

A dark brow lifted wryly. "Yes, mother." She sighed. "I'm gonna go take a look around… make sure no one's out there. You all… " She paused. "Please… stay here."

The bard gave her a look. "Only if you promise not to be gone long."

Xena twirled her whip end. "Promise." She leaned over and kissed the bard's head. "Do me a favor… g'wan over and see if you can talk to Cait a little.. tell her a story or something, huh?"

The bard nodded. "Okay."

Xena left them digging, and ambled outside, glad to get out of the cavern and back into the fresh air She stood for a long moment, just savoring the cool breeze, and the smell of rain it brought to her. Good. She felt relieved. Rain was a good thing, it would keep the raiders close to camp, and discourage sniffing around.

The first spatters were, in fact, hitting her skin now, but she decided to continue her rounds, not wanting to leave anything to chance. She hopped up onto a rock, then vaulted up into the trees, jumping from branch to branch in relative silence. The rain, and its attendant wind covered her passing, and she made good time as she circled their campsite checking for the enemy. It was, she conceded, a particularly Amazon thing to do, but it sure beat plodding around in the mud, and it gave her an advantage over anyone on the ground. She balanced lightly on a long limb, considering, then walked to its edge, adjusting her balance as the branch bent under her weight. She reached the end, then let the springiness launch her forward.

Her hands caught a higher limb, and she pulled herself up, then sat down, letting her legs hang over and peering towards the ground.

A lookout post. Just a small shelter, with three men in it, huddled under a woven mat and more concerned with keeping dry than keeping watch. Xena considered killing them, then decided against it. Arella was an unknown wildcard.. she wasn’t going to take the chance that the renegade Amazon wouldn't kill a captive for each of her men she found dead.

After watching them in silence for a while, she stood up, and moved on, circling the village with expert skill and marking the placement of the guards carefully. It seemed quiet, though tense, and she left satisfied that the attackers would stay put until the morning, or better weather.

She made her way back, placing her boots carefully to keep from slipping on bark now slick with rain. It drenched her, soaking her leathers and plastering her hair to her back, but it felt good, and she paused, tilting her face back and letting the water lash against her face.

She opened her mouth and took a drink, enjoying the pure sweetness of it, then shook her head to clear the hair from her eyes, living the moment fully. Then she sighed, and padded on, leaping from the tree to a mound of boulders, the rough stone scraping against her hands as she thudded against it, pushing off and making her way around edge of the mound, to where a thick patch of forest blocked easy passage. The village was behind her, and she didn't see any sign of guards. Good. She was about to head back, when the wind carried to her ears a faint sound.

She stopped, freezing into stillness, and cocked her head, closing her eyes and extended her senses. The night sounds filtered in, an owl hunting, the rustling of a small animal foraging, the rain, the wind.. and the soft, chuckling sound that had alerted her. She sorted through her memories, trying to place it, and couldn't.

Intrigued, she hopped off her rocks, and began to ease her way through the thick brush, the wet leaves shedding their load of rain on her skin, and leaving behind a rich, green scent.

The sound got marginally louder, and she puzzled at it, as its pitch reminded her of a child, but had the wrong timber. The forest closed in around her, and she pushed on, sliding through a vine covered area that reached out hungry thorns to claim her, scraping lightly against her flesh. She silently hoped it wasn't poison ivy, and unwound it from her body, the mere thought causing an itching that she firmly put out of her mind.

The noise increased, and now she could hear other sounds with it, a low, ethereal rumble, and the faint, but unmistakable sound of a small fire. She sniffed, detecting wet wood burring, and the smell of meat cooking.

Some damn fool was camping there, she realized, cursing. She'd have to get them to move out of the area before they found themselves captured or worse.

As she closed in, the low rumbling resolved itself into words, and , her shocked senses realized, into a familiar voice. No… it can't be. She wriggled through the last wall of shrubs, and peered towards the meager light, her eyes blinking and adjusting, resolving the shadowy forms with a startled jolt. Damn, it is.

"Now… you gotta be careful, right?" The voice rumbled, addressing something on the ground. "It's important you don't let anyone sneak up on us, so you watch daddy." The large figure tiptoed around the fire, and peered under a huge hand into the darkness. "Always keep a good watch, okay?"

Xena grinned, as three sets of tiny, golden eyes followed him, snub noses wrinkling into smiles of delight. She eased forward, placing each boot with infinite caution.

"Now.. if you re good, like daddy is, nobody can surprise you, all right?" The rumbling voice went on, and the speaker padded around the fire in exaggerated steps. A tall, shadowy form on the other side of the fire watched in amusement. "You have to always listen.. are you listening?" He cupped a hand to one ear. "See? All you can hear is the birdies, and the little animals out there just living their harmless little lives."

Now Xena was almost directly behind him, and the shadows slipped over her skin as she crept up stealthily, watching tiny gold eyes follow her with interest. The watcher on the other side of the fire spotted her, and clamped a hand over a suddenly grinning mouth.

"No nasty people, no hungry beasties.. just nice, soft, fluffy.. yow!!!!!" The speaker yelped, and grabbed his rear end, which had just been pinched, He launched himself into the air and dove across the fire, ending up in a pile of dust. "Ares' left ball what in.. " His golden eyes focused. "Whoa! Xena!!!!" A smile revealed long, curved fangs. "Dip me like a sheep.. where did you come from??"

The warrior grinned at him. "Hello, Jess." She drawled, putting her hands on her hips. "So.. what kind of soft, fluffy animal am I?"

Elaini burst out laughing, and rolled off the log she was seated on.

The tall forest dweller, who was close to seven feet tall and covered with thick fur, bounced to his feet, and dusted himself off, shaking his head and ambling back across the campsite to enfold her in a big hug. "No kind." He growled softly in her ear. "You hadda do that in front of the kids, huh?"

The warrior extricated herself from his formidable grip. "You gonna introduce me?" A pause. "And what in Hades are you doing here?" She glanced over. "Hello, Elaini." The other forest dweller waved, still chuckling.

Jessan kneeled down, and scooped up the three little bundles. "Looking for you, to answer one question. " He pointed at the largest bundle, which revealed itself to be a sturdy looking fuzzball, with striking dark red fur. "This is Xena junior."

The warrior turned the color of the baby's fur, as the forest dweller cheerfully handed the tot over. She cradled her in the crook of one arm, as the baby peered up at her, in wide eyed fascination. Fur covered most of her body, save the tiny muzzle, and she waved a tiny, golden fist at the warrior. "Hi there." Xena chuckled.

"Boo!" The baby stated, robustly. "Aga!"

Jessan smiled. "She likes you."

Xena lifted a brow at him. "And you can tell this.. how?" She looked over at the other two fuzzballs, who were blinking back at her. "Jess.. they're adorable."

Her tall friend grinned, showing his canines. "Thanks." He looked up as Elaini crouched down next to them. "I think they look like her, she keeps telling me they look like my mother… it's this constant argument." He handed over the second tot. "This is little Gabrielle."

The warrior sat down cross-legged in the dirt, and put her namesake down in her lap while she greeted her smaller sibling, who had fur of a deeper gold, which reminded her of Jessan's, and large ears, which swiveled and gave the baby a very alert look. "Hello."

The baby's eyes grew round at her voice, and the ears twitched.

"Ooo.. she likes your voice. " Elaini laughed. "She loves music.. you should hear Jess singing her little songs at night."

Xena glanced up at the tall forest dweller, who blushed, his muzzle darkening. "Aww."

Jessan rolled his golden eyes. "Yeah yeah yeah… and this is little Warrin." He tickled his son's feet, and the baby kicked vigorously. Warrin had very dark fur, almost brown, as did Jessan's father. "Quite a bunch, huh?"

The warrior's gaze was focused on her two charges, and she missed the momentary look of apprehension on the forest dweller's face, as he let his eyes drift closed for a long moment. When they opened, a look of deep, profound relief covered his features. "Now.. what are you doing out here?" He touched her leg. "We were headed toward Amphipolis."

"Ah." Xena took a breath. "Well.. good thing I found you." She let little Gabrielle clutch her finger, and smiled as the baby tugged on it contentedly. "We were visiting the Amazons, and they.. well, to make along story short, their village got captured."

Elani and Jessan exchanged startled glances.

"So.. we're working on a plan to get it back." Xena continued. "We've gotta get you out of here, though.. they have patrols in the woods."

"Is.. " Jessan hesitated. "You said we?"

Xena looked up, a little startled. "Gabrielle, and a few of the Amazons.. we're squirreled away in a supply cave nearby." She studied his face. "You said you were looking for me… something up?"

An awkward silence fell, as Jessan toyed with the fur on his knee, then finally looked up. "We'd heard.. a lot of bad things."

The warrior's eyes dropped. "I see." She took a breath and met his eyes. "I'm sure the truth is worse than what you've heard."

An aching sadness filled his eyes, as he looked at her, and read the truth in her face. "Xena." A furred hand circled her wrist.

She took a moment to compose her thoughts, then exhaled. "We survived." It was, she knew, about the only answer she could give him. Give Jessan, who surely knew the length and the breadth of what it was that joined her and Gabrielle, and to whom the sundering they'd suffered would seem.. impossible.

Steady eyes of liquid gold that caught the fire's heart looked back at her. "I can See that." Jessan quietly replied. She has come through the fires of Hephastus… and it has tempered her. His mind felt a quiet relief from the awful clenching he'd felt since the stories had circulated. His parents had called his journey madness, but he had to see for himself.

Wennid, of course, had simply said she'd known all along their bond wasn't the same as that of their people. It made him quietly glad that he'd be able to go back to her and say, You were right mother. It's not the same. It's stronger.

He could See it. See the warm balance that surrounded her, and the fierce, white hot cord that bound her to Gabrielle that was now so strong, it rivaled anything he'd ever seen. "I'm glad… I can't tell you how much."

That got a faint smile from the warrior, who was being fairly mauled by her tiny namesake. The baby had managed to get a hold of her leathers, and was determinedly crawling up her damp body. "Hey… whatcha doing?" The baby gave her a scowl.

"I'll pack things up." Elaini hoisted herself up. "Be glad to be under cover tonight anyway.. my fur's growing mold. She shook herself, scattering droplets everywhere.

"Yeah… " Xena now gave her a real smile. "Besides.. I know Gabrielle's gonna love these three.. and I've got a patient back there I need to check on." A warmth crept over her, as she bounced the gurgling babies on her knee. She'd been wondering how she was going to tip the balance in their favor.. now she had her answer.

She almost, for an instant, felt bad for her enemies.

Paladia peered over towards the fire, where the two Amazons and Gabrielle were still rooting around in the endless boxes and crates, dragging out everything that looked like a weapon, and some things that Paladia was sure weren't She briefly considered going over to help them, then decided it was way too much like asking for trouble.

Instead, she returned her attention to Cait, whose breathing seemed to be strengthening a bit. "Hey." Paladia leaned forward. "Hey… wake up." She received no response, and scowled. "Hey.. come on… you gotta get up" She urged, hoping she could get a response before Gabrielle came over, and subjected her to one of those long, sappy, cheerful stories of hers.

Warily, the ex renegade eyed the three women, who had started to argue somewhat forcefully. "Oh gods.. there they go again.. hey.." She poked Cait's arm a little. "Listen.. you're missing stuff.. and you're gonna be madder than Hades if you don't wake up."

Cait stirred a little.

"C'mon.. c'mon… you love that gossip crap… you're missing some great stuff.. you missed them all apologizing to each other like a bunch of merchants in a wagon accident.. and ya missed the two big cheeses whupping up on each other…and you're missing lots of that sappy, goopy crap you like."

"S'not gpy." Came a very faint answer.

Paladia looked up in surprise, to see Cait's pale eyes half opened, peering fuzzily at her. "Oh..yeah.. great. You're awake." She muttered. "Bet you feel like crap."

Cait's throat worked as she swallowed with difficulty. "Uck."

The ex renegade gave her a doubtful look, then remembered Xena's orders. "Hey.. you want some water? I got some."

The girl breathed in and out a few times. "Yes."

Paladia brought the waterskin up, then realized there was no real way for Cait to drink from it in the position she was in. Aw, Hades. She scowled. "Look… you're gonna have to sit up for this."

Cait's eyes closed, and she shook her head weakly. "Can't."

A moment of hesitation. "Hurts bad, huh?"

A faint nod.

Well, she annoyed the crap out of everyone, but she wasn't a bad kid. "All right… um.. just hang on..lemme see if I can get you up here.. " She awkwardly scuttled forward, kneeling down on one knee and getting her good arm under Cait's shoulders and lifted her up a bit.

The pale gray eyes fluttered open in surprise, and they regarded each other. Paladia scowled, and thrust the waterskin forward. "Here… suck on this."

The girl did, until she dropped back, exhausted. Paladia hurriedly let her down, and drew back.

"Shhh." Gabrielle reached forward and grabbed Ephiny's leathers, tugging at them. "Don’t look like you're looking, but look over there."

Hazel eyes goggled at her. "Don't look like I'm looking but look? Gabrielle, you need to untie your bardic tongue." But she peeked over anyway, a blond eyebrow crawling up her forehead. "Centaur farts." She snorted softly. "Check that out."

Eponin turned her head slightly, and regarded the pair on the other side of the cavern. Paladia had an arm around the injured Cait, and was helping her to drink water. "I'll be an upside down duck in a mud puddle." The weapons master grunted. "Not sure what's going on with that… I expected her to take off like crazy after she got out of the village."

"Yeah." Ephiny's brows creased. "Not that I'm complaining.. " She gave Eponin a kinder look. "After all, she got you out of their clutches.. I owe her one." She gave Eponin a little pat on the arm. "But I'd have expected that too.. wonder what her game is."

Gabrielle eyed two across the cavern, then she looked at Ephiny and Eponin. Her eyes then searched the cavern roof as she shook her head in disgust. "Maybe she just decided to do the right thing." She offered, quietly, as they turned to look at her. "That happens sometimes, you know."

Eponin groaned, and gave the bard a wry look. "Gabrielle… I love ya, but you really go overboard on the romantic stuff sometimes, y'know?"

The bard smiled quietly. "Maybe… but it makes me smile a lot more when I look out at the world." She watched Paladia let Cait down, and draw back, and grinned in gentle memory.

She hadn't meant to fall out of that tree. It had been an accident, when she'd tried to struggle up into its branches to retrieve some nuts, while Xena was out somewhere hunting or whatever it was she did. She had almost made it down.. one last branch, but then her foot had slipped, and she'd felt herself falling, then pain and darkness blocked everything else out.

She'd woken, head pounding, and disoriented to see darkness overhead instead of the fading sunset she'd remembered, and heard the licks of the fire nearby. Her eyes had only roamed for an instant before a dark, shadowy form loomed over her.

"What in Hades did you think you were doing?" Xena had asked, her voice angry.

The bard had swallowed. "N.. no..nothing.. I… just some nuts.. didn't mean.. " She'd felt so stupid, and so young.. it had only been a month since she'd convinced the warrior to let her travel along with her, and now this. "Xena.. I.. "

A low thump, as the taller woman dropped to a knee beside her, and picked up a waterskin. "Never mind." She'd said brusquely. "Just drink this."

And Gabrielle had tried, miserable and embarrassed, she'd hitched herself up on one elbow, then folded over with a groan as a wave of dizziness and nausea had overwhelmed her.

Xena had cursed softly, then leaned close and lifted her up, supporting her as she drank thirstily from the waterskin. The warrior's arm had felt very strong, and warmer than she expected as it curled around her back, and she'd taken comfort from that, as her head slowly stopped pounding. "Thanks." She'd rasped softly as Xena let her back down onto her back. Then she felt around her, pulling at the pouch she'd slung from her back until it came loose. She pushed it into the warrior's hand. "Here… I know you like them… wanted to surprise you."

She'd let her eyes close then, but not until she saw the look of awkward surprise on Xena's angular face, as she peered inside the pouch to see the nuts nestled inside.

"Wasn't worth you breaking your head open for, Gabrielle." The warrior had replied, a touch exasperatedly.

Gabrielle managed to get one eye open, though, enough to see the warm glow of the fire reflect off a tiny, somewhat puzzled smile as Xena selected a nut and inspected it.

Yes it was, Xena. She mused, looking back from three years worth of perspective. Every little, tiny, itty bitty fraction of progress with you was worth it.

Now she sighed and went back to her rummaging, pulling out several layers of soft, wooly padding. "We can put this under Cait.. I bet that table's uncomfortable." She stopped speaking, as she felt a familiar presence, and looked up in time to see her soulmate's dark head peek in. "Hey."

Xena smiled, "Busy woods." She slipped into the cavern, and turned, motioning with her head. "Found some friends."

Jessan poked his head into the torchlit room, squeezing through the opening hardly large enough for his big body.

"Jess!" Gabrielle dropped the padding and headed for him.

"Hey.. fuzzy!" Eponin chuckled, folding her arms across her chest.

Jessan peered at them, shading his eyes with one fur covered hand. "Hey.. you're not blue anymore. How cool is that?" He grinned and scooped up Gabrielle as she reached him, then simply carried the bard further inside. "C'mon in guys."

Elaini eased inside, ducking her head to clear the entrance, and shifting the pack on her shoulders that held her three children.

"Oooo… " Gabrielle gurgled, spotting them. "Hi Elaini." She grinned at the forest dweller who grinned back. "They're soooooo cute."

They moved further into the room, and set their stuff to one side, then Elaini obligingly swung her pack down and introduced the Amazons and Gabrielle to the three fuzzballs who were now clamoring for attention. Their tiny, growling, mewling voices echoed faintly around the chamber, and soon they were gathered around the fire, trading news.

Xena watched them for a moment, then crossed over to where Cait was lying, giving Paladia a brief nod. The ex renegade was staring at Jessan and Elaini in startlement, and she jerked her head towards the warrior as Xena knelt at the young Amazon's side. "What are they?"

Cool blue eyes glanced briefly at her. "People." She paused. "Friends."

Paladia absorbed this. "Same kind as we had in the mountain?"

"Different tribe, but yeah." Xena replied, checking the wound on Cait's chest.

"She woke up." The ex renegade hasten to assure her. "Drank."

Xena nodded, pleased. "Good." She spared the tall blond a grudging smile. "She's fighter.. I think she'll be okay." She laid a hand on Cait's forehead, and the girl's eyes fluttered open again, spotting her favorite hero, and resulting in a weak smile.

The warrior smiled back. "Now I really gotta teach you to catch arrows, huh?" She glanced over at Paladia. "You just relax now."

Xena watched the group around the fire for a moment, then she walked idly over to the crates, pawing among the contents until she found a square of linen, which she used to dry herself with. Gabrielle was relating a story, and she smiled a little, as her soulmate used her hands to good advantage. She examined the weapons her friends had found, picking up the tiny toy crossbow and turning it over in her hands curiously. She triggered the miniature mechanism, and was startled when the bitty bolt traveled across the chamber and lodged itself in Ephiny's curly hair. The regent slapped her head, and felt the item, and she pulled it out to examine it as she turned and spotted Xena. Whoops. She bit back a grin.

"Xena." Ephiny gave her a look.

"Sorry." The warrior held up the toy. "Didn't know it was loaded."

Gabrielle laughed, and stood up. "As much fun as this is, I think we'd better get some rest. Tomorrow's gonna be a tough day." She stretched, and walked to the boxes, lifting up a earthenware vessel. "I'll get some water.. I think we're almost out."

Xena reached for the jug. "I'll get it."

She tried to tug the water vessel from the bard's fingers, but Gabrielle firmly held onto it, remembering the close, dark opening she'd had to squeeze through to get to the small pool. "I can do this.. you want to find us something to lay down on?"

A quiet look, with one brow cocked. "All right."

Jessan padded over. "Can I go with you, Gabrielle?" He held up a decorated water skin, and grinned as she nodded.

They made their way through the back corridor, an irregular break in the mountain that opened and closed around them, making Jessan scrape his broad shoulders against the stone with a few muttered curses. They squeezed through the final opening and Gabrielle sighed, as she perched on the edge of the water source, a break in the rock that allowed a soft, chuckling trickle of cold water to burble down into a natural basin, then drain off further down into the stone. "Jess.. it's great to see you… Xena said you were headed to Amphipolis?" She pushed her hair back, and peered up at her tall friend.

The forest dweller settled next to her, uncapping his waterskin and dipping it in the liquid to fill. "Yeah." He paused, awkwardly. "I.. we were worried about you."

Mist green eyes, honey toned in the torchlight regarded him. "Oh." How long am I going to have to keep bumping into friends and having to… Her shoulders slumped a little. Having to relive that again.

Jessan put a warm hand on her arm. "I should have known better… it's so good to see you both." He added gently. Now, he knew, wasn't the time to talk about everything. They'd have time for that after the crisis was over.

Gabrielle drew in a breath, and straightened, giving him a quiet smile. "Thanks… it's good to see you too." She paused. "It's been… really tough… and we've been through a lot, but.. " She reached up and touched her necklace. "It kept us going."

Jessan smiled. " I know." He closed his eyes and Saw her, then popped them open again in surprise. Ares… she's with child… I wonder if…"Um…" He chewed his lip, making his fangs poke through almost comically. "So… how are you feeling?" He queried brightly.

A soft chuckle. "I feel great, thanks, and you?" Gabrielle's eyes twinkled softly, wondering if he could tell she was pregnant, then deciding he probably could, from the way he was acting. "Why?"

"Um.. well.. I… " He waved a furred hand. "Just asking.. nothing.. really.. I …um, Gabrielle?"

"Yes, Jessan?" The bard replied, innocently.

"So.. you.. uh.. like my kids?" Golden eyes blinked ingeniously at her.

"Love em." Gabrielle assured him. "They're adorable… though it so weird to hear you call them by our names." She kept him on pins and needles, obviously trying to find another way to ask her, then she relented, and laughed gently. "I hope I get as lucky." She patted her stomach with a grin. "Though not with so many." A rueful chuckled followed.

He wiped his brow. "Gosh." His rounded jaw worked a few times. "I was hoping you knew."

That got a laugh from the bard. "Oh yeah… in fact, we got clued in by those stories you were telling at Solstice. " She relaxed, content to postpone discussing the recent past. "Xena started having symptoms pretty much before I did."

Jessan's furry face went blank, then puzzled. "What do you mean?" He asked, carefully.

Gabrielle looked at him. "The shared stuff… you know." Her head cocked in question. "She's getting the nausea.. and the cravings.. I get mostly the sleepi… Jessan, what's wrong?"

The forest dweller sat down and put his hands on her shoulders. "You're telling me Xena's sharing your pregnancy." His voice was incredulous.

She shrugged. "Well… yeah… I mean, that's what happened with you…. You told me that happens with people who are… well, you know.. like we are."

Jessan took in a breath. "Well.. yes." He finally replied, after hesitating for a bit. "But… um… only when the two lifebonds are the parents of the child… and I… " He lifted his shaggy brows. "I suppose it could be different for you.. I mean.. obviously it is.. I guess I … Gabrielle?"

The bard was staring at him intently. "Are you telling me.. when you have two people like us who aren't both the parents, that doesn't happen?" Her voice was soft, and careful.

Jessan looked confused. "Well.. yeah.. but that's us, Gabrielle… you're not… I mean… I guess it's just different for you."

Gabrielle got up, and faced away from him, hugging herself in gentle wonder. "Yeah." A timid smile crept onto her face. "Jess.. don't mention that to Xena, okay?"

"But.. " The forest dweller looked sadly at sea. "Gabrielle… "

She turned, and put her fingers against his lips. "It's all right." She gave him a reassuring smile. "I'll tell her."

Jessan held up a hand. "Okay.. okay.. but… um.. Gabrielle, you… I mean, unless Xena's a LOT more remarkable than I think she is.. and that's possible of course… then.. uh… "

"I know." The bard chuckled. "And no.. Toris is the father."

"Ohhhhh… " The furry shoulders relaxed. "Okay… well.. that… yeah, that makes sense."

A cocked head. "It explains the symptoms?"

"Uh… no." Jessan shook his head. "But it makes sense that's who it is.. I mean… "

Gabrielle nodded. "I get it." She picked up her jar, anxious to get back. "Come on… before they send a search party after us." Xena, I hope you found us a little private corner of rock… She hastened ahead of the forest dweller, her dark mood completely evaporated.

Continued in Part 6