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 – Violence - yes, there will be violence of a moderately graphic nature in this story. Xena is easily bored, and when she gets bored, she likes to hit people. It's just one of those things.

Subtext - As in all my stories, this one is based on the premise of two people who are very much in love with each other. They happen to both be women. There is no graphically depicted action here.. but if the thought of this gives you a problem, find a different story to read. There are lots of very good general fiction Xena stories that can be found everywhere.

If you read the above, and then persist in reading the story, which won't be a short one, cause they never are, and then you're STILL offended by love… send me your address, and I'll send you some kumquats. It'll be perfect for you, trust me.

ON the other hand, if you kinda like the stuff, send me your address, and I'll pass along some of my favorite snack foods, white raisins, dipped in fresh milk chocolate.

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

Leap of Faith - Part 1

By Melissa Good

The late summer breeze gently blew a scattering of leaves across the almost empty courtyard outside the inn in the town of Amphipolis, dispersing the heat from the afternoon sun and tinkling gently through the collection of colorful hanging crystals dangling outside the back door to the building.

The peace was softly broken as the door to the nearby stable opened, and a tall, dark haired woman slipped out, dusting her hands briskly and heading across the sun drenched yard towards the inn. She was dressed in a heavy rust colored linen tunic lined with leather padding, which gave protection to her chest and upper legs, and came almost to her knees in length. A large black wolf trotted at her heels, sniffing at the ground, and pouncing on a branch which had fallen from a nearby tree.

"Hey… gimme that." Xena ordered, seeing the stick firmly entrenched in the wolf's mouth. "C'mere…" She took a step towards him, and he dodged away, tail lashing furiously. "Ares!"

"Argrhro." The wolf growled through clenched teeth. "Grrr…" He shook his head, then jumped, as Xena sprang over him, coming down and pinning him neatly to the ground. "Argrohhh.."

"Gotcha." The tall woman grinned, and pulled the stick out, then tossed it across the yard, sending the wolf dashing after it. She straightened up and let out a satisfied breath, tipping her head back and absorbing the warm sunlight, which reflected golden highlights off her tanned skin. She stood for a moment, gazing around. Can't believe we've been here a month already. She shook her head as she continued on towards the inn, pausing to run her fingertips over the crystals, and listen to the pleasant sound they produced. Ares caught up to her, and sneezed, dropping his stick. "Roo."

Xena glanced down, and pulled on the tip of his ear. "Yeah.. roo to you, too." She reached up and pushed the door open, smiling as a gentle gust of air puffed out, carrying the scent of roasting lamb and sage. Oo… that smells great.. Her senses chuckled, as she eased in the door, spotting her mother leaning against the far wall discussing something with Eustase, the inn's cook. "Hey."

Cyrene glanced up, and beckoned her over. "Xena.. just the person I was talking about." She regarded her tall offspring with an affectionate look, patting her side as she ambled over.

"What did I do now?" Xena asked amiably. "If it was this morning, forget it.. wasn't me. I was working with the colts since just after dawn, and teaching the miller's nag not to throw him for the rest of the morning." She stretched out her shoulders in a long, relaxed motion, and yawned, pulling the fabric tight against her body, then shrugging to resettle it. "So blame someone else." She paused. "How about Toris?"

Her mother laughed. "You are very bad, Xena." She nudged her in the ribs a little. "I wasn't blaming anyone for anything.. though, come to think of it, why are you assuming that? What did you do?" She parked her hands on her hips. "Hmm?"

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Me?" She poked a thumb at her own chest. "Not a thing." She reached behind her mother and liberated a small piece of lamb from the cooling roast, and popped it into her mouth. "Mm." She chewed thoughtfully, enjoying the sage and pepper flavor.

The innkeeper shook her head. "Scamp." She leaned back against the wall. "We've got a little problem.. maybe you could help me out with it."

"Depends." Xena gave her a wicked look. "Do I get more lamb?"

Cyrene snorted. "Actually, the problem is this - the supply train headed out this way is stuck in Potadeia… and most of my stuff for the party is on it." She regarded her daughter. "You think you could take a ride up that way and see what the problem is?"

Potadeia, huh? Xena gave her mother a wry look. "Actually.. we were planning a trip up there anyway.. Gabrielle wants to see Lila's new arrival." She pushed away from the wall, and crossed her arms. "I don't see a problem with that." Problem? Mmm.. no.. a few days out on the road.. nice and quiet.. sounds pretty good, actually. "I'll ask Gabrielle. .maybe we'll head out there tomorrow."

Cyrene gave her a brisk nod. "That would be wonderful." She reached out and squeezed Xena's arm. "For that, you get an extra plateful of lamb.. but you'd better hurry.. you know you have a competitor."

Xena laughed. "Oh yeah.. I know." She gave the shyly quiet Eustase a grin, then headed out the door, and into the main section of the inn, pausing when she heard voices. She stopped in the shadows just before the entrance to the room and peered out, spotting her partner perched on the corner of a table, arguing.

A month.. She mused. Had done wonders for her slim, fair haired soulmate. Gabrielle had almost regained her former bubbly attitude, and appeared stronger, and healthier than she had in quite a while. Right now she was ready for staff practice, dressed in her skirt and a brief, white linen shirt that tied neatly under her ribcage, exposing her nicely tanned skin and smoothly muscular body to good advantage. At least to Xena's good advantage, she smirked quietly to herself, allowing her eyes to roam over her partner's form with idle pleasure.

"Mathias, you just can't do it that way." Gabrielle argued, crossing her arms. "They're not going to trade field rights just for a promise of us sending a trading caravan their way a couple of times a year."

"But.. " The stocky man grimaced, and leaned over the parchment on the table. "They really want our trade.. especially the cloth goods, and the ale Cyrene's been putting out." He chewed on a fingernail. "Damn if we can't use those fields, now, either… "

The bard leaned back, stretching her body and sighed. "All right.. how about we trade two casks of ale now, and a bolt of fabric, for the field rights, and a promise of later trade." She studied the document. "That might work…" She amended the writing, and bit the end of her quill, then glanced up. "OK?"

Mathias nodded. "All right… I think Eddres will go for that… " He tilted his head and smiled up at the bard. "Thanks, Gabrielle."

He stood and rolled up the parchment, then tucked it into his belt, and clapped his companion on the arm. "Come on then, Ethan… we've got time to get up there before dark."

The two men left, and Gabrielle paused a moment, letting a smile creep onto her face before she turned her head and spotted her partner lounging in the shadows. "Hey… whatcha doing back there?"

Xena sauntered over, and put both arms around the bard's neck, resting her chin on Gabrielle's head and hugging her. "Waiting for you to finish." She growled softly into her ear. "I've got a proposition for you."

Gabrielle's head tilted, and her green eyes sparkled softly at the words. "Oh really?" She leaned back against her soulmate's warm body, and sighed happily. "Go ahead… proposition me." She waited patiently, letting her gaze drift over her partner's tanned face in gentle pleasure. The last month had done so much for them.. and her partner especially, to the point where Gabrielle had recently begun to see subtle hints of her more open side reappearing, to her utter delight. They'd even started to banter a little with each other, nudging themselves with gently teasing remarks.

"Mother would like us to find out what's happening with her precious party favors." Xena replied promptly. "They're stuck."

A blond eyebrow edged up. "Um… ok…" Gabrielle gave her a puzzled look. "In a mud hole or something? " She let her hand drop to lightly fall on her partner's muscular thigh, and squeezed it gently. "She could commission a horse and cart.. I realize how strong you are, love, but…"

Xena grinned. "No.. in Potadeia." She caught the bard's sudden smile of comprehension. "Thought we could visit Lila and kinda take care of two things with one trip."

Mmmm…. Gabrielle loved all the activity and daily life of Amphipolis.. but a few days wandering with Xena.. now that appealed to her. "Oo… yeah… gives me a chance to actually shop for some joining gifts without mom latching over my shoulder." She agreed enthusiastically. "I like it." She swiveled around, and wrapped an arm around Xena's waist. "When do we leave?"

Her partner grinned back, and ruffled her hair lightly. "Tomorrow ok for you?" She glanced around. "If you can tear yourself away from your busy schedule."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "They'll cope." She tugged on the leather padding across Xena's chest. "Hey…can I interest you in joining me for staff class? " She coaxed gently, giving her partner her best wishing look. "Please? "

Xena pretended to consider the request, putting a lofty, speculative look on her face. "Well.. I suppose I could be convinced." She allowed thoughtfully. "What's in it for me?"

"Hmmm…. " Gabrielle deliberately let her voice drop into a sultry growl. "You.. can get some nice fresh air." She started, letting her fingers travel over the buckles on her partner's tunic.

"I get lots of fresh air, Gabrielle." Her partner replied, watching the bard's slow unfastening.

"Uh huh… " One buckle down. "But you'll get in some good exercise." Another buckle, and the fabric parted, allowing the bard to slip her hand inside and tickle the warm skin underneath.

"O…K…. " Xena let her eyes slide shut as Gabrielle's hands slid further, quietly insistent. "Well.. I guess that never hurts." She allowed slowly, as she leaned forward and found her partner's lips, indulging in a long kiss before her ears caught the unmistakable sounds of someone approaching. She broke off, and nibbled the tip of the bard's nose. "All right.. you're on." She agreed quietly, as the door opened behind them, and the bard muffled a giggle as she refastened her partner's shirt.

"Hi mom.. " Gabrielle realized her face was probably flushed, but the inn was fairly dark inside so she really didn't worry about it. "I hear we're going to go rescue your froo froo."

Cyrene sidled up in back of them, and regarded the two women with a knowing smile. "Xena, are you sure that buckle is supposed to be upside down? " She asked innocently. "My froo froo, huh?"

"Um…. Gotta go." Xena replied, patting her partner's cheek. "I'll go change, and pick up my staff… see you in the yard, OK?" She escaped past Cyrene's amused eyes, and ducked out the door.

The innkeeper watched her, then turned to the bard and shook her head. "So.. you looking forward to seeing your sister?" She put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I know Potadeia has some mixed memories for you."

The bard settled back onto the edge of the table and crossed her arms. "Yeah.. I can't wait to see Lila.. and the baby.. and things have gotten a lot better with my folks. " She shrugged lightly. "It's not so bad… anymore." Nothing was, really… she had come to realize.. having been through the things she had.

Cyrene smiled. "Well, c'mon in the kitchen.. you'd better get some of that roast before your tall friend gets to it.. won't be much left." She put a friendly arm around the bard's shoulders, and guided her towards the door. "And Eustase made some of those little pockets you like… so.. "

Gabrielle laughed. "Mom.. you're really spoiling me… glad this place keeps me busy. I'd be in real trouble otherwise." Busy.. was a good word for it, she reflected, as she allowed herself to be led into the kitchen and eased down at the work table, where a plate of stuff appeared in front of her as if by magic. Between working on trade treaties, the sparring lessons, helping out.. and the quiet sessions she'd been having with the other women in the village, just… talking.. the days didn't seem long enough.

And she was glad.. in a way.. because that gave her less time to think about the past.. and what had happened to them.. and more reason to start to build on their future, which was beginning to look kind of lighter. Xena too, she noticed, had thrown herself into her daily tasks with what seemed to Gabrielle to be relief, and she was glad her partner had seemed to be able to allow this new life to absorb her interest. Working with not only Argo's two colts, but with six other young horses kept her busy, and add that to the hunting she was more or less informally in charge of, and the calls on her healer's skills…

Yeah. No time for brooding… and that was the best thing. Though they both seemed to find time in the late afternoons for each other, regardless of what else was going on at the time. She'd be finishing staff practice, or heading back after a long session with Josclyn, and like magic, Xena would appear, free of her own tasks, and looking for some quiet companionship.

Which she was more than glad to provide. They'd fallen back into their winter pattern of spending that time of the day together, usually squirreled away in their favorite hidden glen, just relaxing with each other. She'd started working on some new stories, and would sometimes rehearse snippets of them for her partner, or sometimes they'd just talk quietly about their day, or sometimes… Gabrielle smirked. Ok, most of the time, they snuggled together and let their bodies take control, there in hidden safety.

Nights were spent either peacefully in their cabin, or with the rest of the family, in group dinners that were restoring to Gabrielle, at least, a sense of family she'd never really had. Between Cyrene and Johan, Toris and Granella, and the two of them, there was plenty of opportunity for banter, and fun conversation. And of course, she was in high demand for stories.

The door pushed open, and she glanced up, to see Granella trudge in. "Hi…"

The Amazon waved a hello, and dropped onto the bench next to the bard, propping her chin up on one hand. "Gabrielle, I've got a bone to pick with you."

Cyrene's eyebrow raised, and she set a pitcher of cider down, then slid into a seat and waited.

Gabrielle merely looked up from her plate, and selected a small bone with some meat on it, then handed it to Granella. "Ok.. there you go." She replied brightly, continuing to chew. "Anything else you need?"

Granella delicately bit off some lamb. "Thanks." She remarked drolly. "Now, you mind telling me what you feed your partner?"

The bard blinked at her, then exchanged glances with Cyrene, who shrugged. "Um…. " She stared down at her plate. "Same thing as the rest of us. Why?" Then her face creased into a knowing grin. "Oh.. you start running with her in the morning?"

The Amazon sighed. "It's depressing." She grumbled. "I thought I'd managed to keep in pretty good shape.. despite the unbelievable cooking around her. " She grinned at Cyrene, who grinned back. "Then I have to go and challenge her to race."

Gabrielle laughed. "That was dumb." She told the Amazon cheerfully. "She's really competitive."

"No, really?" The Amazon gave her a wry look. "I never would have guessed that about her." Granella sighed, and pushed her fingers through her dark, short hair. "I caught her as she was heading out this morning.. I figured, it's nice and early, I was feeling pretty good…so we ran up that low ridge over the river.."

"She likes that run." Gabrielle took a sip of cider. "She got me to go on it a few times… but running isn't really my thing, and we usually end up… " She paused, and realized what she was saying. "Um.. we usually get sidetracked." She ignored the grins across the table from her. "So.. anyway.. what happened?"

Granella muffled a smirk. "Well, unlucky for me, I'm not you.. so she sure wasn't distracted.. we were halfway up there, and here I am, running along, figuring 'hey, this ain't so bad..'.. then she gives me this…. Look." She glanced at them. "You know the one."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle and Cyrene answered together.

"And BAM!" Granella slapped her hand down on the table, making them jump. "She takes off." She sighed. "Not that I didn't try to keep up, I did… but then to add insult to injury, she kind of lets me catch up, then starts into those flippy things of hers, up and down.. across these gaps… she got me seasick."

Gabrielle laughed. "Gods… sorry." She shook her head. "But I'm glad she's got that bounce back… she had me kinda scared for a few weeks." Two very long weeks, in fact, when she'd watched her partner battle herself, angry at her body for its creeping slowness in recovering from what Xena considered to be an insignificant sickness. Gabrielle had approached her with gentle patience, coaxing the warrior into long, peaceful stretches of time spent cuddling with each other under the pretext of healing some of the cracks in their relationship.

It had worked, for both things, really.. they'd continued to grow closer and closer again, and it gave Xena a chance to give her body what it was demanding, which was just plain rest, along with the relief from the stress that had separated them. Gabrielle had almost been able to see the progress from day to day.. and that had allowed her to let go of her own dark anxieties as her soulmate emerged with a more familiar sparkle in her very blue eyes.

"Hah." Granella snorted, but gave her a grin anyway. "Bounce.. is that what you call that?"

The bard smiled back. "Among other things." She deadpanned. "C'mon.. you can get your revenge.. I talked her into joining me for class." She stood, and tucked her plate away in the washing basin.

"Oh.. sure." Granella winced. "Gabrielle, in case you hadn't noticed, I can't get a step on you… much less her… " But she stood and joined the bard anyway. "Oh well.. maybe Toris'll come play.. and I can beat up on him for a little while."

"Hey.." Cyrene shook a spoon at them, and mock scowled. "That's my son you're talking about."

Gabrielle grinned. "Well.. it's better he spar with Gran here than his sister." She bit her lip. "After that last time.. ouch.. ."

Granella put a friendly hand on her back and pushed her towards the door. "Yeah yeah.. you're the only one who can go toe to toe with her and we all know it, my Queen."

Their laughter traveled outside the door and faded, leaving Cyrene with a warm smile on her face. "Never expected to have a houseful of children again, 'Stase."

Eustase smiled at her. "And a lovely handful of them they are, ma'am."

"Yeah.. " Cyrene sighed fondly. "Rascals.. they can't put anything over on me, though, that's for sure."

"No, ma'am." Eustase wagged her head emphatically. "Not you." She turned and stirred the pot on the fire industriously, hiding a tiny grin.


The pre dawn light filtered slowly into the cabin, nudging out the shadows and revealing the familiar interior, which took on warmth and color to Xena’s sleepily watching eyes. She wasn’t ready to move yet, though they’d decided to make an early start, and she snuggled down into the softness of the bed with a sense of decadent comfort.

Gabrielle was blissfully asleep, her warm body nestled against her soulmate’s, and Xena was just spending this quiet time of the day watching her, letting her eyes trace the soft lines of her face, and listening to her breathing. It was this peace, she knew, that was slowly healing the wounds inside her. The trust that Gabrielle had reinvested in their relationship, and that she had timidly returned… even now, just watching the soft smile that edged the bard’s face made a sweet warmth kindle inside her.

Every time she felt restless, every time the wild urge rose up in her, and memories of battles past stirred in her mind, all she had to do was look at the contentment in her soulmate’s face, and the feel the happiness that bubbled from her and it was enough to tame the darkness and send it back into the depths.

And that was happening less and less, she realized, as she let herself be written into Amphipolis’ daily life, as she became involved in the lives, and the dreams of the people who lived here, who looked to her now not only as their protector, which she was, but also as a friend, and as a trusted healer.

It was so.. so very strange.

I never expected to be a hero. Not after Caesar… then I knew, whatever I became, it would be hated. Feared. Once I went down that path, I knew there was no coming back.. no atonement.. I was lost. Lao Ma showed me what I had become, but at that point, I didn’t care. Hercules taught me a different way.. but I wouldn't have stayed on that path for long. I hated myself too much… and I knew everyone else did too. Even mother… everyone.

Except for Gabrielle. Her eyes traced her soulmate’s features. This gentle, sweet, innocent girl, who saw something in me that I never would have.

The light took on a rose tinge, and as it coursed through the window, picking up the faint dust motes on its way across the covers Xena felt her partner’s breathing change, and deepen, then watched in deep affection as the misty green eyes blinked open, and lifted to meet hers. "Morning." She said, in a low growly tone.

The tiny lines around her eyes crinkled as the bard smiled, revealing neat white teeth and the very tip of a pink tongue. "I was just having the nicest dream." The bard burred, sleepily.

"Yeah?" Xena replied, breathing in her warm scent.

"Mmm…" Came the contented answer. "Yeah… and then I woke up, and it wasn’t a dream." The bard tightened her grasp, and breathed out, warming Xena’s chest with her exhale, and the warrior’s soul with her words. "It was true."

Xena just hugged her closer, chuckling softly. "It’s getting light."

"No.. really?" Gabrielle propped her head up on one hand, and idly traced a pattern across Xena’s body. "I guess that means we gotta get up, and get dressed, and start walking, huh?" She yawned, and playfully nestled close again, sliding a knee over her partner’s legs, and changing the rhythm of her stroking, slowing it. "You ever wish everything wasn’t so far apart?"

"Huh?" Xena shook her head a little, dispelling the pleasant haze the bard’s touch had dropped over her. "Gabrielle.. cut that out.. you’re putting me back to sleep." She complained wryly. "Don’t you want to go visit Lila?"

The bard continued her tracing. "Oh.. yeah, sure I do.. I just don’t want to do it right this instant." She parted the soft fabric and let her lips taste her partner’s skin, then changed her pattern yet again. "Still putting you to sleep?" She queried innocently, feeling the change in her Xena’s breathing. A gentle hand slid up the back of her thigh, and she felt her own body react. "Guess not."

They started out later than expected.

The sun was well up, and beginning to heat the road’s surface by the time they headed down past the river headed towards Potadeia. Gabrielle had resumed her usual travelling outfit, and had twisted her hair back into a loose knot against the heat. Xena had deliberately forgone her leathers, sticking to a pale blue embroidered tunic that came halfway to her knees, and her short boots.

No armor. Her sword was strapped to Argo’s saddlepad, though, and the chakram was tucked neatly away there too, Xena not being one to tempt fate too often. Besides that , though, the warrior appeared to be just any villager out on a short journey.

Ok.. Gabreille mused. So.. not just any villager… even without armor, her partner’s six feet of length and muscularly fluid stride marked her as something else. And then there was the alertness, that hypersensitive awareness that hadn’t lessened a bit. That marked her too. "I bet that’s a lot more comfortable than those leathers." She teased gently, tugging on the pale blue hem. The tunic was really pretty..multicolored embroidered dogs chased each other around her sleeves and across the hem at her thighs, and the loosely laced neckline exposed a good amount of her tanned shoulders. "You look great."

Xena turned her head, with a surprised little start. "Thanks… " She brushed a fleck of nonexistent dust from her sleeve. "You look pretty good yourself." She cocked her head and touched a finger to the bard’s halter top. "I like this color." The rusty shade contrasted neatly with the bard’s tanned skin, and pale hair, and the fabric outlined her slim, muscular waistline in sensual detail.

Gabrielle grinned happily, and preened a little. "Thank you…" She twitched her skirt straighter, and took in a deep breath, letting it out with a pleased sigh. "What a beautiful day."

Xena glanced up at the lowering clouds, and blinked against the muggy heat. And smiled, knowing exactly what her younger partner was saying. "Yeah.. it is." She slid an arm over the bard’s shoulders, and kept walking.

They traveled steadily throughout the day, and didn’t stop until the sun was almost down, casting long shadows behind them. They found a nice sheltered spot to camp, and settled down, going through the familiar motions of arranging their resting place.

It was a small clearing, with a ring of thickly leafed trees around it, and bushes filled with small, sweet smelling blossoms that perfumed the air. A small creek bubbled past, its fast racing water sloshing and flicking over jagged rocks in its path.

Gabrielle stood up from setting out the bedrolls, and caught sight of her partner moving back in her direction, carrying a couple of fish and grinning. "Hey…" She called, squinting into the twilight. "Those aren’t what I think they are, are they?"

The warrior held up both hands. "Salmon.." She announced. "Interested?" She paused, raising an eyebrow, as a pale, errant rose colored ray of sun danced off the water droplets on her bare legs.

"Oo…" Gabrielle strutted forward, and took possession of the gray, speckled fish. "My favorite." She laid her cheek against the warrior’s arm. "Thanks."

Xena grinned. "Purely a selfish act, my bard. I like em too." She tossed her boots against the saddlebags, and removed Argo's currycomb, gently taking care of the patient mare's snarled mane and tail, and brushing her coat to a deep, gleaming gold, pausing every so often as a tantalizing wisp of their dinner drifted over her shoulder. "Smells great.. "

A gentle hand touched her back, and an arm wound around her body, as Gabrielle poked her head under one of her moving arms and smiled. "Yeah?" She stroked Argo with her free hand. "Well, they're ready, so…."

They sat down with their plates, and an attentive Ares, who settled down near Xena, and gazed at her with plaintive, yellow eyes. "You don't like fish." Xena informed him.

The wolf crawled a little closer, and put his nose up against her bare ankle, snuffling a little.

Gabrielle snorted softly. "He has you soooo…busted." She teased her partner, who poked a bit of her lower lip out. "Oo… I got a pout from you… " She leaned over, and kissed the body part in question, then stole a piece of fish from her partner's plate. "Heh."

Xena gave her a half grin, and broke off another small piece, offering it to the wolf. He sniffed it, then poked out the tip of his tongue and tasted. "Argrrrr." He rumbled, taking the offering delicately, and swallowing it. He blinked, then crept forward again, this time putting his big head almost in Xena's lap. "Roo?"

"Great." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Now look what you did?" She sighed, and leaned back against a low rock, balancing her wooden plate on her thighs. "So.. how much do you think I can get away with not telling my family?"

Xena stopped chewing, and gazed at her plate. "I… I don't know.." She lifted her head and gazed at her partner. "How much do you want to tell them?"

The bard let out a long breath. "Nothing." She replied, honestly. "But I'll probably give them an edited version of stuff.. I'll.. " She paused. "Leave Hope out of it."

The warrior offered Ares another piece of fish, and considered Gabrielle's decision. "It's… more natural for you to tell the truth." She answered slowly. "But… " Her lips quirked. "That would be a hard thing to explain to your mother."

Gabrielle felt the gentle insulation from the agony of her memories that the past month had given her. "Oh yeah.. " She was even able to step back and see its place in her life. "I had a hard enough time explaining you."

Xena smiled, and scooted back, disturbing the outraged Ares, then patted her chest, "C'mere."

The bard edged into place and leaned back, closing her eyes momentarily as Xena's arm settled over her midriff. Her anxiety faded, and was replaced with a sense of warm sureness, and she resumed her dinner, poking her partner to do the same. "You are not going to feed that to Ares, Xena… come on now."

The warrior relented, and finished her portion, setting her plate aside and wrapping both arms around her soulmate's body, resting her chin on the bard's shoulder, as the darkness closed in, and left them in a ring of golden light from the small fire, breathing in the scents of burning wood, and the flower's sweetness, surrounded by the never-ending rush of the water going by.

Amazon Village, early morning.

The sun grudgingly rose over the forested glade, which housed the Amazon village. In the quarters of the regent, a slim, curly blond haired woman stood with her hands resting lightly on the sill, gazing out. She turned as footsteps approached the door, and sighed inwardly as a familiar dark head poked its way in. "Good morning, Solari."

The Amazon warrior paced inside, and put her hands on her hips. "Ephiny… are you still planning on going?"

The regent put her own hands on her hips and gave her a look. "Yes, I am.. we've argued about this for two days, and I'm over it. I'm going, and that's just how it is." She walked over to where a pack was resting on the bed, and stuffed an extra shirt into it. "Solari, it's just for three days, and I really need to get these damn things signed." She carefully tucked a thick bundle of scrolls inside the pack, and fastened it. "It's no big deal."

Solari sighed. "Let me come with you… or at least wait until Eponin gets back.. you know she wanted to go down to Amphipolis with you… damn, Ephiny.. show some sense, all right?"

The blond woman sat down on the edge of the bed, and rested her arm on the pack. "Solari, you know you have to stay here.. I have to leave someone in charge, right? And Pony isn't due back for two weeks.. we need to get these treaties signed before the Harvest festival. I know I can send someone.. but I have a personal reason for going.. understand?"

Solari perched on the edge of the worktable in her regent's quarters. "I.. Eph, I know you wanna go make things up with Xena, but at least take a guard with you… huh?"

The regent shook her head. "No.. I can't… what message would that send if I showed up there with a bunch of featherheads?" She sighed. "Look.. this is a personal thing, Solari… I need to deal with it on that level. Anyway, one measly Amazon trekking across country isn't going to attract any attention., but a bunch of us would." She stood, and hefted the pack, slinging it over her shoulder and tightening the straps. "Anyway.. a couple days walk will do me some good… give me some peace and quiet for a change."

The dark haired Amazon sighed, and got off the table. "I don't like it." She grumbled. "But I'm not gonna stop you, I can see that.. so do me a big favor, ok? Be super careful."

Ephiny clapped her on the shoulder, and walked through the doorway, settling her burden more squarely on her shoulders, and heading down the neat path that lead out of the village. She turned as she reached the portal and waved, then disappeared under the broad-leafed trees.

Solari watched her go, and shook her head. "I got a bad feeling about this." She muttered, mostly to herself, surprised when someone answered.

"About what?" A tall, very slim pale haired girl was suddenly just.. standing there. "What a super morning."

The dark Amazon controlled her start. "Morning, Cait." She eyed the girl in some astonishment.

"Where's she off to, then?" The girl asked quietly.

Solari returned her gaze to the path. "Amphipolis.. to get the pending treaties signed by Gabrielle."

Cait studied the gloomy morning light. "She oughtn't go alone." She blinked at Solari. "It can be ever so dangerous."

Solari let out a long breath. "I know.. I know.. but she's a good, strong warrior, Cait.. she'll be fine.. she just has reasons she wants to go alone.. I don't.. " Personal loyalty to Ephiny got the better of her. "She's got her reasons, that's all."

Cait's ghost gray eyes narrowed a bit, then she put her hands behind her back and rocked a bit on her heels. "Right, then.. I'm sure she'll be fine." She nibbled her lip a little. "Say.. there's a nice string of traps I've got out on the west ridge.. is it all right if I go up and check them out?" She paused. "Might take a day or so."

The dark haired woman started out of her drifting thoughts. "What? Oh.. sure.. go ahead Cait.. be careful, all right?" The west ridge was a safe place to send even the youngest of the budding Amazons.. and Cait was far more than that.

The girl smiled. "Oh, don't you worry.. I will be." And then, she was just gone.

The forest's deep cover was a plus and a minus, Ephiny thought, as she walked in a steady, rhythmic pace along the barely seen path. A plus, because it blocked the overwhelming sun, and a minus, because it also blocked the cooling breeze. She wiped a layer of sweat off her forehead, and shifted her shoulders, moving the pack to a more comfortable spot. It was well after noon, and she had long ago past the high pass that led into the Amazon's territory, and was headed down range.

The path under her boots was merely a beaten track in the undergrowth, and the soft ferns brushed her bare knees as she strode through them, sending up a gentle musky scent. The forest was quiet in the almost breathless heat, even the birds were tucked away sleeping, and Ephiny found herself glad to be stopping when she veered off the path towards a fast running brook and knelt to drink from it. The water, at least, was cool, and she plunged both hands into it, and splashed a good amount of it onto her face.

Spotting a fallen log, she perched on it for a minute, taking out a trail bar and chewing thoughtfully as she watched two beetles chase each other on the dead branch next to her. "Hey." She picked up a twig and nudged one beetle, getting an indignant antenna wave in response. She watched them for a moment longer, then pulled a folded piece of parchment from her pack, and smoothed it out, studying the scrawled letters idly.

Greetings, Eph -

I know you 're expecting me to give you full and accurate reports on the Situation.. but I gotta tell you, information is scarcer than a three-legged rabbit in winter around here. All I can tell you is what I see with my eyes, and what I see is not too bad.

Been about a month since they got home, and we got here too. First week was rough - Xena was sick, and everyone was trying to just kind of get used to everything again. After that, it smoothed out a little, and by the third week or so, I could see things were getting back on track with them, and with them and all of us, too.

Gabrielle's gotten real, real, real protective of Xena. Not that she wasn't before, right? But now it's like, you don't trash the tall dark one unless you want Hades on hooves in your face throwing around all kinds of attitude. She even told her mother to back off, which, lemme tell you, is something I sure wouldn't do.

Maybe it's guilt, maybe it's just the way she's worked out things in her head, I don't know - lots of stuff goes on behind those green eyes that I can't begin to figure out. She's gotten quieter, that I noticed, and it takes more to get her smiling or laughing - she used to be pretty open and lighthearted. But that's even kind of started to come back a little.. and all the loyalty around here to them hasn't hurt either.

Xena.. I'm not sure what's going on with her. Not that anyone has ever known what goes on with her anyway, right? I think things are getting better.. she started with the morning runs again, and I'm going to see if I can join her for a while, maybe I can get an idea of how things are. She looks a lot less tense, though.. more like it was in the winter, so I think we're on the right track.

Them together.. well, that's the one bright note. I was expecting some kind of awkwardness or distance between them, and I gotta tell you, Eph.. it just ain't there. It's almost like they're only really comfortable when they're together.. kinda strange, but it's noticeable - with Gabrielle especially. She kinda makes a point of going over and touching Xena all the time, sort of like reassuring herself, I guess. But we got some jokes out of Xena last night, and she and Toris even teased each other, so it looks like, I'd say, things are pretty good.

It's safe, I guess, for you to come visit.. I talked with Gabrielle a little bit about what happened at the village - and I think she's way more pissed off than Xena is, just like you thought. C'mon down, when you get a chance, and we'll all take a long soak in that hot spring you told me about, and work things over. Besides, I'd like you here for the joining.. it's not going to be the huge production the last one was thank Artemis, but I miss you guys, and I'd like to have you, and Pony.. and whoever wants to come down be here.

Your undercover featherhead,


The regent smiled. "Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, right?" She addressed the beetle, who jerked at her voice, and scurried away. "Hah..everyone's a critic." Sighing, she stood, and tightened her pack straps again, then started back down the path at a good pace.

"So.. are you animal or plant?" Gabrielle asked, chewing on a handful of raisins. They had left the river far behind, and were heading across a thickly overgrown clearing, whose grasses rose to their waists and tickled them. She brushed one aside. "Yahhh… "

Xena gave her an amused look, then sighed, and unsheathed her sword, taking a long step ahead of her partner and clearing a path with whistling slashes of the weapon that severed the grasses and released a warmly green scent into the air. "Animal." She replied. "Ares.. .get back here."

The wolf came trotting back, a half-eaten apple in his mouth. "Argfh?"

Argo snorted, and nosed him, making him drop the apple, which the mare immediately lipped up and crunched.

Gabrielle's face crinkled into a smile, and she laughed. "That was smart, Argo.."

Ares gave them a pathetic look, as his ears drooped, and he sighed, then trotted off to find another fruitful victim.

Xena chuckled and patted the mare's shoulder. "That's my girl." She swung the sword cheerfully as she walked, and gazed up at the sun, more than halfway through its daily journey. "We're making pretty good time."

Gabrielle nodded, her brow furrowed in thought. "OK.. you said animal… do you have fur, or feathers?" She was enjoying the walk a lot, she realized, after a good night's sleep, and a familiar waking up to the sounds of the wilderness and her partner's heartbeat. Home was wonderful, but this.. this was almost better, because she'd felt their estrangement so strongly in just this setting, and to have that be so changed now…it felt really good. "And hair is the same as fur, Xena.. so don't go splitting any with me."

The warrior laughed softly. "All right… feathers." She paused. "And sometimes fur." She paused again, muffling a grin. "And sometimes.. nothing."

The bard leaned on her staff, and gave her partner a confused look. "What?" She chewed her lip, and considered the problem. "Can you talk?" She asked, her eyes taking on a mischievous sparkle.

"Mm…" Xena thought about that. "Yeah." She chopped a thickly overgrown hedge back so Gabrielle could pass comfortably. "Sometimes, too much." She added with a smirk.

Gabrielle mentally went over her catalog of mythological beasts. "A gryphon!" She announced proudly. "They have feathers, and fur, and parts of them are bare."

Xena took a breath and pointed at her. "No." She leaned closer. "They can't talk."

"Some of them can." The bard protested. "Or so the stories say."

The warrior shook her head. "Nope."

Gabrielle thought again. "Medusa? I think she has feathers."

Xena snorted. "Not hardly." She muttered, then gave her partner a bright grin. "Nope."

"Feathers.. and fur.. and nothing.. and talks too much. .. Xena, nothing fits that description." Gabrielle finally decided. "You're making it up." Argo whuffled against her side, and she elbowed the mare. "Hey.. no critics."

"Me, make something up? "Xena's eyebrows elevated. "Oh no.. my bard.. that's your department." She flicked her sword out, and sliced off a handful of wildflowers, catching them I her free hand and turning to give them to her soulmate on impulse. "I have no imagination, remember?"

Gabrielle took the flowers, and gently sniffed them, enjoying the sun warmed scent and the sight of the long absent sparkle in her companions blue eyes. "Oh. Right." She nodded seriously. "I forgot. Sorry." She plucked one of the blooms from the bunch, and threaded it through Xena's dark hair, to rest behind an ear. "You're all business."

Xena raised an eyebrow and glanced at the flower, barely seen from the corner of her eye, but left it there. "You give up?"

That got her a snort back.. "Me, give up??? " Gabrielle chewed on her lip, curiously nudging at her. "All right.. what is it? What's got feathers sometimes, and fur sometimes, and nothing sometimes, and talks too much?"

The warrior gave her a dazzling smile "Amazons." They broke out of the overgrowth into a newly shorn field, and she sheathed her sword.

Gabrielle stopped, and put her hands on her hips. "Ohh… you're gonna get it for that."

Xena laughed, and correctly interpreted the bard's sudden movement, dodging the smaller woman's outstretched grasp and bolting away, with Gabrielle in hot pursuit. She kept just ahead of the determined bard, then she stopped, and reversed her motion, crouching and leaping over her partner's head and tumbling into a flip.

But Gabrielle leaped with her, and made a wild grab, getting a handful of her tunic , and tugging hard "Gotcha!" She yelped in triumph, as they collided, and dropped to the ground, among the soft stalks of leftover wheat. She rolled over and grabbed the warrior's leg, tickling her behind the knee without mercy. " Amazons huh??"

Xena was laughing so hard she had no defense. "Yeah.. " She gasped, as the bard's fingers found her most ticklish places. "Gods.. Gabrielle… " She reached a long arm around and got a hold of her partner's ribcage, tickling her back.

"Aughhh.." The bard squealed. "No fair… no fair.. ok.. I'll stop.. " She did, and felt the insistent fingertips go from tickling to a gentle stroking that ignited a totally different sensation. "Ummm…" She leaned back into the grass and let out a breath. "Amazons, huh?"

Her partner stretched out full length on her side in the fawn colored stubble, and propped her head up on one hand. "Fits." She shrugged, but smiled, then paused. "Hey.. " Her head cocked, as she detected a drumming sound coming closer. "What in… "

The ground vibrated with it, and Xena's eyes widened as she saw the grasses start to move. Instinctively, she rolled her body over her partner's and tucked her head down, as the sound increased.

The grasses parted, and they were engulfed in a sea of fur.

"Roo!" Ares yodeled in triumph, as he galloped closer, driving a herd of rabbits in front of him.

"YAAAA!!!" Gabrielle yelled, as tiny furry bodies climbed over them, squeaking.

"Ares! Cut that out!" Xena bellowed, ducking as a large male rabbit catapulted over her head. "Damn!"

Then the rumbling was gone, and they were left with a few broken stalks, bits of fur, and a breathless silence.

"Roo?" Ares sat down, looking disappointed with the reception of his gift.

Xena edged up onto her elbows, and peered at her partner. "You all right?"

Gabrielle spat out a bit of soft, fluffy fur and nodded. "Um.. yeah… you?"

An eyebrow edged up. "Oh.. just fine.. like I usually am after being run over by a pack of crazed bunnies." She rolled off and onto her side, then yelped. "Hey!!!" As she felt something scrambling inside her tunic. She wrenched the belt loose, and got to her knees, shaking herself vigorously as a small bundle dropped out, and sneezed, giving Xena a disgusted look.

"Yeah? Same to you, buddy." The warrior growled.

The rabbit twitched its nose at her, then hopped off in search of its family.

Gabrielle firmly clenched her jaw, willing herself not to laugh. "Well… " She lost the battle, and started giggling. "Could have been worse… you could have been wearing your leathers."

Xena struggled to keep a grin off her own face, as she checked her side. "I think it bit me." She grumbled. "And there sure isn't room inside my leathers with me in them for no rabbit, Gabrielle." She gave the bard a mock glower.

"Tch." Gabrielle got to her knees, and crawled over, slapping her partner's hands aside. "Let me look., you baby." She ducked her head and examined the smooth skin below Xena's ribcage. "Hmm… no, just a scratch from his claws, I think." She leaned over and kissed the spot gently. "There.. better?"

Xena chuckled softly. "Yeah.. if this isn't the craziest thing… " She returned the kiss on the top of the bard's head, and hugged her. "Thanks."

Argo snorted, and gave them both a bored look. "Guess that means it's time to go." The bard remarked, standing up and pulling her partner up with her. "I guess it would be fruitless to ask for rabbit for dinner, right?"

"Gabrielle…" Xena's voice dropped to it's lowest register.

"Heh." The bard chuckled, as they wound their arms around each other, and continued on.

The soft twilight settled around her shoulders, as Cait trotted along the path, following a very dim, very scarce set of tracks. Getting away had taken just forever, with one silly thing after another keeping her from her self assigned task, until finally she'd just gone to her quarters in the dormitory, collected her things, and disappeared from the village. She suspected she'd get in awful trouble when she got back.

She knew she was hours behind Ephiny, but the regent didn't seem to be in a terrible hurry, and she knew she'd catch up if she just kept going while the older woman would stop to rest at dark. The trail would be hard to find without light, but she knew where Ephiny was going, so that didn't matter much, and there were only a few easy, well trodden paths that led down from Amazon territory to the river valley that held Amphipolis.

Cait had never stopped to question why she'd decided to follow the regent.. it was only one of those.. feelings.. she got sometimes, which she thought made her very, very odd until she'd discussed them with the gruff Eponin, who had let her in on the fact that she, herself, the tough hard-bitten Eponin, did get these same sorts of things too. And she wasn't to worry about it.

The girl smiled as she thought of it. She rather imagined Eponin trying to explain a decision based on that sort of thing…no, the weapons master would probably come up with a round half dozen logical reasons instead. The sounds around her dampened, as the day's creatures went off to their rest, replaced by a quieter set that claimed the night. Birds chirping song eased into the low random hoot of the owl, and the night wind sprang up, bringing a refreshing breeze that rattled the leaves around her gently.

Even her own footsteps, though light, sounded loud in her ears, and she heard the vague, soft skittering as small creatures sensed her presence, and scurried away. Smart, that. She mused. If I catch them, they're dinner. The thought of eating almost made her pause, but she sighed, and pulled a bit of dried meat from her pack, and continued on.

It was close to midnight before she slowed, edging out onto the beginnings of the lowlands, and cast her eyes around to spot any likely stopping place for a tired regent. Ephiny was a canny hunter and tracker, and being alone, would find a snug spot to hole up in for the night. She stopped by a large boulder, and paused, resting one slim hand against its dark, cool surface.

Her nose twitched, and she closed her eyes, throwing her head back and catching the wind as it drifted towards her. Ah. A tiny, feral smile crossed her face. No smoke, no.. Ephiny was too careful for that, but she could smell the hot burning of the wood of a small campfire nearby.

Cait slipped forward, her steps soundless as she followed the scent, now mixed perceptibly with a vegetable hint.. leaves? Ephiny wouldn't be that careless.. green leaves meant smoke, and that was not a good thing. She crept closer, hearing now the soft ripple of water. With a cheeky grin, she slid right up next to a tall tree that bounded a tiny glade, and let her fingers touch it, the rough wood biting into her flesh, as she edged her body around the bole in bare inches, until she could see inside the glade.

She froze, an oath bitten off between her teeth that would have made Xena quite proud. Her first impulse was to rush forward, but wild instincts held her back, and she extended her senses around the area.

Nothing.. no one… she slipped into the glade, and crossed quickly to the center, where bleak evidence of a struggle marred the underbrush, and scattered bits of the fire into the surrounding bushes.

A bit of cloth caught her eye, and she knelt, touching it, as a grim, dark look crossed her young features. She stood and trotted over to the remains of a leather pack, and examined it, now sure beyond doubt of its owner's identity. The flap bore Ephiny's sigil, and had been torn open in haste, and spilled onto the ground, obviously searched for any valuables. Her clothing and tools remained, but everything else was gone.

And so was Ephiny.

Cait bit her fingernail, anxiously searching the ground and sniffing the air for any trace of blood. None.. that was good. She moved forward, and her boot kicked up a piece of folded parchment, which she lifted and opened, scanning the contents with a wary eye. If she'd had any doubt, she no longer had it, reading the message from Granella to her regent with a sinking sensation.

"Damn." She spoke aloud, knowing herself to be alone. "Damn, damn, damn" She gathered the regent's scattered belongings up, and tucked them in her own pack, then stood motionless, trying to decide what to do. She sighed. No choice.. she'd have to run for the village.. she woudn't be able to track the regent until morning light anyway, and she knew she'd need help for that. "This is just rot." She spat, shifting her shoulders. "Just rot."

Taking a deep breath, she faced about, and started back up the path, now moving along at a steady, even jog.

The sun was just setting as they topped the last rise, and started down the path leading to Potadeia. Gabrielle paused to regard it, and shook her head a little. "It always looks smaller than I remember."

Her partner paused beside her, and patted Argo's tall shoulder. "Yeah… I feel the same way sometimes about Amphipolis." She chuckled softly. "I think it's because you're all grown up now." She laid a hand against the bard's back, rubbing it gently.

"Maybe." The bard answered absently, as she gazed down at the village. "Xena… " She turned to her soulmate, and leaned against her. "I'm not going to say anything to them.. I just decided."

The warrior waited in silence, keeping up her kneading of the tense muscles in her partner's back.

"I'm just not up to it yet." Gabrielle went on. "Maybe.. in a while.. I can.. but not now." She let a breath out. "I want to let it get behind me." Her eyes lifted. "Is that horrible?"

Xena cupped her cheek, her eyes warm with understanding. "No." She sighed. "It's a natural feeling, Gabrielle… I.. " She glanced around, and back at the bard. "I'm kinda tired of the black cloud myself."

Gabrielle's face twitched into a smile. "That's exactly what it feels like, doesn't it?" She leaned against the pressure of her soulmate's hand. "This trip has made me feel…really good. I don't want to lose that." She hesitated. "I want to go forward."

Xena nodded in comprehension. "All right." She turned and circled the bard's shoulders as they started down the path. "You've got plenty of time to tell them later.. and enough other stuff to talk about in the meantime." She glanced up at the setting sun. "Who knows… maybe I can get my mother to tell your mother sometime.. she said to invite your family to the joining."

Gabrielle thought about that. "Mmm… " She gave her partner a regretful look." You don't know how appealing that sounds." Her voice trailed off for a long moment. "Was it hard for you to tell her?"

Xena stared straight ahead, collecting her thoughts. "It was…no.. it was a relief, really." She turned her head and gazed at Gabrielle with an almost surprised look on her face. "I'd been holding everything in so hard..I was so tense, I had these pounding headaches most of the time." She winced at the bard's shocked look. "It helped to talk to someone.. and she's… well, she knows the worst of me."

They walked along in silence, until Gabrielle let out a soft breath. "You told her it was all your fault, didn't you?"

Silence, and Xena refused to meet her eyes.

The thought should have angered her, but instead it started a warm spot inside her chest. "Still trying to protect me, no matter what, huh?" She asked softly.

Blue eyes lifted briefly and met hers. "Something like that, yeah." She mumbled, kicking a rock into the bushes with an oddly adolescent movement. She swallowed, obviously waiting for Gabrielle to lecture her.

The bard just smiled, and hugged her. "Thanks."

They paused just outside the village, seeing a scurry of activity within it. "Uh oh." Xena muttered, shading her eyes from the last rays of the setting sun. "Doesn't look like the normal pre dinner rush, there." They exchanged glances, and Xena turned, vaulting onto Argo's back and extending an arm. "C'mon… "

Argo's hooves scattered a flock of nervous chickens as they entered the village, where a crowd of agitated people were gathered around a cluster of wagons. The buzz of voices were strained, and Xena had to nudged backs repeatedly with her boot to get people to let them through. Then a voice cut through the crowd calling her name.

"Xena!" She turned, and spotted Tecdus the village smith, who pushed his way through the crowd and ended up at Argo's side. He glanced down at the growling Ares, who crouched between the mare's feet, then looked up at them. "Gabrielle… it's good to see ye both."

The warrior eyed him. "What's wrong?" She jerked a chin at the crowed. "What's going on here?"

"Gabrielle!" The bard's head jerked up as she recognized her mother's voice. She gave Xena a warm glance, then patted her side as she slid off the mare's back and dodged restlessly moving villagers to meet the oncoming Hecuba.

"It's the kidnappers." Tecdus put a hand on the warrior's knee. "It's terrible… we're afraid to go out anywhere, Xena… they've caught three dozen merchants in the area in the last moon and a half, and ransomed them.. it's sucking us all dry."

"What?" Xena kicked her boots free of Argo's stirrups and slid down, bringing her head even with the tall smith. "When did this start?"

Tecdus pursed his lips. "We heard rumors… three.. no four moons back, but from the north. People vanishing without a trace… then their people getting notes, asking for money..goods… you pay it off, they show back up, but they can't remember where they've been, or who took em." He paused. "Always well off folks, none of the field workers, or such like." He jerked his square jaw at the wagons. "Trading caravan's been here three weeks gone.. they're afraid to head out ."

Xena studied them. "They get anyone from here?" She asked idly, flicking her eyes back to his face.

His gazed dropped, and he handed her a piece of parchment. "Just came today… that's why the place is in such a state.. we'd sent west.. a bunch .. figured traveling in a group would be all right.."

Xena's eyes dropped to the parchment and scanned it, then read it closely. "Damn." She cursed softly. "Lennat."

"Aye." He murmured softly. "And six others." He rubbed his temples. "Xena, they had most of the summer's profits with em.. buying steel, and supplies for the winter. We can't pay that."

The warrior tapped the parchment against her hand. "No one knows where they're taking them?" She glanced at him. "That’s impossible Tecdus.. it must be local.. someone's gotta know." She felt eyes on her, and looked over the smith's shoulder, to meet her soulmate's serious gaze. A slight shake of her head, a slight nod of Gabrielle's, and it was decided. "All right… let's just keep calm, and see what we can figure out."

Tecdus looked pathetically relieved. "Gods, you have no idea how glad I am to hear that…" He sighed. "Reeve's called a meeting just after sundown.. will you join us?"

So much for not getting involved, huh Xena? "Yes." She told him quietly. "Go on… go siddown." She started as a hand touched her elbow. "Alain… "

"'lo Xena.. " The boy breathed, patting Argo's neck. "Glad to see ya." He turned his head. "'Lo Argo.." He giggled as the mare tickled his misshapen neck. "C'n I take her in for you? You staying?"

The warrior sighed inwardly. "Yeah.. g'wan." She gave Argo a slap. "Give her a good rubdown.. she deserves it. I'll pick up our stuff later." She watched as the hunchback led the mare away, and took a deep breath, as Gabrielle threaded her way through the crowd with Hecuba in tow and met up with her, putting a warm hand on her arm, and meeting her eyes.

"Trouble." The bard said succinctly. "What are we going to do?"

Xena felt a tiny smiled edging her lips, despite the situation. Maybe it was the absolute confidence in the 'we'. Maybe it was the absolute confidence in Gabrielle's eyes when she looked at her, rather than the doubt she'd seen there for so long. A thread of ghostly cockiness began to creep into her consciousness, before she really even knew it.

It felt.. She breathed out lightly. Good. It felt right. "Remains to be seen." She replied quietly. "We need more information.. there's a meeting after sundown." Her eyes drifted. "Hello, Hecuba."

The woman looked.. utterly relieved. "Hello, Xena." Her voice was nothing but warm, so different from the last time they'd shown up here. "They have our Lennat." Her eyes ached.

Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll get him back." She replied with quiet confidence. "How's Lila holding up?"

Hecuba raised a shaking hand to her temples. "Not well.. she's been… ever since the baby.. I'm not sure what's wrong, the healers.." She took a breath. "It's been too much for her."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a long look. "All right.. let me go take a look at her." The warrior stated. "I think I know what might be the problem… it happens with new mothers." She turned to Hecuba. "So much goes to the baby.. you run yourself down. She needs some herbs.. some special foods.. I'll tell you what."

The older woman looked close to collapse. "Goodness… let's go."

Xena took her elbow, and started towards the small homestead where Lila and Lennat lived, and pulled up short as they almost collided with Herodotus.

He rocked back, and stared at them. "Damn.. " He looked directly at Xena. "Never thought I'd be glad to see your puss." He stated bluntly, then looked at Gabrielle. "Hello, daughter."

It almost.. almost.. made the warrior laugh out loud. She glanced to the side and saw the jaw muscles tense in her partner's face. "Nice to see you , too, Herodotus."

Gabrielle let out a light breath, and stepped forward, giving him a tentative hug. "Hello, da."

The childish name did something to him, Xena saw. The skin around his eyes whitened, and he blinked, as he let his arms close around Gabrielle's slim form, and she felt a grab at her own heart, reminded again of her partner's infinite capacity for forgiveness. She looked over at Hecuba, who was watching her husband and daughter with a look of bleak wonder. "Come on, Hecuba.. " She said quietly. "Let's get started."

Hollow sounds slowly intruded into the fuzzy darkness that surrounded her, along with a wildly pounding ache in her head. Ephiny tried to resist it, to let unconsciousness claim her again, but the pain was too vivid, and the sounds rolled around her head, echoing unmercifully.

She was, she realized, underground, or surrounded by rock. She could smell the dusty granite scent, and she tried to open her eyes, but found them bound tightly. Along with her arms and legs, which were also fastened to the wooden something she was lying on, that moved with the rhythmic rocking of a horse's pace.

She could smell the horse, too, and hear its hooves against the rock, and the slightly scuffing sound of boots walking alongside. A warmth to her right told her she wasn't alone, and she wearily cast her memories back to try and figure out how she got there.

It was a blank, she realized with a start. The last thing she remembered was sitting quietly next to her campfire, recording some thoughts about the treaties she'd been carrying. Then.. nothing. She felt her heart begin to pound, and became aware of a vague fuzziness around the edges of her thoughts. Drugged? Probably.. she flexed her muscles subtly, and winced at the stiffened ache as she wondered how long she'd been traveling.

The cart at that moment, chose to creak to a halt, and she heard footsteps approaching, heavy, and authoritative.

"Well, well.. what have we here?" A woman's voice rang out, making her ears buzz with its volume. It was deep, and arrogant, and Ephiny found herself disliking it immediately. "What's this.. an Amazon??? " The voice broke into delighted laughter. "Oh.. that's rich.. good catch, Gelan… we'll get a pretty penny for her." Ephiny jerked as a hand grabbed her chin and forced her head to one side. "Ohhh…. Got a little spunk, huh, Amazon? " The hand withdrew, and then returned, slamming against the side of Ephiny's face with stunning force. "Not for long. "

It was like an explosion right against her jaw, and Ephiny lost what the woman was saying as she concentrated on the pain, waiting for the stars to stop whirling around her blinded vision. Oh damn.. I'm in big trouble. She cursed softly to herself.

"Put her in the fourth holding pen… tell the boys, hands off. " The voice paused, and chuckled. "For now.. anyway.. until I've had my fun."

The cart started to move, and the bold footsteps receded, leaving her in a darkness that went beyond her lack of sight. Trouble indeed.

Gabrielle watched her partner stride up the path, escorting her still shaky mother, as she and Herodotus followed behind. She was unsettled by the news, yes.. but… Her eyes studied the faint, but perceptible to her, bounce that was returning to Xena's walk, and she'd absorbed the changes in her bearing that had coincided with the evident relief she'd seen in the townspeople's eyes as they walked through the village on the way to Lila's house.

Had heard Xena's name being whispered all around her, and seen the looks her partner was receiving, which ranged from timid to outright adoring. She remembered how she'd felt when Amphipolis had greeted her, and she realized Xena was getting that same wash of feeling, now, here in a place that had never been friendly to either of them.

It was, she reflected, an odd turnaround, but watching her soulmate soak in the quietly admiring glances made her understand something very important.

They needed to help others, in order to really heal themselves. Holing up in Amphipolis had let them recover to a certain point.. now to move forward they needed to let the past go, and to do that..

But Xena was determined not to go that route. They'd talked about it a few times.. she was tired, she'd said. Tired of hurting.. of hurting other people.. of seeing Gabrielle get hurt. She just wanted to retire, she'd told her soulmate, and live a normal life.. just try for some peace for a change.

Now, Gabrielle smiled to herself, as their footsteps crunched up the path. Faced with a crisis, she saw that part of her soulmate quietly reemerging, as she responded instinctively to the pleading eyes of the people around her.

Her father cleared his throat, and she turned to him. "This is really bad."

"Mph." Herodotus grunted agreement. "It's good to see you, Gabrielle. You're looking well." He looked off down the path. "We'd heard you went overseas."

"Britannia, and China, yes." Gabrielle answered calmly. "We've been at home for about a month." They mounted the single step up to Lila's house, and followed Xena and Hecuba inside. She looked up as she heard a gasp, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the low light inside the small cottage. Lila had just risen from the chair, and she was shocked at her sister's appearance. She was pale, and very thin, and Gabrielle acted on instinct, forgetting her own troubles. "Lila!" She bolted across the floor and grabbed her sister, who clung to her with a desperate hold.

"Bree.. " Lila hugged her tightly. "Oh gods.. it's good to see you… " Her eyes drank in Xena's tall form and produced a smile. "And you… Xena.. they took Lennat." Her voice was close to breaking. "They took him."

Gabrielle patted her back gently, and started to reassure her, but she broke off when a warm, strong voice interrupted.

"Lila." Xena came closer, and captured her sister's gaze. "I'll get him back here." The warrior put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry."

The bard felt her sister's body relax, and blinked back the tears that sprang into her own eyes. "See? Take it easy… they need him safe.. the only value is if you know you're going to get the person back in one piece, Lila.. kidnapping doesn’t work otherwise. He'll be fine."

She released Lila, and held her at arm's distance, watching her take a steadying breath, then glance over her shoulder at Xena.

And saw, in her sister's eyes, the echo of something she knew had once shone in her own.


She felt the sudden jolt through their connection as Xena saw it, and didn't dare turn around and meet her partner's eyes. "Come on now.. sit down. You look lousy, Lila.. what's up with you?"

That broke the silence around them and Hecuba moved up to take Lila's other arm. "Yes.. sit down."

A fitful cry interrupted them, and Lila sighed. "He's so cranky today." She gently disengaged herself from them, and moved to a small wooden crib, bending over it and lifting a small bundle out. "Hey..hey.. come on.. " She carried the baby over, and bounced him a little, pulling back the light wrap of linen and exposing his tiny, furrow browed face. "I tried everything.. fed him..changed him.. rocked him… " She looked up at Gabrielle, and gave her a little smile. "Here.. you try.. you're something new, maybe that'll do the trick."

Xena stepped back and watched, as her partner gingerly took the small bundle, allowing a wistful smile to cross her face as the startled baby first scowled at her, then lifted a tiny fist and grabbed a handful of golden hair. The bard laughed, and gave the baby boy a smile, who blinked at her, then smiled widely back. He tugged her hair and giggled delightedly.

"See?" Lila sighed, and sat down. "I knew it…it's that smile of yours."

Herodotus glanced to his right, and snorted softly. "Yeah, it even works on big people." He shook his head, and headed out the door. "I'll be at the meeting."

Gabrielle tore her gaze from the tiny face, and glanced up at her partner, who was trying unsuccessfully to wipe a dumb looking grin off.

Their eyes met, and the grin came back, matched by her own. Oh well.. Gabrielle bounced her little charge lightly, and poked her tongue out at him. It's not like they don't know I'm head over heels in love with her. The baby stared entranced at her, then poked his own tongue out, giggling furiously. "What's his name?" She looked up at Lila and smiled.

Her sister looked up with a tired, but impish look. "Gabriel."

Gabrielle stared at her in absolute astonishment.

"Hey.. look.. " Lila sighed, glancing up as Xena knelt at her side with a quietly serious expression. "I got her speechless."

"Yeah." The warrior looked over her shoulder at her partner, who was still blinking in stunned disbelief. "Good choice of name." She turned back to Lila. "How are you feeling.. tired all the time?"

The girl nodded. "Yeah.. since… a little after he was born.. I'm not sure why."

"All right." Xena nodded a little. "Gabrielle, why don't you sit down with your friend over there, and I'll try to fix up your sister." She watched her partner cross to the low chair near the fire, and settle into it, cooing at the baby, while Hecuba sat down next to Lila. "Now.. " She gave Lila a look. "I'll give you a list of stuff you gotta eat." She looked up as Hecuba grabbed a parchment and quill from a nearby table, and wet the tip, waiting.

The fourth holding cell was a very dark, very damp place deep inside rock walls, with a thick lattice door. Ephiny was thrown inside; her limbs still half-paralyzed from the binding, and hit the floor with a painful thud, feeling the sandy floor bite into her flesh. She lay still for a moment, hearing the door slammed shut, before she rolled over, and sat up, looking around her. The faint light from the torch outside the door let bare shadows flicker of the walls of her prison, but from where she sat, she could see the dank moisture on the walls, and see darker spots where her cell opened out onto two others. She could see, barely, white smudges, which were fists, clenched around the bars between them.

"Hey." A low whisper carried across the floor, and she turned her head, as she rubbed her aching wrists. "Are you an Amazon?"

Ephiny edged closer, peering hard at the shadowy figure. "Yeah." She finally admitted, not seeing any point in lying, when she was there in her leathers, which marked her pretty thoroughly. "What's your question?"

A blur of pale hair. "You… you may know my wife's sister."

Ephiny sighed. Why did everyone seem to think Amazons would know every woman within a week's journey of their home territory? "Yeah?"

He hesitated. "She's a bard."

The Amazon froze. "A bard?" She paused. "Where are you from?"

"Potadeia." He pronounced the word carefully. "My name is Lennat."

Ephiny let her breath out slowly. "I know her." She answered softly. 'You're Lila's husband?" She was close enough now to see him nod. "I'm Ephiny."

His eyes popped open. "Oh…. " He motioned her even closer. "Do they know who you are?"

The regent shook her head. "I have no idea.. who are these people? What do they want?"

They both turned as the door scraped open, and two burly guards walked in. "C'mon." One of them gestured to her, the other stayed back, a cocked crossbow trained on her. "Move."

Ephiny stood, and tried to stretch her legs out, before walking towards the guard. As she came abreast of him, he grabbed her, and fastened a collar around her neck, then wrapped one end of the lead around his fist. "You make me trouble, I pull." He demonstrated, and the collar tightened, shutting of her breathing. "Got it?"

She nodded, and he relaxed the lead, allowing her to breathe. "He walks behind you, you make trouble, he shoots your leg." He gave the other man a nod. " Got it?"

She nodded again, and he nodded back, satisfied. "No talker, good." He led her out of the cell, and up several winding passageways, lit by scattered torches that fluttered gently in the breeze moving through the tunnels. Ephiny tried to work some feeling back into her limbs by the walk, and had some success before he halted in front of a lattice door, and pulled his dagger out, reversing the blade and knocking on the frame of the door. "Here."

The low, vibrant voice answered from within. "Come." He grunted, then sheathed his dagger, and pushed the door open, leading her inside.

The cavern was… Ephiny let her eyes dart quickly around it. Opulent, was the word she was looking for. Thick, embroidered rugs lined the rock walls, and the floor, and there was an alcove off to one side that held a huge bed. Nearer to the door was a brazier, and a rough built desk, and two skin covered, low slung chairs. Sitting on the desk was the owner of the voice, who was studying her with a look of feral amusement.

Oh.. gods. Ephiny took a breath, and let it out. The woman was easily twice her size, blond like she was, but with straight hair, and with a large, muscular body that was tending now a little towards chubbiness. She was dressed in a thick leather tunic that came down to her knees, and boots, and had a pair of very cold, very gray eyes.

"So." The woman drawled, standing up and walking over, making a point of towering over her captive. "You're an Amazon, huh?"

Ephiny nodded silently. No sense in provoking this one.. not unless I want a couple of broken bones to nurse, she mused. "I am." She added very quietly.

"You're tiny." The woman laughed.

"Most of us are." Ephiny replied, keeping her voice even. "We use tactics, and strategy, not brute force."

The woman grabbed her lead, and motioned the man out, tightening her grip as he left, and leaning forward. "Yeah? What's your strategy for this, Amazon?"

Ephiny closed her mind to the fear, and forced herself to remember who she was. What she was. "I'll die." She choked out past the strap.

The grip lessened, and the woman laughed, bathing her with the insipid smell of sweet wine. "Oh… no… no… you're more valuable to me alive, Amazon.. I'm gonna get a nice price for you…" She ran a finger down Ephiny's body. "Or maybe I'll just leave you here to amuse me, hmm? You're pretty." Watching the Amazon's face, she unhooked the top of her leathers and let them fall to the ground. "Hey.. how'd you get a scar there?" She snickered. "Lover get to enthusiastic?"

Ephiny kept her breathing even. "I got bitten by a bear."

The woman's brows hiked. "Oh really?" A playful smile curved her lips. "Sounds dangerous." She let her hands roam over the Amazons' body. "Very dangerous.. are you a dangerous person, Amazon?"

Ephiny met her gaze coolly. "I can be."

The backhanded blow caught her by surprise, and she felt her body taken off its feet and slammed against the bare rock wall behind her. A rapid motion followed, and her jaw was grabbed in a hard grip. "Oh no you can't, little bitch." The woman forced eye contact. "Not now, not here… you understand me?"

Ephiny blinked the painful shooting darts from her vision, and just looked at the woman. Her head ached from the slap, and from the contact with the wall, and she realized what a truly bad spot she was in. They don't know I'm missing.. and won't for days…not unless they send to Amphipolis. Damn. "I understand you." She admitted quietly. Survive. That was the important thing.

The woman laughed. "At least you've got a brain… more than the last dumb bitch they brought in here. " She called out. "All right.. c'mon in and get her outta here… " She took a step back, and picked up Ephiny's halter, tossing it to her with a sneer. "We'll… talk.. more after I go collect my ransoms." She glided forward and chucked Ephiny under the chin. "So.. how much do you think they'll pay for an Amazon queen, huh.. Ephiny, is it?" She laughed at the expression on the smaller woman's face. "Oh yeah… one of my boys recognized you." She watched the Amazon put her top back on with a soft chuckle.

The door scraped open, and she turned. "Put her back in the cell… I'll want.. " Her face took on a feral grin. "Her later." She gave Ephiny a light shove. "And send in my scribe.. I've got a ransom note to write."

"Yes, Paladia." The man answered respectfully, taking the lead from Ephiny's collar and tugging. "Come."

She was led back to her prison, and thrown in, this time with a touch more gentleness. "Here.." The man swung a bucket inside the chamber, the water sloshing over the sides and dampening the sand. "She likes hers clean, understand?" The man tossed a rough bundle at her, and she caught it, feeling the shape of a hard roll inside. Then the door slammed shut, and she was left in silence.

Hecuba left with her list, and Xena coaxed Lila back into bed, tucking the blankets around her. "Relax… Gabrielle's got things covered over there… you need to get rest." She watched the girl close her eyes wearily, and waited for her breathing to settle, then rose and walked over to where her soulmate was seated, rocking the baby gently in her arms.

"Hey." Xena crouched, and rested her hand on the arm of the chair for balance. "He sure is cute, huh?"

The baby blinked at her, and let go of the bard's golden hair, staring up at Xena in fascination.

The bard cocked her head, and gazed at her partner, seeing the reflected glints of scattered sunlight glinting off her eyes. "I think he likes your baby blues, love." She said softly, as the baby reached up to touch Xena's face. "We must be related, huh?"

Xena smiled her full smile, and moved her hand up to cover her partner's arm. "Must be." She replied in a low tone. The baby reacted to her smile with a delighted gasp, and bounced a little, reaching up both hands, his tiny fists opening and closing.

"Definitely." Gabrielle giggled. "Oh.. Xena, he's so cute.. I can't believe she named him for me." She gave her partner a wry look. "Why do people do that? I mean.. that's two in one week.. it's getting kinda crazy."

The warrior seated herself cross-legged on the floor, and allowed the baby to tug on her dark hair. "Because.. I guess they hope their children will be like you.. take on some of the magic that makes you who you are, Gabrielle." She replied, and felt the infant tugging joined by a soft hand, which gently combed through her hair. They sat in silence for a short time, then Xena sighed. "Some mess, huh?"

"Mm." The bard agreed absently, watching the baby curl his fist around one of her fingers. "Guess we got here just in time." She nudged her partner's shoulder a little. "Boy were they ever glad to see you."

Xena studied her boot, playing with the laces a little. "Thought I was giving up on this kind of thing." She ventured, raising her head and looking Gabrielle in the eye. 'Guess I just couldn't say no to your family."

Gabrielle studied her face for a long moment, reaching out and tracing the planes of her cheekbones with gentle fingers. "I wouldn't have wanted you to say no.. whether it was my family or not." She answered honestly. "Xena.. can I say something, and you won't think I'm an absolute goon?"

A hesitant, half grin met that. "I'd never think that of you, Gabrielle.. no matter what you said."

The bard looked around, then back at her. "It's nice to be taking care of someone else's problems, instead of remembering my own."

Xena chewed on that for a minute, then lifted her eyes again, and gave the bard a wistful look. "Yeah." She confessed reluctantly. "I'd almost forgotten what that felt like." It was a quiet ambivalence, she realized, half of her shying away from their former life, the other half reaching out for it again, needing it in some deep, insidious way. "I should have remembered that.. when we first started traveling together, I realized about the only thing keeping me sane was the fact that you kept me too busy to think about my past that much."

Gabrielle couldn’t hold back a startled giggle. "Really?"

A nod. "Really…you gave me something else to focus on." She leaned her head against the chair arm, and enjoyed Gabrielle's steady, rhythmic stroking against her hair. "At first.. it was just trying to figure out how to keep you out of trouble." They exchanged looks. "Then I…kind of kept my mind amused by trying to work out what you were thinking.. you were so different than anyone I'd ever known.. so different from me."

Gabrielle smiled fondly at her. "For me, thinking about you.. about your past.. kept my mind off the fact that I was out in the wilderness in these dangerous situations all the time."

"Mm." Xena's lips twitched. "Then one day I woke up and realized I was thinking about you just because I liked thinking about you." Her eyes twinkled a little. "And by then, it was too late."

They smiled at each other, and then at little Gabriel, who cooed back and kicked his feet. Xena reached up and tickled one of the tiny waving toes, and the baby giggled. "Definitely related." The warrior said dryly, then sighed. "I gotta go to that meeting.. you want to stay here and.." She nodded towards the child. "Kinda get to know him?"

Gabrielle gazed at the child. "I like this feeling." She replied softly, then looked up. "But I have a job to do… and someplace I have to be." She gently shifted the baby in her arms. "Hold him while I stand up, ok?" She put the child in her partner's arms before she could protest, and watched as Xena instinctively cradled him. The baby wriggled a little, then curled his hands into the fabric of her tunic, and closed his eyes, nestling his down covered head against the crook of her arm, sucking on his thumb with an air of blissful contentment.

The bard laughed softly, and put a hand on her soulmate's shoulder. "I'd say he knows a good thing when he sees it." Then she knelt, catching Xena's expression, and cupped her cheek. " ok?"

Long, long moment of stillness, then Xena looked up, and there was a fire in her eyes that had been missing for what seemed to Gabrielle like forever, and it sent a warming thrill down the bard's spine, as she recognized its source. You can pretend you're not a hero, Xena.. you can tell everyone you're not, and I can stop telling stories about you, but it's not true.. and we both know that.

It was like washing in a clean spring, Xena decided. "This kid's not gonna grow up without his father around, Gabrielle." The fierce, almost wild determination washed over her, and she let it. "Not if I can help it." She added. "Besides.. these guys are dangerous.. I don't want them pulling their little scam so close to home." She hesitated. "If I'm gonna retire, at least it's gonna be safe there first."

"Right." The bard agreed wholeheartedly. "And I'm right there with you, partner." She watched as Xena stood without disturbing her sleeping charge, and walked over to the crib, gently settling the baby down. She followed her over, and rubbed her back as she straightened up, then slipped an arm around her. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" The warrior returned the hug, pulling Gabrielle's body close and kissing her head.

"I love you." The bard put her other arm around the warrior and squeezed hard. "More than ever." She heard the skip in her partner's heartbeat, and felt Xena suck in a deep breath.

"Thanks." The whisper surrounded her. "Same here."

They stayed like that for a short while, then broke apart, and headed for the door. "We've got work to do." Xena stated, as they hit the path.

"Yep." The bard answered. "People to see, thugs to clobber, problems to solve."

They looked at each other, and grinned.

It was near dawn before Cait stumbled past the first scout post, where whistles stopped her, and she bend over, grabbing her knees and trying to catch her breath. "Get word.. " She gasped, as the lookout swung down from her perch, and grabbed her shoulders. "It's awful.. "

"What is it?" The woman steadied her. " Cait.. what's wrong?"

The girl straightened up, and swallowed against a dry throat. "They've got Ephiny."

She answered raggedly. "It's awful Terrea.. I was… her camp.. she's gone."

Terrea, a short, stocky woman many years Cait's senior, threw her head back and let a call go ringing into the air. She flipped her silvered brown hair out of her eyes, and patted the girl's back. "Easy.. easy now… " She slung a waterskin off her shoulder and uncapped it in a single, fluid motion, handing it to Cait. "Here.. drink a little bit. Not too much."

Cait took a shaky breath, and sipped gingerly. "It was dark.. I couldn't track where she went… "

Terrea rubbed her arms. "No no.. you did the right thing, girl." Footsteps came pattering down the path, and she looked up. "Esta.. get Solari.. hurry." The girl who was almost to the post turned and ran without question. "Come on.. can you walk a little?" She saw a second form coming down the track. "Higdi, get up in that post and keep watch.. I have to get Cait back to the village."

The older girl nodded, and leaped for the strong vine pegged in place next to the lookout post, pulling herself hand over hand up into the tree.

Cait felt her breathing settle a bit as they headed down the path, walking in dark, in that silence that falls just before dawn, when the world is waiting for the new day. It was broken minutes later by the sound of pounding steps heading towards them, and they looked up to see Solari's unmistakable form running in their direction.

The dark haired Amazon pulled up, obviously newly woken, and jerked her head at them. "What's up?" She stared at Cait. "Aren't you supposed to be on the west ridge?"

"Bother that." Cait said, grabbing her arm. "Some rotted scum has got Ephiny." She watched the shock cascade across Solari's face. "It's true.. I followed her… when I got to her camp last night, it was empty.. there was a struggle.. this stuff was left." She pulled her pack off her back, and shoved a slim hand inside, pulling out some of the regent's things. "Here."

Solari reached out and took the cloth, turning it over in her fingertips with a sick feeling. It was the shirt she'd seen Ephiny pack the previous morning. "Oh.. damn." She cursed softly. "I knew it… damn her.. damn me for letting her talk me into giving in."

Cait studied her. "Not to put a fine point, but bother that, Solari.. we've got to get after her." The girl pleaded. "Who knows where they are by now?"

"Right." Solari blew out a breath. "Let's go.. Terrea… "

"I'm going." The stocky woman announced. "Damn it, Eponin isn't here, and I'll will not be around when she gets back." She rolled sturdily along the path, her jaw jutting. Eponin was actually a good friend of hers, and Solari suspected that counted more with her than fear of the weapon's master's temper.

"Me too." Cait announced, blinking at her.

Solari took one look at the stubborn set of Cait's jaw, and sighed, thinking fast. "Um… Cait.. actually.. there's something else I need you to do." She paused. "After you rest a little… I.. someone needs to go .. and tell Gabrielle."

The girl looked ready to protest, then subsided. "Right." She agreed.

That was too easy. Solari realized, but had no time to think about it as they reached the village, and she started calling out names.

"What are they asking?" Xena finally stood up, and braced a booted foot on the bench, after listening to a candlemark of blathering from the village reeve.

The man hesitated, then shielded his eyes against the candle's glare. "Ah.. yes.. Xena…" He cleared his throat. "Too much, is the answer to that question, I'm afraid." He waved the parchment in front of his face. "You see.. all our.. oh."

Xena had walked forward, gently nudging aside bodies until a path opened for her, and plucked the parchment from his fingers, turning it towards the light and studying it. The crowd fell silent, watching her. Finally she looked up. "They seem convinced you have plenty of dinars to spend." She commented. "Or can raise them.. this gives you a week."

The man nodded nervously. "Exactly..exactly… we'd send a lot of money out with those men.. steel costs.. supplies cost.. it's most of what we earned this harvest."

Xena grunted. "Hmph." She fingered the parchment. "You keeping this trading caravan here isn't helping.. they'll assume they're sticking around because there's money to be had."

"Whoa!" A fat, perspiring man in the rear stood up, and held up a pudgy hand. "Hold on.. we're not leaving here.. not going to risk that for ourselves." He looked around, and the small group of merchants seated around him nodded in agreement.

"Relax." Xena gave him a look. "We'll get you through to Amphipolis.. that's where your loads are headed anyway." She stared him down, daring him to object. He took a breath, then met those icy eyes, and subsided. "They were taken between here and there anyway.. I'll try to pick up the trail on the way out, and after we drop off these guys, follow it." She looked up. "How'd you get this?"

The reeve folded his arms. "Left on my doorstep.. that's the horrible thing, Xena.. no one sees these people." He hesitated. "What answer shall I give them?" He touched the paper. "It says I have to leave an answer under a rock in the south field by tonight.

Xena leaned back. "We could see who picks it up.. " She mused. "Nah.. they won't go back to their hiding place… they sound too smart for that." A feral grin touched her lips. "Tell em we'll be there, in five days, with the money."

"But… " The man spluttered. "We don't have it, I tell you!"

Xena folded her arms. "They don't know that." She explained. "It gives us time to work out a plan, and keeps those men safe."

"Oh." The reeve replied. "I see."

"Besides." The warrior let her eyes flick around the room. "I'll be delivering it. The last thing they're gonna be worrying about is whether or not the money's really there."

A perceptible chill ran over the room, and Gabrielle muffled a smile, as she absorbed the reborn confidence in her partner's low, vibrant voice. It was her dark side, no doubt about it, but Gabrielle had long ago reconciled herself to that part of Xena.. and now, in this place, in this time, it was almost like an old friend returning. Then the blue eyes met hers, and Xena gave her a tiny wink, which sent a bolt of warmth all through her. Things really were getting better, she realized. Going back to the way she remembered it.

"That should scare that scum out of any child bearing they'd hoped for." Herodotus commented gruffly. "So what brings you two this way?"

Gabrielle listened to the rising hum of discussion as a wave of relief passed over the assembled villagers. "We're looking for that caravan, actually." She told her father. "Toris and Granella are getting joined.. you're all invited."

He studied her intently. "Ah." He allowed. "Not as wild as yours, I hope."

Gabrielle laughed gently. "Gods, I hope not." She muttered, giving him a shy look. "I'm glad you all were there, though."

Herodotus glanced down at his hands, and sighed. "Gabrielle… I um… I know I said a lot of nasty things about Xena…" He gave her a sideways look. "I've.. had time to think about things… and I've decided she's not so bad after all."

The bard gazed at him in mild shock. "Really?"

"Mph." He grunted in assent, then lifted his head and regarded her partner, who was perched on the edge of the council table, discussing something with the lead trader, and the reeve. "She's um… " Another sideways glance at his daughter. "Quite a good looking woman."

Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip to keep from giggling. She waited a beat. "Well.. I think so." She agreed solemnly.

"Nice eyes." Her father ventured, watching her face.

"OH yeah." Gabrielle nodded. "To die for."

He fell silent, then shuffled his feet. " You know, Gabrielle.. I never.. um.. expected to be having this kind of conversation with.. umm.. you."

Gabrielle felt eyes on her, and she glanced up, to see Xena giving her a questioning glance, She rolled her eyes back at her. "No.. I know." She twisted her hands together. "Kinda weird, huh?"

"Yeah." He answered, clearing his throat a little. "Well.. at least.. um.. I'm glad we share.. similar.. ah.. tastes."

The bard clamped her jaw down tight, and smothered a nervous laugh. "So.. you think she's hot, huh?"

He leaned a trifle closer. "Don't say anything to your mother, all right?"

"Not a word." Gabrielle shook her head seriously, then looked up into a pair of questioning blue eyes. "Oh.. hi."

"Hi." Xena said, giving Herodotus a nod. "What's up?"

"Nothing." They both answered simultaneously.

Xena's eyebrows both rose.

"The inn's full with those traders." Herodotus suddenly blurted. "You two can stay by us for the night."

Looks were exchanged. "That's.. great.. thanks." Gabrielle replied, standing up. "Guess we'd better get going… " She tugged on Xena's sleeve. "We'll meet you back there?"

They walked outside, and Xena let several strides take them away from the noisy, crowded room before she cleared her throat. "So.. what was that all about?"

Gabrielle scratched her head. "He's um…" She gestured with both hands. "Realigning his perceptions."

Xena's brow creased. "What?"

The bard sighed. "He thinks you're hot."

Her partner slammed into a tree, and bounced off, grabbing at its bark with a startled yelp. "WHAT???"

"Ugh.. the conversation was just too weird." Gabrielle gave her a look. "Hey.. careful there.. " She examined the scraped skin on Xena's hands. "Come on..let's get our stuff. You get the honor spending a night in my childhood bedroom."

Xena brushed the bits of bark off her arms. "I think I liked it better when he hated me." She grumbled, following Gabrielle into the darkness.

Continued in Part 2



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