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 4

By Melissa Good

Ephiny leaned back against the harsh stone, and crossed her legs, regarding the empty room in front of her with relief. The day's rest had done her good, though she was continually worried about what was going on with Gabrielle.

Who seemed, she had to admit, to be dealing with Paladia in fine, true Gabrielle fashion. Which was to say, she was driving the woman completely crazy, much like her optimistic persistence had driven Ephiny crazy when they'd first met. She'd wondered for a long time after just exactly what it was that Xena saw in the young girl, why the grim, dour ex warlord patiently put up with the constant questions, and propensity for trouble that Gabrielle had as her stock in trade.

Now, of course, she knew.

Footsteps approached, and she took a breath, recognizing their weight. It was about that time… her inner clock was telling her it was well past the dinner hour, and she'd become aware of the night silence settling about the fortress. The door opened, and she kept a quiet, noncommittal expression on her face as Paladia entered, and went to her dresser, a pensive look on her face. The woman went to the basin of water, and splashed a couple of handfuls over her, then straightened, turning to peer at her captive with an unfathomable glance.

She walked over, and crouched down. "Hey.. how well do you know this bard?"

Ephiny considered the question. "How do you mean?" She asked carefully.

A hand slammed her against the wall. "Don't give me that line." Paladia snarled. "I wanna know everything you know about her, and I wanna know right now."

The Amazon remained silent for a long time. "She's a bard." Ephiny stated quietly. "She's an honorable person." She prepared herself. "She's a good friend."

"And?" Paladia persisted.

"And that's all I have to say." Ephiny replied.

"Is that so?" The voice was low, and dangerous.

The Amazon nodded slowly.

Paladia smacked her, drawing blood from the corner of her mouth. "I don't think so." She backhanded the bound woman. "I think you're gonna tell me about this little bitch before I let her take your place."

A chill ran down Ephiny's back. No. Her warrior soul took charge, and she narrowed down her options, knowing she had very few. I'm not gonna let that happen.. she's just getting back to a point where… no. Not after Hope. Not after Dahok.. I'm not going to let her do this.

Knowing shortly she'd be unable to do anything at all.

She coiled up her body, and focused in, ignoring Paladia's enraged face, and hot breath as she yelled, then moved, kicking out with both powerful legs, catching the larger woman in the groin with both booted feet, and slamming her back with a vicious, lethal crunching.

Paladia screamed, and fell over, curling up in a fetal position for a long, aching moment before she grabbed the tray laying on the floor next to Ephiny's blankets and whipped it around, catching the helpless Amazon across the face. "Bitch.. I'm gonna kill you."

Ephiny got a an arm over her head, but felt it jerked away savagely, as the tray slammed into her temple, sending a flare of heat and agony across her skull. She remembered two or three more blows, and then it all faded into darkness. But a core of fierceness in her remained.

She'd done what she could. All Gabrielle needed was time. Time for Xena to get here, and to take this gods be damned, swine infested pieces of centaur dung and break her up into so many pieces they'd need tweezers to collect them.

Even if she wasn't around to see it. "Artemis." She whispered, as the pain overwhelmed her. "Be kind to my Amazons…" A sharp jolt hit her midsection and she doubled over, as yet another blow slammed into her head. "Take care of Pony.. please… tell her I'm sorry."

Then her body was lifted, and she felt herself flying through the air, and the wall was just too close. Her last awareness was of the rough feeling of the rock as it scraped down her side.

Cait stirred, and lifted her head from its straw pillow as she heard footsteps approaching. She reached out a hand and touched Johan's arm, and he jerked awake, moving his head close to hers.

"Lass…what is it?" He whispered. They'd whiled away a very boring day mostly by telling stories.. Cait knew some really gory ones, and she'd taken great delight in telling them, along with a few about her favorite subject, which was Xena.

"Someone's coming." The girl muttered back, reaching back and shaking Lennat, who was curled up behind her.

The door creaked open, and she heard muffled voices. "C'mon.. get er in here.. just… "

"Zeus.. lookit the blood.. I thought she liked this one.. "

"Shh.. just dump her, willya? I want to get back to bed."

A dull thud broke the silence, and then the door creaked shut.

Cait crept forward, her nose already detecting the iron tang of blood. "Gosh.. I think someone's…" Her eyes, used to the dim light of the cell, focused on features that were almost familiar. "Oh gosh." She croaked. "Oh bloody damned Hades…give a hand you lot."

Johan scrambled to her side, kneeling next to the huddled, silent body that had been dumped into the room. "It's not… " His chest contracted in fear.

The girl sucked in a shaky breath. "It's Queen Ephiny. " Her hands were shaking badly, as their touch recognized the damage inflicted on the slim form. "She's awfully badly hurt."

"Gods." Lennat breathed, on the other side of her. "I'll get some water."

Cait ripped her shirt down the sides, and pulled off strips, dunking them into the water Lennat brought over and gently wiping the blood off the battered regent's head. "Gods.. this is rot.. this is no good at all. We need a healer." She glanced around. "We've got to get out of here."

"Well.. no chance of that until the next feeding." Johan commented, wincing as he rinsed out a bloody cloth, and dabbed at the red liquid seeping from the injured Amazon's ear. "We'll have to fix her up as best we can.. see what we can do when they bring us breakfast." He let out a gusty sigh. "Here.. bring over that stack of hay, lad." He stripped off his tunic, and stuffed it with Lennat's straw, tying the sleeves shut to make a pillow. "Lift her head up, Cait."

The girl gingerly lifted the regent's limp form as Johan gently put the pillow under her head, smoothing back the damp, curly hair from her very pale forehead. There were several lumps on the side of the woman's head, and bruising all down her cheekbones. She'd been bleeding from both ears, and from her nose, and she seemed totally unresponsive to her surroundings. "Poor lass." Johan breathed, his voice deepening in anger.

"When I find who did this." Cait stated, quite calmly. "I'm quite afraid I'm going to have to kill them."

Silence fell after that, as they gazed at her uneasily.

"Right." Cait took a breath, carefully feeling Ephiny's limbs. "Well.. one good thing.. looks like nothing's broken here." She gently pulled aside the half torn shift the regent was wearing and cursed softly. "Gosh." Bruises, cuts and scratches covered the muscular body. "We've got to get her to a healer. This is bad."

Lennat nodded slowly. "You're right.. I'm in with you.. but best not tell the others…they're nervous enough as it is."

A low groan got their attention, and Cait leaned over the feebly moving regent. "Ephiny… please… don't move around."

A whisper. "No… "

"Shh.. we're going to get you out of here.. all right? Just lay still.. you're ever so hurt." Cait laid a wet compress over the blond woman's head.

"Safe." Ephiny gasped. "Wait.. for Xena." Her voice trailed off into a mumble, then to nothing.

Cait set her jaw grimly, as she eased the sticky blood from the regent's fair hair. ""I'm afraid I simply can't do that." She uttered softly. "Xena says, sometimes it's all right not to obey orders, you see." She paused, and sighed. "Unless they're hers, of course.."

Lennat handed her more wet cloths. "I hope Gabrielle is ok."

The girl looked up, the dim torchlight catching in her pale gray eyes, shades lighter than his own. "Well, we've got to make sure of that, too then, right?"

They looked at her.

"Look.. we're in a fortress here.. what if Xena can't get in?" Cait stated, reasonably. "She's depending on us."

A long pause, then silent nods.

"Right." Cait wrapped a bandage around Ephiny's temple. "When they bring us breakfast, we get them."

"Get them?" Lennat queried hoarsely. "How?"

Cait slowly looked up, and met his eyes.

And smiled. "Leave that to me." She replied evenly.

Safely tucked in her thick ground shrub, with it's convenient blackberry bramble on one side, Xena waited until the sky was dimming to a faint coral gray before she unwound her long limbs and stretched carefully. She gotten a little fitful rest, ignoring the drip of the incessant rain, and now she yawned, and tugged on Ares' tail to wake him. "Hey."

"Argroo!" Ares yelped softly, whirling around to find his attacker, then poking her in the chest with his cold, wet nose.

"Aw, c'mon, Ares.." Xena sighed, snagging a blackberry and eating it. "I'm wet enough already.. and don't.. " She grabbed his ear. "You dare tell Gabrielle I did this, you got me?" She would get lectured for not sleeping, lectured for not eating, and really lectured for staying out all night in the rain. Her lips quirked wryly. And you love every minute of it, you fraud. "I'll get yelled at.. you don’t want that to happen, do you?"

The wolf blinked innocently.

"Here." Xena offered him a berry, which he sniffed and gobbled. "Ok..ok.. I got work to do." She burrowed further into the bushes, poking her nose out the other side and observing the entrance. It looked in daylight just as imposing as it did in darkness, and she sighed. "Damn."

She backed out, and slunk back up the hill, slipping over the ridge and down the other side in total silence. Even the small animals didn't realize she was there, only starting away at the very last moment as she placed her boots with unconscious skill, moving with the gently swaying leaves that brushed her skin lightly as the first rays of dawn crept through them.

Finding the Amazons was easy, though she doubted anyone else would have detected their snug hideout, but when she poked her head in, the small group was still dozing, exhausted faces barely outlined in the predawn light.

Xena sighed, feeling a bit guilty over her outburst from the night before and decided to let the women sleep a little longer, while she scrounged some breakfast and scouted the area. She didn't take long, but it was a good deal brighter when she slipped back into the clearing, and almost collided with Solari. "Morning." She muttered.

Solari rubbed her eyes, and leaned against the rock outcropping they'd been sheltering under. "Um.. yeah. Hi." She winced. "Not sure if that little nap helped or hurt."

Xena grimaced in sympathy. "Never hurts." She handed over a folded packet of leaves. "Here.. some fresh stuff.. thought you might add to whatever you've got for trail rations."

The dark haired Amazon took the packet and peered inside, then glanced up. "Thanks." A reluctant smile creased her face. "It'll be a welcome change." She paused, and looked awkwardly down at the leaf covered ground. "Xena.. I'm sorry about last night."

The warrior kicked a small pebble idly. "So am I. " She replied quietly. "This whole thing has me on edge… I didn't mean to snap like that."

"And we were all overtired.. and acting like whiney children." Solari answered, with a relieved look. "What you did for Pony was absolutely right.. and you're the only one who could have gotten away with it."

Xena chewed her lip. "She up?"

Solari winced. "Oh yeah." She sighed. "And feeling very feisty."

The warrior grimaced. "Great." She put her hands on her hips. "Well… looks like we need to find a way up and around that mountain.. I don't see us breaking in that portal."

The Amazon nodded. "I figured… we've got ropes for climbing.. you think we'll find a way in up above?"

Xena shrugged. "Something like that…I'm gonna look around while you get ready." She rocked her head back and forth. "Loosen up a little.. blackberry brambles aren't generally my choice of beds."

Solari nodded. "Right… we won't be long." She turned and ducked back under the overhang.

"So much for that." Xena commented to Ares. "C'mon.. let's take a walk." She slipped off down the path, heading for a small spring she could hear burbling nearby. She ducked her head under the water, letting the chill of the spring shock her fully awake, then cupped her hands together and scooped up several mouthfuls, wincing a little as the cold water hit her mostly empty stomach.

Straightening, she leaned against a tree, gazing for a moment out at the early morning scene, where the birds were dipping and diving over the spring, drinking pertly and snapping insects out of the sky. Then she sighed, and stretched, unsheathing her sword and moving it in a slow pattern, warming her muscles up in the flickering pattern of sunlight.

It was a little stiff at first.. given her long, uncomfortable night, but she settled down and things went more smoothly after that, as she progressed from basic patterns to her more usual acrobatic maneuvers.

She leaped into a back flip, reaching up to slice a cluster of tiny red flowers from the tree branch above her, then completed the flip, landed, and caught the cluster with a little, mocking, flourish. She turned and leaned against the tree, as a lone clapping sent birds off in startled flight.

Eponin sauntered into the clearing, still clapping. "Very nice." She snorted softly as Xena raised the flower cluster to her nose and sniffed delicately. "That was a lousy trick last night, Xena." She paused, gazing at the shadow patterned warrior. "But I probably deserved it, huh?"

That got her a quirky grin from Xena. "You were a little crazy, yeah." She glanced over Eponin's shoulder. "They ready?"

"'They're busy mooning over your technique." The Amazon informed her. "We climbing?"

Xena sheathed her sword with a whispering click. "Looks like it." She walked over and resumed her pack, shucked while she did her drills. "Let's go."

It was dark, where she was, and cold. Gabrielle blinked around in the shadows, her heart sinking as she realized she was back in this place again. Water dripped all around her, and she could smell the stench of dead things, and see the slime on the walls.

And, as always, she was alone. Not just physically alone, truly alone, because Xena had left her. Left her here, in this place, and she just spent all her time looking for the warrior, pleading for her to return.

She was so lonely. It hurt so much. The walls laughed at her, in voices that sounded very much like Dahok's. Like Hope's. She crept along, the mud sucking at her boots, little, unpleasant things running over them.

Xena.. come back, please? Her fingers scraped against the slimy wall and she stumbled, dropping to her knees in the filth, feeling the crawling things scurry away from her cringing hands.

She screamed in grief, and frustration.

And woke, heart pounding wildly, to see the dim, gray recesses of the small chamber that was her cell. Tears stained her face, and she hugged the battered stuffed doll to her, choking back sobs. Gods.. that hurts.. I hate that dream.

"Ok.. ok…" She got herself under control. "Come on now.. easy." Slowly, her heartbeat settled, and she sat up, wiping her eyes, and wondering what time it was. She'd lost track here deep in the mountain, but she was feeling somewhat rested, so she figured it had been a while, at least. She heaved herself off the pallet, and padded across the floor, working the latch on the door and pulling it open a little, startled when the guard outside, lurched to his feet, and pointed his crossbow at her. "Hey!" She held up a hand, and gestured at her dress. "I'm not a threat, here."

The boy blinked, and lowered his weapon, settling back against the wall with a grunt. "Uh.. sorry ma'am."

That surprised a giggle out of the bard. "What?" She hugged her arms to her. "What time is it?"

His eyes went everywhere but on her. "Uh…just short of first watch, ma'am."

"Stop calling me that." The bard rolled her eyes. "Does that mean it's almost morning?"

He nodded, absorbed in his bootlaces.

"Ok.." Gabrielle considered. "Is it ok if I go get some breakfast in a little while?"

The boy scratched his ear. "Um…yeah.. uh.. they said you… Paladia's gonna be tied up all day.. so's.. I'm supposed to.. um.. kinda watch you."

The bard's eyebrow rose. "She is, huh?" That wasn't he impression she'd gotten last night.. she wondered what had happened. "Ok.. so.. will you take me to the main hall?" She moved a step closer, and ducked down, to force eye contact.

He blushed, and stammered. "Oh..o..ok." He had softly curled brown hair, and gentle hazel eyes.

Gabrielle smiled at him. "Are you ok?" She swiveled around, and glanced up and down the hall "Everything all right?"

"Yeah.. yeah.. uh.. sure. Right" The boy seemed fascinated with the clasp on his shirt now.

"What's your name?" The bard asked.

He peered shyly up at her. "Brion."

Gabrielle digested that. "All right, Brion.. I'm gonna go change, and then we can go get some breakfast.. maybe you'll show me around.. is that ok?"

Blinking. "Sure." He looked around. "Just… I gotta watch you real close… Paladia said not to let you go outside.. or downslope."

The bard nodded. "All right.. I understand the outside.. but what's downslope?"

"Where they keep the b…the people." Brion finished awkwardly.

Hmm. Gabrielle ran over the information. Paladia was busy… she wondered briefly, sickeningly, if her business was with Ephiny. She hoped not. But it would give her a chance to scope the place out, and see more parts of it. "Ok.. I can live with that.. though I would like to see my friends.. the two people who got brought in with me."

Brion looked uncomfortable. "Can't.. specially not that.. Paladia said."

A thread of unease wound it's way through Gabrielle's conscience. Why? Was the larger woman suspicious? "Well, I'll have to ask her about that later, but ok."

He looked relieved. "Anywhere else.. I'll show you, I promise."

Gabrielle bestowed a charming smile on him. "Oh..I can see we're gonna get along great, Brion."

He blushed.

She grinned.

"I've changed my mind." Eponin sighed, as she rested against a convenient stump, and dusted off her hands. "I used to think you were part mule, part badger, and part wild boar." She gave Xena an evil look. "Now I'm convinced one of your lovely ancestors had conjugal relations with a mountain goat."

Xena arched a brow at her, and crossed her arms, glaring down from her perch on a boulder just over their heads. "Thanks." She growled. "Nice to hear." She'd been leading them steadily up the side of the mountain, moving cautiously ahead and finding solid spots for them to climb to, a thick hemp rope tied around her body that allowed them something to hang onto while doing so.

A tired chuckle circulated the small party at that. "No problem." Eponin grunted back, rubbing her wrists.

Xena drummed her boots against the rock, and regarded the Amazons, then tilted her head back and checked the sun's position, midway through the sky. "We're making pretty good time" She allowed, looking up at the still distant summit. "I think there's a pass below that point.. you see where the trees fold in?"

Eyes looked with weary interest. "Yeah.. " Solari hopped up onto the stump Eponin was leaning against and shaded her eyes. "I see it… that's not too far away." She looked up at Xena. "You think we can get through there?"

The warrior studied her hands. "I think so." She finally nodded, mentally crossing her fingers. The Amazons were pretty close to tiring out from the climb, which had been strenuous for even her well conditioned body. "Maybe we can find a hot spring around here to soak in after this is over."

Eponin looked up at that, and smirked, then her brow creased, and she rubbed a small trench in the soil with her boot. "Hot spr… is this a volcano?"

Xena nodded her head slowly. " old one.. hasn't been active in a long time. I think their hideout's the old lava tunnels inside. " She leaned back onto one elbow, and detached her waterskin, taking a long swallow. "Grab some food, if you want."

A flutter of relief passed over the group, who settled down gratefully on the ground, and dug into their packs, pulling out stocks of dried meat and fruits.

Xena watched them for a moment, then let herself lay back down onto the sun warmed rock, gazing up at the fluffy clouds, idly finding patterns in them. "Look.. " She murmured to herself wryly. "It's a rabbit." Briefly, she wished Gabrielle was perched next to her, ready to argue the point.

"What?" Eponin was standing by the rock, lifting herself up on her toes to listen.

"Huh?" The warrior cleared her throat and glanced down. "Nothing… I was just…whistling."

The Amazon snorted softly. "Oh.. ok..sure." She handed up some strips of dried meat. "Here…chew on this for a while.. it's almost as tough as you are."

Xena laughed softly, but accepted the offering, biting of a small piece and chewing it for a minute. "Hey.. did you find this deer sitting in a rocking chair knitting or what?" She paused. "I've tasted softer boots."

Eponin leaned against the rock and snorted. "Everybody's a critic." She munched for a time, then gave Xena a sly look. "So.. you nibble on your boots.. or Gabrielle's?"

The warrior edged a brow at her, aware of the perked ears of the studiously nonchalant Amazons. "Boots?" She drawled. "I don't bother with her boots." She stretched out more comfortably on her rock, crossing her ankles and allowing a slow grin to shape her lips.

Eponin choked on her jerky, inhaling a bit and coughing violently, until Solari stepped up behind her and gave her a whack between the shoulder blades. "Smooth move, centaur butt." She cooed sweetly at the weapon's master.

The older woman gagged, and glared at her. "Who you calling centaur butt, you featherhead?"

They got moving a few minutes later, still bickering, and Xena shook her head a little as she made her way upward, heading for the still half hidden pass. Amazons.

"This is where we have the kids." Brion said softly, as he lumbered ahead of the interested Gabrielle. "We don't have so many, but there are a few…" He opened a thick door, and entered, holding it for the bard with awkward courtesy.

Gabrielle stepped past him, peering inside the good sized room. Small heads turned toward her, and round eyes watched as she strolled forward. "Hello." She smiled at them. There were about a half dozen assorted small children in the room, four boys and two girls, ranging from around two years old to what looked like seven or eight. "What's your names?"

The oldest girl looked at her, and gave her a shy smile. "Mercia.. " She pointed. "An that's Darren, and Micha, an Robri and Aleise." She looked down as the youngest, a sturdy looking toddler. "And Yercha."

"HI there. "Gabrielle crouched down, and put out a hand to the scowling Yercha, who wobbled forward, and poked it suspiciously. "My name's Gabrielle."

"Are you new?" The oldest boy asked, uncertainly.

"Kind of." The bard replied. "I'm a storyteller.. do you want to hear a story?"

Their eyes lit up, and the scrambled forward, to sit cross-legged in front of her, their suspicions forgotten. "Do you know any about Hercules?" The older boy, Darren asked, breathlessly.

Gabrielle grinned. "I sure do." She sat down herself, and motioned for Brion to relax. "As a matter of fact, not only do I know his stories.. I know Hercules himself."

Wide, round eyes. "Really?"

"Really." The bard assured him. "He's one of the nicest people I've ever met." She launched into a milder, funnier tale of the demigod's, that had the children laughing.

"Hey…" Darren bounced in place. "Are you gonna stay here.. and tell us stories?"

Gabrielle felt a gentle twinge. "For a little while, honey." She told him. "But then.. I have to go home to my family."

A quiet fell, and the children all grew sad. "We don't have families." Mercia said in a whisper, sucking on her finger. She looked up at Gabrielle with haunted eyes. "Nobody wants us."

The bard opened her arms. "Come here. " She pulled the girl into her lap, and hugged her. "Mercia, that's not true." She rocked the girl gently, as the other children huddled closer, and clung to her. "Let me tell you something about families..ok?"

She took a breath. "Sometimes, bonds of friendship tie you closer to other people than blood ever can.. the friends you make here will become family." The girl clutched her tightly. "That's what happened to me, you know… I couldn’t stay with my family.. so I went away, and I discovered a friend who became my best friend in the whole world." She stroked the girl's russet hair. "And now she's my family, and I love her very much."

Mercia blinked up at her, rubbing her eyes with one grubby fist. "Do you miss your mama?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Sometimes… but mostly I'm happy."

The children thought about that. "Who's your friend?" Darren asked, practically.

"Will get to meet her?" Mercia chimed in, apparently cheered up.

Gabrielle cast a quick glance at Brion, who was gazing dreamily at her, and decided she was pretty safe. "Well, my friend's name is Xena."

"Wow!" Darren blurted. "Not the Xena?"

The bard smiled. "Well, she's the only one I know.." She lowered her voice. "And I"ll see what I can do about getting you to meet her."

They left the children's room behind, and Brion scuffed his boots against the ground as he walked. "Is that really true?"

"Hmm?" Gabrielle turned towards him. "What?"

"You really know the Warrior Princess?" Came the shy question.

"Oh yeah." The bard laughed quietly. "It's true…after all, I live in Amphipolis, remember?"

"Right… " Brion nodded. "My da.. used to tell stories about her." He sighed. "About how she used to be so bad, then turned into a good person."

Gabrielle studied him quickly. "That's true… she's a wonderful person.. just really amazing." She looked behind her. "Where did those children come from?"

"Mostly their parents just… " Brion gazed at his boots. "They died, over the winter.. or they ran out of food.. so they… just kind of put the kids out." He winced at the shocked expression on Gabrielle's face. "Yeah.. it was pretty awful… we were always glad when we could find one of them."

"Brion…" The bard put a hand on his arm, and felt him blush under her fingertips. "Please… can I just go see my friends.. just for a minute? I won't tell anyone." Her green eyes searched his gently. "Please?"

He found himself mesmerized by her. "Uh… well.. all right.. but just for a minute." He decided recklessly, wanting her smile.

She smiled, and pressed his arm. "Thank you."

"All right." Cait whispered. "Are you ready? I hear footsteps." They were crouched down on either side of the door, in the dim torchlight which flickered, hitting highlights in both Cait's and Lennat's pale hair. "Super.. it's only two of them.." She cocked her head. "And not those big humongous ones, either."

"Good." Lennat replied, nervously. "I.. I'm not really a fighter, Cait."

"That's all right." Cait giggled softly. "I am."

The footsteps came closer, and they heard the soft, unmistakable jingling of the heavy keys as the rasp of metal on metal told them the lock was being drawn. Cait gave a quick, concerned glance back at the sill form in the hay, with Johan's tense figure crouched over it, gently dabbing at still seeping wounds with a stained linen cloth. Ephiny had not regained consciousness since she'd been dumped in there, and they'd all been very nervous when breakfast hadn't shown up as scheduled.

Had they been heard? But now the lock was turning, and she crouched, focusing her attention on the slim red line that was the outer light coming in as the door cracked open. An inch further, and then she was lunging forward, and getting her fingers inside the crack, jerking the door open and reaching blindly for the first person, grabbing fabric and pulling back with all her strength.

She toppled backward, with a startled, struggling body on top of her, and she got her booted feet up and into the gasping man's ribcage, kicking up as hard as she could, and throwing him against the wall. He slid down the surface without a sound, and she bounded up, reaching for the second, shadowy figure who abruptly grasped her hands, and hugged her.

"Cait?" Gabrielle's voice was tense.

"Gods." Cait breathed, letting her body go limp in the bard's strong arms. "Bloody rot.. it would be you."

"Yeah." The bard snorted softly. "Glad I stopped you.. poor Brion." Then her breath caught as she spotted Johan's kneeling form. "What… oh gods." She gently set Cait on her feet, then dashed forward, dropping to her knees in the dirty straw. "Oh gods… what happened?" She reached out a shaking hand to touch Ephiny's swollen face.

"Hoping you could tell us, lass. " Johan gave her an unhappy look. "The poor thing was left off here in the early hours last night… Gabrielle, she's hurt bad. "

"Eph… " Gabrielle's eyes closed. "Why?"

A faint fluttering of pale lashes, then the dull glint of torchlight against bloodshot pale eyes. "G…"

"Shh… " Gabrielle put a fingertip against her lips. "Don't try to talk.. that's an order." She curled a hand around the regents. "We're going to get you out of here."

"You… safe." Ephiny whispered. "Good." She struggled to open her eyes further. "Kicked her… hurt… can't do this… you.. give Xena time."

The bard cupped her cheek very gently. "Ephiny.. you're telling me you provoked her.. on purpose?"

Faint nod.

"Gods." Gabrielle groaned. "When we get out of here, I swear, Ephiny.. I swear, I'm gonna have an Amazon Council and tell every last one of them the story of the blue frosting.. with details.. you'll deserve it for being so damned… so…. So… augh. Amazons!" She used Xena's favorite oath. "Couldn’t you have just trusted me to handle things?"

Pale eyes filled with pain apologized. "Trust you." Ephiny sighed. "She wanted.. details.. about you.. no way out of it.. think she suspects." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand weakly. "Forgive me."

"Nothing to forgive." Gabrielle sighed. "Take it easy… it won't be long, Eph… Xena's close."

The regent's eyes fluttered closed, and she nodded a tiny bit.

"Aye.. but she's only one person, lass.. " Johan eyed her. "This place is swarming with the buggers."

"Don’t worry about that." Gabrielle put a hand on his shoulder. "One Xena is more than enough to handle this bunch." She studied Ephiny gravely. "Just keep her quiet.. keep her warm.. and you all just please.. please.. stay here." She gave Cait a stern look. "I've got to draw their attention .. and I don’t' need to worry about you guys too, ok?"

"But.. " Cait protested. "That's rot!"

"Cait." The bard let out a tired breath. "Someone has to guard Ephiny.. Xena will come here first.. you've got to help her get Eph out of here…that's the important thing. I'll be fine.. they haven't hurt me."

'That is not what Xena is going to think." Cait replied softly. "And you know that."

"That's fine." Gabrielle snapped. "You let me worry about that." She glanced towards the door. "Johan, you and Lennat drag my friend over there outside, I need to get going before someone finds us."

The two men rose and obeyed her without question, and she turned back to the injured regent. Ephiny's eyes drifted open again. "Gab?"

The bard leaned closer, and wiped a trickle of blood that had seeped from the Amazon's nose with a damp piece of linen. "I'm here."

Ephiny's gaze focused on her intently. "Take… care of Pony for me..ok?"

"Take care of her yourself. " Gabrielle replied firmly, feeling her heart sink. "You're gonna get out of here, Ephiny. I promise you that."

A shaking hand gripped her ankle. "Promise me.. you'll lead the Amazons… " Ephiny's voice rasped. "They need you."

Oh gods. Gabrielle found herself meeting Ephiny's eyes as the request hit home. "I promise." She replied softly.

Ephiny's eyes misted. "Give Xenon a hug."

The bard felt tears roll down her cheeks, and she ignored them. "I will." She interlaced her fingers with Ephiny's. "But don't you give up, Ephiny… don't you dare."

The regent nodded her head a fraction, and squeezed the hand holding hers. "Do my best." Her breathing slowed, and her grip slackened.

Gabrielle set her arm down by her side, and smoothed over the thin shirt she was wearing. "You do that." She murmured, gazing at her friend for a long moment, before she stood, and raked her fingers through her hair "All right.. here's the plan." They all looked at her. "When Xena gets here… get everyone in these cells out.. the corridor outside leads straight down to the entrance."

"Gabrielle… " Lennat walked over and hugged her gently. "Are you sure Xena will be able to get in here?"

Green eyes met his without flinching. "She'll be here." Gabrielle replied with utter confidence. "Get everyone out, then tell her I"ll probably be up in the main hall." She gave them a grim smile. "I"ll try to keep everyone occupied while you're all escaping."

"All right." Cait agreed reluctantly. "But be ever careful."

Gabrielle hugged her. "I will, Cait." She released the girl, and gave Johan an equally heartfelt hug. "Keep an eye on them, dad." She heard Johan's breathing catch, and released him, then padded to the door, and slipped out, gazing back at them for a long moment before she closed the door gently and walked over to where Brion was slumped. "Hey.. " She patted his cheek gently.

He spluttered, and shook his head, jerking his vision around wildly. "Wh..what .. what happened?"

"Good question. " Gabrielle replied with forced cheerfulness. "You passed out." She stepped back and offered him a hand up. "It's ok.. I just peeked in at them.. we can go now."

Brion let out a relieved sigh, rubbing his head. "Oh.. ok.. great…. " He turned, and led the way up the corridor, blinking a little. "Wow.. I never… did that before."

"Mm." Gabrielle paced alongside him, her mind whirling. "Maybe you need some lunch… can we?"

"Oh.. yeah.. yeah.. that's a great idea." The boy nodded. "I think I need a drink."

The turned the next corner, and stopped, as Paladia's bulky form filled the corridor. The tall woman watched them intently. "Get out of here, Brion." She finally ordered. "I"ll take her from here."

The boy gave her an apologetic look, then ducked around Paladia's big body, and escaped down the hall.

Gabrielle faced her, the anger building as she remembered Ephiny's battered features. "It's been a nice morning.. " She said, carefully. "I got to meet the children.. and Brion showed me around a little. "

Paladia regarded her uncertainly. "That's.. good… um… it's hard on the kids.. they kinda have to take care of themselves." She studied the floor. "Come on." She finally said. "You've got some explaining to do."

The bark of the tree scraped rough against her skin as Xena leaped up and over a small gully, catching hold of the rock ledge above her and muscling her way up onto it. She turned, and braced her boots, wrapping one hand around a protruding tree root. "All right.. c'mon.. we're almost there."

The slack on the rope tied around her played out, then she tensed, as weight pulled against her body. A moment later, Eponin's dark head popped up over the rock ledge, and the weapon's master grimly hauled herself up, getting her feet under her and clearing the way for Solari to follow. She wandered past Xena's braced form, and hopped up onto the next rock, peering over it and down through the pass at last.

A soft, heartfelt curse broke the air, and Xena turned to look at her. "What?"

Eponin didn't answer, she just slumped against the rock, and let her head rest against the stone in weary defeat. Solari scrambled up next to her, and choked back a cry.

"Hold it." Xena motioned the rest of the party to stay where they were, and untied the rope around her, looping it over the tree root. She then joined the two Amazons and stared over their shoulders.

Damn. Xena blinked in confusion and dismay. The mountainside they'd spent a laborious day climbing was merely an outer protective ring. There, leagues away, rose a stark inner cone, sparsely forested, that fell far down into the old crater of the volcano. Below, she could barely make out the rushing of a rain fed river, that emptied out finally into the valley beneath them. In silence, she vaulted the rock, and paced up the short ridge that overlooked the inner cone, going to it's very edge and letting the whirling winds blow her dark hair back.

Aside from the dim rush of water, it was silent. Overhead, two circling hawks lazily rode the thermal drafts, mocking her with their mastery of the air.

"Now what?" Eponin asked, with a weary sigh, coming up behind her and gazing across at the craggy rock face.

Xena was at a loss. She felt the vague unease that had been growing inside her erupt into a sick roiling, and for a long moment, almost lost her composure. She wanted to just sink down, and put her head in her hands, and have someone tell her what to do.

But all those eyes were on her, and Gabrielle was depending on her, and she just couldn’t do that. Question was, what could she do? Climbing down the inner face and back up the smaller cone was out of the question.. the depth went farther down than the plains she'd climbed up so far, and that had taken most of the day.

Her heart lurched. Now what… now what…. Her brow creasing, she paced along the ridge, thinking hard. "Help the rest of them up." She turned and addressed Solari. "Let me see what I can come up with."

The two Amazons gave her a long look, then left her alone, moving back along the rocky path.

Gabrielle… Her eyes searched the inner cone, seeing the unbroken, sloping sides. What am I gonna do? She walked to the edge of the ridge again, and folded her arms, breathing in the warm, richly pine scented air. The wind stirred the branches of the tenacious oak tree next to her, and she looked up at it, watching the limbs bend and flex, springing back into place with elastic energy.

Her eyes focused on that, then flicked to the path arching down from the pass. Then she gazed out over the space that separated the two rock walls, and spotted, further down from the level they were on, a half hidden ledge that protruded gently, hiding a dark, uneven opening in the rock face.

"Well?" Eponin came up behind her quietly. "Do we have a plan?"

Xena smiled grimly into the biting wind. "Yes." She collected herself, glancing down as Ares galloped over to her, and nuzzled her knee. "See that?" She pointed to the opening.

Eponin peered, and moved aside as Solari joined them, with the rest of the Amazons close behind. "Yeeeaaahh…. " She drew the word out. "Looks like a cave opening." She glanced up at the dark profile next to her. "You think it's an entrance?"

The warrior chewed her lip. "They have to have air ducts." She finally said. "Yeah.. I think it is… see the stains down that rock?" She pointed to the surface under the opening. "Looks like they dump stuff out of there."

Solari nodded slowly. "I see that… yeah." She looked over at Xena. "But how does that help us? We're over here.. not there."

"I know." Xena replied calmly. "That's gotta change." Thank the gods it's enclosed spaces and not heights that give me problems. They're not gonna believe this.. I'm not sure I believe it.. but… I'm outta options.

They all looked at her. "Xena… you don't mean climb down and up again.. that'll take forever." Solari ventured, cautiously.

The warrior laid a hand over her stomach, and let out a long breath. "We don’t have forever." Her nostrils flared. "I'm going to get over there."

Shocked silence. "How?" Eponin asked.

"Jump." Xena answered succinctly. "I'm going to use that tree as a catapult and hopefully end up not to far down the cliff face.

Utter stillness from the Amazons as they stared at her in uncomprehending disbelief. "Excuse us a minute." Eponin said, giving Solari a shove. "I need to talk to Xena."

The Amazons scattered, pulling back and clustering around the still stunned Solari.

Xena ignored them, measuring angles and testing the wind.

"If you think I'm gonna stand here and let you commit suicide, you're crazy." Eponin stated, in a low, serious voice. "So just cut it out."

The warrior glanced up, launching her body upwards and catching the lowest branch of the tree, flexing it gently, then releasing her hold. "Why?" She turned and looked Eponin right in the eye. "That ought to make the Amazons happy."

Eponin stared at her. "That's not true."

Xena gave a shake of her head, and measured distances. "Yeah, well… I don’t have time to argue with you, Eponin." She started to back off, counting steps.

The Amazon grabbed her, ignoring her own safety. "Xena."

The blue eyes bored right through her. "Let go of me." She dropped her voice, as the setting sun painted them in rich gold light.

"NO." Eponin growled right back. "Xena, think about it…. There has to be some way to get over there.. what is your falling to your death going to do to help the situation?" She shook the warrior hard. "What's the matter with you? What in Hades makes you think you can just fly like a damn bird across that gap?"

Xena reached up and circled Eponin's wrists with both hands, and squeezed, causing the Amazon's grip to release. She gently pushed her away. "Because Gabrielle's on the other side of it." She answered in a quiet voice. "And she needs me."

Eponin stared at her.

"Get out of my way, Eponin." Xena continued in that same quiet tone. She refused to think about what she was contemplating. Refused to consider the possibility of failing.

Of falling, despite her brave words to an almost sure death.

But she wouldn't do that.. Gabrielle deserved better. And she'd be damned to Hades if she wasn't going to come through this time.

Not like last time.

She had to. "Get out of my way." She repeated, flexing her hands, and judging the wind.

"Wait." The Amazon put a hand on her wrist. "Just a second." She glanced over Xena's shoulder. "Get the ropes. Tie them all together." She ordered the Amazons, who stared at her in disbelief. "NOW!!!"

Xena looked at her. "So you can pull me back off the rocks?" She remarked in bitter humor.

Caramel colored eyes full of respect gazed right back at her. "No." Eponin disagreed. "So you can tie it off to a tree over there and we can come with you." She let out a breath. "Gabrielle says… she believes that there's nothing you can't do." The Amazon nodded a little. "All right… I believe that too."

The blue eyes closed briefly, then opened. "Thanks." Xena replied softly, then knelt and ruffled Ares' fur. "You stay here, boy."

The wolf's ears drooped, and he whined pathetically.

"I'll bring him over with me." Eponin bit off a grim smile, as Solari trotted over, loops of hemp circling her shoulders. "Ok.. here we go."

Xena took the end of the rope, and tied it around her, then gave the two Amazons a tight grin. "See you in a little while." She faced the ridge, and took a deep breath, refusing the think about what she was about to do. She only focused on the result, which would put her on that rock face, near that entrance, that much closer to her soulmate.

No choice. Just do it. She rocked back then sprang forward, her strides gaining speed as the uneven path sped beneath her boots.

Counting the paces down, she angled towards the tree, judging her timing.. judging the wind… two steps, one.. then she was airborne, and landing on the outermost branch, letting her momentum bend the limb downward, pressing….feeling the recoil in the branch as it resisted her weight, and flung itself outward.

And she powered herself outward with it, using its force, and the coiled strength of her legs to shove her body outward and upward, into the thin, warm air.

The sun was hot, but the air cooled her, and an eerie silence blocked out almost all sound, save that of the wind rushing past her ears. She was falling, dropping with incredible speed towards the earth and only then did she consider just how stupid a move this really was.

Oh gods. She was going to die here.


I am not giving up.

She closed her eyes, and reached her hands out as far as they would go, flattening her body, and willing herself forward. Towards the mountain. Towards Gabrielle. Towards the redemption of her soul.

Now the air was whistling past her, and the roaring matched the roaring of the blood pumping through her as she concentrated on only one thing, only one person, and the irresistible need that drove her through the air in an impossible arc.

Her senses barely warned her in time, as the mountain suddenly loomed before her, it's dangerous proximity ringing violent alarm bells as she got her hands in front of her just before she impacted into the stone with all the force of her motion.

She reeled on the edge of unconsciousness from the shock, the rock and brush tearing at her flesh until her hands clamped down with automatic strength and she somehow stopped her body's downward motion on the out thrust limbs of a gnarled bristlecone pine tree.

The pain was incredible. She felt like she'd taken unblocked battle mace blows along every inch of her body, and the lancing, violent shocks obscured her vision for a frighteningly long moment. Finally, they subsided, and she opened her eyes, blinking dazedly as pine needles swam into focus before her nose. Slowly, she turned her head and looked back, her gaze traveling up the reverse face to see a half dozen anxious faces staring at her in open disbelief.

I did it. The thought drifted wonderingly through her mind. Her hands were wrapped around the pine tree's rough branches, and her boots had somehow found purchase against the stone outcropping that supported the tree. The ledge she'd been aiming for was to her left and above her, but…

Not too damn bad. A tired, incredulous, almost silly grin creased her face momentarily, before she gathered up her strength, and hauled her body up and around the tree, flipping over onto her back and letting the hemp rope tangle around one leg. Her eyes found the circling hawks, and she impudently stuck her tongue out at them.

It hurt.. gods.. every bone in her body was protesting, but she shoved that aside, and fumbled at her waist, untying the rope and pulling it free of her body. Then she rolled over, and studied the bristlecone pine, lifting one leg and giving it a healthy kick. The tree didn't budge, and she nodded a little in approval before she tied the rope around it's squat bole, making careful knots. She tugged on the end, and watched it grow taut as the other end was reeled in and fastened, it's length wobbling along her line of sight.

The setting sun let a few reluctant spears into the densely wooded cone, drenching the ledge she'd so lately left and outlining the Amazon's busy figures. Xena let her head rest back against the rock, and folded her hands across her aching chest, watching as Eponin neatly lifted herself up onto the line, and rappelled rapidly down towards her, the Amazon's arms straining against her own weight and that of an annoyed Ares.

The weapon's master tucked her knees up, and landed with an oath, stumbling forward and ending up sprawled next to Xena's scratched and bleeding, but peaceful figure. "That had to be the damnedest thing I've ever seen." She announced. "All right, you ungrateful whoreson… get offa me." She untied the growling wolf, and let him down. "Just like a damned male."

Ares sneezed, and gave her an evil look, before he trotted over and started licking the raw scrapes on Xena's exposed skin. "Roo." He muttered.

Xena patted him gently. "Thanks." She turned her head towards Eponin and quirked a half grin.

"Don't you give me that look." Eponin groused, turning to watch as Solari started her crossing. "You got six new converts to the Xena cult." She shook her head, a brief spark of almost childlike wonder lightening her face. "You're the stuff they make legends out of, you know that? You really, really are."

Xena groaned, and rolled her eyes. "Don't start that crap." She growled, hitching herself up on an elbow. "That was a damnfool stupid stunt, and we both know it. I got lucky." She glanced down at herself. "See?" She wiped the blood of deep gouges that raked both of her thighs. "I'll never hear the end of this."

"Nope." Eponin laid a hand on her armored knee. "The dour Warrior Princess who leaps an impassible chasm all in the name of love.. nope." Her face broke into a wicked grin. "You ain't never, never living this one down."

"Eponin." Xena growled, her brows knitting.

The Amazon held up a hand. "Xena… seriously…don't be ashamed of that." She said quietly. "You just gave us a glimpse of what it is that Gabrielle sees when she looks at you…and it's an incredible thing."

Xena blinked, and gazed down at her scraped hands, idly tangled in Ares dark fur. "I just do what I have to do." She replied evenly, but looked up with a quirky grin. "Just works out sometimes."

Solari landed in a puff of rock dust, and stood with her hands on her hips. "Well. That sure beats climbing." She sniffed. "Thanks, Xena… "

The warrior put on her most nonchalant expression. "Anytime." She pushed the still stinging pain out of her mind, and stood, brushing herself off and walking to the edge of the outcropping they were perched on. "Not too bad." She started planning a route up to the opening, shifting her shoulders to settle her armor as she waited for the rest of the Amazons to rappel over. The gnawing anxiety now took over, and she took deep breaths, trying to be patient as Eponin helped the last of them onto the ledge, and they clustered at her back. "Let's go." She breathed, letting the nervous energy take over, and power her leap upward, to grab a handhold on the rock ledge, and pull herself onto it.

The path now was easy, and she led the Amazons up to where the dark opening loomed, shadowed in the twilight, a soft sigh of dusty, dank air emerging from it. They paused at the entrance, and she focused her senses down it, searching for any signs of life.

There were none, but the faint scent of burning pitch came to her, confirming her suspicions. She put a hand on the rock, and shoved the sudden sickening, familiar terror aside with grim determination. "All right… let's see where this leads us." She ducked inside, shunting aside her screaming senses and plunged into the mountain.

The room was small, just a table, and two badly made chairs, and one door, which was guarded by two very burly guards who avoided looking at her. She walked in quietly and Paladia followed her, and shut the door, which compressed the air in the room and sent a chill up and down her back. Without asking, she went to the table and sat down, folding her hands on the surface and waiting.

Paladia circled the table, and Gabrielle noticed she was limping slightly. She held out a hand to the nearer guard, and he put a stack of parchments into it. She looked at them for a long moment, then slapped them down on the table.

Gabrielle pulled them to her, and bent her head, pushing her hair out of her eyes with one hand. The writing on the scroll was familiar, and she felt a sinking sensation as she scanned the text, recognizing the terms as ones she'd negotiated between the Amazons and the Centaurs for a trading agreement.

It specified her as one of the signers, and.. her eyes dropped to the bottom. It was unsigned because Ephiny had apparently been bringing it to Amphipolis for just that purpose. Oh damn. She read it slowly twice, then went on to the next one, which was a similar document. She studied them all, aware of the tense, oppressive silence, then put them down, and looked up. "They're trade agreements."

Paladia put one boot up on the chair, her fingers fiddling with a short whip she was holding. "Is that your name on them?" She asked, in a silky, dangerous voice.

Gabrielle met her eyes squarely. "Yes." She glanced down, and put a finger on the first one. "I negotiated this on behalf of the Amazons."

The burly woman rubbed the tip of the leather strap against her jaw. "Are you an Amazon?"

The bard thought about that question. "Strictly speaking, no." She answered honestly.

Paladia moved swiftly, and slammed the end of the whip down against the bard's hand. "Don't play with me."

Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip to keep from yelling at the pain, ignoring the welt that was raising on her knuckles.

"I'll ask you again. Are you an Amazon?"

"I'm a bard." Gabrielle replied quietly. "I live in Amphipolis." She saw the nervous twitch in Paladia's arm, and sighed inwardly. "Look, what is this all about? Ephiny was carrying these to Amphipolis.. that's where she was headed.. to get my signature on them. So what?"

Paladia settled into the chair across from her, gray eyes flat and emotionless. "I think you're lying." She stated. "You're going to tell me what I want to know."

Gabrielle suppressed her fear with difficulty. "You hurt Ephiny."

Now a flash of anger crossed her face. "Bastard.. I told him not to let you near there." She growled. "She betrayed me."

The bard leaned forward. "She needs a healer." Her voice tensed. "Paladia…you can't let her die."

"Can't I?" The woman responded hotly. "You're wrong… yes I can… she turned on me, and the penalty of that is death." Her face tensed. "I'll deliver her back to her precious Amazons in pieces." She paused. "Is that why you're here, for her?"

Gabrielle leaned back cautiously. "You brought me here, remember?"

A knock on the door interrupted them. "Come." Paladia barked, turning as the wooden portal pushed open. "What?"

A tall, lanky boy poked his head in, breathing hard. "Paladia.. they spotted a group of warriors climbing up the outer wall. " He rubbed his head. "They said they's Amazons."

She stood. "Where are they?"

He ducked his eyes. "Lost them… we've got parties out looking."

Paladia turned slowly, and stared at Gabrielle. "Find them." She ordered quietly. "Bring them to me." The boy left, then she studied the bard with malevolent intent. "Tie her up. Bring her to the meeting hall. We'll hold a court, and show everyone how we deal with traitors."

"I'm not a traitor." Gabrielle objected. "You kidnapped me…I didn't join you."

The woman stared at her. "I liked you." She said softly. "I was starting to trust you." She hesitated. "I should have known better." Her eyes hardened. "I'll ask you one last time… are you an Amazon, or aren't you?"

The bard sighed, and studied the table. "Does it matter?"

Paladia lashed her across the face with the whip. "Gods damn you… " She lunged across the table and grabbed Gabrielle by the shirt, pulling her roughly across the surface. "Stop your games!"'

Gabrielle thought fast. "All right.. all right.. listen.. those Amazons are coming for Ephiny… do the right thing, Paladia.. just give her to them.. they'll leave you alone… they just want her back."

The woman wrapped her fist in the fabric of Gabrielle's shirt and lifted her off her feet. "Are you crazy?" She hissed, drenching the bard in warm, wine scented spit. "I give her back, what does that say to anyone else?"

"If you let her die, you'll be at war with the Amazons.. is that what you want?" Gabrielle countered, straining against the fabric half choking her.

Paladia choked her tighter. "How did they know she was here?" She countered in a low growl. "How will they know if she dies?"

Gabrielle didn't answer.

The burly woman released her, and laughed a short, humorless laugh. "Tie her up." She ordered the nearer guard. "Bring her." Her mouth twisted in disgust. "Don't listen to anything she says."

The darkness closed in around them, and Xena grimly felt her way forward, shutting out the queasy terror that was threatening to force her back, and turning her knees to water. She let herself focus on her soulmate, as she ducked under a constriction in the passageway, and turned a corner, breathing a silent sigh of relief as torchlight met her eyes.

Better. The hallway meandered downward, and she placed her boots carefully, not even raising a whisper against the rough stone. Behind her, the Amazons were strung, single file. Eponin's hand resting nervously against the scabbard of Xena's sword.

Rock dust. Xena swallowed. Gods I hate that smell. A brief flash of memory set her on edge, and she shivered. No time for that… cut it out, right now. She ordered herself in silence, as her ears picked up on oncoming footsteps.

She held a hand out, and stopped, cocking her head.

One set, ambling along, not in any particular hurry. She waited at the joint where their corridor met another one, until the sounds were so close she could smell the dirty leather, and fur of the clothes the oncoming stranger was wearing.

Another step, and she shot a hand out, grabbing his vest and pulling him around against the wall she was pressed up close to, slamming him into the rock roughly, then jabbing her fingers into well known spots in his neck.

He gagged, and slumped against the stone, staring at her in wild eyed fear, his breath coming in tortured gasps.

"Now." Xena said, in a very low voice. "You're going to tell me where you keep your prisoners." She paused. "Or I'm going to let you die."

"Right.. corridor… down… first door." He rasped out.

"Good boy." She released the hold, and caught him as he slid down the wall. "Now, say goodnight."

He stared at her in confusion. "G..good night?"

"Mmhmm." Xena agreed, then slammed an elbow into his head, knocking him unconscious. "Sweet dreams." The action had taken a brittle edge off her nervous energy, and she felt a little better as she slid down the path he'd indicated, and traveled the sloping path, her senses tuned for further intruders.

They got to an adjoining tunnel, and this one also sloped down, but was broader, and had ample evidence of wheel tracks marking the stone floor. She measured it mentally, and decided it was the main pathway out. "Convenient." She grunted, then peered around the corner, to see two guards stationed next to a tall, locked, wooden door. "No sense in doing the finesse thing." She muttered to Eponin, then slipped into the passageway, watching the guards start in shock. "Hello, boys."

"Wh.. who…" One started, drawing his sword and heading in her direction. "You can't.."

Xena kicked him into the wall, and disarmed him with another kick. "Sure I can." She grabbed the arm of the second, onrushing guard and threw her body around, swinging him around with her and into the wall with a sodden crunch. He slid to the floor in silence, and she brushed her hands off, as the Amazons swirled around her and started searching the bodies for a key.

"Gosh… " A voice hissed out. "Are we ever so glad to see you."

Xena went to the door, to see Cait's very pale face looking back at her. "Cait???" She barked out, confused. "What in… she peered past the girl, into the murky depths. Her senses already told her Gabrielle wasn't there, but she could see the strain on the young girl's face.

"Get this door open." Cait replied. "Oh, Xena… it's… " She let her voice trail off. "Hurry."

The warrior eyed the door, and then the girl. "Get back."

"No key." Solari growled, coming up behind her.

"Got one right here." Xena took two steps back, then leaped forward, into a front kick that nailed the door dead center, and sent it crashing into the cell, with a sound of splintering wood and screaming metal. They poured past her, and froze. "Aw… damn…" Xena breathed, bolting forward and dropping to the straw, where Johan was kneeling, Ephiny's battered face resting on his thigh.

A soft choking cry sounded behind her, and she felt Eponin's hands clench in her leathers, as the other Amazons clustered around them.

"What happened?" Xena asked, wincing, as she turned the regent's face to one side, and saw the dark bruises, and the misshapen lump that covered half her forehead. "We gotta get her outta here."

"We don't know.. really.." Cait knelt at her side, giving Eponin a worried look. "The awful woman in charge took into her.. we're not really sure why.. but Gabrielle said to tell you get Ephiny out, then she'll be diverting attention up in the main hall."

"Diverting attention?" Xena repeated slowly.

"Yes…" Cait said quietly. "And that lot outside were very angry because they weren't going to get a chance to see what they called 'the fun.'"

"The fun." The warrior mouthed, feeling the sudden jolt of fear sear her insides. "Eponin.. get… Ephiny out… of here. Down that corridor.. that's the door outside. " She stood, and moved towards the entrance, not seeing most of the room around her. "I have to.. "

Eponin looked up, from where she had taken Ephiny's hand. "Go." Her voice was rough. "We'll handle this."

Xena went, her boots pounding against the stone floor in abandon now. She let her instincts guide her, barely aware of her surroundings. Her senses blurred, and she thought she remembered drawing her sword.

Thought she remembered dark bodies, and yelling, and the slickness of blood as it ran up her arm, but she didn't let anything stop her relentless advance.

Finally, light, and noise, and the smell of warm bodies, as she ran up a short incline into a huge open space and her eyes picked out and focused on a lone, slight form halfway across the cavern, facing a man, and a whip….

And she jumped.

The hall was filled with nervous, excited voices, when they dragged Gabrielle in, and lashed her to a hastily erected post, just to the right of the pit which held their caged captive. The eyes, which yesterday had turned to her in interest and delight, now watched her with cold malice, the unthinking dislike of children who have had a favorite toy taken from them.

Children are cruel, she mused, swallowing nervously. They haven't gotten old enough to know the consequences of their actions. A memory surfaced, and she closed her eyes against it. No time for that, now.

She felt the rough wood of the post against her arms, and gazed out over the noisy crowd, seeing Paladia's grim form standing at the raised platform. As she watched, a squat, barechested man strolled over to stand by her, a long, dark stained whip clutched lovingly in one hand.

The torches fluttered, and she could smell the nervous sweat in the air, as the man smiled toothily at her, and caressed the end of the whip. "Bet I make you scream in five lashes." He oozed at her.

Gabrielle felt sick, as a tall boy with emotionless eyes took her arm from it's bindings, and fastened it to a chain hanging from the top of the post, stretching her body out. Then he pulled her other arm up, and just stood there, looking at her for a long moment. She ignored him, and turned her eyes to the man with the whip. "I bet you don't." She lifted her head, and gave her emotions full rein, ignoring the fear, and the sting of the lash welts on her face and her hand.

"I want to hear you yell for mercy." The man persisted, flicking the edge of the whip around her. "Little girl."

Gabrielle pinned him with a fierce look. "I haven't done anything to you."

"Your kind threw me out of my home." The man answered.

"My kind?" Gabrielle shot back. "I don’t have a kind.. I'm a person… and I haven't done anything to you." She raised her voice, cutting through the buzz. "Is this what your goal is?"

"Our goal is to survive." One boy yelled back.

"So… beating me achieves that exactly how?" The bard countered. "You've all had a hard time… but don’t take that out on other people.. it makes you as bad as the people who hurt you."

"Shut up." Paladia was somehow, just there. "You don’t' know anything."

"Anything?" Gabrielle took the wraps off her temper. "No.. it's you who doesn't know anything… I know that once you start down this path, you'll never come back. Is that what you want? You want to be known as a lousy bunch of criminals?"

The blow rocked her backwards, and she went with it, letting the force slide off her. "So..that's your answer? Someone disagrees with you and you hit them?" She was aware of the blood trickling from her mouth, but ignored it. "Don't you see what you're becoming?"

A storm of emotion behind those gray eyes. "I can't stop that now."

Gabrielle gentled her voice. "You can always stop that." She said softly. "Violence is not the answer."

For a moment, she thought she'd broken through. Then Paladia gave a tiny shake of her head. "Too late for that." Her hand lifted from her side, then dropped. "If I don't do this, I lose their respect, and without that… "

Gabrielle made one last try. "Paladia… don't do this. Let those captives go… you've made a family here.. lead them with honor… you can find another way to provide for them. These people have skills… you don't have to live this way."

"But Gabrielle… I want to live this way." She answered, with a sly smile. "I like it." She stepped back, and motioned the bare chested man forward. "Do yourself a favor.. don't wait too long to start screaming and begging.. because he will keep going until you do."

Perhaps she though it a kindness.

"You see, Gabrielle.. " She gave the man a nod, and he snaked the whip back. "We understand something that you don't.." There was only sad disillusionment in her gray eyes. "Something life's taught us, the hard way."

The bard kept her eyes locked on Paladia's face. "What's that?"

"There are no such thing as heroes." Paladia smiled cruelly. "They don't drop out of the sky to solve your problems for you." She signaled, and the leather snapped forward.

And then a booming echo rolled through the cavern, a high, savage yell that seemed to rattle the very rocks surrounding them, and filled Gabrielle with a sense of triumphant warmth as her body knew the presence of her beloved soulmate, even without the familiarity of that wild cry.

There was a rush of air displacement, then a dark, sleek form arced through the air and over their heads, landing neatly at Gabrielle's side, and sending a silver blur speeding towards her that cut the ropes binding her with a keening slice.

Shocked silence fell, as Gabrielle brushed herself off, and took a step forward. "Actually, Paladia.. in my stories.. yes they do." She turned her head and regarded her partner with warm affection. "Nice timing."

Xena shot a glance at her. "Like that?"

"Mmm.. " She moved up closer to the warrior, and winced as she spotted the scrapes and gashes stark against her soulmate's skin. She put a hand on Xena's side, and glanced over at the staring Paladia. "You wanted to meet Xena, right?" She mustered a grim smile. "Now you have."

The warrior still had her sword unsheathed, and she moved it in a circle, a dark warning in her eyes. "Back off." She growled.

Paladia sized up the tall, dark haired woman standing with calm assurance in their midst. "So.. you're Xena." She mused thoughtfully.

Pale blue eyes icily regarded her. "Yep." Xena's regard flicked over her, then turned elsewhere, watching the ring of fighters, who were moving closer. This… could be trouble. She tapped into the dark energies that fueled her battle skills, feeling them flow up and along her skin, bringing a familiar shiver with them.

The burly woman eased forward. "Saved me the trouble of bringing you in here."

Gabrielle saw the shift of her partner's weight, over the balls of her feet, and took a step back, clearing her reach. "Paladia… don't." She uttered a warning. Damn… She darted a look around, marking a staff within her easy grasp.

The woman drew her sword, and motioned her nervous guards back. "No… this one's mine."

A silent circle formed, around the two women warriors

"Xena… " Gabrielle started. "We don’t have time… "

"Amazons got Eph and the others out." The warrior told her, never taking her eyes off the slowly circling Paladia. Xena kept her sword resting lightly on her shoulder, and waited, her body now totally relaxed. "She the one who pounded her?"

Gabrielle debated briefly. "Yes."

Xena shifted her sword from her right hand to her left, and suddenly cut the distance between herself and the larger woman, whipping her arm back and unloading a roundhouse right hand into Paladia's jaw with a solid, evil crack.

The renegade leader stumbled back, crashing against the post Gabrielle had been tied to and almost dropping her sword.

"I'm gonna give you all one chance to walk out of here. " Xena said quietly. "One chance, where I'm not gonna think about what you did to a good friend of mine. " She closed on Paladia, kicking the sword out of her hand, then grabbing her shirt and jerking her upright. "One chance where I'm not gonna think about the fact that you laid a hand on my partner."

"P..par… " Paladia's eyes jerked over Xena's shoulder to find Gabrielle's still face.

"Whoops…guess I forgot to mention that." The bard commented wryly.

"One chance." Xena repeated, dropping her voice and shoving Paladia back against the post. "Or I'll let loose and start putting body parts all over this damned, stinking, scum filled cavern."

"'re bluffing." Paladia growled.

Xena smiled, her full, deep, feral smile. "Sure I am, kid. Try me."

"I will." Paladia surged forward, taking them both to the ground, and trying for a grip on the warrior's body.

Gabrielle grabbed the first boy who rushed forward, taking his staff from his hands, and moving it in a blur, taking his feet out from under him with unerring skill. "Oh no." She disarmed another, and beat back two more, clearing a space around the battling women. "Don't be stupid."

They panted, staring at her in shock. She grinned, and darted a glance over her shoulder, where Paladia was trying vainly to pin her partner with her greater weight. "Trust me, that doesn't work." Xena flipped her off with ease, then pounced on her, and she heard a wrenching crack which made her wince. "I hate when she does that." Her attention turned back to the watching, edgy crowd, and she darted forward, taking the long pike out of a man's hands, and whacking him across the temples. "Back." She warned.

"She was right." One burly older man spat. "You are an Amazon."

Gabrielle disarmed a short, dark haired boy who was trying to come to his leader's aid. "What tipped you off.. the staff.." Whack. "Or the attitude?" Smack. "Gotcha.. now get back." Her temper was completely snapped, and she spared a quick look to where Xena whirled around and tossed her larger opponent back against the post, then grinned, taunting her with quicksilver moves that kept her just out of Paladia's reach. "Fast, isn't she?"

Paladia let out a frustrated growl, which ran in weird counterpoint to the low laugh from her opponent, and she made a last ditch effort to throttle Xena, throwing her body against the warrior's, and rolling them both over.

And into the pit, where a loud, triumphant roar greeted them.

"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled in horror. "Watch out!"

Now she tells me. The warrior sighed mentally, as she rotated her body in mid air, thrusting an elbow into Paladia's face, and freeing herself in time to land neatly on both booted feet. The pit was very dark, and she could smell something feral and musky, that seemed to match the wild roar that was echoing out of the darkness.

Paladia stumbled as she landed, losing her balance and falling towards the opposite side of the pit, then screaming as long, curved, filthy claws fastened themselves into her body.

Xena took a breath, and stood, balanced on a knife's edge of decision. She had no sympathy for Paladia… not since the instant she kicked the dungeon's door open and dropped to her knees beside the injured Ephiny, doing her best not to wince under the sudden death grip Eponin had put on her arm.

Especially none, on seeing the angry welt on Gabrielle's fair face.

She deserves this, right?

Claws punctured the leathers the younger woman was wearing, and she screamed again, struggling against the hold of the creature, who was growling hideously.

Damn. Xena sighed inwardly, and lunged forward, taking two quick steps, then launching herself in the air, kicking out when she was almost over Paladia's body, and feeling the shock of impact as her boots hit the creature's head.

Her momentum took them both down, and she grabbed for a hold, feeling its claws rip through the thick leather above her armor, searing hot flares down the skin of her throat. She got both fists into its neck, and opened her hands, clenching down on the beast's windpipe and tightening her grip with a bloodcurdling yell of her own.

The growls stopped.

She could hear Paladia's soft moaning. Her breathing. The creature's.

Then a low, guttural, rasping voice tickled her fingertips. "Chosen?"

The hold on her body released, and she dropped to the ground, feeling the shock in her knees as she loosened her own grip on the beast's neck. Her eyes strained to see through the darkness, and she made out, just barely, a form far taller than her own, vaguely human shaped. "Yes." She finally answered quietly.

A tired rasp answered her. "Never thought I'd ever be glad to see one of your Ares be damned kind.. but at least you know what I am."

Xena let out a breath. "Who are you?"

Paladia lifted up her head at that. "It's an animal.. what are you talking about?"

The warrior continued peering through the murky shadows. "Not nearly as much of one as you are." She replied in a cold tone. "Who are you?"

A tiny reflective flash of torchlight against fangs. "Kelten."

Xena nodded slowly. "Secan's successor."

"Yes.' Very stark.

"Xena?" Gabrielle's anxious voice floated down.

"S'allright." The warrior called back up. "You ok up there?"

The bard turned around, hefting her staff and regarding the rows of slumped forms in front of her. "Fine, thanks." She advised blithely. "We got some reinforcements." She looked up to see a line of grim, armed Amazons now entering.

"All right." Xena returned her attention to Kelten. "You chained?"

The forest dweller snorted softly. "Would I still be here if I wasn't?"

Xena stepped closer, and her nose twitched, as the smell of blood and infection rose to her. "You're hurt."

Long silence. "Yeah." Came the quiet answer. "Shackle's cut into my leg."

"What are you doing?" Paladia coughed.

"Shut up." Xena growled over her shoulder. "Or I'll rip your arm off and feed it to him."

A soft snicker reached her ears. "You sure you just don’t shave off all the fur, Chosen?"

The warrior pushed past him, and felt the thick metal chain that was fastened around one thick leg. His fur was slick with blood, and she could feel an unhealthy heat under her touch. "Not good." She wiped her hands on her leathers, and braced a booted foot against the wall of the pit. "All right…grab ahold of that chain, and when I tell you, pull."

"I tried that." Kelten growled. "For four damned moons."

Xena sighed. "Look.. I'm in a really bad mood right now. Either do what I say, or I'll just leave you here."

His hands fit themselves around the chain.

"Thank you." The warrior put her own hands around the metal links, and tensed, lifting her other boot off the ground and bracing it against the wall, suspending herself against the chain's countersunk bolts. "All right…pull."

Slowly she straightened against the metal, using her whole body against the thick links. Behind her, she could hear Kelten grunt with the effort, and under her fingers, she felt the odd, creaking motion as the metal links succumbed.

A squealing wrench, and she was tumbling through the air, landing on the pit's stinking floor with a thump. With an inward groan, she scrambled to her feet, intercepting Kelten who was advancing on Paladia. "Hold it."

"Chosen.. no… this is my hunt." The forest dweller crooned. "That one owes me."

Xena grabbed his fur and pulled. "I said no." She drew her sword and smacked him with it, pushing him back. "There's been enough blood in here." She advanced on Paladia, who had backed up against the far wall, and was almost invisible in the dim light of the pit. The warrior walked right up to her and laid the blade of her sword against the taller woman's neck. "You want to continued our little game?"

She could almost hear Paladia's pounding heart.

"No." The burly woman whispered. "But I will if you even the odds."

Xena smiled, the torchlight reflecting off her even, white teeth. "By how… cutting my head off?" She leaned forward, tickling the woman's skin with the edge of her sword. "You're outta your league, kid."

"Think so, huh?" Paladia rasped.

Xena met her gaze. "Yes."

"We'll see." The younger woman replied, unrepentant. "You'll never get out of here."

The warrior sheathed he sword, and put her hands on her hips. "Sure I will." She remarked conversationally. "But you first." She slammed an elbow into the burly renegade's jaw, knocking her head back against the wall, and sending her unconscious. "Gods." She sighed, marshalling her strength and pulling the woman over her shoulders, biting her lip as the weight put pressure on already aching joints. I'm gonna regret this. She spread her booted feet, judging her balance, and crouched, wrapping her hands around the wooden supports and hauling her load upward, hearing Gabrielle's curse as the bard dropped her staff and grabbed the body slung over her partner's shoulder, dragging it onto the stone floor of the cavern.

Xena followed, flexing her shoulders. "Damn, Gabrielle.. would have been easier to lift up Argo."

The bard reached over and rubbed her arm, as she took a moment, and glanced around the cavern. The room was deathly silent, watching her, as a small circle of Amazons trained crossbows on them with no nonsense expressions. Gabrielle touched her partner's neck with a gentle finger. "You're bleeding."

"Huh?" Xena glanced down, to where Kelten's claws had ripped her skin. "Oh.. " A shrug "Just a couple of scratches." She turned, and braced her boots against the wooden rails, and held her hands down into the darkness. "C'mon, Kelten."

Gabrielle jumped. "Ke…." She leaned over, putting a hand on Xena's shoulder for balance. "From Secan's clan?"

"Yep." Xena agreed, as the forest dweller leaped with a pained gasp and she caught his wrists, wrapping her hands around them and heaving up with all her strength.

The gasp traveled around the room, and the closed inhabitants scattered, as she managed to pull the furred body up and out of the pit, to lie, his face tensed with pain, on the rock floor of the cavern.

"Oh." Gabrielle said softly, kneeling down at his side and putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Wow… "

"Hold still." Xena ordered, drawing her sword. "Don't move your leg."

"If you cut it off, it'll hurt less." Kelten mumbled.

A rumble of surprise traveled around the room, as the forest dweller's voice was heard. Xena gave them all a disgusted look, then concentrated, and swept her weapon down in a short, savage arc, impacting the metal shackle that was fastened tightly around the fur covered leg. Sparks skittered over the floor and a keening sound split the heavy silence, then a soft, muffled clank came as the shackle fell off.

Xena winced unconsciously, looking at the infected wound that the metal had caused, cut deep in the forest dweller's flesh, which was an angry red. Yellow pus oozed out of the space, mixing with sluggish, dark blood. "Not good."

Kelten lifted his savage head, and gazed around him. "Just get out of my way and let me go." He growled in dark anger.

Gabrielle patted his arm. "You should let Xena dress that first."

The forest dweller pushed himself up into a sitting position, his face haggard, and his body so thin she could see the ribs plainly under his filthy dull gray coat. "No thanks." He struggled to his feet, towering over them, and blinked. "Chosen… I owe you a debt."

"Yeah?" Xena said, quietly. "All right.. I'm calling it in."

Kelten stared at her.

"Sit your damn fuzzy butt down." The warrior growled. "Or I'm gonna stand up, and kick you into the next valley."

Their eyes locked for a long moment, then Kelten dropped his gaze, and settled back down on the ground with a thump, resting his arms on his knees, and regarding the dusty floor quietly.

"That’s better." Xena sighed, pushing herself to her feet, and offering Gabrielle a hand up.

They faced the crowd, who stared back at them with unconcealed hostility. "All right.. so now what?" The warrior asked in a whisper. "I really don’t want to have to beat up all these kids, Gabrielle."

The bard eyed her. "They're not all… bad. Xena… most of these folks were driven from their homes during the winter.. there are even some children here."

The warrior put her hands on her hips and regarded her partner. "Gabrielle.. they were about to watch you be whipped."

"I know." The bard sighed. "They're just following her lead." She jerked her chin towards Paladia.

Xena regarded the floor for a moment, then looked up. "I want you all to get on out of here. Go home." She raised her clear, powerful voice. "Party's over."

One boy stepped forward, his jaw clenching and unclenching. "This is our home."

Voices raised in angry agreement. "You can't tell us to leave." The boy added, gaining confidence from the support.

Xena drummed her fingers against her thigh, considering. "Yes I can." She informed them with quiet menace, drawing her sword and advancing on them. They backed up, eyes widening, and she stopped, perplexed. What the Hades do I do with these people? She half turned and looked at Gabrielle, who gave her head a shake, and moved up next to her, gazing the crowd.

"You can't keep doing what you were doing." The bard said, slowly. "We can't let you do that."

The boy cleared his throat. "Didn't hurt nothin."

Gabrielle shook her head. "You're wrong… it did… "

Paladia groaned, stirring, and reaching for her head.

A commotion drew Xena's attention, and she half turned, seeing the crowd shoved aside as Eponin made her way into the center of the cavern, her eyes pinned on Paladia's slumped form.

She broke into a run, drawing her sword with one hand, murderous intent in ever line of her body.

Xena just barely managed to intercept her, leaping over Kelten's crouched body and crashing into the weapon's master with less finesse than brute force, and sending them both tumbling onto the ground, adding a fresh set of scrapes to Xena's collection. "Eponin… " She gasped, scrambling for a hold on the furiously struggling woman.

"Let me go." Eponin brought them both up onto their knees somehow, and fought to get to her feet. "I'm going to rip that bitch into ten thousand pieces. "

"No.. Ep… " Xena grabbed her and held on grimly. "You're not."

"Let me GO." The Amazon now turned her anger on the warrior, striking her hard on the side of the head with a forearm. "Damn it, Xena… you've got no right to stop me."

Xena shifted her grasp, getting ahold of Eponin's shoulders and forcing her to face forward. "Don't, Eponin… it doesn't help."

The Amazon grabbed her leathers, and shook her as hard as she could, her voice thick with rage. She was beyond sense.. oblivious of the danger she was in. "Let me go.. damn it.. no one the Hades stopped you, did they?"

That hurt, but Xena captured her face, and gazed into her eyes with violent intensity. "NO… they didn't.. " She let out an anguished breath. "..and I lost something because of it that I will never, ever get back., Eponin." She paused, and swallowed. "It doesn't make you feel any better.. don't you fall into that trap."

Caramel colored eyes misted over. "Damn you to the deepest level of Hades, Xena." Eponin growled.

"Yeah." The warrior replied, in an achingly quiet voice. "I made sure of that, didn't I?" She let a meaningful quiet drop between them. "And it's a bitch to have to live with."

Silence. Then Eponin's shoulders slumped. "She's… I think you'd better come look." She released Xena's leathers, and gazed at the floor.

Gabrielle stepped forward, and put an arm around her. "We need to get out of here." She looked up at Xena. "Just tell them they have to find another way to make a living, Xena. Throw in a few threats. You know how to do it."

Eponin's head shot up. "And she gets away with this?" Her eyes glared accusingly at the bard.

But Gabrielle was shaking her head, and motioning some of the other Amazons forward. "No." She turned. "Tie her up… I want her to be taken back to the village.. and tried in an Amazon court." She saw Paladia's eyes spark at the decision, and met the burly woman's gaze evenly.

Terrea glanced at her with quiet respect. "Yes, my queen." She and two other Amazons approached Paladia's sprawled body with grim intent.

Paladia's glazed eyes sharpened. "Queen?" She looked nervously at the three Amazons, one of whom drew her dagger, and touched the edge to her throat.

Gabrielle turned and looked at her. "Whoops.. I guess I forgot to mention that, too." She glanced at Eponin. "All right?"

The weapon's master studied her. "If it were up to me, I'd end it right here."

Steady green eyes raked her. "I know. But that's not how I do things." Briefly, her gaze touched her partner, standing in dark shadowy menace at her side. "Vengeance is not the answer."

Eponin dropped her eyes.

Xena let a tiny smile tug her lips, then raised her voice. "All right… the Queen of the Amazons has spoken." She ignored the tiny eye rolling from her partner. "If you want to stay here, fine.. but you find some other way to earn a living." She paused, and looked around, seeing the guilty relief in their eyes. "This is my backyard, and if I hear of anyone getting taken around here, I'll be knocking on the damn door in a heartbeat, you got that?"

The squat whipmaster edged forward. "What if we don't accept that?" He looked around at the crowd. "There's more than enough of us here to handle you."

The warrior let out a tiny sigh, and reached for her sword, but Gabrielle's hand on her arm stopped her. She looked at the bard in question.

"Mind if I handle this?" Gabrielle requested innocently.

Xena hesitated a second, then shrugged. "Sure."

"Thanks." The bard hefted her acquired staff, and slid in front of her partner, facing the stocky, dark skinned man. "You know, the problem is.. " She moved her hands in a blur, taking the whip out of his hands and sending it flying into the pit. "You guys couldn't handle me… " She dumped him on his butt with a quick reverse sweep. "Never mind Xena.. are you nuts or something? Or are you all just into pain?" She half turned and pointed to her partner with her staff. "This isn't a game.. it's not fun, and people get hurt." She paused. "A lot." She looked around, having captured their attention. "You can't go around kidnapping people and ransoming them and not expect retaliation.. you're really lucky… we could be a warlord hired by the merchants just to bump you all off." She gave them a grim smile. "That happens, you know."

Eyes shifted in chagrin.

"We aren't." Everyone's eyes were pinned on her now. "I'm from Potadeia… you took some of my family… and one of my best friends… and I decided to come here and stop you." She leaned on the staff. "And I did." Her eyes drifted, and warmed. "With a little help."

Xena grinned back.

"You have a lot of talent here.. put it to good use… find a way to live that doesn't involve hurting other people."

"Lass." A deep, male voice broke in, and they looked up to see Johan and two of the Potadeians entering. "Maybe we can help." He walked to Gabrielle's side, and patted her shoulder. "They were turned out by their own… I think they just need some good, honest guidance."

"Johan.. if we come back without you, I'm toast." The bard gently reminded him.

He laughed. "Nah.. not me, but these lads here.." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at two older men who were quietly standing behind him. "They'll stay and see what they can do."

Gabrielle blinked. "Wow.. sure." She smiled at the two. "But won't you be missed at home?"

The taller of the two stepped forward. "Gabrielle.. we came to Potadeia after you left… our village was burned out by Draco's men. We know how this lot feels… we were turned out of four places before we got taken in there."

The bard glanced at her silent partner, who raised a brow, then gave a brief nod. "Sounds great…you let us know if you need anything."

"C'mon." Xena put a hand on her arm. "Let's get outta here." She turned. "Kelten… I've got a kit.. let's get to some water, and I'll patch up your leg." She helped the reluctant forest dweller up, and they made their way out of the cavern, and down the narrow passageway.

Gabrielle kept an eye on her quiet partner, letting the rest of the party go on ahead a little, while she fell back and gently tucked Xena's hand inside her own. The long fingers tightened around hers, and Xena gave her a quick, sideways glance.

"Glad that's over. " The bard sighed. "Boy.. was I ever, ever glad to see you."

Xena rubbed a thumb over her knuckles. "Likewise." She half turned, and lifted a hand, touching the red mark on the bard's face. "Gabrielle.."

The bard grimaced. "Yeah.. ow." She plowed along, moving her staff forward as she walked in a natural rhythm. "How's Eph?" She asked in a very low voice.

Xena sighed, and slid an arm around her shoulders. "Not good." She felt Gabrielle's body tense. "It was pretty brutal."

Gabrielle leaned against her. "She thought she was protecting me." The bard muttered. "Xena, she can't die."

The warrior gazed ahead of her, and said nothing.

They exited the lower entryway, anxious to get out into open air. The Amazons and the rest of the villagers were waiting for them there, along with Ares, who was being held firmly by Cait. Solari had gotten the injured regent strapped to a litter, and was kneeling next to her, casting an anxious glance back towards the entrance. She closed her eyes in relief when she saw the party emerge from the dark hole and the silver moonlight outlined their distinctive forms.

Xena released her soulmate, and nodded to Cait, who released the whining Ares. She suffered the wolf's ecstatic greeting, then nudged him towards Gabrielle, and dropped to a knee beside Ephiny. She let the swirl of activity pass her, and touched a careful hand to the Amazon's head.

She swallowed hard. The flesh beneath her fingertips was hot and very swollen, and she could see the faint, ragged breaths that shook the regent's slim frame. A small silence fell, and she glanced up, to see all eyes on her, tense, and fearful.

Xena glanced down, feeling a heaviness in her chest, and touched the pulse point on Ephiny's neck, closing her eyes against the faint, rapid flutter she felt there.

She looked back up, and right into Gabrielle's stricken gaze.

Not a word passed, just the silent, wistful pleading in the mist green eyes crossing with the weary, sad knowledge in her own.

They were all looking at her, all expecting her to pull some miracle out of a saddlebag.

They expected it. Gabrielle… expected it. The bard's eyes held only hope, and a desperate confidence in her that made her look down at Ephiny's dying body, and set her mind furiously in motion.

I can't let her down. The thought firmly ensconced itself in her mind.

The blue eyes raised up, fastening on Paladia's drawn, closed face. "Where's the nearest cold spring." She asked directly, getting back a sullen silence.

Xena stood, moving with startling speed, and grabbed the bigger woman, jamming her fingers mercilessly into her neck, and watching as her veins popped out from the pressure. "No bluffs. You tell me, or you die right here. " Her voice was flat, and very cold.

Paladia gasped, and shuddered, her eyes rolling wildly. "Round that bend." She gargled out. "Under the rock face." Two quick jabs released her, and she collapsed onto the ground.

Xena didn't even look at her. She knelt again, and lifted Ephiny's still form, heading in silence for the place. It was, she breathed a sigh of relief, right where the renegade had stated, and she half ran, half slid down the gravelly path, skidding to a halt next to the water's edge, and dropping to both knees with a wince.

Solari and Eponin were at her side instantly, helping her lay the regent down on the slope, and immerse her head in the clear, cold water, until it covered Ephiny's ears, and cascaded gently over her throat, sending silver trickles snaking over her pale skin.

"Now what?" Eponin whispered, gently, hopelessly running hesitant fingers through the curly blond hair floating free in the water, not even aware she was doing so.

"We wait." Xena replied quietly. She looked around. "Good a place as any to pitch a camp."

They tied Paladia up, as Kelten moved ghostlike down to the water's edge, crouching next to it, then falling heavily onto his side as his leg gave way. Xena removed the kit from her back, and began cutting the fur away from his wound, sparing a glance every few minutes back to the regent's still face.

Gabrielle got camp arranged, directing the Amazons and villagers with quiet commands, starting a neat fire, pooling the resources they had for food. "Not much." She remarked, with a grimace. "But it'll do, I guess." She borrowed a cooking pot from Solari's kit, and poured the assorted dried meats, fruits and vegetables into it, covering it with water and setting it onto the fire. "It'll be a weird soup, but it'll be edible."

Xena glanced at her, from where she was gently washing the forest dweller's leg, while his fingers curled and uncurled from the pain. She reached behind her, and dropped an arm into the water, and closed her eyes.

A light splash, and she was drawing her hand from the spring, and glancing at the wriggling form depending from it. "Here." She tossed the fish to her partner, who caught it with an absentminded skill and knelt, cleaning and dividing the fish, adding it to their makeshift dinner without really paying attention to what she was doing. Her focus.. all of their focus.. was on the still, silent form at the water's edge.

Kelten gazed at her, his pale fur almost white in the moonlight, but stayed silent, along with the rest of them. It made a ghostly tableau, there by the water, with the Amazons in a ring around their regent, and the villagers huddled quietly on the other side of the fire, just watching them. Xena sat on the spring's edge, working on the forest dweller's wound, her dark hair brushing over her face in the breeze, and her leathers almost black in the mixture of silver and crimson. She moved methodically and clipped the area around the injury, then washed it, and dusted it with powdered herbs from her kit, fastening a light bandage around it. "There." She finally muttered, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the oppressive silence.

"Thanks." Kelten grunted in reply.

Silence fell again over them, broken by the lick of the flames, and the muffled noise of Gabrielle's restless stirring of the soup. The spring sent soft chuckles into the clearing, as they mainly sat, and watched, and listened to the ragged, faint rasp of Ephiny's strained breathing.

Gabrielle gave up her task, and walked over to her soulmate, sinking down next to her, and wrapping a hand around the warrior's upper arm, laying her cheek against the warm skin, as Xena's fingers interlaced with her own. They waited.

An owl hooted, it's wings rustling in the darkness.

The leaves chattered, as the breeze passed over them, with a gentle, finite, sigh.

Then the rasping stopped, along with a ring of hearts surrounding it. Gabrielle's eyes closed, and she gripped her partner's arm hard, her jaw clenching as she bit down on her inner lip. Xena squeezed her hand gently in return.

Into the stark silence, a soft, aching groan escaped Ephiny, and she stirred, reaching feebly for her head.

"Hey.. hey.. "Eponin grabbed her hand, her voice unsteady. Solari put a hand on her back in support. "You got clocked, Eph… take it easy."

Xena reached out and touched the regent's head, and let out a long, disbelieving breath. "Swelling's down." She watched the Amazons blink in relief. "I knew she was tougher than that."

But they all looked at her, knowing the truth. Solari put a hand on the warrior's knee, gazing at her in simple gratitude. It was a sweet moment of acknowledgment, after having them freeze her out since she and Gabrielle had rejoined each other. There was no ice in those watching eyes now, only relief, and what might be a touch of guilt.

"It worked." Gabrielle breathed, then buried her face against her soulmate's arm.

Ephiny blinked her eyes half open, as her brow contracted in confusion. "Wh… " Her gaze tracked dazedly to Eponin's drawn, exhausted face, and her lips twitched faintly. "Didn't wanna bath that bad." She mumbled, squeezing her lover's hand. "Can I drink.. some of this?"

Xena leaned her head against Gabrielle's paler one, feeling the wet warmth of tears against her skin. She kissed the bard's head, and sighed in relief. "Give her a little water." She felt the Amazon's pulse, and sent up a quiet thank you to whatever unknown god was watching this particular moonlit clearing. "Eph…take it easy."

The blond head edged sideways, blinking against the gently lapping water that tickled her eyelids and regarding the dark haired warrior. "Easy for you t'say." She blinked again, as the water edged up her face. "C'n I get outta here?"

They moved her out and onto a hastily made pallet, voices now buzzing with relief, and Xena watched them, letting out a long, long sigh. She leaned over, and splashed handfuls of water over her face, then stood, stretching the kinks out of her stiffened muscles with a grimace. Gabrielle was helping the Amazons, and Kelten had crawled away from the water, and was now curled up in a ball, his head resting on his arm in utter exhaustion.

Strange bedfellows, huh? Xena mused to herself, as she trudged across the small clearing, finding a patch of soft grass and dropping down onto it, pulling her pack across and leaning back against a rock, letting the emotion she'd been resisting all night cascade over her. It was over. Her eyes lifted. Gabrielle was safe, Ephiny was alive, and the kidnappers were broken up.

Just an average day, right?

She felt a little proud of herself, though. A quite satisfying jolt of inner warmth warmed her heart, riding on the knowledge that today, she'd made a difference. She had, in a way that no one else could have, and it made her feel really good.

Not that she'd admit it. Bad for the image. She grinned quietly, and let her arms rest on her knees, feeling the scrapes and cuts and bruises finally. Oh gods… She cast an eye on the scratches, liberally coated with dirt and mud. Gotta clean those. But she couldn’t muster, suddenly, the energy to move, and instead just quietly watched the Amazons, hearing their low, almost sobbing laughter, and the now almost normal buzz of conversation from the villagers, who were giving her barely veiled admiring stares. Mmm.. yeah.. this feels pretty damn good.

And then there was Gabrielle, who was kneeling next to Ephiny's body, and who kept shooting her these.. really wonderful.. just… sweet.. nice… adorable looks that were making her completely forget the sleepless night, and the pain from her collection of bangs and dents.

She felt ridiculously, almost giddily pleased.

In a reserved, uncommunicative, dour, Warrior Princess kind of way, of course.

Gabrielle gently dabbed Ephiny's cuts with a touch of salve, watching the regent's eyes flutter and track to her. "Hi there." She smiled at her friend. "Told you we'd get out."

Ephiny managed the tiniest of grins. "Brought the troops I see."

"Yeah… a hundred wild children against six Amazons and Xena." Gabrielle informed her drolly. "No contest."

The regent's eyes glinted. "Feel like centaur poop." She mumbled.

"I know." Gabrielle sighed. "Anything I can get you?"

Ephiny blinked a little. "Pillow." She joked faintly.

The bard snapped her fingers. "No problem." She pointed at Eponin, who was hovering. "Sit."

The weapon's master gave her a startled look. "Huh?"

"Sit." Gabrielle reached out a hand and snagged her leathers, pulling her down with a squawk. "There." She put a hand on Ephiny's shoulder, and motioned to Solari and Cait "Help me lift her up a little.

They did, and the bard gave Eponin a look. "Scoot."

The older woman's jaw worked for a long instant, then she sighed, and eased herself under Ephiny's head, and let them lay the regent down into her lap. She wrestled a scowl onto her face, and blushed, as she was unable to prevent her fingers from gently stroking her lover's hair, and Ephiny captured her hand and kissed it.

Gabrielle gave them both a satisfied grin, and shot a glance around the small ring of Amazons, who were also smiling, giving Eponin sly looks and chuckling. "There.. that better?" She asked Ephiny, who was gazing at her with a weary, relieved look. She put a hand on the regent's shoulder. "Now you relax, ok?"

The Amazon nodded a tiny bit, and let her eyes drift closed, as her fingers did likewise over Eponin's.

"Soup smells good, my queen." Solari murmured, as they sat back. "It's been a long, long day."

Gabrielle nodded, stealing a glance across at her soulmate, who was seated in the shadows, the firelight sparkling off her pale eyes, and picking out the dark streaks of blood and dirt that mostly covered her. "What happened, Solari? Why does Xena look like she had an argument with a rockslide?" She asked quietly, looking over at the dark haired Amazon when she didn't answer. "What?"

"Um." Solari picked at her leathers, and peeked over at the peaceful looking warrior. "She.. " Solari's jaw worked a couple times. "We… there was this…"

"Chasm… and.." Terrea started in. "It was… we were on this outer…"

"Wall." Eponin let out a grunt. "We were on the outer wall, and we needed to be on the inner wall."

Gabrielle looked from one to the other. "And.. you… what?"

"She… " Solari glanced at Eponin, who shook her head. "Um… " She lifted her hands and let them drop. "She jumped between them.. just.. " Her hand lifted again, and described an arc. "And she hit the other side… it was kind of rough. That's where the scrapes came from."

The bard blinked. "Wait." She rubbed her temples. "You're telling me she hurdled that huge space between the mountain where we were, and that outer section?"

Nodding heads. "It… was pretty damn amazing." Eponin confirmed.

"I bet." Gabrielle said, faintly. She gave a faint laugh. "I.. don't know how she does it sometimes."

They all looked at her, with sudden, bashful smiles. "Actually." Solari chewed her lip. "She kinda explained that."

The bard looked up, a puzzled frown on her face. "She did?"

"Yeah." Eponin's voice was unusually gentle. "She said… she knew she could get over that gap.." The older woman paused, and cleared her throat. "Because you were on the other side of it." A brief smile. "And you needed her."

Gabrielle felt a lump rising so fast she couldn’t stop it, and she dropped her head, biting her lip as the emotion washed over her. It had never been stated so clearly, so openly, and this to people who viewed her as some kind of dangerous monster. That was her partner. Her quiet, proud warrior, who was a little light, a lot dark, and an eternity of in between. "Oh." She finally said, lifting her eyes, and seeing their stolid acknowledgement. "I guess it's just that simple."

A pensive silence fell, as they studied the ground, and Eponin idly arranged the disheveled curls resting in her lap. "Gabrielle." She finally said, looking right at the bard. "You've got one Hades of a champion there."

Gabrielle read the many levels of that statement with little effort. "I most certainly do." She let a brief, sweet smile cross her face. "And um… " She looked down at her hands, then back up. "I gotta go put a couple of patches on her."

Furtive glances shot across the campsite, regarding the tall, dark haired figure who was sprawled in apparent comfort, with a look of calm interest on her face. "She looks fine." Solari offered, giving Gabrielle a quick grin.

"Yeah." The bard replied, seeing an exhausted, tense form in what was to her obvious pain hiding behind the warrior princess shield. "Well, looks can be deceiving." She gathered herself up and stood, motioning towards the fire. "I think the soups ready. " She was aware of Johan coming up to her left. "There's enough for everyone."

Xena was just considering getting up and moving to the spring when footsteps made her look up, watching the silver moonlight backlight Gabrielle's approaching form as the fire cast warm highlights on the bard's tanned skin. She blinked, seeing the two bowls her soulmate was carrying.

"Here." Gabrielle handed her one, which released an intoxicating scent comprised of fish and the smokiness of the dried meat, and the sweetness of the fruits. "Now, come here, and hold still."

Xena realized the second bowl wasn't soup, but warmed water, and that the bard had torn linen and her healer's salve.

She was about to protest, but Gabrielle put a fingertip against her lips, and she subsided, meekly inhaling a spoonful of the soup as the bard's hands gently cleaned the collection of scratches and cuts.

The warm water, and her soulmate's touch were both very welcome.

"Gods." Gabrielle winced, as she dabbed at the ripped skin, and studied her partner. "Been quite a day, huh?"

"Mm." Xena mumbled, swallowing a mouthful. "Yeah.. not too bad."

The bard rolled her eyes, and unbuckled the clasp on the warrior's armor. "Here…you've got a bad cut on your neck." She reached around, and undid the other buckle, then lifted the metal plates over Xena's head, and set them down. "You were pretty impressive, you know."

"Nah." The warrior objected. "Didn't do much.. just got in, found Eph, found you, got out." A shrug. "No big deal."

"Really." Gabrielle mused, cleaning around her collarbone. "Just that simple, huh?"

"Uh huh." Xena agreed. "Nothing special.. you were the impressive one."

"Ah." Her partner commented. "So… then the fearless leap over the chasm was a figment of.. let me see… Eponin's imagination." She paused. "Incredible.. Ephiny is gonna be so happy she's developed one."

Xena found a small, helpless, hopeless grin forming. "Oh.. yeah, well.. there was that." She tried for a self deprecating expression, and failed miserably.

Gabrielle gazed at her, seeing the gentle wrinkling about her eyes as she struggled not to smile. "Yes, that." She replied, letting her fingers trail down Xena's neck. "Did you really say you knew you could jump over that chasm because I was on the other side?"

Her partner's dark skin flushed. "Um… " She peeked up at the shyly delighted green eyes. "Yeah.. I guess I did." She paused, and smiled, finally. "I meant it."

The bard smiled back. "I know." She tucked her hand into Xena's, and interlaced their fingers. "I knew you'd find a way in."

Xena reveled in the sensation. "You did, huh?"

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle acknowledged. "There wasn't one single second when I doubted that at all." She gazed peacefully at her partner, then glanced down. "I did have a few scary moments though."

"You?" Xena replied with a wry smile. "Gabrielle, I have no idea how I got from that cell to where you were, do you realize that? I think I remember fighting with a few people, but… " She shook her head ruefully. "Couldn’t tell you for sure." She lifted the bowl to her lips and took a swallow. "That's pretty good."

"Mmhmm… " The bard carefully cleaned the deep scrapes on Xena's thighs, gently smoothing a herbal salve over the red, angry looking skin. "When was the last time you ate?"

Total silence, and Gabrielle looked up to see the adolescently guilty look on Xena's face. "We… were busy." The warrior mumbled. "We had some stuff on the trail."

The bard examined Xena's leathers. "You've got blood all over here." She touched the front of them, with a cautious finger. "Yours?"

Xena let out a careful breath. "Some of it." She admitted quietly.

Gabrielle sighed, and took the bowl from her hands, pushing her back against the rock and working at the laces holding her leathers closed. She felt the flinch, and as she looked up, saw the tensing around Xena's jaw, and the brief flaring of her nostrils. "You should have told me about this earlier." She told her partner sternly. "You never learn, do you?"

"It's… there was a branch sticking out when I… it's not that bad, Gabrielle.. I just… I forgot about it." The warrior defended herself, as the laces came loose, and the bard gently pulled them aside, sucking in a breath when she saw the swollen puncture wound just below Xena's ribcage.

"Xena… " Gabrielle's face tensed. "Ok.. ok… " She rinsed out a fresh piece of linen in the warm water, and washed the spot, carefully soaking up the seeping blood and cleaning out the small bits of bark that were embedded in the tanned flesh. She squeezed the water over the wound, getting all the dirt and debris out, then dusted the area with an abundance of a powdered herb she knew Xena always used. Then she folded a piece of fresh, clean bandage over it, tugging the laces closed to hold it in place. "There."

"Thanks." The warrior grinned briefly. Now that the excitement was over, the long days, and the battering she'd taken was starting to catch up with her, aches she'd previously ignored were raising their nagging heads. "How about you?" She touched the bard's hand, where a purpling bruise covered her knuckles.

Gabrielle studied her. "No.. I'm fine… " She flexed the hand. "I got lucky… just these two, and a few bumps." She dug into Xena's pack, and pulled out the tightly folded light cloak, which she shook out and settled around her partner's body. "Why don't you get some sleep?"

Xena shook her head vigorously. "Nope… I want to take another look at Ephiny.. and this area is pretty open… I don't trust it."

The bard drummed her fingers on the muscular thigh she was seated against, and sniffed. "All right… " She watched as Ares shifted his position, and resettled his muzzle on Xena's shin. "I'm going to make some tea.. I'll bring you a mug." She got to her feet after giving her partner a little pat, then moved to the fire again.

Xena gazed after her affectionately, and settled back, forcing her creeping fatigue back down, and picking up her chest armor, examining the shoulder clasp and shaking her head. "Gotta fix that." She muttered, digging in her pack and pulling out her repair kit.

Gabrielle padded quietly over to the fire, giving the Amazons and villagers around her a quiet grin as she put the small water pot she'd retrieved from Xena's gear and filled with spring water over the flames.

"It's lovely." Cait spoke up from behind her, and she turned to look up at the young girl. "You're not mad at me, are you?"

Gabrielle gave her a look. "I should be." She muffled a chuckle." Cait…part of being an Amazon is learning to follow orders."

"Why?" The girl asked, with a practical innocence. "No one else there does." She sucked on her spoon, and crouched down beside the bard. "They just go off and what they like.. you know it's true."

Gabrielle couldn’t help it, she started laughing. "Well… they are kinda stubborn…"

Cait smiled back. "Right… and now I'm mad because I didn't get to see Xena's lovely leap." She sighed aggrievedly. "I would have liked to have seen that."

"See?" The bard shook a finger at her. "Next time, follow orders, and you'll end up in the right place."

The young girl rolled her eyes. "Bother that.. if I'd followed orders, I'd be up on the west ridge right now plucking bunny tail fur, and you lot wouldn't have known about Ephiny."

"Hmm." Gabrielle mused, as she poured the now hot water over the herbs she had sifted into two mugs. "You've got a point there, Cait."

Cait nibbled a bit of carrot, and lowered her voice. "Queen Gabrielle.. what's going to happen to her." She shifted her glance over to the sullen Paladia, who was tied tight to a nearby tree. "Are we going to get to kill her?"

The bard stopped her stirring, and gave Cait a look. " She'll be tried in an Amazon court, for what she did to Ephiny.. the penalty can include death, but I don't know what the outcome will be."

"Mph." Cait nodded. "She's a bad lot."

Gabrielle nodded, and picked up both mugs, then stood, and instead of returning immediately to her partner, she detoured to where the renegade was half sitting, half lying. "Do you want some soup?" She asked evenly.

The pale gray eyes stared up at her with unconcealed hostility. "I'd rather eat dirt."

The bard shrugged. "All right." She replied in a gentle tone. "Just thought I'd ask."

Paladia shifted in her tight bonds. "Why didn't you just let them kill me? That bitch over there wanted to."

Gabrielle gazed at her. "That's not my style." She commented. "Maybe I think you can still learn something by this."

A short, ugly laugh. "I learned not to trust pretty little liars."

The bard turned to go, taking a sip from her mug. "Paladia, think about it. I never lied to you.. not even once. You just refused to hear the truth."

"You said you weren't an Amazon." The woman stated, with bitter triumph.

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Strictly speaking, I'm not." She replied. "I'm a bard, and I live in Amphipolis.. and I travel around sometimes chronicling the life and adventures of Xena." S he paused. "Some time ago one of those adventures resulted in my receiving the right of caste from a dying Amazon Princess. " She shrugged. "So I end up inheriting.. but Ephiny really rules them."

Paladia stared at her. "But you said…" Her eyes flicked to the dark, watchful form across the fire.

"That I knew Xena? I do." Gabrielle responded reasonably. "I just never said how well I knew her."

"But.." Now her eyes touched the bard's slim hand, curled around the handle of Xena's mug.

That got a gentle twinkle from mist green eyes. "It's her crest." She shrugged. "It's not my fault you didn't recognize it… you young people today just don't know your history well, I guess."

She shook her head, and made her way back around fire, towards where her partner was patiently working at a bit of her armor, dark head cocked lightly to one side. She settled carefully at her side, and set her mug down, gently removing the armor from Xena's hands and putting her own mug there in it's place. "Here."

Xena's hands curled around the wooden cup, as she put her tool down, with a little sigh, flexing her fingers. "Thanks." She took a long sip, and closed her eyes as the warm liquid settled in her belly. "That feels great." Then she blinked, and regarded her soulmate. "Saw you chatting with our prisoner."

"Mmm." Gabrielle acknowledged, nudging the armor aside, and moving closer, curling up with her body tucked neatly against Xena's, as the warrior circled her with one arm. "Thank you for stopping Eponin, by the way." She glanced up at the fire shadowed face. "I think this will end up being the better solution for her."

Xena took another sip, staring out into the darkness of the campsite. "I didn't do it for her." She replied slowly. "I did it for Eponin."

The bard sucked in a long breath. "Yeah.. I know.. but it worked out." She paused. "She hates me."

The warrior pulled her closer, and tucked her fair head against one shoulder, soaking in the warmth with a sense of peaceful relief. "You did the right thing."

Gabrielle turned her head slightly and kissed the bare skin she was resting against. "I know…" She breathed in the familiar scents of leather and brass with pleasure. "It was the right thing for the Amazons too… after what happened to Eph."

Xena sighed. "There are a lot of Amazons who think I should have been judged in one of their courts too, Gabrielle."

Her soulmate smiled gently. "Not any more.. not for those guys." She nodded towards the small group across the fire. "And you know how it is.. you want something known, tell an Amazon." She looked up. "Besides… Ephiny didn't have a leg to stand on.. and she knew it." Her voice dropped a little. "I told her not to try and stop you."

The warrior blinked at her. "You did?"

Gabrielle nodded quietly. "Yeah.. I didn't… really care what you did to me, Xena. I just couldn’t stand being alone anymore." She swallowed. "I would rather have died at your hands, than lived like that."

Xena thought about that, and put her cup down, folding her arms around her partner's body and hugging her. "We both survived." She replied simply.

"Mmhmm." The bard agreed, with a peaceful sigh. "Maybe just being around people who love each other will help Paladia.. do you think?"

The warrior considered the question, studying the sullen woman, watching as Cait crossed over to her and settled down on watch. "Couldn’t hurt." She finally decided. "It's easy to fall into anger and hatred if that's all you've known."

"Xena… " Gabrielle half turned, resting a hand lightly on her partner's chest, avoiding the scrapes. "She did… other things to Ephiny." The bard let out a perplexed breath. "And I don't.. I don’t think… " Her green eyes lifted and searched the pale blue ones above her. "She gave her stuff.. like Rurik was going to give to me."

The warrior stiffened, and blinked, taking a quick glance over across the fire, then back at Gabrielle's face. "Damn… I didn't think… "

The bard went on. "I think.. that's … I kind of made a deal.. told Paladia that I'd .. take Eph's place."

Xena's eyes widened.

"Sh.. I knew you'd be there in time." The bard put a fingertip on her partner's lips. "But.. Eph found out.. I guess Paladia told her.. and.. she attacked her. That's why she got beaten up so bad." She could feel the tense upset in Xena's body, and took a nervous breath. "Look.. I had to.. she was.. it was really getting to Eph, Xena.. I couldn’t let her just… but…"

"Gabrielle." The warrior let out an explosive sigh. "That was a really stupid thing to do… "

"It wasn't!" The bard argued, not budging an inch. "She was being ripped apart, Xena… I didn't have a whole lot of options, and.."

"Ephiny's a grown woman, Gabrielle." The warrior shot back. "She knew the risks.. and she obviously felt she was better able to handle them.. or she wouldn't have risked her life to protect you from that."

"It was my choice." The bard replied firmly, angrily, then stopped, in sudden, startled wonder. "Hey."

"What?" Xena barked, her brows knitting in annoyance.

A dazzling smile beamed up at her. "We're fighting."

A dozen heartbeats in which their breaths mingled, and they stared at each other. Xena scratched her ear and allowed a grudging, rueful smile to shape her lips. "Guess we are." She answered sheepishly. "Wonder how that happened."

Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed her, completely ignoring the fact that they were in the middle of an active campsite. "You're right." She conceded, when they broke apart. "It was a dumb thing to do.. and I'll try to think things through better next time."

Xena chose to be oblivious to the stares and grins from across the fire. "You did what you thought was right, my bard." She nibbled the tip of Gabrielle's nose. "It was brave of you to do that… you couldn’t predict how Ephiny was going to react."

Gabrielle snuggled closer, and carefully hugged her. "I love you." She murmured softly.

The warrior smiled into the darkness, and stroked her soft hair. "I love you too." She replied, with a contented sigh, letting her eyes drift closed for a moment. "Gotta go check Eph." She commented, in a weary tone.

"Mmmhmm…" Gabrielle agreed, making her breathing slow and even, and letting her fingertips move in subtle pattern over her partner's skin. "Pony's going to kill me for pressing her into pillow duty."

"Nah." Xena replied. "She loves it." The warrior paused. "But.. I think you should.." She hesitated briefly. "Let Eph and Pony talk about what happened with.. in there.. before you say anything."

"Ooo." Gabrielle eased closer, feeling the tension start to wind it's way out of her partner's coiled body. "A sensitive, perceptive suggestion from my tougher than a wildcat warrior… I'm swooning."

"Tch." Xena lifted one eyelid to regard her. "Am I that bad?"

The bard smirked softly at her. "Only when you're being extremely frustrating, and insisting on forcing yourself to stay awake when you're exhausted and hurting."

Xena's eyes popped open, and she blinked, then sighed. "Busted, huh?"

"Big time." The bard confirmed. "Close 'em, tiger."

The warrior obligingly did so, but not before also closing her teeth gently on Gabrielle's ear. "Grrrrr."

Ares' ears pricked, and he growled back, causing them both to chuckle. Gabrielle nestled her head down more snugly on her partner's chest, and sighed. "You're much more comfortable to sleep with than Flameball."

Two blue eyes popped wide open and went very round. "What?"

Gabrielle dug into her pack one handed, and pulled out a ragged bit of cloth, then tucked it against Xena's chest with a satisfied sigh.

The warrior gingerly picked up the stuffed toy, and examined it. "Oh… Hades… where did you get this?" Her voice was colored with a touch of wistful wonder. "Haven't seen this in.. wow." She winced at the realization of just how long it really had been. "In a very long time."

"Your mom had it.. I mean him." Gabrielle answered, in muffled mumble. "I forgot I stuffed him in my bag… had to make some goofy story up to explain what he was for." She wrapped an arm around Xena's body, trapping the dragon against her chest.

"Uh… Gabrielle?" Xena cleared her throat.

One green eye slid open and regarded her. "Oh." A quick grin. "Sorry.. the image.. I forgot." She snuggled the ragged toy against her own shoulder, and replaced her arm. "There."

Xena opened her mouth to protest, then shut it, charmed by the adorable sight of her partner sleeping with her childhood favorite. What the Hades. She let a relaxed grin etch her face, and leaned back against the rock, trying to keep her eyes open.

But the gentle rhythm of the bard's breathing, and her hypnotic stroking defeated her best intentions. Her eyes closed against her will, and she couldn’t muster the energy to open them as she slid into a warm, hazy place, and the campsite receded. "No… no… " She willed herself back, blinking her eyes open.

"Xena." Gabrielle's voice was quiet, and very serious. "You need to go to sleep, ok?."

"Not safe." She shook her head, tapping reserves.

"Shh." The bard started a gentle massage. "Ares and I are keeping watch… it's gonna be a long day tomorrow, ok?" She watched the blue eyes close again. "That's good.. come on now.. it's going to be all right.. c'mon.. you have to be in charge bright and early, partner… that won't work if you don’t' get at least a little rest."

Finally, a nod in agreement. Gabrielle let the breath she'd been holding in release, as she felt Xena surrender to her coaxing, and allow sleep to finally claim her. Stubborn…oh boy.. was she ever. The bard looked up and studied the barely lit profile. Whew. She let her attention wander over her soulmate's features for a long moment, then she turned her attention to the rest of the camp.

The Amazons were bedding down, tucked into a tight, protective circle around Ephiny, who was dozing in Eponin's arms. Paladia was staring into the fire, ignoring Cait, who had apparently appointed herself guard. Kelten was still curled up on the far side of the fire, his draggled fur almost copper colored in the firelight.

Eponin glanced across, and met her eyes, dredging up a tiny smile. Gabrielle smiled back, one ear glued to the music of Xena's steady heartbeat. Tomorrow, they'd have to get back home.

Get Ephiny home.

Try Paladia.

She realized she would have to make the decision on the woman's fate. 

Green eyes gazed into the fire for a very long time

Continued in Part 5



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