These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.

Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence - this is a Xena: Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.

Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.

Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.


Dark Comes the Morning - Part 20

By Melissa Good

The nap helped a little. When Xena woke up, as loud noises started coming towards her, she felt a lot less hazy, and had time to prepare her reactions as hands grabbed her and jerked her upright. Her leg screamed, though, and she could feel a tight throbbing where the knife wound was that made her fear the wound wasn’t doing so well.

She caught her balance, bending her knees a little and trying to get her bearings as she was knocked around a little, then Nellis’ voice came closer.

"All right." The woman now sounded businesslike. "This is how this works. We ride, and you can either be dragged, or tied to the back of a horse if you behave. Which is it gonna be?"

Xena kept her silence, standing completely still.

"If you walk, and you trip, this is gonna take your head off." Nellis jerked on the neck strap, and she felt the sharp metal teeth close around her throat. She noticed, however, that the woman was standing well out of range, something that made her smile inwardly. "I’m not going to slow down because of her. Get her up on that nag, and tie her down tight."

There was a very conspicuous silence after that, until finally footsteps shuffled closer and she could smell the sweat of fear near her. With a slight motion, she turned her head to follow the closer of the two men, and heard his breath intake. Her nostrils twitched, catching the scent of worn leather and metal as he came closer, then hesitantly reached out and touched her arm.

Fighting, at this point, would probably be pointless. Xena allowed him to lead her over to the warmth of a large animal, and waited while he tossed the throat lead over the horses neck. Then he stopped, apparently not sure what to do next. Xena slowly lifted her bound hands up and hooked them around the saddlehorn and gathered herself up, crouching a bit then hauling herself on board, somehow managing to get her injured leg over the high saddle back and into place.

The horse shifted as she slid her knees home, finding her seat with an ease born of years of experience and the talent of a natural horseman. She could sense the cocked weapons around her though, heard the whine of crossbows cocking, and she kept still, when all her instincts were to send the horse plunging away.

They tied her hands to the saddlebow, and roughly tied her legs underneath the horse’s belly, pulling at her injury and sending agonizing jolts straight through her. The line around her throat jerked, and she sat up, the sun making her head ache and reminding her of how thirsty she was.

"Move out." Nellis called, and they started moving. Someone had the reins of her horse, and kept up a steady pressure on her collar, and Xena suspected it was her little blond friend. Every few steps she’d give it a jerk, making the metal teeth bite in to the skin of the warrior’s neck. "Hey, wait a minute."

They halted, and Xena listened to the hoofbeats as Nellis came closer. She could smell the woman, and cocked her head as a faint gurgling sounded, then just kept from jerking as a hand grabbed her jaw and forced her mouth open.

The taste of the liquid was pungent, and she was forced to swallow by pure reflex, as the smell sent the hair lifting along her neck.

Nellis laughed. "There… that’ll keep you nice and calm." She forced another mouthful down. "Maybe you’ll even get to like it."

Xena felt the grasp relax, and she gripped the saddlehorn as an unpleasant queasiness spread through her body. She shuddered, and her body reacted, as her insides convulsed and she turned her head and leaned, ignoring the bite of the collar as she violently threw up the herbs, the spasms so bad they almost unbalanced her and sent her off the side of the horse.

"Hey!" Nellis pulled angrily on the leash, hauling her upright. "You little bitch.. just for that, you’ll get double." She pulled Xena’s head closer, and tangled her fingers in the collar, then tried to force the warrior’s mouth open again.

Xena dodged her head sideways and caught the woman’s hand in her teeth, closing her powerful jaws and wrenching her body backwards, shaking her head like a dog with a bone.

Nellis screamed, and dropped the wineskin, then drew her sword and slammed it into the bound warrior’s head in pure fury, hitting her again and again as Xena crouched over the horses’ neck, taking the abuse mostly on her shoulders. "Bitch!"

She finally stopped, breathing hard.

Xena straightened, then turned her head towards her tormentor and carefully spat a mouthful of blood and skin on the ground.

Then she smiled, feeling a warm splash of blood stain her chin. She felt the blow coming, and ducked her head, feeling the fist brush by her ear as Nellis overbalanced. Xena slammed her head into the blond woman’s, hearing a satisfying crack, then a rustle, and thud as her attacker fell off her horse.

Nellis got up, and ripped her crossbow from her saddle, cocking it with an efficient motion and pointing it at the blinded warrior sitting now motionless on the horse above her. The dark head cocked slightly, and she could see the muscles in the bare shoulders tense helplessly, causing the ropes binding her wrists to creak.

This woman was crazy. She’d taken a beating that would have killed anyone else, and it hadn’t dampened the fire of her wild personality even a little. Andreas had to be nuts to want her to join them.

Maybe she should just kill her. She raised the crossbow and aimed at the curved arch of the warrior’s neck. It would be better, in the long run for everyone.

Especially for her, since this was a potent rival she couldn’t afford to compete with.

She fired.

With a snakelike motion, Xena evaded the arrow, and it went past her and thunked into a nearby tree, bringing on another of those evil smiles.

Nellis lowered her weapon, aware of the stares of her men around her.

Maybe she was going at this the wrong way.

She turned and got onto her horse, looping the collar’s leash over her shoulder and starting off without another word. As the slack ran out, she kept moving, aware of a long instant before the force against her hand lessened and Xena’s horse followed.

"Let’s get over this ridge, then up onto the rocks. We’ll cross the stream there, and lose anyone who tries to follow us."

Xena leaned her weight wearily on her hands, drawing breath with difficulty against the snug hold of the collar. She was starting to get a little dizzy, and with the chills figured her leg wound wasn’t doing her any favors. Her eyes were stinging now, too, little darts of pain in time with the horse’s pace. She pushed that aside though, since thinking of what might be under those bandages –

No point in that.

The darkness was beginning to bother her though. She could feel the sun warm her skin, and though her other senses provided an enormous amount of information to her, she found she missed being able to see and it was weighing on her more and more.

A soft wind blew against her face, bringing a smell of water logged vegetation to her, along with the musky scent from the tree moss in the forest around them, and a far off hint of water coming across the open plains.


Xena’s head lifted, and her nostrils flared. Her ears cocked, moving away from her head and cupping slightly to catch the slightest sound over the rasp and clank of the moving soldiers.

The line pulled taut, and she felt the teeth dig into her skin, a warm wetness trickling down she knew was her own blood.

And deep inside, she felt a savage, angry jolt that brought a grim smile to her lips.


"This is where we lost them." Ephiny pushed her hood back and surveyed the empty grassland. "You see, the tracks end here, then they went up onto this rocky escarpment, and there’s just no sign of where they went."

Gabrielle slid down off Iolaus’ back and stepped around the signs of a scuffle, kneeling down and touching the ground lightly. She picked a stalk of grass up and examined it, seeing the distinctive, rusty stain.

Then she dropped to both knees, and closed her eyes, exhaling and turning her focus inward. It was… it wasn’t quite a feeling, and it wasn’t quite a sensation, really. Just a gentle tugging, pulling her more in one direction than any other. "That way." She murmured, letting her eyelids open and gesturing with one hand.

There was a respectful silence. "You know, Gabrielle – that’s really amazing." Ephiny finally muttered.

The bard rose and nodded, then got on Iolaus and urged him forward, letting her heart lead them through the rocky floodwash towards a cluster of dense forest beyond a small stream.

They came to the water, and gazed across. Beyond was a flat area, very exposed, before the looming green of the trees, and Ephiny got down off her mount and peered over suspiciously. "I don’t much like being that out in the open."

Gabrielle edged past her. "We don’t have a choice." She urged Iolaus down into the water, which came up almost to her boots. It rippled strongly, carrying the weight of the rain they’d been having, and she felt the horse straining against the flow as he made his way across. She heard the splash as the rest of the group joined her, and Cait caught up as she reached the other side. "Careful." She indicated a deeper spot near some rocks.

"Quite." Cait agreed, nimbly moving her filly around the hazard and encouraging her to climb the far bank. "Is it far?"

Gabrielle sighed. "I don’t know." She admitted. "It’s not – it’s not like reading a scroll, or anything like that, Cait. I just know something’s not right, that’s all. And I get a feeling which way to go."


"All right. You two spread out." Ephiny ordered quietly as they came into the open area. "I don’t want any surprises."

"I’ll go." Cait didn’t wait for an answer, as she slid down off her horse and loped forward, diving into the tall grass and disappearing, leaving behind only the faintest shiver of the cattail tops to show where she’d went.

Pony also slid off, and went down the other side of the open area.

They moved slowly on, the halted, at a clear bird song.

"Sentry." Gabrielle whispered. "Keep moving." She eased Iolaus forward, heading towards the thick patch of forest. Three Amazons moved up alongside her, providing a living shield, and Bennu took the point.

A movement at the edge of the forest drew their eyes, as Cait leaped out of the grass and attacked, winding her arm around a half armored man’s neck and cutting it with her knife so quickly it hardly had time to bleed before he was dying on the ground. The young Amazon wiped her blade carefully and sheathed it, then peered into the trees, and beckoned them on.

"We searched in here." Ephiny murmured. "Twice."

Gabrielle shook her head, and ducked as she entered the trees, the soft ferny leaves brushing the top of her head. After a few steps she pulled Iolaus up, then got off an decided to lead him.

It was very quiet in the dell, a few desultory birds chirped, and the wind rustled the branches over head, but other than that there wasn’t anything to indicate the presence of other humans. They kept walking, the twigs underfoot crunching gently, until they were in the very center of it, where a tiny clearing allowed them to stop and look around.

"Gab.. are you sure?"

She closed her eyes and felt the pull, stronger now. "Yes." But as she turned in a circle, there was nothing there to see. "This way."

They pushed on through a much thicker section of trees, trying to find a way around them, the branches interlaced so thoroughly it seemed more one huge plant than a collection of individuals.

Gabrielle stopped, and put her hand on a thick tangle.

"Can’t get through there. We tried." Pony murmured. "It’s solid all the way round, believe me – I looked." She pointed. "And it backs right up onto the rocky highlands – you’d have to be on foot, or riding goats to get up there."

The bard handed her reins to Cait, then stepped back a few paces, regarding the trees, and thinking hard. She tipped her head back and looked up, seeing the huge trunks spreading a little far overhead.

She took a step forward, then leaped lightly up, catching the first branches and pulling herself up into them, then finding hand holds and footholds as she scaled her way towards the tops of the trees. Finally, she reached a point where she could squeeze her slim form through the now more flexible limbs and peer down.

A long moment’s look, then she turned and swung down, releasing her hold just above the horse’s heads and landing on the moist ground with a little thump and a hop. "C’mon." She skirted the edges of the bramble, moving down towards a natural dip in the forest floor that in flood times would hold a stream. She scrambled down into the rut and moved to where the start of the tangle was, slipping and almost falling as the ground suddenly sloped.

Ephiny came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, peering past her into the darkness. "Wh…" She felt a hand cover her mouth.

Gabrielle ducked under the last few branches, moving through an earthy smelling tunnel through draping roots that just brushed the top of her head. She cleared the last of them out of her way and moved into a fairly large, open space in the center, with fitful sunlight filtering down into it, and the signs of a fairly large camp recently left behind.

"Damn." Ephiny forged ahead, and they spread out, searching the signs of the group that were scattered all over. "Neat – I’ll give them that."

Gabrielle nodded, wandering over the leaf strewn ground and noting the carefully tamped fire, and orderly squares that indicated a well kept camp. She stopped before a thick, fallen log and knelt, brushing her fingertips over the leaves, then pausing. "Eph." Her voice cracked, as she parted the debris and closed her hand over something.

"Yes?" Ephiny came closer, and knelt. "What is it? You know, Gab, we don’t’ even know if…" She stopped speaking as her friend opened her fingers, and displayed with she’d found. "Oh. Dear Artemis."

The crystal necklace, stained a deep rust, sat lonely and forlorn in Gabrielle’s palm.

"Okay." The bard took a deep breath, and stood, fastening the necklace around her own neck and tucking it under her armor. "I don’t think they went far."

"Fire’s still warm." Bennu agreed grimly.

They lead the horses across the ground, following the deep hollow to it’s exit point, a wider mouth that showed rock at it’s tip. Bennu eased up and peered out, then paused. "Ah."

Gabrielle was at his elbow at once, putting a hand on his shoulder to balance as she stood up on her toes and looked past him. Not far away, near a flooded, pebbled area was a group of soldiers.

Her eyes found the disheveled, mounted figure at once, and she froze. "Oh my gods." The harsh whisper hardly sounded like her voice. Xena’s head was half covered in a rough bandage, and what was visible was bruised almost past recognition. She could see liberal blood stains smeared on the sacking covering her, and the very posture of her body made the bard ache in stark sympathy.

"Easy." Ephiny rubbed her back. "At least she’s alive."

Gabrielle watched as a slim, blond figure mounted a horse just in front of her partner, and started to move, dragging Xena behind her with a rope tied around her neck. The bard’s hands twitched, and she started forward, as Ephiny grabbed her. "Let go of me."

"Gab – just hold on. Remember the plan."

"To Hades with the plan." Gabrielle pulled herself up out of the thicket and tugged Iolaus after her. There was still a thick string of trees between them and the raiders, and she slipped behind a larger one, watching with racing heart and rising anger.

The collar bit into Xena’s neck, and she saw blood. Her heart bounded, sending a flush of energy all through her, and she turned and mounted, waiting for the rest of her group to join them. A wind blew at her back, rustling the leaves, and as it traveled forwards, she saw that dark head lift and turn, cocking in her direction.

The fighters gathered around her. "All right." Gabrielle murmured. "Let’s move along that line of trees there, and see if we can surprise them."

"We could use a distraction." Pony grunted. "Maybe I could.."

"No, let me." Cait pushed forward.

"No." Gabrielle tugged her cloak straight. "Stay behind me, out of sight." She moved Iolaus forward. "I’ll make them stop, then on my signal, attack."

"Gabrielle!" Ephiny hissed.

The bard glared at her fiercely. "That’s an order." She urged her horse towards the open space between the trees, and was out before anyone else could protest.

Ephiny cursed softly, but followed, with the rest of the soldiers ringed around her. "Bennu, we’re about even with them, but I think what Gabrielle’s after is getting close enough to Xena to keep her from being beheaded when the fighting starts."

"Aye." The big fighter nodded. "Me and the lads here’ll take the flank, if you lot want to shoot those buggers offn their horses."

"Right." Ephiny loosened her sword, and checked her crossbow. "Let’s go."


Xena could hear the soldiers moving around her, and she struggled to get herself balanced in the saddle, yanking impatiently against the thick rope that bound her hands to the saddlehorn.

"Stop that." Nellis jerked the leash.

"Or what?" Xena finally spoke, jerking her head back and almost pulling it out of the woman’s hands. Her throat felt sore, and her voice was raspy, but that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.

"Oh. So you can talk." Nellis eased her mount back over. "And here I’d thought you were some kind of mute."

Xena could hear the shifting of bodies, and knew she was the center of attention. Good. "S’allright. I thought you were some kind of idiot."

"Don’t you push me, Xena."

"Or what?" The warrior taunted. "You’ve been making threats against a tied up blind woman for a day now – very impressive." Her ears caught soft horse hooves approaching, and she shifted her weight, causing her mount to sidestep. "Think your odds of getting me much further are any good?"

"As you pointed out." Nellis yanked hard on the collar, shutting of Xena’s breathing and sending the spikes perilously close to her jugular vein. "You’re tied up and blind. I think my odds are pretty good."

"Well, I think they’re pretty lousy myself." A cool, clear voice interrupted, with a commanding ring to it.

Nellis whirled, to see a single horse standing there, it’s rider balanced neatly on it’s back, a thick, heavy pole clasped in one hand. "Ah.. it’s your little Amazon whore."

Xena dug her knees into the horse’s ribs, and he backed violently, as she ignored the pain screaming through her neck.

"Hey!" Nellis turned, and as she did, Gabrielle let out a yell, and charged. "Stop her!" She struggled to haul her fighting captive in. "To Hades with it." She growled. "I will kill you."

Amazons and soldiers burst out from the trees, galloping in a neatly spread formation as they rounded the curve and thundered right at the pivoting raiders. Their opponents kept good order, and swung to meet them with efficient discipline, and two drove towards the oncoming Gabrielle.

Staffs had, the bard grimly acknowledged, a big advantage over swords when it came to one very critical area.


She balanced her seat as Xena had taught her, and released the reins, relying on her powerful legs to keep her steady. Then she whipped up her staff and engaged the rushing horsemen, whacking one in the head with one end of her weapon, and stiffarming the other in the chest, knocking him right off his horse.

They staggered past and she drove on towards her goal, who was fighting blindly, using pure strength and stubbornness to keep the furious Nellis off-balance.

The blond fighter tied the leash off to her saddlehorn and drew her sword, kicking her horse closer and raising it. She aimed a blow at the bound warrior, who somehow.. somehow dodged it, deflecting it’s power to one side with a shrug of a broad shoulder.

How!!! She swung back and smacked her with the hilt, knocking Xena off balance and causing her horse to half turn, exposing her chest. Momentarily disoriented, the warrior hesitated, and Nellis saw her chance. She wrapped both hands around her hilt and drove it forward, aiming for the tanned, dirt stained skin she could see through the gashes in the fabric. The sound of approaching hoofbeats rolled past her, but she ignored it, knowing they wouldn't be in time. "Die, you blasted.. " She lunged, closing her eyes and tasting the sweetness of the moment.

Then the world fell on top of her. Something fast moving and heavy slammed into her body, throwing her right off the horse and onto the gravel, as a hot, shocking pain drove right up past her breastbone and into her heart.

She never even had a second to realize she was dying.

Gabrielle shoved the woman away from her and rolled to her knees, jerking the dagger free as she did so.

For a very short, and very private moment, her world stilled.

And went silent, so much that she could clearly hear her pounding heartbeat, as her mind registered the blood stained knife clutched in her fist and absorbed it’s implications.

Then she took a breath, and wiped it off, shoving it back in the sheath as she got to her feet and bolted for the horse nearby. Without thinking much she grabbed Xena’s arm, and pulled her self up behind the warrior, then her senses returned and she took out the knife to cut her soulmate free.

She wrapped one arm around Xena’s waist, and sawed at the ropes around her hands with the other, stripping the bonds from them then working on the one she could reach by the warrior’s right calf.

Then they were moving, and she tangled her other hand in the horses mane, holding Xena securely in front of her as they bolted away from the raiders train and towards the fighting. "Let’s go!" Gabrielle yelled, as they started to disengage. She felt a hand curl around hers, and laid her cheek against Xena’s back for a brief moment, hoping she could keep it all together long enough for them to escape.

They raced through the retreating raiders towards the stream, and the rest of the group formed a rear guard.

Then they just had to run for home.

"Bennu, be careful." Gabrielle eased past him and held the torch high, setting it in it’s sconce at the back of the big tent. "Put her down there."

Xena had made it part way back, then Gabrielle had felt her flagging as she held on anxiously. By the time they were in camp, the warrior was half unconscious, enough so that she didn’t even protest when Bennu lifted her gently off the horses back and carried her inside.

The big fighter knelt with almost exaggerated care and laid his burden down on the fur covered pallet Xena had thrown together for a bed. "Aye, lassie." He whispered. "They done her like dirt."

Renas hurried in, followed by Toris and several others, including Ephiny. "Gods." The healer closed his eyes a moment, then set his kit down and rolled up his sleeves. "I’m going to need water."

Toris went to his sister’s bedside and dropped to one knee, touching a mud stained hand in stark sympathy.

"Right." Ephiny gave a nod to Paladia, who was standing mutely by the tent flap. "Buckets." For once too rattled to comment, the big ex marauder left, the flap swinging closed behind her.

"Hey guys." Gabrielle had tucked her hands under her arms. "Can I ask you to give me a minute with her before we get started?"

Everyone looked at her.

"I mean it. I know you’ve got things to do, Renas, but I need a little time alone with her." The bard stated quietly. "Please."

They filed out obediently, leaving her in a quiet peace she wanted to just sink down into. Instead, she walked over to the pallet and knelt, putting a hand on the bruised shoulder under the coarse sacking they’d covered her in. "Xe?"

"I’m here." The voice was faint and rough. "Just."

Gabrielle leaned closer and touched her head, bringing it closer and kissing it very gently. "Oh gods."

Xena responded to the caress, nuzzling her and releasing a weak sigh of relief. "Ungh."

The bard took a moment just to let her body relax. "I know – I need to let Renas at you, I just… "

"Sokay." Xena muttered. ‘Andreas is four days out."

Gabrielle eased back and started to examine her soulmate. "Okay."

"He doesn’t’ give the troops anything – just the generals." She tried to get the most pertinent information out first. "They’re not drones, Gabrielle."

"Shh." Hesitantly, the bard touched her partner’s battered head. "Honey, what happened here? What’d they do?" She felt the bandage, biting her lip in fear.

"Don’t know." The weak response came back. "Ev’rything hurts." A pause. "Water?"

Gabrielle grabbed the waterskin from the end of the pallet and unstoppered it, easing Xena’s jaw open with her free hand while she offered the spout with the other. "Here.. easy now." She watched the warrior’s mouth close around the end and suck at the liquid. "Not too much at once."

The soft gurgling went on for a bit, then Xena nodded wearily. "Was that your plan to get me?"

"Yes." Gabrielle felt her throat close on the words.

"Good girl." An attempted smile tugged at Xena’s lips. "Good plan."

A tiny, painful smile. "Honey, I’m going to let them back in now." She started to stand, but a light grip held her. "What?" She knelt back down.

"Take the bandage off."

"Xe, I’d better let Renas do that.. let me.."

"No." The hand held her. "I want you to do it." Xena paused awkwardly. "Please? If it’s bad, I’d rather hear it from you."

Sometimes, the burden of friendship was heavier than at others. "Okay." Gabrielle steeled herself, then very carefully untucked the dirty bandage and started unwrapping it, cradling the back of Xena’s head in one hand. She could feel lumps under her fingers, and could smell the blood and worse on the warrior’s body. "Just a little more." Visions of the young boy in the cavern flashed in her mind, and her hands shook, so she paused a moment and collected herself again.

The last fold of the filthy rag came free and she set it on the floor, examining the blood covered pad folded over her partner’s face.

It took so much for her to force her hand to lift, and take hold of it. "There’s a.. piece of cloth here. It’s pretty bloody." She watched Xena nod just a little, preparing herself, then she gathered her courage and worked the pad free, biting the inside of her lip almost through as she leaned closer to look beneath it.

There were rusty stains, but.. She squinted in the low light, then turned the pad over, to see tiny thorns in it. "That son of a bacchae." The curse escaped her lips, as she studied the device, then a small sound made her look up, realizing what it must have sounded like to her soulmate. "It’s okay, sweetheart."

She took a wet rag Renas had left nearby and gently swabbed the warrior’s eyelids, cleaning the blood away from the thorn pricks. "Can you open your eyes?"

Dark lashes obediently moved, and as the lids opened the torchlight caught glints off two very whole, very blue, though painfully bloodshot eyes. The pupils dilated immediately as Xena blinked, then lifted a hand and shaded her vision from the torch. "Ow."

Gabrielle stroked her cheek with her thumb. "Everything okay?" Her voice was shaking with relief, along with the rest of her.

The half lidded gaze focused on her face. "I think I’m having a vision." Xena murmured. "But it’s a beautiful sight."

The bard produced a wistful smile as she wiped more grime off. "Okay – now it’s Renas’ turn."

"Gab?" Her hand was captured. "Did Hercules come back?"

Of course. Xena, the consummate horse master, would always think of that first. How many times had she watched her partner take care of Argo, brushing and feeding her before allowing the bard to take care of her own injuries?. Gabrielle slowly lifted her gaze to meet her soulmate’s. "No, sweetheart, he didn’t." Her eyes stung. "He…. Um.. he must have tried to help you, Xe… and they.." The words stuck in her throat, and she gave a small, helpless shrug.

"Oh." It was a tiny, very anguished sound. "Damn." Xena whispered, raising a hand to her lips and biting a knuckle as her eyelids closed for a very long moment. It hurt more than what they’d done to her, and she sat there aching as a strong arm slipped around her shoulders and pulled her close, mud and all.

"I’m sorry." Gabrielle sighed, wishing she could give Xena back something more than just comfort. She rubbed the warrior’s side very carefully. "Let me go get Renas, and get you taken care of – okay?"

She felt Xena take in and release a breath, then nod, and she eased the taller woman back against the head of the pallet, before she stood and walked to the tent flap. "Okay." She murmured to the healer waiting outside. "I’m sorry, I …"

"It’s all right, Gabrielle." The gentle healer patted her arm. "I don’t’ question things when it comes to you two. You know best." He lifted the pail of water they’d brought over and entered. "I could use some help – the rest of that lot decided they’d wait to pay their respects."

"Sure." The bard followed him inside, but not before seeing Cait’s patient form seated on guard outside the edge of the tent. "Thanks for going with me today, Cait."

"Do you know something?" The young Amazon responded, looking up at her queen with pale, colorless eyes. "I had quite decided there really only was one person I would be satisfied with taking orders from absolutely."

"Did you?" Gabrielle was puzzled.

"Yes." Cait replied promptly. "Now there are two." She rested her arms on her knees and put her chin down, a figure of infinite patience.

Oh. "Thank you." The bard answered, before she reentered the tent, thinking about that as she moved across to where Renas was busy working over her partner. The healer turned as she knelt and gave her a shocked look. "I know." Gabrielle sighed, taking a piece of the clean linen he’d brought and dipping it in the heated water. "I think the leg there might be the worst."

It took a long time, just to clean off the worst of the dirt and old blood, exposing not only the knife gash in her thigh, but a burn next to it, and several breaks in her skin next to bruises that looked like they were inflicted with a mace. Gabrielle finally had to stop, taking her water up to the head of the pallet and spending some time just washing off Xena’s face and hair while Renas stitched up the worst of the places."

Xena was fading in and out on them, her skin warm with fever, a little restless until Gabrielle offered her the waterskin again, and held it while the warrior drank, her eyes closed.

"All right." Renas said, finally. "Do you have something clean we can put her in. That’s about all I can do for now."

Gabrielle retrieved a shift from her partner’s pack and brought it over, helping the healer as he removed the coarse sacking, and slid the clean garment around the battered form. Then he left her to rest, gathering the piles of filthy linen and tying them in a bundle. He stood and backed away, motioning for Gabrielle to come with him.

"Be right back." The bard whispered into a now clean ear. She stood and walked the healer to the tent flap, and ducked outside as he exited. "Wow."

"Gabrielle." Renas paused, and put a hand on her shoulder. "That leg wound really worries me. Keep an eye on it, and come get me if it starts to fill up again." He had opened the wound and drained it. "She’s in pretty bad shape."

"I’ll take care of her."

A weary smile. "There wasn’t any doubt about that." He patted her arm. "Get a lot of water into her, or a little soup if you can. She’s pretty dry."

The bard nodded. "I will. Tell everyone… " She paused.

‘They know." Renas gave her shoulder a squeeze and turned, fading off into the afternoon sun towards the main supply area.

Gabrielle turned and reentered the tent, taking a breath before she moved inside a few steps and considered her next act. Well. She glanced down at herself. First things first, now that she’s taken care of. The bard unbuckled her armor and pulled it off, setting it by the door for later cleaning. She then stripped out of her muddied and blood spattered clothing and walked to the water basin, running one of the last few bits of linen over her body and getting off the worst of the grime.

Her things, of course, weren’t there, but a quick look into Xena’s pack got her a heavy, worn old blue tunic she put on and belted. Then she made her way over to the pallet and kneeled back down again, finding still bloodshot eyes gazing out at her. "Hey, sweetie. How are you doing?"

"Not one of my better days." Xena joked faintly.

"I know." Gabrielle took her hand and interlaced their fingers. "I have something for you."

Blue eyes opened a touch wider, tracking as Gabrielle’s free hand dropped to her throat and exposed both crystal necklaces, nestling together. It brought a genuine smile to Xena’s face. "Where did you find it?" She whispered.

"Where they were camped." The bard replied. "I’ll keep it until your neck heals, okay?" It was hard to look at the raw, jagged wounds caused by the collar.


"Cait has your weapons and armor."

Another smile. "You guys did good." Came the soft reply. "I think I can retire now."

Gabrielle lifted their joined hands and kissed Xena’s fingers. "I had the best teacher there is." She rubbed her cheek against the knuckles. "You need to get some rest."

A very faint nod. "Don’t’ have much time."

"Shh. You’re not going to worry about that right now." Gabrielle leaned over, and helped her ease into a more comfortable position. "Your job is to just lie there and do your magic, okay?" She pulled up the furs and tucked them around the warrior’s shoulders. "We need you in one piece."

"How are you feeling? You look beat, too." Xena murmured. "C'mere."

As though the words were some kind of trigger, Gabrielle felt the anxiety of the last day, and her efforts drop over her. "I’ve got so much to do." She disagreed.

"Nu uh." A warrior paw wrapped itself around her and tugged. "Your job is to c’mover here and help me do magic."

"Xe.." Gabrielle felt her body obeying the summons regardless of her otherwise intent. She sighed, and eased herself onto the pallet, sliding herself under Xena’s head and wrapping her arms around the warrior’s shoulders. She mollified her conscience by offering the waterskin again, pleased when Xena sucked at it without any argument. Who are you kidding, Gabrielle - there's no other place you want to be, and you know it. But there was so much left to say. So much more she had to tell Xena. She felt the warrior’s exhausted body relax against her, and she closed her eyes, putting it all aside for a later time.

Except. "Xe?"


"That woman – the one who had you tied up. Do you know her name?"

"Nellis." A pause. "Why?"

"I just wanted to know."

"She get away?"

"No." Gabrielle murmured. "She didn’t." She let herself drift into pensive thought as Xena’s breathing steadied, and they were both left in silence.


Ephiny was sitting on a log, patiently waiting while Pony stitched a nasty cut on her right shoulderblade. "We got so lucky."

"Finding them?"


Pony sniffed. "Didn't think it was luck, much. Gabrielle knew where she was going." She carefully put in another tiny stitch. "You see her go after that woman?"

"Yes." Ephiny looked at her hands gravely. "I'd better go talk to her about that. You know how she feels - I think she was going just on instinct there." She tried to dismiss the disturbing image of Gabrielle's face, tensed in a savage anger as she hurtled over the horse's back and pounced on the raider. "At least - I hope she was."

Pony absorbed that. "She's changed a lot."

"Oh yeah." Her lover agreed. "She's learned a lot. I think I'd consider her a formidable leader on her own right now." She winced. "Ow."

"Sorry." Pony dabbed at the bit of blood. "I told you to duck when that jerk came at you." She finished up. "There - try not to rip em loose, huh? It's bad spot." The cut ran over the curve of Ephiny's shoulder, where the skin had to flex when she moved. "It was a good fight though, wasn't it?"

The regent ruffled her hair. "They're all good for you." She wiped a bit of soot from the weapons' master's cheek. "Thanks for the patch job. I’m going to go check up on our patient, and see if they need anything." She stretched a little. "Make sure those outer sentries watch like a hawk - I don’t want a surprise counter attack hitting us at the wrong moment."

She picked up her weapons and padded towards the command tent, giving Cait a half smile before she poked her head inside, letting her eyes adjust to the low light. Xena was asleep on her pallet, her head cradled in Gabrielle's lap with one of the bard's arms draped carefully over her. Gabrielle's eyes were closed as well, and the regent simply stood for a moment, absorbing the unexpectedly tender scene.

They'd done a number on the big X, that was for sure. Ephiny shook her head in dismay as she counted the visible bruises, and imagined the others. The bandage was off her eyes, though, and she couldn’t see any damage, so at least maybe that… Quietly she paced forward, waking the bard as she reached the pallet and knelt. 'Hey."

"Mm." Gabrielle lifted her free hand and rubbed her eyes with the back of it. "Didn't meant to do that." She checked her sleeping partner anxiously, putting her hand on the warrior's forehead and producing an unhappy look. "Fever. Damn it."

"How's she doing otherwise?" Ephiny asked quietly. "Looks like they really worked her over." One entire shoulder was darkened with bruises, and a long angry cut marked the warrior from her elbow to her wrist. "And yet she was fighting them. Damn."

'Yeah - that's my Xena." Gabrielle produced a smile. "She found out Andreas is about four days away." Now she looked up at Ephiny. "Gods… I should have come and told you that. She also found out whatever the stuff is they're feeding people, they're not giving it to the line soldiers." A pause. "She seemed to think that was important."

"Mm… could be." Ephiny nodded. "It means the largest part of his army can be influenced one way or the other." She shook her head though ."Good information. Lousy price to pay for it." The regent added ruefully. "We'll need to have a war council - I'll set one up for you after dinner."

For me? No. Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, then slowly closed it again. Yes, Gabrielle. For you. Xena can't do it, and you marched up here and took charge, so get used to it. "All right. Thank you."

"How are you doing?" Ephiny balanced herself with a hand on the bard's knee. "It was a pretty hectic fight out there."

Gabrielle didn't answer.

"Listen - for what it's worth, any of us would have done exactly what you did, Gabrielle. Don’t feel guilty about that." Ephiny urged her.

The answer surprised her. "I don't."

She'd thought a very long time about it, before she'd fallen asleep. Carefully taking the entire experience out and examining it thoroughly, peering at it from all sides with a sense of calmness that had startled her. She'd expected to feel horrible.

She'd expected to feel the crushing, nauseating disgust that had almost crushed her before. But somehow, this time.. this time had been different.

So different. She didn't feel good about it, still wished she'd found a different way, hadn't given in to her anger as she'd ridden towards them. But it was, she had finally realized, the price that had made the difference.

Xena, had made the difference. Her soul couldn't' find it within itself to feel grief over losing a piece of itself to keep Xena whole. It was a very curious, peaceful feeling, knowing she'd made that sacrifice in this cause. "I always thought… " She whispered. "Always, right from the start, I thought if I was going to ever kill someone, Eph - it would be just like this." A wondering pause. "It would be for her - I don’t' regret that. I can't." Her conscience was at peace with what she'd done. "It's not something I want to do, but now I know it's something I can and will do, if I have to."

Given Gabrielle's significant martial prowess, Ephiny wondered if her friend realized just how formidable that knowledge made her. She suspected not. "I'm glad you feel that way. That bitch was bad news, not only for Xena, but in general. I think she's the one who snuck into the village that night you were there. She fits the description Xena gave us."

The green eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I wonder if anyone else recognized her? Eph, ask around. In fact, ask Paladia to make a quick sketch of her, and show it. I wonder if she hadn't used what she looked like to blend in, and mingle with us and we never knew it."

"You think there's spies in camp?" Ephiny's face indicated it wasn't really a question. "There's a lot of people here we don't know really well."

"Xena thinks so, yes." Gabrielle nodded. "She says, you can't stop that, so you're better off using it to your advantage."


"Aslanta's youngsters tried to put a hit on me in Amphipolis, by the way." The bard mentioned. "I have them locked up in a grain storage hut."


"Stupid kids."

"That 'kid' is older than you are, you know." The blond Amazon reminded her, with a smile.

Gabrielle made a face. "Sure doesn’t feel like it."

Ephiny pushed herself to her feet. "I'm going to have some food brought in here. You both look like you need it." She made a mental note to check with Renas on what the big warrior's condition really was. "Get some rest, my friend. We can take care of things for a while."

The bard ran her fingers lightly through the dark hair spilling over her legs. "Thanks, Eph."

The Amazon left, and Gabrielle tilted her head, gazing down at the sleeping warrior under her care. "Tell you what, partner. How about I practice a story on you, huh?" She checked the most significant of her wounds, and sighed. "You want to hear A Warrior's Tale? I finished it."

A tiny sliver of blue and white appeared, and Xena stuck the very tip of her tongue out.

"Here." The bard offered the waterskin, inserting it into the corner of her partner's mouth and watching her suck at it. "Good girl." '

More blue appeared, and one eyebrow rose sharply.

"Aww… you're such a little softie. You fool everyone but me, Warrior Mushball Princess."

Xena gave her a completely outraged look, but the effect was ruined when her soulmate laughed, and leaned over to kiss her. "Think you can get some soup down?"

"Yeah." The warrior replied hoarsely. "I'm starving." A wry look crossed her face. "You don't wanna know what I had to eat last."

Gabirelle wrinkled her nose. "Was it moving?"

"Uh huh."

"Ew. You had to tell me that after I just kissed you, right?"

Xena produced a faint, but genuine laugh. The rest she'd had since Renas had left had restored some of her energy, and now it was mostly the all over pain that was giving her the most trouble. Just being here with Gabrielle helped. She could almost feel the warmth spreading out from her soulmate, bathing her in an affection far more potent than any herbs could ever be. She blinked, and flinched. "Damn - that stings."

"They put thorns on the inside of that bandage." Gabrielle reached over and picked up a tiny jar of salve, putting a bit on her fingertip and spreading it over the punctured eyelids. "The cruelty of these people scares me, Xe." She moved down to annoint the jagged, raw cuts and gashes on Xena's neck. "I got so angry when I saw her doing this to you."

"I know." The warrior regarded her seriously. "I felt it." She moved her hand, touching Gabrielle's knee. "After I smelled you guys coming."

The bard was silent, the need to talk to her best friend about what she'd done warring with the pain she knew it would cause her. She touched Xena's cheek, seeing the pain etched in her features, and set the matter aside for the moment. "And here I told everyone to take a bath before we left."

" was you I recognized." Despite her injuries, there was a mischevious sparkle in Xena's eyes.

"Me?" Gabrielle sniffed her arm tentatively. "Do I smell?"

"Oh…yeah." The tired voice dropped into a sexy growl. Xena flared her nostrils, and took an exaggerated sniff, nuzzling the bard's belly.

"Ew. Xena. Cut that out." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and made a face. "You're making me feel like a warthog or something."

"Nah.. that would be this." Xena made as snorting noise against the soft flesh she was pillowed on, causing her friend to burst into laughter. She snorted again, and chuckled a bit herself.

A throat clearing at the tent flap made them both glance over with guilty looks. Gillen was standing there with a tray, and now she moved gracefully across the floor, her compact, muscular figure outlined in rusty brown leathers and worn, but meticulously kept boots.

"Ephiny said you needed this." The Amazon queen remarked. "Xena, I'm glad they managed to break out from those bastards. Looks like you're recovering though."

"Gabrielle's a very " Xena was painfully aware of just how precious a picture they must have presented. "Healer." Pause. "Among other things."

"So I have heard." The older Amazon's lips moved into a tight smile. "I have also heard there was an incident in Amphipolis yesterday? That you have some of Aslanta's people locked up?"

"That's right." Gabrielle stated, aware of the blue eyes watching her. "One of them tried to shoot me." She felt the coiling shift of Xena's muscles under her hands and stroked the warrior's arm. "Turns out they were approached by someone offering a hundred thousand dinars."

"For you?"


"Interesting." Gillen set the tray down "Ephiny tells me you called a meeting for tonight?"

Gabrielle smelled ego. "To share information, sure. Xena found out some things in the raider's camp - probably a lot more than they bargained on." She gave her partner a fond smile. "She probably made an impression on the ones that got away, too. That will work in our favor."

Xena folded her hands over her stomach, and quirked her lips. "I've given Gabrielle all the observations I made. She can add to that her own when she briefs you." Her eyes were closed, and she listened to the very significant, and chilly silence coming from the other Amazon.

"I see." Gillen replied shortly. "All right. See you then." She turned and left, leaving the distinct sound of ruffled feathers behind her.

Two sighs. "Amazons." Two voices murmuring together. "I don't think she's really pleased with me taking over like this." Gabrielle stated the obvious, from habit. "Maybe we should have backed off on being so.."

"No." Xena replied firmly, her eyes still closed. "Gabrielle, armies aren't run by committee. At least sucessful ones aren't." She muttered as an afterthought. "But every good commander has one person they can trust completely, who knows the plan, and who can take over in case something happens."

There was a little silence. "I guess that's me, huh?"

Xena opened her eyes. "Maybe that's why I never succeeded before. I never had anyone I could trust the way I trust you." The ex warlord admitted. "No one to share the plans with , or whose judgement I trusted and relied on to tell me I was going in the wrong direction."

The responsibility was almost scary. "I wish I trusted my judgement as much as you do." Gabrielle stated wistfully.

"I wish I trusted myself as much as you do." Xena countered honestly. "But between the two of us, I think we're okay."

Gabrielle offered her a spoonful of soup. "All right. But I don't want to stand in for you very long. Eat up."

Xena chuckled, but obediently complied.


She woke up from a doze much later, alone in the tent, though she could hear the faint sounds of the guards outside.

For a moment, she just lay quietly, stretching out abused muscles and testing the myriad of aches and twinges she felt on moving her limbs. Then she slowly pulled herself up into sitting position, and swung her legs over the edge of the pallet, resting her elbows on her knees and gazing sleepily over the bare, spartan tent.

Damn it. She winced as she blinked. Her eyelids were bothering her more than most of her other injuries. With an irritated grimace, she sat up and examined the heavily bandaged wound on her leg. It throbbed painfully, and by the slight chills she was experiencing, she guessed the prolonged contact with all the dirt had allowed it to become infected.

Great. With a stifled oath she pushed herself to her feet and limped over to her pack, removing her healer's kit and returning to the pallet to collapse back on it with a grunt. That caused Cait to poke her head inside the tent flap cautiously. "It's just me, Cait." Xena muttered, as she used her smallest knife to cut the bandage off.

"Hello." The girl eased her way in and padded across the grassy floor. "That looks awful."

"Thanks." The warrior regarded her leg crossly. The wound was, as she'd suspected, swollen and red, seeping a red specked yellow substance from where it had been stitched. She sighed, and ran her knife through the nearby candle flame for a moment, then paused to let it cool before she used the edge to slice through the stitches.

It opened with a pop, and started gushing various nasty substances. Xena glanced up as she heard Cait swallow, and gave her a wry, knowing look. "I could use some fresh, hot water."

"Right." Cait agreed instantly, turning on her heel and escaping.

The warrior regarded the wound pensively, then reached over and picked up Gabrielle's quill, which she'd left resting on her diary and put the end of it between her teeth, clamping her jaws down tight. She removed the stitches, then probed with the knife, breaking open two more pockets of infection and allowing them to release their poison over her skin.

Then she had to stop, as her hands were shaking from the pain. She waited patiently for it to subside a little, and turned her attention to the burn just next to it. Her face tensed in anger, seeing the brand that had been put into the reddened flesh.

Cait slipped back in, crossing quickly and bringing her over a steaming bucket of water, and some clean linen bandages. "Here, I thought you might need these." She knelt deliberatly close, apparently ashamed of her earlier queasiness. "That's awful."

Xena stared at the tiny lion, a darkly feral glare coming into her eyes. "Look away, Cait. You don't want to see me do this." She growled softly around the quill.

"I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you." The young Amazon replied steadily.

The warrior took a deep breath, then steeled herself as she carefully, and deliberately cut deep into her skin around the brand, then slid her blade under it, removing an entire square of flesh. She lifted it free and the space was filled with rich, crimson blood, which welled up and spilled over her leg in concert with a rush of intense pain that came very close to making her pass out.

She closed her eyes a moment and just concentrated on taking deep breaths, forcing her body to remain upright and shunting the pain to one side. After a minute, it subsided somewhat and she could look down again at the bloody mess of her leg. With a sigh, she put the square of skin down and picked up the clean linen, wetting it and starting to clean the wound off.

"May I do that?" Cait asked, in a small voice.

Xena handed the linen over without a word, and leaned back on her hands, curling her fingers into the furs as the girl, working painstaking caution, rinsed the raw spots out. The stinging was almost unbearable, but she fixed her eyes on a far point, and concentrated on thinking of other things until Cait's hands withdrew. "Thanks."

Cait sat back on her heels and bundled the bloody, pus streaked bandages in a pile, her face very thoughtful. "It's quite a bit braver to bear pain, than cause it, I believe." She looked up. "Isn't it?"

Xena nodded once. "You could say that." She agreed. "But the more you fight, the more you learn how to stand the pain, Cait. It comes with the job." She rummaged in her healer's kit and pulled out some of the powdered herbs. "After a while, you learn to live with it."

She chose an herb, and sprinkled it over the wound. The blood was running clear and red now and she held a square of linen over it, bracing herself for the next step.

"You didn't have to take that burned bit off though, did you?"

"Physically, no." Xena replied quietly. "But I'd rather suffer the pain of that than stand that bastard's mark on my body." She spread some salve on a bandage and pressed it into place over the spot, then tied the linen in place, before she turned her attention to the knife wound.

They heard voices approaching, and both looked up as the tent flap moved back, and Gabrielle entered, her body language fairly screaming irritation to her observant partner. "Hey.. " She stopped. "What are you doing?" Ephiny and Gillen had entered behind her, and paused, watching the warrior with respectful caution.

"Had to let the pressure out of that leg wound." Xena remarked casually, as she continued pulling a bit of gut and a bone needle from her kit. "How'd the conference go?" She glanced up at the visitors. "C'mon in. Siddown."

The two older Amazons took seats on the plain wooden stools Xena had brought into her command tent, and tried not to look at the open gash in the warrior's leg. "Xena, from what Gabrielle tells us, we've only got four days.. no, less, to prepare for a major assault." Gillen started in.

"Yes." Xena threaded the needle, the watched as it was taken out of her hands by her partner. Gabrielle sat down on the pallet and slid her own leg under the warrior's bringing the candle closer so she could see what she was doing. "I can do that, you know."

"I know. But you always get them crooked." The bard muttered, smoothing the raw skin with careful fingers. "It drives me nuts."

"That's why I want to get in some drills tomorrow in close order." Xena folded her arms and addressed the two Amazons. "One of the things I was hoping to find out when I went scouting yesterday was how much time we had. Now I know. The battlements are almost done, we've got outposts established, and the one thing I was really worried about, their advance raiding party has been neutralized."

They digested this. "Xena.. it almost sounds like you went out and got captured on purpose." Ephiny stated. "Did you?"

Xena smiled grimly. "It was one way to get the knowledge I needed, but no." Her face went still for a moment. "And I lost a good friend out there." She looked over as Bennu entered. "We have to use the time we have left to build up stores of arrows and spears, and clear the areas between here and the hills of anything Andreas could use to make siege engines."

"That means burning t'forest." Bennu commented.


"Let's get trap pits dug in the soft areas." The warrior continued. "As he gets closer, I'll want a team to dump every bit of trash we have in the feeder stream just past that outer band of trees to foul the water supply they'll have to use."

"That's a lot to do in four days."

"Guess we'd better get started." Bennu grunted. "Glad t'see you're feeling better, genr'l."

"Does that answer your questions?" Gabrielle looked up for the first time, eyeing Gillen."

The older Amazon exhaled, and folded her arms. "We'll do the best we can." Her eyes met Gabrielle's. "I have to make sure my people are safe, Gabrielle. If that means I ask lots of hard questions, and you're not comfortable with that, it's just to bad." She stood up. "And if you did go out there and get captured on purpose, Xena, it's about the most irresponsible thing I could think of you doing. This army depends on you."

Gillen turned and left, giving the impression of slamming the tent flap behind her.

There was a brief silence. "I would think if she coughs hard enough, she could get that feather out of her backside." Cait finally spoke. "She's ever so jealous of you."

"Of who?" Xena and Gabrielle asked, at the same time.

Bennu cleared his throat. "Genr'l - I figgered to give t'men a little wine tonight."

"Fine." Xena nodded at him. "We'll do field drills tomorrow morning." She paused. "Not at first light, though."

"Will do." Bennu agreed, and ducked out of the tent.

"They've just finished with a lovely smelling stew, would you like some?" Cait asked. "And flatbread and cheese."

"That would be great." Xena smiled. "Thanks, Cait."

The girl scrambled up and left, taking her used linens with her, leaving her two heroes behind.

Gabrielle snipped the last bit of gut, and put the needle down, then looked up as Xena leaned forward and rested her head against the bard's back. "You okay?"

"No." The warrior moaned.

"Easy." She swung Xena's legs up onto the pallet and held her as she laid back down. "You and that too tough for your leathers attitude." She slid her arms around the taller woman as she curled onto her side, and burrowed her head into Gabrielle's chest, seeking comfort.

"You could have called for help, instead of doing this yourself." She scolded the warrior, as she scratched the back of her neck lightly. "What am I going to do with you?"

"It needed to be done." Xena muttered into the warm body she was hugging. "Damn thing was killing me." After a minute or two the agony faded, and she was able to roll over and rest her head on the pillow, laying her forearm over her eyes. "Must have been something on that knife - it was nasty in there."

"Hm." Gabrielle bent over to pick up the debris from the cleaning, then paused, seeing the small, blood covered piece of skin. She straightened and glanced at her partner's leg, then turned around and looked at her face. "That wasn't all from the knife wound, was it?" She pulled Xena's arm away from her eyes. "Xena." The warrior's eyes were a little glazed, and Gabrielle put a hand on her forehead. "Was that really necessary?"

"Probably not." Xena produced a sheepish scowl. "On the other hand, these people are crazy enough to burn herbs into a wound like that. Who knows?"

"You just didn't want that mark on you." Gabrielle fastened a light bandage over the cut, then pulled the furs up over her charge and handed her the waterskin. "Was it worth all that pain?"

"Yes." Xena replied shortly. "I don’t wear anyone's mark."

Gabrielle thought about the hawk on her shoulder, but kept silent. Xena had offered to remove it, after all, and she'd chosen to turn her down. "It's strange, how people use markings. I remember in Brittania, I saw so many of them. I didn't understand what most of them meant, though."

"Clan markings, most of them. Status, that kind of thing." The warrior replied.

"I remember one I saw a lot - a snake with it's tail in it's mouth." The bard went on, picking up the scattered herbs and bits from the kit. "Like armbands, sometimes , they had it."

"That's a symbol for eternity." Xena had her eyes closed. "The neverending circle."

"Eternity.. that's like forever." A smile. "No wonder I really liked that one." Though she had almost, then, stopped believing in forever, she'd briefly considered having one put on her arm. Grasping at straws? Maybe. She shook her head, then glanced up to see Xena watching her, and to her surprise, felt tears welling up.

Xena put a hand on her arm, puzzled. "Gab?"

The bard shook her head, blinking and watching the droplets fall on her leg.

"Hey." Now alarmed, Xena struggled to sit up. "What is it?" She shifted her hold from the bard's arm to her face, turning it so she could make eye contact. "Was it the mark? Damn, Gabrielle, al right. I admit it was a stupid thing to do, okay?"

She covered her eyes with one hand and let a small laugh escape. "No.. I'm sorry." She scrubbed her face. "Something happened at that camp and I think it's just making me think of things."

"What happened?" Xena asked, predictably. "Did someone hurt you?"

"No." Gabrielle gathered both of Xena's hands in hers, feeling the warmth in them. "It was something I did." She took a deep breath, aware of the sharpening of Xena's gaze. "That woman - the one who had you tied up."


A nod. "You were fighting with her."

"I was trying to provide a distraction for you."

"I figured that out." Gabrielle whispered. "Well, you were, but she was.. " She had to stop a minute. "I was coming towards you, and I saw her lift up her sword, and go at you."

Xena's brow creased, as she was obviously trying to put together non visual sensations. "I knew I - got around her a few times. She knocked me off balance. I thought… "

"Yes." Gabrielle agreed. "You were turned right towards her, and she was.. her sword was coming right at you. I…" Now her own memory was surprising. "I jumped over your horses head and I.. " The viceral image of the knife going in made her hands shake. "I stopped her."

"Mm." Xena didn't seem disturbed. "I felt something brush by me, and then the next thing I knew you were grabbing my arm." She smiled. "Thank you." She hesitated. "She didn't hurt you, did she?"

Gabrielle blinked, gazing into space for a moment. "Xena, I killed her." She lifted her eyes to see the shocked face across from her. It was obviously the last thing in the world her soulmate expected to hear.

A dozen emotions raced across the angular face, ending with a stark sorrow that seemed to have rendered Xena speechless.

"It's okay." Gabrielle released her hand and touched the now chill skin on her cheek. "And before you ask, no, it wasn't an accident."

"Gabrielle." Xena spoke on an exhale. She collected herself and caught the hand caressing her face, chafing the fingers. "Are you all right?" She felt like her world had just turned up side down.

A nod. "I had a chance to think about it while you were sleeping before."


"Are you mad at me?" The craving for Xena's approval had never really faded, she found.

"I'm mad at me." Xena admitted softly. "For putting you in a position where you had to make that choice." A thousand pounds of guilt fell on her as she fell back down onto the pillow.

"Well." Gabrielle laid down next to her. "I don't know - maybe having Dori changed something for me, Xena."

Blue eyes watched her intently.

"I've become more.. I want to say selfish, but it's not that. More protective of what's mine, I guess." Gabrielle mused. "More conscious of the lengths I'll go to in defending myself, and my family." A pause. "They say there's no fiercer thing in nature than a mother with her cubs, right?"

Xena thought about that. It was true, she realized. Gabrielle had changed since she'd had Dori, except they'd spent so much time at home, she hadn't had a chance to really appreciate it until now. She was, undeniably, much fiercer, and more confident, both of her own judgement and Xena's. Wish it'd had that effect on me. The warrior sighed inwardly. Different time, different people, Different circumstances, I guess. "That's what they say, yes."

"I'm not giving up my staff, Xena." Gabrielle snuggled up to her, wrapping an arm around her stomach and resting her head on the warrior's shoulder. "I never want to choose violence first."

"Mm." Xena didn't agree. The thought of her gentle soulmate even having to make that choice sickened her in ways she felt almost impossible to articulate. But Gabrielle needed her support in this, no matter how she felt about it personally. What would being negative bring to either of them, besides tension and unease, in a situation where they could neither afford that?

On the other hand, a thought suddenly intruded. How many people in your life have you known who were willing to risk their life, and soul in your defense?

Xena sighed. Then she reached over and pulled Gabrielle's fair head closer, kissing it gently. She felt the bard let out a breath of relief and relax, and ruffled her hair in deep affection. "I'll try to stay out of trouble, in that case." Another breath of relief. "I'm glad you told me about it."

"Me too." Gabrielle felt almost lightheaded. She'd been more worried about her soulmate's reaction than she'd realized, and now that it was over, she didn't feel like moving a single inch.

Xena tilted her head, and regarded the soundly sleeping bard with a bemused smile. Then she shrugged, and pulled the covers up, gazing thoughtfully up into the gloom.


Gabrielle woke when the first light turned the sky outside from black to purple. She turned over and checked her partner, who was still asleep, arms clasped lightly around her. Xena's skin was warm, and she could see the furrows in her brow, though, and she sighed softly, giving the warrior a worried look. "Hey." She stroked Xena's cheek gently.

Slowly, the dark lashes fluttered, and tired blue eyes appeared. "Hey."

"You look like Hades, sweetheart." Gabrielle smoothed some very disheveled hair back out of the way. "Didn't sleep well, did you?"

Xena shook her head and shifted, visibly biting the inside her lip as she rolled over onto her back and grabbed her leg.

"Here. Let me do that." The bard sat up and lit the candle by the bedside, bringing it close and carefully removing the bandage over the wound in Xena's leg. She sucked in a breath with a hiss. "Oh. Xena." The cut was swollen and tense, an angry red that was painful even to look at. "Okay - sit still." She got up and collected the things she'd need, kneeling over the small brazier in the tent and stirring up the almost dead coals to heat some water.

Xena watched her, letting her weight back down onto the pillows and tugging the covers up around her shoulders. She felt, frankly, like a pile of centaur poop. Between shivering and the ache of her wounds, it had been an uncomfortable night at best, and the only thing that had even made it bearable was Gabrielle's close presence, which had provided warmth and soothed her restlessness. She laid there quietly, steeling herself for the trial she knew was coming, the reopening again of her leg wound, which was throbbing so tightly it was making it hard to breathe.

A gentle pressure on the pallet made her opened her eyes, to see Gabrielle's concerned expression facing her. "Gonna have to open that up again."

"I know." The bard handed her a cup. "Here, drink this."

The warrior took it and sniffed suspiciously. "I thought I was the healer."

"Xena, shut up and drink it." Her partner scolded her. "Don't make this tough on me, okay?"

She drank the mixture down, recognizing the fever herbs, and the ones to make her sleep, and couldn't really argue with either of them. Forcing herself out of bed in the condition she was in wasn’t' only a stupid idea, it was one likely to earn her the justified wrath of her partner.

"Lay down." Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder and pushed gently, then laid a fresh, clean piece of linen over the injured leg and set to work, deliberately keeping her back to Xena so she didn't have to see the pain cross her soulmate's face. She opened the cut again, and let it drain, then cleaned it very carefully, rinsing the red, angry flesh out repeatedly with clean water.

Xena didn't make a sound, and the leg under her touch remained still. Gabrielle packed the wound with clensing herbs and wrapped it firmly, instead of putting stitches back in, then she rested her hand on Xena's knee for a moment, before she turned and met the quiet eyes watching her. "All done."

"Thanks." Xena murmured, peering down the length of her body. "Good job."

Gabrielle put the used linen down and swiveled around, picking up a waterskin and making sure the warrior drank a good portion of it. "I'm going to go check things out for you." The bard put a finger on her partner's nose. "I'll see what needs doing, get people started, make sure everyone's busy, then I'll come back and let you know what's going on, okay?"

Xena folded her hands over her stomach and regarded her bemusedly. "Okay." She agreed "If you'll pass over here that set of scrolls, and a couple of quills. I need to write out the battle plans."

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on the bed. "You'll stay right here though, right? Tucked into this bed, nice and warm and comfy?"

"Yes, I will." Xena promised gravely. "If I could get an apple or something to chew on."

"Oh, I think we can do a little better than that." Gabrielle picked up her hand, and rubbed the knuckles and against her lips, kissing them. "How do you feel otherwise?"

Totally, completely, absolutely disgusting. "Fine." Xena produced a smile. "G'wan."

"All right. I'll be back in a little while with some breakfast. You lie down now, and just rest for awhile, Xena."

Obediently, she closed her eyes and let the darkness come back in for a while, leaving the pain behind.

Gabrielle watched the planed face relax, and she spent a moment just sitting there, holding the strong hand clasped in hers. Then she pulled the covers up a little tighter, and stood, walking to the water basin to scrub her face, shaking herself into wakefulness in order to face the day.

She changed into a padded undertunic and heavy leggings, then slipped the layered armor over her head and let it settle onto her shoulders, buckling the belt and arranging the dagger so that it rested against her leg. She was starting to get used to the armor, she was surprised to realize, after wondering how Xena stood wearing hers for all those years.

"Guess you can get used to anything, after a while." She murmured, as she shrugged her cloak over her shoulders and fastened the throat catch. At the tent flap, she turned for just a moment more, and watched the sleeping warrior shift restlessly. "Be right back, Xena." She turned and ducked out of the tent, jumping as a slim form rose out of the morning mist to greet her. "Zeus… you scared the poop out of me, Cait."

"Sorry about that." Cait apologized. "How's Xena?"

"Not very comfortable, but we're working on that." Gabrielle replied. "I'm going to go check things out, then bring some breakfast back here. She's sleeping right now."

"Right." Cait nodded. "I've been trading off with Pally keeping watch - she likes the daytime better, so she can draw and whatnot, so I"ve taken the night bits."

"Thanks, Cait. If I know you're out here, it makes me feel a lot better." Gabrielle smiled at the young Amazon. "There's always levels of trust, but there's only a handful of people I'd feel comfortable leaving around Xena when she's not up to par."

"Goodness. What a compliment that was. Thank you." Cait laughed in surprise.

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in a grin, then started off towards the central supply area. Her head was still a little stuffed up, but otherwise she felt pretty good, and the cold breeze moving through the encampment felt nice ruffling her hair.

"Morning, Gabrielle." Gillen caught her up as she crossed in front of the makeshift armory. "Just heard in from the four outposts - all's quiet so far."

"That's good." The bard sighed. "Listen, I think I owe you an apology for last night. I was pretty rattled over the whole day."

The older Amazon Queen strolled along for a bit, considering the words. "Gabrielle, it's not that I don't respect you." She spoke slowly. "But I've been the leader of my people for a long time, and I've seen and done a lot during that period."

"I understand that, Gillen. Your experience is invaluable to what we're doing here."

Gillen sighed. "Gabrielle, may I speak frankly?"


"I'm old enough to be your mother."

Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip. "And having to listen to me is making you totally crazy, right?"

"Something like that." A tilt of her head. "I know you've had experience, Gabrielle. In some areas, more than I have. I know you've traveled, and you've lived for a number of years with a very canny strategist, but damn it, you're just a kid!"

"Mm." Gabrielle held open the flap of the rough tent they'd set up for the battle commanders to meet in. She could hear voices already in side, and she exhaled. "I wish I felt like a kid sometimes." She admitted softly. "Gillen, you're just going to have to trust me. I really do have a grasp on what's going on, and the trust of the matter is, there's some things that Xena knows, and has plans for, that she'll only tell me."

"She doesn't trust us?"

"Given what happened in Amphipolis, would you?"

Gillen made a sucking sound as she followed Gabrielle inside the tent. "We'll talk about this some more."

Gabrielle nodded, then moved to the table in the tent, which was covered in maps and surrounded by half lit forms. "Good morning."

Heads turned. "Morning, Gabrielle." Ephiny gave a half wave of her hand. "How's Xena'?"

"Doing all right." The bard assured them. "That leg gash is the worst of it. The bruises have already started fading. You know Xena."

"She's tough." Tyldus nodded gravely. "My warriors have set up a routine to exchange information with the outposts - we didn't want to trust signal fires."

"Good." Gabrielle circled the table and studied the map. The river was prominent, and their positions on it were carefully marked and deployed in a defensive arc that covered the span from past the bridge, back to the forest. The outposts were shown, the furthest out just at the point where the hills came down to the river valley. The road it watched was the only land route that approached Amphipolis, which Andreas would have to use for his supply wagons. He could take them off the road, but the boggy areas and the outthrusts of granite made passage by wagon very tough, and they were banking on the fact that Andreas would not have had time to restock his horses to use a pack train instead.

So the plan was, to let him come ahead, down the road until he cleared the foothills. Then the Amazons would start hit and run attacks, using the forest that ringed the river valley for cover, and their horses for fast escape.

Not that it would stop Andreas, of course, but it might demoralize some of his troops, and as Xena said, every soldier they put out of action was one less they had to face in battle. "How are the pits and traps doing?"

"No bad." Bennu grunted. "Need some more pointed sticks, though."

"We have some here." Gillen nodded. "I'll have a bunch ridden out to you after the recap."

"Xena wanted to run the ground troops out onto the plain today, and practice close order." Gabrielle reminded them. "It's our weak area."

"Right." Paliemon agreed. "Rampant individulaists that we are." He chuckled and scrubbed a hand through his close cropped blond hair. "What did Xena say, we've got about four days, wasn't it?"

"Looks like it, yes. Maybe a little less - it depends on if Andreas pushes or not." Gabrielle replied, cocking her head as she heard a low rumble of thunder. "And I think the weather's working on our behalf. Discipline or no discipline, marching in the mud just slows things down."

"Gabrielle, what's the plan if we can't hold them?" Gillen suddenly asked.

The bard arranged one of the markers. "We fall back behind the river." She replied. "Destroy the bridge, and dredge the ford. Xena had chains run to the logs and left the ends on the far side."

"How long will that keep them, though?" Gillen persisted.

"It depends." Gabrielle rested her weight on the table. "The thing about the river is, we can hold them there with a reduced force, and start moving troops and the support people out to the valley." She moved a marker idly. "As long as they don't cross and block us off from there, we'll be fine. But Xena's hoping to hold them at the battlements long enough for the really bad weather to set in, and that's going to make it very tough on them. The river here doesn't freeze over, but the outsprings towards the hills do."

"So, if they do break through, we have to keep them from getting between us, and the path through the pass towards the valley?"

"Right." Gabrielle agreed. "But Xena figures if we can keep them on this side of the river, when the weather starts clearing we can start pushing them back." The thunder rolled again. "I don't.. " The sound of hoofbeats approaching made her stop speaking. Tyldus trotted to the tent flap and looked outside, recognizing the sound as centaur and not equine. He bent his head outside for a long moment, then pulled it back inside. "Gabrielle, the furthermost outpost is sending word that they've pass through some refugess." The centaur's face was very grave. "They are fleeing before Andreas army, and they have some horrible stories to tell."

Gabrielle nodded. "Ephiny, take two warriors, and some extra horses - see if you can get them up here more quickly. We need that information." She got off the table. "I'm going to brief Xena. I expect she'll want to talk to them as soon as they get here."

There was a rustle of moment, and Gabrielle ignored it as she walked out of the tent, and headed towards the meal preparation area. She collected a basket of breakfast then made her way back to where her soulmate was resting.

Cait and Paladia were seated side by side near the tent flap, sharing some bread and cheese. Gabrielle gave them a little wave, before she ducked inside the tent and focused her eyes on the pallet. Xena was still curled up asleep, her body finally relaxed except for the faint flexing of her fingers against the blankets.

The bard set her basket down and knelt by Xena's side, wishing she didn't have to wake her. Finally, she put her hand out and tested the temperature of the tanned skin, not surprised when the dark eyelashes fluttered. "Sorry."

Xena yawned and blinked, focusing on Gabrielle's face reluctantly. "Your fault." She rumbled. "You put enough of those damn herbs in that cup to knock out Argo."

"You feel a little cooler." Gabrielle noted.

"Ungh." Xena rolled over onto her back and cautiously stretched her body out. "That leg's killing me, but everything else seems to be okay." She probed the bandaged area. "But it doesn’t feel as tight as it did before."

"Good." Gabrielle tugged her basket closer and sat down cross-legged to dig out it's contents. "There are some refugees coming in who have firsthand knowledge of Andreas. I thought you might want to talk to them." She stirred up some thick venison stew and offered her injured companion a spoonful. "Open wide."

"Gabrielle." Xena moved back over onto her side. "I'm not Dori."

"I know. She'd have just opened her mouth and not given me a hassle." The bard replied blithely. "Open up." She rewarded the warrior with a grin as she complied, and started munching. "I sent Ephiny to go fetch our guests, and it looks like Bennu and Paliemon have the traps and pits under control."

Thunder drowned out her next words, and she paused, to wait for it to finish. "And, it's going to rain."

"So I hear." Xena reached out a hand idly and let it rest on Gabrielle's propped elbow. "Did they get those pits finished?"

"Almost." Gabrielle offered up another spoonful. "They were getting asking for more sticks." A vivid picture came to her mind of the use of those sticks, and she winced. "I know this is stupid, but I wish there was a way for us to do this without fighting."

"You do?"

A sigh. "Yeah." Gabrielle shook her head as she regarded the stew. "I know he's an evil person, and I know someone has to stop him, but damn it, Xena - there should be a better way."

"You really feel that way?"

"Yes." Gabrielle looked up. "At this stage, it's kinda stupid, isn't it?"

Xena smiled. "No." She rubbed her soulmate's arm. "I'm glad you feel that way. It's the right way to think, Gabrielle - because you're absolutely correct. There should be a better way. War is stupid." She exhaled. "Believe me, that's been on my mind. If I could have though of a way to stop him without going through this, I would have done it in a heartbeat." She shook here head. "But there wasn't. In order to negotiate, as you know, you need to have something the other person wants. Either land, or money, or something - the only thing I could bargain with was that we'd stop resisting him, and he knows he's got a force big enough to roll over us anyway."

"He does." Green eyes watched her face.

"Yes, he does, or at least, he thinks he does." Xena amended. "All we really could do is run, or break up into little groups and harass him."

"Would that have worked?"

"Maybe. After a long time, and after he'd rampaged all over everyone else." Xena sighed. "It would have been very hard to coordinate."

Gabrielle fed her another spoonful of stew. "You want to take this, and I'll change your bandage again? I think packign it with that herb mixture helped." She handed the bowl over. "But Xe - this isn't going to heal in three days."

There was a quiet moment, then a soft scrape of the spoon against wood. "I know." Xena replied evenly. "It won't be the first time I've fought hurt."


"Don't forget, Gabrielle, that's how I learned to be as good on horseback as I am - I had no choice." The blue eyes regarded her seriously. "As long as I can stay on Argo's back, I'll be fine."

Gabrielle stood up and paced, visibly agitated. "Xena, this is not the same thing. They're going to be coming right for you, we both know that."

"This is not a negotiable item." The warrior stated flatly. "I have to be out there, Gabrielle." Xena sat up, then gingerly swung her legs over the edge of the bed. "I've fought with worse than this."

Gabrielle regarded her for a moment, then sighed. "Not this kind of fight." She picked up her supplies and sat down on the ground with a thump, taking her temper out on the strips of linen as she yanked them from the bag. "Stubborn." She muttered under her breath, as she prepared another dressing.

Fingers scratched her lightly on the back of the neck, and she turned her head with a scowl, to see gently twinkling blue eyes gazing back at her. One winked, and she replied with the tip of her tongue, poking it out from between her teeth.

Xena took that as an invitation and inclined her head, bending over and capturing the tiny pink slice, then lengthening the contact as Gabrielle tipped her head back, her neck muscles loosening as the teasing exploration started a familiar ache in her belly.

They paused to breathe, and the bard rubbed her cheek against the warm leg next to her, gazing half lidded up at her companion. "I think… " She took a breath, and started unwrapping the bandage. "I'd better take care of this." A soft puff of breath moved her hair, and she felt a little nibble against her scalp. "While I still can."

Xena chuckled, a deep, rich sound that vibrated her senses, and she worked quickly, removing the old linen and repacking the wound, distracted by subtle strokes that ran up and down her arms, then circled her belly, tickling in unexpected places. "Xe." She chuckled softly, trying to wind the bandage around the muscular thigh. "Oo.. um, hold still..ah, no, on second thought.. " Her hands slid from the linen to skin, returning the light touches carefully, but now that her task was finished, the exploring fingers became more insistent. "'Y'know… it's broad daylight."

Xena nibbled her way up her partner's neck to her ear. "And your point is what?" She growled.

"My point is.." Xena's hands hit a very sensitive spot and she sucked air in. "Um… my point is…"

"Mmm?" Xena bit down on the skin of her neck, rolling the tiny fold in her teeth and licking it.


"Oo.. I found one of your points." Xena had unhooked her armor and slid a hand beneath it.

Gabrielle felt her mouth go dry, and she turned, sliding up onto the bed and reaching carefully for her partner's battered body. It was…

A little scary, because she knew someone could walk in at any minute.

Xena pulled her down and stretched out next to her, and she stopped caring if anyone did or not.

"No more arguments?" The low voice rumbled softly.

Gabrielle tilted her head and kissed the waiting lips. "No." She whispered.

"Good." Xena smiled.


The tent was very quiet. The brazier off to one side made it's occasional crackle and spat, and the wind ruffled the tent fabric, making the candle on the rough desk flutter, but the soft patter of the rain was all Xena could hear outside as she sat, fingers curled around a quill, and wrote with firm, steady strokes.

The troops, she knew, were out in front of the camp drilling, despite the weather, and the refugees were almost all the way to the river. Xena paused, and put her quill down, then picked up a warm cup and took a mouthful of the herbal tea, rinsing it around inside her mouth before she swallowed it. She shifted a little and winced, then slowly eased her leg into a more comfortable position. The ache had spread it's way down almost to her knee, and sitting up wasn't helping any.

And everything else ached too, as the damp, cold weather played havoc with her abused body. Xena allowed herself a moment of self pity, then she shook her head and went back to her writing, taking another sip of the tea as she carefully copied out a list of the troops under her command.

She pulled a map closer and studied it, then nodded and scribbled something else down, reaching up and pulled her cloak a little closer around her neck. A soft pattering of footsteps made her ears prick up and she paused, eyeing the tent flap as it was nudged aside and Ares entered, his tongue lolling and water glistening off his dark fur. "Hey there, boy." Xena found herself smiling, glad to see her furry friend. "C'mere."

Ares obligingly trotted over and stuck his large head into her lap, getting her wet and jostling her wound painfully. She ignored that, and rubbed his ears. "How are you doing, hmm?" She felt under his collar, and unclipped the round, bone holder, sliding a gut band off it and opening the small capsule. Inside was a tightly rolled piece of parchment, which she undid and spread on the table, reading it while idly petting Ares. Her mother's note was brief, as usual, and to the point. Xena shook her head and turned it over, sharpening her quill and dipping it into the ink, then scribing a short response. "I'm fine, just a couple of scratches - don't worry. Gabrielle is fine. Tell Dori we love her. X.

She rolled it back up and inserted it. "How'd you like some stew before you go back, hm, Ares?"

"Arogr." The wolf licked her knee.

"Hey, Paladia!" Xena lifted her voice, managing a half grin when the tall, dour Amazon poked her head inside the tent.


"Ask one of those guys outside to bring a pot of stew next time they go past, okay?"

The pale eyes regarded her.

"Enough for all of us?" Xena suggested.

"All right." Paladia agreed. "Bout the only way I'm gonna get fed. They sure wouldn't bring it just for me."

Xena decided not to tell her the stew was for the wolf. "Right."

Paladia disappeared, and Xena propped her head up, reviewing her work. Moments later, a soft tap on the tent surface made her look up, to see Gillen outlined in the doorway. "C'mon in."

The older Amazon entered. "Glad to see you up and around." She commented, seating herself on one of the low stools near the desk.

"Not the first time I've taken a few knocks." Xena dismissed the injuries with a wave of her hand. "What can I do for you?"

"Still, it doesn't get any easier, does it." Gillen smiled. "I know how my bones hate this weather, and it's been years since I've broken any of them."

"Mm." Xena rocked her hand in a gesture of agreement. "Like anything else, you deal with it." She scribed a number onto her list. "This weather's our friend."

"True." The Amazon agreed briskly. "But sickness won't help us any."

"By the time a true sickness could spawn, and work it's way through here, the battle will be over." Xena replied flatly. "The drilling might save some lives."

Gillen thought about that, making a light sucking noise against her lower lip. "Interesting view of things." She admitted. "Well, I'm going to ride out to the outposts. See what I can see."

Xena nodded. "Good idea. I'll want to lead a raiding party out there in about a day, when Andreas gets a little closer."

Gillen regarded the sturdy, dark haired figure behind the desk, it's strong profile outlined in candlelight. In the flicker, you might miss the lurid bruises, but she knew they were there, and the angry line of abraisons across her eyes, along with the ragged cut at her throat were very obvious. "Sure you're up to that/"

Very pale, cool blue eyes flicked to hers. "Are you questioning it?"

A hand. "Just asking." Gillen stood. "You're one tough bastard, Xena - and we all know it. Don't feel like you have to keep making the point." She walked out, leaving the warrior to ponder her words, the dark furred wolf curled at her feet twitching his ears.

Xena regarded the now empty tent, and took a sip of tea, waiting to go back to her writing when she heard very soft footfalls approaching, with a rolling, familiar rhythm to them. She propped her chin up on her fist and smiled as the flap was brushed aside with an air of ownership and Gabrielle entered, a cast iron pot hanging from one hand. The bard was drenched, her pale hair plastered to her head, and dewy moisture glistening on her face. "Gabrielle." Xena sighed. "You didn't have to bring that over here. Someone else in this camp of thousands could have done it."

A damp grin. "Hey, Ares! How are you boys! I had to come over here anyway. I'm freezing, and I needed to change." She plunked the pot down on the table and stripped out of her cloak. "Did I just see Gillen coming out of here?" She paused to ruffled the wolf's fur, as he got up and rubbed against her legs.

"Uh huh." Xena climbed painfully to her feet and limped over to her bags, pulling out one of her own warm tunics and a piece of linen. "Here." She extended her arm. "This is heavier than what you've got."

"Brr. Thanks." Gabrielle gladly removed her armor and the padded shirt under them, then slipped into the wonderfully warm fabric. "Mmm." She hugged her arms. "So. What'd she want?"

"To give me a hard time." The warrior grumbled. "I don't know where everyone gets the idea I have this stoic, gotta prove it doesn't hurt attitude."

Gabrielle paused in mid motion as she tied her belt, and her eyebrows lifted almost up into her hairline as she peered at her soulmate, who was limping around the room determindly. She snorted softly, then went back to her task. "I can't imagine."

Xena stopped. "What?"

"Nothing." The bard smiled. "You thinking of doing some drills in here, or would you like to just sit down and let me change your bandages?"

The warrior put her hands on her hips and glared. "You're making fun of me, aren't you?"

"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "I'd never do that." She walked over and held her hands out. "C'mere."

Xena narrowed her eyes, but complied, easing her weight back down on her chair and exhaling. "It's not getting any better."

"Well, you know, honey - like you always tell me, it takes time for your body to fix things." Gabrielle answered lightly, kneeling and untying the lacing that held her leggings on and peeling them back to expose her injury. "It looks better." She looked up in time to catch the faintly discouraged expression on Xena's face. "It's only been a day, Xena."

A fist propped the warrior's head up. "I know." Xena admitted. "But there's so much to do, and so little time to do it in, Gabrielle. I don't have time to be hurt."

"Maybe if you stayed off it… " Gabrielle suggested gently. "The refugees won't be here for another candlemark at least - why not lie down?"

"Won't help."

"It won't hurt." Gabrielle replaced the drawing herbs and refastened the bandage, aware of the muscles moving restlessly under her fingertips. "Is Ares just visiting?"

"No." Xena sighed grumpily. "He brought a note from my mother, worrying over nothing, as usual."

"Worrying about you, as usual, you mean." Gabrielle tied the soft leather laces back up, and gave the injured leg a small pat. "Everything all right back there?"

"Dori's fine - mother said something about feathers, and a bucket, but didn't get into details." Xena pushed herself upright and pulled a set of wooden bowls over, separating them, then scooping the steaming, richly scented stew out.

"That for Paladia?" Gabirelle picked one up as she watched Xena nod. "I'll take it over." She stood and walked to the tent flap, sticking her head out and spotting the dour, damp form right outside. "Hey… hungry?"

Paladia looked up, her straight blond hair dripping into her pale eyes. "Yeah." She took the bowl and drew her knees up. "Thanks." A flap of the tent fabric had been propped up to shelter the front of it from the driving rain, but it was hard to stay dry because of the wind.

Gabrielle ducked back inside and picked up her thicker cloak, which had a waxy waterproof covering, then went back outside and offered it to Paladia. "Here.. I think this's a little better than yours."

Paladia stopped eating, and put her bowl down, then took the cloak and examined it. Her eyes flicked suddenly up and captured Gabrielle's, in an exchange of memories that marked the mixed history between them. "Thanks, Gabrielle."

With a faint sense of shock, the bard realized it was the first time Paladia had used her name since they'd met in the cavern. "You're welcome, Paladia." She replied quietly.

The gray eyes examined her a moment more, then Paladia returned her attention to her stew, after tucking the cloak around her body to keep the rain off. Gabrielle reentered the tent, and found her partner hunched over the desk, chewing half heartedly at her stew.

Poor thing. The bard could see by the stiffness of her movements just how miserable her best friend was. She walked over and took the spoon from her, setting it into the bowl and lacing their fingers. "C'mon." She pulled.

Xena considered arguing, then simply gave up and allowed herself to be led over to the pallet, dropping down onto it and curling onto her side. She expected Gabrielle to tuck her in, but didn't expect the added warmth of the bard's body folding around her own as she joined her in bed, pulling the covers up over both of them.

Boy, that felt good. Xena exhaled in sheer relief. Okay, so maybe a nap wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Maybe she was being a little grumpy.

Gabrielle's voice floated lazily over her, as the bard's hands rubbed her shoulders, easing the stiffness out of them Even the fever she'd felt settling in her very bones seemed to fade, and she closed her eyes, abandoning the fight for the time being.

"And then, the storyteller came to a small village high in the hills, where she found the people of the village having a terrible fight." Gabrielle felt Xena relax against her, and she smiled. "They told the storyteller the village was split into to parts, and all the people with dark hair stayed on one side, but all the people with light colored hair stayed on the other side. "

"Mm." The corner's of the warrior's mouth twitched.

"And the storyteller said, "But you are all from the same families, how can you divide yourselves like that?" The people told her. "We must, because we are different. See how different we are? The dark haired people do not like the light haired people, for they are trecherous."

"Sneaky." Xena murmured.

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Sometimes, yeah." She added as an aside. "And the light haired people took great offense to that, becoming angry, and throwing rocks at the dark haired people, until they all ran away, and went behind their walls, vowing to come out the next day and fight again." She fell silent, seeing the peaceful look on her partner's face.

"And?" The warrior's voice was low, but intelligible.

"Thought you were sleeping."

"Resting my eyelids."

"Mm. I see. Okay, well.. " Gabrielle wriggled her toes, and got more comfortable. "The Storyteller was very sad, but she went with the light haired people, for she was of that kind herself, and listened to them planning their war. She tried to tell them how wrong they were, but the people would not listen to her, and just told her that she did not understand."

"All dark haired people are evil, and violent, and we cannot trust them. " They said. "You saw yourself, how they spoke horrible words about us. We must fight them, and rid our village of their ugly kind." Her fingers slowly eased the tangles out of the dark locks spilling over her chest.

"And the Storyteller cried." Gabrielle whispered. "You are wrong," She said. "For my greatest friend has dark hair, and there is no better a person in all the wide world." She traced a cheekbone with one finger. "But as she tried to convince them, and great yell went up, and all the light haired people rushed off to see what was the matter. The storyteller followed them, and they all gathered about the well in the center of the little houses they lived in."


"Now, this well was very deep, and very slippery, and a man cried out as they came that a child, the youngest child in the village, had slipped when getting a dipper of water and fallen down the well." The bard felt the light exhale against the chest of her skin. "And the light haired people cried out to the Storyteller, and said, "You are wise, and you must help us. How can we save this child? We have no rope, for it is all on the dark haired people's side, and we cannot reach the child, who is sobbing, and breaking our hearts."

"And so." Gabrielle murmured. "The storyteller thought, and thought, and then she told them. "I can bring someone to help you, but you will not like them." The people cried out that it did not matter, and told the storyteller to go on. "I have a magic." The storyteller said. " My magic lets me close my eyes, and wish with all my heart, and when I do that, a very special friend will come to me."

The warrior was asleep now, breathing slowly and evenly.

"So I did." Gabrielle lowered her voice. "And you came." She pressed her lips against Xena's head and sighed, saving the rest of the story for later.

Hoping there was time later, because she knew, after this brief bit of peace, that time would shorten unmercifully, bringing them towards a conflict whose edges were building even now out there, not very far away.

And Xena wasn't ready for it.