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

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Oh yes.. there is violence. This is a combination story, and includes both Uber Xena sections, and Regular Xena sections. Regardless of time period, or current incarnation, our lovable Xena does tend to be a violent person. So, we have slicing and dicing, and crunching of bones… but no emasculation in this one.

I think.

Sexual Violence Alert - this section does contain first person recollection of violent sexual attack. It is in the Uber sections, so if this disturbs you, please don't read them.

Subtext - Subtext.. there's a debate going on at this point as to whether subtext is subtext or just plain maintext nowadays on the series. At any rate, this story does involve women who are in love with each other.. so if that puts your undies in a wad, please go choose something nice out of the general fiction area. There's lot's of good stories there.

And while we're on the subject, if you do read past the above warning, and are offended by the love described in the story, email me your snail mail address, so I can send you some German chocolate cake, OK? I feel horrible for you.

UberXena - Ok - this story contains characters of the Uber Xena genre. Some folks don't like to read that. There are sections of two characters that showed up in a previous story of mine (Bound) and they'll be mixed with sections involving our old friends, Xena and Gabrielle. Just want to warn you, OK? OK.

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



Reflections from the Past - Part 4

By Melissa Good

The moon was almost setting by the time he made his move, sliding along the shadows in with intermittent timing, fitting in to the natural shifts of wind, and light, as the darkness grew closer and closer around the wooden cabin that was his target.

He made no sound louder than the random brush of leaves against the dark wood, taking his time, until he rested against the outer wall, his dun colored clothing blending in with the earth, and the surface he leaned against. No need to rush. No need at all.. he had patiently watched, and waited, for a long month now, and at last, he was ready.

A month, to judge his surroundings, his chances.. his target. Especially her. Watched from a cautious distance, not idly, but working in a field as though he was born to it, as he had been. Watched her at her morning exercise, as the long winter months slowed her, made her more careless, less alert to dangers around her.

But never enough. He was not stupid, or prone to suicide, and she was the most dangerous quarry he'd ever hunted. Not so much for her physical skills.. those he had as well, and warriors are warriors. No.. she had something different, an energy that ran just below the surface, and though buried under layers of ease and familiarity with her surroundings, it never wholly dissipated. It was a sense beyond human, and he recognized that, and respected it.

But her carelessness allowed him to drive a chink in her defenses another way, and it was a matter of simply putting in place a scenario, and letting her own nature take her down.

He never really expected her to survive the fall.. seeing her chest moving at the bottom had frustrated him, since it had seemed a perfect solution, and kept him far away from her. But he'd seen the blood on her head, and the rush of the healers to the cabin, and knew this would be his one chance, to get close enough to be sure, and have her unable to defend herself.

Not his first choice. He preferred to complete his commissions from a distance, and allow no contact between himself and a victim.. it was.. safer.. that way, and he'd heard what had happened to Stevanos when he'd made that mistake with her. But he'd accepted the commission.. from the dark cloaked man whose hunched over walk had made him nervous, but not curious. Especially when the innkeeper had leaned over and told him what Xena had done to the man. Even now, even crouched outside this silent cabin, his thighs clenched in pure physical response.

Well, Xena… its about to come home to you. He peered through a chink in the wall, and waited for his night vision to steady, as the low burning firelight within revealed it's contents.

Ah. He smiled, tracing the still figures curled up in the large bed. Carefully, he slid a small tube down another chink, and paused, focusing on a dull, dark spot at the foot of the bed. A sharp exhale, and a tiny whimper, and then he waited.

Patient as the night, watching the last glimmer of moonlight shift the leaves shadows across his arm, in the silver and black landscape. At last, he finished counting, and crept up onto the porch, avoiding the two creaking spots he'd taken care to mark, and slipped into the darkest shadows, which lay before the door.

His hand on the latch, and now he felt the excitement start, as the challenge took hold and the adventure began. A crack only, to let the warmed air out and into his nostrils, bringing faint hints of firewood and cinnamon, leather and animal, brass, and the tickling scent of old blood to him. A bit more, and he was inside, and still, against the wall.

Just listening. A warning bell sounded dimly. Only two sets of breathing. An eyebrow rose.. tell me my job is done for me? Irony of ironies. But no.. his eyes saw two chests moving.. just.. in time with each other. Odd. No time for that now.

A step closer, and he paused, breathing with them, stirring not one speck of dust, hardly moving he air around him. In his hand was miniature crossbow, it's shafts tipped with poison. He would take no chances here, even now he would not step within her grasp.

The curve of her jaw, the pulse beating so strongly he could see it fluttering against he skin. So vulnerable. Stripped of her armor, and her waking senses, she was just another victim.. it was almost too easy, he felt a sense of disappointment as he raised his hand, and steadied his aim.

One bolt, that was all. And a second, for the storyteller.. a different tip, since his commission carried a bonus for bringing her back.

His finger tightened, and squeezed almost lazily, feeling the release as the mechanism triggered, and the small weapon surged back against his grip in a familiar arc. He cocked his head to listen for the comforting sound of the iron head piercing flesh.

But heard a faint slap instead, and focused his eyes on the end of the bolt, seemingly floating in mid air.

Encased in what he suddenly realized was a tanned fist. No. That wasn't possible.

The air was moving, and his body reacted in a spasm of reflexes, throwing him across the room and out of the line of attack from the large body lunging at him. He whirled and twisted, and reached out, his hands grabbing flesh, and heard a stifled gasp.

The storyteller. He whipped a dagger out, and let it taste the skin of her throat. "Hold, or she's gutted like a pike."

Stillness happened. Firelight flickered, throwing menacing shadows across the tall, silent figure facing him. The bandage had fallen off, and he could see the stark line of her injury across her head, over a pair of glinting mirrors that lanced through him with barely contained rage. The tiny drafts moved her shirt fabric, brushing it back to outline her muscular body with random precision.

"Who sent you." Came a quiet, cold voice.

He smiled. "He never gave his name.. but you left your calling card on him." He shifted the knife minutely, and felt the body under his arm stiffen. "Been a long, soft, easy winter, hasn't it Xena? You can't get over here in time before I cut her now, huh?" He laughed softly. "I'll get half my commission, anyway."

Silence, and a faint, perceptible shifting of her weight, over the balls of her feet that sent a chill up his spine. She might try it…

"You made one critical error." Her voice was softly dangerous.

"I should have killed you at the edge of the cliff, yeah." He sighed. "Call it professional courtesy, all right? "

"All right.. that's two critical errors then." The warrior calmly told him, her eyes fastened on his, never flicking even once to the still form he held under his knife.

"Oh really?" He sniffed the storyteller's fragrant hair. "What's the other one then, Xena?"

She smiled. "You assumed she needs my help to get out of this."

His world exploded in pain, as a powerful elbow drove into his ribcage, and his head was grabbed, shoving him down and sideways with shocking power. Then something connected with the back of his skull, and it all went dark.

Momentary silence. "Glad you taught me that trick. "Gabrielle finally breathed, shaking her hand out. "Gods, that hurts."

Xena dropped to her knees beside the still form of Ares, and anxiously examined him. "Glad you waited for my signal. Good work." She felt the wolf's pulse. "Hey boy.. " Her fingers ruffled through his fur, and found the dart, which she lifted to her nose with a grimace. "Damn." She swallowed against a wave of vertigo, and leaned against the bed, as Gabrielle joined her. "Good thing you were up for that. I don’t think I am."

The bard was at her side in an instant, her fingers curling over a linen clad shoulder. "Is he ok?" She peered at Ares with a worried frown.

"Yeah.. he'll be fine." Xena answered, dropping down to sit on the bed, and leaning her elbows on her knees. She lifted the crossbow, which had landed on the bed and sniffed the bolt still cocked in it. "Same stuff he was gonna use on you." She glanced over wearily. "In fact… " Raising the crossbow, she fired the bolt with negligent aim, and watched with an emotionless stare as it pierced the assassin's belly. The body jerked, then went still.

Gabrielle winced, but didn't object. She sat down on the edge of the bed next to her soulmate, and put an arm around her. "Are you all right?"

Xena stared ahead of her in bitter silence for a long moment. "He was right." She turned her head and Gabrielle saw a weary self-disgust there. "I couldn’t have stopped him." She turned away and studied her clasped hands in sullen quiet.

The bard took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Xena… "

"It was my decision to do this. I know." The warrior held up a hand. "I know.. I knew the possible consequences… I just.. " She closed her eyes. "Did the irresponsible thing and didn't think about them."


"Xena, get off that self pitying centaur poop. " The bard finally said. "I mean it."

"What?" Xena snapped back, startled at her attitude. "Gabrielle.."

"Just cut it out, ok?" Gabrielle responded hotly. "How many degrees of deadly do you have to be before you're satisfied?"

The warrior stared at her, stung. "Enough to keep my skin whole, and yours!" She shot back angrily.

The bard put her hands up. "You and I are sitting here arguing on the bed, he's on the floor unconscious. I fail to see where the problem is here, Xena." She paused. "He just happened to get a direct hit in on your pride, that's what it is, right?"

Xena got up abruptly, and walked to the window, resting her hands against the sill and staring out. "My reputation has nothing to do with this."

Gabrielle studied her tense form and took a steadying breath. "I didn't say your reputation, Xena. I have as much to do with that nowadays as you do." She saw the warrior's shoulders stiffen, and sighed. "I said your pride." She stood and walked over to where her partner was standing, completely ignoring the glaring signals Xena was giving off that she didn't want anyone near. She put a cautious hand on the rigid back, and consciously gentled her voice. "Look… you can pretend all you want, but I know how proud you are of the fact that you can take care of yourself, and of me, under all sorts of really horrible conditions."

Xena didn't answer, but the bard felt the muscles shift a fraction under her fingertips and stepped closer. "Xena, you're entitled to this. " Her hand swept around the room. " You're entitled to live like a person.. not have to be out there fighting every minute of the day."

"No, I'm not." The answer came out between clenched teeth. "I gave that up when I decided to spend ten years of my life as a butcher, Gabrielle." She whirled. "Peace doesn't happen with that many enemies." The slam of her fist as it hit the windowsill reverberated through the cabin as she turned and stared out the darkened window again.

Gabrielle took a shaky breath. It had been a long time since she'd seen her partner like this. "No." She said gently. "I don’t believe that, Xena… are you telling me you regret these last few months?"

Tense silence, and she could feel the shudder go through Xena's body as she took a breath. "No." The warrior quietly admitted. "But.. I've felt like it was.. on borrowed time. Kept.. wondering what the price would be for it." She turned around finally, and collapsed on the bench against the window, dropping her head into her hands. "Thought maybe I could.. just.. for a little while.." She let the thought trail off and just sighed.

Gabrielle closed her own eyes briefly, and stroked the dark head bowed in front of her. "Hey… " She sat down on the bench next to her soulmate and curled her fingers around the clasped hands Xena was staring at. "You could, and you did." She waited patiently for Xena to look up, and gave her a smile when she did. "Xena.. these last few months have given me some of the most wonderful moments of my life.. I'm not going to let scum like that take that away from me.. " Her hand lifted to brush Xena's cheek. "And you shouldn't either."

The pale gaze softened, and watched her intently, soaking up her words in silence. "You can't live from battle to battle, Xena… you know I'll be in every fight with you, but between those times.. I intend to give you as much joy as.." She let her fingers brush the trembling lips. "As being here with you gives me."

It was no good.. Xena realized. There was no way to fight this.. even if she had even the slightest interest in doing so. "Keep reminding me of that, OK?" She finally muttered. "Maybe someday it'll sink in this thick skull of mine." The tension rushed out of her, and left her feeling lightheaded, as Gabrielle leaned forward and circled her shoulders, rubbing the stiffness out of her neck and touching their heads together.

"Besides, you old fraud.. " Gabrielle commented. "I had to knock that guy out.. I saw what you had in your other hand.. we'd have spent the rest of the night getting blood off of every surface in reach." The bard cast a glance towards the bed, where she'd spotted the chakram half hidden under the covers.

That, finally, got a twitch from Xena's lips, and a hike of one dark eyebrow. "Don't like leaving things to chance." She mumbled, with a touch of chagrin. "Especially not with you."

The bard leaned against her, and patted her leg. "I know that." She gazed pensively up at Xena. "Who do you… I mean, Xena, you haven't been a warlord for over three years… why now?"

"He said I left my mark… " The warrior mused, gazing at the unconscious assassin thoughtfully. "And you were part of…" Her eyes hardened. "I think this was a more current problem, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle nodded seriously. "Rurik?"

Xena's jaw shifted. "Yeah."

The bard thought about that. "He'd have a reason to be mad at both of us." She agreed, then shifted her eyes to her partner's face. "So.. you realize this doesn't even have anything to do with your past, right?"

Xena grunted softly. "I should have… " She stopped, and took a breath. "I'll.. see what we can do about getting someone to do something about him." She stood slowly, and stretched. "I'll.. throw a shirt on and go get Josclyn."

The bard wrapped her fingers in the fabric of her partner's nightshirt. "I'll go." She tugged hard. "You're supposed to be in bed."

Blue eyes studied her for a long moment. "I… need some fresh air." Xena answered carefully. "I'm… it's not… "

"Shh." Gabrielle relented, seeing one argument she wasn't going to win. "Ok.. ok.. I get the picture. C'mere.. " She pulled the warrior over to the garment press, and helped her exchange her nightshirt for a thick tunic and leggings. "You still dizzy?"

Xena fastened her belt and avoided the question. "I'll be right back."

To her surprise, the bard merely nodded. "That’s' what I thought. " And threw on a cloak, along with a pair of her own leggings and boots. "C'mon." She spared a glance for the assassin on the floor. "He's not going anywhere."


The warrior sighed. "Am I that transparent to you?"

Gabrielle gave her a look. "Yes." She knelt and slid a boot onto Xena's foot. "Go on.. if you bend over to do this, I bet I'll be catching you."

No answer, but the warrior meekly allowed her to fasten both pairs of bootlaces, and stood, then walked quietly ahead of her to the door, and held it open. "Gabrielle.. I…"

"Didn't meant to yell." The bard finished for her. "I know.. me either." She stopped at her partner's side, and slid her arms around her, hugging the warrior close, and feeling the reassuring strength as her hug was returned. She hung there in warm hazy silence for a bit, then tilted her head up, and gazed at Xena's quiet face. "So.. when did you hear him?"

The warrior's eyes popped open, and she gave the bard a guilty look. "What?"

Gabrielle allowed herself to be steered out the door, and down the porch steps. "You heard me."

"Uh.. I don’t remember." Xena said hastily, tapping her forehead and wincing. "Head wound."

The bard's eyes slitted to a narrow line. "You fraud."

Xena glowered at her. "Should have been sooner than it was."


"Damn it, Gabrielle, it should have been. He got too close."

More silence.

A long sigh. "Over there." One long finger pointing, to a stand of trees in the shadowy distance.


"Gabrielle, you're not taking this seriously."



"Xena, if I hear that crap out of you one more time. I'm gonna… I'm gonna… " The bard threw her hands up. "Warrior egos. Gods.. sometimes you're just too much, Xena!"

"What???" Xena exploded in outrage. "Gabrielle, this is our lives I'm talking about here. " She glared at her smaller companion. "It's not about egos!"


"It's not." Xena quietly repeated, stopping in the middle of the courtyard, and staring at the frost tinged ground, her hands on her hips.

The bard turned and walked up to her, stopping when they were almost touching and looking up. "What is it, then?" She shook her head. "Xena, I can't believe you're making such a big deal out of a few words from some jerk."

The gusty wind lifted locks of her hair, and whipped them around her face, obscuring it for a moment. "Gabrielle… " One hand lifted and cupped her cheek. "You're a bard.. and an Amazon Queen.. and a teacher… you're good at all of those things.. and.. you're only going to get better.. you know that, right?"

Gabrielle's brow creased. "Um.. thanks… yeah, I guess I… I mean, experience and all that but… "

Blue eyes bored into hers. "I'm none of those things… and as for what I do… I'm not going to get much better at it."


"It all goes downhill from here, Gabrielle. Little things.. until one day, you go to do something you used to be able to, and you can't, and a sword ends up in a bad place." Xena paused, and her voice dropped. "That's why there aren't many old fighters." A deep breath. "It's the one thing I can do… and knowing I'll have to spend the rest of my life losing that ability… that's kinda hard on me. So… I'm.. not quite the egotistical pig you think I am."

Gabrielle stared up at her, stunned. "That is not what I think of you." She objected forcefully, her eyes glinting. "And I can't believe that's what you think of yourself, either."

Xena stared off over her shoulder into the dark distance, her face expressionless. "It's what I am, Gabrielle." She finally answered, in a tired voice. "We both know that."

"It's only a tiny part of who you are, Xena." Gabrielle firmly put both hands flat against her partner's chest. "But I'm sorry I didn't realize how you were looking at this." Her voice softened. "I should have realized… and not.. reacted like that."

Xena felt the ache in her chest slowly subside, as the bard nestled closer, and hugged her. Where did that all come from? She wondered tiredly. Feeling a little insecure today Xena? Not a very pretty picture. She stroked the bard's hair, as the anger slowly leaked out of her. C'mon, Xena… snap out of it… you picked this line of work, so put a cork in it already. "S'allright." She kissed the top of the bard's head. "I got a few good years left, anyway." She tried to get them moving again, but the bard refused to budge. "Gabrielle?"

Green eyes blinked up at her soberly. "You think I'm a pretty good talker, huh?"

Xena smiled, and used a thumb to gently trace the bard's cheekbone. "Yep, I do."

A nod. "Good enough to convince you of just how much more you are than some dumb fighter?"

They looked at each other, and a reluctant grin crossed the warrior's face. "If anyone could, it'd be you." She ducked her head and captured the bard's lips, letting the cold night fade out for a few minutes.

Until a throat cleared. "I don't believe this." Cyrene's voice floated through the darkness, from the doorway to the inn.

Xena sighed inwardly, as she felt Gabrielle start to giggle.

"Busted.. big time.." The bard whispered. "Hi mom!" She called out, turning towards the door and sliding an arm around Xena's waist. "Great night out, huh?"

Cyrene pulled her robe around her and stepped down, peering at them incredulously. "What in Hades do you two think you're doing?" She stretched a hand up to Xena's' forehead. "You go running out in a fever or something?"

The warrior sighed. "No.. we need Josclyn…I have a… someone who needs to be locked up."

The innkeeper gave her a look, but glanced over her shoulder, to where Johan was standing. "Jo.. would you.."

"Sure." He grunted, ducking out the door and heading around the corner.

"Come on in here." She took Xena's arm, and tugged. "What happened?"

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances.

"Don't bother with that.. just tell me." Cyrene muttered, catching the look. "Listen, after seven foot tall fanged teddy bears, Amazons, and Hercules showed up for your joining, nothing shocks me anymore."

The late morning sun streamed in the cabin window, sending glinting dust motes past Gabrielle's unseeing eyes, as she stood looking out at the line of trees just opposite the door. The assassin was gone, locked up in Joscyln's root cellar, to wait for the reeve to pass judgement on him. Xena..

She sighed. Xena was out there, somewhere. Just… taking a walk, she said. Going back to the cliff, the bard suspected, to try and jog her errant memory of what had happened the morning before. Not knowing.. was bothering her partner, and the assassin had resisted all questioning, even at pressure point, just closed his eyes and called Xena's bluff, taunting her with stinging words and laughing when she cursed and released him.

She's taking this all too seriously. The bard sighed inwardly for the tenth time since she'd gotten back to the cabin. Renas, at least, had checked her head wound, and given Gabrielle a reassuring smile after, quietly telling the bard that other than some bumps and bruises, her partner was in pretty good shape.

Yeah. Xena had come back with her to the cabin, and collected the groggy Ares, coaxing him outside and saying the walk would help him clear his system of the drug. Which, she realized grudgingly, it probably would, and she was probably being a touch too mother hennish about the whole thing. I mean.. yeah, safety is important.. I know that.. but… we handled this guy.. she's just being.. The bard sighed in irritation. Damn her pride.

Gabrielle turned from the window, and faced the room, taking a breath and shaking her head. Looking out the window wasn't doing anything for her except give her a headache. Right. So… do something. She told herself firmly, and trotted over to the hearth, where she flung herself down, and picked up a scroll.

In every life there are destined to be moments when the burdens of the world become to weighty, and darkness settles over even the brightness of the sunlight. Such is this a moment in my lifetime.

I visit a small village today. There is but a tiny market, but I find a piece of cloth that is worth my coin and it is surrendered to me. I turn, and start to cross the muddy path when horse's hooves drum into mine ears and I scramble to get out of the beast's running path to safety.

I am not so lucky, this time. A brush of it's shoulder spins me, and I feel hands grab my shoulder, and a rope's rough touch about my neck. I have no time to twist or turn, I am captured, and thrown to the back of the beast, and hear laughter along with the screams of other souls such as I.

No rescue do I see.. for Elevown is not with me. We have argued that day, and she took her path, and I took mine, and they were separate, sadly so, as we hurt each other with our words, and that weighed on my heart as I struggled to free myself from the ropes that bound me.

A hand claps my mouth, driving my teeth fair into my lips, and I taste the copper tang of blood, feeling it run down my face, and angering my captor, who curses in their rough tongue and sends his fist against my skull, as bright stars color my vision, then fade as darkness takes me.

I wake.. with his hands on me, striking me hard to bring my eyes open, and open they do, to see his face above mine, and I know his intent for me, from the flush in his face, and the stench that rises from him.

Oh my lady.. must I suffer my soul for this? What have I done to shame your memory?

We are in a small house, with but three pallets, and on them are others. I would pray to the lady for them, but I think my prayers will be needed.. elsewhere.

He touches me, and I feel my guts rebel, but his hand covers my mouth and he laughs, as cold steel cuts my clothing from my body and I feel the draft from his movement above me.

He touches me again, and I fight him, struggling to keep him from his pleasure, but his body is far larger than mine own, and he pins me in place and has his way.

And has his way inside of me.

Oh Lady.. it hurts. It is as though my guts were being ripped out and torn from me, as his hands go here, and there, and wring screams from my lips as though I was a child.

I lose track of time, as he takes his pleasure not once, but again, and my mind becomes numb to the feelings, and sensations his actions drive me to. I amuse him, for he laughs.

He laughs, and my soul crumbles within me, in a shame so intense, that I would wish a thousand deaths to anyone before feeling as I do.

The Lady has forsaken me, I know it, though what I have done that claims this as my fate I know not.

Elevown has forsaken me, her anger driving her elsewhere.

I am alone.

I am.. nothing.


Is there one of him? Two? More? I know not. I care not. There is only pain, and that becomes my constant companion, as time becomes meaningless and I go myself into a gray place where there is no love, no friendship…. There is only movement, and the sounds of his grunting and the shredding of my soul.

Darkness falls, and I lay still, knowing blood covers me, for he has done damage to my insides, but I care not. My heart is so heavy within me, I wish it would stop beating, for then, maybe, I could rest in final peace, and get quit of this agony, of which the emptiness I feel is by far the worst part. .

He is back. I do not please him, for I am damaged, and cannot move to his pleasure. He makes free with me, using a.. I know not what, but that it is painful, and rips me asunder, sending a warm wash of blood down my legs and a wave of pain so violent, that it is as though spikes are driven through me.

I scream, but no sound comes. The emptiness has swallowed that as well.

He strikes me, and the black silence comes at last.

Gabrielle took a shuddering breath, and felt warm arms enclose her, steadying her shaking hands and a low voice whisper soothing words in her ear. "Ok.. ok.. I got you."

She swallowed. "Xena…"

"Shh." The warrior slid in behind her, and pulled her close. "It's all right."

Gabrielle let herself sink into their connection, feeling it solid, and warm, and reassuring, letting it drive the horror of the words out of her imagination. "Xena.. that's.. it's.. how could she.. if that ever happened I couldn’t.."

Xena stroked her hair softly. "I know." She removed the scroll from the bard's nerveless hands, and set it down. "C'mon.. let's go for a walk.. I think I saw the first new flowerbuds today."

The bard remained silent for a while, just soaking in Xena's comforting presence. "How was your walk?" She finally asked, looking up at the angular face above her, noting the tiny strain lines that had been gathering at her eyes were gone. "How's Ares?"

"Roo?" The wolf poked his head against her shoulder, and gave her a lick.

"He's fine, and.. I um… " Xena chewed her lip. "The walk was fine until I got the feeling someone here needed me." She made a note to apologize to the miller, whose wagon she'd hurdled, scaring his mule out of good sense and sending it's cargo scattering.

Gabrielle felt the faint dampness of sweat under her tunic, and cocked her head. "Then it stopped being a walk, huh?" She glanced down. "Sorry."

Xena scratched her nose. "That's all right.. I was.. um… I didn't mind the exercise." She muttered. "Cleared my head a little."

"Yeah?" The bard sighed. "Thanks… I didn't expect to be…" Her eyes drifted the scroll. "Xena, that was horrible."

"I know." The warrior replied softly. Guess I'd better distract her a little…"Um.. and I .. uh.. remembered what happened." She added in a mumble.

Gabrielle glanced up. "Really?" She noted the vague look of chagrin on her partner's face and wondered. "That's great… so.. what did happen?"

"There was this.. um…" Xena's hands shaped a small bundle. Well.. maybe leave that part out.. I'll never live it down. "Anyway.. I had to crawl out on this little ledge.. and I guess it broke off under me." She paused, and played with a lock of Gabrielle's hair, not looking at her. "It.. um.. looks like he chiseled off part of the ledge underneath.. so I just kind of.."

"Fell." Gabrielle nodded. "So.. he didn’t' sneak up on you and push you over."

"Um.. no." Xena admitted sheepishly.

"And you couldn't have seen what he did to that ledge." The bard persisted.

A reluctant shake of the head. "No but…" Damn it.. I should have… I should have…. Augh.!

Gabrielle looked at her with quiet intensity.

Xena sighed. "No.. and I had no reason to suspect anything had been done to it." She finally admitted grumpily.

"Feel better?" Gabrielle's voice was gentle.

"A little." Xena grudgingly confessed. "C'mon.. let's go outside."

Gabrielle fingered the next scroll. "Xena.. I'd.. I'd really like to know what happened to her.. if.. I mean, I'd like to.. read it now.. if you'd.. stay here with me." She paused. "Unless it bothers you.. I mean.. I know… you…"

Xena shook her head, and sighed. "No.. it wasn't… that kind of thing with me, love." She gently smoothed the hair of the bard's forehead. "I'll read it with you if you want."

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and let her eyes turn to the scroll, curling her body tightly into her soulmate's before starting to read.

I wake to silence, and I realize I am no longer on a pallet, but resting on soft furs, and the scents my mind tries to force on me are not the filth and the stench of the hut, but instead the pungent smell of pine, and of granite.

How cruel, to bring me the scents of home, here in this nightmare place. I can almost hear the gentle crackle of the firepit, and the soft, irregular rattles of the never-ending breath of the mountain around us.

It does not fade. I weep for it, so richly do I long to feel the confines of that solid rock around me, and be out of this place, and into that one, even if Elevown is no longer there to greet me.

Now a sound intrudes, and I moan, as the pain racks my body, and I wait for him to come again to me.

My mind tries to fit the sounds to his heavy boots, but does not. It brings me the ring of soft footfalls against granite floors, and the subtle clink of ring armor that does not match his filthy gear.

I cannot rid myself of the illusion of where I am, so wearily I force mine eyes open, to paint the horror on my soul anew.

But my vision, blurry it is, does not see the dirtiness of the house.

It sees rock walls, alive with the flickering shadows of the fire, and my body lays not on a filthy pallet, but on mine own bedroll, wrapped in gentle swaths of linen..

I am home. I cannot believe it.

The footsteps draw closer, and I feel fear taking hold of me, bidding me hide.. surely he will not come here.. not.. home.

Mine eyes trace the doorway, and a frame fills it, stopping a moment before ducking within and coming into the knowledge of the light.

It is Elevown.

To see her, my horror leaves me for a long instant, as I try to understand what mine eyes are showing me.

She is covered in blood.

It cakes her hair, and stains her garments, long streaks run down her arms, and cover her legs, and her ax, which she holds in a weary hand, is so solid with it, I cannot see even the boldest of it's carvings.

Across the shivering fire, her eyes meet mine own, and for an instant, just an instant, my trials are forgotten as I absorb the anger, and bleakness I find there.

Lady, what has happened to her? A worse fate than mine own?

She lets the axe fall, a sharp sound against the rock, and walks slowly towards me, dropping to her knees as she reaches my side and holding her crimson stained hands before her.

"His blood." Her voice is so harsh, I do not recognize it. "Not one thing lives where he was."

Oh my Lady.

I understand then what has happened to her. What she has done, in a rage so complete it still shakes her hands, and strangles her throat.

Both of our souls have been taken from us this night, and I wonder, as I watch in silence her collapse at my side, if we will ever find them again.

Gabrielle carefully turned the scroll over, and set it down on the rug, her eyes focusing on the flickering fire ahead of them. She sat silent for a bit, then sighed. "Do you know what I'm thinking about?"

Xena rested her chin on the bard's shoulder. "A promise." She answered quietly.

"Mm." The bard agreed softly. "I wonder… is vengeance ever the right choice, Xena?"

The warrior let out a soft, humorless laugh. "Up till three years ago, I would have said oh yeah, every time." She closed her eyes. "The fire that lights up in you.. the desire to take your anger out on someone else… Gabrielle, that is so.. so.. strong."

"I remember." Gabrielle murmured.

It had stuck in her mind's eye, replaying over and over again until she'd thought she was going to scream.

Callisto's sword driving into Perdicus. Her laughter. The utter shock on Xena's face, as they both dashed to his side, and caught him as he fell.

He died in her arms, a faint look of confusion and surprise on his face, never expecting his first day of marriage to also be his last.

It was as though her mind just.. closed off, and became a simmering pot full of hatred and anger, that kept boiling over and making her think of ways to give back to Callisto the pain she'd given her. Oh.. how she'd imagined it… her driving a blade.. any blade into that smirking face.. until she'd finally snapped, and grabbed the hilt of Perdicus' sword, dragging the weapon with her towards an old oak tree in a meadow she'd played in as a child.

How awkward the sword had felt, and she'd tried to make the weight balance, with little luck.. only making her even more angry, and more frustrated, as she finally just started swinging the heavy weapon against the tree, taking savage bites out of the bark and scattering pieces of it all over her, and the grass around her.

Even that hadn't helped, it had just made her tired, and she'd realized she needed to know how to make the sword do what she needed it to do, in order to kill Callisto. Kill Callisto. That's what she wanted to do. She wanted to feel the blade of this sword cut that bitch open so badly it became a chant in her mind.

But she had to learn.. and the one person she knew could teach her was now standing next to her, trying, in her awkward way, to provide some comfort. I don't want comfort, Xena. Her mind screamed. I want her blood on my hands.

Oh no.. but Xena wasn't going to teach her… no.. Xena wanted the pleasure of doing it herself. No way. She'd poked the warrior in the gut with the point of the sword once.. twice…

And felt the sting as it was taken out of her hands with a half hearted roundhouse kick.

Why was Xena being so stubborn? She knew all about vengeance.. if it had been her husband, she'd have been the first one to go after Callisto, right? Or… Her mind quieted for a moment. Or if it had been me, promise or no promise.. I look into her eyes, and I know what the truth is. So teach me, Xena.

Teach me. Give me release from this… when I kill her then maybe I'll be at peace. And she'd tried.. oh.. sure… but her heart wasn't in it, and the bard could tell, and later that night, after moonrise, she'd wandered outside, her feet moving without her conscious direction, and stopped outside a small glade lit by silver moonlight.

That fell on a dark, bowed head, and glinted off the polished metal of an upraised sword clenched between Xena's powerful hands.

She remembered every single word.

"I'm not.. real good at praying. But.. I don't.. know what else to do." She'd never heard Xena's voice like that before, and it captured her completely.

"Please.. please.. don't let that light go out in her face.. I couldn't stand the darkness that would follow."

Xena, begging the gods. She'd slipped away, and found Callisto's lair, and held the trembling edge of her sword to the outlaw's throat. So close.

And then her mind had pictured that bowed head, and the anguish in Xena's voice, and she'd understood what the warrior had been trying to tell her. Xena's way.. was not the right way.

Forgiveness was.

And so she had forgiven.

Xena leaned her head against her soulmate's. "I remember too."

Gabrielle turned her face a little and rubbed her cheek against her partner's. "I saw you in that glade, you know." The warrior blinked in surprise, and Gabrielle could feel the gentle tickling sensation as her lashes brushed against the bard's cheek. "I wrote a poem about it."

Xena sighed softly. "That.. was a long couple of days for me." She swallowed. "Didn't know you heard that." A brief, pained smile claimed her lips. "Poem?"

Gabrielle nodded, biting her lip a bit. "Yeah.. I um.. I had a lot of things to work through after that.. it took me a while. So I started writing some little poems and things about how I felt.. about what happened."

Obviously. Xena sighed inwardly. She sure couldn't talk to me about it. "Sorry I wasn't much help there." Besides…I had a few things I was working out myself.

Gabrielle turned and slipped her arms around Xena's body, butting her gently on the shoulder with her head. "You helped." She assured her partner quietly. "I don't even think you knew you were doing it.. after that whole thing with Ares' sword, you got… " She paused, searching for the right word. "Just when I needed a pat on the shoulder, you were there for me." She let out a little breath. "It made all the difference."

Xena pursed her lips and looked down. "I.. um.. figured out that I'd.. been making some pretty stupid mistakes with you." She admitted quietly. "Tried to make up for it.. just in little stuff."

Gabrielle took in several breaths before speaking. "Because of Perdicus?"

Long silence. "Yeah." The warrior finally answered, briefly.

"Mm." Her partner murmured. "I… noticed the change." She looked up and smiled. "It felt really good."

Xena gave her an uneven grin. "Wonder how they're going to cope with things?" Her eyes flicked to the stack of scrolls, curious, and looking for a change of subject.

Gabrielle leaned forward, and twitched over the next one, putting it into Xena's hands while she poured hot water over some tea in two large mugs, and stirred in a spoonful of honey into each. "How's your head?"

"Hmm?' The warrior looked up, and accepted the cup Gabrielle was holding out with a smile. "Thanks.. um… a little achy.. but not too bad." She settled back against the hearth, and smiled as the bard leaned against her, pulling close a plate of flat bread and cheese that she began to portion up and share. "Gabrielle." The warrior chewed and swallowed. "You gotta stop doing that if you want me to read this…oh." The next bite of cheese was passed from the bard's teeth, giving Xena an excellent opportunity to prolong the contact. "Mmmm…"

The subtle taste of honey was intoxicating, and Xena found herself losing interest in the scroll, which she put carefully down, freeing that hand which immediately tangled itself in Gabrielle's hair. She tilted the bard's head gently, and nibbled her way down the firm jawline, feeling the heat of her partner's breathing suddenly increase as it rushed past her ear. The pulse point under her lips picked up, and she smiled, letting her other hand wander slowly between them, loosening the belt on Gabrielle's tunic, and slipping inside to find warm flesh.

She let her fingers trace the bard's ribs, and slide upward, as Gabrielle's body moved to meet her touch, and the bard's hands delicately found familiarly sensitive spots under her now unfastened shirt which she didn't even remember Gabrielle unlacing. A feather light stroke along her side caught her attention, and her body reacted as the fingertips glided across the plane of her belly leaving an unconscious ripple of movement in their path.

She slid down onto the rug and pulled Gabrielle down with her, and they settled on their sides without breaking contact with either lips or hands. She realized her shirt was completely off now.. and wondered idly how the bard had managed that, then decided she didn't care as Gabrielle's lips began to work their way down her collarbone.

"Hey." The bard's voice was very husky, as she leaned forward, and nudged her partner gently onto her back. "No over straining yourself."

Xena briefly toyed with the idea of resisting, then relented, relaxing under the bard's insistent touch, and sighing as she felt the warm comfort of the thick fur rug warm her bare shoulderblades. "This isn't strenuous." She objected lazily, ducking her head forward and nibbling the soft flesh on the inside of the bard's upper arm.

Gabrielle smiled against the gentle curve she was working her way down. "Not yet." She paused for a moment, just breathing in her partner's scent. "But I get to do all the work this time."

An eyebrow quirked up, and she shifted, kissing it gently, then settling back down. "Besides.. I'm really enjoying the view." The bard's low chuckle sounded, as she let her mist green eyes travel lovingly over her partner's sleek form. She ran her fingers lightly over the warm skin under her, and watched the muscles ripple under it. "Oh yeah." Her hand drifted further, and she leaned over, resuming her lips gentle exploration as her touch slid down the curve of Xena's hip and trailed across her thigh. She felt the warrior's chest heave and exhaled softly in sensual pleasure.

Xena felt all control slipping, and she let it go, having long since allowed herself to trust the bard to an extent she had no other. Gabrielle knew.. everything.. had hunted and explored with her own particular brand of persistence until she knew every nook and cranny of the warrior's body. She knew the sensitive spots, and the ticklish ones, and the few places that old scars left painful and aching. As she did of Gabrielle's, of course, including the one tender spot on the inside of the bard's thigh that got her every time.

Then she stopped thinking about that.. or anything else as the bard got serious, her breath tickling a path down the centerline of Xena's body, leaving tiny nibbles of warm flesh in it's wake as the insistent wash of passion washed over both of them.

"Mmph." Xena indulged herself in a yawn, glancing aside to where Ares' muzzle rested close by her ear, his gentle breathing stirring her hair with a warm stream. "Hey."

One yellow eye popped open, and regarded her, followed by a pink tongue, which curled out, and licked her ear "Cut that out." She hissed softly, looking down as Gabrielle stirred, and nestled closer, tightening her grip on the warrior's sprawled body. "Hey…." She felt a chuckle slip out. "That ..um… "

"Tickles." The bard mumbled against her skin. "Thought I was supposed to do all the work that time." She raised her head, and peered at Xena through one half-open green eye. "Not that I'm complaining.." She shifted her weight a little, and put her chin down on Xena's breastbone. "I'm not squishing you, am I?" Belatedly remembering her partner's bruises.

"Nope." Xena sighed contentedly. "It feels great." She closed her eyes and hummed softly.

The bard's eyebrow rose a fraction. "What.. my squishing you?"

"Yep." Came the drowsy response, breaking through the idle humming.

"Oh.. so I am squishing you." Gabrielle reasoned. "You saying I weigh too much?"

Both dark eyebrows shot up. "That's not what I meant." Xena objected. "At all."

"It's your mother's fault." The bard pouted. "All those cakes."

"Gabrielle." Xena bit her lip to keep from laughing.

"Well, it is.. and you don't help.. you're a bad influence.. awk!!!" Gabrielle yelped, as she was lifted easily up above her partner's relaxed form. "Xeeeeannnna…..you know I hate heights."

"Ok.. you listening to me now?" Xena asked casually, as she studiously examined the bard's body suspended over her own.

"Yes." Came the meek answer. "Let me down."

"You are not squishing me." Xena stated. "Got that?"

"Uh.. yeah." Gabrielle nodded. "Got it. Let me down."

The warrior's eyes drank in the sight of her partner's lithe, powerful form from her tense legs, up past her hips where Xena's hands gripped her, across her muscular waistline, and up to where her compact shoulders and arms were spread, as she tried to balance and not cause Xena to drop her. The firelight rendered her golden, and brought a genuine smile of admiration to the warrior's face. "You are truly beautiful, you know that, Gabrielle?" She told the bard fondly.

A blush colored her skin, reddening the already golden tinge. "Can I get down now?" She asked softly, sighing as Xena lowered her gently and tucked her back into her favorite spot. "You really think so?"

"Yep." The warrior assured her "I really do."

They snuggled for a while longer, then got up, and slipped back into their clothing, as Xena resumed her relaxed slouch against the hearth, and picked up the scroll again. "Where were we?"

Gabrielle tucked herself up neatly and offered her partner a fig. "Do you really want to go back to where we were? Not that I mind.. but this scroll'll never get read." She poked Xena lightly in the ribs.

"Mmph." Xena chewed the fig and swallowed. "Figs in honey? Isn't that overkill, Gabrielle?"

The bard sucked off a fingertip. "You complaining?" She popped another fig into the warrior's mouth. "Guess not."

Xena mumbled something, and turned her attention to the scroll, reading a moment, then sighing. "Poor Ardwyn."

How long did I lay there, I know not. The pain is become an unending ache, and I curl myself into a ball and move but little, feeling tears leak from me at the mere pressure of mine breathing.

Elevown had stood, her body lacking any grace, and stripped off her clothing, the sounds of it's stiffened fabric coming to mine ears, then the splash of water as she cleans herself.

I cannot bear it. My mind cries out to return to the dawn and change my steps, take away our angry words, and return my life to the path it had been walking on.

I find myself retreating, seeking the empty spot within so that I may climb inside it, and so get free of the pain, and the anger, and the soul rending feeling of shame which covers me more surely than the linen wrap whose very touch burns my skin.

Footsteps, and I flinch. A hand on my shoulder, and I shudder, a cry escaping from me in my fear before I can hold it. I cannot make my mind believe it is only Elevown.. I see images of my attacker. Hear his voice. Smell him.

The lady takes mercy on me, and I go back down into the darkness, where the pain is not, and I can make believe this day never happened.


I wake again, and feel hands on me, and scream. I struggle, knowing not where I am, but the touch on me is gentle, and the words are not spoken in his voice, but in one well known to me.

I quiet, and suffer her touch, but the pain is knotting in me as though animals chew at mine insides, and I fear that all her efforts will be for nothing.

And in truth, I wish it so.

I do not wish this to be part of the tapestry of my life.

It has been days, perhaps, I cannot remember.. all I know is the pain, and the grayness calling to me, into which I spend more and more of my time, leaving the bright world behind, as mere whispers in a language I no longer wish to understand.

In the grayness it is safe. Nothing can touch me. I do not have to listen to the voice of the world.

But the whisper comes. It speaks my name. Mother, must I listen? You are all gone now.. there are none left whose voice I want to shape the notes of my name.

Save one.


The one who killed you. Is this my punishment, then.. for allowing one such as her into mine heart?

It must be so. I will take her out of my heart now, so that I might join you soon, with a clear thought, and no regrets.

I miss you mother. I will be glad to see you again.

Whispers. Leave me. I do not wish to hear you.

"Ardwyn." It is my name, but her voice sounds so strange, I wonder, and cannot help but listen.

"Please." The voice trembles, and I hear it, unable to block the rawness of it from mine ears. "Don’t leave me."

I am caught. The gray mists beckon, and mine life holds but pain, and a sorrow beyond bearing covers me. And yet.

And yet. Can I deny her this? She calls, and I feel I must answer. What hold is this she has on me? I know not.. but know that she once fought the darkness to stay by my side, and I cannot do less at her asking.

But what use can she have for this broken vessel? What respect she has for me is lightly held at best, our argument circled round my use of mine own language, which angers her hearing.

I think that is from guilt. She cannot bear it.

"Ardwyn." The voice returns, and I feel myself lifted and cradled as a child would be. My head falls back against her chest, and I hear, as though a drum sounded distant, her heartbeat "Crefu ar"

I cannot have heard that. It is her voice, but that speech is mine from the cradle. "Ai e?" I imagine I say that, though surely I do not recognize that bare slightness as mine own voice.

The arms close so gently over me. "Aros.. crefu ar."

Stay, I beg you. Never have words settled their weight on me so clearly. That they are of mine own tongue, and that she has struggled to form them.. scouring the meaning from what source I do not know.

Through the coldness, the darkness, it touches me. It throws a line into the harsh waters in which I drift, and against my will I clutch at it, wondering that what has happened to me has not driven her aside. She cannot abide weakness, and I have submitted to this horror as though I am but a child, with no defense.

Can I trust this? Trust her? She too, is a conqueror. But the pounding heart under mine ear and the shaking of her arms around me betray her, and the words she uses are no command, but instead a pleading.

My heart finds it is of a mind to answer. If the Lady wills it, I will forgo the gray mists, and live with the knowledge of what was done to me, and try to forgive it.

I know not if I can.

Once again, I choose life, and suffer it's horrors.

A log cracked in the silence that followed, sending a few lazy sparks up into the chimney. Xena ran a finger down the edge of the scroll and nodded a little. "She’s tough."

"Bet she doesn’t think so." The bard responded, with a tiny grin. "I never did… until I got places, and starting telling stuff about what we’d been doing, and everyone’s jaws started dropping."

Xena gave her a sideways glance. "I knew you figured that out the first time you actually complained."

Gabrielle stared at her. "You were pushing me, weren’t you?" She whispered, realizing. "You were trying to discourage me." She got up, and walked over to the window, wrapping her arms around her chest. "Damn." She turned abruptly. "Do you know how hard it was sometimes, to just.." She paused. "Or did you figure if you ran me into the ground, I’d just leave on my own?"

Xena’s blue eyes seemed almost gray in the mixture of daylight and firelight. "Only way I could live with the guilt, I guess." She gave the bard an apologetic look. "Such a big part of me was convinced you shouldn’t.. have been out there." She took an uneasy breath. "I.. thought if I made it hard…well.. at least I knew you weren’t doing it for any damn fool romantic notions."

Gabrielle gazed at her for a long moment, her face unreadable. Then, finally, the soft skin around her eyes crinkled as she smiled. "Oh boy, were you ever wrong." She dropped her head and sighed. "That was the only thing that kept me out there sometimes." Her jaw worked as she thought in silence, then her head raised, and she pinned Xena with a direct look. "You always knew when to stop pushing though, didn’t you?" A soft laugh. "I’d be right at the end of my rope, just… on the verge of giving in, and giving up.. and all of a sudden.. poof. You’d decide on stopping. Or offer me a rider.. a cold drink.. or.. like you’d just decided to off the top of your head." Her smile widened. "You fraud… you didn’t really want me to quit, did you?"

Xena gave her a lopsided grin. "Well..." Busted. "Um…no. I didn’t." She stood and stretched. "There.. was just this.. little soft spot that kinda grew around you.. and it.. mm.. just kept getting bigger."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Yeah.. I noticed how mellow you started getting after a while."

A very raised eyebrow greeted her. "Mellow?"

"You know what I mean." The bard rolled her eyes. "Mellow for you… but don’t worry, I’m the only one who noticed, I think." She paused, then her expression darkened. "Xena, what did he do to her?" Came the quiet question, as Xena took a long swallow of tea to ease her throat. "It's so horrible."

Xena remained silent for a minute, then put her mug down and walked over, circling the bard with her arms. "He.. um.. from the description she gives.. I think he.. used something.. to.. um.. " Xena's nose wrinkled in disgust. "penetrate her with."

Gabrielle winced. "Something?"

A light shrug. "Stick. or…whatever."

"Oh.' The bard muttered, appalled. Her eyes slowly lifted. "Nothing like that ever.."

Xena closed her eyes. "No." She rested her head against the bard's for a moment. "No.. I was just.. very young, and very… um.. trusting."


"You want to talk about it?" Gabrielle's quiet voice in their old code.

She almost said no. Gabrielle wouldn't push her on this one, and did she really need to drag it all out again? Long time ago. Then her eyes met the patient green ones that was so close she could see clearly the faint golden specks floating in them. "I was just a kid."

Gabrielle's fingers closed over hers, and squeezed.

"Seemed like a nice guy.. we did things, went places… couple of moons I guess." Xena's voice went remote. "Then one night… late summer.. we went into the barn.. he said he had some new game he wanted to play." Her eyes blinked slowly. "He.. I let him tie me to one of the stall doors and he.. " A shrug. "Didn't take long."

Sparks were beginning to fly in Gabrielle's eyes, and Xena could almost feel her hackles rising. She smiled quietly at the thought, then sobered. "Yeah.. well, then he just left me there.. told me it had all.. been this bet."

"What?" Gabrielle's voice crackled. "The game?"

She pretended it didn't mean anything. No sense in getting Gabrielle upset with this old news. "Me." But she couldn’t keep the old rush of shame from crashing over her. "I.. they couldn’t beat me with these.." She held out her hands, studying them. "So.. they found another way." Another shrug. "Kids. It was a game."

Gabrielle's hands clenched in the fabric of Xena's shirt, and she half raised herself up off the floor. "Who?" She growled. "Does he still live here?" She took a breath, and visibly calmed herself. "Did you care about him?"

Xena looked off into the distance. "I thought I did."

"Xena, who is it? Tell me. They still live here, don’t' they?" The bard stared at her intently.
"I'll… I'll…."

The warrior cupped her face gently. "Do what, love?" She kissed the top of her partner's head. "My defender."

"Since day one." Gabrielle confirmed. "I'll write a story about him, and tell it every night at the inn until he either has to move away or change his identity."

Xena touched her forehead to the bard's. "No need." She said quietly. "I.. um.. took care of that back then… I.. got loose, and.. he didn't look too good when I finished." She gave Gabrielle a grim smile. "He.. died during Cortese’s attack."

Gabrielle studied her for a long moment. "Sorry you had to go through that, love." Explains a few things. Why she doesn't trust easy. Gods. I'd like to kick that bastard all over this town. She indulged herself in a moment of fantasy, involving this kid, her staff, and a thorn hedge, and sighed. "The why was worse than the what, huh?"

Xena looked down, and took a sharp breath. "Yeah." As usual, Gabrielle had pinpointed the real issue. That had always stuck in the back of her mind whenever she'd gotten involved…with anyone. Always wondering what the other person really wanted from her. Or figuring out what she could get from them, let's be honest. What was that she'd sworn? Oh yeah.. that she'd never just give up her heart again.

She sighed. Never could keep that promise. "Anyway.. Ardwyn here had it a lot worse. " She shook her head. "Wouda liked to have gotten my hands on that bastard." She gave the bard a forced smile. "Hey.. you interested in a little sparring?" Her eyes found the window. "Nice day out."

Gabrielle recognized cabin fever when she saw it. "Sure." Not even arguing that Xena should really be inside resting. "C’mon.. let’s walk up to the spring, and use that clear space." She fastened the belt on her tunic, and grabbed her staff, running her fingers through her hair to settle it. "You can teach me that spin thing."

Cyrene dropped into a chair, pulling the freshly poured mug of ale towards her and taking a healthy sip. "Never boring, is it, Jo." She glanced up at Johan, who was scribbling something on a piece of parchment resting on the table between them.

He looked up, and gave her a wry grin. "Not with your lot, no." His head ducked back down. "Ye know who that is, don’t you?"

The innkeeper sighed. "Do me a favor.. don’t tell me. He was a nasty little man." She glumly stared at the afternoon sunlight pouring in the window. Another close one. Now, at last, she had an understanding of Xena’s reluctance to come home. To expose them to this kind of.. thing.

Cyrene thought about that for a while, then shrugged. It wasn’t really so bad.. not any worse than the raids by warlords, or thieves, or the riff raff that tended to drift through making trouble. Xena’s trouble always had a specific, set target. Her. And generally speaking, she could more than handle whatever the trouble was, which generally ended up a much quieter affair than some they’d been suffering before the warrior had decided to hang around for a while.

That had, she realized, been only a plus for them. They had security, since nobody in their right mind started trouble in Amphipolis anymore, and they had a productive citizen, who did her share and more of the communal work and providing for in the village. Not bad at all.. and best of all for her, she’d gotten two daughters back as part of her family. And a grandson. She grinned, already thinking ahead to the winter next, when Solon would join them. ‘Just for a few months..’ Xena had said but… she’d been working very hard to get her daughter addicted to home life, and she figured another winter here would just about do it.

It had been her hobby, these long months, to weave her wayward daughter back into the tapestry that was life in Amphipolis, and she'd done a pretty darn good job, if she said so herself. The cabin now.. even Johan agreed, that had been a stroke of genius. A room in the inn wouldn't have been nearly the same.. this.. grounded her, and gave her a place the two of them could actually call home, and it had made all the difference.

Cyrene had seen the slow change happening, and had smiled as she'd watched Xena's edgy defensive barriers relax, even to the extent that she now allowed Toris to tease her with sibling lack of mercy, without her son having to worry that his sister was going to pick him up and toss him out the window. That had been a lovely change.. she'd been getting kind of tired of mending the rips and tears in his clothing, not to mention dragging ice in for his bruises.

Granella had been a surprise.. Cyrene chuckled to herself. The Amazon had turned out to have a very sly sense of humor, and was fitting in to the village with only the occasional sideways glance from the rest of the inhabitants. She'd traded her Amazon leathers for practical clothing, and the only sign of her allegiance really were the leather clips she still wore in her short hair, and the veritable buffet of weaponry she enjoyed digging out for her frequent sparring matches with both Xena and Gabrielle.

The door opened, and she glanced up. Speak of the devil. Her mind chuckled, as Toris entered, ushering the smaller Granella before him. "Well, hello."

Toris dropped his cloak over a chair, and crossed the inn, putting his hands on the table and leaning over it. "Where's my sister?" His voice was anxious. "I heard there was an accident."

One eyebrow cocked. "Probably out rooting around somewhere with Gabrielle." She paused. "And it was no accident."

Her tall, dark haired son dropped into the chair opposite her with a thump. "Is she ok?"

Cyrene pushed her glass across the wooden surface at him. "More or less.. she.. got a bump on the head.. gave us a little scare.. but you know your sister." She gave him a grim smile. "Came back for a second try last night…now he’s locked up on Josc’s root cellar."

Toris leaned back, and let out a gentle sigh. "Well…" He exchanged a glance with Granella. "We’d heard…worse."

Cyrene’s brow creased. "Worse? Well… she did fall over a cliff, and knock herself silly for the better part of a morning, but since when is that serious for her?" She studied him. "Where did you hear this?"

"Village south of here." Granella replied, in her soft voice. "From the bastard who paid for it to be done."

"How did we end up here?" Xena queried, as she stretched her legs out in the brown tufted grass, and leaned back. They were in their favorite hidden dell, where the ring of mostly bare trees blocked the cool wind. "I smell a plot."

Gabrielle chuckled, and rotated her shoulder, wincing. "Hey.. how many candlemarks of sparring was that? I deserve a break." She took a long sip of water, and handed the waterskin to her partner. "I thought I was keeping up with this.. it’s a little embarrassing to have my booty kicked by someone who spent all day yesterday flat on their back, and spent the entire morning whining about how out of shape they are." She pushed the hair off her face, aware of the flush coloring her skin.

Xena sprayed a mouthful of water over the grass and gave Gabrielle a dour look. "I was not whining, Gabrielle." She growled, then paused, hesitating a moment. "Was I?"

Green eyes rolled towards her. "Yes, you were." The bard informed her. "I felt really bad about that, too, until the sixth or seventh time you dumped me on my butt."

Xena ducked her head, and played with a bit of grass, then shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry." She blinked at the bard. "I guess I overreacted a little, huh?"

Ooo.. got her to admit it.. that’s a first. "A little?" The bard snickered, then relented at the vaguely hurt look on her partner’s face. "Listen.. I understand why you worry." She put a gentle hand against Xena’s upper arm. "And believe me.. it makes me feel really good to know you worry about that.. especially since it’s mostly on my behalf."

Blue eyes peeked at her from under long, dark lashes. "Mostly?" Xena asked softly.

Gabrielle smiled. "So.. you feeling better now?" She crossed her legs at the ankles and put her hands in her lap.

Xena thought about that for a minute. Knowing what had happened at the cliff definitely helped, she mused. Now I only feel like a softhearted fool instead of a… anyway. Guess I really was overreacting.. need to cut that out. It’s not fair to her. "Yeah." She admitted. "I… um.. owe you an apology for this morning." She gazed studiously at her boots, examining the laces with intent concentration. "It.. umm.. it was an ego thing." She admitted, with reluctant honesty. "You were right.. he hit me right in my damn pride."

The bard smothered a grin, and leaned against Xena’s shoulder, slipping an arm across her belly and giving her a squeeze. "You’re so cute when you’re being humble." She paused, watching the faint blush cross the warrior’s face. "But I’m glad it doesn’t happen too often." She poked her ribs. "Cause I like that too tough for my leathers attitude of yours."

An eyebrow arched at her. "You do, huh?"

"Mmm." Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Yep, I do."

Xena yawned, and relaxed against her tree. "Don’t suppose you brought any of those scrolls?" She asked idly, stretching a little and enjoying the cool breeze that was carrying the newly greening scent of the brush to her.

"Heh." Gabrielle snorted softly, pulling one out of her bag. "Are your eyes blue?" Abruptly, she stopped moving, and her eyes unfocused. "What did that remind me….oh… oh… urk." She covered her eyes with her hand. "I can’t believe I did that."

Xena cocked her head curiously. "Did what?"

A long, torch lit hallway in the prince’s stronghold in Cirron. That night they’d celebrated their victory over a besieging force from a neighboring territory, and she’d made the acquaintance of some of Hectator’s excellent honey mead.

It hadn’t seemed strong.. really.. it just sort of nice, and it warmed her through, making the music a little brighter, and the conversation seem to buzz around her like a friendly swarm of bees. She’d figured she had enough though.. after she realized she was starting to hum little rhymes, and she picked up her mostly full glass, and headed up towards where the head table was.

Having spotted Xena, in full twitch mode looking for an excuse to either leave, start trouble, or entertain herself. Not a good idea, Gabrielle remembered solemnly thinking. A bored Xena, was a dangerous Xena. Besides, the warrior was dressed in a really good-looking silk mahogany thing that Gabrielle was itching to get her fingers on.

She remembered being shocked at thinking that. But Xena hadn’t minded leaving, in fact.. she’d jumped over the table and they’d gotten right out of there, and headed up to the nice room they’d been staying in.

Stairs… stairs had been a problem. It was that foot thing, up, left, right…halfway up things had started getting scary.. the hallway had started to blur, and the bees had turned angry, making her head ache.

Xena’s hands on her had surprised her, and she’d protested.. she thought. Surely she had… but the warrior had picked her up and insisted on carrying her up to the room. Urgh.. that had felt good. All that nice cool fabric over that comfortably warm body, with her arms snugly clasped around the warrior’s neck, and her head tucked blissfully against Xena’s shoulder. Mmmm… she remembered thinking.

It had almost been disappointing when Xena let her down gently onto the couch, and went off somewhere, coming back with a cup of water for her and making her drink it. That had cleared her head a little, and she’d relaxed on the couch next to her companion, and gazing down at the beautiful necklace Xena had given her earlier that night.

"How’d you know the exact color?" She’d asked.

"C’mon, Gabrielle… after all this time, I should know what color your eyes are." The warrior had teased. "After all, you know what color mine are, right?"

What a question. Did she know what color Xena’s eyes were. Did Xena know how many poems she’d written that dealt with that subject? Did Xena know one of her favorite things to do was to compare her eyes with other naturally blue things? "Oh yeah.. I sure do." She’d answered, in a whisper. "I sure do."

She’d felt the gentle movement as Xena chuckled soundlessly. "Hey.. you making fun of me? No fair.. I’m drunk." She’d protested, earning her an indulgent look from the warrior, who leaned closer to observe her. Oh .. keep leaning. Gabrielle’s fogged mind cheerfully encouraged.

"I’m not laughing at you.. and I don’t think you can get drunk on three cups of mead, Gabrielle." The warrior had reassured her.

Gabrielle had felt a warm flush come over her, which intensified as she leaned against Xena. "I think I am." She let the interestingly spicy scent from Xena’s tunic wash through her. "I know I am." She finished, recognizing her body’s seductive craving, which she usually could keep pretty well under wraps.

Now she laughed, thinking of the last time Xena had.. sort of.. almost kissed her. She suddenly realized she wanted to repeat the experience. Really badly.

"What’s so funny?" Xena now asked, ducking her head and looking at her sideways. A slight smirk had started to twitch at the corner of her lips

"Nothing… I was… just wondering." Gabrielle had started, then stopped. What in Hades did she think she was doing?

But those eyes captured hers, and sent her pulse racing. "About what?"

She couldn't help herself. "Whether it was you or Autolycus."

A soft chuckle. "Judge for yourself."

It was the same warm jolt, that was first, that dangerous tingle that went right to her toes and worked it’s way back up, settling deep in her guts. It reached for, and found something in her, that made her body twitch, and brought her hands up against Xena’s body, feeling the heat of her skin under the light weight of the silk fabric covering it.

Then it was over, and she really wanted it not to be. "Can we do that again?" She begged, with a grin, seeing the indecision in the blue eyes facing her, eyes that had widened and brightened after they separated.

"Not.. with you drunk." Xena had said slowly, reluctantly. "That’s not my style." But her breathing had been unsteady, and Gabrielle could feel that under the hands she still had pressed against her ribcage.

"Being sober is not going to change the way I feel." The bard had felt the words come tumbling out, the mead dropping her inhibitions as though they never existed. But somehow, she didn’t mind, and looking up into the warmth of Xena’s eyes, she didn’t think the warrior minded either.

A hand brushing her cheek, which brought a smile fluttering to her lips. "Maybe not.. but I don’t take chances. Not with you."

It was a confirmation she’d never dared hoped for. "That’s.. the nicest thing you ever said to me." She’d joked faintly, then snuggled down into the crook of Xena’s shoulder, and let sleep claim her.

"Gabrielle?" Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "What’s wrong?"

A deep sigh. "Not wrong.. I just… Xena, do you remember the night of the banquet in Cirron?"

A very saucy chuckle. "OH yeah." A pause. "But you never did."

Gabrielle gave her a wan look. "I do now." She groaned. "I feel like an idiot….gods, Xena…"

The warrior's brow creased. "Why?"

An aggrieved sigh. "Why did I have to be drunk to do that?" She threw up her hands. "Why couldn’t I have just… "

"Oh." Her partner commented quietly. "Well… yeah.. I um.. when I look back, sometimes, I think of how.. kind of silly it was."

The bard's lips twitched. "You should have seen Ephiny's face when I told her we weren't.. together.. until after that whole thing with Arella. She almost keeled over. She always thought…" Her eyes flicked to Xena's and she shrugged. "Apparently everyone did."

Xena chewed her lip and sighed. "Eeeeyah.. I kinda got that feeling, especially after that whole thing with Minya.. and Cecrops."

Gabrielle considered that. "Oh.. right." They looked at each other. "Right… um.. here's that scroll." She opened it, and laid it out along her legs. "Xena?"

"Yeah? " The warrior arranged herself more comfortably, and tucked a long arm around the bard's body.

"Why did everyone.. I mean.. we didn't… like.. do anything.. to make people think that, right?" The bard queried.

Xena rubbed her chin. "They probably just assumed because we traveled around alone together.. you know.. I've got a reputation for um… " An eyebrow quirked. "You know." She watched the bard blush and smiled. "Or maybe it was because you were the only person I let within a cubit of me."

"Ah." Gabrielle nodded.

"Or.. maybe it was the fact that I let you touch my horse." Xena teased.

"Xena." Whack. "You didn't do that for a long time." The bard reminded her.

"I think for Ephiny, it was that whole.. um… ambrosia thing." Xena replied carefully, gentling her voice.

"Oh." Gabrielle looked down, tracing a bit of the parchment with a fingertip. "Xena?"

Get the answer ready. "Yes?"

Green eyes lifted up and claimed hers. "Why did you come back? Was it really for me?"

A easy, relaxed smile was her answer. "Yes."

Gabrielle took in a breath, then another. "Just like that?"

Xena nodded. "Just like that. Oh.. M'lila gave me a whole lecture about knowing and fighting evil.. and how it wasn't my time.. but…that wasn't why I decided to make the attempt. It was… it was really simple, Gabrielle.. you were there, and you were hurting, and you really wanted me to do it." A shrug. "So I did." She let out a breath and dropped her head back against the tree. "It felt…all my life, I'd been doing things.. really horrible things to people, for my own gain, or just because I was in a bad mood that day. To just…do something like that for someone else.. give.. something like that for no other reason than because it would make that person feel better… " She looked at the silently watching bard. "It felt great." Her eyes sparkled gently. "When I opened my eyes.. and saw you there, smiling… Gabrielle, that was the best feeling in the whole world."

Just like that. Gabrielle's mind turned the thought over. "Thank you." She rested her head against the warrior's shoulder. "It was pretty amazing for me, too."

They smiled at each other, and turned their attention to the scroll.

I heal but slowly, and times there are that I wonder that I heal at all. The pain is but part if it, that eases with the passing time, but the horror of my memories seems to darken the longer I dwell on them.

Elevown, never one to use her voice unneeded, has fallen even more silent, her gaze turns inward and I do not think she likes what she sees. I wonder about that, but fear to ask her what happened in the time I left her, and the time I woke up here, broken.

I know she has killed.

I do not know why.

Friends she has none, in this land, so whatever she has done, it was done alone, and so she must have taken me from that place, and brought me here. I cannot speak for how grateful I am to her for that.

But why must she need go back? For so she did, as my hurts were tended ere I woke. Go back she did, and returned covered with the blood of the men who stole me away, covered so deeply that the stains will not clean from her clothes, and it has taken her to this time to move the gore from the blade of her axe.

She touches that not. It stands in the corner, a silent witness to her butchery, and I see the trailing remainder of it lodged in the darkness of her eyes, which capture a lost, empty look that must mirror mine own.

Have I traveled this road only to find it leads only to darkness still? I try to find words to break through the strong walls I feel now between us, but I cannot focus my thoughts without delving again into the pain within me.

I feel I must try.. the longer I hold my tongue, the further she slips from me, and that.. Lady.. that I cannot.. must not.. allow.

Tonight she is restless, though the weather is fine, and she is free to roam the dark silence of our mountainside. I walked outside a tiny while, feeling the sun on me for the first time in what seems forever, and just managed a trip to find a bush of fine berries, which I captured and brought back with me.

"Elevown." I call softly, stopping her pacing, as she turns, and her eyes find mine. "Will you be sharing with me?" I hold up the berries, and she gazes long at me, then slinks forward, and drops to a knee at my side.

Long fingers take but one berry, and she looks at it.

"Sit." I shape the word softly. She does, placing her back against the low rock wall my bed is laid out against. "How fare you, Elevown?"

Gray mist eyes peer through me. "Well enough." She answers. "And you, Ardwyn? How fare you?" She places the berry in her mouth, and chews.

"Not so well." I answer slowly, combing my words for those of meaning for her.

A hand on my arm. "Pain do you have then? " She asks, having tended to me all the while with sober regard. I could not ask for a more anxious healer.

I am caught, but know I must continue.. for if there is to be healing, it must needs to begin somewhere. "Tis not my hurts that pain me." I answer to her in gentle tones, and cover her hand with mine own. My Lady, is it true tis easier to cosset another's wounds than one's own? It seems so to me, for all that stirs me from my emptiness is thoughts of concern for her. A strange thing indeed.

She sits still beneath my touch. "You speak nonsense." Her tone is gruff, as it always is, but does not deceive me. I see the dark circles beneath her eyes, and the painful thinness of her, as her grief consumes her from within. "I but did a warrior's deed."

Ah, Elevown.. so blind you think me? "That is well then… please.. will you tell me of what happened? " I feel her hand tremor under mine own. "Twas bravely done, I know."

Her eyes drop to her boots, and she fingers her laces a long march of the candleflame. "Was not I was brave." She finally utters.

"Ah.. not I. Foolish thing that I am, to be captured so unwary in a simple village street. " I admit my weakness.

Her fingers pluck at the pine bedding with vicious intent. "It would not have been so had I been there." So much strain in her voice, that I can hardly force meaning from the words.

Aye. That much is true. But I do not blame her for that. It was my unwariness led as much to my ordeal as her absence. "A nursemaid you be not, Elevown." I remind her in sadness. "Would I have known better how to protect mine own self."

"No." Her voice now roughens. "Tis I who brought you here, Ardwyn. Your safety lies in my…. " She stares down. "Hands." And now she lowers her head into them. "What price my pride?" I see the whole of it now. "So great a cost." The words escape her.

Aye, My Lady. Which are greater? Wounds of the body, or those of the soul? I know this.. time alone can heal a body's weakness, but only love can heal a damaged heart.

I cannot change what happened.

I cannot forget.

I cannot erase the scars, which mark me.

I can but surrender my belief, and cast wide my net of the heart, to bring her home again to our shelter in this strange land.

For love her I do, and that alone puts gentle patches on the wounds within me, to know I still am capable of the giving of myself, that her anguish moves me more than does mine own.. that brings the colors of the world a little closer, and pushes back the gray of sorrow.

And so I tuck away my darkling memories, and lean to her, sliding mine arm around her shoulders. "Elevown… " She listens, I feel her breathing catch under my touch. " Pain I have known.. but it was as nothing to the ache I feel when I see you so." I search for words as will reach her. "Please.. cariad… let this not harrow us both."

He r head turns, molten gold in the light of our fire, and her eyes find mine, open as a child's "What.. is this you call me?" So softly she asks, and I see at last into the depths of her, all pride and arrogance gone asunder.

"Tis.. what we call those who mean much to us." I answer as softly. "Elevown… I was in a very dark place.. and you took me from that. Think you I place blame for my plight on your shoulders? I do not."

Her shy look charms me. "Rather I had died, then seen you in such a place, my friend." Her voice plucks resonate chords within me, as a harp will, when well struck.

Then a breath she takes, and girds her courage, as her tale shapes in her mouth for the telling. "Came I to the village not long for the setting sun." She begins.

Now her eyes found some far place to dwell on. "I heard from a cottar.. he told me the shape of them who had taken you." She leans closer to me, and I circle her wrist with mine hand. "I followed."

A small silence, with only our breathing to break it.

"Not hidden well, their hideout. " Her voice went on. "I heard you scream."

Oh.. my Lady. I see the pulse now at her throat, and the soft blue lines of her life's courses show vivid against her skin. "That I did." I affirm in quiet, remembering the rawness of it.

She nods. "I went to that place." A blink of those pale lashes. "I saw you there, under him."

I cannot look at her. The shame falls over me again, and I feel my stomach rebel against my thoughts.

Now it is her hand that comforts mine. "I sent him to his ancestors." She tells me, with a gentle sureness. "In many pieces."

The shock almost takes me to a darker place than I can imagine, as I feel mine self exult at her words. Lady, can I be glad of this? I do not wish vengeance on my behalf.

And yet?

Would I lie and say that I am not glad he has gone to the beyond, and will not add more victims to his count?

I will not lie. I am glad. The warrior's heart my people's blood has bread into me leaps at her story, of one slim champion in a pit of evil. But I know this is not the whole loaf of the tale. Worse comes. "It was well done, Elevown. For others beyond myself."

Her eyes are sad. "Ja." She replies softly. "I took you from there, and captured one of their horses, and brought you back here." Her voice stops. "I knew.. hurt you were, but not how until the firelight showed it to me."

And now she was for it, and the darkness closed over her. "Odin took me.." She whispers. "I do not remember going from here.. only that place, and my blade, and the screaming." Mine eyes close against her pain. "I hear it still in my dreams."

As I hear his evil words, and the sound of his pleasure.

What can I hope for either of us?

Only that this gentle warmth I feel between us will be our salvation. I lean back, and she with me, giving what comfort as can be with a gentle twining of ourselves that leaves my head resting on her shoulder and our fingers laced together.

I had feared sleep since I had last woken from the dark mists of sickness. But this night I let the warm tide take me out, as I watched her breathing settle and the anguished tension in her bones relax at last.

Pain, there still is. And guilt to corner her. But this night there is also the warmth of the friendship that binds us, giving us succor against the harsh coldness of life.

I know not where this journey will take me. But this I do know, wherever this path may lead, I will not travel it alone.

They remained silent for a bit after Xena's last words drifted off into the stiffening wind. The warrior let her head rest against the tree they were seated under, and took in the familiarity of the dell, her nose twitching as the air grew a trifle damper, and brought the rich scent of the earth up, and sharpened the tree's essence around them.

Gabrielle was thoughtfully studying the scroll. "Xena?" She finally murmured, half turning her head to gaze up at her partner.

"Mmm?" The warrior raised an eyebrow at her, and tightened her hold more securely around the bard's waist, letting her thumb rub idly across the soft skin and feeling the movement as Gabrielle took a breath to answer her.

"What do you think about that? About Ardwyn kinda…putting aside what happened to her just to.." She left the thought unfinished. "You know."

Yeah, she knew. "Well… " Xena, Warrior Philosopher? Nah.. nasty ring to that. "I think she's right…in a way. It's.. always easier to focus on someone else's problems.. than do the tough stuff and work on your own." And I'm living proof of that, right? I think I take it to an extreme, though. "But… in this case, I think it helps her too.. because it kinda makes her feel… "

"Useful." Gabrielle finished quietly. "Wanted."

I must be crazy. Gabrielle had groaned softly to herself for the hundredth them that day. What was I thinking of? I can't believe I'm here, in the rain, starving, my head is pounding, my legs ache… gods.. and look at her. She stared across the dripping branches of their makeshift shelter at the dour, dark visaged Xena, who was sitting, like a stone statue, with those long arms wrapped around her knees and her dark hair falling wet across her forehead. I wonder if she feels as lousy as I do? Probably not. She'd sighed and tried to wring out the fabric in her long skirt, without success.

Gabrielle had hunched her shoulders together, and sniffled, as she'd felt the rain roll down the back of her shirt and make the fabric stick to her clammily. Well.. she grudgingly admitted. At least I'm wearing cloth. She's wearing leather. And brass armor. Even from where she was sitting, Gabrielle could see the raw spots where Xena's wet leather armor had rubbed against her tanned skin, leaving angry welts.

For that matter, Gabrielle warmed to her subject, glad to think of something that would take her mind of her own misery. For that matter, the warrior looked distinctly.. uncomfortable, the girl decided, since she'd seen Xena sigh what.. three times now? Not surprising.. that leather thing was really kind of snug, as well as irritating, and those armor clasps must really.. pinch.

"Nice weather, huh?" She tried a sally of conversation.

Xena had glowered at her. "Guess not." She'd sighed, hugging herself with a shiver. "So.. um… I could.. I don't know, come up with a story.. or.. um… something… would you like to hear it?"

Another glower. "You're shaking." Xena stated, in an accusing tone.

"Oh.. well.. yeah, I um… " Gabrielle had kind of looked around her. "You know.. it's kinda coolish.. here, and I um… well, it's wet… you know how that is." She eyed Xena's obviously non shivering body. "Well, maybe you don't."

"Come here." The ex warlord ordered peremptorily.

"It's ok.. Xena, really I'm fine." Gabrielle had assured her, stifling a sneeze.

"Now." The voice oozed with menace, and in the dark, rainy, cold spot she was in, it spooked her.

Gabrielle slid across the muddy ground, until she was lodged next to the wet warrior. "Ok.. Ok!!!" she chattered, giving her a nervous glance. "I'm here… um… listen, you know, it's none of my business, but you'd probably be more comfortable if you took that metal stuff off."

An ice blue glare fixed her. "Well.. ok, maybe not.. it was just a thought… I mean, it's not like we're going to get attacked in this weather.. everyone else is inside."

Was that a tiny note of guilt she saw in Xena's eyes? Gabrielle had about convinced herself it had been a product of her overactive imagination, when Xena sighed in dour disgust. "You're right.. this stuff's driving me nuts." The ex warlord muttered.

"Oh.. great. Here.. um… " One hand rose and very carefully, very hesitantly touched the locking buckle on her shoulder armor. "Can I um… help you?"

It had been a defining moment, Gabrielle realized much, much later. Her offer, Xena's silent acceptance, a first puzzled struggle with locks and catches she now knew as well as their owner did. "There." She'd been vaguely proud of herself for figuring the catch out without having to ask. "Can I.. oh.. yeah.. ok.. " Xena had lifted the armor off, and set it down next to her, with a relieved sigh. "Bet that feels better."

Xena studied her closely. "You're not shaking anymore."

"Um.. no.. well, it's funny.. but it feels like.. I think it's warmer over here." Gabrielle explained earnestly. "Less wind or something." She sniffed, and suppressed a sneeze. "Sorry."

Xena glared at her, then rummaged in the saddlebag she had slung next to her, all she'd been able to grab of their belongings before the rains came down, miring Argo and the rest of the supplies beyond a small mud lake. She jerked out a package, and emptied it into a small carved cup, then reached up and let the rain run into it. "Here." She pulled the cup back down and thrust it at Gabrielle. "Drink that."

It smelled… disgusting. But one look at Xena's ferocious face told Gabrielle she'd better drink it or… she'd have it poured down her throat. Making a face and holding her nose, she did as asked, and grimaced. "Ugh… that's horrible." She licked her lips and paused. The pounding in her head started to fade. "Oh.. it works… how did you know I had a headache?"

"Good guess." Xena muttered, leaning back against the rock they had built their hurried shelter against. She pulled a piece of folded linen out of the bag, and shook it out, then glared at the bard again. "Get closer."

"Oh.. um.. sure." Gabrielle had cautiously settled against the warrior's warm body, and let out a tiny sigh of relief. Warm felt good. Then the fabric was settling around her, and Xena was tucking it in around both of them.

It got a lot warmer all of a sudden, and she completely forgot about the rain. Or how much her legs hurt. "Thanks." She murmured softly into the damp ear very close by. "Thanks for taking care of things."

A shrug, felt through her body as well as seen. "Keeps my mind off… other things." Xena's voice had come back. "Go to sleep."

And so she had. With a smile.

"Yeah." Xena confirmed. "Something like that." She closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the feeling of having Gabrielle curled up against her, as the wind fitfully tangled their hair and lashed them lightly with broken leaves. "Weather’s turning."

"Mmm.." The bard yawned, and forced her eyes open, squinting against the breeze. "Guess we had our sun for the day." She muttered, disgruntled. Reluctantly, she started to get up, but found herself firmly held by her partner. "Hey.. you looking to get rained on?"

"I dunno." Xena purred into her ear. "Maybe." Then she laughed, and got her booted feet under her, picking them both up off the ground and setting the bard on her feet lightly. They collected their gear, and ambled back at a relaxed pace, their steps bringing them close to the cliff edge the warrior had fallen off of.

Gabrielle veered towards the edge, and knelt down, putting a hand out and touching the broken granite shelf, her fingers picking up a gentle coating of thick brown earth as she did so. "Xena, what in Tartarus were you doing out this far anyway?" Her eyes darted up, and found her partners, which immediately found other things to be interested in. "Xena?"

"Um." Xena strolled over and peered around the trunk of a nearby tree. "Getting to be springtime for sure." She examined the tiny green shoots poking timidly from the erstwhile dead branches.

One pale blond eyebrow inched its way up Gabrielle’s forehead. "You didn’t answer my question." She offered, craning her neck around to watch the warrior’s suddenly desperate interest in the local flora. "Xena?"

"I think there are some chestnuts up there." Xena replied, in a distracted mutter, and dropped the bag she was carrying. "I'll find out." One light jump, and she’d caught a low branch, pulling herself up into the tree and searching for her next handhold. "Yep.." Another jump, and now she was close to a cluster of tasty looking nuggets. She balanced neatly on the branch nearest them, and broke off the cluster, tucking them away in the pouch at her belt. Then she glanced down, to see Gabrielle standing just under the tree, watching her closely, hands on hips. Damn. Maybe if I fall out of the tree? Another glance down noted the faint, twitching smile on the bard’s face. No, she’d kill me for that.

A deep sigh, and Xena was dropping lightly to the branch beneath her, feeling her balance compensate for the movement of the limb, and the wind’s interference. She walked to the end of the swaying limb, and stepped off, flexing her knees to absorb the impact as she hit the ground, and bounced a little, then strolled over to where her partner was waiting.

Hands still on hips, faint smile in place, head cocked to one side in inquiry. "Don’t think you’re going to distract me from that question, partner." The bard informed her, tapping her linen clad chest with one finger. "It won’t work."

Xena smiled, and stepped closer, until her body was lightly touching Gabrielle’s. "What makes you think I’m trying to distract you?" She inquired softly, feeling her flesh warm against the bard’s. She let her hand drift upwards, brushing the wind blown hair off Gabrielle’s face and delicately tracing the line of her cheekbone.

"Won’t work, Xena." The bard stated, but her body pressed forward, and she swallowed hard.

"Really? Too bad." Xena commented, moving her touch down. "You sure?"

"Absolutely." Gabrielle replied, but it was on an irregular breath, and her eyes slid closed as her partner’s touch found familiar sensitive points. She swayed gently, and her hands came up in reflex, starting their own teasing wander. "What was the question again?"

Xena took a long moment out to kiss her, then sternly reminded herself that she was standing unprotected in the middle of a potentially hostile forest. With a sigh, she rested her head against her partner’s. "All right.. all right.. I was um.. well, I heard this squeak."

"Squeak?" Gabrielle mumbled, her eyes still closed.

"Yeah… so I checked it out." The warrior replied, distracted by the slow progress of the bard’s fingertips. "Uh… " What was I saying? Oh.. right.. ."So I came around that corner there, and saw this little kitten… "

"A kitten?" The bard nibbled her way down Xena’s chest, breathing in the warrior’s distinctive scent as she did so. "Ummm…a nice..." Her lips traced a rib. "soft… " Now she was below the warrior's ribcage and following the sculpted hollows and dips of her belly. "furry little kitten?"

Xena lost track of her surroundings for a minute, then shook her head a little to clear it. "So I tried to get it back off the ledge." She explained. "I hadta crawl out there to get the damn thing, and I kinda… " Her breathing caught as Gabrielle gently licked her belly button. "uh…fell."

"Waitaminute." The bard glanced up, with an impish grin. "So you were trying to rescue a scared kitty cat?"

Xena gazed down at her plaintively. "Something like that, yeah." She made a little face. "Don’t tell anyone all right?"

Wicked green eyes peered up the length of her body. "What’s it worth to you, tough stuff?" She couldn't hold it though, and almost melted at the woebegone look in her partner’s pale blue eyes. "Relax.. you’re secret’s safe with me." She bumped her lightly with her head, and wrapped her arms around the warrior’s body, giving her a warm hug.

"I'm just a sucker for a cute face." Xena finally allowed, giving her a wry grin. "Guess that explains you, huh?"

The bard blushed. "Come on… before you get any mushier on me. " She nudged Xena towards the path out of the dell. "Mom was making those chewy muffins."

"She was, huh?" Xena slid the pack with their stuff onto her back, and securely fastened it. "And you want some, right?"

A soft snort. "You know it."

"Ah hah. Think you’ll get some?" The warrior asked, with a mischievous twinkle.

Gabrielle turned her head and gave her a suspicious stare. "You think I won’t?"

Xena grinned. "Not if I get there first." She broke into a loping run. "C’mon.. race you…"

Gabrielle sighed. "You rat." But she picked up her pace, trying to keep the bounding warrior in view. "Xena.. I’m gonna hurt you."

"Gotta catch me." Came the taunting remark, as the warrior picked up speed, leaning forward and launching herself into a lazy flip over the crest of the dell, then settling into an easy pace down the thin path heading back down towards the river. She heard Gabrielle’s steps behind her, and deliberately slowed until the bard came even with her. "Rats.. guess you did."

Gabrielle eyed her. "You’re not going to go into that self pitying mode again, are you?"

For an answer Xena took two long strides to a hillock in the path, and launched off of it, tucking her body into two neat circles in the air, then straightening out of that and touching down on the slope, only to vault right back up and soar down the angle of the hill as though she were flying. Her hands touched the ground, shoulders and elbows flexing to take her weight, and pushing back off to bring her standing, ankles crossed in a casual air as the bard caught up with her again. "Nah.. I feel pretty good." She deadpanned.

"You gotta teach me how to do that." Gabrielle sighed, as she jogged on past, and Xena joined her, easily matching her pace. "I think I figured part of it out.. it’s momentum, but… " She eyed her companion. "You can do that flip stuff from a standing start… "

Xena nodded, her senses flowing around them, searching for danger. "That’s mostly in here." She dropped a hand to hit her moving thigh. "Lotta lifting, some running…I used to balance logs on my shoulders, and jump as high as I could with them, then come down and let the weight take me all the way down, and jump back up again." She paused reflectively, with a wry little smile of remembrance.

Gabrielle stared at her in disbelief.

"Yeah, well.. I was kinda crazy when I was young." Xena shrugged self depreciatingly.

"Oh." The bard muttered faintly. "You’ve changed so much." She rolled her eyes.

Xena bumped her lightly with an elbow. "Was a time I was fighting all day, every day." She reminded the bard. "Needed every advantage I could find." She smiled a little. "Brute strength can sometimes win the day for you when the skills just aren’t there."

The ran along in silence for a minute, as Gabrielle considered that. It made sense, in a brutal kind of way. "So.. but you don’t do that stuff anymore… what changed? We still fight a lot." She saw where she wanted to go with this, and patiently waited for the response.

Xena dodged a stump, then continued on. "Well.. no.. now the skills are there." She replied slowly. "I don’t.. well, it never hurts, but I don’t need brute power, really. It’s all in the technique."

"Ok.. so what you’re saying is, the more skill you have, the less energy you need to use." Gabrielle nudged.

A look flicked over her. "Sure."

"Mm…and you get skills… how?" The bard avoided a large root carefully, not wanting a twisted ankle to interfere with her little scheme.

Xena chewed over that for a minute. "Practice… time… study… you know, Gabrielle. You do it yourself with your stories."

"Yeah… yeah.. you’re right.. I do." The bard agreed. "Work smarter, not harder."

Xena nodded vigorously. "Exactly… you just keep getting better at what you do, because you build experience, which takes the place of brute force, and lets you do more with what you have."

"Mm." Gabrielle mused thoughtfully. "So.. when does that stop?"

The warrior shook her head. "It never does, Gabrielle.. you keep on learning all the time, and you just get better and better, the more experience you have."

"Really?" Her partner gazed at her. "Another couple of years and you ought to be really something then, huh?"

Xena opened her mouth to answer, then realized she had been gotten, but good, and closed it again. She let a grudgingly admiring grin shape her mouth. "That was good, Gabrielle. Very good."

"Heh." The bard buffed her nails on her shirt, and smirked, but her eyes were gentle. "But it is true, you know that, right?"

Xena gave her a sideways look, through narrowed eyes. "Hmph."

They rounded the last turn past the river, and started up the long road into Amphipolis, acknowledging the whistles of recognition as they passed. "We’ve got visitors." Xena commented. "Messenger.. and Toris is back."

"Mph." Gabrielle took a deep breath, and brushed her hair back from her face. "Be glad to see Granella.. she was going to pick me up some new parchment." She shot Xena a surreptitious look, noting the relaxed stride, and easy breathing with some envy. "Wonder what the message is?"

Xena nodded towards the inn. "Guess we'll find out soon enough. "

Concluded in Part 5