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 –Why does anyone ever disclaim violence in a Xena story? Of course there's violence. Do you think we'd put out a story that consisted of pages and pages of Xena just.. .fishing.. or something? She is a Warrior Princess, not a Mary Kay consultant. (no insult intended - some of my best co workers are Mary Kay consultants, and I purchase from them regularly) And Gabrielle is no slouch with that staff, either. So, yes - there is violence.

Subtext - C'mon. Even the show has subtext. Heck, sometimes, it's not subtext. Sometimes, it's maintext. But anyway, this is an alternative fan fiction story. That means, it's based on the premise that Xena and Gabrielle are more than just best friends. If that's not your cup of mint tea, there are many, many talented bards out in the Xenaverse who post general fiction, which does not follow this premise. Go find them. Enjoy them.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more.

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

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


Promises Kept - Part 3

By Melissa Good

The setting sun that night found them tucked in a peaceful glade, inside a ring of tall trees overlooking a long, sloping expanse of grass that led down to a large lake. Xena had stopped early, though neither of them was particularly tired.

Mostly because she was just glad to be out, and free, and alone with the bard, under a clear sky, and only the birds and small animals to keep them company. And Argo and Ares, of course. Argo had agreeably carried both of them most of the day, and they had made good time, so when they'd passed a spot she remembered as being particularly nice, she'd steered the mare off the path, and headed her down through the overhanging trees, the soft leaves brushing their shoulders like a gentle blanket.

"Pretty spot." Gabrielle commented, from her seat on a fallen log. "Didn't we stay here when we were headed out this way one time?"

Xena nodded, with a quiet smile. "Yes." She finished pulling off Argo's saddle, and set it on the ground, then unbuckled the mare's blanket. "It was that time after you came back from the Academy."

The bard leaned back, and crossed her booted legs at the ankles. "Ohhh yeah… I remember… I finally got you to listen to some of my poetry that night." She chuckled. "You had no idea what to say to me." A fond memory of round blue eyes blinking at her in some alarm through the flickering firelight made her smile.

The warrior gave her a look. "You're right. .I didn't." She rubbed the mare down, then unbuckled her armor, and lifted it off her shoulders. "You in the mood for some fresh fish?"

"Like I'd ever turn that offer down." Gabrielle grinned smugly. "That lake looks great.. but I'll wait until you finish catching dinner… so I don't get accused of scaring the prey off again."

Xena looked up, from where she was kneeling and unbuckling her leg armor, and gave her partner a wry look. "You're fine, as long as you don't sing."

Gabrielle stuck her tongue out, then crossed her arms over her chest, and watched appreciatively as Xena stripped out of her leathers and stood casually, her bare, tanned skin collecting the red light of sunset. The hard work with her equine charges had added quite a bit of muscle to her soulmate's back and shoulders, and she watched in idle fascination as the smooth ripples moved under her flesh. She looks really good. Gabrielle decided, watching the warrior turn her way and capture the light from a totally different direction. Oh yeah…definitely…Her thoughts wandered off to a very pleasant place.

"Gabrielle?" The curious voice interrupted her meandering.

"Huh?" She looked up, finding blue eyes peering at her. "Oh..sorry… " She gave Xena an impish grin. "I was just enjoying the view."

The warrior rolled her eyes. "Thanks." She tossed the bard a shirt, and padded down the slope, lengthening her strides the last few and diving into the water with a clean, almost splashless entry.

Gabrielle waited until she surfaced, then she stood, and slung the shirt over her shoulder and went to retrieve her partner's leathers, shaking them out, and brushing them off fondly. She caught Ares' eyes and held the garment up to her own body "What do you think, Ares?"

The wolf sneezed.

"Eeeeyah… " Gabrielle laughed easily. "That's what I said, too…boy did I look goofy in them that one time." She folded the leathers over, and laid them neatly on top of a saddlebag, then moved over to her own things and sat down, pulling off her boots and wiggling her toes. "Mmm… " She sighed, leaning back and stretching her body out, feeling the pleasant pull against her stomach muscles. She let her arms relax, and gazed up at the sky, as it shaded from the sunset's orange glow to a deep blue, and showed the first twinkling of stars overhead. A deep breath brought her the scent of the water nearby, and the grass she was lying in, and the rich pine scent of the trees. "Smells great out here, doesn't it, Ares?"

The wolf looked up from where he had a pinecone pinned between his two big paws and was worrying it with his teeth. "Agrrooo." He yodeled softly, scrambling to his feet and trotting over to her, where he dropped his pine cone on her belly and sat down with an expectant look.

"Ouch." Gabrielle picked up the prickly item, and inspected it. "I guess that means you're hungry, huh?" She heard a distinct rumble. "Is that you or me?"

"Agrrroooo." The wolf licked her hand, then looked up, his yellow eyes fixing on something that caused his tail to wag.

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and spotted her soulmate emerging from the water. "Oooo…you think she's got dinner?" She inquired of the wolf, then sucked in a breath as the full sunlight hit Xena's water speckled body. "Oh.. who cares?" She clucked her tongue. "Tell you what.. you can have the fish, I'll take your mommy, okay?"

"Roo?" Ares cocked his head at her, sniffing at her belly and giving her an experimental lick.

"Aghh.. that's cold." The bard grabbed his tongue in two fingers, and held on, causing the wolf to poke it out further, and make a muffled whining sound. She released it, and scratched his head absently as she watched Xena's approach. The warrior was shaking the wet hair out of her eyes, and causing fire tinged droplets of water to spin off into the sunlight, which was gracing her powerful body with a cloak of warm crimson. No… Gabrielle felt a smile edging its way onto her face. The time in Amphipolis hadn't done her soulmate any harm at all. She tilted her head as Xena approached, and stood dripping nearby. "That was fast."

Xena shrugged. "Lot of fish in there… not many people around here." She knelt and set the two large fish on the stones surrounding the campfire to slow cook, then stood back up and offered Gabrielle a hand up. "Wanna go swimming?"

The bard took her hand, and allowed herself to be hoisted to her feet. "Now there's an offer I can't refuse." She reached for the belt holding her skirt on, as Xena helpfully untied her top, peeling away the fabric and tickling her a little across her ribs. Her skin was paler than her partner's but not by much, and had a golden tinge to it, where Xena's held a touch of bronze. She glanced up at the dancing blue eyes, and grinned, then gave her a poke. "Race you!"

She took off running, hearing Xena laugh, then feeling the warmth as the warrior caught up to her, running a finger down the length of her spine as they headed towards the water. She plunged into the lake, enjoying the rush as the cold water closed over her head, and covered her body. She surfaced with a splutter. "Augh.. you didn’t tell me it was cold!"

Xena had also surfaced, and was treading water nearby. "You didn't ask." She stated blithely. "Besides, it's a lake, and it's fall, Gabrielle.. what did you expect?"

"I expected you to find a heated spring, of course." The bard answered, splashing her. "You of many skills."

Xena snorted, and splashed her back.

That turned into a water fight, which lasted until the last rays of sun were tinting the water, and Xena finally caught up with the elusive bard, getting a firm hold on her slippery body and bringing her close. "Gotcha." She growled, triumphantly.

Gabrielle stopped struggling, and wound her arms around her partner's neck. "Yep." She agreed cheerfully, surprised when Xena didn't hesitate to incline her head and take possession of the bard's lips. The warmth against the water's chill felt fantastic and she squirmed closer, pressing more of her body against the warrior's. She finally broke off with a little sigh. "We are in the middle of a lake, in the middle of a forest, love. "

"Hmmm… " Xena chuckled deep in her throat. "Nobody around for miles.. except Argo, Ares, and an owl in that tree to our left."

Gabrielle peered into the gloom. "C'mon, Xena.. even you aren't that good." She giggled, bumping her partner with her head.

The warrior reached down, and came up with a stone dripping water, then with a flick of her wrist, sent it flying into the trees. A whirring sound exploded out of the nearest, and a large brown owl flapped out, giving them an evil look as it passed.

Xena smirked, and cocked an eyebrow. "Oh yes I am. " She purred cockily, as she lifted the bard up and cradled her, then walked casually up out of the lake, and back to their campsite.

Gabrielle didn't even protest. She just hung on, and gently licked droplets of the cool water from her partner's skin as she was set down onto her sleeping furs and felt a piece of linen start to dry her all over. With a lazy grin, she returned the favor, then settled back as Xena made a detour to the fire, and brought back their dinner, which they alternated bites of with nibbles of each other until Gabrielle felt both pleasantly stuffed, and wonderfully stimulated.

Xena set their empty plates aside, and ran a slow, teasing hand up the bard's body, feeling her arch towards the contact, and smiling as she slid down next to her partner, and started a steady, sly nibbling just below her last rib, intent on embarking on a creative path.

Gabrielle sucked in an unsteady breath, letting the sharp wave of sensation crash over her. The stars over head seemed more than usually vivid, and she willingly gave up control of her senses to a touch that claimed her utterly.

She was aware, at last, of being merely a ball of contentment, floating peacefully in a sleepy sea of warmth.

Xena listened to her soulmate's steady breathing, which sent a stream of warmth across her skin where the bard's cheek was resting against it. Her eyes were sharp, and alert, as she kept watch, reassuring herself of the lack of danger, of watchers in the vicinity.

She'd checked and rechecked, of course, before she'd risked losing herself in a bout of passion, but you could never be too sure. Even with Ares' watchful senses there to alert her, she was still overwhelmingly aware of her role in keeping herself, and Gabrielle safe. Normally, they wouldn't have risked it. However, she had no idea what they were going into, and the past two days had been very stressful to both of them so….

They'd gotten away with it. Xena stretched a little, and curled her body more securely around Gabrielle's. Couldn’t do that very often, but.. it had been worth it. She felt pretty damn good, and by the smile on the bard's face… She sighed softly, and yawned, letting her eyes drift closed; knowing her senses would remain alert from long habit.

Gabrielle stirred sleepily, and squirmed closer, letting out a wordless mumble as her hands found a more secure grip, curling around Xena's ribs possessively. The sight brought an appreciative grin to the warrior's face as she blinked her eyes open to peer down at the younger woman. The dim flicker of the fire brought bare highlights against the fair eyelashes that brushed delicately against her skin. She tucked the furs around them both, and tilted her head back with a sigh, regarding the friendly stars high above them.

The road sloped upward now; leading into a small band of hills that circled them, and was covered with a thick forest. Two days of traveling had ended with them having to detour around the best way, when Xena found a small war being raged between two city states and decided not to get involved. "Could last for a long time.. " She'd informed the bard, as they picked their way gingerly around the perimeter. "Gotta get this out of the way first.. maybe on our way back."

Gabrielle had nodded, casting her eyes behind them as Argo carried them in a direction calculated to circle the conflict. "So many wars, so little time." She'd murmured, with a sigh, as she chewed industriously on a bit of bread and cheese her partner had presented her after a mild complaint. "All this walking's making me hungry."

Xena burst out laughing. "Oh yeah.. and what's your usual excuse?" She teased wickedly, and got an impudent pink tongue back as an answer.

Now they were walking, to give Argo a rest, and the road let off puffs of dust around their boots as Gabrielle rehearsed one of her more recent stories. Xena, as usually, listened in amiable silence.

"You think I should keep the horse bit in there?" The bard questioned, pausing to review. "The biting thing, I mean."

Xena considered. "I thought it was funny." She finally stated, cautiously. "Especially when you described the face the horse made after it bit that guy."

Gabrielle chuckled. "That kinda 'o gods what do I have in my mouth' look?"

The warrior nodded. "Yeah.. I gave Argo some herb cake of mother's once and she made that face." She turned to the placidly pacing mare. "Didn'cha?"

Argo jangled her bit, and snorted, giving Xena a nudge in the ribs.

A faint hail made them both stop, and look at each other. "Did you hear that?" Gabrielle said, her brow creasing. "Sounds like someone yodeling."

They turned, to see a dust cloud appearing to chase them, with an undulating cry coming from it.

"Ooohooo! Girls!" The sound became clearer.

Xena sighed. "Never listens." She stopped and rested one arm across Argo's shoulders, and put the other hand on her hip. Ares sat down at her heels, and sneezed in the dust.

Gabrielle grinned. "Hey.. be nice.. I haven't seen him in a long time." She trotted down the road to greet the oncoming wagon. "Salmoneus!"

"Hello!" The older man huffed up to her, and hugged her enthusiastically. "Well, hello!" He patted her back, then held her out at arms distance, and clucked. "Look at you! Gabrielle, you look fabulous." He enthused. "You're positively glowing!"

The bard blushed, and gave him a push. "Nice to see you too, Salmoneus.. Xena said she'd bumped into you."

The man cast an eye at the dourly waiting Xena and blew her a kiss. "Oh yah.. I had the pleasure of meeting tall, dark and deadly just a few days ago.. and boy was I lucky I did.. nice timing." He tugged on the reins of his mule, who was sturdily pulling a wagon behind him. "She sure saved my…um… "

"I get the idea." The bard assured him, peeking into the wagon. "What do you have here?"

He beamed. "My educational exhibit. I'm increasing the scholastic aptitude of people all over Greece."

Sparkling green eyes darted from the wagon to his face. "Sideshow, huh?"

"Tch.." He clucked. "You've been spending too much time with a certain Warrior Princess, I think." He opened a cage, and let the occupant waddle out. "See? Bet you've never seen anything like that before!"

Gabrielle gazed at the small, upright bird in delight. "Oh.. he's so cute!" She tentatively put a hand out, and the bird toddled over, nibbling at her fingers. "Xena.. is this the thing you were talking about?" She called over her shoulder to her partner.

With a long-suffering sigh, Xena joined them, leaning her bracered forearms against the wood. "Yeah.." She admitted.

When the bird heard her voice, it turned its head, and honked, then pattered across the cart and crashed against its side, flapping its wing stubs enthusiastically. "Honk!"

"You know, I think he likes you." Salmoneus observed, with a broad smile. "He's been positively sulking ever since you left him."

Xena gave all three of them an evil look, then backed off from the wagon, and returned to Argo's side. "C'mon, Gabrielle.. we've got someplace to be."

Salmoneus gave her a fond look. "She never changes, does she?" He winked at Gabrielle. "So.. how've you been?"

Gabrielle ran over the thousand different answers to that question, and smiled. "I'm great.. how about you?"

"Eh.. " He gazed at his cargo. "Actually.. something Xena said in that awful place is kinda weighing on me.. she's right.. these animals really don’t belong here, and they're not very happy.. but I don't know what to do with them."

The bard studied the birds, and reached out to scratch the loose one on the head. The bird was hopping up and down, in a disappointed manner. "Xena, come back over here for a minute, would you?"

An audible sigh, but the warrior complied, edging around next to her partner and leaning on the wagon side again. "What?" The bird immediately pattered happily over to her, and she relented, rubbing its head as it cooed contentedly.

Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from laughing. "What can Sal do with these guys?" She peered up at Xena. "He can't put them back where he found them."

Xena blinked, as she regarded the animals, keeping silent for a long moment of thought. Ares trotted over and hoisted himself up onto his hind legs, propping his forepaws on the wagon edge and peering down. "Roo?"

The bird honked at him.

The warrior let out a breath. "Well… these are water birds." She answered slowly. "I guess if you find a port city.. you could just let them off into the ocean." She scratched the bird under his chin. "They eat fish."

"Uh huh." Salmoneus agreed. "They sure do… and a ton of it."

"Right… " Xena drummed her fingers on the wood. "The other birds.. you could probably just let off somewhere warm.. down south.. in that jungly area near the coast… and that cat.. I don't know, Salmoneus… is it friendly?"

The man snorted. "To me, or to you?" He pointed at the bird. "I certainly don’t have that thing mooning around after my tuchus."

"Your what?" Bard and warrior spoke together in unison.

Salmoneus looked from one pair of inquiring crystal clear eyes to the other, and sighed. "Nevermind."

Xena shrugged, and went to the other side of the wagon, peering in at the small wildcat with interest. "Doesn't look very friendly." She observed, putting a very cautious hand out. The cat hissed at her. "Well… Athens has a pretty complete zoo… maybe they'd be interested.. I'd hate to have you release it around here.. too many really big cats around."

The man tucked his hands inside his belt, and rocked back. "Hmm… bet they'd…" A smile etched his bearded face. "Why, that's a great idea, Xena! Thanks!" He chortled. "I've been wanting to visit Athens…get some culture back under my belt." He looked around. "Not much of that around here in the backwaters."

They looked at him.

"Oh.. sorry.. I forgot.. you live around here." He gave them a winsome smile. "I didn’t mean your place, of course." He scratched his beard. "What's it called again?"

Xena snorted softly, and pushed back from the cart. "Amphipolis, but you don’t wanna go there."

"Ah.. " The man chuckled at her. "Too quiet for me, huh?"

The warrior smiled at him. "Too smart for you." She corrected with a smirk. "You'll end up spending the winter in a root cellar, trust me."

He fingered his beard. "I could take that as a challenge." He offered, thoughtfully.

Xena gave him a look, as she tugged on the bard's arm "Not unless you wanna go head to head with my mother.. c'mon, Gabrielle.. let's get moving."

"Mother?" Salmoneus perked up. "You have a mother? Xena, you never told me you had a mother… that's amazing!" He tugged the mule's reins along and followed them as they moved back towards Argo. "Where are you headed? Maybe you could use an escort, huh?"

"No." They managed to say simultaneously, then glanced at each other in bemusement. "We're headed into trouble, Sal… you don't wanna go there." Xena elaborated. "Fighting, wars.. dirty warlords… bad food.."

"Okay..okay.. you don't need to hint." Salmoneus held up a hand. "I know when I'm not wanted."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "This is your department." The warrior muttered, fussing with a bit of Argo's tack.

The bard gave her an amused look, and poked her in the ribs. "My big, brave warrior." She whispered, knowing her partner would hear it. "Listen, Sal… what Xena said was true." She took the man by the arm, as they walked. "Someone she knew years back has taken over a city.. he's not a nice guy.. and we're headed there to see what we can do about it."

Salmoneus cleared his throat. "Well.. I um.. of course I would love to participate.. but.. I .. I have these animals I'm responsible for.. you understand."

"Of course." Gabrielle agreed blithely. "But we'll be back in Amphipolis in a while.. you could stop by and see us.. I'd love to get a chance to talk to you." She smiled at him, and he responded with a returning smile.

"Great idea, Gabrielle.. I think I'll do that… I can't pass up a chance to meet Xena's mother, after all. " He gave the warrior a cheerful look, which she ignored. "You two be careful, all right?"

"We will." The bard assured him. "Be careful.. there's two armies fighting just east of here.. we're taking a detour around them."

The man nodded. "I know.. I was too… I heard the noise and smelt the sweaty, dirty leather they always seem to wear." He shifted a quick, apologetic look at Xena. "Not that you sweat, of course. "

That got a wry laugh from the warrior. "Salmoneus.. of course I do." She leaned against Argo and gave him a look. "I just take the time to clean my armor." She fished in a saddlebag and held up a small cake of soap. "Leather soap.. Its not that complicated."

"Really?" Salmoneus plucked the item from her fingers, and sniffed it. "Oh.. wow.. that's kinda nice… " He examined the cake. "Hey.. you know? I bet I could make a killing…. " He glanced up to see two pairs of eyes gazing back at him. "Well, if they had a choice between smelling bad, and smelling nice.. I could tell them it would make it much easier for them to find girlfriends."

Gabrielle rubbed the side of her nose. "Well.. that's true." She muttered, giving her partner a glance. "You certainly smell a lot nicer than any other fighter I've ever met." She muffled a laugh at the choked sound that produced.

"See?" Salmoneus beamed at them. "It's perfect! You two are a great example of my theory, and who could resist?" He tossed the soap up and caught it. "Thanks Xena!" He held a hand out. "You can be my silent business partner!"

The warrior clasped his arm, and shook her head. "Just be careful, willya?" She sighed. "I know it's a waste of air to tell you not to try it."

"Careful? My middle name is careful, Xena… " He assured her. "Gotta go… I know this man in the north who makes all kinds of this stuff… and he lives in a port town, too… "

They watched him as he turned his wagon and headed off, snatches of a ribald tune floating back to them from him.

"What a character." Gabrielle sighed, as they continued on their way down the road. "Imagine.. us contributing to the social betterment of grungy warlords."

Xena paced a few steps, then smirked. "Actually.. it's not a bad idea.. most fighters I know really like bubble baths."

"Tch.. they do not." The bard slapped her in the belly. "Give me a break, Xena."

Her partner bestowed an injured look on her. "I'm serious… can you imagine what an entire army looks and smells like at the end of the day? I made em wash."

A giggle. "Did you really?"

"You betcha." Xena snorted. "Just about every damn day.. I was notorious for that." She took a deep breath. "I had to live with em, remember? Besides.. it keeps sickness out of the camp.. I kept more people fighting that way."

Gabrielle thought about that for a while, as they walked. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" Her tall soulmate returned her attention from some distant place and angled her head towards the bard.

"Do you miss leading an army?" She'd never asked that so directly before. "I know you were good at it."

Xena looked off down the road for a long moment. "Sometimes." She admitted quietly. "I miss the excitement… the challenge of what war is.. a match of wits and strength." She sighed softly, and regarded the bard. "I don't miss the hurting.. and the dying, though." A pensive pause. "I don't miss knowing decisions I made led hundreds of people to their deaths." She kicked a rock. "Does that answer your question?"

The bard moved closer, and slipped an arm around her. "Yeah."

Xena reciprocated, laying an arm over her shoulders. "Besides, you keep me pretty busy." She ruffled her partner's hair affectionately. "I… I think I've adjusted to the life I have now.. I'm not sure I'd want to lead an army again.. even if the opportunity presented itself."

"Xena?" Gabrielle looked up. "If you ever did.. I want you to know I'd want to go with you." Her eyes searched her partner's face. "Even if that's what you chose to do, I'd want to be a part of it."

Blue eyes took on an extra layer of shine. "All the more reason not to." The warrior answered. "And yes, I knew that."

Ahead of them, the path was winding up into the hills, to drop down on the other side and lead the way into Garanimus' lair.

The city rose up in front of them, tall, stone built walls that stretched off to either side, and rose up into a mountainside the backed the town, providing a sturdy defense. Xena's experienced eyes flicked over the structure, assessing weak and strong points as they made their approach.

"Doesn't look too bad." She commented to the bard, who was ambling along a pace behind her.

"You're right." Gabrielle caught up, and peered around Argo's shoulder.

They both paused, and glanced at each other, then Gabrielle put a hand on her soulmate's back, and gave it a brisk rub. "C'mon, suck it in.. time to do a Warrior Princess on them."

Xena let out a short laugh. "I'm not sure that word's supposed to be used that way in Greek, Gabrielle." Nevertheless, she straightened her shoulders, and shifted the sword on her back to make sure it was settled in just the right spot. "Let's go."

Guards on the walls spotted them, and a cluster of armed men gathered at the gate, blocking their way with a casual insolence. Xena judged them, and walked up to the one she calculated was the guard lieutenant. She pulled the parchment Garanimus had sent out, and handed it to him without a word. Then she relaxed her stance, keeping one hand on Argo's bridle, and letting the other rest on her thigh.

The guard opened the parchment, and read it, then looked at her. "You're Xena?"

"Yep." The warrior answered casually.

"Wait here." The man let his eyes flick over her with idle curiosity, then strode off, slipping through the half-closed gate. The remaining guards stared at her in unconcealed interest.

Gabrielle stayed close to Argo, and felt Ares press against her legs in uneasy vigil. She watched Xena carefully for any hint of trouble, noting the rigid set of her shoulders, and the tensing of the sloping neck muscles just under her sword which meant the warrior was in that hyper alert state that could explode into motion at any second. Outwardly, though, Xena appeared relaxed, almost half asleep as she gazed around, letting her eyes linger on a hawk flying high overhead for a peaceful instant.

The gate opened, and the lieutenant came back. "Just you." He addressed Xena.

The warrior turned a lazy gaze on him. "You get all or nothing. I can leave." She replied. "He's asking me for help, not the other way around."

A buzz lifted at her words. So.. Gabrielle mused. They hadn't know their leader had sent for Xena. Interesting. She watched Xena scratch Argo's muzzle, directing her attention to the mare as though they were alone in the road. She hid a smile, as the man fidgeting, then disappeared again. Never make it easy, huh Xe?

As though hearing her words, the warrior peeked at her over her shoulder, and winked. She's totally enjoying this, the bard realized. What a brat she is sometimes.

In a much shorter time, the guard lieutenant was back, this time motioning them to follow him with a gruff gesture. Xena took Argo's reins in her hand and complied amiably, slowing to let Gabrielle catch up to her as they passed through the gates. "Stay close." She muttered, almost under her breath. "But stay clear of my sword arm."

Gabrielle nodded her understanding, and shifted position slightly, so that she was behind and to the left of the warrior, and took in their surroundings as they entered a walled courtyard whose entire expanse was filled with a busy, noisy market. Hmm. She eyed several of the passing booths. This is starting to look up.. doesn’t appear to be a town under siege or anything.. maybe this guy reformed.

They passed under a thick stone archway, into the front steps of what was obviously a castle. Xena halted at them, and patted Argo's nose. "You stay here, girl - okay?" She looked down. "Ares… you keep an eye on her, hear me?"

The lieutenant eyed her. "Someone will take care of the animals."

Xena stepped up to him, making the most of her inch height advantage. "I'll take care of them when I come out. Don't touch them. The mare's battle trained." She smiled. "And the wolf's named for the God of War for a reason."

Woo woo… Gabrielle felt a shameful feeling of delight. Intimidation central today, huh Xena? You go. As much as she'd come to appreciate the gentler side of her partner, there was something about this facet… something.. dangerous.. that the bard had to reluctantly admit excited her.

The man's jaw sagged a little. "A.. all right." He muttered helplessly. "Come on then." He turned and headed up the stairs, with Xena and Gabrielle right behind him.

The central hallway of the palace was large, and lined mostly in marble, and their boots rang across it in subtle echoes. Doors led off to different rooms on each side, and the walls were hung with tapestries that depicted colorful scenes from myths and stories.

On the end of central hall was a larger door than the rest, a double hung portal of deeply carved wood, with brass handles. Their harried escort trudged ahead and grabbed them, pulling back and moving the doors with an audible, tortured creak.

A flow of music, and incense flowed out, and they entered, to see a room full of colorful dancers and courtiers, enjoying the efforts of a pair of girls in the center, who were undulating to the sounds of a pipe. The watchers were in a circle around the wall, and the door was facing a raised platform, where there were two thrones, one of which was occupied by a tall, blond haired man in a bright green tunic with gold embroidery. He was engrossed in the dancers, until a vicious whirring distracted him, and took his cup out of his hand with an audible clang.

He shook his hand, and cursed, standing up and causing the music to falter.

Xena caught her chakram as it returned and resettled it at her hip, now aware of the eyes of the entire room on her. The spectators were decked in fine linens and silks, and in hues an entire range of colors. They had perfectly coifed hair, and delicately drawn paint on their faces.

The warrior walked to the very center of the room, and stood there, her dark, travel stained leathers broken only by the dully gleaming armor. Her hair was wild, and windblown, and she was the very picture of a common, feral fighter.

But, oh, she owned that room, from floor to rafters, and from wall to wall. And she knew it. The force of her personality filled the place, making everyone there aware of the pure, unfettered power that stood among them.

She tossed the hair out of her eyes and put her hands on her hips, letting one leg relax a little in a pose more brazen insolence than anything else. Glints of ice blue flashed around the room as she studied them, a flick of her eyebrow dismissed them all, and focused on the tall blond man who had slowly sat down, and was staring at her. "You had a favor you wanted to ask?" Xena drawled, in a velvet tone that echoed off the walls.

Gabrielle watched, fascinated as always by this side of her many faceted partner. As many times as she'd seen Xena do this, just walk into a room and capture everyone in it, it still astonished her. This wasn't her gentle playmate… or her stubborn best friend.

This was the Warrior Princess. The leader of armies.

Ares' Chosen.

"Well." The blond man collected himself. "So.. you showed up, did you, Xena?"

The warrior spread both hands wide, indicating herself, and raised an eyebrow in answer. "Got something you wanted to ask? Better spit it out or I can disappear just as quickly." The low tone didn't change pitch, and it reverberated through the silent room. It was followed by a rising buzz, in which Gabrielle recognized her soulmate's name.

Now another feeling was rising, and she realized it was fear.

Fear of Xena. Who was breathing that feeling in as though it was her native air. The bard saw the faint cock of her head, and the shifting of her balance over the balls of her feet that brought a cloak of alertness over her.

The man stood, and took a deep breath, motioning to his right. "We'll talk in there."

Xena half turned and nodded at her partner, jerking her head in an unmistakable invitation. Gabrielle took a deep breath of her own, and walked quietly to the taller woman's side, entering that circle of staring eyes.

"Alone." The man objected. "I don’t need no spectators."

Xena straightened her back, and lifted her chin, pinning him with her eyes. "This isn't a spectator. Where I go, she goes." She replied, in a clipped, final tone.

Gabrielle had to try, very very hard, not to smile.

The man lifted his arms, then let them drop against his sides. "Have it your way." He shook his head and stomped off the podium, headed for a small door set just under an archway.

Xena let him wait a long moment, then she dusted a bracer off, and strolled after him casually, letting her eyes wander around the room, and watching as everyone's glance avoided hers.

"You are having wayyyyy too much fun." The bard uttered, barely vocalizing the words.

"Me?" Came the equally low response. "Tch.. really Gabrielle."

They entered the smaller room, where the tall man was already pacing. He stopped when they came in, and crossed his arms in a dour manner. "Nice entrance." Seen closer up, the impression of good looks wasn't exaggerated, as he had golden, straight hair which framed a ruggedly handsome face complete with a well shaped cleft in his chin. His eyes were an interesting shade of golden brown, and he was pleasantly muscular, with a tapering build that extended from his broad shoulders, and ended at a pair of very well made boots.

Xena ambled over and perched on the corner of an ornate table, letting both hands rest on one knee. "What do you want?" She was peripherally aware of Gabrielle settling herself on a bench near the wall, and she saw Garanimus' eyes dart that way briefly, then jerk back to her.

"I didn't really expect you to show up." The man temporized, wandering over and collecting a cup, which he poured wine into and took a big gulp from. "I heard you retired."

The warrior crossed her arms over her chest. "I did." She answered calmly. "If you mean from the warlord business.. that I did three years ago." Her eyes flicked briefly to Gabrielle, then back to him. "Found better things to do."

He studied her. "Yah.. the word was you'd taken to being some kind of do gooding vagrant."

Piercing blue eyes flicked over him. "I don't know if I'd call it that, but traveling around, helping people out.. yeah. "

Garanimus slowly shook his head. "I wouldn't have believed it.. I didn't, not for a long, long time.. but too many of my old pals were showing up here, saying you beat the crap out of them. Even Draco."

Xena shrugged. "It's true." She paused. "So what do you want?"

He poured a glass for her, and handed it over. "So.. what's with the kid?" This with a jerk of his head in Gabrielle's direction. "Didn't know you were into body slaves.. though… " He left the sentence unfinished, but his eyes scoured Gabrielle with languid appreciation.

The warrior put the cup down carefully, crossing her arms again. "You've got ten seconds to tell me what you want, or I'm outta here, Garanimus.. I don't have time for your games."

Garanimus lifted his square chin and held up a hand. "Same old bitch, huh?" He snorted softly. "All right.. all right… we took over this place about a half a year ago.. things are going great, everything's swell.. it's even been kinda peaceful, you know?"

Xena simply waited.

"Well, comes a message from this warlord.. he's on a rampage in this area.. name of Framna. He says he's gonna wipe the place clean unless I turn over all the town profits to him."

The warrior 's brow creased, and she shrugged. "So?" She glanced around. "Fight him, or buy him off, or tell him to get lost.. whadda you need me for?"

Garanimus pursed his well-shaped lips. "His army outnumbers mine five to one…and this place hasn't generated any profits yet.. now, it will.. it will… next coming harvest, should be tidy little sum, but not now. We ain't got a spare dinar."

Xena stared at him. "And you want me to do… what?"

The tall man took a swallow of wine. "I want you to convince him that attacking this place would be suicide." He sauntered closer. "I figure your name alone's worth a bunch.. and if he thinks you're leading my army.. well… maybe he'll get lost."

Xena laughed. "You've got to be kidding." She stood up and wandered around the room, finally turning to face him. "You said it yourself, Garanimus.. I retired from this crap years ago.. he probably doesn't even know who I am."

The warlord laughed back. "People have longer memories than that, Xena…he knows who you are, all right."

The dark haired woman leaned back against the wall and studied him. "What if he doesn't buy it?"

Garanimus shrugged. "Then he overruns this place, and burns it out." He finished off his cup. "Pity for these folks.. they were just used to getting things turned around.. the useless incompetents I took the town over from had let it run to nothing."

Xena exchanged a swift glance with Gabrielle, and knew from the face the bard was making that she was thinking the same thoughts, which were running through the warrior's mind. The town.. had to be saved from Framna. To Hades with Garanimus. "All right." Xena finally said. "No promises… we'll give it a try. But… if he doesn't buy it, we're outta here.. I'm not getting caught in some feud between you two."

The blond man smiled. "He'll buy it… and.. look, no hard feelings, Xena.. I'll make it worth your while.. so you can go and buy your little friend there a whole shirt." He laughed, more sure of her, and of himself. "You gonna introduce me now?"

"What's your gig here, Garanimus?" Xena asked softly. "You never seemed like someone to settle in one place."

He raised a blond, arched eyebrow at her. "You either. " he countered. "Got a good thing here.. gonna marry myself off to the little princess of this place, and make me a royal dude.. how d'you like that!?" He dusted off his sleeve. "I like not having to scrounge for dinner.. or sleep in the dirt… got a guy here who doesn't do anything but clean my clothes." His eyes searched her dusty form. " But you wouldn't know about that, would ya, Xena?"

The warrior refused to be baited. She crossed her arms. "I've conquered kingdoms whose palaces make this place look like an outhouse, Garanimus… doesn't impress me."

"Yeah?" He snickered. "So how'd you end up a homeless vagrant?"

"Another shrug. "I'm not.. but then, I'm not the one whose had to run around Greece calling for help. " She smiled at him, with no humor at all. "Am I?"

She got a humorless smile back. "I'll have someone show you to a place you can stay… maybe you can take a bath or something." He sniped. "So you don't scare all the nice people here."

Xena let her eyes narrow, and gave him one of her more lethal looks. "Thought that was the whole purpose." The white teeth glinted in a grin. "After all.. you're putting me in charge of your army, Garanimus… be nice.. or I may actually do something with it."

A silent mask dropped over his face for a long instant, obscuring his good looks. "You know, Xena.. there are still a lot of people out there that want your head… I'd love to be able to tell them where to find it." He let his anger show. "They'd put you on the block and cut off that pretty skull of yours."

One instant, Xena was standing quietly, the next, she'd picked up Garanimus and had him against the wall, the tip of her dagger resting against his pulse point, as she held him up off the floor with one hand balled in his shirt. "Maybe.. but I guarantee you won't be there to see it." She let the edge of the knife draw blood against his suddenly pale skin. "Maybe my conversion to doing good means I rid the world of you.. huh?"

Slowly, he spread his arms and pressed his hands against the wall. "All right… all right… take it easy." He breathed. "I see some things haven't changed."

Xena let him down, and flipped the knife in one hand, then reseated it in its sheath. "I pay my debts, Garanimus…and I'll pay you this one, but don’t mess with me." She warned softly. "You got that?"

He nodded. "For now." Then his eyes flicked over her shoulder. "You gonna at least tell me what your little friend's name is?"

The warrior backed off a step, then turned, and motioned to the quietly watching bard, who stood, and joined her. "Hi." Gabrielle held a hand out. "My name is Gabrielle."

Garanimus took the arm and very briefly clasped it. "What's a nice little girl like you doing traveling with a godsforsaken nasty assed ex warlord for, Gabrielle?"

The bard studied him for a long moment. "I'm a bard.. she's a great subject." She commented. "Among other reasons." She folded her arms across her chest, and watched his eyes zero on in her hand, and the ring it bore.

"I see." Was his only comment, before he called in a liveried servant, and bid them goodbye.

Gabrielle watched the servant put down their things, and give her a slight bow, before the woman left, and silence descended. She sighed, then looked around, at the large chamber they'd been assigned, which was decorated in chiffony pastels.

"C'mon.. even I'm not a chiffon kind of person. " Gabrielle muttered to herself, watching her partner prowl around the room like a discontented cat during a rainstorm. "Well, it's nice and big." She offered, diplomatically. "You could do drills in that corner, and not bump into anything."

Xena paused, then let out a forced chuckle. "Yeah.. you're right… it's just so… " She rolled her eyes. "Fluffy."

"Hmm.. " The bard agreed, then poked her head inside a smaller room. "Ooo… I don't care.. Xena, check this out."

Her soulmate joined her, and they peered into what was obviously a bathing room, with a sunken, marble tub in it. "Huh.. not bad." Xena grudgingly admitted. "Might even be worth all that lacy stuff out here."

Gabrielle gave her a nudge. "All right… all right.. you've sufficiently proved your toughness to me, tiger… give it a rest."

Xena face went very still for a moment, then she let her eyes narrow, and poked the tip of her tongue out at the bard. "So.. what'd you think of Garanimus?"

The bard leaned back against the cool stone wall, and scrunched her brow up in thought. "I think he's a creep." She looked up at her partner. "You two were really starting to go at it there… I got kinda nervous."

Xena ran a hand through her dark hair and nodded. "Yeah.. I know… he started hitting some buttons I thought I had a better handle on." She admitted wryly. "Old stuff." She turned, and retreated back into the main room, kneeling beside their gear and starting to pull out her armor repair kit. "Guess I'd better make sure that hinge gets fixed…I'll be needing it."

Old stuff. Gabrielle half turned, still leaning against the wall, and watched her wistfully. Another betrayal, Xena? "I thought you did a great job, actually…there were a couple of bits where I almost came forward and whacked him with my staff."

A flash of white as the warrior gave up a smile, and stood, clasping her kit in her hands. "Well… we've got a little while before we're expected to show up for dinner…I'm gonna just fix this, and…um… "

Gabrielle had walked forward, and gently worked the clasps on her armor, loosening it and setting it aside on the chair. "You going to wear these for dinner?" She tugged at the dark leathers, and getting the expected nod. "Thought so… why don't you let me brush them off for you?"

"You don't have to do that." Xena responded quietly. "I'm not here to impress anyone with my looks or what I'm wearing."

The bard smiled warmly up at her. "Xena… you impress people just by breathing." She laid both hands on the warrior's chest. "C'mon.. out of them… give your body a chance to relax a little.. you're so tense you're making my hair stand up on end."

Xena grumbled in protest, but allowed the bard to strip off the leather armor, and donned a loose linen shirt as she settled down in a relatively empty corner with her brass plating clustered around her. Ares trotted over, and immediately curled up against her leg, sighing in contentment, as the warrior took out a tool, and expertly worked on a sticking hinge piece.

Gabrielle worked the dust out of the heavy garment, and, satisfied at last, let the damp leathers over a chair near the window to dry. She stood gazing at them for a moment, and let her fingers trail over the nubbled surface in pensive thought, yawning a little. "Mmph." She felt tired suddenly.

"You all right?" Xena's voice floated over, tinged with a mild concern.

"Hmm? Oh… yeah." The bard rubbed her temples, and blinked. "Just a little sleepy for some reason.. " She padded over to where Xena was sprawled, and dropped down onto the hewn carpet next to her, curling up onto her side, and using the warrior's muscular thigh as a pillow. "Mmm… that's much better." She commented, resting a hand on the soft skin, and feeling the muscles move under her as Xena shifted a little. "Am I bothering you?"

She missed the look of quiet devotion visited on her. "Never." Xena assured her, freeing up one hand and petting her head with it. "G'wan.. take a nap.. I've got plenty to do here." Damn armor.. She sighed inwardly. Haven't been taking care of it like I should.. and I'm paying for it now, I guess.

"Not fair.. you work and I snooze." The bard protested, but not strenuously. Her partner's comforting warmth was coaxing her body into sleep already.

"Well, Gabrielle..I've only got one set of tools…and I don't think I ever taught you this.. so.. " She shrugged, and rubbed the bard's ear gently. "You get off light this time."

"Mm." Gabrielle felt a gentle wave of sleepiness roll over her. "Not like we did much today.. guess I just got used to all those lazy afternoons, huh?" She mumbled.

Xena sighed ruefully. "You and me both, partner." She watched the bard's breathing deepen, and she paused in her work to idly arrange the golden red locks spilling over her leg neatly. The tension that had built up since their entry into the castle seemed to dissipate a little at each stroke, and the anger she'd felt in Garanimus' presence calmed, tamed to a somnolent peace by the presence of her soulmate.

So. Xena leaned back and worked on a knee plate. What Garanimus was asking… wasn't all that difficult, if she looked at it objectively. A lot of things depended on whether this other warlord had heard of her.. though, she privately admitted, chances were very good he had. Three years wasn't that long a time.

And her reputation was.. what it was. Even now, even after years of wandering the land, helping out where she could.. still.. she's seen the reaction of the people in that chamber on hearing her name. It had been easy to slip back into that role.

Too easy. Xena sighed, studying the armor bit in her hands. It had felt good, no sense in lying.. not here, not to herself.

And yet, sitting here and looking down at the sleeping body of her best friend, she knew things had changed, and in some ways, the Xena she had acted out so well that afternoon really did no longer exist.

Maybe… maybe Garanimus had changed too… a little? She chewed over that thought as she reset a pin and locked off the end of it. Maybe. But she doubted it, just hearing in her mind his plans to marry himself off to some poor girl and make this his meal ticket.

Well. Xena chuckled quietly to herself. She'd pay his debt.. oh yeah.. but then maybe she'd take care of an overriding one.. to the people of the city, who deserved better leadership that what he had to offer.

Wandering vagrant am I? A harsh glint entered the pale blue eyes. Garanimus, you butter headed pig.. you're gonna regret that little crack. She had a lot of pride, that she admitted… and the bastard had nailed her right in that…she'd wanted to do nothing more than just pound the stuffing out of him.

Oh well. "Tomorrow's another day, huh Ares?" She whispered to the wolf, who cocked an ear at her. "Maybe I'll get you to bite him." She finished the armor piece, and set it down, then settled her shoulders more comfortably against the wall and laid a protective arm across Gabrielle's dozing form. He'd better behave himself at dinner though… and not make a single nasty crack to Gabrielle. Garanimus had a cruel sense of humor, and she'd be damned if he was going to visit that on her partner.

She gazed down at the bard, curled so trustingly up against her, and gently played with her hair. I'll rip his liver out.if he does. Xena decided, and amused herself for awhile imagining lots of painful and creative things she could do to her former lover, until the sun was slanting heavily into the window in shades of gold and crimson, and she reluctantly decided to wake Gabrielle up.

"Hey." She rubbed a thumb against the skin on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Time for dinner, sleepyhead." A gently teasing note was in her voice, but she had to admit it had been a struggle to keep from joining her soulmate in slumber.

Gabrielle stirred, then yawned a little, making a small, idle noise. "Whoa… " She rolled over on her back, and peered up at Xena. "That felt good… " She blinked sleepily. "You make a nice pillow." She patted the warrior's leg. "A little on the hard side, though."

A soft snort answered her. "Thanks.. good to know I'm good for something." Xena's tone was light, though, and a smile edged its way onto her face. "Time to go back and face this lovely crowd.. you up for it?"

The bard uncurled her body, rolling over and stretching luxuriously. "Wouldn't miss it." She drummed her fingers on her flat stomach idly. "You want me to do the bard thing?"

Xena reached over and traced a fingertip down the center of the bard's body, following the barely visible line of pale, fine hairs, smiling quietly as Gabrielle's eyes closed under her touch and the bard's breathing immediately quickened. "Let's play it by ear." She replied. "We'll see if they're worth one of your performances."

Two green eyes peered up at her in surprise, their brows edging up into the bard's hairline. "Huh? Xena.. give me a break.. I'm just a bard, not the opening act at the Palladium."

"Mmhmm… okay." Xena agreed amiably. "And I'm just a hack fighter then. We make a good team."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer, then shut it. Then opened it again, hesitated, then shut it. Finally she rolled over onto her stomach, and rested her weight on her elbows. "No fair."

Xena just grinned.

"There." Gabrielle neatly straightened an errant buckle on the bronze armor. "Very nice."

Her partner gave her a wry look. "Gabrielle, it's just leather and armor."

The bard stepped back, and gazed appraisingly at her. "Hmmm.. yeah, but… " The near black leathers almost shone from the brushing Gabrielle had given them, and the armor glinted warmly in the candlelight. "You look really good in it." She commented, with a smile.

Xena wrinkled her nose in reaction, but let a faintly pleased smirk cross her face. "You do too." She gently moved a lock of pale hair out of the bard's eyes, and twitched at her sleeve. "Decided to skip the Amazon outfit, huh?"

Gabrielle glanced down at herself a trifle self-consciously. "Most of the time I don't care, but… all those people looking at me was giving me the creeps." She confessed. "Like I was on display or something."

A gentle smile bathed her. "You were." Xena gave her a kiss on the top of the head. "And a very nice display it is."

"Mm." That forced a wry chuckle from the smaller woman. "If you say so." She sighed, and straightened as a gruff knock sounded at the door. "Ah… I guess we're wanted."

"Hm." Xena grunted, shaking herself a bit to settled her armor, then striding to the door and pulling it open.

Garanimus was standing there, leaning against the doorframe with an indolent smirk. "Well.. well.. how do you like the digs?" He pushed past her, and sauntered around the room, ending up holding his arms out in question. "Nicer than what you're used to, I bet."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Cut the crap, Garanimus. " She picked up her sword from where it was lying in gleaming display on the table and slid it into its sheath fastened across her back. "Frills aren't my style, and you know it."

The man hooked his thumbs into his belt and gave a half nod of concession. "Stable's more your thing, I remember." He gave her a sweet smile. "You'll just have to cope." He turned to where Gabrielle was folding a piece of parchment and tucking it into her diary. "Hello there, sweetpea."

The bard stopped, paused, then looked up at him, keeping her face blank.

"My, you've got pretty eyes, doncha?" He stepped closer, and was stopped by a hideous growl. "What t.." His eyes dropped to see shining white teeth against ink black fur as Ares slipped in front of Gabrielle, and lowered his head, lifting his ruff, and straightening his tail. Garanimus went quite still. "Nice dog, Xena."

A soft chuckle drifted his way. "He's not a dog, pigface. Say hello to Ares."

The tall man edged back cautiously. "You got big brass ones naming him that." He gave her a nervous look. "He'd better not bite anyone."

Xena walked over and put her hands on her hips. "The first was a given, the second depends on you being nice to my friend here." She leaned closer. "Ares really likes Gabrielle… and he gets real, real mad when people are mean to her.. got me?"

Ares narrowed his yellow eyes, and growled again.

"Good boy." The bard commented, kneeling down and kissing him on the head. He turned and licked her, his tail wagging furiously. "You're so cute." She got her lips right down near his sensitive ears. "And you're just like your mom." She added in a bare whisper. "She been giving you lessons?"

"Grrooo." The wolf batted his eyelashes at her.

"C'mon." Garanimus gave girl and wolf a disgusted look. "I’m expecting an emissary from Framna to show up during dinner.. I want you to be there." This was directed at Xena, who leveled a stare at him. "Y'know, you still look the part, Xena… I'll give that to you." He let his eyes wander appreciatively over her muscular form.

"Move." The warrior motioned to the door. "Let's get this over with."

Garanimus laughed, then strolled out the door, as they followed him. Xena pacing alongside, and Gabrielle staying a step or two behind, with Ares glued to her knees. The castle was all stone, with narrow corridors that bore wall sconces filled with fluttering torches. The ceilings were stained black by the smoke, and the floors were strewn with rushes that could have used a change. A stale, musty odor rose to the bard's nose as her boots stirred them, and a quick glance up showed her partner's distasteful expression in similar reaction. "You know, Xena.. " Her voice echoed gently off the stone walls. "I think I prefer a clean, simple inn to a dirty castle."

Garanimus turned and stared sharply at her. "What?"

Green eyes that were almost rust colored in the torchlight blinked back at him. "I said, I think I'd rather be in a clean inn, than a dirty castle." She pointed down. "Those are nasty. It stinks in here."

The man's brow creased, and he sniffed. "I don't smell anything."

Xena glanced at him. "I’m not surprised.. with all that rose oil on you." She replied archly. "If I had to smell that all day.. I'd miss an onion put under my nose." She turned towards her partner. "We'll keep the windows open tonight… that'll help."

The bard nodded solemnly. "Good idea."

Garanimus glowered at them both, and surreptitiously sniffed his sleeve. "In there." He grunted, turning a corner and pushing open a large wooden door. It opened up into a banquet hall, which featured tables against all four walls, with a clear space in the middle. The flagstones were strewn with more rushes, and the tables had low backed benches put up against them. The walls were adorned with colorful tapestries, and the room was well lit, if somewhat overcrowded with milling courtiers.

Gabrielle saw the muscles across her soulmate's shoulders tense, and she stepped up closer, slipping a hand under her sword sheath and giving her back a little scratch, then leaving her hand idly on the soft leather, feeling it cool under her touch, then feeling the warmth of Xena's body underneath it. The surface stiffened as the warrior took a deep breath, then loosened again as she let it out.

They were led to the front table, and seated to Garanimus' left. To his right, in the other large chair, a young girl was sitting, her hands folded tightly in her lap. She was, Xena mused, hardly older than fifteen or so, and had beautiful red hair, arranged in ringlets that cascaded finally down her back. Her face was pretty, and she had long, pale lashes plainly visible against the light when she turned her head to watch them approach.

The girl maintained a somber expression, but her throat worked a she swallowed, and even from here, the warrior could read the tense body language. What an awful place for kid to be in… the warrior reflected quietly. Garanimus' is good looking enough.. but… She watched as the warlord seated himself, and reached over to pinch her cheek, laughing at some ribald comment from one of his lieutenants who were seated on the other side of the girl.

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. No words had to be said, just one raised brow, and a lift of Gabrielle's chin, and Xena quietly added another item to her list of problems to solve. "Gonna introduce us, Garanimus?" The warrior rested an elbow on the table, which was covered with china.

The warlord leaned back and smirked. "Oh yeah… Silvi, honey… I want you to meet Xena, the biggest bitch I ever slept with."

Xena smiled sweetly. "Garanimus… do you want me to break your hands right here in front of all these nice people?" She closed her fingers around his right one before he could move it and tightened her grip.

"You can't do that, Xena baby… I'm in charge here." He hissed back, not seeing the sudden shy look from his prospective bride.

A low, dangerous chuckle drifted between them. "Oh no… not with me here, you little bastard." She let her voice drop its lowest register. "Be nice." Her hand contracted, and he jumped, hissing in pain.

"All right.. all right.. " He responded through gritted teeth. "Lemme go."

The warrior released her grip, then eyed the young girl. "Nice to meet you, Silvi."

The girl's eyes dropped, then lifted hesitantly, the pupils darting from side to side in an effort not to stare at her. "Hello." Her voice was low, and very melodic. "Nice to meet you, too."

Xena held her gaze, then motioned behind her. "This is my friend Gabrielle."

The gray eyes glanced over. "Hello." This with more assurance, at the bard's friendlier countenance.

"Hi." Gabrielle gave her a smile.

"Yeah, yeah.. enough of that crap. " Garanimus interrupted irritably, but he kept his hands far away from Xena's. "When that guy gets here, I'm going to tell him you're leading my army.. then you can just get up and scare the piss out of him."

Xena leaned back, and stretched her long legs out under the table, crossing them at the ankles. "I know the drill." She replied in a low growl. "What I am wondering is.. why?"

"What?" His eyes darted to her, nervously.

"Why you.. why here… ?" Xena pressed, turning her gaze fully on him. "This is an out of the way place… not much profit.. he'd have to garrison it, just like you are.. why?"

The servers came in, bearing platters of roasted meat and vegetables, and started around the room, giving him an excuse to hold off his answer. He made a gesture to a group of musicians, who moved to the center of the hall and began to play. "We have history." He finally muttered, as a server deftly set a large portion onto his plate. "Beyond that.. it's none of your business, Xena."

The warrior leaned back in her chair, and folded her hands across her stomach. "Well.. let's see… which one of you stole something from the other… " She saw his hand jerk, as he picked up a fork. "And was it coin… or flesh?"

"I told you. .it's none of your business." He gritted, stabbing his meat viciously.

"Musta been him taking from you then.. " Xena chuckled. "He steal your girlfriend?" She watched the muscles on his jaw stand out in bold relief. "What'd you do back?"

"Xena… " He put his fork down, and turned to her, anger in every line of his body.

"You ready to stop this snipe fest then?" The warrior snapped back, biting off her words with clipped precision. "Because I've had about enough of your crap."

They glared at each other, as tension ran around the table. Xena felt a stealthy touch against her back, gentle and sure, and let her breath trickle out of her lungs slowly. Damn it… he can still get to me.

"All right." He held up a hand. "Truce."

Xena shifted in her chair, and pulled her dagger out, inspecting it intently. "Fine." She agreed in an expressionless voice.

Gabrielle let her body relax, as the conversational buzz rose uneasily around them again. She could almost feel Xena's tension.. no.. she could feel it.. it was like a heavy sensation in her chest, which lightened a little as her partner, and the warlord ignored each other. It's been a long time since I've seen her like this. She reflected, watching the nervous twitches work their way across her soulmate's body. Easy tiger.. easy.. She mentally projected, not wanting to make an overt gesture. Most of the room's eyes were on them, with looks ranging from suspicion to fear to outright hatred. That from the townsfolk she realized, including the young girl off to the warlord's right hand side.

Her brow creased. She'd seemed okay a few minutes ago.. but now, beneath demure, pale lashes, the girl was watching Xena with a look that could best be described as hostile. Why? She thanked the server for filling her plate, and absently dug into it, observing her partner from the corner of her eye, and giving her a tiny poke after she ignored her own plate for a quarter candlemark.

"Mm?" Xena brought her attention back to the present, and looked over. "You okay?"

Gabrielle glanced at her, then glanced at the plate, drawing her eyebrows down.

The warrior looked like she was going to protest, then sighed, and pulled the plate towards her, spearing a piece of meat with her dagger and nibbling on it halfheartedly.

The bard snuck a quick pat on the leg, then , and was rewarded by seeing the gentle quirk of Xena's lips as she finished off one piece, and started on another.

They got halfway through the meal, when the doors opened, and a group of Garanimus' soldiers came in, escorting a very tall, very muscular man in impeccable armor, who glanced around with an arrogant look. He had curly ginger colored hair, and a long, branching scar on one arm that Xena recognized as being caused by a charioteer's pike.

"I've come for your answer, slime." The man stated, letting his huge fingers rest on his belt.

"Bite me." Garanimus stated flatly. "Do your worst.. this is my new general." He pointed to his left. "Her name's Xena." A jerk of recognition flashed across the ginger haired man's face. "Now get your ass the Hades out of here before she kicks it."

Xena just managed not to roll her eyes in disgust. I'd forgotten he's got the brains of rock and the manners of a dead pig. She watched the emissary's reaction, as he turned his eyes on her and regarded her soberly. She smiled at him, and saw the flare of his nostrils, the figured some sort of response on her part was required.

With a silent sigh, she slammed the dagger into the wood of the table, and catapulted over it, flipping neatly and landing on her feet, then stalking over to where the tall man was standing. He jerked as she came closer, and felt for weapons he'd been relieved of on entering. She stopped when she was just out of his reach. "Let's see." A smaller dagger materialized in her right hand, and swept across his body in a flickering motion, severing the lower part of his armor and dropping to the floor. "Gotta watch that." She tsked, sweeping her arm back and cutting off his cloak faster than he could block her. "Shoddy outghta get your dinars back for this."

He looked up at her, his face scarlet, right into eyes so cold they glittered. "Go home." Xena advised him, in a growl.

He opened his mouth to answer, then shut it, and meekly knelt to pick up his armor, then rose, and backed off from her.

Xena watched him, noting the cool discipline of his motions, and contrasted that to the unkempt look of the guards that escorted him. I think I'm on the wrong side. She evaluated. He sure looks more like a soldier than any of this mangy lot. She felt a moment of regret, looking up into his eyes, which were, to her surprise, a pale, layered green not unlike her soulmate's. "What's your name?" She asked him abruptly.

"Linneus." He answered.

She nodded at him. "Get outta here." It came out sounding more like advice than like an order, and he gave her a strange little nod, before he turned and walked out, holding his head up.

Xena swept her gaze around the room, and sighed, then made her way back to the table and jumped over it, settling herself back in her chair with a thump. "That what you had in mind?" She asked Garanimus coldly.

The warlord cackled. "I'd a paid a good dinar to watch that… " He stuffed a thick slice of meat into his mouth and chewed with enjoyment, much more relaxed now. "Yeah.. " He mumbled around the mouthful, wiping his face with his sleeve. "That was good."

Xena grimaced at him, then leaned back, searching out a cooler draft of air, her mind clicking through facts and options. Funny.. these things always start out easy.. and always end up so gods be damned complex. How does that happen? Her eye caught the unbridled glare from the young princess and she sighed inwardly. What was really going on here? "So." She settled several puzzle pieces into place tentatively. "I'm in charge of the army, huh?"

Garanimus took a long gulp of ale, and belched. "Well.. yeah.. but don't.. like take them out to conquer Greece or anything, okay?" He laughed to himself. "They like it here."

"Mm." Xena steepled her fingertips. "They look like crap." She informed him. "With or without me leading them.. nobody's gonna buy they're a good army the way they look."

The warlord groaned. "Oh gods… not the clean patrol again.. " He gave her an unfriendly look. "They fight just fine."

Xena lifted a brow. "But the whole point is.. we don't wanna fight, remember? So they gotta look good enough to scare off those guys."

He chewed on a piece of bread. "Oh." Now a shrug. "Yeah.. yeah.. all right.. okay… go ahead, make em clean up.. Hades.. I don’t care.. I got people that do that for me now." He brushed the crumbs from his bread onto the floor and grinned at her. "Have a blast.. just don't get em too riled up.. they get mean."

A full, flashing smile answered him. "So do I, Garanimus.. so do I." Xena settled back, mildly satisfied, as a plan began to slowly nudge itself into place. Suddenly a cold sensation touched her hand, and she glanced down, to see a piece of fruit neatly placed between her fingers. She looked up to catch Gabrielle drumming her fingers on the table, and giving her a fair imitation of one of her own impatient looks. With a quick, guilty grin she raised the apple to her lips and took a big bite, crunching down on the crisp flesh with mild enthusiasm.

Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, and took a bite of carrot, knowing her partner had something up her sleeve, and content to wait.

For now.

They found their own way back to their assigned room, leaving the 'court' to continue getting drunker, and listen to the musicians. Gabrielle had decided against offering up a tale, mostly due to the pounding headache she'd developed. "Gods." She rubbed her temples, and was rewarded by a warm hand between her shoulderblades. "Must have been the smoke in there… I kept getting nauseous.. what were they burning in those torches?"

Xena rubbed her back gently. "Mm.. I don't know.. but it did smell a little strange…and I'm not sure what they were using in that roast.. but it was making me sick too." She moved her hand up, and kneaded her partner's neck. "Better now?"

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and rolled her head around, releasing the tension in her shoulders. "Yeah.. a little." She stifled a yawn. "Was it me, or was that guy I was sitting next to more boring than a desert landscape?"

The warrior let a grin split her face, and settled her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders, pulling her closer. "Oh yeah.. he was babbling about some trade treaties they reneged on seven season's ago.. he lost me a long time before he lost you… I think he just liked your eyes."

Gabrielle giggled softly, as they reached their door and Xena gently pushed it open, her defenses on alert as she let the portal drift open, and studied the interior with all her senses before she let the bard enter. "Just checking." She muttered. "I didn't like the looks we were getting from the locals."

"Hmm..yeah.. " Gabrielle agreed. "Even the Princess.. she started out kinda half friendly.. but after that guy left, she was looking at you like Hades on hooves." The bard yawned again, and rubbed her ear. "Gods.. why am I so sleepy?" She complained. "I had a nap… "

Xena chuckled. "Musta been the company." She blinked. "I was kind of drifting off myself."

Gabrielle shrugged in agreement, then changed into her sleep shirt, and padded over to where Xena was arranging her armor for the next day. She slipped her arms around the warrior and laid her head against her shoulder with a sigh.

"Hey." Xena stopped what she was doing, and hugged the bard back. "What's that for?"

"Oh gods, Xena.. I stopped having a reason for that a long time ago." The bard muttered, nestling closer. "That guy really got to you, didn't he?"

Xena was silent for a space, then she exhaled. "Yeah." She snorted softly. "We always did that to each other.. just nasty, hurtful stuff."

The bard winced. "Ouch."

"Ouch." Xena confirmed softly. "I guess.. we just thought it was.. I don't know.. fun.. teasing.. it always had a nasty edge, though."

Gabrielle considered that statement. "You don't like being teased."

"Depends on who's doing the teasing." The warrior countered. "You.. Toris.. mom… that's all right."

A nod. "People who you know love you." She gave her partner a little pat.

"Something like that, yeah." A quiet admission. "I guess.. it's been a long time since I.. could trust that."

"Mm." The bard straightened, and started working off one of Xena's bracers. "If my teasing ever bothers you, you'll tell me, right?"

A faint smile warmed Xena's face. "Gabrielle.. I don’t have to tell you… you always know."

"I do?" Came the surprised answer.

"You do." Xena confirmed. "You get to a certain point.. and it makes me uncomfortable.. and you always.. just.. kind of stop, or do something cute.. or.."

Gabrielle kissed her shoulder. "Or that?"

"Ummm… yeah." The warrior confirmed. "So it's all right."

The bard laughed gently. "I don’t do it on purpose.. I just kind of.. it just happens that way."

The warrior finished removing her armor, and shrugged out of her leathers, folding them neatly and exchanging them for a soft shift. "Gotta get going early tomorrow.. I'll probably leave you snoozing." She warned gently. "Trying to clean these guys up a little."

Gabrielle yawned, not bothering to stifle it this time. "Okay." She agreed, as she scrambled into the large, canopied bed, which was so soft she almost disappeared into it. "Oh.. gods.. " She giggled.

Xena sat down gingerly, and patted the surface. "Good Artemis' left boot." She blurted in surprise. "You could drown in this." The bed was topped with a two foot thick mattress, stuffed with either down, or feathers, Xena couldn’t tell. She gaze at it suspiciously, then laid down on it, feeling the softness enclose her as though she were sleeping on a cloud. "Huh."

Gabrielle waited for her to settle, then she squirmed over, and patted the warrior's chest. "I still prefer my pillows on the firm side. " She deadpanned, as she curled up happily on her favorite spot. "Mm…."

Ares hopped up, and turned around several times, his paws clumsy on the soft surface, before he finally chose a spot and laid down, his dark ears poking up comically from the fluffy hills that surrounded him.

Xena felt around and made sure her sword was tucked neatly against the bed, then reached over and doused the candle she'd set on the table. The darkness wafted gently over them, and she felt Gabrielle move closer, curling her body tightly against Xena's own, and taking a firm hold across the warrior's stomach. "Hey.. I'm not going anywhere." She teased gently. A gentle warmth across her breastbone was the bard's sigh. "Gabrielle?"

Her soulmate just buried herself closer. "Yeah?"

"Something wrong? You all right?" Xena stroked her side tenderly. "Hey?"

"I'm fine.. it's okay…" She mumbled. "I just went a little weird there for a minute." No other way to catalog the sudden seize of panic, that made her cling desperately to the warm body she was wrapped around. "I think it was those candied pears." She laughed a little. "Too much sweets."

Xena relaxed, and rubbed her partner's back in slow circles, arching her hand to let her fingertips coax the tension still present in Gabrielle's muscles. With each knead, the bard made a tiny, contented sound that seemed to wind its way around Xena's heart and put a somewhat silly grin on her face.

It felt so damn good to be back in this kind of relationship with each other. The strained coldness between them had… Xena sighed, and closed her eyes against the memory. Had hurt. She didn't think either of them had realized just how much it had affected their lives until after.. it was all over.

And they were back together, but not..

It had been an exhausting day, walking in the heat through dry brush, on a road that was more rocks than anything else. Xena had found a rough campsite, with a bare trickle of water running down the rocks into a basin that drained into the thirsty soil and left mostly damp sand in its path.

She'd been.. tired, and discouraged over the still very strained relationship between them, and she'd spent a longer time than usual grooming Argo, moving the currycomb over her skin and removing every speck of dirt from her mane and tail. Touching the mare made her feel better, somehow, and the friendly snorts, and gentle shoves from Argo's nose were a comfort she hadn't expected.

Finally, she'd stopped, and put the grooming tools away, and given the horse a final pat, tangling her fingers in the thick pale forelock that flopped into Argo's eyes, and brushing it back with a fond look.

And had felt a sudden pain hit her in the chest as she remembered doing that very same thing to the quiet, scribing bard who was seated across the campfire. Standing there, hands clenched in horsehair, she felt a silent tear roll down her face, and she leaned forward, resting her head against Argo's in despair. Feeling very lost, and alone, and afraid… that things would never be better between them.

The mare whickered, and she straightened, reaching up and wiping the moisture away in an almost angry gesture. "Sorry girl." She'd apologized to the horse, and turned, stopping stock still as her eyes met shy green ones not a body length from her. "H.. hey."

The bard had folded her arms tightly around her body, and looked at the ground, before finally looking back up. "C..can I ask you a favor?"

In pure reflex, Xena had stepped forward, closing the distance between them. "Sure." She'd replied, concerned. "You know that."

No answer, and Xena had known, in her heart, that no, Gabrielle did not know that. "What is it?"

Gabrielle had taken a shaky breath, and very obviously gathered her courage up. "Can I give you a hug?"

It had hit Xena so hard, her knees had almost buckled, and she swayed in place. "W.. well, yeah.. sure.. I…you don’t have to ask…me.. that.. I." She'd just stopped talking when Gabrielle had taken the few steps remaining and hesitantly, gently put her arms around her.

The much missed feeling had overwhelmed her, ripping apart what meager defenses she had left and she'd started shaking, clasping the bard to her with an almost desperate intensity. Her fingers had tangled in the pale hair as Gabrielle pressed her head against the warrior's chest, and she'd just closed her eyes, and breathed in the bard's distinctive scent, and allowed a part of her she'd given up as dead to raise its weak, pitiful head again.

Warm tears had trickled down her skin, and she'd felt Gabrielle's breathing shudder, as the bard sobbed softly.

"Gabrielle… " She'd finally said, hoarsely.

The bard had swallowed, and drawn in a shaky breath. "I'm sorry." But she hadn't let go. "I know you hate this…I know.. so much has changed.. I know… all of that.. but.. I'm sorry.. I was just so cold… and I felt so alone… "

"I don't hate it." Xena had choked out. "Don't say that." She hadn't wanted to let go, but eventually she had to, and they went to their separate sides of the campfire.

And looked at each other bleakly through the flames.

Gabrielle had made the first move. Xena had known the next would be up to her. "It's… " A breath. "Warmer on this side.. you could um.. "

A tiny smile had edged across the bard's tear streaked face, bringing a long absent warmth to her eyes, and she had simply picked up her bedroll, and walked over, settling down at the warrior's side with a quiet sigh. "Thank you." Simple, and heartfelt.

It was, Xena reflected, the nicest thing that had happened to her for months, sad as that was to realize. They'd given each other shy smiles, and lay down side by side for the first time in what had seemed like a lifetime.

Two profiles outlined in firelight gazed up a dark, starry sky, in a deep silence broken by rustling, dry grasses and somber crickets. Xena had managed to relax enough to let sleep make reluctant progress over her, when a quiet voice sent a trickle of chills down her arm.

"I…I think I found a new one.. look.. " The bard's voice had still been hoarse. "A bear."

The stars had blurred in her sight so badly, Xena could not have told what the pattern the bard was pointing at if her life had depended on it. "Yeah.. a bear." She'd answered softly, as she felt the tears spill over and down the side of her face.

A fingertip not her own had caught them.

Xena sighed, and rubbed her temple with her free hand, as she regarded her blissfully happy soulmate. It really was a miracle, she concluded, feeling the silly smile edge her lips again.

Oh well. Not like anyone can see it, right? She reasoned., putting off her concerns against the seductive blanket of drowsiness that was claiming her. Gabrielle was already asleep, collapsed against her much the same way she had that afternoon, her breathing deep, and very steady.

Xena felt a sudden, unexpected surge of protectiveness wash over her, as she regarded the faintly lit features. Not that she wasn't usually concerned with Gabrielle's safety.. she was. But this… was different. It was almost a feeling of.. fierce defensiveness, like a mother wolf with a loved cub.


The morning came too soon. Xena's time sense poked her just before dawn, and she opened very reluctant eyes and her body grumbled heartily at her plan to get up and start her tasks. The soft bed and Gabrielle's tenacious grip were collaborating against her willpower though, and to her mild shock, they were winning with disgusting effortlessness.

A motion calculated to disentangle herself from her soulmate somehow turned into a warm snuggle, that ended with her eyes drifting shut again as Gabrielle murmured sleepily and nuzzled the skin of her neck. Gods. She groaned inwardly. C'mon.. Xena.. discipline, remember? Move you butt outta this bed.

Several stern mental pokes later, she finally slipped out of Gabrielle's embrace, and stood, stretching and yawning, as she gave the still dark window a dour glare, then trudged into the large bathing room, and plunged her head right into the cold water in the basin off to one side of the bath.

It prodded her awake, and she finished washing, then stripped out of her sleep shirt and shrugged into her padded gambeson, buckling the chest straps in quick, practiced movements, and tightening the belt that held the fabric around her body. The worn, well-broken in garment felt good against her skin, and she patted the surface, dredging up a bit of better humor.

In silence, she padded barefoot back into the main room, and sat down on a thickly padded chair to pull on her boots, the leather sides scraping against her legs before she settled them, and tightened the lacings. Ares sniffed at her knee, wagging his tail, and she patted his head. "No no. you gotta stay here, okay?"

"Arogrroo!" The wolf complained, his large, cupped ears drooping.

"Hey.. none of that.. " Xena tapped him on the nose. "Your job is to take care of Gabrielle, remember?" She explained in a whisper. "I don't want any nasty guys bothering her.. okay?"

"Roo." Ares sighed, and trotted back over to the bed, hopping up on it, and curling up in a ball at Gabrielle's feet.

Xena grinned quietly, and rose, moving to the bed and reaching down to recover her sword, which she clipped onto her back in a practiced motion, then she knelt at the bedside, and simply watched her soulmate sleep for a long moment.

Gods.. Her eyes traveled over the closed eyes, with their fair lashes, and down the smooth curve of her cheek. The bard had one fist closed under her chin, and her other arm was curled under her head. As Xena watched, the closed hand opened, and reached out, then Gabrielle's eyes blinked open, in startled alarm.

"Hey.. " Xena touched her, seeing the relief in the younger woman's gaze as she looked up and saw her partner's face outlined in the dim pre dawn light. "It's all right.. I just gotta go and get this place cleaned up a little."

"Oh.. right.. " Gabrielle smiled sleepily. "Xena, Warrior Wash Warden." She chucked her partner on the chin gently. "Have fun."

Xena grinned whole heartedly back at her. "You might wanna look up the princess.. see if you can get her story."

A nod. "Good idea." The bard snuggled into her pillow. "Later." Her eyes flicked to the window. "I think.. I know why all you warrior people are always in such a bad mood all the time." She clucked. "You get up too darn early."

Her partner chuckled softly. "Yeah.. you may have a point there… I was in a baaad mood when I hadda get out of this bed." She captured Gabrielle's hand and kissed the fingers, pressing the backs of them against her cheek. "I love you." She rasped, gently.

Gabrielle blinked in pleased surprise. Xena didn't normally initiate that kind of thing. "I love you too." She responded quietly, curling her fingers tightly against the warrior's. "Make sure you get some breakfast."

A cheeky grin. "Yes, mom."

"Tch." The bard let out a slow, soft laugh. "Someone has to take care of you."

Xena pulled the covers over her, and tucked them securely around the bard's shoulders, then stood. "I'm leaving Ares with you… sic him on anyone you need biting until I get back."

"Mm.. " Gabrielle gazed up at her. "When you'll take over the biting?" She teased gently.

"Yep." Came the confident answer. "I'll probably be back here after lunch.. if you need me, I'll be mucking out what smelled like the Aegean Stables on the way in here."

"Uck." The bard tugged the covers over her head. "Make sure you leave your boots outside then."

Xena snorted, then clipped her chakram to her belt, and slipped out the door, closing it in silence, then making her way down the darkened hall. Only a few torches remained lit, but it was enough for her sensitive eyes, and she found her way down to the lower hall without incident.

She was about to cross the wide open space, when her senses came alert, her hearing detecting a faint brush of skin on stone. She paused, turning her head to take in the barely perceptible breeze moving through the room, and catching a hint of nervous sweat on the air.

Ah. Squaring her shoulders, she moved confidently forward, her ears tracking the surreptitious sounds that followed her, moving closer and closer as she neared the far door, close enough to set her nape hairs on end, and send a chill down her back as the cool air hit it.

Two.. one on either side, and they were sure she couldn't see them. They crouched, hidden in the mostly pitch darkness of the chamber, and as she came even with them, clubs whistled out towards her.

She dodged one, which sent its owner staggering, and let the other bounce off her shoulder pad as she kicked out sideways, feeling her boot impact against flesh. The second man slammed against the wall from the force of her kick, and slid down it, and she spun, reaching for the other man and grabbing the club he was maneuvering around for a second blow at her.

She pulled the club out of his hand, and slammed an elbow under his chin, forcing him back against the wall, his breath coming harshly. "Why are you attacking me?"

He didn't answer, just struggled. She sent up a wish for patience, and poked him in the neck with two fingers. His body jerked, then shuddered, as his breathing went hoarse. "You've got thirty seconds.. cause I'm in a bad mood. " She spat. "Why are you attacking me?"

"No.. right.. to interfere." The man gasped out, the whites of his eyes startlingly visible in the dim light.

Xena considered that. "One warlord or the other.. whadda you care? Why do you want that other guy to overrun you?"

He struggled to swallow. "Better of two evils." He ground out, then gasped, as Xena released him.

She held him up against the wall until his breathing steadied, then sighed. "You 're not gonna believe this.. but you might just be looking at the better of three evils." She informed him. "So just relax, and stop trying to kill me, and stay outta my way." She pushed him back, and ducked out the door, heading for the small side entrance she'd seen last night that exited into the castle forecourt.

Better of two evils, huh? She remembered the ginger haired man from the previous day. Hmm. That thought rattled around as she pushed the door open, and slipped out into a damp, cool pre dawn light, to the echo of sleepy bird calls that hesitated as her boots crunched against the rocky path, then continued as she moved past them.

The forecourt was clean, if a bit unkempt looking, with eager plants pushing through the flagstones and straggling across the surface. She walked under the archway leading out towards the low roofed buildings where Garanimus' soldiers were quartered, the soft breeze already bringing an incipient stench to her sensitive nose. Gods. She winced. The odor was a compellation of unwashed bodies, rotten food, and sewage, and she felt her normally sturdy stomach rebelling at it fiercely. Guess I got used to more civilized surroundings.. she groaned, closing her eyes and concentrating on controlling her reaction. C'mon.. c'mon…She swallowed a few times, trying to breathe through her mouth, and finally her grumbling body subsided, and she was able to dismiss the odor.

The buildings were quiet, except for the rumbling of snores she could hear through the half open windows, and she pushed open the door to the first one to be greeted with a warm wash of even more pungent stink. The dark interior consisted of rough-hewn pallets, with occupants slung over them mostly dressed in dirty leather undercoats, or nothing. Xena put her hands on her hips and looked at the floor, kicking idly at a roach which scurried out of her way, then shook her head and picked up two shields that were resting against the wall.

She lifted one in each hand, then spread her arms, considered for a moment, then brought her hands together, slamming the metal edged plates against each other with a horrendous clash.

Dark forms stumbled and staggered off their pallets, yelling in startlement as the noise continued, filling the room with a discordant echo that perfectly matched the smell. A torch flared, and someone flung the windows wider, letting in the gray dawn, which backlit the tall, rangy figure standing in the doorway.

Xena dropped the shields, and let her hands rest on her hips, watching the outraged bloodshot eyes turn to her. She smiled. "Morning."

"You…." A short, burly man coughed, pulling a dirty blanket up to cover his naked body. "Lousy son of a.. "

The warrior kicked him in the gut, sending him sprawling over the back of his pallet and onto the floor. "Wrong." She corrected him cheerfully. "At least get the gender right." She watched as they slowly focused, and realized who she was. "Comes to disgusting, this ranks.. and I do mean ranks.. right up there with the worst I've ever seen."

Sullen silence answered her, save a few coughs, and some shuffling. "All right.. this is what we're gonna do." She turned and pulled the door open. "Open all those windows."

"Says who?" An older man challenged, eyeing her warily from near the closest opening. "We leave them open.. they throw things in here at night."

The warrior studied him. "If I were them.. I would too.. to keep the stink in here." She informed him, then turned and faced the room. "My name is Xena." She gave the stunned silence a few beats. "And.. through no fault of my own.. I've had to take on the task of making this look like a real army."

"It is!" A young soldier protested, his hands clutching a piece of linen to his body.

"Yeah.. kid. Sure." Xena snorted softly. "So.. we're gonna start by at least making you look like human beings, and not pigs."

An angry mutter ran around the room. "G'wan… tell me you don't." The warrior said conversationally. "This place is disgusting, and there's so much dirt on those weapons, I'd be scared to lift one."

The older man edged closer to her, peering up in the gloom. "You're gonna make us clean up?"

Xena wrinkled her nose. "Oh yeah. For a start." She sighed, then faced them again. "So.. if someone's gonna challenge my authority to do that, let's get it over with now." She dusted off her gambeson. "You've got a quarter candlemark to be outta here, dressed, and ready to start working… I'll be waiting outside for anyone who wants to argue the point first."

With that, she turned, exiting the door into the fresh air with a feeling of utter relief. "Next." She commented to a bluebird that had landed on the well in the center of the cleared space, as she ambled toward the next shack over. She calculated that at least a half dozen of them would want to fight her over the order…which didn't bother her, in fact.. She flexed her shoulders a little. A little action wouldn't be a bad thing.

Gabrielle felt the warmth of the sun creeping up the bed, warming her legs, and she reluctantly let her eyes slide open, and exhaled. It was still early, the window was an eastern exposure, and the light had just poked over the edge of the sill, but faint sounds were echoing through the stone walls, and that was strange enough to shake her from sleep.

Ares saw her stir, and his head popped up, his ears twitching forward as she rolled over onto her back, and stretched her body, rubbing his sides with her feet. "Morning Ares…" She lay there for a minute, looking up at the frilly canopy, then rolled out of bed and stood up. "Guess I'd better get going, huh?"

"Roo." He hopped off the bed and sat in front of the door, his tail wagging expectantly.

"Okay.. okay.. " The bard laughed, as she trudged into the bathing room and tugged her shirt off, selecting a piece of scented linen from the stack left handy and wetting it, then washing herself off, enjoying the cool sensation of the water drying off her skin in the gentle breeze from the window. The linen's scent was fresh, somewhere between lemon and floral, and she enjoyed that too, in a general sense of well being.

She decided on keeping to her less revealing clothing, and slipped on a bright blue tunic, belting it with a woven leather belt in tan and red that Xena had produced from idle scraps during their last residence in Amphipolis. The buckle was an old cheekpiece bit of Argo's, which she threaded the end of the leather through, then pushed it down through a knot and let dangle. It was… She let her fingers smooth the leather fondly. It was odd looking, but she really liked it.. all the more because it was from her soulmate's clever hands.

"Okay?" She held her hands out and looked over at Ares, who wagged his tail. "Good." She laughed, brushing her hair out, and feeling the ends crackle and curl around her hands. A rumbled surprised her, and she glanced down, laying a hand on her stomach. "Shh."

Ares cocked his head curiously, then trotted over, and sniffed at her.

"Yeah yeah… "Gabrielle laughed, walked over and kneeling by their packs, and digging in the one they kept their traveling supplies in. She pulled out a packet of trail bars, and removed one.. hesitated, then removed another, and stuck it in her mouth before she closed the packet up and stuffed it back into place. "Remnfnd me.." She mumbled. "To pfhtank Vfina." She bit off and chewed a mouthful, and swallowed it. "For making these."

Ares blinked hopefully at her. "No no.. you don't like these." She scolded the wolf. "It's fruit.. wolves don't eat fruit."

A black nose sniffed delicately at the remaining half of a bar. "Roo?"

Gabrielle wagged a finger at him. "No." She stood, and suddenly felt a little lightheaded, and grabbed for the chair back. "Whoa." It passed immediately, and she shook her head a bit. "Guess I must have been hungrier than I thought… I'd better finish this up."

She consumed the rest of one bar and started on the other as she sat down briefly at the table to update her diary. A knock on the door interrupted her. "Come." She glanced to her right to assure herself of the location of her staff, then waited as the door opened, and a young, slight girl entered. "Hello."

The girl bobbed a short bow. " Ma'am." She was hardly more than a child, and dressed in servant's clothing, which were gray and spare. She had long, dark chestnut hair which cascaded down her back, and was held in place by a piece of leather thong.

"Um.. no.. it's Gabrielle." The bard corrected her with a smile. "Did you need something?"

The girl folded her hands and glanced at her warily. "M'here to clean."

Gabrielle glanced around, then grinned disarmingly. "We're not really messy." Xena especially.. didn't like clutter. Her things were either neatly folded on top of her saddlebag, or in the saddlebag.. you wouldn't even know the warrior was around most of the time. At home.. she let herself leave a few things out, like her armor draped over a stand, but even there.. it was the austere soldier's habits of a lifetime, the bard considered, that she consistently adhered to. "You don't have to worry about it." She stood, and closed her diary, walking over and tucking it into her saddlebag. "What's your name?"

"Mestre." The girl answered shortly, as her eyes roamed over the room, settling briefly on the bed, then darting to Gabrielle.

The bard moved over to her, watching her cringe slightly as she approached. It was a new, and not entirely pleasant experience…she was more used to people reacting like that to Xena, who was, after all, six feet tall and just a walking bundle of intimidation.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, certainly was neither. But she was taller than the girl, and she stopped before she could spook her off. "Do you know where the princess's quarters are?" She asked gently. "I'd like to go talk to her."

Mestre's eyes narrowed, and she gave the bard a suspicious look. "Why?"

The bard studied her. "It must be hard … I just want to ask her if she's okay, and if there's anything I can do for her."

"Leave." The girl finally answered. "That'll be the best ye can do for her, and the rest of us."

Gabrielle considered the statement. "I don't think I can do that.. but at least give me a chance to talk to her."

A shrug. "Have it ye're way." She stood back, and waited for the bard to go ahead of her, then followed her, startled when Ares pushed his way out the door and trotted after his mistress.

So… I was wrong. Xena flexed her arms, and bounced a little, waiting for her next opponent. At least a dozen of them remained, angry and stubborn, in a line that had started with three times that number. She'd used the opportunity to warm up muscles that had not been used in a while and now was feeling pretty good, having disarmed and swatted down a good two dozen smelly guys, who were now grumbling but removing their armor and tossing it in a tub full of soapy water that she'd dragged into the open space.

"It's a wonder you can even move in that." She commented to her current opponent, as she dodged a determined sword thrust and nicked his arm. "Got so much crud on it, I bet I can… " She sliced expertly, and the entire front hinge of his armor collapsed, hanging down off his chest and throwing him off balance. "Yep.. "

He stumbled off, cursing, and she looked over to size up her next challenger. Oh boy. This one was nearly a half a foot taller than she was, and outweighed her again by half. He was stripped to the waist, and didn't have a scrap of extra flesh on him, and his hands moved around a long, heavy sword with expert skill. She felt her humor drain off, and darker energies surface, as her body reacted to the signals he was giving off, and she realized this was no play bout.

He dodged forward, faster than she'd anticipated, and cross thrusted towards her, making her flip over his outstretched arm to avoid the sharp blade. She landed, and whirled, her instincts speeding up as she ducked his counterstrike, and slipped her own blade in for a touch on his chest.

At that, he backed a little, thinking, then came at her again, trying to engage her weapon and overpower her with his greater size. It almost worked, and would have if it were anyone but Xena he was facing.. but the warrior let the blow impact her sword mid way, and took the shock of it on her knees, then swiveled her body and let his momentum take him past her, as she moved out of the way, and turned, keeping him in sight.

A silence had fallen, as the men watched avidly, snarling lips lifting in anticipation as the tall man twirled his blade in his hand and renewed his attack, matching strokes with her this time, blades flickering in the morning light and sending shivering sounds across the square. He dug his feet in, and twisted, trying to disarm her, and she jumped in the direction he was pushing, leaping over his outstretched leg, and locking her arm with his, then pulling him over her head, and dumping him onto the ground.

That took a lot of strength, and he realized that, and his eyes glinted warily at her as he struggled to his feet. That's right, buddy.. she told him silently. I'm more than I look like. Now she went on the offensive, surging forward, and engaging his sword with powerful strokes that drove him backwards with the sheer force of them. A fierce grin surfaced on her face, and she laughed softly, watching his eyes grow first troubled, then alarmed when he couldn't stop her attack. She felt her blood surge, and that old, wild joy shivered up and down her back, and she let out a sharp yell, as she leaped up into the air, and swung, smashing through his guard and only swiveling her blade sideways at the very last instant, so the side of his neck was hit by the flat, and he collapsed in stunned shock, instead of having his head cut right off his body.

Xena stood over him, a grin on her face, as she slowly twirled her sword in her hand, every nerve tingling in the slanting early sun. She looked up to see the remaining line of challengers dissolving, as men gave her wary, almost respectful looks, backing away and heading meekly towards the water. It felt…. Wonderful. She wasn't about to lie to herself. Her competitive drive was in its glory, as she sucked in the cool air, and watched her opponent slowly shake his head, and rub the ugly bruise on the side of his neck.

He looked up at her, his hazel eyes blinking, then sighed. "Guess I'll be takin a bath."

Xena pinned him with an ice blue gaze, then sheathed her sword, and offered him a hand up. He paused a long, suspicious moment, before he took it, and got to his feet, towering over her. "You.. " He chewed his lip. "Are the real stuff, lady."

The warrior grinned her full, feral grin. Oh yeah, and I'm loving every minute of this. "You're not so bad yourself." She replied, then turned around and faced the sheepishly watching men. "All right…the fun's over for now.. let's get this place cleaned up."

 Continued in Part 4