A Warrior by any other Name - Part II

by Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"Who were they, Jess?" Deggis growled, as he met his cousin crossing the stream. "This is not a good time for strangers to know where our homeland is." The shorter man darted his eyes left and right and he and Jessan strode down the path towards the village.

Jessan looked at his cousin in some annoyance. "Relax." He sighed. "They helped me to escape from the humans, and brought me home. Isn'tt that enough?" He glanced behind him. "As to WHO they arethat is best left for my father to hear first." Oh yeah, sure, and by the way, Deggis, that was Xena back there..you know, the warlord who slaughtered women and children in the next valley? Right. "Why, whats going on?" He finally asked, realizing what Deggis had said.

His cousin sighed. "The local human prince, Hectator, spotted some of us out hunting." He answered, grimly. "Theyre massing for an all out assault on the forest." He glanced at Jessans back. "Hey! Whered you get the sword?" He whistled. "Nice one..."

"Long, long story." Jessan answered, peering ahead towards his family home. "Now that I think about it, its a shame I didnt ask my new friends home. We could probably use their help."

Deggis looked at him like he was crazy. Humans? Friends? What the heck had happened him out there? "What?" He shook his head. "What could humans do for us?"

Jessan ignored him, and ran the last few steps into his home. As he expected, his father and mother were there, around the big table, surrounded by his fathers best battle leaders. They turned to look at him in surprise as he walked through the door.

"Jess!" Wennid gasped, shocked. "We'd..." she glanced at Lestan in some confusion. "We'd heard you had been captured."

Lestan allowed a look of relief to cross his scarred features. "Glad to see it wasn't true." He grunted, casting an aside look at several of the older warriors, who had brought him the story. They stared back at him in bewilderment. They knew what they had seen.

"I was." Jessan said, oh, quite calmly. This wasn't the venue he'd hoped for his story, but... "I was captured, and tied to a scaffolding, and was in the process of being beaten to death, actually." Augh. Shouldn't have done that to mother, look at the flinch. Jessan, you are an idiot sometime. He crossed over to her, and fit his big body into her opening arms for a hug. Strange, this need for physical touch, in so warlike a people, he thought. Real, nonetheless.

"You escaped." Lestan said, drawing the statement out slowly. His brow furrowed. "Obviously." He looked at his son, seeing now in the light the newly healed wounds about his head and shoulders.

Jessan looked over his mother's shoulder and met his father's eyes. "No." He closed his eyes and savored the moment, hearing the thunder of hoofbeats. "No, I was rescued." He smiled his feral smile. "By a human." He felt his mother stiffen in his arms. "Two of them, in fact." He looked down at her puzzled face. "And a horse."

He realized, looking around, that he was being stared at by everyone. Lestan hesitated, then gestured to the rest of the people in the room.. "Leave us." He put the battle plans down on the table. "I know we have little time, but I need to speak with my son."

The quiet was deafening after they all filed out. Jessan released his mother, and took a seat at the table, putting his chin on his cupped hands. "A human." Wennid repeated, busying herself with a pitcher and glass on the opposite side of the table. Her hands shook.

"Two of them." Jessan answered, quietly, watching his father's face out of the corner of his eyes. Lestan was scowling. "And a horse." he added.

"Don't get funny." Lestan growled, seating himself on the corner of the table. "Just how did they rescue you?" He leaned forward. "And what did it cost?"

Ouch. Jessan winced. "They scattered the villagers, cut me down and got me out of there. " He paused and touched his head gently. "Then dressed my wounds, and cared for me until I could travel." He glanced up at them. This was going about like I expected it would. "As to what it cost..." My anger? my desperation? my desire to die, and join my beloved? A piece of my heart is what I left with them. Cheap at the price. "They asked me for nothing. " And I would give them...anything.

"You left them alive?" Lestan asked, horror beginning to dawn in his eyes. "You led them here and left them LIVE???" He slammed his good fist down on the table, jarring the pitcher and spilling water on the surface. "I can't believe it!" He stood up and paced to the doorway, and back, and forth again.

Jessan sighed softly. "Oh yes." That last hug. "Very much alive." He smiled quietly to himself. Papa...how could you understand? Who had to leave the forest red with their blood? Even mama, who has peace in her heart cannot stand the thought of them. But ..they are not so different than we. Not so different at all.

Wennid watched her son's face in silence. Something had happened to him, all right, but she was not certain of what. Jessan had left the home forest...haunted..his eyes shadowed with Devon's death. She hadn't seen a smile cross his rugged face more than a few times since she died. He had grown inward, his sunny good nature clouded, lost. This man who had returned to her was more like the son she remembered. The soft smile played around the corners of his mouth, mirroring the faint smile in his eyes. She could sense a peace about him long absent. But how could humans have given him that gift? Why would they have helped Jessan, anyway? She had heard of the occasional one of them who, against the majority, seemed to to break free of their almost incomprehensible narrow mindedness, but...and yet, something had happened to her son. Troubled ,she glanced at Lestan, who showed signs of losing his temper.

Lestan crossed to the table, and grabbed his son's jaw, forcing eye contact. "Who were they?" he asked, his voice flat. As if we don't have enough trouble right now, that I have to send rangers out after these two. His mind raged. How could Jessan do this to his people? He knew what the stakes were. Idiot child.

Jessan stood, shaking off his father's grasp, and rose to his full height, a few inches taller than Lestan. He used that to his advantage, squaring his broad shoulders, and taking a breath. This was the part he had dreaded. "Father.." He moistened his lips nervously. "They won't harm us. You don't, you can't understand.." He paced towards the wall, back again. "I...they're family to me" He ignored his mother's gasp. "If you harm them, I bleed also..I can't...I.." He swallowed hard. "I'm sorry...I know how you hate them, mama, papa...but..." A sharp crack as Lestan backhanded him across the face with his good arm. He didn't flinch, and had the satisfaction of seeing the momentary startled look in Lestan's eyes.

"Hate them." His father growled, hideously low. "Fool! You have no idea how inadequate that word is for how I feel. " He grabbed the side of Jessan's neck, and shoved him against the wall. "I have the blood of thousands of our people that I have to walk over out in that forest every day of my life because of the human's inability to live in peace." He swallowed hard, shoving Jessan against the wall again. "How could you betray us like this?" He pushed his face closer. "WHO WAS IT??"

"I can't. I won't. " Was his son's answer, quiet, gentle, inflexible as granite. "They risked their skins to save mine. They cared for me. They offered me their friendship. They brought me home. " He grasped his father's hand and removed it from his neck. "And you would have me give them up for your anger? They have done nothing but good for me, are we as bad as they are? To return harm for none?. No. " He spared a glance at his mother's stricken face. "No I will not. Jessan looked back into his father's angry eyes. "I will not."

Silence in the room. Wennid crossed the floor to her son's side. "Let me See your heart. " she said, placing a hand flat on his chest. She looked up into Jessan's gold flecked eyes, sensing..ah. She closed her own, in deep pain. What manner of humans were these, to make him feel so? She delved deeper now, catching barest glimpses of the images passing through his minds eye, as she could do only with her son, and with her lifebonded. A sunset. Water. A crimson haired human with sea green eyes, laughing. Water again, this time over his head. Wennid gasped, had they tried to drown her son? No..strong hands, arms, lifting him up and out of the water. Another human. Dark hair, and piercing blue eyes. . She felt the warmth exchanged between them, saw the human smile at her son, knew that it was real.

Knew that she recognized the second human, had seen her standing bloody handed over a pillaged community in the next valley, and again leading a band of raiders against herdsman to their east.

"Oh Jessan.' Wennid cried softly, tangling her fingers in the fur of his chest. "Tell me I"m wrong." She looked up into his eyes, heartsick. Tell me what I saw her do in that valley, to those people wasn't true. Ah..but you can't, can you my noble son. Because I saw her. I, myself. You cannot convince me the person who did that is worth your...Oh Jessan...No.

Mama, no...don't tell him, pleasepleaseplease...oh, please..no..Jessan's mind howled. His mother was the one factor he knew he had no control over. He searched her pale eyes, pleading. She had more reason than most to hate Xena's kind, and now she knew the face of his rescuer. There weren't many female fighters, and Wennid had seen her, at least once. Xena's looks were not soon forgotten. He watched Wennid wrestle with her dilemma, holding his breath. At last, she sighed, and reached her hand up to gently stroke her son's face. In apology? Acceptance? He shuddered to think.

"Lestan..my love." She turned her head and made eye contact with her mate. Their bond made even that casual glance something more intimate, as their souls touched, and she felt herself floating in his mahogany gaze. "what he feels is...true." She pursed her lips. "I believe...they are no danger to us." she smiled up at her son, who closed his eyes in exhausted relief. "But Jessan...you must tell your father who this person was." She gently touched his cheek. "He must know. For if you are wrong about them, they are a dire, dire enemy for our people."

He looked down at her, in puzzlement. Didn't she understand? He thought she had..."and expose her to his retribution?" he asked softly. "Mama, I can't. "

"She??" Lestan interrupted, for the first time in what felt like hours and hours. Some of the wild anger was gone from his voice, siphoned off by Wennid's gaze. "Her??" His brow furrowed as he gazed at his son. "Ares, son - what are you telling me, that a human woman saved you?" His brow furrowed in annoyance. He didn't believe in killing women, even human ones, they were as defenseless as cubs. "All right, all right....you can tell me. You know how I feel about that." He scowled, and propped his chin up on his good hand. Wennid crossed in back of him, and leaned over his neck, enclosing him in her arms.

Jessan took a deep breath. "It was Xena." Then he screwed his eyes closed, and waited for the explosion. When it didn't come, he cracked one eyelid and peeked at his father. Lestan was staring at him with an odd mixture of shock, disbelief, and most curiously, intrigue. "She's really nice." Jessan added cautiously. "Remember we heard she'd stopped marauding...now she just wanders around helping people....it's true." He looked anxiously at his mother, who pursed her lips, grimly.

"Nice." Lastan drawled out. "Jessan, there are a lot of terms I've used heard to describe Xena. Nice, hasn't been among them." He drummed his fingers on the table, intrigued despite himself.. "I can hardly believe it. Yet...here you are." He tried to hide his sudden curiosity. "Xena, huh?" Jessan had a sudden suspicion that his father was not half as disapproving of his new friend than he had thought he would be. Must be the warrior thing, he grinned privately to himself.

Wennid lifted her face towards her son. "I"I've seen the nightmares that human has caused. Now you expect me to believe she's become some kind of hero? Jessan, you've deluded yourself." She rested her cheek against Lestan's hair and continued. "Surely you see how impossible it is."

:"Mama...." Jessan hesitated. "I didn't think so at first either.." Then he stopped and examined his memory. "No. That's not true." A curious smile shaped his mouth. "My heart knew the minute I saw her she was no danger to me. But it took some time for my mind to agree with that. I didn't have my Sight to rely on..when you meet her, you'll see." He held up his hands at their startled looks. "Oh..not right now...but someday, I'll bring her here. I want you to see for yourselves...but let me tell you the whole story, "

"So." Gabrielle queried. "Now where to?" She glanced ahead, to where the road seemed to be getting wider and better defined in the grass.

Xena studied the horizon thoughtfully. "Well, we could pay a visit to Hectator. I hear his new capital is pretty large." She slid a glance towards her companion, and gave her a sly grin. "I hear the shoppings pretty good, too." She cocked her head on one side, and studied the bard for a moment. A thought occurred to her. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, lets do that."

Gabrielle crooked an eyebrow at her. "Soundsgreat, actually." What was Xena up to now? She had that little grin on her face when she was planning somethingoh well, I guess I'll find out soon enough. She was about to continue plodding forward, when Xena launched herself up into Argos saddle, and extended her arm.

"Come on." Xena urged. "Id like to hit the capital before dusk."

Gabrielle's brow furrowed in puzzlement, but she shrugged and walked forward to take the proffered forearm. Xena hauled Gabrielle up behind her, and urged Argo forward with a quick knee nudge.

Sighing, the bard looped the thong of her staff over her shoulder, and held on to Xenas middle with both arms. Gods, I hate riding, but at least riding double I have something solid to hold on to. She quirked a small grin. Argo settled into a cantering rhythm, and after a little while, lulled by the rhythm and by the sun, Gabrielle nodded off against Xena's back.

"Thats a first." Xena muttered to herself, amused. She clasped one arm against the two the bard had wrapped around her, to keep her from slipping off, and chuckled. I can have fun with this later.

Xena waited until they were approaching the city before she slowed Argo to a walk, and turned her head to look over her shoulder. "HeyPrincess." She called to her companion, and felt Gabrielle start as she woke up.

"What" she looked around her in puzzlement. "Where..how long have I been asleep?" She asked, catching Xenas amused grin. The sun was setting over the city spires. Dont tell me I fell asleep on this darn horse, and have been sleeping for hours, Xena, please.

"Couple of hours." The dark haired woman confirmed cheerfully, laughing gently at Gabrielles chagrined expression. "And here I thought you werent comfortable on horses."

Gabrielle sighed, and let her head fall against Xenas back. How could I have done that? Must have been the sun. Suddenly she was aware that she was still hugging the taller woman, and that her arms were being held firmly.. Poor Xena - shed even had to keep me from falling off. Gabrielle berated herself, disgusted. "Sorry about that." She muttered, shifting and letting go her strangle hold . "I dont know what came over me."

Xena peered back over her shoulder once more. "Dont worry about it. You looked like you could use the sleep, and Ive suffered through worse." She let Argo trot a few more paces, then glanced at Gabrielle's face, still closed and silent. "Gabrielle" she said, gently, half turning in the saddle. "It's all right. It's no big deal; so you fell asleep on Argo. So what?"

"I"m sorry." Gabrielle muttered, scowling. "I don't ever see you just taking naps for no reason."

Xena snorted. "Well, no, but one of us on a hair trigger all the time is more than enough, don't you think?" She studied the now looming city gates. "Looks like a lot of activity."

The bard peered around Xenas tall shoulder, and examined the gate. Activity, yes. Men and horses were pouring in and out with a purposeful air. "Looks like.."

"Trouble" Xena finished grimly, with a heartfelt sigh. "Cant we just go somewhere, sometime when something isnt happening?" Shaking her dark head, she kicked Argo back into a canter, causing Gabrielle to resume her clutch.

They trotted through the gates, dodging running soldiers and moving battle carts. No question as to what the activity was - war preparations were self evident. All around were soldiers gearing up, sharpening weapons, repairing armor. They hardly spared a glance towards the purposefully trotting golden mare and her unusual riders. Eventually, Xena spotted someone she knew. "Ho, Alaran.." She slid off Argo, motioning Gabrielle to stay up.

The grizzled soldier looked up in surprise. "Xena!" he snorted. "Well, Ill be" He stepped forward and clasped her arm. "Its been forever. What brings you to these parts? Good timing though.." He held her at arms distance. "you look great." He grinned. "a sight for sore eyes."

Xena laughed, and patted him on the belly. "You look like you havent been working much." She gestured to the busy courtyard. "Whats going on?"

"Ah." Alaran grunted. "weve found a nest of..I dont know, creatures, I guess youd call em. Half human, half I dont know what, and mean as all get out. Hectator is putting together a large force to root them out." He looked up, noticing at last the expression on Xenas face. "What? Whats the matter?"

"I have to go see Hectator." Xena growled. "Hes about to make a big mistake." She pulled herself back up onto Argo, and turned her head towards the castle, kneeing her forward. "Nice seeing you, Alaran." she called back over her shoulder.

"Not half so nice as it is to see you, Xena." The veteran shouted after her, shaking his head. Zeus, that was one beautiful but dangerous woman. He wondered what she was up to.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "I didnt realize you had any old friends that were that glad to see you." she said, grinning, before she realized how that must sound. "uhm..I mean, well, thats not what I meant"

Xena snorted. "Yes it was." She patted Gabrielles leg. "But thats OK, its usually true. Alaran was an exception. He and I go way back. " She sighed. "I doubt Hectator will be as friendly." She directed Argo towards the castle portcullis. "I hope I can convince him to put a stop to this."

She pulled the mare to a halt, and slid off, reaching up and catching Gabrielle as she followed suit. The bard was about to protest that she was capable of dismounting a horse when she reached the ground and would have collapsed if Xena hadn't been hanging on to her.

"Ow." Gabrielle winced, . "thanks." She took a moment to stretch her aching legs, then nodded up at Xena. "Im OK." she said, as the warrior released her grasp and gave her a little pat on the back.

The castle was medium sized, but well made, and the gate was guarded. Xena stopped in front of the gate guard, and waited for his attention. After a moment, he glanced up, and jerked back in surprise. He hadnt expected to see a woman warrior, who topped him by several inches, standing at his gate, thats for sure. Xena thought. "I need to see Hectator." She kept her voice at its lowest, most imposing register.

The guard swallowed. "Hes busy." He ventured. "Hes very busy."

"Hes going to be a lot busier if you dont let me in to see him." Xena rumbled, adding a dose of the look to the demand, and moving a step closer,. Cmon, buddy, just let me in. Dont make me knock you senseless, OK? Its been a long day. She muttered to herself. Just this once? Please?

The guard looked her up and down, lifted his hands, and shook his head. "Lady, Im smart enough to know I cant stop you, so go ahead. But I hope you really need to see him. Were in the middle of war preparations here."

Xena cast her eyes up and gave thanks to whoever had been listening,. "Dont worry. I wont tell anyone you let me in." She passed through the gates, followed by a silently laughing Gabrielle. Xena tried to muster a dark glower, but failed, and twisted the attempt into a wry grin. "Glad I could provide you with some amusement." she commented.

Finding Hectator was easy. Getting his attention was a bit more difficult. Battle leaders were moving all about his conference room, dragging maps and battle plans. Hectator himself, a tall, well made man with dark hair and eyes, was striding from one group to another, issuing orders.

After several attempts at interruption, Xena finally lost patience and decided on drastic action. She picked up one end of the huge conference table, and hurled the entire thing over, causing maps and battle leaders, and debris to go flying everywhere. Along with the horrendous crash as the table toppled over. Silence followed. Xena stepped to the now cleared center of the room, and crossed her arms. "Hello, Hectator. " She drawled.. "We need to talk. "

I think she enjoys this. Gabrielle considered, as she watched the reaction. I think she really likes standing there, in the center of this room full of armed men, knowing shes the most dangerous thing here, and knowing that they all know that. She grinned to herself. And I think I enjoy watching it. That's terrible, isn't it? But it's true.

"Uhm. Will you allexcuse usplease?" Hectator cleared his throat and said. "Hello, Xena. I didnt see you come in." He gestured towards his men, who hurried out of the room, leaving the two of them standing, facing each other. There was wary respect in his eyes as he regarded his unexpected guest. "I suppose you heard of our little problemdid you want to assist?" he raised a questioning eyebrow at her. "Wed welcome the help, of course"

Xena walked towards him, grasped his arm, and steered him to a nearby seat. "Sit down." She seated herself on the table next to him. "Gabrielle, come over here." The bard crossed the room, and settled on a bench. "Listen. Youre making a big mistake." She gazed into his eyes. "Those monsters youre going to do battle with are not monsters." Gabrielle is always after me to try talking it out first. Ok. So, I'll try.

Hectator snorted. "Cmon Xena. Ive seen them. You cant tell me they arent dangerous." He crossed his arms over his chest, and gave his head a little shake.

"Dangerous? " Xena raised one eyebrow. "Of course theyre dangerous. Youre dangerous. Im dangerous." She pinned him with her cool gaze. "In fact, Im a lot more dangerous than they are." She laid a hand on his sleeve. "Look, I know them. Theyre just fine if you leave them alone. Have they done anything to you? Killed anyone? "

Hectator surged to his feet, and strode back and forth in agitation. "I dont know what your purpose is here, Xena - you cant expect me to leave dangerous animals on my borders, not even if they were farmers, and not warriors, which they most evidently are. Now, if youre not going to help out, please let me finish doing what I need to do." He scowled at her. "And stay out of my way."

Xena sighed, and turned to Gabrielle. "You know, I really did want this talking it out thing to work. I'm tired, its been a long day, and I thought maybe, just this once, I'd give it a try." She pushed herself to her feet, in time to meet Hectator as he paced closer to her. With one hand, she reached out and gripped his collar. Her other hand closed into a fist, and connected with a loud crack against the side of his jaw. He sagged bonelessly in her grasp without a further sound. "Guess my timing was off."

Shaking her head, Xena reached down and grabbed his jacket and belt, lifting him up in one powerful surge and throwing him over her shoulders. "Cmon." she said, motioning Gabrielle to go before her. "It's going to be a long night."

"Where are we taking him? " Gabrielle asked, curiously.

"Jessan's village." Xena answered, shifting Hectator to a more comfortable carrying position. "Maybe I can get him and Lestan to talk things out. If nothing else, maybe I can get Hectator to realize they're not dumb animals on his borders."

"Hmm." Gabrielle commented. "What if they decide just to rid the world of three more humans?" Her voice was light, but she couldn't keep a note of concern out of the question.

Xena glanced at her, a small smile touching the corners of her mouth. "You worried?"

"Yeah." The bard answered, honestly. "Jessan was really anxious about us being near his people's territory."

"Well, Gabrielle." Xena muttered, as they made their way down the stairway, keeping to the dark shadows now fallen over the castle. "Hectator I'm not that concerned about. But.." she paused and grinned, "To get to you, they'd have to go through me."

Gabrielle felt her breath catch in her throat momentarily. "OK. I feel better now." she said, a trifle hoarsely. "I'm sure it will be fine." She darted a sideways glance at Xena, who was watching her reaction with a slight grin. What a weird mix of reactions. I mean..it's true. I know it. And I wonder if she realizes just how much that scares me. Or why?

The bard followed Xena and her burden back to the courtyard, glad now that shed had the chance to sleep earlier. Four hour excuse for a hug was more like it. She laughed at herself, in reflex. Poor Xena. Physical contact had been a very important part of Gabrielle's family life. .at home there was never too little an excuse for a hug between all of them. It came as naturally as breathing to her. Unfortunately, Xena had a very different attitude towards it - she liked distance, and really didn't like people getting in her personal space, much less touching her. It made her very jumpy, and people with hair trigger reflexes and lots of sharp weapons are nobody you want nervous around you.

Gabrielle respected that, but it was impossible to remember all the time, especially after she had been traveling with Xena for a while, and had become more comfortable with both the warrior, and her surroundings. - and at least Xena had long since now stopped flinching or tensing up when she forgot and used a touch to make a point, or just casually. Her brow creased in sudden thought. Actually, she realized with a start, she had begun to forget not to do it. And lately, the bard realized in some amusement, lately Xena had let down her guard a bit and allowed herself to make casual contact in return, a pat on the back, or a shoulder clasp, or a gentle hug when Gabrielle most needed it. Not that she'd dare to mention it, of course. Oh no. A grin tugged at her mouth.

They dodged the scurrying guards in the castle courtyard, the darkness hiding what Xena was carrying over her shoulder. Argo whickered when she spotted them, and obligingly trotted over at the soft whistle. Xena loaded Hectator unceremoniously onto the mare's back, covering him with a fold of blanket, and they were through the gate and started down the long track back to the forest before anyone could think to stop them. Or realize what the mare carried.

Hectator was tied at his hands and feet, and when he came to, he was not pleasant. He cursed for some minutes. "Xena, you are not going to get away with this. What do you think youre doing? My men will find us in the morning, and Ill have you in chains!" He twisted angrily in his bonds, glaring at her half seen profile in the darkness.

Xena yawned. "Youll have to stand in line. Theres at least one god and countless more dangerous men than you that have made that particular threat. " She chuckled wearily. "As for what Im doing, Im trying to make you see reason, and keep innocent lives from being lost so give me a break, will you?" she glanced at him, amused. "You wont get hurt. I just want you to talk to them. "

Hectator was silent for a moment. "You really think they're going to let me out of that warren alive.." Sarcasm dripped from his voice. "You've gone soft in the head, Xena."

Xena rolled her eyes at him. "You'd be better off worrying if I've gone soft every place else. " She eyed him, amused. "Hectator, I won't let them to do anything to you, I promise."

"You're so sure you're right, aren't you." He commented, turning his head on Argos neck to watch her

"No, Hectator. I just kidnapped you and am taking you by force to the home camp of what you perceive to be your enemies because I had nothing better to do tonight." She snapped at him. "Believe me, Id much rather be sitting in one of your inns, contributing to your local economy."

Gabrielle caught up to her and handed her a waterskin Xena hadnt realized she needed until just that moment. She glanced down at the shadowy form of her companion and smiled. "Thanks." she whispered. "Do I sound as tired as I feel?" The moonlight was just barely enough for her to see Gabrielles answering grin. "Thought so."

"Do you want to stop for a while?" the bard murmured back.

"No." Xena sighed. "There isnt time, unfortunately." She glanced around to watch the path they had just come down. "His guards will be after us...as soon as they figure out he was taken." She looked slyly at Hectator. "And get over their embarrassment."

Gabrielle nodded, then offered her some bread and cheese. "Might as well have dinner, then."

Xena looked over at her with a wry and knowing grin. "What more could I ask for?" She accepted the food, and started munching. Gabrielle walked silently beside her, chewing on her own portion. Hectator was also silent, trying to find a comfortable position on Argos back. Xena took pity on him, and cut the ropes tying his hands, with a caution that an attempt at flight would result in his spending the rest of the trip underneath Argo instead of on top.

"So, they left me off near the stream, and continued on their way." Jessan finished, his mouth feeling like a mouse had run rampant in it. Water hadn't helped - his tongue hurt from talking. Wennid and Lestan had listened in mostly silence, with a few pertinent questions, until the end. Now they looked thoughtfully at each other. Jessan sighed..they could communicate more with a look than most of his people could with an entire conversation. At times like this, their bond was almost tangible. He envied them...he had loved Devon, of course, but it hadn't been a lifebond.

"Well." Lestan finally sighed. "That's quite a story." He pushed back from the table, and took a long drink of mead. "I can't say that I would have done as you did, Jessan..." he looked hard at him. "but it's done now...I can't change that." He looked across at his bondmate, sitting with her muscular hands steepled in front of her face, deep in thought. Gods, she's beautiful. Lestan mused, as he gazed at her fondly, waiting for her judgment on their son's tale.

"I'm just glad you made it home." Wennid finally said, as close to acceptance as she was willing to get right now. Her head jerked up, as did theirs, at the sound of running footsteps moving towards them. Earth sounds, then a thump as the runner leaped up onto their porch.

"Lestan!" Deggis panted, as he appeared in the doorway. "Humans. Coming this way."

Lestan cursed. "How many?" Already his mind was turning to defensive maneuvers. So soon! But how?

"Uh..three." Deggis answered. "and a horse."

They all stared at him. "Three?" Lestan asked, puzzled. This was no war party then.

"Describe them." Jessan suddenly asked, turning to his cousin. "What do they look like?"

Deggis turned to him. "There's a man tied to the horse, and two women walk beside it. One is tall, with dark hair and a sword. The other is shorter, with light hair and a staff." He glanced at the frozen Lestan and Wennid. "Why?"

Jessan looked up at his parents and nodded in confirmation. "It's them." he turned to Deggis. "someone's tied on the horse's back?" His cousin nodded. "Wonder what that's all about." Then an idea came to him, which he didn't articulate. What if Xena and Gabrielle had heard of Hectator's planned attack? What if they were doing something about it? He wouldn't put it past them. He leaned forward. "Let them come." He urged his father.

Lestan smiled. "Oh, I intend to." He looked coolly at his son. "I intend to." He rose and reached for his weapons. "In fact, I'll meet them myself."

Ooohhh...no....Jessan's mind squeaked. Bad idea. But how to get that across to his oh so proud father. To him they were just a couple of humans, easily dealt with. "Let me go with you." He begged. "Please..."

Lestan could never resist a challenge, even with one arm he was one of their greatest living champions...and Xena was a challenge far to vast to ignore. There was just one little problem...one little thing that only he and his father knew; that of the two of them, Jessan was the better fighter. They had found that out in a forest glade not to far from here one late spring morning not that long ago.

In many ways, it had been his coming of age, and he remembered it with great pride, and a little sadness. Lestan could cope with being beaten by his son. He could not, must not cope with being defeated by a human. A human woman. It would be the end of him. And Jessan knew, as surely as the sun lifted into the sky each morning, that beaten he would be, unless he was gods touched lucky, or Xena took pity on him.

"No." Lestan growled. "You stay here. Your mind is clouded in this." He threw a light battlecoat over his shoulders, then swept by Wennid for a quick hug. "There's only three of them. This won't take long"

Ares. Jessan groaned to himself. Why did everything have to be so hard? "Father." he barked, getting everyone's attention. "She's..dangerous. Please..don't play...games with her." His breath came faster.

Lestan snorted. "I'll call this human's bluff, my child. But I'll try not to do too much damage, seeing as she did us a great favor in helping you." He spared a exasperatedly fond look for his son, who had, he knew, inherited his mother's heart, along with her unique intuition.

Jessan sighed inwardly. Sometimes....He stood up and blocked his father's path towards the door, ignoring the anger in Lestan's eyes. "Father, please...you don't understand."

"I understand that you are in my way, son, and you'd better get out o it. " Lestan growled, serious now. "I think I can handle one female human warrior without your help. She wants to come and visit - well, we'll see if I'll let her."

"Father, don't challenge her. " She'll win. his mind howled, and I can't tell him that, baldly. "She's..." ah, a way out. Embarrassing, but a way out, and a way to give his father a warning without making him lose face. "I sparred with her. " He laughed shortly. "Several times. I went full out, gave it everything I had. I tried...everything." Now he had Lestan's attention. Good. "I couldn't touch her." Disbelief from all eyes. "She took my sword away and slapped me in the pants with it." Utter disbelief. "She doesn't bluff." He finished quietly. "She doesn't need to." He looked up at Lestan, into his eyes. Ah...he sees. I hope.

"I'll keep that in mind." the tall leader grunted. "stay here." And walked out with Deggis trailing him in confusion. Wennid stared at the door for a long time, then returned her sharp gaze to her son. She nodded to him, and smiled a conspiratorial smile. "That was a kind thing you did, Jessan."

"You don't believe it." Jessan sighed. Of course not. They were just humans, right?

"Quite the contrary." His mother answered. She moved over to him and cupped his face in her gentle hands. "You are my son, as well as his." She kissed him on the head. "I just hope you were right about them. " She studied him thoughtfully. "You love this human, this..monster?"

Jessan closed his eyes and bowed his head, and didn't answer. He had no need to.

It was coming on dawn before they reached the stream that marked the boundary of the forest peoples homeland. Xena paused before they got to the bank, took a long drink of water, and resettled her armor and weapons again. She hoped to have a chance to talk to the forest people before any fighting started, but one never knewJessan might be away, or sleeping, orwhatever. And she knew shed have very little chance for explanation after she crossed this stream. She glanced back at Gabrielle, who was chatting with Hectator, but sweeping the tree line all the same. I should send her back. Same old story, isn't it.? But there isnt time now, and shed just get really mad if I tried. Xena sighed I hope this little plan works.

"All right" She said coolly. "Lets go." She grasped Argos bridle, and stepped into the stream. The water was cold, and snapped her wide awake, as she had hoped it would. Gabrielle walked on her upstream side, feeling her way with her staff. The bard slipped a little on the rounded rocks, and would have fallen in except for Xenas quick arm on her shoulder. "Careful," she cautioned, leaving her arm there for safety until they crossed to the other side.

Once they stepped onto the other bank, Xenas highly sensitive hearing began catching very faint, subtle movements all around them. "Theyre here" she said quietly. She brought Argo to a standstill, and stepped in front of the horse, keeping her hands well away from her weapons. The sun was just beginning to rise, and cast the first faint rosy color into the sky. The dawn wind was brisk, and whipped her dark hair back as she waited, sensing them closer and closer. She fixed her eyes on where she knew the closest one was, and finally spoke. "You can show yourself."

A dark form rose immediately out of the tall riverside grass, startling Hectator, but not Xena or Gabrielle after their journey with Jessan. His coat was darker than their friend's, and he was perhaps a bit shorter, and a bit heavier. He wore a full set of weapons, and held a long sword competently in one huge hand. His eyes, a darker shade of gold than Jessans searched hers, intently. Xena studied him as closely, and noticed he favored his right arm. She smiled slightly. "Lestan?"

Surprise showed in his eyes. "Yes." He finally answered. "And you would be Xena" He nodded at her, then inclined his head towards the blond woman behind her. "And Gabrielle." He turned cold eyes on Argos burden. "and this is?"

Xena dropped her arms to her sides, and moved towards him, tugging Argos reins. "This is Hectator. I think you two need to talk." She stopped within striking distance of him, and just waited. Gabrielle stood a few paces behind, leaning on her staff, watching his face and hers in turn.

Lestan regarded her in bemusement. "You bring my peoples great enemy into my camp, and tell me I need to talk to him? What makes you think I just wont cut his head off?" He shifted his naked blade in an arc which brought it closer to her, watching her eyes, finding nothing of what he was looking for.

"Two things." Xena stated, gazing up at him in total confidence. "First, I know your son." She released Argos reins, and stepped up face to face with him, ignoring the drawn sword, and his massive size . "Second, I gave him my word I would keep him safe here. " She paused and waited.

"What is your word worth to me, human?" Lestan drawled, in a cool tone. She dared! "Do you think you could stop me?"

Xena smiled, and became very still. "Do I think?" she asked softly, then shook her head no. "I know." And was aware of all her senses heightening, the sharp, exquisite sensation as her reflexes prepared to take over at his slightest motion. They misjudge us as badly as we misjudge them. she thought, idly. Interesting.

The woman was mad. Lestan thought to himself in disbelief. Did she really believe what she said? He regarded those ice blue eyes. He saw belief without question. Ares, what was she thinking? He towered over her, and had spent a lifetime at war. He knew his own abilities, even one armed, were formidable in the extreme. Surely, she knew this, and yet....

Had she really beaten Jessan? How could she? She was only a human, and a female human...surely..but Jessan would not have lied. The look in his son's eyes had been one of the truth, and to admit to defeat in front of his parents and cousin..no. he had told the truth. But how??? His brow contracted, and he took another look at her, this time seeing her as a warrior, as he would look at one of his own kind.

Ah...human, yes, but there was great strength there, and courage in those pale eyes, and Ares's unmistakable stamp in that posture. She was tensed to respond to his slightest movement, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that he could not at all predict what would happen if he made one. Did he want to chance it? Chance her? Not a blink, not a single movement of her gaze at him. Lestan would not have lived as long as he had being a fool. He tasted, with wary interest, the knowledge that he was as close to death at this silent moment as he had ever been, facing this human who was more than she seemed, and less than her many legends.

So. This was Xena, who doesn't need to bluff. Who my son thought well enough of to call family. Who has turned from burning and pillaging to defending the helpless. Unbelievable. Lestan gave her a little nod, then slowly sheathed his longsword. "My son has told me much about you,." he looked down into her eyes. "But I can see he hasnt told me everything." He gestured toward the forest. "Come. We will talk."

Gabrielle let out a long held breath quietly. "Close." she whispered to herself, glancing at Xena, who now walked calmly at Lestan's side, listening to him. She was very glad Lestan had chosen to let them visit - she had no desire to see Jessan's father hurt, and if she read Xena's reactions right, he would have been, and probably Xena would have been too. Gabrielle was not much for betting, but...a reluctant grin was playing around her lips. Admit it...you get as big a kick out of watching her pull that stuff off as she does in doing it. the bard snorted softly. Towering mountain of muscle and fangs and all, her bet would have been on Xena.

Ahead of them, the darkened tree line waited.

What was taking so long? Jessan fretted to himself, pacing in tiny circles. . He stood tall, and strained his eyes, wait..was that them coming? He feared

Ah..a flash of golden flanks. Argo, for sure. Now he could see his father, striding solemnly next to the dark lithe form of Xena, head bent, talking, and gesturing with his hands. A wave of relief flooded over him,. He could see Gabrielle now, too, walking on Xenas other side, listening. On Argos back was riding..Hectator. Unbelievable. So. She had vindicated his belief in her, once again. He sighed happily, and drank in the sight of them with a smile.

Deggis poked him in the ribs. "So...those are your new...friends?" He hissed at Jessan, ducking as the larger warrior swung around in anger. "Wait till everyone hears you got beat by one of them...." He grinned dourly. "Not that they're that bad looking, for humans" He craned his short neck and gazed with interest. "Is that...no...can't be...it is...it's Hectator!" He threw back his head and gave a short laugh "Save us the trouble of going out and getting him. Nice friends you have there, Jess."

Jessan just closed his eyes and shook his shaggy golden head. They'd soon find out for themselves, woudn't they.

Xena listened to Lestan's rumbling voice as they walked towards the forest. It was a fairly short distance to the trees, and they had picked up an escort on the way in. Shadowy forms moved from tree to tree, and several of the huge forest dwellers formed up around them. They all bore a certain superficial resemblance to Jessan, but each had individual differences, in color of coat, height, mannerisms. It wasnt until they were at the brink of the village itself that one of the waiting still forms broke into a booming roar, and bounded towards them. Xena heard Hectator gasp, and she privately grinned to herself, as Jessan hurled his big body towards them and pulled both women into his grasp.

"Jessan, Jessan." Xena laughed. "Take it easy, will you?" His devotion to hugs made her suspect he and Gabrielle had an ancestor in common. "Bet you didnt think youd see us again so soon, " She darted glances at the shocked and disapproving crowd of forest people surrounding them.

"Xena," he warbled. "I told you to give me a chance to get them used to the idea. This wasnt what I had in mind." He laughed, and wrapped an arm around each of their shoulders as they continued to walk to the center of the village. "And you brought us a guest, too.." He shook his head at them. "Here I spent so much time thinking about how I was going to break it to my parents that not only did I know you two, but that I considered you family..and bang, you come walking into the forest, scaring everyone half to death." He glanced behind him at the patiently following Argo. "And you bring Hectator with you."

Xena turned to Hectator at that, whose leg bonds she had cut before crossing the stream with a dark warning to him not to run, or cause trouble, or attack anyone or anything. "Hectator, this is our friend Jessan."

Hectator studied the tall forest dweller with wary interest. He was not a stupid man, just limited in vision, and he had been considerably reassured by the fact that these forest dwellers had not damaged him in any way. Yet. Though he admitted the scene between Lestan and Xena had intrigued him, and gave him hope that Xena could actually deliver on her promise of protection. She had certainly given the much bigger Lestan pause. Interesting. So, maybe she had a point, and they weren't animals. He smiled ruefully to himself. Usually one thought of Xena, when one did, in the light of her fighting prowess. He had forgotten, as many often did, that she was also smart enough to have led one of the greatest armies this part of Greece had ever seen. There was savvy intelligence in that dark head, and more than a touch of tactical brilliance. His mistake. He tried not to make the same one twice, and if Xena thought of this forest creature as a friend, well.... Besides, he rubbed his jaw tenderly. she had a punch that could knock out a horse and he had no desire whatsoever to be reintroduced to it.

"Hello." He finally said, and after a long moment, reached out a hand to Jessan. The golden furred warrior tilted his head in some surprise, but took Hectator's hand, and shook it.

Argo came to a halt outside Jessan's home, where Wennid was waiting, and Xena's eyes flicked over her, absorbing information without giving offense by overtly staring.

Jessan's mother was a smaller, paler yellow colored example of the forest people, but retained their large frame and intimidating strength. She had a sweet face, and her eyes were the same color as her son's. Right now, those eyes were studying her guests with unnerving calculation.

Xena waited as Hectator dismounted from Argo, then sent the mare off towards a nearby stream. She turned and watched as Lestan and Hectator studied each other, then grinned privately as both gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod. "I think" Lestan rumbled. "that you and I may have speech together. Will you come inside, share my hospitality, and discuss our differences with me?"

Hectator took a breath. "I will." He shot a glance at Xena and Gabrielle. "Yes, I will". He waited for Lestan to proceed him up the small stairs, and followed him into the cottage.

Wennid studied the two woman while this exchange was going on. So this was Xena. She doesn't look as fearsome as I remember her. Maybe it was the smile..she hadn't smiled after razing the village in the next valley, nor the one other time Wennid had seen her. The woman killed children and defenseless women and old folks in legendary rampages. And here she was, standing on my front steps, like it was nothing for her to show up in unknown camps with territorial princes tied across the back of her horse. What did Jessan see in this woman, this monster from the past? Taking a steadying breath, she resolutely closed her eyes, and, fearing the worst, extended her senses. Moments later, she popped her eyes open, feeling the astonishment roll over her like wave of soft rain. So. More had changed than the smile. Unexpected. Very unexpected. And Jessan had seen it, more..had given his heart over to this..human.

Xena watched Lestan and Hectator walk into the house with no small satisfaction. The plan had occurred to her, as they often did, on the spur of the moment as she and Gabrielle were walking into the castle. To have it work out the way it was gave her a warm feeling of accomplishment, rare, when most of her victories involved violence of some kind. She sensed Gabrielle's smile even before she turned to look at her, and the bard winked as their gazes crossed. "Jessan," Xena said. "I think we can let them be for now." She gave a deep sigh. "But I'd watch for his guard - I'm sure they followed us."

Jessan turned his golden gaze on her and nodded. "We'll watch." He resumed his arms about them, baring a grin at his mother. "Mother, I would like you to meet my friends Xena and Gabrielle." He grinned. "Guys, this is my mother, Wennid." His eyes twinkled at his mother, remembering the full throated tongue lashing he had suffered from them. last night. Vindicated, he was not about let her forget it, either. He had seen his mother close her eyes, and felt her extend her Sight to see for herself what he, himself knew beyond question. Wennid's expression told him all he needed to know. She had Seen.

Wennid, after a lifetime of living with Lestan, was a very stubborn woman. However, she was also incurably fair minded, and had the admirably ability to admit when she was wrong. "Welcome, both of you." she purred, serenely. "My son has told me so much about what you did for him. Please, let's sit down at table together, and let me hear.." she glanced slyly at her son. "the real story."

Gabrielle burst out laughing, and even Xena chuckled. They walked up the stairs and into the family quarters of Jessan's home. Xena was quite aware that Jessan's mother, for all her friendliness, did not trust either of them. Not that I blame her. The older woman lead them into a large comfortable seating area, and waved them to seats. She bustled into the next room, and reappeared several minutes later with a food and drink laden tray.

"Here you go." Wennid slid the tray onto the table, and seated herself on a large, well stuffed chair. "I think we're all carnivores here, yes?" She asked politely. "And Lestan prides himself on his mead. Please, help yourselves."

Xena chuckled. "I've been accused of a lot of things, but being a vegetarian isn't one of them." She cheerfully snagged a piece of meat off the tray, and bit off a large chunk, maintaining eye contact with Wennid. The meat was grilled, and tasted faintly of herbs, and was probably venison. She chose a glass of the mead, and settled back in her chair, with an amused look on her face. Tests. They always have to have tests. Will I be be civilized? Will we accept hospitality? One of these days, I"m going to tell someone I only drink blood, and require two milk bucket's full a day. Human. She exchanged looks with Jessan, who, by the twitching of his face was trying hard not to laugh. You think that's funny? Wait until Gabrielle starts up. Do you see the sparkle in her eyes? Just wait.

"That's really good." Gabrielle commented, chewing enthusiastically. "And you have a lovely home." she added, looking about her in appreciation. "I like the deer antlers" She turned her bright gaze at Wennid. "Did you catch them yourself?" She would have seen through Wennid's little challenge even without being able to see the twinkle in Xena's blue eyes, but the exchange of amused glances between the warrior and the bard had assured her that Xena, too, was aware and tweaking Wennid right back.

Wennid was, she had to admit, being thrown off balance. Humans were so difficult to judge - she had been hoping to show her son how they could sneer at what they perceived to be an animal's home and ways of life, and here these two were! Cheerfully chewing meat with their bare hands, and asking about deer hunting. Augh! And what was more, Xena knew exactly what she was up to, she could see it in her lazy grin, and in the looks she and the fair haired younger human exchanged. There was something familiar about the crossed glances...Wennid's eyes narrowed, and she darted a suspicious look at her son. No. Impossible.

Jessan met his mother's gaze, guessing with remarkable accuracy what she was thinking. Yes..possible, o my mother...Look, and See for yourself. We pity them for their lack...now Look, and see what it is for them to be blessed, as you and father are..and be sad for them, mama...because they don't even know what it is they feel.. He distracted them for a moment, as he saw his mother's eyes drift shut for a bare instant, then pop open with an unreadable expression. So.

Wennid gave herself a little shake. "Well, yes, actually, I did." She answered Gabrielle's question. "So kind of you to notice." Piercing eyes, that young one had. Wennid mused. She sees more than she knows. But not enough...poor blind humans. How could they have a link that strong and not feel it?

She shot a glance at her son, who was smirking, in a quiet way that only she recognized. Pip-squeak!! Oh well, she finally sighed. the little bugger was right. I might as well admit it and stop these silly games. "So. Now tell me the whole story. No parts left out!"

To her surprise, it was Gabrielle who cleared her throat, and started to speak. What? Ah..a bard! She gave Jessan an evil look. He hadn't mentioned that. At least, if nothing else, she'd get a new batch of stories out of this.

After his mother's curiosity had been satisfied to the fullest, Jessan escorted them to a small room in the back section of the living quarters. "I bet you guys could use some sleep." He commented, waving his hand towards the bed. "Dad's likely to stay in conference with Hectator for the rest of the day. You know, they have to test each other, make deals...the usual." He paused, then laid a hand on Xena's shoulder. "By the way, we haven't said it yet, but thank you." Jessan peered into her eyes. "If this works, it will be a first, and a milestone in the history of my people." he grinned shyly. "And yours, I expect."

Xena gave him a half smile, and shrugged slightly. "After all the trouble we went through to get you home, seemed like a bad idea to watch your village get attacked." She paused, then "but you're welcome. And yes, a bit of sleep would be appreciated. Some of us didn't get to nod off on the way to the city." This with a teasing glance at Gabrielle.

"C'mon" Gabrielle interjected, walking around to Xena's other side. "Armor" She undid one buckle, as Xena gave her an amused look.

Jessan chuckled, "Looks like you're well taken care of." His golden eyes sparkled with a hidden light just for a moment, and then he left them without a further word.

"Don't you give me that look" Gabrielle chided, working on another strap. "Even the great Xena the Peacemaker has to sleep sometimes." She undid the last buckle, and poked Xena in the arm. "So, sleep, oh great one."

Xena laughed, and knelt to remove the last of her weapons. She put the weapons and the armor together, arranging it to her satisfaction. "I think this whole thing might actually work." She glanced up at her companion, who was tapping her foot in mock aggravation. "You'd better stop that, or I'll..."

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes into slits. "or you'll....what???" She advanced menacingly. "hmm?"

"This." Xena answered, and lunged suddenly, catching Gabrielle by surprise and by the midriff, and throwing her down on the bed. "Gotcha." She compounded the indignity by tickling her, making the bard turn blue in the face in an effort not to giggle. "Threaten me, will you?" Xena growled, tickling harder, until Gabrielle burst out laughing and waved her arms in surrender. Xena grinned, and stretched out on the other side of the bed, propping her head up on her hand and watching her still giggling companion.

"Ohh." the bard finally got breath back enough to say. "Ok..ok..you win..." She rolled over to face Xena, wiping the hair out of her eyes. "Someday I'll learn not to do that." Then her eyes glinted. "Or I'll figure out where you're ticklish."

Xena raised an eyebrow, and looked like she was going to make a comment, but thought better of it. "I"m not ticklish." she stated, but her lips quirked into a slight grin. She stretched, then settled on her side to sleep, cradling her head on one arm.

Gabrielle watched her for a moment, then settled down to sleep herself, still chuckling a little. This mischievous, gentle side of her companion was one she alone got to see, she had realized some time ago. Oh, occasionally someone else would catch a glimpse, as Jessan had with the fish nibbling him, but by and large, no..what everyone else got was the very cool, and mostly grim fighter. It made her understand how far they had come in the time since they had first met, when she had spent half her time scared to death she was going to make the wrong move and get her arm chopped off for it.

Jessan woke them up after the conference had ended, though Xena was already awake by the time he entered. She was sitting up, leaning her back against the padded headboard of the bed, mending an armor strap while keeping an eye on her still sleeping companion. She raised an eyebrow at him as he entered.

"Success." Was his single short comment. He beamed at her.

Xena nodded . "Figured." she commented, reaching across her body to shake Gabrielle's nearby shoulder. "Gabrielle..." The bard blinked sleepily at her, then came wide awake and rolled over to face Jessan.

"Did it work? It did..I can tell by your face. Great.!" Gabrielle got out in one quick breath. "Wow..what a story this is going to make..." she got an introspective look, as she started planning how to put together the verbal adventure, then snapped out of it with a grin. "I can't wait to tell Iolaus. It beats his last one hands down."

"A small banquet is planned." Jessan informed them. "Hectator has sent word back to his guard that they can stand down." He grinned at Xena's rolling eyes. "Relax, it's not a formal banquet, we haven't had the time to put that together." He looked over his shoulder in mock fear. "Be thankful."

The banquet was held out of doors, around the large roasting pit on the far side of the village. There were low, wide benches set all around it to sit on, and plenty of roasted meats and even a few tubers and vegetables to go around. The village storyteller got up, and told what were, by the responses, favorite stories of the tribe.

Gabrielle absorbed it all like a sea sponge, her eyes avidly recording not only the words, but the atmosphere and the physical motions of the talented storyteller. She was unaware that she herself was being watched until Lastan spoke in his deep rumbling voice. "Ah..I understand one of our guests, who has been enjoying our stories, is herself a bard. Is this true?" He gazed at her with his deep amber eyes twinkling.

"Well.." Gabrielle hesitated. "I mean, well, sort of.."

"It's true." Xena intoned crisply, giving her a prod. "G'wan, Gabrielle. You've been asked for a command performance." She cheerfully ignored Gabrielle's look of outrage, and just gave her companion a second, more forceful poke. "Don't make me carry you up there." she grinned to take the edge off the warning.

Xena watched Gabrielle take center stage, then settled down to watch her audience watch the talented bard. And Gabrielle outdid herself. She held them spellbound with three good stories, and one epic poem. Even Xena, who knew the endings of all three stories, and had heard that poem more times than there were trees in this forest, was caught up in the telling. The forest people were genuinely smiling at her by the time she finished, and collapsed back on the low bench next to Xena.

"Nice work" Xena whispered into her ear. "Very well done"

Gabrielle blushed, but looked pleased. "Thanks. I thought it went pretty well." she whispered back. "They liked the poem."

"Of course they did. So do I." Xena replied, and was about to say more, when a low muttering caught her attention. She turned her head slightly to better catch the words of a few of the forest people, who were standing behind the roasting pit. She spotted Jessan among what seemed to be some of the younger males. The few words she had caught led her to suspect the subject of the conversation was herself, and that Jessan was the target of some rather cruel humor.

Gabrielle had caught her mood shift, and glanced over at the group. "What's up?" She peered through the smoke from the fire. "Are they having some kind of argument?" She glanced at Xena's face, which had tightened into a grim mask.

"Stay here." Xena muttered. "I can see I"m going to have to put on a command performance myself." She stood up, and stretched, then walked towards the increasing, and now louder group.

Jessan had his back to a tree, and an angry look on his face. He had both hands up, as though trying to quiet down the crowd, when he spotted Xena leaning against a nearby post, watching. So. She had heard. He let a grim little smile touch his lips. The calm, relaxed Xena all his village had seen at dinner had disappeared, and left this taut, intense, dangerous fighter in her place.

The word had gotten out via Deggis that he had been defeated by her..he knew that it would. Now all his peers were having a great time with tiresome jokes and stupid comments.

"I always knew you didn't have it in you." Ectran was chortling. He was the largest of the current group, nearly as large as Jessan himself, not nearly so tall, but with much darker fur and a heavier body. "How can you even stand up and walk across the ground of the village, you grazer." He spat on the ground in contempt. "A human! And a female! I bet I could..."

"I bet you can't." She was just...there. Jessan shivered. There, and radiating a level of menace that caused the hair to raise up on his neck in pure response. With that low silky voice carrying clearly across the now silent group as Xena confronted Ectran. "But why don't we find out" she continued, with a smile. her eyes not leaving his for an instant. She saw him swallow, hard. "What's the matter, don't have it in you?"

Ecton's breathing shifted, came faster. He reached for the sword on his back, and she stepped back a pace, to give him room to draw. As his sword cleared his scabbard, and he came for her, she sidestepped him smoothly, and let him go past. He turned, outraged, and came at her again, dipping the sword in a complex set of strokes. Xena waited until he was almost upon her, then drew her own sword and parried the strokes, deflecting his greater weight, and reaching inside his guard with quick, deft strokes that shaved the fur off his chest. They broke apart, and circled, then he stepped in and came at her with more determination, putting real power behind his blows. Xena stood her ground, meeting each stroke with a solid parry, then suddenly going on the offensive herself, finding the holes in his defenses, forcing him backward, then shifting her weight forward and the end of the series, disarming him with vicious, solid backstroke, catching his sword mid hilt and sending it arcing over their heads.

The only sound above the crackling of the fire was the longsword hitting the earth. Ecton held his wrist with his other hand, wincing with pain. He stared at Xena, who let her blade rest on her shoulder, and stood at ease, studying them.

"Want more?" Xena asked, coolly. "I'll be glad to oblige." she turned in a slow circle and surveyed the silent, wide eyed group. "Anyone?" Still silence. "No? Guess not." A slowly sheathed sword, and hands settling to rest at her belt. "Assumptions are dangerous. " Xena said softly, running her gaze over them. "But then, so am I" she finished, giving Jessan a glance and very slight wink, then stalking out of the circle of forest dwellers back towards the fire. They hastened to clear a path for her.

"I told you." Jessan sighed. "Ecton, let's go see about your wrist." He glared at the younger fighter. "You're lucky. You have no idea how lucky."

Ecton just looked at him, round eyed. "Wow." He finally stuttered. "I'm really really sorry, Jessan...I mean, a human, and a female human, and boy...wow. I"ve never had my sword hit that hard, even by your father." He rubbed his wrist, wincing, then he grinned slyly at Jessan. "I'd love to see her in action. " He glanced at the now grinning crowd. "As long as I wasn't the one she was fighting, that is." He let out a low, long whistle, then quirked an eyebrow at Jessan. "Hey...wait a minute. You went more than one round with her???"

Jessan sensed the new respect being directed at him That's three for you, Xena. I"m going to have to come up with something pretty spectacular to say thank you with. He chuckled, and steered Ecton towards the village healer. "Yeah, and boy was I scared the entire time, hoping I didn't slip." He grinned ruefully. "I would have lost a leg or something." He shivered in memory. "She is so fast..." He snapped his fingers like a whip. "It's like...it's like..." he shrugged sheepishly. "It's beautiful." He peeked up at their now admiring and somewhat envious gazes.

Gabrielle sat cross legged on the low platform, gazing at Xena as she crossed back towards her from her little demonstration. The bard watched with interest the glances that were following her companion across the center of the village. As Xena drew even with her once more, she patted the bench, and rested her chin on one hand propped on her knee.

Xena dropped onto the bench, sighing. She leaned back and glanced at Gabrielle. "So much for that. Actually, it was easier than I expected." She wrapped her arms around one knee, and gazed into the fire, seeming to find something of interest in it's glowing heart. Her eyes still had a steely glint, and tension rippled through her shoulders.

The bard waited in silence until Xena closed her eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath, and relaxed as she let it out slowly. Then she noticed Gabrielle's gaze, and tilted her head to meet it. "Dinar for your thoughts?" she asked, lightly.

"Do you really want to hear them?" Gabrielle answered, equally lightly. "I mean, a dinar's a pretty hefty price." Oh, yeah, Gab..and what if she says yes? Are you going to tell her? Better come up with something fast.

"Yeah." Xena drew out the word. "I do. That was an interesting look on your face."

Uh oh. "Uhm...that was really nice, for you to bail out Jessan that way." the bard cleared her throat. "I think you impressed his friends. " She grinned. "A lot." Gabrielle peeked at Xena's face, where there was that slight, indulgent grin and raised eyebrow looking back at her. Ok, so she doesn't buy it. But she's not going to push. I'd better just....start working on putting this story together, before my imagination runs off with me.

"Uh huh." Xena commented dryly. "Whatever you say." She watched the color creep slowly up Gabrielle's neck as she gazed at her, then laughed slightly Sometimes...she swore, she could guess exactly what Gabrielle was thinking. It was...a very strange idea. Her logical mind provided a solution - probably she was picking up subliminal body language from the bard, which would be natural considering they were around each other so much. She turned that thought over in her head for a few minutes, then put it to rest, and just stared into the fire, unseeing.

They broke bread with Lastan and Wennid the next morning, as they prepared to get back to Hectator's city. His guard had been well cared for, but Hectator was anxious to get home and stand down the troops which were probably still preparing.

"Well, this was an unexpected, but delightful two days." Hectator drawled, glancing at Xena, entering at that moment with Jessan in tow.

Xena shrugged, but smiled. "I offered you an explanation first." she commented, and sat down at the other end of the table. "It's not my fault you decided not to listen."

Hectator rubbed his still sore jaw. "Lesson for me." But he smiled at her. "I'd forgotten how hard you hit." He got a raised eyebrow in response. "I'll try to remember that next time."

Lestan watched them in some bemusement. Humans. Joking around. In his house. Impossible. He shook himself, and offered his guests mounts for the ride back. They gathered outside to take their leave - Hectator's guard, being held at the stream, was getting frantic. Hectator swung up on a beautiful roan stallion with a sweet eye, and patted his neck appreciatively. Xena mounted Argo, then, seeing Gabrielle's very pained expression on viewing her proffered mount, a pretty piebald mare, laughed, and extended an arm. "C'mon." The bard looked up at her in chagrin, but relieved. "She hates riding." she commented to Hectator, who was watching in amusement, as she pulled the bard up behind her on the patient Argo. "Argo's used to carrying double."

Jessan grasped their knees in farewell, having already administered hugs on the ground. "Take care." he cautioned. "drop back by when you get the chance."

Lestan stepped up on her other side and laid one large hand on Argo's neck. He glanced up at her thoughtfully. "As my son says, stop back by. I have a feeling we have lots of stories to exchange." He looked her in the eyes. . "Besides." He now grinned, and looked very much like his son. "All my warriors are demanding I petition you for some lessons." His and Xena's glances met, and exchanged a twinkling understanding. "Please come, when you can." Lestan finished, lifting his hand to grip hers.

Xena nodded at him. "We will." She turned Argo's head, and nudged her towards the village gate.

Gabrielle exchanged a wink with Jessan, and waved at Wennid. An extended visit, with the chance to absorb a whole new culture's stories...she grinned happily. "Now that's going to be fun." she breathed closed to Xena's ear, and was rewarded by a low chuckle from the warrior.

"Yeah." Xena agreed, guiding Argo with practiced movements. "I have a feeling it will be, and not too long from now, either."

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