Winter's Ending - Part 2

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"That looks all right?" The elder questioned, running his callused fingertips over a few words on the agreement between Amphipolis and their neighboring village. "You don't think we're giving too much away?"

Gabrielle studied the page thoughtfully. "No… you aren't using those three fields anyway, right?"

He shook his head. "No.. they've been fallow for three seasons."

"OK, then - and they'll let you have use of that whole tract of forest in return?" The bard took a sip of mulled wine from the cup in front of her, and chewed the tip of her quill. "Does that include stripping for firewood?"

Hadras nodded. "Yes.. I thought that might come in pretty handy this year."

"Looks good to me." Gabrielle smiled, taking in the nods of approval from around the table. "I think I've been through that forest a few times… doesn't it also have a mineral spring?"

Hadras glanced across the table, then back at her. "Does it? Why.. that's great news." Smiles broke out all round. "Thank you, Gabrielle." He gave a satisfied sigh. "That's all then… " Chairs scraped the floor as the councilmembers prepared to leave, an excited hum filling the air. Hadras looked back at Gabrielle. "So.. tell me. How long are we going to be blessed with your presence?"

Gabrielle took a breath, then let it out, on a gentle laugh. "I don't know.. really." She shrugged lightly. "It depends on a lot of things. Maybe through the winter, at any rate."

"Oh ho.." Hadras' eyes glinted, and he chuckled. "That's good news." He thought about that for a minute, then sighed. "Never thought I'd be saying that."

The bard glanced at the table, and traced a bit of the woodgrain with a fingertip, then looked up at him. "She's changed."

Hadras studied her quietly. "No, not really." He put hand up, to forestall her protest. "After Cortese, she became a stranger." His eyes met hers. "The person living here now is the girl I remember growing up. She hasn't changed, she's just come home."

Gabrielle smiled. "You know, I thought so." She laughed a little. "I wish we'd known each other as kids."

Hadras stood, and stretched his stiffened back with a groan. "Ah, Gabrielle.. " He rested a hand on her shoulder. "That would have changed the world." He patted her back, and left, leaving her to reflect quietly on his words.

Changed the world. Her mind turned that thought over, as she leaned on her elbows, and laced her fingers together. I wonder… it sure would have changed my world. She sighed. What would I have become, if I'd had this unconditional support all my life? Would she have gone down that dark path? She pushed herself to her feet and started for the door, still deep in thought. Do I even know we would have been friends?

She thought about that, as she walked across the courtyard agreeably surprised by the continued decent weather. As her boots hit their walk, she decided that yes, they would have been. She could feel it, had felt it the second they'd looked into each other's eyes for the first time and she'd felt.. something. A connection.. as though they'd been friends all along. Right off. And she'd always felt that, even in the worst of times… a gentle tugging on her heart that had somehow gotten her through all the tough times, and the lonely ones. And had brought her here, at last, to this time and this place, and the two of them as they were.

She smiled to herself, and ducked inside, to grasp her staff, change into her practice tunic, and head back towards the inn, where lunch was waiting, and staff practice afterwards.

"Hi mom." She called, as she stuck her head in the kitchen on the way in. "Wow.. that smells great."

"Gabrielle.. get in here." Cyrene laughed, motioning her forwards. "But leave that stick outside."

This got a grin from the bard, who carefully stowed her staff in an unused corner, and moved into the steamy kitchen, where there was a lovely smell coming from whatever it was Cyrene was cooking over the big main fire. As she approached, the innkeeper dipped a portion into a bowl, and handed it to her. "Here… sit. You wanted to hear stories about my daughter as a child, right?" She exchanged grins with Johan, who was seated at the small table, resting his chin on his calloused hands.

Gabrielle grinned fiercely, and took a seat, digging into the bowl of meat and vegetables with enthusiasm. "You bet." She agreed, accepting a thick slice of buttered bread Cyrene handed her. "Thanks." She bit into the slice, and sighed, chewing and swallowing before commenting "Mom, you're going to be my downfall, you know that, right?" She held up the bread and patted her stomach "You're spoiling me pretty bad."

"Nonsense." Cyrene snorted. "With all the energy you put out, you need every bite, so don't give me that." She waved a spoon at her. "I have the same problem with my daughter. Can't feed her enough to keep anything on those bones."

The bard laughed, waving the bread back at her. "Ok.. I surrender." She resumed chewing. "Now.. what's this about a story?"

Johan muffled a chuckled. "Ye're not going to tell her about Sparky then, are you?"

Cyrene grinned.

Gabrielle swallowed her mouthful and glanced from one to the other. "Sparky?"

"Oh.. I'm leaving then." Johan stood and brushed his tunic off. "I"ll not be a party to this. I don't want that one mad at ME." He hurried out, shaking his head.

They looked at each other. "Will she be mad?" Gabrielle asked quietly. "I don’t need to know it then." I’m past that.. I think.

"No." Cyrene responded, just as quietly. "Not if it's you." She smiled. "I don’t think there's anything she'd mind you knowing, is there?"

Gabrielle smiled a little, and glanced down at her bowl, then took a breath and looked back up. "I don't know. I hope not." Then she laughed a little. "For sure not something about when she was a kid.. I've heard.. a lot of stuff about later on."

Cyrene nodded, and slipped more stew into her bowl. "She was quite a.. "

"Handful?" Gabrielle hazarded, with a twinkle.

"Well, yes." The innkeeper admitted, with a chuckle. "Very active, and stubborn."

"Some things just don't change." The bard giggled, biting a piece of carrot in two and chewing it.

They exchanged amused grins. "But she always defended those who needed it.. maybe that's why I was so..dissapointed when she..." Cyrene sat down, and picked a bit of meat from the bubbling pot and chewed on it. "She's told you about Digger?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No.. "

Cyrene looked startled. "Oh.. well, since she told you about her being… well. The reason she was at the quarry that day was because some of the local lads were chasing a puppy with rocks, you know. And my Xena… " The woman sighed in remembrance. "Chased them off, then chased off after that puppy. She caught him on the edge of the quarry, and one of those kids took the opportunity to play what they thought was a joke." She chuckled a little. "Held onto that thing the whole time she was trapped, and wouldn't let me get rid of him after." She glanced up at Gabrielle, who had stopped eating, and was just looking at her. "Poor thing. A trader's cart ran him down a few years later. I thought… well, anyway." She paused. "Gabrielle?"

The bard put the bowl down, and rested her elbows on her knees. "That fits." She said quietly. "She didn’t get out of the way of that damned landslide because she stopped to rescue Ares."

"Some things just really don't change." Cyrene mused. "Anyway, she was always bringing animals home. Saving them, finding them, you name it." She got up and poured a glass of milk, the walked over and handed it to the bard. "Here." She paused, "Gabrielle?"

The bard shook herself a little, and straightened up. "Sorry." She took the glass and swallowed half it's contents. "Sorry.. I just.. " Was remembering that day. The pain of those first few minutes..when I didn't know.. oh gods.

Cyrene studied her. Now..I know.. I think.. why Xena came back here. She didn't want to do that again to this poor lass. She always was protecting the little ones. "Don't think of it, Gabrielle. It's over." Maybe for good.. maybe my headstrong daughter has finally come to her senses. She gave the bard a gentle rub on the back.

"I know." Gabrielle made an obvious effort, taking several deep breaths, and forcing a smile to her face. "I’m all right." She picked up her bowl again, and started eating. "What was this about a Sparky?"

Xena had been seven, and her world had consisted mostly of the inn and it's courtyard, where she and Toris and Lyceus would play all day, sometimes under the tables, mostly around the stables. Lyceus was just a toddler, and tagged around with his older sister because the older Toris would have little to do with him.

Cyrene had raised chickens for eggs, and for the odd old hen for a long stewed pot. Her favorite rooster was Sparky, who was the king of the stableyard, bossing the chickens and smaller animals around with equal abandon.

That included her children, who lived in terror of the feisty rooster's sharp beak, and stinging claws, and especially Digger, Xena's scruffy terrier, who had gotten into a tussle with the black rooster and bitten off one of his fighting claws.

"Then one morning." Cyrene explained to the bard, slipping more stew into her bowl as she sat entranced. "I didn't hear Sparky crow." She smiled as Gabrielle started eating without paying attention to what she was doing. "So I crept downstairs, to where he liked to sleep, on the bench in the inn. And what do I see?"

"What?" The bard asked, wild with curiosity.

"I see Sparky, with his little eyes bugging out, flapping on the bench, and a little hand wrapped around his neck."

"Oh gods." Gabrielle giggled. "Let me guess."

"Oh yes." Cyrene laughed. "There she was, lying down, comfortable as you please, with her head propped up on one hand, and her other one holding down Sparky. "

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and bit her lip, a very vivid picture of her partner in miniature forming in her mind. Bet she had that same little quirky grin, even then.

"Well, I yelled, and she let him loose, and don't you know that rooster chased her all over the inn?"

"Really?" The bard gasped.

"Oh yeah, pecked her right on the butt, he did, Should have heard her yelling." Cyrene chuckled. "Then he chased her out side, and right into the barn."

"Oh no.." Gabrielle's eyes widened, thinking of Xena, cornered by a rabid rooster.

"Oh yes… " Cyrene nodded vigorously. "There he was, pacing back and forth in front of the door, strutting his feathers, proud as he could be.:"

"And.. what happened?" Gabrielle asked, still giggling.

Cyrene sighed. "Well, next thing I know, the door to the stable bursts open, and our biggest plow horse came charging out, and ran the poor rooster right out of the yard, yelling his head off. With my daughter on the horse's back, of course. "

Gabrielle burst out into gales of laughter. "Oh.. that's Xena all right." Yep.. that's my partner, through and through. "She's always got something up her sleeve." She took a deep breath. "She just hates losing."

"Yes, that I know." Cyrene sighed, still chuckling. "And my gods, could she ride.. even as a child, no horse was off limits to her.. she was so strong, and so without fear… it frightened me sometimes."

"That hasn't changed either." Gabrielle said softly. "Did she have many friends? I know she talks about Lyceus, but…"

Cyrene shook her head. "No.. she was too wild for the girls, and we didn’t have that many anyway, and the boys.. well, goodness… she was forever beating them up. They couldn't take that." She sat down and rested her elbows on her knees. "No, Lyceus was her best friend. He used to follow her everywhere. They were very close." She studied her hands. "When he died.. something in her died too. I… saw it happen, and it almost killed me." Now her eyes found Gabrielle's "I never thought I'd see that side of her again, until she met you."

Gabrielle felt a lump rising in her throat. It was one thing to think you might have made a difference in someone's life. It was quite another thing to be told point blank. "It's a mutual thing, mom. I don't.. like to think about who I'd be.. where I'd be.. without her."

Cyrene rose, and crossed over to her, and put a hand on her chin. "Take care of yourself, Gabrielle. For her sake." The innkeeper's eyes were shadowed. "I fear for her if she ever loses you."

The bard took several breaths before she could answer. "No chance." She bit the inside of her lip hard. "We've got this… deal.. with each other." She stopped, and breathed again. "Where she goes, I go."

Cyrene stared at her for an endless moment, comprehension dawning in her eyes. "But Gabrielle…"

The bard stood, and put her arms around Cyrene. "I know." She whispered in her ear. "But that 's my choice."

They stood hugging each other for a minute, then Gabrielle sighed. "I gotta go do staff practice." She sniffed a little. "They're expecting me."

The innkeeper patted her back, and nodded. "Go on then. Here I was, supposed to be telling you a funny story, and look where we ended up."

Gabrielle smiled. "It was a funny story, and I'm going to have a wonderful time teasing Xena with it. Thanks for telling me."

"Anytime, cutie." Cyrene pinched her cheek lightly. "But don't you be telling that one in the tavern, OK? Or I'll be the one being chased around the stableyard."

The bard laughed. "Oh no.. no no.. that would be a bad idea. Very bad." She turned, then bit her lip. Bad bard. Baaaad bard. No you will NOT tell that story. Nope. Not even to Ephiny. She waved goodbye, and strode through the door. Well.. maybe to Ephiny. Maybe. But not until after Xena gets her for that war horse comment. "Cock a doodle doo.. " She muttered under her breath, drawing a startled stare from Johan.

The girls all looked at her once Ephiny and Cait had ridden off, obviously not knowing what to expect. Xena peered back, not sure herself what to do with them. She observed that the camp had been packed up, but that they'd been in the middle of preparing dinner. "Have you all eaten yet?" She asked cautiously.

They hadn't expected that question. "Ummm.. .. no." Sharra finally said, after glancing at each of her compatriots.

"All right. Do it quick." Xena replied in a no nonsense tone, and quirked an eyebrow at them. She didn't really want to waste the time, but… if they don’t eat, they're not going to make it to Amphipolis. She considered. And besides, it gives me more of a chance to dry out.

"Do you want some?" Lista asked softly, creeping a little closer to her and holding out some of the roast rabbit cautiously.

Wonder what they'd do if I said I only ate mine raw? Xena amused herself with the thought. "No thanks." She let a half smile quirk her lips. "I've got some packed here." Yeah, thanks Gabrielle. You little sneak. Her smile got wider as she unpacked the wrapped bundle in her rucksack, two pocket sandwiches, stuffed with all the things she liked. A gentle look crossed her face, when she realized part of the wrapping was parchment, and had writing on it. Carefully, she unwrapped it, and spread the writing out on her knee, munching the sandwich with one hand, and reading in silence.

Hey (it said.)

Hope you don't mind that I packed you a lunch. I know you could catch something, because you always do, but I thought a snack might come in handy, and you don't even have to skin it.

Besides, it makes me feel better knowing you'll get out there, and find this, and know someone thought of you. That's dumb, right? But I don't care.

Be careful, OK? And try not to get wet. You know what a lousy patient you make. I guess I should stop rambling now, and just let you get on with it.

Funny.. here I am writing this, and you're not even gone yet, and I'm already missing you. I think I must be in love or something.

Keep an eye on Ares - don't let him dig up any more deer skulls, ok? Three is enough.

Let's see.. was there anything else… oh yeah.

I stand outside at night, and look to the stars above,

And in the moonless dark, when all I see is a diamond's scattering

Of lights, and shooting darts, and the patterns in the sky

I wonder then, how it is that all the fiery portraits painted by the gods

Can't stir my heart as does the barest touch of your eyes and mine.

There.. does that win a sappy award? You can roll your eyes at me later.


Thinking of you.


Xena read the note a few times, letting her eyes linger over the firm quill strokes with a sense of quiet happiness. Leave it to Gabrielle. So casual, so matter of fact, and every word touched a chord with unerring accuracy. She sighed contentedly, and carefully folded up the note, tucking it inside her pack, then looking up.

Seeing four pairs of very curious eyes watching her every move. Oh… Ares' balls. She realized. What goofy kind of look must I have on my damned face. "Everyone ready?" She managed to keep the no nonsense tone in her voice.

Eyes flicked to each other, and four heads bobbed. "Good. Get your stuff." Xena rose smoothly to her feet, and slung the pack over her shoulders, fastening the straps to hold it out of her way in case she needed to use her sword.

Sharra poked Megan. "She's pretty even when she's drenched, huh?"

The dark haired girl giggled. "Too right." She pulled Sharra's head down close. "You think the note's from the Queen?"

Sharra snorted. "Like.. who else would it be from? Did you see that smile? "

"Ooo.. did I ever." Megan breathed. "Shhh.. Eponin says she can hear like anything.. keep it down."

Xena sighed, and focused her thoughts on the weather, the sky, the damp ground, putting the fire out.. anything to distract her from the soft blush creeping up her neck. Sometimes, I wish I could just turn that wonderful hearing right off. Just.. bap. Like that. "All right, let's go." She motioned them to move ahead of her, and checked one last time to make sure the fire was securely out.

They passed through the forest in silence, Xena ranging from lead to rearguard, flickering around the girls with a deft skill that sent chills down their spines. At one point, she paused, and held up her hand.

In the dark silence of the forest, where the wind moved the leaves overhead with a gentle rustle, and the occasional patter of falling dead ones tickled their senses they stood, waiting, watching the barely seen profile of the warrior turned into the wind, nostrils slightly flared. Ares crouched at her feet, growling.

It came to them in a chill, a dull cough that echoed eerily. They saw Xena's body stiffen, one hand going to her sword hilt, the other motioning them back against a thick tree trunk.

The dim pattern of moonlight hit the trail they were on, and slowly, as though revealing a statue, they saw the inky outline of a large panther crouched and waiting, tail a twitch. Yellow eyes bearing down on them like candles in a dark room.

The snake's whisper of steel on leather, and the moonlight's sharded reflection off a blade that shifted and whirled in Xena's hand, as she lifted her arm, and waited, weapon in attack position, her eyes matching the panther's

Yellow eyes glaring into blue, a dinars flip for which was the wilder, the more feral. Two hunters meeting on a path on a dark night. Then a low guttural growl, as Ares rose out of his own crouch, and his thick ruff lifted, outlining his almost adult sized head. And that made it three hunters.

A moment's deadlocked silence, then the panther flicked its tail, and bowed to good sense, and left the trail in a whisk of black fur and gleaming eyes.

"Easy boy." Xena said quietly to the still growling Ares. "I know you don't like em." She dropped a hand to the wolf's head, and scratched his ears. "Easy now."

"Wow…" Sharra breathed, edging away from the tree and towards Xena. "That was awesome." She looked nervously at Ares. "You guys bluffed it down!"

Xena crouched down slightly so that she was on eye level with the girl, and let her feel the full intensity of her gaze. "I don't bluff." She said quietly. "And neither does he. His family was killed by one of those."

Sharra stared at her, speechless.

"Come on. We're losing time." The warrior motioned them to go on.

Cait struggled to keep Argo on the track, her arms aching from the long hours of riding, supporting Ephiny's weight against the tall mare's neck. The moon above told her it was close to midnight, and as she looked around her heart suddenly lightened.

Rough forest gave way to long familiar fields. She was almost home, and she could almost feel the eyes catching sight of her as she passed what she knew was the first hidden sentry point on the far outskirts of Amphipolis. "Hang in there, OK?" She leaned over Ephiny's still form. "We're close to help." The cold wind cut her to the bone, and she huddled deeper in the saddle, wishing Argo the speed of the gods.

A call rang up, kestrel's cry, and one she could echo and did, and heard it relayed on before her. Need help.. was that one. And now Argo sensed home, and she felt the mare's body respond, quickening her pace as they hit the road that led into the village.

Torches guttered in the wind, and a crowd was gathering in the central courtyard, and eager hands were reaching for the snorting Argo's bridle as Cait pulled her to a halt near the inn. "Have someone near drowned here." She gasped, seeing Johan's worried face. "Need help.. get her inside."

Hands grabbed Ephiny's body, and Cait stood in the stirrups, searching for and finding her quarry. She half slid, half fell off Argo's tall shoulders, and shoved her way heedlessly through the crowd, until she met Gabrielle's tense form, moving towards her halfway through. "It's all right." She said, the instant she was in the bard's hearing, and saw the awful tension in that silent form relax.

"What happened" Gabrielle grabbed her shoulders, glancing over to the form being carried towards her. "Ephiny???" I knew I would have known if it was.. but where…."Where's Xena?"

Cait nodded. "Ephiny fell in the river.. all iced up.. we thought.. and then Xena was there, she broke the ice and saved her. But she was coming on with the head sickness, and Xena said she had to get here… and there were still four of us out there. Xena's bringing them in. "

"Is she.." The bard's voice shook for a minute. "Right.. ok… let's get her inside."

It had been some of the longest candlemarks of her life, between the stark message of Argo's approach, with the nervous news of Xena's absence, until Cait's determined form reached her in the crowd. In her heart, she knew she would have known if something.. bad.. had happened to her partner, but.. it was hard to get her brain to understand that in the middle of a cold night, when she didn't really know what was going on.

She followed Johan and several helpers, who were carrying the Amazon into the inn, as Cyrene held the door. "Into the small back room on this floor." The innkeeper ordered, motioning them with a hand. "Jezzia, get a pot of water on the boil, this girl needs something hot." She put an arm around Cait. "And I'm sure we could all use something too." This was for Gabrielle's benefit, and the bard gave her a quick smile of acknowledgment.

Johan and his crew laid Ephiny down on the sturdy cot in the room Cyrene had indicated, and stepped back, allowing the innkeeper and Gabrielle to move in close.

"Ahh.. damn." Cyrene cursed softly, putting a hand on the Amazon's head. "She's taken a fever." She looked up. "Xena was right to get her here." Her face grew concerned. "But I've no skill in healing.. and Bentas is in the next village."

Gabrielle pushed Ephiny's blond curls back off her head, and sighed at the paleness of her face, hearing the rasping of her breathing. "We need Xena here." She looked up at Cyrene. "She knows what to do for this." She thought a moment, then looked over her shoulder. "Cait?"

"Yes?' The blond girl slid in, and knelt at Gabrielle's side, resting a hand on her arm.

"Which route did they take?" The bard's green eyes fastened on Cait's thin face intently.

"The mountain path, then the riverside one." Cait responded. "She said to tell you that." Like she knew you would ask..

"Right." Gabrielle said, standing and running her fingers through her hair to settle it. "I'm going to meet them half way. "

Cyrene popped up to a standing posture explosively. "Gabrielle! Good gods, girl - we can send people for them. You don’t have to go." What excuse are you going to come up with to justify the need in your eyes to go to her? I can almost feel it, it's that strong.

Gabrielle straightened, and gazed at Ephiny's quiet form. "Right now, I’m ruling the Amazons, mom." She let her eyes raise up to meet Cyrene's. "Those people out there are my responsibility." But she smiled a little. "I don’t mind an escort, though." She saw the look in Cyrene's eyes, and closed her own in acknowledgment. I can't stay away.. I can't, mom.

"I'll go." Came Toris' distinctive voice from the doorway.

They both looked up, surprised. He had been out on a parleying trip up north. Had just gotten back, if his travel-stained garb was any indication. But his face was set, and his eyes were intent, and Gabrielle could, just for an instant, see a flash of something very familiar there. It almost brought a smile to her face. Sometimes.. sometimes, Toris, the blood does run true in you, doesn’t' it? "Thanks." She acknowledged. "Come on.. if I know your sister, she's probably scared those poor kids out of a few years growth by now."

"Hold up." Xena said quietly, knowing her voice would carry to the front of their little group. She'd spotted Megan's second stumble in as many minutes, and knew they needed to take a break. "Let's rest a minute."

Four small forms collapsed to the ground, looking at her with wide, grateful eyes. Xena paced to the front of the line, and selected a tree, dropping to a crouch, then sitting cross legged in front of it. Gods.. it's cold out. Her mind sighed, feeling the icy fingers of air stiffen her slowly drying leathers. Cold was something she could usually ignore, but this.. was getting to her, making her body shiver in reflex, and causing her muscles to cramp with increasing discomfort.

She let her head lean back against the tree, and focused her thoughts on warmth, picturing the fire in their cabin, and Gabrielle's body wrapped comfortingly around her own. It drove the chill back for the moment, and she let herself linger in a foggy daze until her conscience pricked her, and the knowledge of Ephiny's sure distress made her stir, and glance over at her charges.

"Look... I know this isn't easy." She said quietly, as their eyes fastened on her. "But you know we need to get back there, so I can help Ephiny, right?" She let her hand rest on Ares' head, where the wolf was curled up against her thigh. The warmth of his fur felt good against her fingers, and she wished briefly that she'd remembered to bring her heavy cloak.

Nodding heads answered her. "But... it's just that it's so cold, my chest hurts when I breath." Lista timidly explained. "And you walk ever so fast."

Xena sighed inwardly. "Yeah, I know I do." She studied each of them in turn. "But you guys are doing fine."

Sharra inched forward, twisting her hands. "Will Queen Ephiny be all right?"

"How long will it take us to get there?" Lista chimed in.

"What if someone attacks us?" Elianas added, with a grim look.

"I hope so." Xena replied to Sharra. "Depends." That was to Lista. And an eyebrow answered Elianas. "We might not have to walk the whole way."

Megan wriggled forward. "How come?"

Xena grudgingly allowed a grin to quirk across her lips. "Well.. let's just say I have a feeling you'll be seeing another queen of yours pretty soon."

Eyes glanced at each other. "Queen Gabrielle will come out here all by herself?" Megan's eyes grew round. "She's so brave."

That got a real smile from the warrior. "Yes, she is. But I think she'll probably bring a friend or two." Well, this is easier than I thought. "She knows we need to hurry."

"Do you really just travel around together, all over the place?" Elianas asked, leaning forward.

Xena nodded, trying not to smile. "Sure we do."

"You're not scared?" Lista squeaked, to be hit by Sharra immediately.

"Stupid! That's Xena!" Sharra looked at her. "You're not scared of anything are you?"

The blue eyes twinkled. "Only one thing."

Four pairs of eyes widened as if on command. "What?" Megan breathed.

"Queen Gabrielle's temper, if she finds out I've been out in this weather all night with wet clothes on." Xena drawled, lifting herself to her feet, and stretching. "So let's get moving." And she'll be right, because I think I'm gonna pay for this one... She felt a subtle ache in her bones that usually meant nothing good, and sighed inwardly.

They all giggled, and the tension relaxed, the girls now feeling more comfortable with their intimidating shepherd. Now they spoke softly to each other, occasionally directing a question to the silently pacing Xena, shadowed by the equally silent Ares.

"How come you named your dog Ares?" Sharra asked, matching strides with the warrior.

Xena glanced down, and sighed. Boy.. and was that ever the stupidest thing I've done. "Well.. he kind of... " She paused. "I don't know.. he fights all the time, I guess." She finally temporized. "And he's a wolf, not a dog." Easy now, Xena. Remember when Gabrielle first showed up? One thousand questions in one thousand quarter candlemarks? They're just kids.

"Oh." Sharra said, gazing at the trotting Ares. "Where'd you find him?"

Ephiny, you're going to get smacked for this. Xena wrestled her patience into place with difficulty. " His mother was killed by a panther." She answered briefly. "And then he sort of found me."

"Wow." Now Lista had come up on the other side. "So what happened to the panther?"

Xena considered the question. What the Hades. They're Amazons, right? "I strangled it." She muttered.

For small jaws dropped. "No!" Sharra squealed. "Really?"

"Yeah." Xena assured them. "Really."

The all walked along in silence for a minute and Xena thought she might be off the hook, but then she felt a small hand slip in to hers, and she looked down to see Sharra grinning up at her. "Cait was telling us about the rescue at the Centaur Village."

Oh no. Oh.. boy... "She was, huh?" Xena kept her voice neutral. How do I get myself into these things? She let her glance flash ahead, to where the trees were thinning, as the ground sloped down towards the river basin that lead home. "Well, she was there."

"Did you really fly?" Sharra asked, with a twinkle in her eyes. "That's how Cait described it."

Xena glanced up at the stars briefly and sighed. Gabrielle.. where are you when I need you? "Not exactly." The warrior replied shortly. "There was a rise, and I just jumped off it." Fly? Gods.. is that what she thought she saw? Give me a break.

"But you caught the arrow." Megan added, now slipping up on her other side like a worrying ferret.

"Well, yeah. I did do that." Xena allowed, with a slight shrug.

"It could have hit you." Megan persisted, a warm little grin on her face.

"I guess." Xena admitted. "Didn't matter, so long as it didn't hit... " And realized what she was saying a moment too late. "Well, I couldn't let your queen get hurt, right?"

They all stayed silent for a minute, and Xena almost had herself convinced she'd dodged a crossbow bolt when Megan took hold of her other hand and looked up at her, with all the wondering adoration of a child.

"You would have died for her, wouldn't you?" The girl asked, staring up at Xena's shadowed face in awe.

Time stopped for a long instant. Four eyes fastened on her, and Xena knew she was going to have to answer the question. Well.. she didn't have to.. but... there wasn't any real reason not to, because the truth was pretty evident, even to these wide eyed kids. "Yeah." The warrior finally acknowledged. A thousand times over.

"Oh.. wow." Sharra sighed deeply. "That is so awesome. Gabrielle was right.. she said living with you was like living in a fairy tale."

"What?" Xena laughed, glad the darkness neatly covered the powerful blush she felt warming her skin. A fairy tale??? Oh yeah.. right. A nightmare, more like it.

"She said... I mean, someone asked her what it was like, you know?" Sharra chattered on. "When she stayed with us that last time." The girl smiled shyly up at Xena. "And she said it was like living in a fairy tale, with her own private hero. "

Gabrielle... I'm gonna kill you. "I think she was exaggerating a little." Xena shrugged that off with a light chuckle. "We mostly spend a lot of time sleeping on the ground, and getting involved in other people's problems." She glanced down. "Right Ares?"

"Roo!!!" The wolf muttered, pacing at her side. "Grrr."

They all giggled. "Bet she didn't." Megan dared, giving Xena a little mischievous look. "Exaggerate, I mean."

Xena gave her a look, complete with raised eyebrow, but it had little effect. "Well, she did. We have a really tough life most of the time. Don't go getting any romantic ideas."

Four bright smiles, and four sets of sparkling eyes. Xena cursed silently to herself. Ephiny... oh brother am I gonna get you for this. You owe me big time, Amazon.

They broke out into the open, and now the cold moonlight showed then the floodplain, stretching towards the wide ribbon of river that separated them from the dimly seen road. It has been getting steadily colder, now they all breathed plumes of vapor in the air, and the girls kept covering their mouths and noses with one hand. It was well past midnight, and even Xena was beginning to feel a little tired. Hades.. all this winter inactivity isn't doing my stamina any favors, is it. She mused disgustedly to herself, then cocked her head slightly. "Stay here." She said to the girls, and left the trail, heading towards a tall outcropping.

Three steps away, she dropped into a crouch, then sprung up, catching the edge of the outcropping, and pulling herself up, to stand and look out over the flood plain, obviously searching for something.

"Oh..I think I'm in love." Sharra swooned, rolling her eyes. "Is she just it, or what?"

Megan sighed. "I'm right there with you." She sighed dramatically. "She would have died for her.. is that the most romantic thing you've ever heard?"

Elanas leaned in. "And you wanted to know why Queen Gabrielle would rather live with her?? How stupid a question was that?" She giggled. "What would you give to trade places with her for a day?"

Lista sniggered. "A day? I'd be happy with a few candlemarks."

They all giggled, and watched Xena nod to herself, then turn back towards them. "Oh.. check this out.' Megan whispered. "I bet she just jumps off that ledge like it's a porch step."

They held their breaths as the warrior stepped casually off into space, kicking out from the rock, and letting her body lean into a lazy flip that ended her up neatly on her feet.

"Oh.. my gods... that was too cool." Sharra whispered. "How does she do that?"

The warrior loped over, and motioned then to keep going. "Looks like we've got company coming." She informed them with a slight grin. She herded them around the corner of the rock escarpment, and pointed out across the plain, where tiny specks could be barely seen on the moonlit horizon.

"Is that Queen Gabrielle?" Sharra asked, bouncing a little on her toes.

Without thinking, Xena nodded. "Yep." She started to head down the path, when she realized they were all staring at her. "What?"

Megan crept closer. "How do you know that?" She peered past Xena's tall shoulder into the misty distance.

Xena smiled to herself. "I have many skills." She pronounced with satisfaction. "You'll just have to take my word for it."

"Easy boy." Gabrielle patted the horse's restive neck gingerly. "Nice horsie." She felt the animal move under her uneasily, and she sighed. "Let's go, before he gets any ideas, OK?" She remarked to Toris, who was settling his kit, and arranging the reins on the two smaller horses that were riderless. "Toris?"

"Hmm? Oh.. right. Ok." The tall dark haired man agreed, nudging his horse forward. "Let's go."

The bard wrapped her cloak more tightly around her, trying to block out the damp cold air. Y'know, Gabrielle, mom was right. You could have sent someone else out here with a couple of horses. You didn't have to do this yourself. You could be comfortably warm and snug in the inn, slugging down hot soup, and keeping an eye on Ephiny.

She looked out over the misty road, and laughed at herself. But no. This is Xena that's involved, so you have to go out on this damp and nasty night just to make sure she can find her way home all right. Right? Wouldn't have ANYTHING to do with the fact that the woman's been gone less than a day, and you miss her so bad you can't do anything but think about it, right? Nah.

She let her body relax into the horses' motion as much as possible, and shook her head. Oh.. Gabrielle. Do you ever have it bad.. but I guess I can use the excuse that there's no way I'll miss them on the road. Someone else might.. but we could find each other in the dark, in the middle of Tartarus withuot a problem these days. Yeah, that's a good excuse... that's what I'll tell her. "Xena," I"ll say, "I just wanted to make sure you got back as fast as possible, to help poor Ephiny, and I knew I"d be able to find you." Right?

"Gabrielle?" Toris' amused voice floated back to her.

"Huh?" She looked up, to see him half turned on his horse, giving her a strange look.

"What are you mumbling and nodding for?"

"Uh... working on a story.. you know how that is.. we bards have to just practice and practice." Gabrielle answered, glad the darkness covered her blushing.

"Oh." Toris gave her a brisk nod, and turned around. "I hadn't thought about that."

Gabrielle muffled a giggle. Right and then she'll say "Gabrielle, you shouldn't have come out here in this cold." Cause she worries about that a lot.. and I'll say. "Look who's talking, and here's your heavy cloak you forgot to pack this morning." She smoothed the fabric riding across her horse's withers, warming her thighs with it's weight. And she'll give me that look, and then she'll just reach out a hand and touch my cheek, or my shoulder, and I'll throw away the excuses, and admit I just wanted to be near her. That I have this little hollow spot inside me when we're apart that just.. misses her. That wants to see her, and hear her voice, and feel her touch. Scary sometimes, to need something as much as I need that.

The ride was fairly uneventful, down the long road out of the town, and across the fields, hours of riding in relative silence under a full moon, that cast eerie shadows across the colorless stubble in the fields, and outlined the wintering sparse trees in stark emptiness. It got colder as they rode, and Gabrielle tucked her hands, with the reins, inside her cloak, trying to keep them warm. She nudged her mount with a knee, and brought her horse alongside Toris', as they both rode at a rolling canter. "It's so quiet." She remarked, the sounds of their hoofbeats echoing across the landscape.

Toris nodded, and gestured with a jerk of his head. "We'll cross the river there" He glanced up. "Not long for dawn, now."

"Good." The bard chattered. "The sun would be nice."

They went out of their way to cross at a bridge, not wanting to ford the river in this cold, and started up the long, sloping plain that led up to the highlands path into the mountains. Halfway across, Gabrielle felt a smile slip onto her face, and she leaned forward, eyes searching the horizon.

"What?" Toris said, seeing her move. He looked forward, but saw nothing, and glanced back at her. "Do you see something?"

"No." Gabrielle laughed, still looking. Another few minutes of riding, and then she stood unsteadily in her stirrups, and spotted the faintest hint of motion in the distance. "There." She decided not to let go of the saddle to point, but gestured with her head.

Toris also stood, and peered. "Where? I don't see anything." He kept looking. "Oh.. wait. Yeah, I see." He turned and smiled. "Some eyes you got there, Gabrielle."

"Yeah." The bard replied softly. She urged the horse ahead, and heard Toris cluck to his mount to join her, the riderless horses following obediently behind.

The specks grew larger, and now Gabrielle could make out her partner's dark head, and the four smaller forms that were clustered around her like chicks. They continued moving closer, and she could see the half grin on Xena's face, and the blue eyes that swept up and captured hers for a wonderfully long instant.

"Hey." The warrior called, slowing to a halt, and putting her hands on her hips. "Funny meeting you two out here."

Gabrielle kneed her mount forward until she was right up next to her partner, and swung one leg over the horse's withers.

Xena stepped forward and caught her as she slid down, cushioning her fall, and gently setting her on her feet. "What are you doing out here in this weather?"

The bard pulled the cloak down off the horses neck. "Looking for you." She shook out the cloth and stretched up, settling it around Xena's shoulders. "You forgot this." She fastened the neck clasp, and her fingers brushed Xena's collarbone, and froze, as she touched the cold leathers edging out from under her tunic. "Xena." Her voice sharpened, as she felt the chilled flesh underneath. "Don't tell me you wore those all night after jumping in that icy river."

Xena felt a half smile edging her face, and she shot a glance at the avidly watching girls, who giggled. "Told you." She remarked to them, then faced the bard's stern look. "Wasn't sure what we were going to face out here.. didn't want to just have cloth on. Just in case."

Gabrielle expelled a breath, and looked at the girls. "Hi there. Who've we got here?"

Sharra stepped forward shyly. "I'm Sharra, and this is Megan, and Lista, and Elanas."

"I see you already know Gabrielle." Xena said with a grin. "And this, " She pulled the reluctant Toris forward. "is my brother Toris."

"Hi." Toris said, then he laid a hand on Xena's arm. "You all right?" His eyes searched hers, intently.

"Fine." The warrior said. "Let's get going." Carefully not asking about Ephiny until they'd gotten the girls mounted on the spare horses, and she and Gabrielle were standing next to Gabrielle's mount. "How's Eph?" She asked in a low voice, letting her hands settle on Gabrielle's waist.

"Not good." The bard answered softly, then lifted a hand and put the back of it against Xena's forehead. "And why do I have a feeling I'm going to have to worry about both of you?" Damn, Xena… that was really dumb. I know you wanted to make sure you were protected, but… She let the hand drop and rest on the warrior's chest, then tugged her heavy cloak closed and fiddled with the neck clasp again.

The warrior sighed. "Yeah. I know. I'll fight it off, though. Eph was coming down with something before she went in, and she got a lungful of water, I had to pump it out of her." She tried to ignore the chill that was sending shivers through her, glad for the thick covering. "Thanks for bringing this." She patted the cloak.

"Gods, Xena." Gabrielle whispered. "You saved her life. Thank you." Out of sight as they were behind the chestnut, she let herself fall forward and rest gently against Xena's body for a long moment. "I mean that."

That got her a gentle smile. "Glad I was there." She looked up, noting that Toris now had the girls settled and ready to go. "Come on... we've got a long ride back yet." She gathered up ebbing energies, and vaulted up into the saddle of the tall chestnut, then reached down an arm for the bard.

"Thanks." Gabrielle said, as she was lifted up, and settled herself snugly against her partner, wrapping both arms around her and squeezing. "C'mon hero. Let's go home."

"Shh." Xena joked, directing the suddenly completely cooperative horse forward. "Don't spread that around, OK? I had enough problems with this bunch."

"Really?" Now the bard's interest was perked. "Like how?"

"Never mind." Xena muttered, nudging the animal to a faster pace.

"Oh.. no no no..." Came the laughter tinged reply. "Don't give me that stoic routine.. out with it."

"Gabrielle..." On a long sigh. "Later, OK?"

The bard considered the cloth covered back under her cheek and relented. "All right." She edged closer, and wrapped the ends of Xena's cloak around the warrior's body. "Later." They rode on in silence.

The sun was well up by the time they rode into the courtyard, and pulled up in front of the inn where Cyrene and Johan were standing and waiting. Xena pulled the chestnut up, and swung her leg up over the horse's neck, sliding down and turning so her cloak swirled and settled neatly about her.

Gabrielle gazed down, blinking the sleep out of her eyes and regarded her partner with a fond smile. "Know something?"

"Hmm?" Xena responded, laying a hand on her thigh.

"You're the only person I've ever known who could get off a horse in a cloak and make it look graceful." The bard observed. "Everyone else looks like they're trying to dance in a turnip sack."

That got a weary laugh from her partner. "If you say so." Xena turned to greet the approaching Cyrene. "Hi. How's the patient?"

Cyrene nodded at her. "Sleeping now - but that cough's getting worse. I"m glad you're here."

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged concerned looks. "Damn." The warrior sighed, catching the bard as she slid down from the saddle. "All right. Let's go see what we can do."

"Hold it." Gabrielle said, in a firm voice. "Mom said she was sleeping. You've got time to go change."

"Gabrielle..." Xena hesitated, seeing the warning signs flash across the bard's tired face. "OK." She surrendered quietly. She's right... no point in arguing a lost cause. "Come on."

They walked in silence towards the cabin, and didn't speak until the door was closed behind them. "Xena." The bard said, turning toward her and putting a hand on her arm. Look.. I know that was pushy… but someone has to take care of you.. since you seem to forget to do it for yourself sometimes.

A hand unexpectedly cupped her cheek. "Thanks for looking out for me." The warrior said softly. "Your note made my day."

"Oh." The bard blushed. "I forgot I.... uh.. thanks." Her mind wandered off the subject, and she shook her head a little. "Out of those clothes, please."

"Yes, mom." Xena laughed, and pulled the tunic over her head, hanging it on the hook near the door, and began unlacing the leathers, sliding out of them with a sense of relief. They were still clammy, even all these hours later, and the cold chill had been really bothering her.

Gabrielle came over, and wrapped a large fluffy blanket around her, and tugged an arm. "By the fire for a minute." And the warrior let herself be led unresisting, and settled by the banked fire, which Gabrielle stirred with an expert hand. "Stay put. I'll get your clothes."

"Gabrielle, you don't have to.." Xena started, gathering herself to rise.

A hand on her mouth. "Shut up." Then the bard paused. "Gods, I never thought I"d be saying that to you." She smiled. "Just let me fuss, OK? Humor me?" She paused, and let her fingers traced Xena's jawline. "Please?"

"OK." Xena relaxed, absorbing the very welcome warmth as she watched Gabrielle putter about the room. She let her head lean against the hearth, and allowed her mind to drift idly, thinking about what they'd need for Ephiny, and how much herbs they had in stock.

Gabrielle went to the linen press, and pulled out clean clothes for both of them, then let her glance fall on her partner. Gods.. she's half asleep. Her mind chuckled, and she set the clothes down softly, and swung the water pot over the fire, watching the blue eyes follow her lazily around the room.

I could sit down there and snuggle with her.. but we'd both be out in heartbeat. The idea oozed seductively around her defenses though, and she found herself moving towards her partner almost without her conscious permission. She stopped, and sighed, grabbing two mugs and dumping a handful of herbs in each, then settling down on the bearskin to wait for the water to heat.

"Hey." Xena said, taking a breath and releasing it. "How'd the council go?" Dreamily, she watched the firelight paint Gabreille's face in a warm glow, deepening her eyes to honey toned, and catching the fiery highlights in her hair. The nearby heat from the fire was slowly soaking through her, relaxing muscles stiffened from a too long exposure to the cold, and she found herself wanting to just sit here forever, enjoying her partner's simple company.

"What?' Oh.." The bard laughed. "I'd forgotten.. it went fine." She hesitated a bit, looking down at the mug in her hands. "And you were right about Rurik."

"Why?" All of a sudden, every trace of sleepiness was gone from her voice, and Gabrielle looked up into sharp, vividly attentive blue eyes. "What did he do?"

"Shh.." The bard soothed her. "It's all right - I took care of it. I just.. told him to back off." She poured the hot water over the tea, and waited for it to steep, idly mixing a spoonful of honey into each cup. "He was just being stupid. "

"Stupid?" Xena questioned, only slightly mollified. She sat up, and tugged the blanket around her, leaning forward and studying Gabrielle's face. Then realized what she must be sounding like. "I hope you bapped him one."

Gabrielle's hands froze in motion, and she looked up, her expression one of startled pleasure. "Well..I didn't have to, but I threat... " She paused for a long moment, several emotions struggling across her face. "Xena, thank you." She finally sighed.

"For what?" Cane the gentle, knowing question.

"For assuming I could handle my own problems." The bard smiled, and handed her a cup. "Here."

"Thanks." Xena took the cup, and studied her over the rim of it. "And, of course, if he doesn't get the message, then next time he messes with you I"m going to stuff him into the manure bin and scatter him for fertilizer."

"Ooo.. I like that one." The bard giggled. "Can I quote you?"

"Sure." Xena replied, sipping the hot drink appreciatively. "Nice job." She indicated the tea. "Feels really good going down." That was an admission, and Gabrielle realized it.

"Throat hurt?" She asked quietly, putting a gentle hand on Xena's nearby knee.

"A little." The warrior admitted, with a sigh. "I was an idiot, I know. Go ahead and yell at me."

Gabrielle shook her head and sighed. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Whatever it is, will have to wait." The warrior took another swallow, and blinked. "I'd better go check on Ephiny." She stood, and moved to where Gabrielle had left the clothes, and shrugged into a thick woolen shirt and leggings, belting the shirt around her and sitting down to pull on her spare pair of boots.

Gabrielle watched her, then sighed and stood up, moving over and putting a hand on Xena's head again. "You're warm, love."

"Yeah, I know." The answer came back in a low tone. "I'll fight it off." She drained the cup, and stood, stamping her feet to settle the boots in. "You coming along?"

"Dumb question." Gabrielle scoffed, as she drained her own cup, and slipped into a clean shirt.

Cyrene was just coming out of Ephiny's room when they came in, and she waved a spoon at both of them. "Don't' forget to get some breakfast."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the innkeeper, and indicated Xena with a shake of her head. "I'll see what I can do."

They entered the room, and Xena crossed to the low cot, dropping to one knee, and gently examining the pale skinned Amazon lying quietly on it. Ephiny had a fairly large bruise on her temple from the ice, and Xena could feel the heat from her body as she turned her face to look at it. "Gabrielle, come here."

"Hmm?" The bard said, at her shoulder.

"How hot does she feel to you?" Xena asked in a low voice.

Gabrielle gave her a look, then reached over and put a hand on the Amazon's forehead. "Pretty hot." She touched Ephiny's arm. "Goosebumps." They could hear the blond woman's breathing, a harsh gurgling that set Gabrielle's nerves on edge, and struck an unpleasant chord of memory. "Sounds bad."

Xena nodded in agreement. "All right.. I'll need hot water.. we'll try to get something down her that will help." The warrior stood and went to her kit, already resting on the small table in the room, and pulled out several different items, laying them out neatly on the surface.

Gabrielle put some water on at the tiny fireplace in the room, and then went back, kneeling next to Ephiny's still form. "Eph?" She said softly, smoothing the hair off the Amazon's forehead. "Come on.. Ephiny??"

Very slowly, a faint fluttering of eyelids said that the Amazon was hearing her. "Eph? It's Gabrielle. Can you open your eyes?"

Another flutter, then the pale eyes blinked dazedly open, and studied her without any real recognition. "Wh.." Another blink, and then the Amazon's brow creased slightly, and comprehension colored her gaze. "Where.."

"Shh." Gabrielle patted her arm. "You're in Amphipolis."

Panic rolled across the Amazon's face. "Kids.." She gasped, then started coughing. Gabrielle grabbed her shoulders, and held on, exchanging a worried look with her partner.

"Easy." The bard murmured, "The girls are fine. Xena brought them here."

Ephiny slumped back onto the bed, breathing hard. "Gods." She whispered.

"I know." Gabrielle replied unhappily. "Just relax. You're going to be ok." She looked up. "Xena's about to give you something really awful to drink, but it'll help."

This got a faint half chuckle from the Amazon. "Sounds right." She coughed weakly.

"Can you get her to sit up, Gabrielle?" Xena knelt next to the bed, and cupped a thick, heavy mug in her hand.

Ephiny's eyes tracked dazedly over. "Lo.. Xena.."

"Hi." The warrior gave her a brief smile. "Gabrielle's right. This tastes lousy, but it'll make you feel better. I promise."

The Amazon nodded groggily. "Think.. owe you.. thanks.."

"Later." Xena waved her off. "We've also got this old war horse thing to discuss."

"Eeep." Ephiny squeaked, a faint grin trying to shape her mouth.

"Yeah, eep to you, too." Xena smiled, and helped Gabrielle to lift Ephiny up, as the bard slipped a supportive arm around the Amazon's shoulders. "Let's get this down you, OK?"

Xena held the cup, and patiently waited until the Amazon managed to choke down most of it. "Good job." She commented, as she rose and walked back over to the table.

"Ugh." Ephiny breathed, her eyes blinking. Another coughing fit racked her, and Gabrielle helped her lie back down after it was over. "Ow."

The bard nodded. "Yeah, I know." She sighed feelingly. "Been there." She pulled the covers up around the blond woman's shoulders, and tucked it neatly around her. "Just try to relax, OK?"

Ephiny nodded. "Sure." Her eyes closed, then opened again. "Need..." A cough interrupted her.

"We'll get word back." Gabrielle correctly interpreted her concern. "I'll go if I have to."

Another nod, and this time the Amazon relaxed into the pillow, stifling several halfhearted coughs before finally drifting off.

The bard slowly shook her head, and stood, flexing muscles stiff from kneeling on the hard floor. "Poor Eph." She walked over, and peered around Xena's shoulder. "What's that?"

"Salve." Xena answered, preoccupied. "For coughing.. to rub on the chest." She flicked a glance at the bard. "I dug up the method for it after you were sick that time, just in case."

Gabrielle leaned her head against the warrior's shoulder. "My hero." She sighed, then dipped a finger into the creamy salve, and brought it to her nose. "Oh.. I kind of like that."

"Eucalyptus." Xena murmured, stirring it around with a small paddle.

"So.. you just kind of rub it on your skin?" Gabrielle asked idly.

"Yeah." Xena answered, not really listening. "It kind of absorbs.. and the vapors go up into your lungs"

"Uh huh." The bard waited for Xena to finish stirring, then she dipped all her fingers in and scooped a good amount up, reaching up and pulling down the neck of Xena's tunic. "Good." And she proceeded to gently rub the mixture into the skin she exposed.

"Gab..." Xena started to protest, then subsided, with a quirky grin. "I guess I should have seen that coming." She stood patiently until the bard finished, then waited while Gabrielle laced her tunic back up, and snugged the fabric against her throat. "Thanks."

"No problem." She grabbed the mug and handed it to her partner. "And why don't you finish that, while you're at it?" She pinned Xena with a stern look, until the warrior sighed, and downed the contents. "Thank you." Gabrielle took her elbow, and steered her out of the room. "Now, you're going to get some breakfast, right? "

Xena gave her a look. "I'm not really hungry."

"All the more reason." Gabrielle blithely informed her. "I'll put this stuff on Ephiny, and I'll be right out to join you, OK?"

"Sure." Xena sighed, and ambled off towards a table near the big fireplace, with Ares trotting along in her shadow. .

"Stubborn thing." Gabrielle chuckled to herself, and ducked back in the room, then had a better thought, and zipped into the kitchen instead. "Hi mom." She padded over to where Cyrene was mixing a large kettle of soup.

"Hello cutie." Cyrene smiled at her. "How's your friend?"

"Feeling pretty lousy, I think." Gabrielle sighed. "But that's not why I'm here. Your daughter spent the night in wet clothing, and now has a fever, which she's trying to pretend doesn’t' exist."

Cyrene cursed colorfully. "Sometimes, I swear, she has the sense of a warthog."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Actually, she had a pretty good reason. I don't like it, but I don't really blame her. Do you have some soup or something I can give her? I don't think she's in the mood for solid stuff."

"I'll take care of that." Cyrene smiled. "You go finish what you were doing."

"Thanks mom." The bard grinned, and gave her a hug. She went back into Ephiny's room, and picked up the bowl of salve, resuming her kneeling position next to the bed. Ephiny must have sensed her presence, because her eyes flickered, and she peered groggily up at the bard. "Hi."

"Just relax." Gabrielle assured her. "I have this stuff, which surprisingly smells pretty good, that I'm gonna put on you. "

"Great." Ephiny worked to draw air into her lungs. She closed her eyes at Gabrielle's gentle touch, and kept them closed as the bard covered her chest and throat with the salve, only opening them as she pulled the blanket up and tucked it around the Amazon's neck. "Smells nice." She managed to rasp, dredging up a little grin for the bard's sake.

"Try to get some sleep, OK?" Gabrielle said softly. "It gets worse before it gets better, but don't you worry, Ephiny.. we're going to take care of you."

The Amazon nodded a little, and closed her eyes. Gabrielle waited until her breathing steadied, then stood, letting out a long breath. And felt the responsibility of the oath she'd taken settle squarely on her shoulders once again. It had taken her weeks to recover after her bout with the coughing sickness, until they could travel again, without Xena being scared half to death she was going to keel over. With Ephiny here, someone had to lead the Amazons. And she was that someone.

Well.. all right. She considered, wiping her hands off on a piece of linen. That wouldn't be so bad, a couple of weeks with the Amazons, and this time.. she grinned quietly. I can ask Xena to come along and actually enjoy myself there for a change. A thought occurred to her. Maybe we can even have Kaleipus show up... hmm....this could be interesting... She smiled to herself, and moved quietly to the window, making sure it was closed tight, and no drafts were getting in. Then she watched Ephiny's pale face for a moment longer, and went to the door, pulling it close but not shut as she moved into the interior of the inn.

Xena was sprawled in a large chair near the fire, a mug in one hand, and she glanced up at the bard's approach, lifting the mug towards her in a wry salute. "DIdja need to sic my mother on me, Red?"

"I"ll let you get away with that because you're obviously not feeling well." Gabrielle snorted, putting her hands on her hips as she stopped in front of the chair. Then she dropped the cocky attitude, and stepped closer, putting a hand on her partner's head. "About the same, I think." She commented, brightening a little. "That's good, right?"

Xena cocked an eyebrow at her. "I'd have a better chance of fighting this off if you'd all stop coddling me." She groused, but leaned her head against the bard's side and nudged her a little, and felt the bard run her fingers through her hair. Fraud. You love it.

"Is she going to be OK, Xena?" Gabrielle's voice was very quiet.

The warrior studied her for a long time. "She's tough." She finally said. "She's in good shape, and we've got the right kinds of herbs and things.. yeah. I think she'll be OK."

Xena never lied about things like that, Gabrielle knew. It was too vital, and she was too bluntly realistic. She felt a little of the weight lift off her shoulders. "What about you?" She asked quietly, smoothing the tangled dark locks back from Xena's warm face.

Xena rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle, I'm fine, all right? It would take more than a dunk in the river and night ride to do me serious damage. My body can handle this." Oh really? Then why are we so damned cranky, huh? Don't you dare take this out on her.

"All right..all right.." The bard laughed a little, scratching the back of her partner's neck affectionately. "I get the message. I'll stop hovering." But it stung, a little, and she knew her eyes showed it, from the sudden regret in Xena's.

"No." Xena corrected her gently. "Just stop worrying. You can hover all you want." She butted her side again, giving the bard an apologetic look. Sorry… for that, love.

"Sure. Stop worrying. Why not ask me to do something easy? Like stop breathing. " The bard snorted, and settled into the chair next to her, resting her elbows on her knees, and staring at the floor. "Sorry." She took a long breath. "I know you don't like fussing."

"Hey." Xena called gently, reaching out and grabbing the arm of Gabrielle's chair. No answer from the bard. Xena studied the chair, then sniffed reflectively, and tensed her arm for a second, then braced one foot against the floor, and pulled hard, dragging the chair with it's startled occupant until the two chairs were touching.

Gabrielle looked up, jerked out of her bad mood by the sudden motion. "Hey!" She tried and failed to smother a startled grin from her face.

Xena leaned on the arm of her chair, so that they were inches part, and studied her closely. "Listen." She put a finger on the bard's nose. "You can tease me. You can fuss over me, you can order me around, you can do anything you damn well please to me. OK?" She paused, and plucked the bard's sleeve. "You're the only one. Ever. Got that?"

Gabrielle dropped her gaze, blushing a little, understanding the message. "Got that." She said softly, with a smile. Then she looked up shyly, meeting the glint in Xena's eyes with a sparkle of her own. "You coulda just asked me to move over, you know." Apologies given and accepted, as they always were.

"Where's the fun in that?" Xena asked, leaning back and taking a sip of the soup she had in her mug.

The bard laughed a little. "So.. what's the plan for Ephiny? What do we do next?"

Xena rolled her head back, and glanced out the window. "Sometime after noon, gotta give her another dose of that stuff, and more of the salve. Then.. we wait and see how she does." The effects of the night, and the morning, and her body's struggle with the fever began to take their toll, and she felt a thick exhaustion start to overtake her.

Gabrielle nodded. "Sounds like a plan." She studied her partner's face. "How are you doing?"

Got a long pensive stare back. Gods.. I can't get a damn thing past her any more, can I? Then a quirk of that eyebrow. "I could use a nap. Care to join me?"

"Thought you'd never ask." The bard replied, with a gentle grin. "Mom put the girls up in two of the rooms upstairs - they're fast asleep. You wore them out, love."

Xena stood up, and yawned. "Wore myself out. " She admitted, offering a hand up to the bard. "All this lazing around is taking it's toll." But she grinned, as she hauled Gabrielle to her feet. "Guess I'll worry about it in the spring." She commented, guiding the way towards the door.

Gabrielle thought about that as they walked across to the cabin, realizing it marked a change in attitude on Xena's part that she'd hoped for, but never really expected to see. She smiled quietly to herself, and felt a sense of relief, as though she'd been holding her breath, waiting for the bubble to burst, and now.. realized it wasn't a bubble at all, but a crystal sphere, that stood a chance at holding up for a long time.

"Hey, Xena?" She asked, as she watched her partner settle on the bed, and pat the spot next to her. A spot she immediately crawled into, her body craving the contact.

"Huh?" The warrior mumbled, wrapping her arms around the bard.

"I think I gotta go to the Amazon Village for a few days." Gabrielle remarked, pillowing her head on Xena's shoulder, and feeling the familiar warmth steal over her in a seductive wave.

"Yeah, I figured." Came the answer, lightly unconcerned. "Bring the girls back, calm Eponin down.. give Solari a hard time…"

Gabrielle giggled. "Oh good. That means you'll come with me, right?"

"Wouldn't miss it." Xena answered without hesitation. "Sides, I wanna see you knock Eponin on her rear."

"Oh you do, huh?" The bard smiled, and bit her lip. "Guess we'd better get some practice in tomorrow then."

"Nah." Xena muttered, already half asleep. "You're the best I've ever taught. She doesn’t stand a chance."

Gabrielle felt her breathing just stop, for a long minute, then start again with a gentle sigh. She studied the face above her, memorizing the distinct lines and planes, and the finely drawn curves. The cheerful sounds and scents of the room, and the tactile sensation of the thick linen bedding, and the wool of Xena's shirt all combined to wrap a warm sense of depth to the ball of pure happiness that formed inside her on hearing that simple sentence.

Xena must have felt it. She opened her eyes and cocked her head a little, in question.

Gabrielle smiled up at her in wonder. "I've never been the best at something before."

A gentle laugh in return. "Well.. let's see. " Xena thought for a minute. "You're the best bard I've ever seen."

"Xena." Now she blushed. Yeah right.

"And the best negotiator I've ever worked with."

"Oh, come on." She gave Xena a poke. Come on.. stop humoring me.

"And the best friend I could have ever hoped for." Now the voice was gentle and sincere.

She took a breath to speak, then just let it out, and found herself lost in Xena's eyes. Oh.. she means this..

"And the best thing that's happened to me in my entire life." Came the quiet finish, as a gentle hand cupped her cheek, and lips brushed hers with feather lightness.

They were just words, but Gabrielle felt like they were a solid gold chain, slipping in through her ears, and wrapping themselves around her heart.

There weren't any words left to express what she felt.. and she realized she was going to have to make up new ones, to describe this. so she she buried her head in Xena's soft woolen shirt, and tightened her hold as hard as she could. Never even feeling it when sleep gently carried her into a familiar golden warmth.

Gabrielle woke up, blinking, and judged by the light outside that it was early afternoon. She tilted her head and studied her sleeping companion, pressing her ear gingerly against the steadily moving chest and listening.

A quiet sense of relief flowed through her at the silence she heard, just the normal sounds of Xena's breathing, without the harsh rasping she'd been afraid of. She lifted a hand and felt her partner's head, letting a quick smile cross her face at what she found. Still warm, but no worse..Looks like she was right... not that she usually isn't, but... I'm glad she was this time. She hates being sick, it makes her so grouchy I can hardly stand it.

Gabrielle put her head back down for a moment, and let her fingers play over the thick rust colored wool of Xena's tunic, breathing in the mixed scent of the fibers, combined with the lingering pleasant tang of the eucalyptus salve. In a minute, she'd get up, and go take care of Ephiny, hopefully leaving Xena still soundly asleep, something which she had started to be able to do recently, but she let herself indulge in a long lazy moment of just being there, and being with her partner, and remembering the conversation they'd had before falling asleep. I owe her one for that... have to think of something nice to do... She considered for a while, then sighed, and carefully raised her head, rolling up onto one elbow and easing her body away from Xena's.

But a hand slowly closed on her shirt, stopping her, and she looked up to see a pair of sleepy blue eyes following her motion. "Hey... go back to sleep. I'll take care of Eph."

"You sure?" Came the mumbled reply in a token protest.

"Yeah... " Gabrielle smiled, and slipped a hand under Xena's tunic, tracing the well defined muscles with gentle fingers in a familiar pattern. "I"m sure."

"Mmm.' Xena fought it for a minute, then gave up. "Forgot there's sleeping herbs in that damn mixture." She mumbled, sounding vaguely chagrined.

Gabrielle leaned forward, and kissed her on the head. "I didn't" She smirked. Gotcha….

"Fink." Xena protested, prying one eye open and studying her.

"I love you too." The bard replied cheerfully, continuing her gentle stroking. "Close that eye."

A light shake of the head, and Gabrielle could feel a chuckle stir the muscles under her hand, then Xena's breathing evened out again, as she surrendered herself back to sleep.

Gabrielle smiledto herself, and rolled off the bed, carefully tucking the covers around her sleeping partner. She chewed her lip for a minute, finding herself reluctant to leave Xena in such a vulnerable state. Even here, even at home. Old habits die hard, I guess. Her mind mused. "Ares..." She called softly, and grinned as the wolf rose up, and trotted over, jumping up on the bed and padding over to her.

She petted him for a minute, then patted the bed's surface. "Lie down."

Obediently, he did, curling up against Xena's right hip, and laying his head across the warrior's thigh. "Good boy." She whispered. "You take care of your mom, OK?"

"Argrooo." The wolf mumbled, his eyes flicking to Xena's face, then back to hers.

"Yeah, I know." She stroked the dark head and scratched his ears. "I don't like it when she doesn't feel well either. But you keep an eye on her, OK? and I'll bring us all back some lunch."

Ares twitched his ears and sighed

Gabrielle moved away reluctantly, and glanced in the mirror, making a face at her reflection, and running her fingers through her disordered hair. "I"m a sight." She muttered to herself, then laughed, and headed out the door.

The inn was very quiet when the bard slipped in, only two or three tables were still occupied by the lunch crowd. One of them was Rurik, and he raised a hand to wave at her. She waved back, and continued on towards Ephiny's room, pushing the door open and stepping inside.

Cyrene was already there, putting down some hot soup, and stoking the fire. She turned as Gabrielle entered and smiled. "Figured one or the other of you would be here soon." The innkeeper studied her face. "Everything all right?"

The bard nodded with assurance. "Yeah. I left Xena sleeping.. she's ok, I think. Her fever's no worse, and her chest sounds pretty clear. I think we got lucky this time." We. Yeah, it's most definiitely we, isn't it?

Cyrene chuckled. "Good to hear. One sick one is more than enough, and I know my daughter - she's the worst patient alive."

Gabrielle laughed. "That's an understatement." She moved to the table, and took the small dish of herbs Xena had mixed earlier and put it in the mug, wrinkling her nose at the scent. "Why does stuff that's good for you have to taste so bad?"

The innkeeper peered over her shoulder. "Well, if it works…"

"Oh, it does." The bard sighed, making a face, then grinning. "I made Xena drink some before. You know, she doesn’t even grimace. "

Cyrene studied her face briefly. "Hey, you look beat yourself, Gabrielle. Get some rest."

"Don't worry." The bard assured her absently, as she poured hot water over the herbs. "I’m gonna take care of this, then go back and crawl…" Her brain realized what she was saying at this point, and caused her tongue to freeze. "Uh… I mean… I'm going back to the cabin and relax."

Cyrene bit her lip to keep from laughing, and patted the bard on the shoulder. "That's a good idea, honey. You stop by the kitchen, and I'll pack up a little soup for you to take back, OK?"

"Thanks mom." Gabrielle shot her a grateful look, then saw the twinkle in her eye and blushed. Cyrene walked out chuckling, and the bard gave a little sigh, and stirred the cup carefully. Well… Hades.. it's not like she doesn't know we're… uh… but it's just so weird to say that to her mother.. my adopted mother… aughhh… She shivered and suppressed a giggle.

Ephiny stirred as she knelt down, warrior's instincts intact even now, and she put a hand on the Amazon's arm, feeling the heat with an uneasy touch. "Eph?"

"Ungh." The blond woman groaned, trying to lift her head. She gave up, and let it back down, then convulsed in a coughing fit that made her roll over on one side, and grip the bedframe.

Gabrielle took hold of her arms, and held her close, feeling the muscles under her fingertips constricting painfully. "Easy." She murmured, shunting aside unpleasant memories on hearing the deep rattling in her friends breathing. "Take small breaths, Eph."

A moments silence, then the Amazon rolled weakly back over, and gazed at her. "Bad." She managed to get out, concentrating on shallowing her breathing. "Gods."

"I know." Gabrielle said gently. "Believe me, I know." She rubbed Ephiny's back. "Can you sit up a little? I promised Xena I'd get this stuff down you, and you know how she is."

The Amazon's eyes flicked to hers, and her eyebrows rose in question. "She all right?"

The bard smiled reassuringly. "She's fine. Just a little fever, that's all. I made her stay in bed."

Ephiny's mouth twitched. "Made?"

"I have many skills." The bard informed her with a twinkle.

"Whole kingdoms would be at your feet for that one." Ephiny managed to get the entire sentence out without coughing, but it took a lot out of her. It got a gentle laugh from the bard. "I owe her."

"Shh." Gabrielle said, holding the cup up to her lips. "She doesn't think that way. You know better." She watched the Amazon take a resigned swallow. "The girls are fine.. they're sleeping upstairs."

Ephiny nodded a little, and took another swallow. "Can't taste this." She mumbled, putting her fingers on the cup. "Warm."

Gabrielle pulled the covers closer around her. "You must have chills"

"Yeah." The Amazon finished the cup, and rolled onto her side, hugging her arms around her chest. "You had this?"

The bard nodded. "After Velasca." She paused. "But it was out there.. we didn't have a lot of the stuff Xena usually carries… didn't have time to get to town."

Ephiny blinked slowly, the medicine beginning to take effect. "Real bad?"

Gabrielle put the mug down, and reached over for the small pot of salve. "Lie down, so I can put this on." She spread some of the stuff on her fingertips, then started rubbing it into the now silent Amazon's chest. "I was.. afraid to go to sleep one night it was so bad." She admitted quietly. "I wasn't sure I'd wake up." She concentrated on what she was doing, not meeting Ephiny's eyes.

A hand covered hers, and she finally glanced up. "I was lucky.. Xena was there."

"Gave you that stuff?" Ephiny's head bobbed a little towards the cup.

"No." Now the bard smiled. "She just.. held me.. in her arms the whole night. I knew.. that I was safe. Nothing could happen to me as long as I was there." She paused. "She wouldn't let me go."

The Amazon's mouth quirked in a ghost of a smile. "Just like in Thessaly." She whispered, as her eyes closed, leaving a puzzled Gabrielle studying her face. Thessaly? She put the salve pot back on the table, and rose to her feet, crossing to the chair in the room and sitting down.

Thessaly.. She remembered the war.. and getting hurt. Gods.. that had hurt so bad… She remembered feeling the world slipping past her.. and Ephiny's strained face as she passed on her Right.

Remembered Xena's eyes, fastened on hers with an expression of anguish that had pierced through the fog her mind was slipping into.. making her regret the knowledge that she'd never get a chance to get behind that warlord shield. Never get a chance to uncover the person she'd been getting glimpses of, lurking around back there. And that had hurt as much as the injury had..

Remembered, at the faint edges of her fading hearing, the sound of Ephiny's child being born.

Then.. darkness, shot with blood colored flashes.. that slowly ebbed away, as she lost her senses.. the last thing being the sound of a ragged voice calling her name..

Then there had been peace. A quiet, formless peace in which she'd floated for a time, becoming the sunlit Fields, where she'd heard her Uncle's voice calling to her.

But something had been missing. It had been beautiful there, all light, and delicious breezes, and laughing people. It should have filled her with joy.. but it hadn't. Because there was this small, quiet, empty place inside her that she knew, as she walked on the never dying grass, would never be filled by anything here.

She had looked around, at the people blissfully at peace around her.. and found them without depth, shallow in a way that she could hardly comprehend. The peace and contentment she felt all around her left her feeling empty.. and very much alone.

And in the crystal clarity of that realization, the anguished call of another soul touched hers.

So she had turned her back on the peace, knowingly, williingly.. and journeyed back towards the darkness, rejoining the world in a rushing haze of pain, and the tortured convulsions of her cruelly injured body.

But the pain faded from her memory, replaced by the realization that the powerful arms cradling her were Xena's, and the voice that filled her hearing had a ragged edge of emotion in it that spoke directly to her heart. This was home. She belonged here, in a way that no place, and no other person had ever made her feel.

Looking back, she realized it was probably then that she'd put her feet firmly on the road that had led her to where she was now standing. But Xena had never spoken of that night to her, never revealed what had gone on inside that guarded mind. She had always assumed that she'd been totally in control of what had happened that long ago night.. but what had Xena felt?

She remembered waking up groggily in the early pre dawn hour, aching and nauseous, and had turned her head to see Xena slumped against the stone pallet she was lying on, head cradled against one arm, which was draped over the bard's shoulder, fingertips in a gentle clasp against her skin.

Believing her asleep, Gabrielle had taken the liberty of brushing her lips across the back of Xena's hand, resting so close to her face. And had glanced over to meet wide open blue eyes that looked right back into hers. No shields, no defenses. It had been just the two of them, and now when she thought about it, she could feel the bone deep connection they'd had, even then.

I should ask her about that night. The bard considered thoughtfully, getting up and straightening the covers around the sleeping Ephiny. Then she picked up a small wide necked bottle, and transferred some of the salve into it, storing it in her belt pouch, and crossed quietly to the door, slipping out into the main part of the inn.

"Hello there, lass." Rurik's voice surprised her.

"Hello." She said, giving him a smile. "How are you doing?"

The tall trader perched on a corner of the table next to where they were standing and waggled his hand. "Not bad, really. Got some decent offers in from a few merchants here to have things carried for them. " He nodded at the door. "How's your friend?"

Gabrielle crossed her arms, and sighed. "She's doing as well as I can expect, I guess. She's pretty sick." Green eyes looked up and captured his. "But Xena says she's going to be all right… so.." She gave a little shrug.

Rurik nodded slowly. "She's an Amazon, they say."

"Mm..yes." The bard confirmed. "She is."

"Ah. Lass. You don't seem the type to hang around with that lot." He said, giving her a cheerful look.

Gabrielle's eyes went from a warm mist green to an icy grey in a split second, and she felt her whole body stiffening in anger. "Excuse me?"

Rurik held up a hand. "No offense, Gabrielle, you just don't seem the type to mix in with her kind."

The bard took a breath to calm herself, and speared him with a glance. "Rurik, I am her kind." The statement caused a chill to run up and down her spine. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have things to do." She shook her head in disgust, and walked into the kitchen, closing the door behind her with unnecessary force.

"Well.. isn't that a snotty thing." Rurik muttered.

"Excuse me?" A low voice from just behind him caused him to jump. He turned and saw a tall man with dark hair and piercing blue eyes gazing at him with a distinctly unfriendly look.

"I said, what a snotty little thing she is." Rurik repeated, with a snort. "Can't even make conversation around here."

The man perched on the table and crossed his arms. "What did you say to her?"

"Just that she didn’t' seem the type to go associating with the damned Amazons, that's all." Rurik sighed, lifting his hands.

The man laughed. "She's a queen of the Amazons, you moron."

"Hey.. no call for that." Rurik answered angrily. "What's it …. She's a queen?"

The man nodded, and stepped closer, moving off the table and getting nose to nose with the trader. "And she's a member of my family, so I don't think I want to hear her insulted anymore. Got me??"

Rurik studied him thoughtfully. "Who are you?" A queen, eh?? His mind revolved that piece of information around, studying it from all angles.

"Toris." The dark haired man answered.

He seemed.. familiar somehow, but Rurik couldn’t quite place him.. something about the eyes, perhaps. "No offense, then, Toris." He said with a smile. "I had no idea such a pretty little thing was an Amazon, and a queen at that."

Toris studied him thoughtfully. "Look." He said, rubbing his jaw. "Do yourself a favor, all right? Don't talk about her like that.. you'll just end up getting hurt."

Rurik snorted softly. "What, by her?"

Toris smiled. "Just take my word for it, OK?"

The trader shook his head, and waved a hand. "No worries, lad. I’m leaving, I am. Time to get a move on towards the city." With that, he stood up and left the room, heading up the stairs.

Toris watched him go, and went on into the kitchen, where he spotted Gabrielle leaning against the wall, arms crossed, eyes closed. Concerned, he walked over, and touched her lightly on the arm. "Hey… Gabrielle?"

Green eyes slowly opened, and focused on him. "Hi Toris."

"You OK?" Toris asked, cocking his head in a familiar gesture.

"Yeah.. yeah. Just .. that Rurik guy.. I .." Gabrielle lifted both shoulders. "Just struck me the wrong way, I guess." The sudden, startling anger was slowly subsiding, but it had left the bard with aching muscles from it's intensity. Gods.. I must be really tired.. I usually don't just go off like that.

"Yeah.. I heard him. I told him he'd better shut up." Toris admitted, with a shy glance in her direction. "Uhm.. where's mom?"

Gabrielle smiled at him, and rubbed his arm. "Thanks." She looked down. "She's getting me some soup and stuff to take back to the cabin." Her eyes lifted and met his, and found concern there.

"Xena ok?" Was all he asked.

The bard nodded. "Yeah, I think so." She smiled. "You know your sister." A small smile. "She's pretty tough."

He rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah. How's your friend next door? Not so… I mean, heard her coughing."

Gabrielle sighed. "I don't know." She rubbed her temples. "Not good." The bard admitted. "I wish I could do something more to help her."

Toris gave her arm a squeeze. "You're doing all you can, Gabrielle... don't get yourself all sick worrying." He glanced up as a loud bang came from the storage area. "Uh oh.. I'd better go help mom. Be right back." He patted her arm, and went in the direction of the sound, disappearing from view.

Rurik carefully packed his kit, stowing his extra shirts and his one good pair of pants in his saddlebags, and putting away his strop and razor. He glanced around the room with approval, liking the neatly made furniture, and the comfortable bed. Not bad… His mind mused. Not bad at all, and fairly good price, too.

He left the bags packed on the floor, and wandered over to the window, gazing out over the courtyard with idle interest. Amphipolis was… an interesting place. Overall he was pleased with his visit - the town was prosperous, and appeared to be thriving, even in the ugly weather. The inn was well run, and the inhabitants seemed, for the most part, well behaved and rather mild. With the exception of that Toris fellow. His mind reminded him. And that lovely bit of a girl.

His eyes caught motion, and he sniffed, as a tall, dark haired form slipped out from between the barn and the inn, and crossed the open space heading for the inn. And her, of course. Hidden from sight, he let his eyes linger on her lithe, muscular form as it moved, admiring the sense of barely contained power that poured from her like water. No, Amphipolis wouldn't be a good place to stir up trouble with her around.

So.. the little lass is an Amazon, is she? He laughed to himself in delight. No wonder she's good with that bit of a stick. But what's she doing here? Never heard of an Amazon living outside their territory, certainly not in a backwater like this one. And a queen? Something doesn't add up… ah.. that's right. That Toris said she was family… and I'll just bet.. yes. That's where the familiarity comes in.. the little bastard must be related to that warlord. So the lass is a younger cousin, come to visit. Yes.

Well, I hope the little lass has a nice visit. Rurik smiled to himself, and left the window, picking up the bags and slinging them over his shoulder. He maneuvered down the stairs, and gave Johan a nod, having already settled his tab with the inn. The older man gave him a nod back.

"Good travelling to you then, merchant." Johan's voice was moderately friendly.

Ah, I like a bit of good service. "I thank you, sir, and a good season to you, as well." He answered in a good natured tone. He had almost made it out the door when his gaze was caught by twin pairs of icy blue eyes, watching him.

Side by side, there was no doubt in his mind, Toris had a few inches and a couple of pounds on his sister, but their sibling relationship was stamped on them with unmistakable clarity. It was also, he realized with an uneasy feeling, obvious Toris had told his very imposing sister about his comments on their cousin. Well, too bad. "Good day." He said to them both, and ducked out the door, heading for the barn. Anxious to get on his way home, at last.

Not long after, he trotted his stallion out of the village, and down the long road towards the river, whistling into the rising wind, and never once glancing back.

Gabrielle leaned against the wall and rubbed her neck, wishing away the uncomfortable tension that was tying her body up in knots. Cut it out, Gabrielle. She told herself sternly. He's just a jerk.. let it go. She closed her eyes, and imagined instead a pair of warm hands easing the stiffness, working the tenseness out with practiced fingers., then popped her eyes wide open when the thought became reality. "Hey!"

"Shh... stand still." Xena's voice floated over her shoulder, as the warrior used her powerful touch to good effect. "You're really knotted up.. give me a minute here." She slid her hands under the bard's loose shirt, and set to work on the stiff muscles.

"Take all the time you like." The bard mumbled, letting her head drop forward. "Didn't even hear you come in." That bothered her for minute. "You haven't been able to sneak up on me for a while now."

"Mmm.." Xena considered. "You were preoccupied." She moved her hands down the bard's back, feeling the tension slowly seeping out of her. "There.. that's better." She wrapped her hands around her partner's waistline, using her thumbs to work the kinks out of her spine. "Gods, Gabrielle.. what's up with you?"

Gabrielle sighed deeply, as she felt her anger also dissolving, and as it did, her awareness of their connection reasserted itself, and she felt Xena's presence at her back as a tangible thing again. Anger blocks that. Her mind considered thoughtfully. Ugh. She consciously let the warmth wash through her body, turning around and snuggling into Xena's chest and feeling the warrior's arms slide around her under her shirt. The warm touch of skin on skin sent a welcome skittering spark through her, and she felt the last of her irritation dissolving away.. "I should be yelling at you for being out of bed, right?" She mumbled, tangling her fingers in the thick woolen fabric.

"Right." Xena agreed, stroking her hair gently with one hand, and running the other lightly up and down the bard's ribcage.

"You're a bad girl." Gabrielle muttered, feeling a silly grin shaping her mouth, as her body responded to the familiar touch.

"Oh, yeah." Came the wicked chuckle "You got that right." Xena gently lifted her chin up. "Came to see what was bugging you." Her eyes flicked around the kitchen, finding nothing threatening. "Thought something was up with Ephiny."

Gabrielle pressed closer. "Well.. yeah. I'm worried about her.. " She paused. "But Rurik said something..I don't know Xena, it just set me off." She hesitated, and played with the carved bone button on Xena's tunic, running a fingertip over the irregular surface. "I'm not sure why.. he was just being a jerk." She glanced up at Xena's face. "Hit me wrong, I guess."

"My turn to take care of you, then." Xena informed her. "What did he say?" This last with a smooth menace evident in her tone. Damn… I knew I should have pulled that manure for brains out behind the stable and shortened his legs for him.

The bard hesitated. "It wasn't.. he just asked if Eph was an Amazon, and I said yes.. and he said he didn't think I was the kind of person who hung around her type."

Xena couldn't help it. She started laughing. "He what???" She snorted. "That does it. Let me go find him and show him what our type of person does to his type of person." She tried to disentangle herself from the bard, who hung on tenaciously.

"No no no no... Xena!" The bard tugged her shirt hard. "I told him off."

The warrior gazed at her. "Did you?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Good girl." Xena grinned.

"So did Toris." The bard giggled. "Taking after his little sister."

One dark eyebrow curved up. "Little?" Xena let her own gaze run down the length of her tall body. "I don’t think so."

Gabrielle's hands outlined her form with gentle touches. "Well......" She grinned. "OK, younger sister."

"Feel better now?" Xena asked, smoothing the red gold hair out of her eyes.

"Yeah." The bard answered with a sigh. "Wonder where your mom and Toris are?"

Xena glanced down at her boots, and bit off a grin. "Probably waiting for us to stop um..." Her eyes flicked up and caught the bard's green ones. "Talking."

"Ah." Gabrielle detached her grip from the warrior's shirt, and backed off, leaning against the wall with crossed arms. "I see."

They looked at each other. "So." Xena said, clearing her throat and perching on the edge of the worktable. "How's Ephiny doing?"

"Not real good." The bard answered, cocking her ears, and muffling a smile as Toris and Cyrene bustled around the doorway, chattering to each other with conspicuous innocence. "Oh.. Xena!' Cyrene manufactured a surprised look. "Didn't know you were about. How are you feeling?"

"Fine." Xena replied, with a wry smile. "Never felt better." And that's almost true.. she mused quietly. That nap did me a world of good.

"Hungry?" The innkeeper asked, putting a hand on her forehead. "That's much better." She turned Xena's face into the light and studied it, ignoring the arched eyebrow that she received in return. "Stop that. I’m your mother."

"Starving." Xena answered. "Mother, I’m fine. Cut that out." She stood and stretched, making the most of their height differences. "There. Now you'll need a chair to do that."

"Hah." Cyrene snorted, then strolled over to where her cooling rack was, and snatching a sweet roll, tossed it at her daughter. "There."

Xena caught it easily, and stood, tossing it up and down. "Only one?" She asked, with a mischievous look.

Her mother's eyebrows rose, and she put her hands on her hips. "Oh.. so that's it, huh? " In quick succession, she tossed three more at the grinning warrior, who deftly caught them all, two in each hand, then shrugged at them and commenced juggling.

Jaws dropped. "Hey.. I didn't know you could do that." Gabrielle laughed, then squawked as a roll hit her in the mouth. She somehow caught it, and took a bite. "You die, Warrior Princess." Another roll bounced off her head, and she went diving for it. "Xena…"

A third, which landed on her chest.

Xena ate the fourth, and winked at them. "Gonna go check on Ephiny." She turned her back and walked to the door, whipping her arm back at the very last second to catch the roll Gabrielle had winged at her back. "Tch tch." She clucked in Gabrielle's direction. "You're out of practice, bard." And then the door closed behind her.

They all looked at each other, and burst out laughing. "Gods." Gabrielle sighed, munching on her roll. "Was she always such a brat?"

"Oh yeah." Toris and Cyrene said together. "You wouldn't think it from that rough exterior but… " Her mother continued. "There's a prankster under all that leather and brass."

Gabrielle smiled quietly. "I know." And remembered the first time.. she'd ever seen that side of her partner.

They'd been in the marketplace, in a fair size town a ways west of here. She'd been shopping, spending her hard-earned dinars on some rare extravagances, and enjoying herself. She'd gotten a few things, and was busy digging around in a cloth shop when she felt a tiny sting on her side. She looked down, and found nothing.

She'd shrugged it off, and continued hunting, when she felt another sting. Looked down, found nothing, except for a tiny red mark on her ribs. Puzzled, she'd moved out into the light, and felt another, and another, as she jumped around like a startled hen in a henhouse trying to figure out what was going on.

Then Xena showed up, strolling along with her usual dour expression, giving everyone the once over, and falling into step with her with a quiet sniff. "Hello."

"Hey." Gabrielle had said, distracted. "Something weird is going on here."

"Like what?" Xena had asked, giving her that oh gods, not another weird story look.

"I keep feeling like something's biting me." The bard had said, worried. "And I got these marks." She showed Xena, who tilted her head and regarded them with somber seriousness.

"Uh oh." The warrior had said, putting a worried expression on her face.

"What?" Gabrielle had snapped, nervously.

"Tigertail flies." Xena had pronounced, with a grim look. "Those spots'll turn bright purple by tonight."

Gabrielle's eyes had widened in alarm. "Wwwhat do I do?" She stared at the spots. "Will they get bigger?"

"Yeah. Bout the size of a dinar." Xena had sighed, giving her a look.

Gabrielle's mouth had opened, but nothing had come out except for a squeak. "How long?" She managed to gasp.

Then she'd looked up into those crystal clear blue eyes, and seen a mischievious twinkle that chased all her frightened thoughts clean away. "You're pulling my leg, aren't you." She'd muttered, in total disbelief.

And Xena had started laughing, unable to hold it in any longer. She'd finished her own shopping, and had been following the bard around, nailing her with lentils she'd fired through a tube.

"You have a sense of humor." Gabrielle had marveled, forgetting her scare in her delight at learning of this new facet to her companion. "Awesome."

And later that night, when they were bedded down beneath the stars, she'd found, tucked into her sleeping furs a small bundle. She'd unwrapped it to find fresh parchment, and two new quills. And a note "Glad you can take a joke."

So she'd taken a piece, and sat down cross legged under the clear night sky, and written a small poem, something frivolous, and tucked it inside Xena's saddlebag, with a note on the back. "Glad you know how to play one."

Gabrielle shook herself out of her reminisces. "Let me go give her a hand." She gave Cyrene and Toris a wave, and went out the door .

Pace pace pace. Turn. Pace pace pace. Turn.

"Eponin." Solari didn't look up from the scroll she was scribbling on.

Pace pace pace. Turn Pace pace pace. Turn.

"EPONIN." Now Solari looked up, and gave the pacing Amazon a glare. "Will you cut that out? You're driving me nuts."

"She was due back at sundown." Eponin enunciated slowly. "And it's full moonrise." She glared at Solari and Granella, who was seated in the corner, with her arms resting on the windowsill, looking out. "I told you it was lunacy to let her go."

"LET?" Solari rolled her eyes. "I hate to break this to you, but we didn't LET her do anything .She decided on her own to do it, and, you know, she is the Queen, right?" The Amazon sighed. "Besides, she's probably just giving them some extra lessons."

Eponin's eyes narrowed. "We should go looking for them."

Solari waved a hand at her. "Because they're a couple of candlemarks late? Oh no.." She shook her head. "I'm not going to get caught checking up on her. She'll kick my butt." She glanced up at Eponin. "Look.. you're forgetting Ephiny's a very competent warrior, Eponin… since when do we worry about her like she was… a clay jar or something?"

Eponin sat down on a chair, letting her elbows drop to her knees and sighing. "Since she took that mask. I just… " The older warrior shook her head. "It's just a feeling."

Granella's head jerked up, and Solari put down her scroll. "A feeling?" The both said together.

They looked at Eponin. She looked back. Eponin never had feelings, Solari knew. She was solid, dependable, a great warrior, a great teacher.. but had the imagination of a centaur hoof. "What kind.. of feeling?" She asked cautiously.

Eponin studied her hands, then looked up with a sigh, gazing around the room without really seeing anything. "I can't describe it. Just.. something's wrong." She finally focused her stare at Solari. "It's probably nothing. You're right - I'm being over cautious." She rose, and dusted her hands off. "I'm sure she'll be back by morning, since we've got the Centaur delegation coming day after, and she's got to receive them." And with that, she slipped out the door, and headed towards the communal meal hall, ignoring the misty falling rain.

Granella turned her chair around to face Solari, and they studied each other for a while. "So..what do you think?" Granella finally asked.

Solari took a breath and let it out slowly. "Get a scouting group ready. If they're not back by first watch, go find them." She sighed. "I don't care if Ephiny has a fit." She drummed her fingers on the table lightly. "She's right, it's probably nothing."

They looked at each other. "Right." Granella said, standing up . "I'll round up the scouts." She wrapped her cloak around her, and stepped out into the rain, pulling her hood up over her head as she walked across the compound to the covered shelter where the scouts were clustered around the fire sharing warmth and hot mulled wine.

"Gran! " Etiena waved her over. "C'mere.. siddown."

The slim dark haired Amazon shook her head. "Can't." She said quietly. "Need six of you, to go with me after first watch."

The atmosphere changed perceptibly, as all eyes focused on her, and a thrill of alertness traveled through them. "What's up?" Etiena said, watching her with cautious eyes.

"Ephiny and the youngsters were due back at dusk." Granella replied.

Silence fell. "Damn." Morka breathed. "Well, it's not long after dusk, they could have gotten held up somewhere."

Granella nodded. "Yeah, we thought so. That's why were giving it to first watch." She settled down to wait, taking the mug held out to her, and huddling inside her cloak against the chill. It would be a long night.

Xena finished off her second roll as she entered the room, a quirky grin still on her face from the banter. She licked the honey from her fingers, wishing briefly that she hadn't tossed the other two rolls at the bard. Well.. her mind sighed. All that sweet stuff isn't good for me anyway, right? Right.

She let that virtuous feeling go, and crossed to the work table, checking her supplies of herbs, and puttering around a bit until she heard footsteps outside the door, and grinned.

Gabrielle slipped in, giving her an impish smile, and came over to where she was standing. "Xena, Warrior Juggler, huh?" She whispered, giving her a tweak on the side. "You're too cute."

One sturdily arched eyebrow rewarded her. "Not." Xena snorted, then handed the bard the pot of soup Cyrene had left there earlier. "Can you heat this up for me?"

"I'll think about it." The bard answered, but took the pot from her and turned towards the fireplace..

"Hey." Xena said suddenly.

Gabrielle turned back and glanced up, puzzled. "What?"

Serious expression. "Hold on." Xena moved closer and bent her head to study the bard's face. "Uh oh."

"What???" Gabrielle hissed, glancing around, then back at her.

"Crumbs." The warrior answered, and removed them from her partner's lips. "Mmm." She chuckled as she straightened back up.

Gabrielle was standing, eyes half closed, with the soup forgotten. After a beat, she sighed, and licked her lips thoughtfully. "I may have to hurt you for that." Ohhh… I'm in trouble.. that felt wayyy too good. With a heartfelt sigh, she shook her head and moved to the fire, putting the pot over the coals.

I shouldn't have done that. Xena mused ruefully, feeling the pleasant shivers go up and down her spine. Gods.. she sighed inwardly. I've had more lovers than I can count.. but not one of them could do to me what she does with a simple kiss. With a shake of her head, she crossed to Ephiny's bedside, and dropped to one knee, and the Amazon stirred at her approach, turning her head towards the tall form.

Weary gray eyes tracked to hers, as Ephiny gave her the barest twitch of a smile. "Hey." The warrior said, patting her shoulder. "Guess you're feeling pretty lousy, huh?"

A faint nod. Lousy. Well, she was always good at understatement.

"Tonight's probably going to be worse." Xena told her, not flinching from the look in Ephiny's eyes. "We've got to get you sitting up a little.. you need to try and swallow some of the soup my friend over there is heating up."

Ephiny's eyes closed, and she shook her head. "Gods.. no." She managed, coughing.

"Eph." Xena held her still. "You have to." The warrior's voice held a deadly serious note.

The Amazon shook her head. "Can't."

Gabrielle came over, a mug of soup in her hands. "Maybe if you sit behind her, Xena.. and hold her up, I can try letting her eat a little at a time.."

The warrior nodded. "Good idea." She turned and caught the fuzzily startled look on Ephiny's face. "Relax, I don't bite." She slid an arm behind Ephiny's shoulders, and easily lifted the Amazon up, slipping in behind her, and letting the blond woman rest against her chest. "Ephiny, would you relax? You'd think I was porcupine or something" Xena chuckled, feeling the tension in the Amazon's body. "Come on, I'm not even wearing the armor." She wrapped her arms around Ephiny's middle for support, and gave Gabrielle an amused look. "Ok... let's give it a try."

Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the bed, and went to work with her spoon, glaring at Ephiny until the Amazon had finished over half the cup she had.

"Intimidating look she's got there, huh?" Xena whispered into the Amazon's ear, and felt the faint hint of a laugh travel through her body, which had slowly relaxed while she ate until she was as comfortable against Xena as Gabrielle would have been. Xena quirked a tiny grin, knowing the Amazon was very aware of her presence, sick as she was.

Ephiny tilted her head back against Xena's collarbone, and gave her a tiny grin. "Good student." This with an attempt at an arch look, which wasn't very successful. Then her eyes met Xena's. "Thanks. " she finished quietly.

"No problem." Xena assured her, then carefully let her back down on the bed, and wrapped the blankets back around her body. "Feel a little better?"

A rueful nod. "A little."

Xena patted her arm. "Take it easy." She stood, and took a breath. "Be right back." This to Gabrielle, accompanied by a ruffle of the bard's fair hair.

The bard nodded. "Get some lunch, OK?" She let her eyes follow her partner as she left the room, then returned her gaze to Ephiny. Saw the tiny furrow in the Amazon's brow, and the inward turned gaze.

They looked at each other, as Ephiny slowly settled herself back against the pillows, hugging her arms around herself. Damn… She still felt a tingling warmth from Xena's presence. The Amazon took a breath to speak, then stopped, then took another, gazing up at the bard with a wondering half smile. "Gods.. that's just the safest place in the world, isn't it." Her voice was very quiet, and her eyes met Gabrielle's green ones with startling honesty.

The bard glanced down at her hands, wrapped around the soup mug, then looked back up with a warm smile. "Yeah, it sure is." She agreed, feeling a blush color her skin.

Ephiny laughed gently, but started coughing, and curled up in a ball in pure reflex. "Ugh." She sighed when it finally stopped, and she could rest her head on the pillow again. "Glad for you, Gab... you know that, right?" She whispered, gazing up at the bard. "You two had me worried for a while."

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered honestly. "It's been a long road." She resettled Ephiny against the pillows, and tucked the blankets around her. "But.. " Now her face eased into a brilliant smile. "it was worth waiting for."

Ephiny reached out and clasped her hand, squeezing it weakly. Then she looked down, and lifted the bard's fingers, peering at them. "Wow." She rasped, giving Gabrielle a wicked look. "Nice."

Another blush from Gabrielle, who grinned and fingered the inside of the band. "So much has happened since I saw you .. when you feel better, I'll fill you in."

Ephiny nodded, and let her eyes drift shut. "Deal.." She muttered hoarsely

Gabrielle watched her fall asleep, the tortured breathing evening out a little, and the muscles in her face relaxing. We've come a long road too, Ephiny. She gave the blankets one final twitch, and stood, walking over to the chair and settling down in it, letting her head rest against the high back.

"This is the stable." Cait said, standing aside and letting them enter. She walked over, and petted Argo, who was munching away in her stall, peering at the young Amazons with an amused look. "Hello, Argo." Cait said softly. "Thank you for giving me such a super ride yesterday."

"She's such a pretty horse." Megan commented, scratching Argo's ears. The mare stopped chewing and looked at her, then blew out a mouthful of hay, and shook her head.

"I don't think she likes to be called pretty." Cait commented, hiding a grin. "After all, she is a warhorse."

"Were you scared on the ride here, Cait?" Elainas asked, running her hands over the ladder leading up to the loft.

"No." Cait answered quietly. "This was my home. But I was worried very much about the Queen."

Elianas nodded, and started up the ladder, pulling herself up into the loft and looking out the glazed half window. "Pretty up here." She commented, then glanced at the ceiling. "Oh.. guys.. look!" She giggled. "This is too cool!"

"What?" Cait asked, then backed as the girls made a mad rush for the ladder.

A thunder of small boots on wood, then silence, broken by stifled giggles. "Oh.. " Megan sighed. "Look.. Xena carved her name here."

"Well." Cait sighed to herself, remaining with Argo. "It's her mother's barn." She peered at Argo. "Right?"

Argo snorted.

Elianas sniffed. "That's ages old." She examined the scratching. "Lyceus.. wasn't that her brother?"

They all fell silent. "Yeah." Cait called up softly. "He died."

Then Megan drew an audible breath. "Oh look.. this is new…"

More muffled giggles. And a high pitched squeal. "Ohmigosh.. they carved their names together." Lista crowed. "How romantic!!"

"Oh, that is so cool." Megan sighed. "I can't believe we saw this."

Argo looked reproachfully at Cait. "Rats." The blond girl grimaced. "I'm for it now, aren't I?" Argo butted her chest hard. "Shouldn’t have brought them here, right?"

Another head butt. "Right." She looked up at the cluster of goggling heads. "Come on, they said something about lunch a bit ago." She called, getting their attention fully.

"All right." Megan said, scrambling down the ladder backwards. "But I'm getting a bit of wood from this place." She announced, and proceeded to do just that. "I'll keep this forever." She clutched the chunk of wood to her chest, and marched out triumphantly.

Cait sighed, as the rest followed suit. She'd wanted to go in and see Ephiny, but Cyrene had gently told her to try and distract the rest of them outside for a while. She'd told Cait their queen was resting, and was holding her own. Cait respected that, and was grateful that Cyrene hadn't tried to make the news more upbeat than it was. She liked honesty, and knew she was likely to get it from Xena's redoubtable mother. She slowly followed the other girls into the inn, trying to ignore their chatter.

"Do you think we could get Xena to sign it?" Elianas was asking Lista, who blinked.

"We could ask." The girl piped up.

Cait put her hands on their shoulders. "I think she's got her self all tied up with Queen Ephiny, right?"

They all looked at her, and burst into giggles. Then Megan slapped herself. "Gods, that's not funny. She's really sick. Come on now, you lot. Let's settle down and see if we can do anything to help."

They all looked up as Xena moved smoothly out of the kitchen, carrying a tray and some mugs. "Hi." The warrior nodded to them. "She's doing all right for now." The blue eyes flicked over them, one eyebrow curving up in consternation at the chunks of wood they were holding. "Try to keep it down, though, all right?"

Five nodding heads. Cait slipped out of her seat and got the door for Xena. "Hands full." She commented, and got a wink from the tall dark haired warrior. She cracked her half smile and winked back, then watched the door close behind Xena's back, glimpsing Ephiny's pale face and a concerned pair of green eyes within.

Continued in Part 3

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