Winter's Ending - Part 6

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

"My gosh.. you do get into trouble, don't you?" Cait smiled at Gabrielle. "Shipwrecked, then washed up on the deck of the cursed ship of Cecrops.. that's pretty scary."

The bard grinned ruefully. "Well, yeah, I guess." She shifted her body into a more comfortable position, and sighed. "It was scary.. but Cecrops was really kind of sweet." She cleared her throat, and smiled at Sharra, who handed across a cup of their meager supply of water. "Thanks." She sipped the liquid sparingly.

"What were you going to do?" Solon asked, his chin braced on his hands, as his sandy brows creased. "I mean.. you couldn’t escape.."

The bard sighed. "No.. I realized that."

That horrible moment, when she knew she was stuck on board that damned ship.. and her eyes had gone out across the gently lapping water to the land.

Stuck out here, and never know what happened? Never know if Xena made it.. or… Her mind had refused to accept that for a long moment, as her hands gripped the wooden gunwale, and everything faded except for a gentle tugging on her heart that made her understand that it was the separation that was sending waves of horror thorough her. Not the fact that she was shipwrecked. Not the fact that she, herself was trapped here.

It hurt, to the point that she wanted to just crawl into some small space, and hug herself, not be out there on deck with all those leering sailors, feeling the salt spray coat her face. Even the friendly hand of the first mate hadn't helped.

"You'll get used to it, little one." He'd told her. "Rama won't let any of this lot harm you."

"It's not that." She' d managed to say, gripping the wood.

"Is it your friend?" He asked, sympathetically. "I'm sure they made it to shore… they'll be fine."

Yeah. She'd thought. Probably thought I drowned… She'd tried to imagine what Xena's reaction would be.. she thought wistfully perhaps the warrior might spend time searching.. to be sure. Yes - Xena would.. need to be sure. They'd been getting closer lately.. almost to the point where… Here Gabrielle stopped, as she usually did. Daydreaming, Gabrielle. Stop it But she'd miss that closeness. She already did. .

Xena.. Her mind whispered gently I don't want to not see you ever again… I don't know if I can live with that…

A commotion on shore shortly after caught their imaginations.. and she was on the deck with startling speed, looking down the mate's arm to where he was pointing.

Just a speck.. really. A barely seen running figure but.. even at this distance she knew that stride, knew the smooth, even power of it.

And her heart clenched so hard, it almost stopped her breathing. I knew it. She knows I'm out here. Knew that before she yelled Xena' s name, even across the distance, and saw the dark head jerk up, and turn their way.

Cecrops voice in her ears. "Your friend is thinking about jumping on to my ship."

Oh yes. Gabrielle's mind fiercely agreed. She most certainly is. And that stopped her in thought. Did she have the right to ask Xena to join her on a one way journey to Tartarus? There was no escape from here… from a small ship, the confines of which would drive the warrior to a fretting insanity in short order. She couldn't ask that… could she? No. Her mind whispered, and she felt something fracture inside her.

So she'd made no move to prevent Cecrops from turning the ship out to sea, gazing across the cruel waters, not taking her eyes off that swiftly moving form for even one second. My last sight of her… She felt a pressure grip her chest. I never got a chance… oh gods.. I'm sorry… It had been wonderful lately.. so many small things, so many nice moments to remember. Just last night on board the merchanter, Xena had taken her up on the bow, saying it would make her feel better.. and it had, but she wasn't sure if it was the nice view, the fresh breeze, or Xena's casually draped arm over her shoulders that did it.

The high, familiar, keening sound shouldn't have surprised her, but it did.. and she watched with a sense of inevitability as the sheets holding the mainsail were sliced through, and the friendly wink of the sun off the half buried chakram reflected in her face.

"She's crazy." Came the mate's voice in her ear. "She can't believe she'll make it out here."

Gabrielle had watched, seen the determination in her movements, and found it impossible to keep a smile off her face. I should be doing everything I can to stop her. The bard hugged herself. But I can't.. I won't…. I know it's not fair to her, it's not the right thing for me to be doing.. she doesn't know what she's getting herself into… but I can’t help it.

The ship passed under the cliff, and Gabrielle just watched, unable to tame her exultant heart, as her companion launched herself into the air. Fearlessly, without a single thought to her own safety. That's my Xena. A soft laugh bubbled it's way up Gabrielle's throat, and she bit her lip, smiling, as the warrior reached out, and snagged the crow's nest railing, and hauled herself aboard.

Then the warrior was landing gracefully on the deck, and Gabrielle felt the intensity of her gaze as she stumbled forward, and was greeted with a surprising gentleness. Xena's hand stroking the side of her face, and that low voice sounding in deep concern.

It had rattled her, to the point that she simply babbled, about being seasick, and cursed…and felt herself being pulled into a warm embrace that chased every other thought out of her head.

Now I have a few seconds before she finds out just how much trouble I've gotten us both into. She thought wistfully, soaking in the closeness. Breathing in the salt, and the tang of leather and brass that calmed her rapidly beating heart and put her at peace.

And then she realized that Xena had known all along what she was getting herself into, and knowing that.. meant more to her than she thought possible.

"You knew." She'd whispered, as Cecrops stormed off, and they were left alone on the forecastle.

Xena had gazed at her. "Yeah." Then she half smiled, and shrugged. "Couldn’t just let you go off… " She'd straightened the fabric that covered Gabrielle's shoulder. "Right?" Xena's tone had been light.

"Is there a point to both of us being doomed to spend the rest of our lives on a cursed ship?" She'd answered, half jokingly, as her hands rested against Xena's armor, and idly traced the curves. Then she realized what she was doing, and jerked her hands down, blushing a little. "Sorry.. uh.. I…"

Had found her hands captured in Xena's larger ones, and she'd looked up, startled, into gently smiling blue eyes.

"Oh.. I dunno." The warrior had said, casually. "I can think of a few people it would be worse to be stuck on a ship with." She hesitated. "for the rest of my life."

It was one of those moments she tucked away into her heart, to savor when she was lying quietly, waiting for sleep to take her. The warmth of Xena's hands, the quiet fondness in her gaze.. the half smile.. She'd squeezed Xena's hands, and smiled back, not even minding the pitching motion of the ship, only feeling the soft brush of the salted wind, and the heat of the sun slanting down on both of them.

"Thank you." She had said. "I'm really glad you're here."

"I'm glad you're glad." Had come the chuckling answer, on the heels of another surprising hug. "C'mon..let's see what we can do about getting out of this mess."

Gabrielle smiled at the memory. "I realized that." She repeated. "But… you know, we get in really tough situations all the time, and I guess I just kind of.. try not to assume the worst until it happens."

Footsteps sounded outside the cage, and Gabrielle glanced up to see three of the ruffians standing next to the opening, holding clubs. "You." The first one said, nodding at her. "Come with us."

The bard took a deep breath, and slowly nodded. "All right." She glanced across at Cait, and their eyes locked. "Keep an eye on things, OK Cait?" Gods.. now what?

Cait blinked at her gravely. "I will." She answered softly, putting a hand on Solon's shoulder, and giving the three men an uneasy look.

Gabrielle stood up and brushed herself off, waiting for them to open the door. She put a hand on the jamb and stepped out, moving clear of the door so that they could close it. "Where are we going?" She asked.

Her answer was a club hitting her side, sending her flying against the cage. "Shut up." The man growled, and wrapped his hands in her hair. "Let's go."

She worked on catching her breath, trying to ignore the sharp pain where the club had struck her. Panic started to rise, but she concentrated on staying calm, thinking of her partner in the same situation. That's dumb. She reflected. Someone trying to drag Xena by the hair would be very quickly taken apart into very small pieces.

Xena.. her thoughts reached out. I think I'm in real trouble here, love. I should have kept my mouth shut and not gotten Rurik mad.. cause I think I'm about to pay for that. I know.. you can't hear me… and you're too far away to do anything.. but..

"Leave her." Rurik's voice, at the doorway to a small, nasty smelling hut. "Get in here."

Gabrielle walked in, letting her eyes roam around the interior before looking at him. He had a bandage on his head, and his eyes had nothing humorous about them. Uh oh. Her mind winced.

Abruptly, Rurik stood up, and crossed over to her, backing her against the wall. "Bitch." He breathed in her face. "Too bad I'm getting a price for you tomorrow, and you have to be untouched, because otherwise.. " He ran a finger across her jawline. "I'd take you like a dog." Then he smiled. "But.. don't worry.. the man who's buying you… he'll do the honors, never fear."

She gazed at him, trying for the kind of calm impassivity Xena could produce on demand. "You might want to tell your goons to lay off with the clubs then." She commented quietly.

Rurik laughed. "Oh.. now a tough girl like you… that won't bother you any. In fact… " He smiled. "I have something planned for you little love…" He held up a padded collar, and moved closer, buckling it around her neck. "That suites you." He attached a leather thong to the collar. "We're going to put you on a little display, there.. hmm?" He tugged on her leash gently. "And don't bother trying to buy me off with tales of your lover, all right ducks?"

"They're not tales." Gabrielle said evenly. "Thought you said I had to be untouched for your buyer."

"Oh.. you will." Rurik chuckled. "It's padded… just to keep you honest, as it were." He sat on the corner of the lopsided table in the hut. "And as for your tales… I talked to my colleagues' here.. oh yes, they've heard stories." He got up and traveled around her, trailing a finger across her back. "But they were from a long time ago… and I hear she's changed… gotten old, and soft… " He smirked. "So that's why she hides there in the backwoods… threatening half grown mud pirates who don't know any better."

Gabrielle smiled softly. "You know, I've heard that a lot lately."

"Have you then?" He laughed in triumph. "I think I'm right then, don't you?"

The bard looked right up into his eyes, and laughed. "I think you're playing with fire, Rurik.. and you're going to get burned bad." Abruptly she sobered. "Do yourself and your men a favor… let us go."

The man just shook his head. "You're stubborn, I'll give you that." He tugged her leash again. "Come on then.. .let's get you out on parade… see how much of our little attention you can take."

Gabrielle followed him out, glancing up as the rising wind blew the ragged clouds overhead. Damn… well, maybe the weather will delay his buyer… she stopped short when he did, watching as he tossed the end of the leash over an overhanging branch, and make it taut.

"There." He sauntered back over to her. "Standing up.. doesn't seem so hard eh? Not until you have to do it day and night.. with no rest from it." He chuckled, and ran a hand down her thigh, giving it a squeeze. "Ah.. and you're a tough little one too, I see." His hand tugged on the collar. "Now.. hanging off this isn't a good idea, then.. because it's made to close your windpipe, see.. and not breathing.. well, that's a bad idea." He leaned close. "Got me?"

Gabrielle just stared at him.

"Oh yes…" He smiled, and pulled her hands behind her back, lashing her wrists together with a thick leather thong. "Don't want you taking that little thing off, then, hmm??" Then he knelt, and scooped up a handful of mud, smearing it across her face and down her chest. "See.. I don’t like being made a fool of, little girl." He leaned very close. "And if your has been lover does show up.. well, see, I used to do a little killing myself as a trade. I think I can handle her."

He looked into the mist green eyes, searching for fear, and finding none. "Pity you're so damned moral, Amazon.. you'd be a good addition to my little crew here." He patted her on the cheek and walked off, leaving her to face the first spattering of cold rain.

The bard waited for his form to disappear into his hut before she closed her eyes, and took a shaking breath. I am in deep, deep trouble here. She quietly admitted to herself, glancing towards the cage where her companions were. They were all standing on the inside, hands curled around the bars watching her with anxious, anguished faces. Solon, she could see, was fiercely trying to find a way through the slim bars, that were just too narrow to admit his growing frame.

The wind buffeted her, and she turned into it, letting the lashing rain wash the mud from her face, along with the trickle of frustrated tears that had started.

Then as she stood there, a wave of dark, roiling anger passed over her. She staggered in place, and her eyes popped open, as it disappeared as quickly as it came. What in Hades was th… Knowing it could have had only one source. Oh gods.. she's really in a dangerous situation too… what if…

That thought stopped, then she was almost taken to her knees when another wave hit her. Gods.. no… She found herself gasping for breath, as the red fury washed through her, and she frantically fought her way through it and reached out…

Xena.. her mind screamed… lost in a whirlwind of darkness.

And just like that, it was gone, leaving her chest heaving, and her head pounding. Oh.. all the gods in Olympus… what was that… she braced her shaking legs and concentrated on taking deep breaths. Something had happened, that was for sure. Xena, you'd better be all right.. she pleaded. Please…

Gabrielle let her thoughts go quiet. I have to withstand this. The understanding rolled around her mind. We won't have a chance at escape until they try to move us.. after the buyer gets here. That means I have to survive, or those kids have no chance.

I have to survive. For them. And her mind finally faced what she'd been nudging aside for a while. I have to survive for Xena. That simple statement settled her. Nothing is more important than that. She took a breath, and opened her eyes, lifting her head and fixing her gaze on the mountaintops she could see over the treeline.

She put out of her thoughts the cold wind, and the stinging rain, and thought about home.

"Lovely place." Iolaus grunted, from under his part of their burden, as they moved down the narrow dripping passageway. The walls were covered with slimy algae, and the smell was damp, and rotten. "You doing all right?' Being the third time he'd asked her. Damnit.. she's white as a sheet…

"Yeah." Xena answered shortly, for the third time. "Would you stop asking me that, please?" She took a better grip on Hercules wrist, and sighed as they reached the bottom of the passageway, and moved out into a large cavern. The floor was covered in small stagnant pools, and a stream moved sluggishly through it. She looked up as she heard a welcome nicker, and spotted Argo's muzzle peering into large opening to outside. "Hey girl."


They got the now stirring Hercules down onto the damp grass, as Xena went to Argo's saddlebags and resumed her weapons and armor. "Easy girl.. I know.. I know.. " She stroked the nervous mare's flanks. "He scared you, huh?" She pulled her extra tunic out from her pack, and settled it over her shoulders, then slung her cloak over that and fastened it around her neck.

"He's still out.. " Iolaus fretted, sitting down next to his friend and plucking at the black leather. "Can we get him out of this thing? He's going to freak out if he wakes up in it."

Xena pulled her healer's kit out from Argo's pack and crossed back over to him, sitting down in the grass with an audible thump. "Well, he's not going to fit into either one of our clothes, Iolaus." She gave the blond man a half grin. "Let's make getting out of here the priority, huh?" She dumped out her kit and ruffled through it.

Iolaus reached across Hercules' steadily moving chest and plucked something up. "What's this?" He held up a small wrapped packet.

Xena's face twitched, and she snagged it out of his fingers. "Don't ask." She warned, tucking it away in her belt pouch. Now that the immediate danger with Hercules was over, the uneasy feeling in her gut was growing, almost making her hands shake as she lifted Hercules' eyelids up and peered at his glazed eyes. "Hey.. Herc…" She called gently, feeling the muscles twitch under her fingertips.

A low groan, and he raised his hands towards his head. Xena captured them, and pressed them back down on his chest. "Hey.. take it easy… "

His eyes fluttered open, and tracked to hers, blinking, as his brow creased, Then his head turned, and his gaze fell on Iolaus' desperately worried face. "Wha hit me?"

Iolaus closed his eyes, and almost collapsed. There had been recognition in those pale eyes, and a warmth he'd been hoping for. "Welcome back." He managed to say faintly.

Hercules stared at him for a minute, then turned his head back towards Xena, who was putting salve on the burn marks from the necklace. "What happened?" He asked. "What are you.. " Then his better manners asserted themselves. "Sorry. Hi Xena."

"Hi." The warrior replied quietly. "Lay still."

"What hit me?" He asked again, studying her face intently. "Come on, guys.. what's going on?" He glanced at Iolaus. "Last thing I remembered was that dragon.. then.. I don't know.. must have bit me, I remember that.. and then.. " He frowned. "Bite that bad? " He hazarded. "And you couldn't find a closer healer than Amphipolis?" He reached up and felt his jaw. "And what hit me?"

"I did." Xena answered, with a sigh.

Total silence from Hercules. Then .. "What???" He jerked his eyes toward Iolaus. "What did I do to deserve that?" He started to get up, then lay back down with a hiss, holding his head. "Oh.. boy.. does that ever hurt." His eyes opened, and he glanced down. And froze. One big hand lifted, and touched the leather jerkin he was wearing. "Where did…what…am I doing wearing this?"

Xena finished her work on his chest, and took a breath. Looks like I'm going to have to do this.. because Iolaus over there is falling apart. "Look." She reached down, and gripped his chin lightly, turning his face towards her. "Listen to me, all right? I'm only going to say this once, and don't ask me if I'm kidding, or making it up, because I sure wouldn't be out here if that was the case, OK?"

Pale eyes turned deadly serious as her words sunk in. "All right."

"You were taken by soldiers after that dragon fight." Xena said. "They took advantage of the poison and put something on you that took away your memory, and made you do what they wanted you to do."

Hercules' remained silent, his eyes locked on her face.

"I got rid of that something, and now we're here." Xena finished. Short, but that's the essentials. "Now, we gotta get out of here… I need to get you up on Argo."

Hercules reached out one big hand and caught her wrist. "What was I doing?"

Xena gazed at him. "It wasn't your fault. You had no idea of who you were, or what was going on."

He half rose up on one elbow, and gripped her arm hard. "What was I doing." He asked again, his voice taking on a rough edge.

Xena ignored his grip, turning her head and nodding towards the mountain. "There's a mining village other side of that." She expelled a long held breath. "They conscript villagers to do the mining work. And.. when they misbehave, they're sent to the dungeon, where the… Her lips twitched unhappily. "What they call the adjuster beats them into submission." Her eyes turned and fastened on his. "You were that person."

He swallowed once, twice, then his eyes closed in agony. "No.. " he whispered, reaching out blindly.

Iolaus caught his hand, and held it. "Hey.. hey… it wasn't your fault. You heard her." He glanced up at Xena anxiously. "Tell him…right?"

"He's right… " Xena gripped his shoulder in compassion. "It wasn't your fault."

He lay there for a long moment, then opened his eyes and stared bleakly at Xena. "Did I…"

She shook her head immediately. "No..I don't think so." She smoothed the hair back off his forehead gently. "Mostly just some breaks and things..I fixed most of the people up."

He stared at her armored kneecap, several inches from his face. "Ironic." He whispered, looking up at her, then turning his head towards Iolaus, almost fearfully. "Did I hurt you?"

The blond man shook his head violently. "No you didn't touch me.. not a scratch." He gave the larger man a bright smile. "I just ducked outta here, and went for help." His eyes darted to Xena and them back to Hercules' face. "Glad you're back, pal… I missed you."

That seemed to be what Hercules needed, because his face relaxed a little, and he rubbed his temples. "Thanks, buddy." He managed a tiny smile for Iolaus, who smiled back.

They both missed Xena's speculative look, and quickly hidden grin. "Let's get outta here." She commented, packing up her healer's kit. "Find some place we can just sit and get ourselves together for a minute." The urge to get back to Gabrielle was building rapidly now, and she knew she'd have to leave the two behind shortly. Need to make sure they're ok, though. She stood, and reached a hand down towards Hercules. "Come on."

He stared at her for a second, then took her hand, and allowed himself to be hauled up. "What on earth did you hit me with, by the way?" He asked as they walked towards the horses,.

For an answer, Xena held up her right hand, and flexed the fingers, giving him a sideways look.

Hercules stared at her, then reached out and grasped the hand, examining it. "You have armor plates in there?" He felt his jaw gingerly. "I think you cracked something.'

Xena pulled her hand free, and felt his jaw with quiet skill. "On you? Nah." She dropped her hand down. "Just a bruise." They reached the horses, and she motioned him towards Argo. "Go on.."

"No." Hercules closed his eyes. "I'll walk." He unhooked the jerkin he was wearing, and stripped it off, hurling it from him in disgust, then wiped his arms off, looking like he wanted a bath. He reached up and scrubbed his face, then let his hands drop.

Xena exchanged a worried glance with Iolaus, then motioned the smaller man to get on his horse. She gentled Argo, then walked over and put a hand on his elbow. "Come on." She studied his face, which had a bleak expression on it. "Argo is strong enough to carry us both for a little while." She stepped closer. "Let's get out of here.. we can talk on the way."

He stared at the ground for a bit, then finally nodded. "All right."

Iolaus kneed his horse over, and took all of Argo's baggage, then backed off, as Xena vaulted onto the mare's high back, and moved one foot forward, giving him a stirrup to mount with. He settled in the saddle behind her, and took hold of her waist, as she gathered Argo's reins in and pressed the mare's side lightly with her knees.

They headed down out of the mountain range, and were started through the valley before Hercules spoke. "So.. what did this?" He asked, ducking his head against the now driving rain.

Xena sighed. "Don't really know.. it was a necklace of some kind.. had a ruby.. or what looked like one in it." She looked over her shoulder. "I could feel how bad it was when I touched it."

He absorbed this for a minute. "How'd you get rid of it?" He considered. "If all it took was a touch.. I mean.."

Xena stared ahead of her, guiding Argo towards a low bluff she knew had some caves in it. Where she could leave them snug, and head where her heart was now so desperately pulling her. "I .. grabbed it… and pulled it off." She answered, flexing her hand.

"But you didn't…" Hercules started, leaning closer and looking at her face. "It didn't take you over?"

A long pause. "Almost." The warrior whispered. Then she looked back over at him. "Guess I out evilled it or something." She forced a smile. "You’re a good person, Hercules. Easy pickings for something like that… " She paused. "Me?" A rueful smile. "Well.. let’s just say I was l little more than it was bargaining for."

"Mm." Hercules commented, getting a better grip on her. "You think it was something Hera cooked up?"

Xena took a breath, and sighed. "Not according to your brother." She cocked her head. "He showed up right at the end there.. thanked me for getting rid of the thing, and said it wasn't his or anyone else's up there." We wont' mention the other favor. "He.. um… got rid of the guards, and got our horses down to the cavern for us in return for the favor."

Silence from Hercules. Then: "You think he was telling the truth?" Like she would know…well, maybe she would, at that. Damned if Ares doesn't have a big time thing for her.

Xena nodded. "Yeah, I do." She stroked Argo's neck. "Hang in there girl.. we're almost there." She sniffed. "You doing ok back there?"

His hands tightened around her, and he rested his chin on her shoulder. "Thanks." He sighed, and she could feel the air moving past her ear. "You saved my butt again."

That got a smile from her. "Anytime."

"Hey, Xena?" Now a tiny smile etched his tired features.

"Yeah?" She answered.

"I hate to be the one to tell you this, but that evil warlord routine doesn’t cut it anymore." He gave her a squeeze. "You’re one of the good guys now."

She half turned in the saddle, and gave him a look. "Think so, huh?" Complete with icy stare and raised eyebrow.

He smiled at her. "Yep."

That got him a quirky grin, and a shake of her dark head as she turned back around and sighed.

"So.. how's Gabrielle?" Came the next question, and she could feel him chuckle a little.

"Just fine." She answered, quietly. "Sorry she couldn’t be here.. we had an accident with some Amazons and she's taking care of one of them back home." Or she should be. But this feeling.. gods... "She sends her love."

"I couldn’t believe it when I heard you were settled in there.. what's up with that?" Hercules asked, apparently relaxing a bit. "You retiring or something?"

Xena felt a smile cross her face, which he couldn't see. "Maybe." She shrugged. "For a little while, anyway. Been a rough couple of years." She sighed. "Bad winter, mom needed the help…"

"Mmm hmm." She felt his fingers tap against her ribcage. "I heard another rumor." He rumbled, casting a quick eye towards the Iolaus' ambling mount. "True or not true?"

Xena laughed. "What do you do, spend more time collecting gossip than fighting monsters?"

He waited, pale eyes twinkling as he felt her sigh.

"Yeah, it's true." She admitted, feeling a blush color her face, and was glad he wasn't facing her.

"Bout damn time." He snorted, giving her a tweak in the ribs. "Like it wasn't obvious to everyone."

That got a very raised eyebrow. "Yeah? I had to practically draw pictures for Iolaus." She poked him in the ribs with an elbow. "You find him under a rock or something?"

Hercules laughed his gentle laugh. "He's a little.. naïve sometimes." Then his face grew serious and she felt him sigh. "Thanks.. for helping him out, by the way." He fell silent for a moment. "I don't.. even remember any of this.. it's.. really scaring me."

She reached back and patted his thigh. "I know." She guided Argo through a band of trees. "It could have been a lot worse, though. Just think of that." She peered ahead. "Ok.. it's right where I remembered it.." Ahead in the bluff face, a large dark cavern entrance was becoming visible. "It's over, Herc. " She turned and gazed at him "You just gotta go on."

He pale eyes studied hers. "Yeah. I know." A wry smile twisted his lips. "You're the expert on that, huh?"

She nodded slowly. "Something like that." She reined Argo to a halt beside the cave entrance, where Iolaus was already dismounting from his gelding. "Listen.. you guys will be all right here for a few days. I know this territory - these caves are pretty deep, and there's a hot spring in them." She reached up and touched his beard stubble with a fingertip. "You look like you'd love a bath."

Hercules cocked his head. "You not staying around?" A trifle wistfully. "I'd love a chance to talk with you.. we're always doing that boats passing in the night thing."

That got him a real smile. "Got things I gotta take care of back home." She reminded him. "A sick Amazon.. and some other stuff. But.. " She regarded him thoughtfully. "Why don't you hole up for a day, then head down our way? You look like you could use a few days rest, and some decent food for a change."

He put a hand on his jaw. "As long as they're soft foods." With a mock glare at her, then his face relaxed into a smile. "Thanks.. I think we will take you up on that."

They both dismounted, and walked over to where Iolaus was unloading his horse. "I'll take that." Hercules offered, grabbing his companions pack. "Xena's gotta take off home." He paused. "She invited us for a visit, if that's ok with you."

Big grin from Iolaus. "Absolutely, and you'll love it." He answered enthusiastically. "Thanks, Xena." His eyes met hers, with a look of silent gratitude. "Well.. " He walked forward without hesitation, and gave her a hug. "Thanks." He whispered. "I owe you a big one."

She chuckled softly. "Take care of him, all right?" She murmured back. "It's going to be a little tough at first.. just be there for him."

Iolaus nodded against her shoulder. "I will."

She patted his back, and released him, then found herself pulled into a hug by Hercules. "Giving him last minute instructions?" The tall man muttered in her ear. "Why do I feel a conspiracy coming on?"

"It's for your own good." She replied. "See you two soon."

They parted, and she adjusted her saddlebags back onto Argo's back, then mounted. A brief nod at them, and then she was guiding Argo through the trees and back towards the road.

It was the cold that was the worst, Gabrielle decided, as she tried to control her shivering. Her legs ached, but more from the icy chills that crawled up and down them and made her muscles seize up than from the standing. She shifted her position slightly, and balanced her weight over her body’s center, a trick Xena had showed her, which took most of the strain off and let her almost relax. She sent a silent thank you to the warrior for the lesson, and then spent a few minutes distracting her mind with the memory of it.

"Xena, what are you doing?" She’d asked the warrior, who was standing on top of a narrow rock, gazing off into the distance.

"Balancing." Xena had answered quietly. Her body was completely relaxed, and she appeared to be half-asleep.

"That takes practice??" The bard had laughed, sitting down on a rock nearby and wrapping her arms around her knees. "I just thought you did that naturally, like everything else."

Xena hopped down from her perch, and cocked her head towards the bard. "You try it." She waved a hand towards the rock. "Come on…" Now her voice turned coaxing.

"Oh no.." Gabrielle had shook her head. "You know I’m really bad at that. You just want to see me fall on my butt." She gave Xena a smile to take the sting out of the words, just in case. They hadn’t been traveling together all that long.. less than a year, and she was still very wary of the ex warlord’s sometimes changeable moods.

"No.." Xena shook her head and gestured again. "Come on.. I’ll show you how."

Never, Gabrielle knew. Never turn down a lesson from the Warrior Princess. On anything. That much she’d learned the hard way, because Xena never asked twice. "Ok.. " She stood up, and twitched her skirt down, then put a booted foot on the rock and gamely lifted herself up.

Losing her balance immediately and toppling over.. but right into Xena’s ready hands. "Easy." The warrior said, steadying her. "Put a hand on my shoulder."

A big warm shoulder, with leather and skin nicely heated by the afternoon sun they’d been basking in. Gabrielle gripped it firmly, feeling the tactile shift of muscles under her fingertips as the warrior moved a bit. And that was such an interesting feeling, she almost forgot what she was doing up there in the first place, and had to ask Xena to repeat herself. "Sorry.. I was trying to get used to being up here."

"Sure." Xena said, the corner of her mouth twitching. " All right.. everyone has a center of balance.. right? It’s like… a pivot point."

The bard’s brow creased, then cleared. "Ok.. I see what you mean." She concentrated. "It’s where.. you’re not going forward or backward, or to either side.. just in the middle." A quick glance to her right. "Right?"

"Uh.. right." Xena smiled at her. "So.. you just get to know where that center bit is, and you put yourself over it.. now…" She moved closer. "Lean forward a little.. and bend you knees a little bit."

Gabrielle did so, aware of Xena’s hands suddenly resting on her waistline, the warmth of her touch almost making the bard lose her concentration again. Come on.. Gabrielle.. cut the goofy teenage crush stuff, OK? She rolled her eyes at herself. "Ok.. I think I see what you mean." She leaned a little more, and felt her body settle into a spot where it required little effort to stay upright. "Oh.. yeah.. " She added in fascination, as she let her arms relax and felt her balance maintain itself.

Xena let her hands drop, and gave her a quietly approving look. "Good girl." She held out a hand, which Gabrielle took, and helped her down off the rock. "You can use that if you have to.. oh.. go to sleep standing up, for instance."

Gabrielle had turned to her, surprised. "Is that how you do that?"

"Yep." Came the answer.

Well.. she’s in a really good mood tonight. Gabrielle considered. Good a time as any to ask.. "Xena?" She turned to her companion, as they strolled along next to a slowly flowing river, taking their time in finding a camping spot for the night.

"Yeah?" Xena turned her dark head from where she’d been idly observing a squirrel and looked at her inquiringly.

"Uhm… I know.. well, I started learning with the Amazons.. I mean, that staff thing and all .. " She fumbled over her words, an annoying effect Xena seemed to have on her. "But.. I was wondering.. I mean, if you didn’t mind.. could you… once in a while…uh…"

"Teach you how to use it?" Xena finished her thought, regarding her soberly.

"Uhm.. yeah. Something like that." Gabrielle finished awkwardly. "I know.. I mean, it’s like baby stuff to you, and I know we’re really busy, and you’re probably not in the mood to bother and.."

"Sure." The warrior quietly interrupted. "I’ve been waiting for you to ask me." She cleared her throat a little and glanced off into the distance. "Didn’t know if you were still interested in learning."

Gabrielle just stopped walking, and stared at her. "All I had to do was ask?"

Xena swung around and raised an eyebrow at her, lit with a cascade of golden sunlight that brought out the mahogany highlights in her hair, and made her eyes sparkle. "I don’t bite, Gabrielle." Then a pause. "Well. " A brief, wicked grin. "Not hard, anyway."

The golden warmth of the moment took her mind off the harsh wind, and just how much her knees hurt. The collar pressed against her throat, an ever-present reminded of her situation, and she kept her eyes closed against the stinging rain, which penetrated her tunic and chilled her thoroughly.

Xena… I hope you’re out there somewhere, and that you’re ok. She thought wistfully. I miss you so much… but you’re probably not even to that castle yet, are you.. She counted the days, and her shoulders slumped for an instant, then she took a deep breath, and pushed herself upright, opening her eyes to glumly watch the deepening dark of evening settling over her.

Damn it, I can do this. Her mind fiercely insisted, then she was distracted by footsteps on the watery ground.

"Well, there, lass." Rurik’s voice floated out of the darkness. "A little wet and cold, right?" He sauntered up, and gazed at her face. "Well.. you’re a lucky bitch tonight. I don’t want no hungry wolf eating up my profits.. so I’m going to let you back in your cage for a while. Happy?"

Gabrielle kept silent, just looking at him as she felt an anger ignite inside her the likes of which she had seldom felt before. She watched him as he untied her collar from the branch, and walked towards the cage, tugging her behind him.

It hurt to walk, having been stuck in one position for so long, but she did it, forcing her legs to move fast enough to prevent him from pulling on her neck. He slammed the stick he was holding against the cage supports and laughed as the children started back.

Except, predictably, for Solon, who stood and looked him in the eye before slowly backing away. Gabrielle suppressed a tired smile, as she ducked her head under the top support, and then was pitched forward, as Rurik shoved her off balance, and she was unable to catch her fall because of her tied hands.

Long months of hard work enabled her to flip herself over as she was falling, landing on her side instead of her head with a painful jolt. She heard the door slam shut, and his laughter trailing off as small hands grabbed her all over.

"Bastard." Cait’s voice was icy. "Twice whored, one balled bastard." She tore furiously at the leather binding the bard’s hands, and hissed. "Waterlogged.. "

Sharra slid down on the damp leaves, and lifted Gabrielle’s head, resting it on her knee. "Hang in there.. Cait will have you loose in a minute."

Cait threw herself down next to Gabrielle’s arms, and bit down viciously with her teeth on the leather, tearing strips of it off and finally biting through it. She unwrapped the bard’s hands, and set her free, rolling clear as Gabrielle sat up and moved her arms out in front of her, biting her lip hard to keep from yelling as she felt the burn of returning feeling travel down them.

"Here.. " Cait rubbed one arm. "Elianas, get the other arm, will you?’

Hesitantly, Elianas complied, glancing nervously at the still silent bard. "Gods, I feel so awful for you.."

Gabrielle forced her eyes open, and gave Elainas a grim smile. "Thanks." She took a deep breath. "That was fun." She rubbed her wrists, wincing at the angry red marks from the leather, overlaying bruises that she could see even in the darkness of the cage. "Everybody ok here?"

Solon scooted closer, and put a hand on her knee. "There’s a back way into the camp… " He whispered, and glanced with his eyes off to their left. "It’s a path.. and it goes over a river.. with a bridge and then out of here. It’s not real well guarded.. we can go down it that way right there."

Slowly, Gabrielle turned her head in the direction he indicated, and spotted a small opening in the treeline. "How did you find out about that??"

Her question was echoed by the girls, who shot Solon jealous looks.

The boy’s lips twitched a little. "Heard the guards talkin.. s’how they get out to go foolin around."

Sharra grabbed his arm. "You heard them from over here? You lie."

"I did!" Solon twisted out of her grasp. "Not my fault you can’t hear nothin."

Gabrielle lifted one sore arm, and gently touched the boy’s ear. "It’s all right.. Solon. I believe you." Her lips curled into a gentle grin. "That’s great news. I'll remember that.. I think our best chance is when they take us all out to move us."

Cait studied her, then glanced at Solon, then looked back at Gabrielle’s expression, and smiled to herself. "Too right." She sighed. "But that’s not till.. rats.. tomorrow night at the earliest." She gave the bard a concerned look. "What if he does that to you again? That was awful."

The bard sighed, and carefully moved back until she could lean against the cage wall, and slowly stretch her aching legs out in front of her. "Yeah.. well, I’ll just have to take that chance, I guess." She gave them all a level stare. "It wasn’t that bad really."

They looked at her with expressions of awe that almost made her chuckle. Or would have if she wasn’t so tired she could barely talk. "Let’s get some rest.. listen, it’s cold, and it’s damp out. Everyone should lie down close together, so we can keep each other warm."

That got shy looks from the girls, and she suddenly realized why. And blushed. "Come on.." She motioned Solon over and he snuggled up against one side, with Cait on the other, and the rest of the girls in front of them.

"Wait.. " Cait stirred. "We saved you some dinner." She reached over and picked up a small bowl. "If you could call it that."

Gabrielle hesitated, then shook her head. "No thanks… Cait.. I appreciate it, but.. not right now." She felt her eyes closing and blinked them open. "I’m all right.. I could afford to skip a few meals." She gave the girl a reassuring smile. "They spoil me pretty bad at home.. you go ahead and finish that." The smell was making her nauseous, and she didn’t have the energy to eat anyway.

Cait studied her tense features, and wished she had the guts to do what she knew Xena would have done, which would have involved gently forcing the queen to eat something. But she didn’t, and knew none of the others did either, so she was forced to just sigh, and divide the meal between them all. They munched quietly, as their combined body heat slowly made it bearable to try and fall asleep.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and leaned back, glad for the warmth of the bodies pressed on either side of her, and for the total exhaustion that would let her sleep despite how much her body hurt. She forced herself to relax, one muscle at a time, which was another lesson learned from her partner. Wonder what she’s doing… her mind drifted, separating her from the cold, damp cage. Wonder if she’s found Herc yet.. or if she and Iolaus are fighting… bet she’s nice and snug by the fire, wrapped up in that furry bedroll.. maybe she even found a poem or two. She smiled at the thought, and let it coax her gently into sleep.

It was well after midnight, in the early mists of the pre dawn hours when Xena finally stopped, feeling Argo’s exhaustion through her knees and dismounted, leading the mare into the shelter of some trees and out of the driving rain. She leaned against the mare’s heaving side for a minute, then unbuckled her saddle girth, and pulled her gear off. "Sorry… girl." She apologized to the mare, rubbing her down with a soft cloth. "I know I'm pushing you too hard."

The mare snorted, and nibbled at her tunic, accepting the apology gracefully. Xena went to the small pool she’d smelt nearby, and dipped her traveling cup into it, tasting it carefully before she led the horse over and let her drink. The water was icy cold, and hit her stomach harshly, making her flinch as a cramp almost bent her double. "Careful, girl." The warrior sighed, as she straightened. "Not too much."

She managed to get enough wood together for a small, if smoky fire, and cleared space for that, lighting it and holding her chilled hands near it with a sigh of relief. Then she dropped to one knee beside the saddle, and pulled open her bag, pulling out a large chunk of trail rations, and settling back against a tree to munch it down.

Traveling almost the day round now.. and after the previous day with no sleep, she was starting to really feel it, and her body was protesting in earnest as she alternated riding on Argo’s warm back and running along side the mare to spare her the weight. Well.. I wanted a workout. Her mind wearily reminded itself. That’s what I get for spending a month lazing around.. and brother am I ever paying for it now.

Then her niggling common sense reasserted itself. Of course.. I have also been traveling for three solid days without sleep, fought a dozen guys, beat up Hercules, and outran my horse. Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so hard on myself. And at that, a grudging smile briefly crossed her face, and she chewed on her trail bar with a more cheerful enthusiasm. Her vague sense from Gabrielle had been quiet for a while.. she guessed that whatever was going on, the bard was sleeping at the moment, and that made her feel a little better.

"Hey Argo.. how are you feeling, huh girl?" She called to the mare, who was industriously cropping the mostly dead grass around the trees. "Here.. let me get you something better than that." She hauled herself to her feet, and got the grain bag and feeder from her gear, and buckled it loosely around the mare’s head. Argo blew out a breath, scattering bits of grain all over her rider’s tunic, and flicked her ears, pushing her head against Xena’s chest in rough affection.

The warrior sorted her pale mane with gentle fingers, letting the rhythmic motion soothe her as she soaked in the warmth from the big horse’s body. "Where did that necklace come from, huh Argo??" She murmured. "That was pretty scary." She remembered how it had felt for those few short moments.. and her lips compressed in a mixture of anger and sorrow. Never again. She vowed silently. I’d rather die than go back to being like that.

She gave the mare a hug, and let her cheek rest against the soft neck for a long moment, considering. And.. Her lips quirked If it costs me a few aches and pains, and a little short windedness now and then to gain what I’ve felt for the last month… I’ll pay that price too. I can live with not being on the razor’s edge all the time. She thought about that for a minute and nodded quietly Yeah, I can live with that.

Xena gave Argo one more pat, then stretched the kinks out of her back, and seated herself on a nearby log to watch the horse finish her meal. A thought occurred to her, and she grinned as she opened her belt pouch, and pulled out the small packet that had been hidden in her healer's kit, unwrapping it and letting the stone drop into her hand. A glance at it brought a huge smile to her face, and she held it up to the firelight to study the deep reflections inside it.

Amber, and probably the piece she'd given Gabrielle before they'd separated when Gabrielle had gone to the Amazons. There in that quiet stream, as the sun was setting. She'd wondered, quite a few times since then, if Ephiny hadn't shown up.. would that night have been the night she finally said something?

She juggled the amber lightly and sighed. Maybe.

The paper was larger than the others, and covered with writing on both sides. Xena leaned forward, and spread it gently between her fingers, tilting it towards the fire.


Me again, but you probably guessed that already. Who else would be tying notes onto stones and filling your packs with them? I'm kind of hoping you don't find this one, though.. because I'm putting it in you healer's kit, and I really hope you don't need it. If you are reading this, though.. I hope it wasn't serious, and that all it took was a tiny bandage.

So I included the amber, because I remember you said it was lucky… it's certainly been lucky for me. The moment I touched it I knew something magical was going to happen, and what do you know? It did.

You and I happened.. and that's enough magic for me for a lifetime. Or longer.

Seeing those kids.. you know, they're not much younger than I was when I met you.. I hope I wasn't that bad, but I think I probably was. How in the world did you put up with me? I look at them and my brain hurts.. just thinking about how many times you must have wanted to just backhand me into next week. But you never did. You just kind of waited for me to grow up.


The poem on the other side of this is kind of special to me.. I mean, well, they all are, because I wrote them, right? But I wrote this one when we were at Jessan's village.. right after the accident. When I was kind of sitting there.. watching you sleep and thinking about what my life would be like without you.


Xena stared at the last paragraph for a long time. Then she turned the paper over, and sat with her eyes closed for an endless moment before she opened them, and allowed her vision to focus on the firm, even script.


When I look at you

I see sunlight and shadows

Deep, still waters, and wild rapids

A fiery heart and a cool, clear mind.


When I look at you,

I see all that I am, and all that I could hope to be.

My past, and my future,

My one safe harbor in a terrible world.


When I look at you,

I see my best friend and playmate,

My protector and defender,

The love of my life and the holder of my soul.


Losing you, I would also lose myself

And be left in a darkness so deep,

No light could ever find me.

So where you go, I go.


"You know Argo." Xena whispered softly, after a long, silent moment. "Someday I might even be worthy of this." She folded the paper, and rested her head in her hands, staring unseeing at the ground, until a rustling sound brought her head and senses up.

Argo's ears pricked, but the mare didn't seem alarmed, even when the underbrush near her exploded into a dark hurtling form that hurled itself at Xena.

"Roo!!!" Ares yodeled triumphantly, jumping up and putting vastly muddy paws on her shoulders. "Roo!!!"

Startled, the warrior grabbed him, ruffling his fur. "Ares.. hey boy… what are you doing.."

Her hands touched metal around his neck, and the words froze in her throat. She felt carefully around until she found what was hanging there.

"No… " The word rasped out, as Xena brought her hand up into the firelight, already knowing what she'd see.

Mud covered, and in the dim light, but her touch knew them.

Everything stopped. All she could hear was her heart pounding hard, sending crashing waves through her head. All right.. all right.. Don't panic. There could be a perfectly good reason why she took them off.

Very slowly, very carefully she removed the chain from Ares's neck, fastening it with shaking hands around her own. Then she clasped her hands in front of her and concentrated on breathing evenly.

Someone has her. All right. She's still alive.. or I'd know.

She's not far.. because Ares had time to get to me.

She either didn't want them to know who she was, or… didn't want them taken from her.

Or because she thought she might…

No. She's all right. She will be all right. Nothing is going to happen to her.

I need to get home.

"Come on, Argo." She said quietly, rising with a mechanical movement, and lifting the mare's saddle, sliding it over the horse's back and tightening the girth with swift, practiced hands.

"Roo?" Ares nudged her knee with his muzzle, peering up at her.

A hand on his head, fingers ruffling through his damp fur, then suddenly Xena was on the ground next to him, pulling his body into a fierce hug.

"Good boy." She whispered into his ear. "You did great." She buried her face in his fur for a long moment, then straightened. "Everything's going to be fine.. OK?"

The wolf raised his muzzle, and delicately licked her face, cleaning off the mud from his coat and the tears from her eyes. "Rrrr." He nuzzled her.

"Yeah." She took a shaky breath, and smoothed his rumpled fur. "Rrr." A pause, then. "All right, let's go." She stood, and brushed herself off, expertly putting out the fire and vaulting onto Argo's back, guiding the mare back out to the long road.

The early morning camp stirring woke Gabrielle from a very uneasy, fitful sleep, and she swallowed a few times, rolling her aching head against the wooden supports to ease the strain in her neck before she reluctantly let her eyes open.

Gods. She was definitely not in good shape. Besides the headache, she felt a throbbing in her side where the club had hit her, and both her legs and arms hurt from the standing treatment she'd gotten the day before.

Look.. I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself. She told herself firmly, then sighed. But gods if I don't wish I had Xena right here, right now to do it for me. She glanced down at the still sleeping children, sparing a gentle smile for Solon, who was curled up against her on one side, and Cait who was protecting the other.

Surprisingly, Solon lifted his head, and blinked up at her sleepily. "How're you feeling?" He asked, with solemn studiousness.

"I'm fine." She whispered softly. "Go back to sleep, Solon."

His brows creased, as he gazed up at her. "Y'don’t look fine." He accused, lifting his body up, and running a small hand through his darkening curls. "C'n I get you some water? " His blue eyes lifted up and met hers.

"Sure." She smiled, watching him stand up cautiously, so as not to wake the girls, and pick up a waterskin, walking back over to her and settling back down at her side. She took the skin from him, opening the stopper, and taking a long drink. It was cold, and seared a path down into her stomach with an almost painful iciness, but she continued to sip it, hearing Xena's constant reminded in her ears. Food you can do without, Gabrielle.. for as long as your body has reserves. But water.. drink all you can, when you can, because that you don't have to spare.

Yep.. I remember that, Xena. She smiled a little, as she gazed out into the darkness. Your lessons are starting to sink in, you know.

Solon sighed. "Whatcha thinking about?" He kept his voice very low.

"Oh.. nothing really." Gabrielle managed a grin for him. "Just something Xena always says.. about drinking lots of water."

He digested this for a minute. "Bet you wish she was here." His pale eyes flicked up to hers. "You were calling her name out when you were sleeping."

Oh. Gabrielle let her head rest against the bars and blinked. "Yeah, I do wish she was here." The bard admitted. "Sorry if I woke you up.. I don't usually talk in my sleep." At least not that I know of, that is. Maybe I'd better ask…

Solon glanced carefully around, and lowered his voice. "They think you're really cool."

Gabrielle's mouth twitched into a tired smile. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah." He confirmed, then gave her a shy smile. "I think so too."

The bard laughed gently, and bit her lower lip. "Thanks.. that means a lot to me." She casually reached up and brushed the hair out of his eyes. "We're gonna get out of this, Solon. Don't you worry." She glanced around. "We just have to get out of their clutches for a little while."

Solon ducked his head close to her. "Is Xena coming here? Did you really send the dog after her?"

"He's a wolf." Gabrielle corrected gently. "Not really.. I sent him away to keep him safe.. he's not a wild wolf.. we've had him since he was a puppy." She thought about his other question for a bit in silence. "Eventually, yeah - she'll be here… but not soon enough to keep that trader from moving us out - and I don't want to go with him."

Solon's brow creased and he nodded. "Yeah.. " He let his pale eyes roam around the cage. "Could she just bust us out of here?"

Gabrielle pushed back against the bars and grinned. "Oh yeah." She whispered back. "I know just what she'd do.. " She closed her eyes. "She'd grab onto the top bars there.. right over our heads.. then she'd just lift her body up and kick that door right off it's hinges."

His eyes widened. "Really?" His voice cracked, and he flushed, as it went deeper for an instant. "I hate when I do that.. " He grumbled.

"Really." Gabrielle assured him, then patted his knee. "Don't worry about your voice.. it just means you're growing up, you know that, right?"

He slumped back against the bards, and leaned against her shoulder. "Yeah, I know." He sighed melodramatically. "Papa keeps complaining I outgrow stuff all the time." He held up his arms, and demonstrated the sleeves of his tunic, which were halfway between his wrists and his elbows. Then his shoulders slumped. "Most of my friends at least know what they're gonna look like when they grow up." He grimaced. "I'm not gonna look like Papa, that's for sure."

Gabrielle smiled at him. "Well.. let's see. I'm pretty good at guessing this kind of thing.." Dangerous, Gabrielle.. be very careful here. She put a hand out, and tilted his chin up, studying his face. "I'd say.. you're going to be tall.. " Now her hands dropped to his shoulders, and felt the bones gently. "And have nice broad shoulders…" Then she tweaked his nose. "And be very handsome."

He blushed, then gave her a very shy look. "You really think so?"

"I really do." The bard assured him. She lowered her voice to a bare whisper, and he leaned close to hear her. "Better be careful.. you'll have all the girls chasing you all over."

His eyes widened, and he darted an alarmed glance at the sleeping Amazons. "Eww!"

That forced a gentle chuckled from Gabrielle, and she gazed up at the fitful clouds with a shake of her red gold head. She saw the first signs of grayness in the east, and sighed, wishing the dawn wouldn't come. I know that means I'm back out there.. and gods.. isn't it bad enough to be a captive? She reached her fingers up and touched the collar, which she hadn't had the energy to take off the previous night. Damn.. I hurt. She flexed her legs, and winced. "I'd better stand up and work a few of these kinks out before the come for me again." She whispered to Solon, then pulled herself up onto her feet with a soft groan.

The cage didn't give her much room to move around, but she went to the rear, away from where the girls were sleeping, and slowly stretched out her abused muscles, wincing against the ache, but pushing through it as she'd been taught.

You can deal with pain.. Xena had said to her, more times than she could remember. It's not good to ignore it, because it tells you when there's something wrong, but sometimes.. you just have to put it aside for a little while.

Yeah. Gabrielle sighed wryly. Advice from the expert, right? She reached over her head, and grabbed the bars, letting her weight down slowly until she was hanging from her arms, and heard the pops as her joints slid into place. Ugh. I hate that sound.

But it felt better, and she crossed her legs at the ankles, and lifted them until they were parallel to the ground, feeling her lower back stretch out and relax. Then she lowered her feet again, and stood on them, rolling her shoulders around to loosen them up. Little tricks she'd picked up from Xena as well, watching as the warrior warmed herself up before her inevitable twilight drills. And let herself get lost in a favorite memory of one such night.

"Don't you ever let up?" Gabrielle had asked, one warm night after they'd set up camp and finished a stew dinner.

"What?" Xena had asked, pausing as she picked up her sword.

"You heard me." The bard had put her hands on her hips, and studied her companion. "Do you even know what the word relax means?" She'd waved her hands around the camp. "It's a beautiful night, we had a fairly peaceful day.. " Only three fights, and those minor. "Can't you just sit back and take it easy for once, instead of spending candlemarks practicing what we do all day anyway?"

Xena had walked over to her, and put her boot up on a rock, resting her arms against her knee and gazing at her. "You work on your scrolls every day. Same thing."

"No it isn't.. " Gabrielle disagreed. "Besides, I don't force it when I… " She stopped, realizing she was close to crossing that indefinable line they had between them, of broaching those cool walls Xena was so good at maintaining. It was a big risk.

"You think this is forced?" The warrior asked, giving her a level stare, complete with a slightly raised eyebrow. "Gabrielle, I do this all the time.. it's important, remember? "

Every instinct was telling her to back off, make light of it, agree… she ignored them, and knowingly took the risk, and crossed the line. "Look." She stepped closer to the darkly clad, intimidating form, and put a hand on Xena's shoulder, looking straight into those blue eyes. "I'm a little worried about you.. you look really tired, and I wish you'd just take it easy for a little while."

A long moment where their glances fenced, then Xena dropped her gaze, and let a faint smile traced her lips. She'd looked back up with an expression somewhere between resigned and sheepish. "Ok. You got me." She'd rested her chin on her forearm with a sigh, and let her other hand drop down and toy idly with the hilt of her sword. "I am pretty wiped." She gave a faint shrug of her broad shoulders. "Guess it's all just catching up with me.. I.. mm.. didn't know it showed."

Gabrielle had let out her held breath and silently sent a thank you to whoever was listening. "Probably not to anyone but me." That sent a tiny thrill chasing up and down her spine. "Come on.. lots of stars out tonight.. want to help me count them?"

They hadn't counted, but the did find patterns in the twinkling lights, and Gabrielle told a couple of really funny little stories she'd heard in the last town they were in, and had the satisfaction of getting more than one genuine laugh out of the warrior, who sprawled at her ease on the bedroll next to where the bard was lying.

Then it was Gabrielle's turn to laugh, as Xena made a rare expedition into storytelling, and related a hilarious tale of what had happened on a ship one time with a live pig cargo. Their mingled voices, hers clear and bright, Xena's low and burring, echoed across the small clearing on the light breeze that brought them the scent of spring flowers and the nutty smell of the oak they were burning in the campfire.

Then Gabrielle had looked up, and gasped, as it seemed that the stars had come down from the dark canopy. Fireflies had come to listen, and were swirling about them leaving faint trails of light in the red tinted darkness around them. "Wow… that's pretty.." She'd whispered, glancing sideways at her smiling companion.

Xena's hand had moved in a light blur, and then she opened it in front of Gabrielle's nose, and grinned in reflex as the bard stared, fascinated at the firefly crawling daintily across her tanned fingers. She reached up a tentative finger, and the insect crawled onto her hand, antenna waving a curious hello to her.


"Hello.." She murmured with a delighted smile, then glanced up sheepishly at Xena, her breath stilling in her chest at the expression on the dark haired woman's face. Quiet, and wistful, and tinged with sadness, it touched her in an unexpectedly deep place. "Hey.." She whispered softly, her eyes searching Xena's in concern.

Xena had blinked, and looked down, then given her a brief smile. "Sorry.. just was thinking there for a minute."

Well, Gabrielle.. Her mind had reasoned You may not have another chance for a long time.. she's almost never like this. "About what?"

For a long moment, she'd thought Xena was just going to refuse to answer, not an unusual thing for the warrior to do. Then her lips had parted, and quirked. "Funny.. the things you forget.. " She'd paused, and Gabrielle had remained motionless, soundless… "I used to do this when I was a kid… back home.. "

A long silence gently settled over them both, as Xena's face had relaxed in a quiet smile, and Gabrielle carefully reached over, and interlaced her fingers with the warrior's, letting the firefly meander back onto her companion's hand.

"Thanks for humoring me." The bard smiled gently, as they watched the fly flutter it's wings, and buzz off, leaving them in the dim warm glow of the fire.

"Thank you, Gabrielle." Xena had replied softly, not releasing her hand.

"What for?" The bard chuckled a little, meeting the dimly seen gaze across from her.

"Caring." The warrior had answered in steady tone. "You just gave me back something I thought I'd given up forever."

It had been nothing like the scrolls painted it, she later realized. That moment when she'd slipped from a child's foolish crush into a love so deep it was truly like drowning. She'd felt it happen, this losing of a part of herself, that went, as Ardwyn had said, without so much as a by your leave.

She couldn’t have stopped it, and wouldn't have wanted to, and she often thought that maybe, just maybe, Xena had realized something had changed, because as she let her blue eyes close into some much needed rest, she'd made no effort to untangle their hands.

And if Gabrielle closed her eyes, right now, she could savor again that haunting ache, and feel the warmth of Xena's strong fingers wrapped around her own.

A hand on her arm snapped her out of her focused thoughts, and she turned to see Cait's worried eyes on her. "Gosh.. are you all right?" The dawns first rays were painting the inside of the cage, and dappling the groggily stirring girls with rose and gold bars.

"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed. "Just thinking good thoughts." She gazed out over Cait's head, to where the bandy legged jailer was approaching with his messy bucket. "Kind of gives me a shield against crumbs like that."

She saw Rurik approaching with his leash, and stepped to the front of the cage, wrapping her hands around the bars and watching him approach with a casual air. "Morning." She called out, startling him. You can't beat me, Rurik. I've got something inside me you could never have, and never take away from me. Her eyes met his with cool, polite interest.

"Well then.." Rurik hesitated, unsure of what to think about her. "Anxious then are you?" He studied her thoughtfully. "Well, I hate to disappoint you, little lass, but I need you to clean up your little litter here.. our friend is coming in a bit early, and I want you to make a good impression."

He reached into the cage and tickled her chin, getting no reaction. "The men will take you lot to the edge of the lake, and get me right, you green eyed bitch.. one of you makes a move to leave, I've got a crossbowman ready to cut your little girls here down like lambs, you got me?"

Remember the smile.. the advice echoed on a ghostly chuckle. She smiled at him gently. "I understand." And had the satisfaction of seeing him jerk his hand back as if stung.

"Oh.. he's going to like you, no mistake." Rurik hissed. "He likes the ones with a little spirit.. makes it so much better for him when he breaks them.. see?" His eyes narrowed. "I'm going to enjoy watching him break you tonight, and see you crawl for him, then." His eyes flicked to the tightly wound group of children behind her. "He's a friendly sort too.. likes to share with his friends." Rurik laughed. "And he loves little boys." His eyes went back to see Gabrielle's reaction, and he stepped back a pace involuntarily.

How could a face that gentle become so ice cold? Eyes as hard as a steel blade bored into his reflecting barely held fury. "Don't you touch him." She warned. "You pathetic excuses for men can do what you want with me, but touch these kids, and I swear you're regret it."

"You think you're in a position to make threats??" Rurik threw back his head and laughed. Then he lunged forward and reached through the bars for her, grabbing her tunic and pulling her against the wood.

Gabrielle felt something snap inside her, and she just reacted, leaning back against his grasp, and getting a booted foot between the bars and kicking him hard in the groin. He released her, and dropped to the ground, whinnying like a horse.

"Wow." Cait whispered, peering over Gabrielle's shoulder. "You're just super."

The bard held onto the cage bars, and let the shaking slowly stop, feeling a sick queasiness in her gut as the anger left. "Get back, Cait. He's not going to like that… " She turned and got the blond girl's attention. "And whatever happens, don't interfere.. OK? That's an order."

Rurik slowly straightened up, and turned hatred filled eyes on her, ripping the door open and pulling her out by the arm. He slammed the door shut, and slipped the leather thong over her head, tightening it like a noose. "Bitch.. you're going to hurt for that." He slipped the knot tighter, shutting off her breathing.

She closed her eyes, and sent a brief, sweet thought heading south. And waited.

But he loosened the grip, and merely pulled her behind him, towards his hut.

Cait watched them go, then immediately started a fierce examination of the hinges of the door, using a stone to start cutting through the tightly wound and shrunken hemp that held it. "Gosh, I'm ever so sorry.. Gabrielle.. but in this case.." She whispered to herself as she worked. "A Warrior Princess overrules an Amazon Queen."

"Easy girl." Xena stood at Argo’s head, gently scratching her ears. The mare snorted, her nostrils flaring as she sucked the cold air into her lungs. Xena winced as she took a damp cloth, and wiped the lather off the horse’s neck, running the linen down her trembling legs and briefly resting her head against the mare’s shoulder. "I know.. I know.. rest now."

Argo ambled down to the stream, and stood drinking, whisking her tail across her quarters and snorting a little into the cold water. "Not too fast." Xena reminded the horse, kneeling down on the bank next to her, and cupping her hands in the stream, lifting them up and dousing her face with a sudden intake of breath at the shock of it. Ares looked up from his patient lapping, and growled, then returned his attention to the stream. "Yeah.. yeah.. I know." Xena sighed, turning and sitting down with her back against a nearby tree, watching Argo move several steps off and start nibbling the mostly brown grasses.

She tilted her head back, and regarded the cloud-covered sun, just to the west of overhead. I'm making good time.. but.. Her throat tightened, as the anxious feeling got worse, and now she had no idea what part of that was Gabrielle, and what part her own racing, frantic imagination. She silently cursed the long miles yet between here and home, and cast an anxious eye on Argo, who had been going full out since dawn. The horse’s breathing had returned to normal, and she was contentedly ripping up mouthfuls of the river grass, but her flanks were still stained dark with sweat and Xena knew she couldn’t keep pushing the mare they way she had been.

Ares finished his drinking, and trotted over to her, curling up against her thigh and resting his head on top of it. She put a hand down and idly stroked his soft fur, feeling his tail thump against her arm in reflex. "Where is she, Ares?" Xena muttered, and the wolf flicked an ear back, hearing her voice. "Hmm?" Unconsciously, her other hand played with the second necklace she now wore, letting the pendant and ring slide through her fingers. "Is she all right?"

She’d better be. Her mind answered. Gabrielle.. what in Hades did you get yourself into this time? You do attract trouble, my bard.. and I can’t believe I wasn’t there… She rolled her head back, and took and released a deep breath, trying to relieve some of the unbearable tension. I can’t stand this.. She stood up, startling Ares, and walked around, too wound up to stay still, despite the weariness settling over her.

Every instinct in her was urging her to hurry.. to start moving… she had to put a firm rein on herself just to keep from breaking into a run. Ares paced around her, catching her nervousness and whining, as he nudged her knee with his head. "Yeah.. yeah.. " Xena folded her arms tightly across her chest, and closed her eyes. "I feel it, Ares. I feel it."

A sound of hoofbeats brought her head snapping up, and she half turned to see her friend, the wild stallion standing in the clearing, peering at her with flared nostrils, and a cautious eye. But Xena could see his real interest was in the placidly chewing Argo, who cast a non-committal eye his way.

A faint smile crossed Xena's face. "Looking to increase your herd, huh fella?" The stallion edged around her towards Argo, extending his neck and snuffling at her. She wasn't in season, that Xena knew, so probably… her experienced eye studied the mare's body. Was that the slightest hint of a filling in around her flanks? Damned if it wasn't. "Well, Argo.. you're gonna be a mother, I think."

The stallion half reared, and moved closer, getting nothing but an amused look from Argo, who continued to pull up mouthfuls of river grass.

Xena felt an idea begin to form, and before she could let her logical mind talk her out of it, she was bolting forward, surprising the stallion and reaching his side before he could so much as move. One hand on his mane, the other on his back, and a powerful leap, and she was astride him.

He screamed, bucking wildly, remembering her. But she'd stayed with wilder than him, and kept her seat, riding him round in a tight circle, until he stopped dead, eyes wild, and breath coming explosively. "That's it.." She praised him, stroking his neck with one hand, as she wrapped her other in his thick mane.

A whistle brought Argo alongside, her golden nose snuffling the stallion with mild interest. Xena unstrapped her saddlebags from the mare, and slung them over her shoulder. I can't believe I'm actually going to do this. I must be out of my mind. But it was too late to wonder, or worry, or stop. "Argo.. you follow when you can, ok girl?" She stroked the mare's tender nose, and gave her a kiss.

Then she turned her attention to the restive stallion, who was prancing and moving under her like an ice floe going uncontrolled down the river. "All right.. you wanna run?" She settled her knees into his shoulders, feeling his anxious breathing. "Come on, then. RUN!!"

And he did, bucking and shaking his head from side to side, until he realized he wasn't going to be rid of his stubborn rider. Then he laid his ears back, and put his head down, and took off . Xena held herself still over his shoulders, moving with him and slitting her eyes against the rush of the cold wind.

The hut stank, as it had the previous day, and Gabrielle just stood quietly, trying not to breathe too deeply. Rurik had fastened the leather thong to one of the roof supports, and after tying her hands behind her again, was busy working at something on a small table on the other side of the room.

The bard swallowed nervously, and briefly wished she hadn't kicked the man. She was sure whatever he had planned wasn't going to be pleasant for her. And sure enough, as he turned around, there was a darkly satisfied look to his face that started her heart pounding.

He held a cup, and was swirling the contents as he walked back over. "Now then.. I promised my buyer he'd get undamaged merchandise.. " Rurik's teeth glinted. "But I never did say it would be pristine now, eh?" In a sudden motion, he slammed her back against the wall, and grabbed her jaw, forcing it open and pouring the contents of the cup into her mouth.

She swallowed in pure reflex, and almost gagged on the sharp taste of whatever it was he'd given her. He held a hand over her mouth, and laughed. "Oh no.. you'll not be sending that back up, lass." He smiled at her grimace. "Now now.. give that a few minutes to work.. eh?" A low chuckle. "Then you'll be much easier to deal with.. and maybe you'll even like what we're going to do." He traced her jawline with a dirty finger. "There.. how's that then?" Seeing her eyes start to go unfocussed.

The stuff hit her hard, as she'd had nothing in her stomach for days, and she felt a vague fuzziness invade her thinking, along with a sudden heat, that set her heart to beating erratically. Then a sharp pain ripped through her guts, and she gasped from it, doubling over and feeling the bite of the leather around her neck.

"Hey lass. " Rurik laughed. "I know it makes you feel good but…"

A second spasm took her legs out from under her, and she collapsed, the leather now closing off her breathing. With an oath she only barely heard, Rurik lunged forward and cut the leather, freeing her to crash to the floor, her body helplessly convulsing. She felt her heart beating wildly, and she couldn't seem to keep her breath going…

Black flashes, vaguely familiar, speared her vision, and she was aware, at a far distance, of Rurik's voice yelling at her, echoing in her hearing. Her body spasmed, and she felt herself throwing up, but had no idea why, or where she was. Or who she was for that matter. Only that her guts were on fire, and she couldn’t seem to control what she was doing at all.

The a blessed darkness came, and took all that away.

Rurik cursed as her body went limp, and he rolled her over frantically, feeling for a pulse. Then his eyes closed in relief, and he stepped back, shaken. That had never happened before.. and he'd given these herbs to more girls that he could count.

He paused a moment, then snorted in disgust, and bent down, lifting her up and throwing her still shaking body over his shoulder.

"Shh." Cait warned, sliding back from the door and dropping the stone unobtrusively to the ground. "They're coming back."

Sharra gasped. "Artemis! What did they do to her.?" She wrapped her hands around the bars and peered out.

Rurik yanked the door open, and dumped the limp form inside, slamming the cage closed, and giving Sharra a shove through the bars. "Clean yourselves up, you little pigs. "

Cait dropped immediately to Gabrielle's side, gently turning the unconscious bard over, and touching her pulse point. "Thank the gods." She whispered. "But it's beating so fast.. I can hardly count them."

They carefully straightened the bard's twitching limbs, and made her as comfortable as they could. Then the could only sit and wait.

Gabrielle was aware of a faint buzzing, first, there in the darkness she was in. Slowly, sensation returned, and she immediately wished it hadn't. Her guts were still on fire, and her muscles were cramping painfully. Her throat hurt from the strain of throwing up the herbs, and her head was pounding so hard she could see stars against the inside of her eyelids.

Gods.. have mercy on me. Her mind whispered. What was that? She groaned, and forced her eyes open, the closed them as the lancing daylight exploded inside her head. She felt a small hand curl into one of hers, and heard Cait's soft voice. "Gabrielle?"

She forced her eyes open a little, and tried to focus on the slim blond, but couldn’t. "Cait." Her voice was raspy from the strain. "Everybody ok?"

"Yes." Cait's voice was nervous, and upset. "What did he do to you?"

Gabrielle gave her head a tiny, cautious shake. "Don't.. know… some herb.." She grimaced. "Got sick."

"All right.. " Cait said softly. "Lie still.. .will you? I'm going to wipe off your face with a bit of cloth here.. you're all over blood."

Oh. That explains why I can't see. Her mind muzzily realized. "Blood?"

Sharra's breathless voice interrupted. "From your nose.. I think."

"Ugh." Gabrielle swallowed painfully. "Hit the floor." She felt a cold sensation as Cait wiped her face off, then she blinked her eyes, and was relieved as the depressing interior of the cage slowly faded into focus.

Huddled on one side of her, clasping her hand was an angry looking Solon, and the girls were ringed around her, with upset and furious expressions. "What a beast." Sharra said, biting her lip in distress.

The bard gazed up at the bars, and let out a long sigh. Silver lining time.. she felt like a flattened frog under a heavy rock, but it beat, in her mind, the alternative. She was irrationally glad she'd denied Rurik his fun, even involuntarily. She slowly turned her head, and studied their faces. My responsibility.

They looked back at her, with utter belief in their eyes, belief that she would find a way out of this place, and get them all home safely.

So this is what it must be like for Xena. She mused, letting her eyes close wearily. How often did she look up and see that expression on my face? On the faces of the people we met? What do we do now, Xena? And she always has an answer, doesn't she? Now I know how that feels, and you know what? I'm not sure I like it.

"All right." She opened her eyes again and lifted her head, grimacing as she rolled over onto one elbow, and forced herself not to collapse. Do what Xena does.. you just gotta do it. "He wants us to get cleaned up.. did the bring water?"

Sharra nodded, her eyes wide in wonder at her. "A basin, over there."

Gabrielle nodded. "Get washed up. Let's be as cooperative as we can.. then maybe they won't be watching us as close when they go to take us out."

The girls nodded. "Good plan." Cait said, then handed the bard her folded square of linen. "Best hold that up to your nose, I think."

The bard took the cloth, and gave Cait a smile. "Thanks Cait."

The girls clustered around the basin, as she pushed herself up into a sitting position, then leaned back against the bars and propped her head on one hand, her elbow braced against her upraised knee.

Xena.. her mind spoke softly to her soulmate. I'm losing a lot of strength here.. I don't have the kind of reserves you do.. and I find myself wishing I had you here to depend on, because I'm not sure I can pull this off.

Xena, if I don't.. Her chest ached. I can't let them hurt these kids.. not even if it means I have to.. put myself on the line for them. I hope.. if anything happens.. you'll understand that. I think you will. She closed her eyes. I don't want to leave you.. just the thought is making me so scared I can hardly think.. I can hardly breath, but you taught me that you have to do the right thing.. even if that thing isn't the best thing for the person doing it.

I guess this falls into that category. I have to save these kids. They're my responsibility, love, and one of them is your son. My stepson, and I can't tell you how strange that feels to be thinking that.

He's a good boy, Xena. He's going to be a nice, wonderful man. He's so much like his mother.. I can hardly look at him, because it makes me miss you so much.. and I hate this place so badly.

Listen. I know we have a deal, OK? So if something happens.. I haven't forgotten that… and I want you to know I'll hold up my end of the bargain. Whenever.. it's your time, I'll be waiting there, Xena. I'll be sitting there waiting, I promise you.

Solon's voice broke into her thoughts. "Gabrielle?"

She took a breath, and looked at him. "Yeah, honey, what is it?"

His blue eyes studied her. "Are you thinking about Xena?"

"Uh huh.. how did you know?" Gabrielle replied, gazing at him tiredly.

"You're crying." The boy responded softly.

The bard's brow creased. "I know." She took a breath. "But its going to be ok, Solon. I promise you that."

He moved closer, and swallowed. "What'r you going to do?"

Her green eyes stared at something over his head, something far away. "Whatever it takes."

Cyrene stared out at the setting sun, watching the fading rays paint the bare, stark courtyard in skeins of gold and red. She glanced aside briefly as Toris joined her at the window, then returned her gaze outside again.

Toris was travel stained, as he'd just come in from yet another search. Empty handed, and seeing the bleak look in his mother's eyes his own had stared helplessly at the wooden floor.

"It's going to kill her." Cyrene said finally, quietly. Her lips tightened and she shook her head minutely. "We have to find them, Toris."

Toris swallowed. "I know." His mind flashed back to the few minutes before he'd left for Amazon territory, when he was talking with his sister as her partner slept contentedly in her arms. "It's not fair. They just…." He stopped speaking, and clamped his jaw shut. Life wasn’t fair. He knew that.

Cyrene turned wearily, and let her glance flick over the room's quiet inhabitants, who were mostly slumped silently in chairs, staring at the floor. The Amazons were gathered in a small group, having just convinced Ephiny to allow herself to be taken back to bed, and she walked over to them, putting a hand on Granella’s bowed shoulder. "Listen.. I have some soup in the kitchen.. let me bring some out."

The dark haired Amazon pushed herself to her feet with a sigh. "I’ll come get some for us." She took a step, then was stopped by Lida.

"Why don’t you go check on Eph? I'll get the soup." The archer said quietly. "I’ll bring some in to her, too."

Granella was too tired to argue. "All right." She said, simply, and padded over to the small back room, knocking lightly, then opening the door and peering in. "Eph?"

The blond Amazon was sitting up in the large chair, clutching a fluffy shawl about her, and staring sightlessly into the fire. She turned her head as Granella entered, and nodded. "Hey." She felt totally drained, and knew it showed, between the sickness and the worry she felt at the end of her rope, but managed a smile for the scout, and tried to dredge up some nonexistent energy.

"You should be lying down." Granella sighed, dropping to a crouch next to the chair, and putting a hand on Ephiny’s arm. "You feel really warm."

The regent let her head rest against the chair back, and shook her head. "I know.. but I just can’t lie there.. it makes my chest hurt, and I can’t.. " She rubbed her eyes with one hand. "Can’t stop worrying." She let her hand drop. "I don’t get it, Gran.. where are they?" She stopped as a coughing fit took her, and was aware of the smaller Amazon’s hands bracing her shoulders. "Damn." She sighed when it finished, leaving her exhausted. "It’s my fault.. all of this."

"Don’t be crazy, Ephiny." Granella said quietly. "It’s not anyone’s fault."

Ephiny shook her blond head. "I should have listened to you guys." She rasped hoarsely. "Should have never gone out.. too damned stubborn."

"Shh." Granella soothed her. "That’s silly, Eph… that could have happened to anyone of us… and it could have been anyone, or no one there to have heard you yell. The Fates decreed that it be probably the one single person who could have done what she did." She paused. "And you didn’t make Gabrielle take those kids out… "

"I should have stopped her." Ephiny whispered. "I had this feeling.."

The dark haired woman snorted softly. "Stop Gabrielle? C’mon, Eph.. I’ve seen her in action. She’s like a six horse chariot at full speed when she wants to be… how were you going to stop her? She stubborner than you are."

That got a hint of a smile from the regent. "She is… it would take a lot to beat her." Ephiny’s eyes glinted. "Especially now."

Granella smiled. "Is she happy here?" She eased out of her crouch, and sat down on the floor, circling one arm around her upraised knee. "She sure seemed that way last time I went through." She glanced up at Ephiny. "Been quite a change since she was by us."

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah.. I think she’s very happy.. and so’s the old war horse, for that matter." A little shake of her head followed. "That surprised me." Her mouth twitched. "You should see the two of them, cuddling up like a pair of kids."

They both fell silent for a minute. "We gotta find them, Gran." Ephiny finally whispered.

Granella quietly closed the door behind her, after settling the regent finally into bed, and giving her a dose of the medicine Xena had left. She gazed around the room as she entered, sighing inwardly at the dark atmosphere.

In one corner, Kaleipus was standing, head bowed, arms crossed on his chest, his face a study in serious intentness. He had just come in with Toris and the northern search group, and had borrowed a wool shirt from the tall, dark haired man against the chill.

Toris turned, and leaned his back against the window, trying to think of what to do next. They'd searched in a wide circle around Amphipolis, but the weather had conspired to hide any trace of the missing girls, Gabrielle, or the centaur's lost boy. With a sigh, he walked over to where the Amazons were clustered, and gave them quiet nods. "I can't believe we haven't seen a single sign." He slowly shook his dark head. "You'd think there'd be…"

"Something." Granella whispered, seating herself, and listlessly playing with her spoon. "I don’t understand it.. even if they… I mean, the river.." She stopped. "There should be some sign. Where do we look next?"

A shrill call was dimly heard inside, and they looked at Toris for a translation. He cocked his head. "Someone's inbound, north road." He answered listlessly, then his whole body jerked, as the second signal repeated, a hunting hawk's call. "Oh gods… "

Granella was up, and attached to his arm in an instant. "What?"

Toris ran his hands through his hair, and gave his mother a look. "It’s my sister."

"Artemis." Granella breathed. "Let me tell Ephiny."

Cyrene stepped forward. "Hold up. Let me handle this." Everyone looked at her. "She's my daughter."

They all waited in silence until the drumming of rapid hoofbeats was heard, then slowed outside the inn's doors. The solid impact of boots hitting the ground, and then the hollow sound as the bootsteps hit the porch echoed through the now silent room.

Cyrene took a deep breath, and walked forward, making it almost to the door when it opened and Xena walked in, her body half covered in rusty bloodstains, and liberally spattered with mud. The sight silenced whatever words Cyrene had been planning, and she just stared at her daughter, seeing beyond the dirt and blood to her tense, pale face, and the lines of exhaustion that were etched there.

Pale blue eyes flicked over the Amazons, Toris, Cyrene, rested a long, frozen moment on Kaleipus, then returned to Cyrene. "What happened?"

Crisp, in control, aware. Cyrene felt her body relax a little. So Xena already knew something was wrong. That helped. "Gabrielle took the girls out for a short walk. They didn't come back." She informed her daughter bluntly. "We've been searching since it happened.. but.."

Xena nodded a little. Her eyes met Granella's, who had half stood. "How's Eph?"

The slim dark haired Amazon shrugged and nodded. "Better.. worried out of her mind."

Another quick glance. "Kaleipus… what brings you here?"

The centaur stepped forward until he was very close, and put a hand on Xena's shoulder. "Solon is missing."

"Coming here?" The warrior asked quietly, her face a still, calm mask.

The centaur nodded. "Perhaps he's with.. Gabrielle.. and the others."

Another nod from Xena. She turned to Toris. "Where have you looked?"

Toris explained. Cyrene watched her daughter, noting the iron control she was keeping, and noticing the dark shadows under her pale eyes, and the strain in her face. And wondered what it was costing Xena to put out this level barely contained energy. It fairly seethed from her, an edgy fire that raised the hackles and made her motions sharp, and jumpy.

"What happened?" Toris asked quietly, when he finished, touching the bloody stains on her shirt. "Are you all right?" In a lower voice.

"Some thieves, on the road." Xena replied briefly. "None of it is mine." She studied him for a minute, then spared him a small smile. "Thanks for asking.’

Toris hesitated, then stepped closer to her and put his arms around her, giving her a gentle hug. "Sis.. I’m sorry. I tried to.."

"Shh." The warrior hugged him back. "I know you did. It’s not your fault."

"All right." Xena said after he backed off. She let her eyes find all of them. "Thank you." Then she turned and headed for the door.

Cyrene intercepted her. "What are you going to do?" She put a hand on her daughter's arm. "Where are you going?"

Xena stopped and took a breath. "Going to go find them." She answered quietly. "I'm going to pick up something for Ares to get the scent with from the cabin, then take off."

Scrambling sounds from all over the room. "Not without us." Granella stated, buckling on her sword. The energy level in the room had risen remarkably.

"Me either." Toris said, folding his arms across his chest and giving her a stubborn look. "Just give us a few minutes to get ready."

"No time." Xena said flatly, but with an apologetic tilt of her head.

"Xena, can I talk to you for a minute?" Cyrene asked softly, motioning with her hand towards the kitchen.

"Mother, I don't really have the time." Xena said, but gentled her voice.

"Please?" The older woman asked, giving her an intent stare. "Let these folks get their gear together. "

A long silence, then the warrior gave a short nod, and followed her into the kitchen, ignoring the round of relieved sighs that followed them.

Cyrene waited for the door to close, then turned and took her daughter by the shoulders, and gently pushed her down in a chair. "Are you all right?" She asked, smoothing dark hair out of the exhausted blue eyes. "You look like you haven't slept in days."

Silence from Xena., then. "I haven't." A pause. "And no, I'm not." The warrior rubbed her temples. "But I have things I have to do, so.. I need to go do them."

"Oh Xena." Cyrene whispered, rubbing her back. "It's going to be fine.. you'll find them." She walked over and ladled soup into a mug, then returned and pressed it into Xena's hands. "Here…drink this down."

"I don't have time for this, mother.. thanks.. but.." The warrior protested, but it was halfhearted, and they both knew it.

"Xena." Cyrene put a hand on her cheek. "You've got a few minutes until they're ready.. please… don't do this alone. They're frantic, all of them.. you have no idea what it's been like here."

Xena didn't answer that, but she sighed, and took a sip from the cup, staring off into space with a bleak expression.

"Did Ares find you?" Her mother asked gently, sitting down next to her and putting her arm over the tense shoulders. She felt Xena’s body shift, then relax a tiny amount under the pressure and she winced when she thought of just how much strain her daughter must be under right at the moment.

"Yeah." Xena answered, reaching up a hand and touching something around her neck.

Cyrene looked closer, and bit her lip as she recognized what was hanging there. "He had that? Oh..." She said with quiet sympathy, then saw the expression on Xena’s face and changed the subject. "How did things go with Hercules?"

Xena took a long swallow of the soup, and felt it warm her as it hit her stomach, glad to have something to distract her from the gnawing fear for a minute. She knew what Cyrene was doing.. knew her mother was concerned for her, for Gabrielle.. but she also knew if she let her guard down, she was going to fall apart, and that would do no one any good. "Worked out fine." She answered, giving her mother a brief glance. "You're going to get a chance to meet them." There.. now that aught to distract her.

Cyrene's eyebrows rose. "Really?" A tiny smile twitched at her mouth. "Well, isn't that a surprise.. " She watched as Xena finished her soup, and studied the empty cup with pensive eyes. "Do you want some more, honey?"

"Yeah." Xena managed a brief grin. "But I can't.. mother, I have to go." Her voice cracked on the last word, and she cleared her throat. "Gods." That in a whisper.

The arm circling her shoulders squeezed hard. "I know… and now that you're here, I have to tell you Xena.. I feel much better.. we've been searching since it happened, but… I know you’ll find them… and I know they’re all right."

Xena let her elbows rest on the table, and threaded her fingers through her long hair, resting her head on her hands. "Mother, I hope you’re right." She swallowed, and closed her eyes as she felt the gentle touch on her cheek, and her rigid control slipped a little. No.. don’t have time for this. She took a deep breath and let it out, forcing her emotions down deep. "They just went on a hike?"

Cyrene gently rubbed her back. "Yes, that’s what she said. Just a walk.. some stories.. but you know Gabrielle.. maybe she found someone who needed help.."

Xena shook her head, and touched the necklace. "She wouldn’t have sent these. " Her eyes lifted, and found Cyrene’s. "Someone has her."

"Well.." Her mother sighed. "They’ve got themselves one big bundle of trouble, then."

That got a short, dry chuckle from her daughter. "I'm going over to the cabin, then I'll be right back." She stood, ignoring the stiffness and put the cup down in the wash basin, then left out the back door, and headed towards her home.

It was very quiet inside, she realized, as she opened the door and slipped inside. Quiet, and full of sights, and scents that brought her partner vividly to mind, and threatened her composure again badly.

Damn… ok, just get what you came for, and lets go. Her mind focused, then considered thoughtfully Might as well change this bloody shirt while I'm here though.. Wearily, she stripped off her tunic and removed her chest armor, sliding out of the leathers underneath.

With a sigh, she walked over to the small basin, and splashed the cold water on her face, then rinsed off a piece of linen and washed off the worst of the blood that had seeped through the leather. She gave herself a critical look in the mirror, and shook her head in disgust, then winced as she saw the slice across her right biceps. Didn’t even feel that. She examined it with a scowl, and decided it wasn’t serious, but walked over to the small healer’s kit they kept in the cabin, and put a bit of linen bandage around it anyway.

Then she changed her undertunic, and put on her other set of leathers, the dark blue ones, and settled the armor back over it with a sharp snap as she buckled the catches. There.. that should have given them all enough time to get ready. Or I’m leaving anyway.

She pulled on a thick woolen overshirt and belted it, then put her discarded garb in a neat pile. A scratch at the door brought a grin to her face, and she opened it, admitting a panting Ares. He'd had trouble keeping up with them, her on that wild stallion, but gamely tried, pushing his half grown body to its limits.

"Roo!!!" He protested, jumping up against her. "Grrr." As he gently grasped her wrist in his teeth, and shook his head a little.

"Hey boy." Xena ruffled his fur. "Come on now.. you gotta help me find her. OK?" And my son. Gods.. how did that happen? And what if… She put that thought firmly aside. First things first. I find Gabrielle, and with the usual luck of the gods, and her talent for getting into complicated situations, she'll have him with her.

Then what? Bring him back here? Mother takes one good look at him, and it's all over. The warrior sighed. Later for that. Now, she cast her eyes about the cabin, and found what she was looking for.. Gabrielle's discarded practice tunic, neatly draped over the back of a chair. She walked over and picked it up, and the familiar scent almost undid her, as she hugged the fabric to her for a long moment.

Then her eyes fell on the bard's diary, still settled neatly on the bed, a testament to what the bard had been doing just before she'd left. Xena paused, and let her hand fall on the bound cover, thinking.

I don't ever pry into this… it's her personal thoughts.. though she lets me read parts of it sometimes. But this… I need to know if she.. Her hands found the last page, and flipped the diary open, and she bent her head towards it, bringing the candle she’d lit close.

The entry was short, and the first part made her smile wistfully. You missed me, huh? Yeah, I missed you too. Squeak squeak.. guess I'm a mush toy also. Her eyes studied the last paragraph thoughtfully. She had been going into bardic mode, and was going to relate stories to the girls…

Xena sat back. Gabrielle loved atmosphere, and she was looking to impress these young Amazons. A grim smile crossed the warrior's face. "Come on, Ares.. I know where she went." Energy surged into her, as she stood up, and grabbed the tunic, giving Ares a slap on the side and heading for the door.

Continued in Part 7

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