Winter's Ending - Part 7

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Gabrielle sat quietly, with her back against the bars, watching the activity in the camp. She'd spent most of the day in a half daze, as the herb worked its way through her system, leaving her nauseous and weak. There had been an angry buzzing around her head until just recently, and she'd kept quiet, taking the time to just lose herself in happier memories, until her body began reluctantly to respond more normally.

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. It even hurt to think, and she found herself tending to slip off into hazy daydreams that were mostly gentle and quiet. Mostly had her partner in them, in their more peaceful moments.

A rich green meadow, hazy with sunlight and warm breezes. They'd stopped there.. just because they could, Gabrielle had figured. It had been an awful week, all fights, and blood, and two encounters with marauding warlords, both of whom had known Xena back in the bad old days, and held a grudge.

So Xena had sort of declared a day off, and had led Argo into this wonderful wild space, and take the mare's saddle and bridle off, setting her free to run.

They'd pitched a little camp under some trees, then spent some time just wandering around, enjoying the day. Gabrielle had gotten Xena to chase her a little, and they'd run through the knee-high grasses, laughing like kids.

Eventually the lazily loping warrior had just reached out a long arm, and caught her waist, bringing them both down in the sweet smelling grass in a tumbling heap. Then Xena had stretched out and put her arms behind her head, crossing her ankles and letting out a sigh.

Gabrielle had settled on her stomach, leaning on her elbows and chewing a stalk of the profuse grass. "I like days off." She'd commented, plucking another stalk of grass and tickling Xena's ear with it.

Which had gotten her an outraged look from the warrior, who'd snaked a hand out and grabbed her under the arm, flexing her biceps and pulling the bard closer. Then she released her, and plucked the grass from her hand. "What is this?" Complete with a dark scowl and a genuine dour, Xena special look.

Gabrielle had just laughed, and rolled over, cheekily using the warrior's belly as a pillow with a new sense of closeness that had developed between them after Cirron. Xena's dark glowering no longer intimidated her, and she grinned as the scowl moderated into a smile that twinkled right up into those beautiful eyes of hers.

She could feel the slow, relaxed breathing under her head, and closed her eyes, absorbing the sunlight, and the rich green smell of the meadow, and the delicate rustling of the grasses in the winds with an almost sensual pleasure.

Which had then slid right off the scale into sensual as she felt Xena’s arm settle casually across her bare midriff, sending a surprising jolt through her that made her very skin tingle. It felt wonderful. She felt wonderful, and a bubbling surge of happiness floated over her that emerged as a silly grin and a heartfelt, contented sigh.

I need to stop that. Gabrielle reflected, as she forced her eyes open again. It just makes coming back to reality that much worse.

Cait walked over, and crouched down next to her, her pale gray eyes shadowed with concern. "I think those guys are here." She whispered, darting a glance over her shoulder. "It’s almost sunset.. maybe they’ll just start off tomorrow."

Gabrielle nodded, and gazed across the russet tinted camp, finding the dark figures moving in from the main entrance through the misty blue smoke from the fire. Ten men, it looked like, dressed in the usual motley assortment of furs and leather that the raiders seemed to have a fondness for. Her eyes fastened on their apparent leader, a slim man of middling height, with curly brown hair and a way of holding his body that meant he was no scholar. He wore a longsword across his back and an ornately carved dagger was strapped to his slim waist.

Oh oh.. he’s trouble. The bard’s eyes narrowed. She’d traveled enough with Xena to recognize a predator when she saw one, and she was seeing one now. Not like Rurik, who was just a crude molester. This was something of a different order, and her heart sank at the knowledge.

Rurik brought his guests around the perimeter of the camp, peering into the various cages and pointing, explaining.. laughing. They came closer, and now she could see them, see they buyer, who was younger than she’d thought, and handsome, with quick, intelligent features and an alert gaze.

They stopped in front of their prison, and she found herself looking up into eyes almost as green as her own, in a freckled face. He studied their group, and a smile crossed his face. "You didn’t lie, Rurik. This is a prize catch all right." He laughed, and clapped the trader on the back. "Worth your price, my friend. Come.. let’s have a drink on it." He let his eyes wander over them, and finally rest on Gabrielle, who he studied with ill-disguised interest. A quirk twitched his mouth and he gave a little nod. "Definitely worth the price."

They walked off, and Gabrielle let out her held breath, her mind racing.

"I don’t think I much like him." Cait observed, tucking her knees up to her chest and putting her arms around them. "No.. I don’t think I much like him at all."

Sharra scrambled over, and settled down next to them, glancing at Gabrielle with nervous eyes. "I think he liked you." She said softly to the bard.

Gabrielle nodded grimly. "Just my luck." She sighed. "All right.. here’s the plan." They all gathered close and peered at her. "They’ll probably.. " She paused. "Take me out of here tonight, to wherever they are."

A solid silence fell, as the girls digested the meaning of that. They all knew.. Amazons weren’t stupid, and that was one of the first things their training addressed.

"I’m going to try and create a diversion." Gabrielle went on. "Enough so that I can get back here, and get that door open." She glanced outside. "When I do, you all start running, as fast as you can, down that path, all right? Don’t look behind you, don’t stop, and don’t think about anything except for getting out of here. Do you all understand that?"

Six pairs of eyes looked gravely back at her. "They’ll chase us." Cait said practically.

"I’ll stop them." The bard answered evenly. "You just all have to go. You promise me, all of you, that you’ll run and keep running as long and as hard as you can."

"I’m not leaving you here." Solon snorted, giving her a disbelieving look. "No way."

"Yes, you will." Gabrielle answered, reaching out and clasping his arm. "I know your father taught you how to obey the rules, Solon.. this is a big one. You have to go, you hear me?"

Pale, familiar blue eyes studied her intently. "That’s a bad rule." He stated flatly. "Xena wouldn’t want us to leave you here."

That, Gabrielle mused regretfully Was entirely true. "I know that, honey. But Xena isn’t here… and she would want me to make sure you got away." She answered quietly. "All of you." She added, glancing around the circle. "I want you all to promise."

A long silence fell, and she finally got reluctant head nods from five of them. Only Cait refused, her eyes shadowed and grave. She stayed behind as the rest of them moved away, sensing a struggle between them.

"I can’t. " Cait said quietly, carefully, as she wrapped her arms tightly around her knees.

"You have to, Cait." Gabrielle said softly. "Please… you’re my responsibility.. don’t make this hard on both of us."

"I can’t." The girl repeated, with a swallow. "I have a prior promise… and I’m not breaking that. I won’t.. I can’t." Her pale gray eyes bored into Gabrielle's, with an icy intent.

A prior promise? Gabrielle stared at her in consternation, then it hit her. "To Xena." She breathed, closing her eyes in understanding. Never leave anything to chance, do you love? Always a backup plan.

"Yes." Cait replied. "Before she left, she asked me to stick by you, and to make sure you were all right." The girl gave her a tiny smile. "You do mean so very much to her, you know."

Oh gods. Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I know." She answered. "But that’s all the more reason for you to go, Cait." She looked up, putting as much intensity into her gaze as she could. "You have to make sure they all get out, Cait.. if I can’t. You have to.. " Her eyes flicked across to where Solon was seated, staring out at the camp in silence. "You have to make sure Solon is safe."

A tense silence from Cait. "No.. I.."

Gabrielle leaned forward, and caught Cait’s slender arms. "He’s her son, Cait." In a bare, bare whisper. "Please."

Cait drew a sharp breath in, and stared at the ground. "I thought so." She answered faintly. Then she looked up at Gabrielle. "He doesn’t know, does he?"

The bard shook her head slowly. "No."

"Rot." Cait cursed. "This whole thing is just rot." Then she sighed softly. "All right." But her eyes burned with an intense fire. "Just until I know they’re safe, mind you. Then I’m coming back."

Gabrielle breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Her lips twitched a little. "You make a great Amazon, Cait." She patted the girl’s tense arm.

Cait’s gray eyes met hers, and the blond girl gave her a quiet smile. "So do you." She paused. "We’re very lucky to have someone like you to lead us."

Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly, and rolled the words around in her head. That’s what I wanted to prove, right? Well, right now.. I’d settle for being thought a fool, if I was a safe fool back home. "Thanks." She replied, gazing up at Cait.

The sun had faded out, leaving the camp in a twilight blue haze, the faint sounds of the men moving around echoing, and the smell of the campfire drifting over to them on wisps of gray smoke. Nearby, low voices laughed, and heavy footsteps headed their way.

Three guards, two with clubs, one with that long lead stopped at their cage, and pointed at her. "You… warrior. Come here."

Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief, and stood up, stretching her sore body and squaring her shoulders. She made eye contact with each one of her companions as she walked forward, letting her gaze at last rest on Solon. "Be good, guys. All right?"

Six very solemn, nodding heads.

Gabrielle nodded back, and stepped out of the cage, letting her arms fall quietly to her sides as the man fastened the leash to her collar, and let his hands trail over her as he finished. Then he looked up and met her cold stare, and jerked his hands away.

"Come on." He said brusquely, giving the lead a tug. "You’re wanted as part of the entertainment tonight."

She followed him turning her head to take a last look at her companions, who were standing against the bars, watching her with intent eyes. She summoned all her courage, and gave them a smile, and wink.

They smiled back. Then she turned her head forward, and sighed, and tried to gather her defenses for what was ahead.

"Gotta be careful with that one." Rurik yawned, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs. "She’s a bit of a thing, but she’s damn tough."

Detris smiled. "Amazons are, you know." He turned his head and studied the ceiling. "She’s got pretty eyes… I like that." He gave Rurik a sly grin. "I might keep her."

Rurik snorted. "Better keep her on a leash.. she’s got some fire there."

The handsome slaver chuckled. "Oh.. I think I can get her to be a little more cooperative.. they all usually end up liking me, after a bit." He stretched. "I like a challenge.. and those are some really nice looking kids you picked up with her.. good work, Rurik."

The trader smiled. "Thanks.. it took a bit of planning.. had to wait for her family to take off on some kind of trip, but it was worth the wait."

Detris’ brow creased. "Family?" He sat up. "I thought she was an Amazon?"

Rurik shrugged. "That’s what they say she was.. but she was visiting with family in Amphipolis." He gave Detris a curious look. "Why?"

The slaver shrugged as well. "Oh.. well, I don’t know that much about Amazons.. thought they spent their time in their own villages." He picked up a cup of beer and took a swallow. "I’m not from around here, remember." He glanced around. "Thank the gods."

Rurik chortled. "Oh.. laddie, I know." He shook his head. "Me either.. what a backwater this is." He leaned back. "She’s a relative of Xena, you know."

Detris’ eyebrows rose. "Was, you mean.. I heard she was dead."

"Not unless there’s two of them around." The trader smiled. "Saw her not a week past." His eyes glinted. "That doesn’t bother you, does it?"

The slaver laughed. "Should it? She’s old news… mostly stories no one sober would believe."

Rurik nodded, secretly relieved. "My thoughts exactly.. though the little thing there says otherwise.. she was warning me off."

They both laughed. "Well, she would." Detris said cheerfully, giving him a slap.

The door pushed open, and they looked up as Gabrielle was led in, stepping quietly over the threshold, and studying her surroundings with wary eyes.

Detris took his time observing her, noting the muscular body, and alert gaze. Spirited, yes.. Rurik had been right. He could see the stubborn streak a mile wide in her, and relished the challenge of wearing it down. He smiled inwardly. He was good at what he did, and had some tricks, and some tools to help him.. and a well-trained female slave would earn him top dollar overseas.

Now he stood, and sauntered over, walking around her and watching her shoulders stiffen in reflex. Her arms were fastened behind her, and he could see the raw marks where the bindings had bitten deep, and imagined how uncomfortable it must be. His lips twitched. That could be used to his advantage.

"Well, Rurik.. I think me and my new property here should get better acquainted." He took the lead from the guard, and tweaked her a little, watching as her green eyes fastened on him. "Hello there, cute stuff. What’s your name?"

No change in the dark, wary expression. But she answered. "Gabrielle." And paused. "What’s yours?"

Detris smiled slowly. "Detris." His voice was low, and vibrant. "Come on, Gabrielle.. let’s get to know each other." He gave the lead a tug, and she followed without a word, as they passed out of Rurik’s squalid quarters and crossed the open area towards some little used huts on the other side of the compound, through the tangy smoke from the campfire that clung to her clothing and make her eyes water.

I am.. in real trouble here Xena. She sent a quiet, desperate thought out to her partner. I wish I could ask you what to do.. but I know you’d say to just keep my head, and see what opportunities present themselves. That’s what you’d do, right? She followed Detris into his hut, and stood quietly as he fastened the lead to one of the overhead beams, and made another circle around her, studying her intently.

He nodded to himself, then went to a small pack on the desk and removed a slim blade from it, walking back over to her and testing the blade on his thumb. He walked around in a back of her, and she stared straight ahead, trying to stay calm.

"You must be uncomfortable." His voice came from over her shoulder, and she drew a breath at the calm friendliness of it.

"I’ve had worse." That almost jerked a smile to her face, as she finally got a chance to use one of Xena’s favorite lines. But I bet she’s never been this scared when she’s said that. She felt the icy cold finger of steel touch her sore wrists, and closed her eyes. A long pause, then she felt the bonds holding her hands drop away.

Detris reached up and rubbed her shoulders, as she let her arms drop to her sides, and felt the muscles stiffen under his touch. "Relax." He advised her. "This doesn’t have to be a fight."

Gabrielle turned her head, and gazed at him, seeing the cruelty and hunger in his eyes. "Doesn’t it? Why are you doing this?"

"So. " He chuckled, moving around in front of her and sliding the knife along her side. "You can talk." He ran the knife up the front of her shirt to the pulse point at her neck. "That’s a plus. And as for why.. well, cute stuff, I make a lot of money, and have a great time doing it." He slid the knife around her throat, and slit the leather lead, leaving her head free. "You’re going to make me a loooot of money when we get off the boat.. and we’ve got lots of time for me to teach you all you need to know." He pushed her chest, and she backed up a step. "Don’t we?"

Gabrielle’s mind worked frantically, trying to come up with something.. anything… She took another step back at his push, knowing he was shoving her towards the low bed nearby.

Another step. A harder shove, and she was knocked off her balance, and was lying on the foul smelling platform, and he backed off a pace to view her. A smile etched his features, then he backed off another step, and lunged forward, intending to pin her in place.

Gabrielle caught his intention, and brought her booted feet up right at the last minute, catching him on the chest, and pushing off with all the strength she had. An explosive cough came from his as her boots impacted, then she heaved up, and he went flying across the hut, crashing into the table and collapsing it.

Now, or never. Gabrielle rolled off the bed, and reached for a thick club he’d left lying there, swinging with desperate precision and catching him on the side of the head as he rose and staggered forward.

She felt the impact all the way up her shoulders, and heard the crunch of bone under the club, and then he was down and moaning at her feet.

One long frozen moment, and then she was dropping the club, and racing for the door, pelting outside and heading across the campsite, dodging startled half drunken men. One tried to stop her, but her nervous energy was up, and she stiff-armed him, knocking him off his feet and out of her way.

A thought drifted through her panicked mind, and she swerved momentarily, leaning over and scooping her staff from the ground where they'd left it when they finished with her demonstration.

The feel of it reassured her.

Two men in front of her now, arms outstretched, but she was in no mood to stop, and took them out with a fierce combination move that caught one in the knees with a vicious swipe, and the other in the chest with a hard end strike.

Then she was at the cage, and throwing the door open, hearing the yells as the alarm was raised. "Come on." She snapped, as they girls poured out, Cait getting a firm hold on Solon. "Move it.. quick!!" They ran past her, and down the path, heading for the back entrance to the camp. Gabrielle took out another guard, then started to follow them, ducking under one pursuers arm, and thumping him in the chest with her staff.

One grabbed her, and she took one hand off the weapon and slugged him, surprising herself more than the raider as he doubled over and she had a chance to smack him in the head with the edge of her staff. Ouch. She heard the objection echoing in her head. How in Hades does Xena do that??

Seeing the way clear for a short space, as the raiders gathered themselves together to give chase, she took off down the path after the kids, holding her staff and hoping her fading strength would hold out until.. until what? Gabrielle.. you have to hold these guys off long enough for those kids to get away. No rescuers, remember?

She took a shaky breath, and felt every minute of the long days she'd been captive. No rescuers. It all depends on me. A quick glance behind her showed a large bunch of pursuers, and she spotted Rurik's form there. And Detris, his slim form outlined in the angry firelight.

Gods help me. She ran faster, hearing the others shortly ahead of her, as she passed into the forest, her footsteps rustling the dead leaves underfoot and sending small creatures, already disturbed by the children scattering again for cover. Round a bend, and there they were, and there.. Gabrielle's eyes drank it. A suspension bridge.. over a tall crevice with a rush of white water under it.

It only took a moment to make the decision. "Everyone across." She ordered, pleased as they started moving.

Only Cait hung back, looking at her. Knowing. "Give me that knife, Cait." Gabrielle said softly, hearing the footsteps behind her increasing in sound.

"No… " The girl whispered.

"Do it." The bard gripped her shoulder hard. "Get the out of here. Go south.. get home."

"Gabrielle.." Cait said softly.. "Let me stay… you go."

Another glance behind her. "Go, Cait. This is my responsibility. And.." She gently took the knife from the girls' grasp. "I'll be ok.. they'll just catch me again… go on.. get help." Knowing it was a lie. Knowing Cait, most certainly, knew that.

"I'll find Xena." Cait promised.

The name almost broke her. "Tell her.. " She had to stop. "Tell her I'm sorry." Then she pushed Cait hard. "GO!!!"

Light steps on the bridge… heavier steps now catching up to her, and torchlight glancing across the dark shadows of the forest. Gabrielle stared at the small group huddled on the other side, then at the bridge supports.

It was the work of moments to saw through the tough hemp. The weight of the bridge did half her work for her, and with a solid, lonely clatter, the wooden planked rope fell away, and tumbled down the ravine.

Leaving her alone to face the angry mob who just then cleared the bend, and stopped, seeing her standing there, staff upraised, the red torchlight reflecting of her fair hair.

Cait had felt the ropes start to go as soon as her heels left the bridge, and she joined the girls in staring across, watching in sick fear as the slavers rounded the bend and saw what she'd done.

"Cait!" Sharra screamed. "Did you know she was…"

"Yes." The girl quietly answered. Then jumped as a heavy hand fell on her shoulder. "Yahh!!"

Xena stripped off her tunic, and handed it to Cait. :"Hold this." Then she headed for the remnants of the bridge. "Gods know..I love her." The warrior muttered. "But she never makes it easy."

She grabbed the ropes, and swung over the side, dropping down the bridge ruins at breakneck speed.

"Gods." Sharra squeaked. "I can't believe it."

"Believe it." Came another voice behind them, and they all whirled to see Granella come dashing up, breathing hard. The girls clustered around her, and looked up as several more people came pilling up the path, one unmistakably a centaur.

"Father!" Solon yelled, and ran to him.

Gabrielle shifted her grip on the staff, and waited. Detris limped forward, the blood on his head in stark contrast to his pale face.

"You little bitch." He hissed. "I don't care how much you're worth.. I'm gonna kill you." He drew his sword, and she backed up against the tree, bringing her staff up into guard position.

He realized she had a reach advantage, and backed off, then smiled. "Oh.. first things first. " He turned and motioned for one of the guards to give him his pike. Then he sheathed his sword, and came at her, lunging and slamming the pike against her staff with force enough to shove her backwards.

Grimly, she hung on, and got her balance, shoving him back and ducking under his next blow. He came at her again, and she deflected the pike, but her knees were starting to shake, and she knew it was just a matter of time.

Parry, deflect. Lunge, counterstrike. They moved around in a circle, until one of his strikes over reached her flagging strength, and she caught a root with her foot, and went down, the staff bounding out of her hands and into the crowd.

A low laugh came from Detris, and she could only look at him, from her position down on one knee. He drew his sword, and twirled it, then slowly approached her, watching her head come up, her eyes meet his. "You ready to die?" He asked, almost conversationally, raising the sword.

"Are you?" Came the answer, but not from the kneeling form in front of him, whose face suddenly, unexpectedly, had broken into a tired, but relieved smile.

Whirling, he found himself facing a nightmare.

Half a foot again taller than he was, leather clad and drenched with mountain stream water, armored, and holding a longsword with every evidence of knowing how to use it. The torchlight made a mystery of her face, but he knew he was looking up into a pair of the coldest eyes he'd ever seen.

The raiders clustered around lost any menace they might have had. They were pale toys, children in bits of fur and leather in comparison. This was the real thing. Dark energy oozed from her as she moved towards him, with smooth, dangerous motions that promised strength in abundance.

"Only one of you, then, Xena." Rurik called out, motioning the raiders forwards. "Better think twice."

Xena turned him and smiled. "I think you'd better start thinking about the fact that there's one of me.. and only twenty of you." She laughed, and flipped her sword, raising her eyebrows and motioning with her hands. "Who's first?"

A flickering motion from Detris, as he glided his swordpoint forward, sliding sideways and going for her heart. She caught his sword on her own, and deflected the strike, then powered through his defenses and with one savage stroke severed his head from his shoulders, and sent it bouncing across the ground. "Teach you to threaten my friends." She growled.

"Come on!" Rurik yelled, and led the raiders forward, all of them attacking her at once.

Gabrielle rolled out of the way and came up next to her staff, grabbing it and levering herself to her feet. She'd felt Xena's presence just as she was losing her staff, and had actually seen the warrior come up over the edge of the ravine in one smooth powerful move, a sight which had filled her with a glad fire that banished the weariness.

Now she watched for an opportunity to help, pushing aside her own exhaustion to try and assist her partner, who was in the middle of a swirling mob of yelling men, her own wild yell rising above theirs.

Bodies started collecting, as Xena slammed her fist into heads, and kicked hard. Two sword cuts, and two raiders were down, bleeding their last into the forest's damp floor. Gabrielle darted in, and clobbered one of them who was trying to get behind Xena, and had the satisfaction of seeing him drop senseless to the ground.

Xena knew it was close to the end, only a few were still attacking, the rest were fled, or down, or dying at her feet, and she glanced up to see Rurik running away down the path. "Oh no." She growled, unhooking the chakram from her belt and letting fly. It caught him in the back of the head, and sent him face first against a tree. He slid down the trunk and lay there in silence. She glanced back and saw Gabrielle kneeling next to the tree holding onto her staff for dear life, and dispatched the last two raiders with vicious sword thrusts.

Then she was putting the weapon away, and running across the small clearing, dropping to one knee beside her partner's tense form. "Gabrielle?"

The staff clattered to the earth, as the bard reached for her, and she dropped to the ground and pulled Gabrielle's body into her lap. "Hey.." She felt Gabrielle's hands clench on her leathers, as the bard buried her head into Xena's wet shoulder. "Shh.. I got you.. it's all right.. it's ok.."

"Yeah.. now." Gabrielle mumbled, ignoring the damp leather. "Last guy kicked me in the gut.. gods.." She winced, curling her body tighter into her partner's. "Hurts.." She swallowed very hard. "Sso glad to see you.."


Xena's face tightened in sympathy. "Ouch." She gently rubbed the bard's arm . "Come here.. let me see."

"'s ok.." The bard gasped, when she tried to straighten up. "Oh.. gods. Maybe not."

Gentle fingers probed her, and she bit her lip to keep from yelling at the pain. "Yyy eah. Right there."

Xena winced. "You have fractured ribs, love."

The bard groaned. "Is that what this is?" She sucked in a breath, trying to breathe shallowly. "Oh gods.. and you just walk around with this?"

Xena gently kissed her head, and sighed. "Your turn to be pampered for a while."

The light banter relaxed both of them, she knew.. because they weren't up to releasing the level of emotion that was running just below the surface of their conversation. That would be for later, when they were home, and safe, and alone.

Now, she glanced up, to see the anxiously waiting faces across the ravine, and gave them a wave, seeing Granella's wave back. She's gonna kill me when we get back.. Xena mused. But it's not my fault she couldn't keep up. "How are you otherwise?"

Gabrielle felt the sharp agonizing pain back off slightly, and she raised her head, gazing up at her partner. "Ugh." She sighed softly. "I've had a better few days." She lifted a sore arm, and brushed Xena's neck with her fingertips. "Ares found you?"

"Yeah." Xena replied, reaching over and gently smoothing the hair out of her eyes. Their gazes met, and she felt the intensity of their bond ignite, wrapping them both in a gentle warmth. "Come on.. we gotta get you home." She glanced up. "They got horses in that camp?"

"A few." Gabrielle winced. "But I don’t think I can.."

"Shh." Xena gathered her strength and stood, lifting the bard up with her. "I'll put you out." She walked to the edge of the ravine. "Gran… meet us back home? This stream goes on down for a long time.. no other crossovers." This in a yell.

"Sorry about the bridge." Gabrielle muttered. "How did you.. " She glanced down. "Never mind. I don't wanna know."

"Xena.." That was Kaleipus, a waving Solon on his back.

Gabrielle looked up, and saw the quietly stricken look on her partner's face, and felt her heart contract. She opened her mouth to say something, then felt Xena's chest expand as she prepared to answer him.

"You too, Kaleipus." She hesitated. "It's late.. spend the night."

The centaur nodded in understanding, and gave her a wave that was half salute.

Granella waved at her, and motioned for the group to move up the trail. Toris stood and watched them for a minute, then gave them a wave, and followed the centaur as rear guard. Ares pranced from paw to paw for a minute, then howled his objections before grudgingly going along.

Xena sighed, and turned, glancing down at Gabrielle. "What's that smile for?"

"Smile?" The bard whispered, laying her head down on Xena's shoulder. "I have broken ribs.. how could I be smiling?"

She heard the warrior's powerful heartbeat clearly in one ear, and was loath to abandon that sound, but Xena had stopped walking now.

"Well." Xena's voice was icy cold.

Gabrielle picked her head up, and saw what Xena was looking at. Rurik, dazed, and getting to his feet unsteadily. Xena knelt and put her down. "Don’t go anywhere, ok?"

The warrior stood, and walked over to him, standing quietly while he straightened up. Then she picked him up by the throat and slammed him against the tree, sending a cascade of ice crystals down over both of them.

She shook her head, scattering them, and examined him.

"Xena." Gabrielle's voice was quiet, but insistent.

'What?" She asked, drawing her hip dagger and fingering it.

"He didn't hurt me." Damning words from the bard.

A long pause from Xena. "He didn't touch you?"

A sigh from her partner. "He wanted to.. gave me some stuff.. it backfired. But no.. "

Now Xena turned around, and looked her right in the eye. Gabrielle met that gaze for a minute, then dropped it, and looked at the ground.

The warrior returned her attention to Rurik. "You're lucky." She told him, in a low growl. "If you'd have touched her, I'd have ripped both your arms off and beaten you to death with them." She paused, and looked at his sweating face. "Is that what you get out of this? Pleasure from molesting helpless captives?"

He spat at her. "Not from the likes of her, or you.. but there's more fish in the sea."

Wrong answer. The warrior mused, as the wolf surfaced, and she let it.

"Not for you." Xena said, in a silky cold voice. She put a knee against his chest, and reached down, grabbing his groin in one powerful fist. His eyes started to pop out, then she clenched hard, and pulled with all her strength, ignoring his scream, waiting until she could feel the flesh separate and vessels rupture under her grasp.

Then she released him, and watched him slide down the tree, his eyes rolling up into his head, and animal like grunts issuing from his mouth.

Xena dusted her hands off, then turned, taking in Gabrielle's horrified stare with an internal wince. She crossed back to her, and knelt down, capturing the bard's chin in her hand and tilting her face up. "Hey.."

Gabrielle swallowed hard, and tried to control her breathing. "I… " Oh gods.. oh gods..I can't believe she just did that…

"Gabrielle.. that wasn't for you." Xena said, gently.

A long moment of silence from the bard, then she closed her eyes in realization, and nodded, reaching out a hand and curling it around Xena's. "You're.. right." She managed, squeezing her partner's fingers. Absolving. Understanding. Believing. His next victim might not be so lucky.

"Come on." Xena sighed. "Let's go home." She started to pick the bard up, but Gabrielle tugged on her leathers. "What?"

"Just help me stand up.. I think I can walk a little, if you give me a hand." The bard glanced up, and saw the swiftly hidden hurt in her partner's eyes, and reached a hand to her face, stroking it gently. "Love… you're about to keel over, and don't think I don't know it." She felt the muscles under her hand twitch into an unwilling grin. "Save it for when I can't get up on the damned horse, ok?"

'Busted." Xena chuckled wearily. "Been a very long couple of days." She helped the bard up and settled a protective arm over her shoulders.

Gabrielle winced at the pain, but found herself able to manage, if she went slowly, and remembered not to breathe too deeply. They entered the now deserted camp, and she felt Xena's body start, when she observed the squalor, and saw the remaining cages. "Nice, huh?" She muttered. "Let the rest of them out.. will you?"

"With pleasure." The warrior growled, settling her on a log, and striding off towards the cages. She unsheathed her sword, and opened the locks with one powerful blow each, setting the nervous captives free.

Gabrielle watched her, letting her mind focus on the familiar form, flickering in and out of silvery bars of moonlight, scattering them with the flat of her sword, and picking up the odd red firelight glimmer from the still snapping campfire. Other than that, it was very quiet across the camp.

She looked up as a small group of the villagers gathered around her. The oldest, a man about her father's age gave her a gruff nod. "Ye're an Amazon, aren't ye?"

Gabrielle gazed at him, and thought about that. "No, I'm not." She answered quietly.

"Ye're not? But they said.." The man protested.

The bard shook her head. "No, I'm a bard, actually." She felt a smile settled on her face. "And my family.. " Her eyes flickered over their heads to the approaching Xena. "are innkeepers in Amphipolis."

"Innkeepers." The man said, gazing at Xena, then back at her. "Rare breed of em, then." He gusted a sigh "Must be one heck of an inn."

Xena gave him a look, then proffered a forearm. She waited for him to take it before speaking. "We've got a very mean ale. My name's Xena."

His jaw dropped. "Oh..gods.."

"Nope." She shook her head. "I've been accused of a lotta things, but never that."

The villagers helped Xena saddle one of the scruffy horses the raiders had kept around the camp, and she told them to take the rest of the string with them, along with anything worthwhile left in the place.

A quick search turned up a few bolts of dusty fabric, enough for Xena to cut and shred to make a set of bandages, which she draped over her arm and walked back to the bard with. "Hold still." She knelt, and unbuckled Gabrielle's belt. "I'm going to wrap you with these.. the support will help the pain a little."

"OK." Gabrielle agreed softly, feeling Xena slip her hands underneath the fabric of her shirt, and smothering a tired smile as her body, despite the pain, despite the total exhaustion, reacted to her partner's touch with a warm tingle. She gazed at the dark head before her, and lifted a hand, running her fingers lightly through Xena's now dry hair. "You must be freezing, love."

Xena finished her task, and let her hands rest on Gabrielle's knees, looking up with a faintly sheepish grin. "I should.. " She patted the bard's leg. "But I don't.. I just feel.. " Like I'm floating on air.. what a strange sensation. "Warm.. just.. glad I got here."

Gabrielle let her hand drift down the warrior's throat, and touch the necklace, looking up at Xena in question.

A smile was her reward, as Xena reached behind her neck, and unclasped the necklace that bore the ring on it. "Do you want yours back?" She asked, raising one eyebrow in question.

The bard slowly shook her head. "Nope. I like that one."

Xena glanced down without answering, then slid the ring off the chain, and reached up, fastening it around Gabrielle's neck. She smiled, as she lifted the bard's hand, and slid the ring into place, feeling her partner's fingers clamp down on her own.

"Taking those off really hurt." Gabrielle whispered. "I know they're just symbols but…. " she rubbed the inside of the ring with her thumb. "I didn't want anyone to.." She hesitated. "Take them from me."

Xena felt an unexpected surge of emotion at that, and she settled next to Gabrielle on the log, and gently put her arms around her. "I understand." The bard sagged against her, her hands clutching at her half dry leathers.

"I was so scared." Gabrielle whispered, desperately craving the warmth of their connection. "I thought.. I thought… there was no way you could… " She paused. "Oh.. gods.. Xena.. how did.. what happened…"

"Shhh." Xena soothed her, with gentle strokes. "Everything's fine. It all worked out OK." She reassured the bard. "They'll be coming to visit us in a few days."

Gabrielle lifted her gaze, and quietly let her fingers trace Xena's face. "You are magic." She said wonderingly.

"Nah." Xena smiled sadly at her. "Just a lot of hard work." She buried her face in Gabrielle's hair for a moment, then sighed. "Let's get going."

The horse, a dun gelding, was placid, and stood quietly while Xena lifted Gabrielle up and helped her get settled. She was about to take the reins to lead the horse, when the bard tugged at her shoulder armor. "You too." She glanced down. "Big horse."

"No.. it's all right..I don’t' need to.."

A firm hand on her jaw stopped her, and she felt Gabrielle's serious, intent regard. It should have annoyed her. But it didn't.

"Xena?" Came the quiet, intense voice. "When was the last time you slept?" I don't want to know the answer to that question, do I? I know I won't like it.. but.. can I lie and say I'm not glad she did what she did? I'd be dead otherwise. Again.

"Um." Xena's brow creased a bit. "I don't.. " Remember? Gods.. "Night we left." She finally admitted. "That next night.. I felt.. I knew something wasn't right." The light touch of Gabrielle's hand on her head. "I just kept pushing after that." She sighed. "Thought it might be Eph.. I didn't know… until Ares found me."

Fingers threaded through her hair and rubbed the back of her neck gently, and she rested her head against the bard's thigh, letting the pressure release some of the pent up tension in her. "Get up here." Gabrielle's voice insisted. "Please? " What am I going to do with her? That's.. she sighed mentally. That's my Xena.

So she did, pulling herself up in back of Gabrielle, and carefully wrapping her arms around the bard. She immediately felt her partner relax against her chest, as she kneed the gelding forward and started on the shadowy path home.

The inn courtyard was well lit, and milling with people, villagers and her family, Amazons and visitors when Xena finally guided the dun horse into it, quickly gathering a crowd she had little patience for at the moment.

"Ok..Ok.." She warned, holding on to Gabrielle's dazed form with one arm and fending them off with the other. "Back off.. give it some space here."

Toris shouldered in, and moved people back gently, grasping the horse's reins and giving his sister a grim little smile. "Need a hand?" He muttered, in a low voice, as she dismounted and landed in the muddy ground next to him.

Xena gave him a look, and a little shake of the head. "No.. it's all right. She's got broken ribs."

He flinched. "Ow." He hissed in sympathy, then turned as Cyrene appeared next to him, and they watched Xena pull the bard down from the horse's back and cradle her in her arms. Gabrielle stirred, and her face contracted in pain as her eyes blinked open.

"Easy." Xena said softly, as the dazed green eyes tracked to her face and warmed. "We're home."

A faint smile from the bard, as she lifted a hand an patted Xena's chest gently. "Been there for quite a while now." She mumbled, then turned her head slightly and focused on the people next to her. "Hi mom." Her eyes flicked to the left. "Hi bro."

"Hey cutie." Cyrene patted her arm softly. "Good to see you."

"Double that here." Toris said, his blue eyes shining at her casual addressing of him.

"All right." Cyrene cleared her throat. "Get out of the way, everybody." That with a glance up at her daughter's face. "Let Xena get her inside."

A quick, grateful look from the warrior made her smile. "Your other guests are here, and tucked away.. they got back a few candlemarks ago." Her brows quirked. "Your centaur friend insisted on the stable.. I can see his point, but.. must he keep the child there?"

Xena paused as she started to walk towards their cabin, and her lips quirked a little. "He'll be fine there, mother. " She paused. "How's Ephiny?"

A brief nod from her mother. "All right.. considering." She gave Xena a gentle push. "Get going. I put some stuff in the cabin for you. I don't expect to see you until tomorrow. Hear me?"

Xena chuckled tiredly. "Hear you." She navigated the courtyard, and the steps up to the cabin, pushing the door open and feeling the comforting warmth of the fire as she cleared the threshold.

The room was well lit with candles, and she made her way across it, and laid the bard down gently on the bed.

A scrambling sound at the doorway made her turn, and she got her hands up just in time to fend off Ares's enthusiastic greeting. "Roo!!!" He yodeled, licking every part of her he could reach.

"Ares!!" She protested. "C'mon…"

A gentle laugh distracted her, and she turned towards the bed, where Gabrielle was watching her out of half closed eyes. "Look, Ares… look who we found?" She kept a good grip on the wolf, to keep him from jumping on the bed.

Ares laid his dark head on the covers, and licked Gabrielle's hand. "Arrggghroo?" He whined.

Gabrielle's fingers gently stroked his fur, and scratched him behind his ears. "Hi Ares.. I'm ok.. thanks for finding your mom for me. " She smiled at him. "You're a good boy."

He sighed, and nuzzled her arm. "Grrr."

Xena chuckled, and stood up, going over to the basin of warm water Cyrene had left, and gathering up her healer's kit.

"Hey." Came the bard's voice, stronger than expected.

Xena looked up, to see Gabrielle's stern look. "Huh?"

"You change out of those damp clothes before you do one more thing, or else." The bard leveled a look at her, then paused. "Please?"

With a mock-aggrieved sigh, Xena complied, feeling the very welcome warmth as she settled a thick linen shirt over her head and set the leathers out to dry. Again, she realized with a wry inner chuckle. Must be something about that color. Then she gathered up her supplies, and crossed to the bed, setting the things down on the low table, and removing her dagger from it's sheath. "Gonna have to cut that shirt off… I don't think you want to be picking your arms up for me to pull it off."

"Just hurry up." The bard teased gently. "Cause I can't get what I really want until you're done." She closed her eyes as the sharp steel sliced through the heavy fabric, hearing the rough sound as the fibers parted before the knife's edge, and feeling the warm air as it hit her body underneath.

Gentle fingers touched her throat. "What happened here?" Xena's voice floated over her, and she forced her eyes open, to study the candlelit face above her, biting her lip a little.

"I had a… " Her lips twitched. "They thought I was very dangerous… they put a collar on me. "

Blue eyes started, and widened in anger. "It's all right.' Gabrielle put a hand on her partner's arm, then felt a touch on her wrist and looked down to see Xena examining the raw bruises there.

"I thought you said he didn't hurt you." Xena's voice was dark, and now Gabrielle could feel the anger rolling off her with little effort.

"It was.. " The bard sighed in exhaustion. "More to humiliate me than hurt me, Xena. He just.. they tied me up outside, as a kind of exhibit.. but.. " She looked up. "Xena, please… it's over.. I'm out of there.. don't make me remember that right now." She met the smoldering blue gaze. "Not that I don't.. appreciate… your anger on my behalf. I do." She paused and swallowed. "But right now.. I don't care about that."

Xena pushed down her rage with a visible struggle, taking deep breaths and letting them go, until she finally gave a little sigh. She picked up a soft linen cloth, dipping it in the warm water and gently washing her partner's battered body, then covering the raw skin on her wrists and neck with salve. "You're going to have to sit up for me to change these…" Her fingers touched the rough bandages around the bard's chest. "Do you want me to leave them.."

Warm fingers curled around hers, and she looked up to meet Gabrielle's eyes. "Please." The bard whispered. "They're ok." She tugged gently. "I need you."

The warrior hesitated. "Gabrielle.. you're really sore.. I don't…"

The bard smiled. "Been there, done that with you, remember? " She tugged again. "C'mon."

Xena remembered. And admitted to herself that she wanted what Gabrielle did, just as badly. Carefully, she slid onto the bed, and pulled the covers over both of them.

Gabrielle waited until she settled, then steeled herself for the effort, and rolled onto her side, snuggling up against her partner's warm body with a feeling of utter relief. The pain faded out to nothing as she let herself submerge into the rich, golden comfort of their connection, bringing tears to her eyes as she felt Xena's arms settle around her in a protective embrace.

She slid her hand under the fabric of Xena's shirt, feeling the muscles under her skin shift as she tightened her hold. "Need.. this." She mumbled, a deliberate echo. "Safe." She felt the motion and pressure as Ares hopped up onto the bed, and curled up behind her knees, a favorite spot, and smiled. "Home." She breathed, and let the light take her.

Cyrene leaned against her windowsill, peering out at what promised to be a nice day. Well, even if it was raining ice balls.. she mused. It would be a nice day. The morning sun poured down on the courtyard, bathing it in a simple, pale golden light that matched the lightness she was feeling herself after the days of anxiety just past.

With a quiet smile, she finished straightening up her well tended room, and settled her shawl about her shoulders against the chill as she walked downstairs and entered the kitchen.

"Morning, ma'am." Eustase spoke up cheerfully as she entered, from her spot near the large cookstove. "Got warm cereal on, and fresh bread there." The middle-aged woman had been a part of her staff for several months now, since things had turned around at the inn, and allowed her to hire on some additional staff.

Eustase was an orphan of war, so to speak, her village had been burnt out by a marauding warlord, whom Xena had eventually stopped. The friendly woman had found her way to Amphipolis, just to say thank you to the warrior, and ended up staying. Her knowledge of cooking was almost Cyrene's equal, and the innkeeper was very glad to have her around. She was a gentle soul, almost as tall as Xena, but roughly twice the warrior's weight, with a kind face, and twinkling hazel eyes.

"Morning, "Stase." Cyrene chuckled. "And it is a good one, I'll have you know."

Eustase's eyes lit up. "They found her then?" She'd been sort of afraid to ask.. as the atmosphere around the inn had been very dark the past few days.

The innkeeper nodded. "Found them all, they did.. or more accurately, my daughter did." A note of fond pride emerged, despite the dour circumstances. "She came back in last night, and led them right to the kids and Gabrielle."

"Might Artemis, she's amazing." Eustase laughed. "Are they all right?" She scooped a portion of nutty smelling cereal into a bowl, and drizzled a bit of honey on it before handing it to Cyrene.

Cyrene took the bowl, and dropped a spoon into it, stirring the honey around and taking a mouthful before answering. "Mostly." She sighed. "The girls are fine, the centaur's boy is fine.. Gabrielle is a little banged up, and Xena says she has some cracked ribs." Another spoonful. "All in all, it could have been worse." She glanced up with a smile. "Very nice cereal, Eustase."

That got a grin back. "Thank you ma'am." The cook stirred the pot. "I thought something warm this morning.. it's bitter cold out despite that nice sun."

"Mmm." Cyrene agreed. "Put a bit of that in this pot here. I think I'll meander over and see how my daughters are doing."

Eustase complied, then paused. "With the honey?"

Cyrene chuckled. "Oh yeah." She shook her head. "Neither of them can't stay away from that stuff." She took up the pot, and a loaf of warm bread, and headed out the door.

Bitter cold it was, and the stiff breeze blew her hair back off her forehead, and sent a shiver down her back, making her glad when she reached the cabin. She paused for a moment outside, and squared her shoulders, reflecting on the fact that this would be one of the first times she'd been in the cabin where both of them were probably… Come on, Cyrene. You're an adult..they're adults.. just forget it's your daughter, and get over it. She knocked softly, then pushed the door open, peering inside

The cabin was very quiet, the sun's rays just beginning to peek into the window and catching random dust motes in golden sparkles. Cyrene slid inside, and closed the door behind her, walking very quietly to the table and putting down her burden, before turning her eyes towards the bed.

Ares was looking at her, his dark ears pricked, but his body motionless where it was curled up on the other side of the two still forms snuggled together in the middle of the bed. Xena's dark, disheveled head was resting on one of the pillows with her arms wrapped around Gabrielle's body The bard herself was sleeping half on top of her partner, with one arm wrapped tightly around Xena's stomach, and her head resting on the warrior's broad shoulder.

How adorable. Cyrene smiled, studying the peaceful look on Xena's face. Then the warrior's eyes edged open, and met hers.

"Mother?" She whispered, blinking a few times.

"Shh.." Cyrene crossed quickly over to the bed, and sat on the edge, reaching up and putting a hand on her daughter's forehead. "How are you feeling?" Cool, that's good. At least the silly child hasn't caught a chill again.

Xena's brow creased momentarily. "Uhm… fine." She winced. "A little sore.. but otherwise OK." She blinked the sleep out of her eyes. "Everything all right?"

"Everything's fine. You go back to sleep. I just brought you some cereal for when you're ready." Cyrene motioned over her shoulder. "Argo came in late last night." She smiled at the look of relief on the warrior's face. "Thought you'd want to know that."

Xena smiled. "Thanks.. yeah, I did."

Cyrene's face sobered. "Those children are telling quite an amazing tale of what happened in that disgusting place." Her eyes flicked to Gabrielle's sleeping form. "She went through quite a lot, apparently." Her eyes lifted and found Xena's. "Cait said to tell you she thought Gabrielle had gotten a concussion right at the start, and that they'd given her something that made her very sick for a long time."

Xena sighed. "Yeah, she mentioned something about that." Her expression darkened. "Bastards.'

Cyrene pushed the dark hair out of her daughter's eyes, and felt her head again, watching Xena's eyes half close against her will. "Honey, go back to sleep." She smoothed the covers and tucked the edges in around both of them. "I'll let you know if anything happens."

A faint smile crossed Xena's face. "Sounds like a good idea." She admitted, letting her eyes close. "Thanks for the cereal."

Cyrene patted her shoulder. "Rest."

She sat quietly, until she saw Xena's breathing pattern change, and her face relax again, then gave the covers one last twitch and stood to leave.

"Tell me again. She did WHAT?" Ephiny coughed, grabbing onto the chair arms for support. Granella put a hand on her arm, and sighed. "Gods." The regent ran a hand through her curly hair.

Cait was seated on the rug before the fireplace, dressed in a clean shirt, her pale blond hair braided neatly. "She was super." The girl confirmed. "Ever so brave. She beat up that terrible man who was going to buy us, then set us free, and cut the ropes on the bridge so no one could follow us."

"Leaving herself on the other side." Ephiny groaned. "Alone."

"Well, yes." Cait smiled grimly. "That was the point." She took a sip of the cup Granella had given her. "We thought she was in real trouble.. then of course I got this hand on my shoulder that nearly scared me into next week, and the next thing you know, Xena's on her way down the ravine."

Ephiny looked at Granella, who nodded. "Yep." The dark haired Amazon confirmed. "Damned woman climbed down a sheer rock face, swam the rapids Athena only knows how, then climbed up the opposite face and proceeded to kick some very major class raider butt." She cleared her throat. "Not that I can claim to have seen her go over the edge first hand, mind you."

Ephiny let her hand rest on the scout's short-cropped hair, and ruffled it. "The old war horse lose you again?" She grinned. "Thought you might have a chance this time.. she looked like she put on a few pounds since she's been home. No, huh?"

Granella snorted. "Oh yeah, right." She shook her head. "There we were, going at a pretty good pace through the forest.. I was keeping up with her, no problem. Then all of a sudden, she gets this… I don't know.. this look, and she says, there's a hunter's camp at the end of this trail we're on, and that's where they are." She took a swallow of her own drink. "Then she takes off… and Eph, I mean, she takes off. One minute we're running along, the next minute she's so far ahead of me I can't even see her."

Ephiny chuckled. "It's those long legs of hers." She winked at the grinning Cait.

"Yeah, well, after all that, I come to find out from Tor that she's been on the move for a freaking week before she got home without sleep." The scout sighed dramatically. "I feel.. decrepit."

"From who?" Ephiny asked, struggling to find a more comfortable spot for her aching body.

"Tor.. Toris." Granella mumbled. "Her brother."

"Ohhh… that Tor." The regent's eyes twinkled mischievously. "Didn't know you were that friendly with him."

"Ephiny, don’t you start." Granella warned, but ducked her dark head to hide the blush she felt creeping up her neck. "Anyway, things were going fine in that fight until Gabrielle got kicked, really hard, by one of the guys she was trying to keep of Xena's back." The scout shook her head. "Eph, I could hear that crunch from where I was.. that musta hurt."

Ephiny sighed. "Yeah, I know." She pulled her shawl closer around her neck. "At least she's relatively in one piece. Thanks for waking me up and telling me last night, by the way. I slept a lot better."

"Mmm..' Granella agreed, drinking her tea. "Wish we could go see her, though."

The regent smiled quietly. "Let her be. She's right where she needs to be right now." The safest place in the world, did I say? "I'm sure she'll be by here as soon as she can."

Midmorning, Xena realized, as she let her eyes drift open again. The sunlight was pouring in the slanted glazed window, and throwing them into a pool of warm light which brought out all the fiery highlights in Gabrielle's hair, and paled the tan of her skin, showing the bruises in sharp relief. Xena felt her heart ache as she lifted a hand, and gently pushed aside a few strands of gilded hair, revealing the discolored bump from the blow she taken. Xena sighed, and let her fingers trail delicately over the dark bruises on her face, and the raw marks on her neck from the collar. Gabrielle.. how could they have done this to you? How could I have not been there to stop it? Gods.. you depend on me..

A hand twitched against her stomach, and then the bard was blinking into the sunlight, the rays painting her green eyes with a vivid intensity, highlighting the golden sparkles in their depths. "Ugh." She mumbled, gazing up at Xena. "Ow." Her face tensed in pain.

"Easy." Xena said softly, gently easing her hands onto the bard's shoulders. "I'm going to turn you onto your back, love. Hang on." She lifted Gabrielle's body, and eased her over onto her back, flinching herself at the bard's agonized hiss. "Sorry."

"Sokay." Gabrielle breathed. "Gods, that hurts." Her eyes dazedly found Xena's.

"Shh. I know." The warrior soothed her. "Listen.. I have some stuff I can give you for that.. but you have to eat something first." She gently tucked the covers around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Mom left some cereal."

That got the bard's attention. "Mom was here?"

A twitching grin from her partner. "Uh huh." Xena slid out of her side of the bed, and padded over to the small pot of cereal, poking a finger into it and tasting experimentally. Her eyebrows rose. "I think even you'll like this, love."

"Mom was here?" Gabrielle repeated, trying to wrap her fuzzy brain around the concept. "This morning?"

Xena scooped some cereal into a bowl, and picked up a spoon, sliding back into bed and settling onto her side. "Yes, mother was here. This morning. In this cabin."

"Oh." The bard considered this. "So.. I guess she uh… " She paused. "I mean, she um…"

"Saw us sleeping all snuggled up together, yes." Xena teased gently. "She lived. I lived. You slept."

Gabrielle blushed, then obediently opened her mouth and accepted the spoonful of cereal Xena was holding out. She chewed, and swallowed, and sat there for a minute. "Mmm.." She opened her mouth for more, and chewed the second spoonful. "Good."

"Thought you'd like it." Xena chuckled,. "I can just imagine what they fed you in that camp."

Long silence from Gabrielle, and finally a guiltily, half glance at her partner's suddenly tense face. "Uh.. it wasn't like you think." She begged for and got another spoonful. "That first day.. " She chewed and swallowed. "I got hit on the head.. I was sick to my stomach the whole time."

Another spoonful. "Then, the next day, I was.. they had me tied up until after dark. I was just too tired to eat.. Xena, you know how I get." A swift glance over. "I know.. I know.. but you said it was ok if I drank water."

Xena sighed, and offered another portion. "Gabrielle, it's ok not to eat if your body has reserves." She ran a light finger down the bard's lean waistline. "You don't." She watched Gabrielle think about that, and cast an eye down the length of her body. "That's right. So if you don't eat, then your body has nothing to repair itself with."

"Oh." The bard sighed. "No wonder I felt so lousy." Another spoonful. "Then he gave me that… stuff."

Xena moved closer, balancing the bowl on her leg and settling an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders. The bard nestled her head into her partner's chest and looked up. "I don't know what it was.. he.. " A pause. "Seemed to think it would.. make me.. " Another long pause.

Xena ran her thumb down Gabrielle's arm. "What did it taste like?"

The bard pursed her lips and thought. "Sharp.. kind of… bitter." She swallowed hard. "I started.. it felt like.. I was kind of lightheaded.. then.. " she shook her head. "It was like my body was fighting with itself." She glanced up, and saw the dark clouds building rapidly in Xena's eyes. "Whoa.. whoa.. it didn't work.. everything was ok.."

Xena closed her eyes, and felt her teeth grind together. Gods.. that could have killed her. I should have killed him. "Then what happened." She managed to get out, forcing herself to calm down. Gotta get this under control.. it's been way too easy to trigger since.. A wash of that dark anger flashed over her again.

To be halted by a touch on her face, and a soft voice. "Xena?"

Breathe. She took her own advice, and let the fury dissipate, finally opening her eyes to see a very concerned Gabrielle studying her. And felt the bard's heartbeat rapidly increase under the warrior's tense hand. "Sorry." She let her eyes mutely apologize further. "What he gave you.. was really dangerous, Gabrielle. It could have done.. a lot of harm to you."

The bard's worried look didn't change. "What's going on with you?" She asked quietly, wincing as she half turned to get a better look at Xena's face. "What happened?"

Long silence as they studied each other, and Xena felt herself calm under that loving regard. "Later." She finally said, her eyes quietly begging. "It's a long story." She offered another serving of cereal, and after a moment's hesitation, Gabrielle accepted it.

"Not too much later." The bard said, after swallowing. "And I like stories, remember?" She chewed thoughtfully. Need to change the subject… for now. "But anyway.. after that, they left me alone until the slavers got to camp.. I think what happened scared Rurik."

A dour look from Xena. "It should have." She glanced down at the now empty bowl. "Still hungry?"

Gabrielle gave her an embarrassed grin. "Yeah." She snuggled closer, and played with the fabric of Xena's shirt. "Can you get more without moving?"

Xena's eyebrows quirked. "I may have many skills, my bard, but that's not one of them." She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head, and slid out from behind her, settling her back gently on the covers. "Be right back."

The bard settled her head back, and watched her partner as she assembled something out of her healer's kit, and put water on to heat. The ache in her side throbbed, and was making her head hurt, along with the pain from everything else she'd suffered, and she realized she really wanted nothing more than to let sleep take her again, snuggled up with Xena. But that's not really fair to ask.. right? Her green eyes studied Xena's movements, noting the faint hesitation and the almost imperceptible flinch. Hmm.. maybe not.

She waited until the warrior had rejoined her, and sipped her sweetened tea from the mug held carefully in her left hand as her partner delivered the contents of the second bowl of cereal. She felt her muscles relaxing as the herbs kicked in, and smiled up at Xena. "What's in this?"

Got a smile back. "Something to help the pain.. a little. Make you relax."

"Hmm…" Gabrielle drank down half of the mug, then offered the other half up, with a gentle twinkle in her green eyes. She watched Xena's expression travel from puzzled to consternation, then to wry disgust. "Don't bother. Just drink it, OK?" She pushed the mug into Xena's hand. "I can tell you're sore.. and besides, I need you here with me." That last had come out unexpectedly, and she dropped her eyes and winced. Didn't meant to put it that way.

Xena sighed. She's right.. I'm sore, and still tired, and damn it, we've both just been through Tartarus. She drained the mug's contents, and was abruptly reminded of the fact that she hadn't eaten either by the herbs immediate effect. 'You win." She admitted, setting the mug aside, and sliding her arms carefully around Gabrielle. "Wasn't really in the mood to face my mother anyway."

Gabrielle sighed contentedly, then let her eyes peek open. "Mom? Why?"

"Solon." Xena mumbled, pulling her closer and letting the bright, cold world start to fade out.

"Huh? How would she…" Gabrielle started, puzzled.

One blue eye opened, and regarded her, with the attendant eyebrow raised. "I only got to see him for a few seconds.. but.. " She sighed.

A smirk crossed Gabrielle's face. "He's momma's boy, all right." She lazily reached a hand up and traced Xena's cheekbones. "Not just in his looks, either."

Now both eyes opened, and looked at her, as Xena's brow wrinkled in a puzzled frown.

Gabrielle could feel the herbs working, but put that aside for a minute. "He's.. very brave.. and feisty.. and smart.. " She searched Xena's eyes, now paused in a quiet, open stare. "I'd look at him, and see you."

Xena slowly let out a long held breath. "All the more reason for him to stay away from me, then." But her voice was unsure, and Gabrielle could hear that.

"Xena.. ." Now's not the time for this, but… "Look.. Ephiny guessed, just looking at him. Cait guessed.. and I had to finally tell her the truth to get her to leave.. uh.. " A peek at Xena's eyes gave her the courage to go on. "Since she'd been told to keep an eye on me." A twitch of her partner's lips acknowledged the barb.

"Gabrielle.. " A quiet sigh. "My life is too unstable.. I'm too unstable.. to have him be a part of it." A bare, unvarnished truth. "You know that's true."

The bard paused. "Maybe." She replied softly, cupping Xena's cheek. "But that won't always be true. And he deserves to hear who his mother is from you.. before someone else comes out with it." She waited for a rebuttal, and got none, and knew, as an exultant shiver downed her spine, that she'd won this round.

Xena buried her face in the bard's bright hair, and closed her eyes. "Gabrielle.." She finally admitted. "I don't know how to tell him."

Gabrielle felt a warm wash of peaceful happiness wash over her. "We'll find a way." She promised, as her eyes drifted closed, and she nestled closer into Xena's arms.

It hurt less, but not much less, when Gabrielle finally allowed her eyes to grudgingly open much later. The light outside indicated late afternoon, and she debated briefly with herself whether to just close her eyes again and drift back off. Finally she sighed, and rolled her head slightly, glancing up to see sleepy blue eyes gazing back at her. "Hey."

"Hey." Xena replied, blinking a little. "How’re you feeling?"

Gabrielle took a cautious breath, and let it out. "Umm…"

"Lousy." Her partner supplied, beginning a light massage on her shoulders. "Right?"

A sigh. "Just a scratch.. she says." The bard mumbled, enjoying the touch. "Nothing really.. she says…" She felt Xena chuckle "Sheep patties, Xena… this hurts like crazy."

"I know." The words came past her ear in a whisper, as the warrior moved her hands further down the bard’s arms. "Believe me, I know." She shifted slightly and sighed. "Other than that, how do you feel?"

Gabrielle considered the question. "Mm… not that bad, actually." She answered in a surprised tone. "My headache’s gone.. I’m really not that stiff.. " Her lips quirked a little. "I am a little hungry."

"Good sign." Xena approved, with a smile. "I’ll go pick up something a little more substantial than cereal.. and make sure everything’s ok."

The bard chewed her lip. "I wanna go too."

Xena’s eyebrows jerked up. "Gabrielle… you will do no such thing." She gently slid out from her supporting position, and eased the bard’s body back onto the warm sheets. "You shouldn’t be walking around with rib fractures. If they get out of line, you could puncture something."

A devilish grin from the bard. "Give me my scroll case."

Xena complied, then her brow furrowed. "Why?"

"I wanna write that whole little lecture down so I can use it on you the next time." Gabrielle advised her.

That got her a look. "Just for that, I’m gonna rewrap you.. it’ll help with the pain some."

Gabrielle smiled, but closed her eyes as she felt Xena’s hands carefully remove the linen bandages, trying not to flinch when her partner’s long fingers brushed where the fractures were.

"All right..I need you to sit up while I do this." Xena finally said, after she prepared the new bandage, and settled down by Gabrielle’s side. "Grab my hands, and I’ll pull you up. Don’t try to sit up by yourself."

The bard clasped her partner’s forearms and let herself be pulled upright, gasping when the change in position put pressure on her ribs. "Gods." She breathed, biting her lip. The pain lessened, however, once Xena had rapidly strapped her chest with the new bandages, and she found herself able to breath almost normally. "Better." She sighed, hitching herself up a little, and leaning back onto the pillows. "Thank you."

Xena just grinned at her, and gathered up her healer’s supplies, then stood up and set the bandages and ties on the table, and walked over to their linen press, pulling out a tunic and leggings and changing into them, and ignoring the appreciative whistle from the bed.

"You’re bad." The warrior joked, giving Gabrielle an amused look. "but I"m glad you’re feeling better." She crossed back over and perched on the edge of the bed again, running her fingers through her hair to settle it. "You up to some visitors? I know I’ll be asked." She studied Gabrielle’s face carefully. "It’s ok to say no."

A silent pause, while Gabrielle considered the question. "No.. I think it’s ok. But.. " She grinned. "I probably better put on a shirt."

"Probably." Xena agreed drolly. She retrieved a very soft, forest green shirt from the press and brought it over. "It’s mine.. but it’s soft, and I think I can get it over your head without hurting you too much." She commented, gently threading the bard’s arms through the sleeves and easing it over her fiery gold hair.

"Mmm.." Gabrielle hugged the shirt to her body carefully and gave Xena an impish grin. "No problem.. I don’t mind wearing your stuff." Then she reached out with her left hand and grabbed Xena’s sleeve, tugging her closer. "C’mere."

I should get going.. I’ve got things to do.. people to see.. aw Hades. Xena leaned in and met the bard’s kiss halfway, then found herself sliding into a careful embrace, cradling Gabrielle’s body in her arms and continuing her gentle exploration. The bard’s hands slipped up her arms, and under the fabric of her shirt, sending warm, inviting tingles shooting through her and she let her fingers slide slowly down her partner’s side, feeling her lean into the contact.

"Whoa." Xena murmured, breaking off, and trying to catch her breath. "I don’t think your ribs will appreciate us going much further." But her body was sliding closer to Gabrielle’s, and her hands didn’t seem to want to stop touching her.

"What ribs?" Gabrielle protested, nibbling her neck, as her fingers traced their way up Xena’s ribcage, smiling when she felt her breathing catch and quicken. She closed her eyes, and found the warrior’s lips again, letting herself fall into a warmly seductive pool that was just easier not to get out of.

Finally, reluctantly, Xena pushed herself back, and cupped her partner’s chin in one warm hand. "Damn that raider." The warrior said in a rough, husky tone.

The bard sighed, looking dreamily up at her. "What raider?" Then groaning as she tried to breathe too deeply. "Oh.. that raider." She let her head drop and rest on Xena’s shoulder, as the warrior reached up and rubbed the back of her neck. "Mmm…" She nuzzled the warrior’s skin. "I am addicted to you."

Xena just closed her eyes, and pulled the bard close again. "I missed you too." She mumbled. "Loved the poems."

Gabrielle smiled shyly into the linen fabric covering Xena's shoulder. "Did you?" She breathed in the scent of the clean, sun dried shirt and her soulmate with equal pleasure. "Did you find them all?"

"Mmm… " Xena took a deep breath. It was time. "Iolaus found the one in the medical kit.. I got it away from him before he could open it though."

The bard lifted her head a little, and studied the sharp profile above her. "Someone get hurt?"

"Hercules. A little." Xena replied quietly. "A small burn… nothing major."

A long silence. "You gonna tell me what happened?" Gabrielle finally asked, keeping her voice low.

"Yes." Xena replied. "As soon as I get back with some dinner for you." She kissed the bard on the head. "It's a long story."

"And you haven't eaten." The bard gave her a look. "So you can just stop yelling at me, O Warrior Princess of hypocrisy."

Xena chuckled. "I surrender." She gave the bard a final hug, and had started to get up, when Gabrielle grabbed her back for one last kiss. Then she stroked her partner's cheek and sighed. "Thanks."

"For what?" Xena asked.

"Coming to get me. Moving mountains, and jumping ravines, and swimming wild water rapids, and all the mundanely impossible things I know you probably did to get here as fast as you did." She lifted her head and regarded the surprised looking Xena. "Thank you for being a hero, and for taking care of the bad guys. And for taking care of me." She paused. "I don’t think I tell you that enough.. and it kind of occurred to me when I was in that place." Another pause, this time a longer one, while Xena just kept gently stroking her hair, trying to come up with a response. "I thought about that.. when I was in there. When I thought I might not.. come back."

She felt Xena’s heartbeat flutter under her fingertips, where her hand lay resting on the warrior’s chest, and she rubbed her thumb over the spot. "So.. thank you."

"You scared me pretty bad." Xena finally answered, a light rasp in her voice. "I did what I had to do."

"Yeah." The bard sighed, and let her head fall back onto Xena’s chest, hearing the pounding slowly settle. "You always do that. Lucky for me." She sighed again. "Sorry I got myself into this one."

"Wasn’t your fault." Xena mumbled.

Dead silence. Then. "Yes it was." Gabrielle’s voice was very quiet. "If I wasn’t so busy trying to prove myself as the big bad Amazon queen, I would have paid attention to how late it was. And gotten myself, and those kids, who were my responsibility, back home. "

"Then it just would have happened earlier… " Her partner soothed her. "Sometimes things just happen, love." She ran her hands through Gabrielle’s hair, and smoothed it back off of her face. "You did a fantastic job of keeping those kids calm, and getting them out of there.. I am damned proud of you."

Gabrielle settled back against the pillows, and stared at her. "Really?" Realizing suddenly just how much Xena’s approval meant to her.

"By all the gods in Olympus, yes, Gabrielle.. " The warrior smiled. "Those kids hold you in awe, and I don’t blame them. You kept your head, and used your skills, and got everyone of them out safe, and whole… no one could have asked for more."

"Except that last bit." The bard sighed. "That was dumb.. I almost…"

Two strong hands gripped her face, and she was forced to look up into Xena’s very serious, and very intense gaze. "Almost doesn’t count. " She paused. "Besides, I was looking for a good fight… you woulda ruined it for me otherwise."

That got a reluctant grin from Gabrielle. "You really are something else, you know that?"

"Yeah.." Xena agreed blithely. "Question is, what?" She sighed, and stood up, stretching for a long moment, wincing. "Gods." She sighed. "I really am getting too old for this." She headed for the door, ignoring Gabrielle’s snort of laughter. "Be right back."

"You’d better be." The bard threatened. "Or I’ll come after you."

A hiked eyebrow, and she was gone. Gabrielle shook her head at the ceiling, and settled her body as comfortably as she could, pulling her scroll case over and maneuvering it close to her side so she could write, somewhat awkwardly, with her right hand. She took out a quill, and some ink, and wet the tip, considering.

Well, it’s been a bad few days. I now know what it feels like to be an Amazon, and what broken ribs are like. I could have passed on both experiences, thanks. The next time this happens to Xena, though, I’m going to strap her down in bed for a few days until she heals.

Xena thinks I did a good job. Wow. I still think it’s my fault the whole thing happened, and I have no idea what I’m going to say to Ephiny. She did warn me, right? And tried to stop me from going, but no - I had to prove myself

Now I have to get her to tell me what happened with her, and Herc, and Iolaus. Something bad happened there.. I can tell, I can feel it - I know she’s holding back because she doesn’t want me to get upset. When’s she going to realize it gets me more upset to know something’s going on that she won’t tell me about? Gods, she’s stubborn. But I got her to agree to tell Solon.. that’s a fantastic thing.

A gentle knock at the door broke her concentration, and she looked up. "Come." She called, as loudly as her sore ribs would allow.

The door opened, and Cyrene poked her head inside, seeing Gabrielle awake and smiling. "Hey there cutie."

"Hi mom." The bard grinned. "You just missed Xena.. she’s heading towards the inn."

Cyrene entered, and crossed over to the bed, pulling a chair close and settling in it. "I know. I saw her go."

Uh oh. Gabrielle felt alarm bells go off with no hesitation. I think I can guess what this is about. Do I play dumb?

"Honey, I need to ask you something." The innkeeper met her gaze seriously. "But first, how are you feeling?"

"Um.. better." Gabrielle answered cautiously. "The sleep really helped.. and Xena gave me some stuff for the pain."

Cyrene took her hand in her own, and squeezed it gently. "I want you to know how glad I am to have you back. You know I love you like you were my own, right?"

Gabrielle couldn’t speak for long seconds, as tears threatened her composure. "Thanks.. mom." She managed, in a choked voice. "You don’t know how much that means to me."

Cyrene smiled sadly, and gave her hand a pat. "I think I do." She sighed. "I think my daughter is very lucky."

A silence fell over them. Finally Cyrene looked up, and met Gabrielle’s waiting eyes squarely. "Gabrielle, that centaur’s boy…."

"Don’t.. ask me… that." The bard interrupted her. "Please." Knowing full well she’d just given Cyrene her answer.

The innkeeper’s gaze dropped, and she studied the floor intently, at last letting out a little sigh.

"Mom?" Gabrielle said softly. Cyrene looked up at her with shadowed eyes. "Don’t be mad at her." She hesitated. "It’s hard enough for her as it is."

Surprisingly, Cyrene smiled. "Don’t worry, honey. I’m not." She shook her head gently. "Is there anything I can get you?"

Gabrielle accepted the change of subject gratefully. "New ribs." She sighed. "How is Ephiny doing?"

Cyrene snorted. "Very busy worrying about you, I"m afraid." She glanced towards the door. "Hopefully her anxieties have been relieved by now." She patted the bard's hand. "I made something special for you this morning.. let me get back there so I can make sure Xena brings it back for you."

Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "You didn't have to do that." She grinned. "Everything you make is special."

Cyrene stood, and shook her head with a smile. "Thanks cutie… you get some rest, OK?" She glanced around. "It's a little chilly in here."

The bard pulled her shirt closer around her. "A little.. "

The innkeeper walked to the door, and turned as she opened it to leave. "I'll just send your bedwarmer back, then." And she winked.

"Mom!!!" Gabrielle blushed. Gods… I'll just die of embarrassment, right here.

Cyrene put her hands on her hips. "How do you think I got three children?" Her eyebrows arched. "Hmm?" Then she laughed. "You kids." She gave an aggrieved sigh, and walked out.

This cold wind feels good for a change, Xena mused, as she crossed the courtyard towards the inn. Or maybe I’m just a little overheated. Came the wry acknowledgment as she took a deep breath of it, and tried to dismiss the remaining tingles that still coursed through her. Whoa. She chuckled at herself, glancing up as Toris fell into step alongside her.

"Morning." He teased gently, bumping her with an elbow, before his face sobered. "How’s Gabrielle?"

Xena gave him a look, then relented and waggled her hand. "She’s in a lot of pain.. I’ve been trying to keep her knocked out." Mostly because I hate seeing her hurting… Gods.. "She’s doing all right other than that."

"Good to hear." Toris replied quietly. "How are you doing?"

A slow nod. "I'm all right." She glanced at him. "I’m not the one who was kidnapped." She studied his face. "What’s up?" They’d reached the inn, and she pulled the door open, holding it for him and letting him pass in front of her, then followed him in, stopping short when he did, and glancing across the room.

Two tables had been pushed together, and a laughing crowd of children and Amazons were clustered around it. They looked up at the door’s opening, and gave a chorus of greeting.

Xena’s eyes found Solon immediately, and smiled a greeting at him, as he stood and ran over to her, sure of his reception. "Hello, Solon." She greeted him, dropping to one knee and letting him hug her. Realizing all the eyes in the room were on them, and not caring. She folded her arms around him and felt him squeeze her hard. "How are you doing?" She let him loose, and pulled back, studying his face.

Gods. He is growing up. She didn’t dare look up at Toris, who surely was seeing Lyceus’ ghost. Just like she was.

"Great… how’s Gabrielle?" The boy demanded, fixing his pale blue eyes on her face. "Is she OK? I saw that guy kick her. I'm glad you hit him."

"She’s doing fine." The warrior assured him. "You can go visit her if you want." She let a smile cross her face. "I think she’d like that." That’s right, Xena, get him out of here before you have to stand up and face.. gods. How am I going to.. She pushed that aside, as he beamed at her.

"Can I?" He cast a swift, cheekily triumphant glance over his shoulder at the enviously watching girls, and then looked back at Xena. "Thanks!" He threw his arms around the warrior again, then ducked under her arm as she rose and tore out the door.

Standing, she couldn’t avoid Toris’ eyes, which lanced into her own with questions rattling behind them. She dropped her gaze for a second, and took a breath, then looked up, and in answer to his intent, wary look, gave an almost imperceptible nod.

"You kept that quiet." He murmured, as they turned and started to walk towards the group around the table.

"He doesn’t know." She muttered back under her breath.

A nod from her brother. "He’ll guess soon enough.. gods.. Xena.. "

"I know." His sister cut him off, then sighed. "I don’t.." She fell silent, and felt him pat her back comfortingly. They reached the table, and Xena held a hand up against the barrage of questions.
"Hold it.. hold it… "

Silence fell, and she paused as her eyes met Ephiny's, where the regent was resting quietly in an armchair nearest the fire. Damn. Xena's mind cursed. She looks like Hades.. better check that next. "Gabrielle's going to be fine. She's got some cracked ribs, and they hurt a lot, but besides that she's OK." The warrior caught Ephiny's relieved sigh from the corner of her vision, and saw the blond Amazon's head drop back against the chair.

"Can we visit?" Sharra asked, blinking up at her shyly. "She was really brave."

Xena regarded them. "Yeah.. but take it easy, OK? Don’t tire her out."

Cait slipped from her seat, and padded by Xena, stopping and exchanging a quick glance with the warrior. "We won't." She promised solemnly. "We want to tell her the parts she couldn’t see."

Xena's eyebrows rose. "What parts?" She got giggles for a response, as the girls escaped her sharp regard. She watched them go, then turned to the remaining Amazons, who were trying to swallow grins. "All right.. what's going on?" In her best no nonsense ex warlord voice.

"Give it a rest, Xena." Ephiny rasped wearily. "If you're going to go flying down ravines, and go plunging through deadly rapids in full view of hero worshipping Amazon children, you get what you deserve."

Xena mumbled several curses under her breath, two in languages Granella had never heard. The dark haired Amazon cleared her throat. "Not that we could see this, mind you."

Xena crossed her arms and raised both eyebrows. "Not my fault you couldn't keep up." She retorted, shaking her head and walking around the table to where Ephiny was seated, and regarding her thoughtfully.

Ephiny sighed, knowing she was going to be yelled at. "Why don't you all go.. uh.. practice something." She gave the other Amazons a look. "While Xena and I uh.. discuss.. conditioning programs." She peeked up and caught Xena biting her lip to keep from laughing, and felt better. She made shooing motions to the others, who good naturedly got up and filed out of the inn, not without a few backwards glances.


"I can't just lay in there." Ephiny finally said, giving Xena an exasperated look. "It was driving me nuts."

Xena pulled up a chair, and dropped into it, letting her elbows rest on her knees, and clasping her hands together. "I can imagine." She looked up. "Granella really mad?" Not without a tiny quirk of the lips.

The Amazon let out a short, soft laugh. "Nah. More embarrassed than anything. She's the fastest we have, ya know. It's a pride thing." She studied the quiet, tall form seated next to her. "She's not used to being left in the dust."

That got a half grin, and a short chuckle. "Sorry." Xena sniffed reflectively. "Not like I do it on purpose.. I just.. "

Ephiny waved a finger at her. "S'all right. If it were another Amazon. I'd expect to see her out training half the night just from the challenge. But.. you're a different story."


"How is she, Xena?" Came the soft question.

The warrior let out a long breath. "Scared. Hurting.. " Her eyes drifted around the inn. "Came close to being raped twice." Blue eyes met hazel. "Second time was when she got away, and got them out of there. " She hesitated. "First time they gave her a dose to make her more.. cooperative." The warrior's head dropped and shook slowly. "She's sensitive to herbs.. she had a reaction to it."

"Oh sweet Artemis." Ephiny breathed. "I had no idea." Her face tightened in anger. "Bastards." She groaned. "I should have stopped her."

"Not your fault." Xena replied quietly. "She thinks it's her fault, for not being more careful.."

"That's nuts.'" Ephiny retorted. "She probably saved their lives."

Xena's head came up, and she gave Ephiny a direct stare. "Tell her that."

The regent straightened a little in her chair. "I will! Hades, Xena.. she risked her life for them.. if you hadn't…" She bit her lip as she saw the bleak look cross the warrior's face at her words. "Thank all the gods you got here." She finished in a whisper.

"Yeah." Xena let out a long breath. "Thank Ares, actually." The wolf at her feet looked up. "Not you."

Ephiny started. "Ares?" She considered that for a minute. "How did that all go.. did you.. I mean.."

A shrug. "Fine.. there was some trouble, we got in, we got it solved, everything's back to normal now." Short and sweet, right?

Ephiny leaned back, and coughed tiredly. "Well, now I know who the son of Zeus calls for help when he's in trouble."

Xena studied her, and lifted a hand to feel her forehead. "You need to go lie down, Ephiny." She stood and towered over the regent. "C'mon. We're running out of Amazon Queens." She offered the blond woman a hand up, which was reluctantly accepted.

"Damn, Xena… I can rest just as.. " Ephiny blinked as her knees buckled, and would have hit the wooden floor of the inn if Xena hadn't caught her. "Gods.. sorry.. " She mumbled, holding on to the warrior's arm for dear life. "I made it out here ok.."

Xena sighed. "Amazons." She rolled her eyes, and got an arm around Ephiny's shoulders, then reached down and lifted her up, ignoring the startled squawk. "C'mon."

"Hey!" Ephiny protested, caught between anger and amazement. "I'm not a kid.. cut that out, Xena!"

"Ephiny?" The warrior gave her a look.

"What? I said put me down, damn it, Xena.." The regent spluttered, as the warrior started to walk towards her room.

"Shut up." Xena ordered, as she moved around the end of the table and kept walking. "Just hold on, OK?"

"Xena, damn it.. " The regent cursed. "You're going to hurt yourself.. now put me down!"

Xena bounced her a little and grinned. "Would you relax? I'm not going to drop you." She maneuvered through the small hall and kicked open the door to Ephiny's room, ducking inside and moving across to the bed. She glanced down at the Amazon, who had quieted, and was now thoughtfully regarding her. "See? Was that so bad?" She gave Ephiny a tiny grin. "Doesn't hurt me to do this."

"I can see that." Ephiny sighed quietly. Just put me down, Xena.. before I say or do something we're both gonna regret. She forced herself not to look up into those intense eyes, so very close to her, or acknowledge the warm strength that cradled her with such negligent ease.

Xena dropped to one knee, and set her on the bed, releasing her grasp and standing, then moving over to the small table and sorting through her herbs. "Mom been taking care of you OK?" She said over her shoulder, breaking the silence.

"Oh yeah. " Ephiny chuckled, feeling the tension in the room dissipate. "They're gonna have to roll me out of here at this rate." She pulled the covers up over her, and fought down a shiver. "You can ask me to come visit anytime."

That got a grin from the warrior, as she moved back over and handed Ephiny a steaming cup. "Here… " She dusted her hands off. "I've got to go bring her majesty the second some dinner." She stifled a yawn. "Gods.. I'm still tired.. that's disgusting." She shook her head. "I'll be back a little later.. you'd better be resting." A pause. "Or else."

Ephiny merely nodded, and gave her a smile, watching as the warrior left. Then she settled her shoulders back, and took a sip of the herbal tea, surprised at it's delicate minty taste. Hmm.. must have stuck some of that stuff in to hide the taste of the nasty goop. Not bad.. she reflected. And neither was the tea.

Xena pushed the door to the kitchen open, and walked in, nodding a hello to Eustase, and giving Cyrene a quietly tentative smile. The innkeeper gave her a smile back, then went back to what she was doing, pausing to stir the large cauldron over the cookfire. "Hello, dear." She commented. "I have some stuff for you to take back with you."

"Thanks." Xena perched on a corner of the worktable. "I don't really want Gabrielle walking around until those ribs set."

Eustase exchanged a swift glance with Cyrene, and dusted her hands off, sniffing a little. "Think I'll go get some fresh eggs, if that's all right."

"Fine." Cyrene said, watching her leave. Then she gave the cauldron a practiced stir, and took the spoon out, rapping it on the rim to remove the excess, and setting it down. She turned and leaned against the wall, regarding her tall daughter with an unreadable gaze.

Xena hadn't spent ten years as a ruthless warlord for nothing. She knew how to wait. Even when it was her own mother she was crossing visual blades with. Even when every instinct in her body wanted to fidget, and writhe under that stern regard, as it has when she was small. Even though she knew what was going through Cyrene's mind.. that she was a grandmother, and had been for some twelve years. And Xena had never told her.

Cyrene pushed off the wall and walked over to her, their eyes nearly on a level.

Xena waited, expecting.. angry words. A slap. Disappointment. Cyrene reached up and cupped her cheek gently, and it disarmed her totally.

"You know, I should kill you for letting me wake up one fine winter morning and discover I'm a grandmother." The innkeeper said, conversationally. "Some warning would have been nice, dear." She cleared her throat. "It's quite a mental adjustment."

Xena's eyes dropped, and she felt all the tension flow out of her, leaving her almost shaking with relief. "Didn't have time." She admitted quietly, as she looked back up. "Mother, I'm sorry." She paused, and studied her hands. "He doesn't.. know."

Cyrene's eyebrows jerked up. "Are you sure?" She asked calmly, perching on the table next to her daughter and sliding an arm around her shoulders. "Honey, he came and found both Toris and me this morning.. first thing.. and introduced himself."

Xena's jaw dropped. "What?" She rubbed her temples. "I know Kaleipus didn't tell him.. we talked about that the last time we… " She paused, and lifted both hands. "Unless he guessed." Her brow creased. "But he didn't say anything to Gabrielle.. she would have told me."

Cyrene rubbed her back gently. "Well, dear.. it looks like he may have inherited something other than those baby blues of yours." She tapped Xena's forehead lightly. "He's got a very smart mother."

Xena felt a blush warm her neck. "So do I." She replied dryly.

A quiet fell between them. "Xena.. why?" Cyrene finally asked, searching the shadowed face.

Xena let out a held breath. "Come on, mother. " She finally replied quietly. "The person who bore him.. had no business raising a child." She paused, then closed her eyes. "Still doesn't."

"Xena, that's not true." Cyrene began. "You have a family here.. you.. " Fingers stilled her lips, and she found herself facing a very intense look.

"It is true." Xena stated flatly. "I am.. still.. a very violent, very unstable person, mother. We can both pretend that's not true.. but I know it is."

Cyrene sighed, and captured her hands, rubbing the backs of then gently with her thumbs. "No.. I think you're wrong, Xena." She held up a hand to still the warrior's protest. "Hear me out." She paused. "There is.. a great capacity for violence in you, yes. We all know that." She took a deep breath. "But there is also a great capacity for justice, and goodness, and courage.. honey, it shines from you."

"No." Xena answered very quietly. "You're just seeing what you want to see."

Cyrene studied her with a sigh. "What does Gabrielle see?"

The blue eyes closed as the shot struck home.

"Xena, wake up. If you were the person you're describing, that lovely, honest girl could never love you the way she does." The innkeeper pressed her point. "If you don't believe me, believe that."

Xena looked up, and met her eyes with quiet resignation. "That's the only thing I do believe in."

They both were quiet for a moment. Then Xena rubbed her temples. "Anyway.. when he was born I … gave him to Kaleipus. I knew he'd raise him like his own.. give him a good, loving home. Stability. A safe life. " She stared off into the distance. "He thinks.. his mother died. " Her eyes met Cyrene's. "And I think that's been the best thing for him."

Cyrene studied her. "Even now?" She walked over to a cooling tray, and plucked a honey-covered pastry off of it, crossing back to Xena and handing her half. "What does Gabrielle think about it? He's taken quite a liking to her."

Her daughter gave her a pained smile. "We talked about it." She admitted. "She.. agrees that it's not the time right now but.. " Absently, she munched on the roll, swallowing it in two bites, and licking the honey off her fingers.

"But." Cyrene smiled.

Xena gave her a wry smile. "Yeah, but." She studied the floor intently, surprised when Cyrene hugged her suddenly. "What was that for?" She asked, when the innkeeper backed off.

Her mother gave her a look. "I'm your mother. I don't need a reason to do that." She patted Xena on the belly, and chuckled. "You need to get back. Let me get your stuff ready." She put together a tray full of food, and handed it to Xena. "There.. that should be enough for both of you."

Xena examined the tray. "Hades, mother… what do you think you're feeding, starving wolves?"

Cyrene sniffed, and added a large piece of venison to the try. "Oh.. I forgot about him. Here."

"Mother!" The warrior sighed, in an exasperated tone. "Let me get out of here before you make this thing too heavy to carry." She turned and started out, waiting for Ares to join her at the door.

"Xena?" Cyrene called softly.

She turned. "Hmm?"

"Are you going to tell him?" The innkeeper asked.

A moment of silence. Then a quiet nod. "Gabrielle was right. He deserves to hear it from me." Xena paused, and gave a peaceful sigh. "After that.. we'll just have to see what happens."

Then she was gone, leaving a very thoughtful Cyrene behind. "What do you know, Eustase." She commented conversationally, to the cook who had just reentered the kitchen. "I'm a grandmother." She turned and regarded the cook, who chuckled. "Isn't that the damnedest thing?" She grinned. "And I didn't even have to change one diaper."

Continued in Part 8

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