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Friends: Forgiven, Forgotten, Forever

by PruferBlue
PruferBlue@aol.com

DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.

This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.

VIOLENCE: Several occurrences of Xena-type violence, no intentional sub-text, just two strong women who are exceedingly close and caring friends.

Author's note: This story takes place starting with the Rift. I would greatly appreciate critiques or comments on why you did or didn't like it. Suggestions are also welcome, as long as they don't leave bruises. My e-mail address is PruferBlue@aol.com


Prologue

Xena charged into the Amazon village like a madwoman. Dismounting and fighting her way past several women, she flipped over the group that hoped to stop her and landed near the hut that Gabrielle was just being carried out of. Ephiny, the acting Queen of the Amazons, put out a hand to try to stop her. Xena grabbed the hand and, with a mighty blow, broke Ephiny's arm.

Lashing out with her whip, Xena caught Gabrielle around the legs. Tying the other end of the whip to the saddle of a nearby horse, she mounted the horse and dragged the young woman behind it, against the ground, and through hot coals, as she galloped out of the village.

Reaching a precipice that overlooked a raging river, Xena brought the animal to a halt, jumped down from the saddle and untied the battered bard. Still full of unresolved fury, Xena lifted the unconscious young woman and carried her to the edge of the cliff. Xena raised Gabrielle above her head as if to hurl her over the edge when an incisive moment of clarity pierced her mind and penetrated her rage.

Kill Gabrielle? Never... never... I love her. She loves me. As these enlightening thoughts made Xena hesitate, Gabrielle regained consciousness and, believing herself to be in immediate danger, clouted Xena in the head. Dazed, Xena dropped her precious burden. Now, Gabrielle was the one filled with rage, a condition she was totally unprepared for.

Screaming, "I hate you," Gabrielle surged at Xena and swept the two of them off the cliff toward the torrent below. An outcropping of jagged rock gashed Xena's thigh as she fell past it. Hitting the water knocked both women unconscious. They were grabbed by the river's current and carried swiftly downstream until the current swerved around a spit of ground, where they were both tossed ashore.

 

Chapter 1

Xena regained consciousness face down on the ground and, looking up, realized she had washed up along the shore at a spot just a little downriver from where they had fallen. As she rose to search for Gabrielle, the warrior stumbled. Looking down, she saw her left thigh had sustained a severe laceration. In desperate need to find her friend, she drew her sword, still in its scabbard even through the fall, and quickly cut some large leaves and vines to put a makeshift bandage over the cut.

Walking and binding her leg at the same time, the warrior thought she saw a foot sticking out past a tree trunk near the bend of the river. Hobbling over as swiftly as possible, she found Gabrielle, still unconscious and not breathing. Xena picked the bard up around the waist and bounced her up and down against her arms. She was gratified to see water running from Gabrielle's mouth. Gabrielle coughed a few times and started to breathe, but did not awaken. Laying her on the ground, Xena cut down some small sapling trees and vines and, working feverishly, made a litter.

I know the Amazons will be searching for us. I need to get Gabrielle somewhere out of their reach so we can have some time together. She may never want me near her again, but I have to hear that from her. I have too much to lose to let go of her easily. She said she hated me... my Gabrielle said that! Have I lost her forever? The warrior who had stifled her emotions for so many years was nearly undone by the magnitude of her alarm. With a great effort, she pushed these fears to the back of her mind.

They had no horse, so Xena would have to pull the litter herself. Xena put Gabrielle on the litter and lifted the end of it onto her own shoulders. The two main branches extended past the sides of her head, and she grasped these to secure the litter as she dragged it. In order to disguise their trail, which she knew the Amazons would be looking for, she moved back toward the river and walked into it. Keeping perpendicular to the shore and about a body's length from it, Xena trudged through the water pulling the litter behind her. Gabrielle was high enough on the litter that the water didn't reach past her ankles.

Walking in the knee-high water was physically draining for the tall woman but she kept going for about two hours until she reached a rocky area. Her ability to desensitize herself to pain stood her well, as her injured thigh oozed blood through the whole ordeal. When she spied the rocky area, Xena staggered out of the water with the litter. She knew tracking anyone across the rocks would be a formidable task.

The warrior was so driven to find suitable shelter, that would be safe from the Amazons, that she did not stop to rest even for a moment. She put her ear to Gabrielle's chest and did not hear anything abnormal in her breathing. She picked the smaller woman up and slung her across her right shoulder. Supporting herself against a tree, Xena rolled the litter up with her foot. She picked it up, tied one of the vines all the way around it and used it as a walking aid. The tall, bronzed woman tramped further into the surrounding forest, searching for fresh water and a cave, if possible. She knew it wasn't safe to stay too close to the large river.

A lesser person would have collapsed by now, but Xena wasn't a lesser person. She was the ex-warlord who had conquered half of Greece. And now she called on that experience to give her the stamina and fortitude to prevail. Finally, she discovered the perfect spot, a cave with a small spring inside it. Once in awhile the gods do smile, she thought tiredly.

She laid Gabrielle down on the soft earth near the cave entrance. Taking the litter inside, she untied it and laid it on the ground. Then she went back into the trees and cut about twenty branches and carried them back to the cave. She spread half the branches on the litter and the other half on the ground nearby.

Going back out, she lifted Gabrielle, brought her inside and laid her gently on the litter bed. By now, both women were dry. Xena removed her sword and her heavy chest armor and set them against a wall. She then knelt down and examined the bard for injuries. Horrendous black and blue marks covered her body, she had several burns on her back, two cracked ribs and a hard lump on her head. Xena tore off a strip from around the bottom of the tattered shift the bard was wearing. She used part of it to wash out the burns and bound the rest around Gabrielleís ribs. The bumped head and bruises would have to wait till later. Xena, without her healing bag, had no way to treat them.

The warrior cringed at the grievous damage she had caused her best friend. She was mortified that her uncontrolled rage had wreaked such abuse on the person she loved most in the world. Pools of anguish saturated her extraordinary eyes and tremors of grief pulsed across her usually immobile features. "Gabrielle," she whispered to the unconscious woman, "Please forgive me. Iím so sorry." Bending down, Xena kissed the golden-haired womanís forehead and caressed her cheek while tears of repentance slipped from her cerulean eyes and slid down her face. Several heart-rending sobs escaped her as she fought to regain control.

When the warrior finally achieved a modicum of calm, she turned to her own leg injury. She washed it in the spring, tore off another strip of cloth and bound it around her thigh. Physically and emotionally exhausted by the day's events, Xena flopped down on the remaining branches and fell into a fitful sleep.

She could see a shimmering goddess holding Gabrielle by the back of her heels and getting ready to drop her into a bottomless gorge. Gabrielle was crying, "Xena! Xena!" The warrior screamed, "NO, NO, you can't do that to my friend! I won't let you!" She was trying to run toward the goddess to stop her, but her feet kept sinking into the earth. Her boots made a terrible sucking sound as she fought to get them free. She couldn't get there in time. The goddess dropped Gabrielle... she disappeared into the gorge.... As soon as Gabrielle fell, the earth hardened and Xena could run freely. With ferocious rage she stormed toward the shimmering figure, yelling, "Why did you throw her away? Why did you throw her away?" Tears streamed from her eyes and blurred her vision. Xena dashed the tears from her eyes so she could see clearly to assault this hated person who had destroyed her friend. As she neared the goddess, arms upraised, the shimmering lessened and the woman turned toward Xena with vacant eyes. Xena fell to her knees and a cry of absolute despair tore from her throat. The goddess was herself.

Xena woke up with the moan of despair still issuing from her mouth. She sat bolt upright, ignoring the stab of pain from her thigh, and looked toward Gabrielle. The bard was still lying on the litter, but her eyes were open and were looking balefully toward Xena. Not at me, just toward me, winced Xena as her heart shuddered. Xena rolled onto her knees and crawled the short distance to Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle... "

"You tried to kill me," reproached the bewildered young woman.

"No, Gabrielle, please... think..." the dark-haired woman pleaded painfully. "I don't TRY to kill people. If I really wanted you dead, you'd BE dead." The distressed warrior paused for a moment, sat back on her heels, then continued. "I thought I wanted to kill you," her struggling voice admitted, regretfully. "But, at the last moment, there on the cliff, I discovered I couldn't do it... I love you... I can't just turn that off, no matter what happened. Gabrielle, youíre my light, my reason for living." she whispered hoarsely, "I... Iím so... sorry..." Xenaís lips twisted and further words wouldn't come.

Gabrielleís loving soul overflowed with forgiveness. Her anger at the warrior crumbled. With her sore heart aching to help the agonized Warrior Princess, she placed a hand on a bronzed arm to calm her. "Xena, please, you donít have to say anything more. I know you werenít thinking straight... Grief and anger clouded your mind and brought you to the brink of madness... I understand that's what happened, because it happened to me, too, there on the top of the cliff. For a split second, I thought I hated you and I wanted to hurt you, too. What I did ... pushing us off that cliff... could have killed us both!" The bard's eyes reflected her horror at her own actions.

Xenaís depthless blue pools were intent on the bard's face, absorbing every word. Unconsciously, the smaller woman began patting the warrior's arm. "Life is strange, isnít it? Usually, when faced with danger, Iím the one who hesitates so I can weigh the options, and you're the one who takes direct action. Yet, when it came to that crucial moment on the cliff, you hesitated, and I acted. I think that kind of shows how neither of us was functioning as we usually do."

The pain-filled blue eyes slid away from the compassionate green ones to stare into space. "I hurt you, badly, and you still want to forgive me, like you always have. But, how can I forgive myself?" Yet, even as another millstone encumbered the ex-warlordís guilt-laden soul, the healing balm of Gabrielleís forgiveness initiated the restoration of her torn heart.

Gabrielle raised her hand from Xena's arm and touched her palm to the warrior's face, turning it back to meet her gaze. Her voice grew a little firmer. "Look at me Xena. And, listen to me, please. We need... *I* need to talk about what has happened to us. You're not the only one at fault here."

The mist-green eyes riveted the tall woman's blue ones. "You blame yourself for taking me to Britannia, but I chose to go with you. Nobody dragged me there. You couldn't have kept me away if you tried. Where you go, I go, remember? That's not a 'sometime' arrangement. You think you abandoned me to Dahak, but I walked into that temple willingly. How could either of us guess what would happen?"

The bard's eyes wavered for a moment, then came back bravely to connect with her best friend's. "Then you went to Chin..." Gabrielle took a deep breath, "and suddenly, 'Where I go, you go' didn't seem to mean anything to you any more. I was terribly hurt... and I betrayed you. I persuaded myself I was doing what was best for you, but it was still a betrayal. That moment when you crept into Ming T'ien's quarters and I raised up to confront you..." Now Gabrielle's gentle green eyes clouded with agony, "The look in your eyes tore a jagged wound in my heart." Her voice dropped to a whisper, "I'll carry that with me forever."

"No! Gabrielle!" Xena contradicted, sternly, "Later, when I realized you were trying to help me, I forgave you. You know that."

The bard's green eyes brimmed with unshed tears. "Yes, but you don't know the whole story. I made a deal with Ares to get me to Chin ahead of you. I was jealous of Lau Ma. I was devastated that you would throw away our life together to help her. I didn't understand until you explained to me in the dungeon, how she saved your life and your soul. So you see, Xena, I have a few things to try to forgive myself for, too."

Xena looked startled. Ares? What does he have to do with this? She put that thought aside for later and shook her head as if to clear it. "You had no cause to be jealous of Lau Ma. My admiration for her never compared to the feelings I have for you. You give me a reason to keep on living."

The bard's face softened. "And you stuck by me in spite of my betrayal. Don't you think I'm thankful for that? Through everything that happened, you never turned away from me... until... until you lost your son." Tears that had only threatened up to now, rolled in earnest down Gabrielle's cheeks.

"Xena, Do you still blame me for Solon's..." the bard threw her hands up to her face and cried uncontrollably. "I blame myself, Xena, I blame myself! If I had only done what you told me... But... but... Hope was my daughter! I didn't believe she was capable of such evil... Xena, you know how hard it is for me to hate anyone, and you expected me to hate my own daughter! I couldn't... I loved her... until it was too late." Gabrielle's beautiful mist-green eyes were red and swollen.

Xena briefly touched a hand to her friend's shoulder. "Of course you loved your daughter. I was too intent on ridding the world of Dahak's child to consider that she was your child, too. I should have realized... I should have spent more time explaining to you..."

The warrior had one more heart-rending mistake to admit. A shudder passed through Xena's body. "I only went to Britannia to get revenge on Caesar, so I'm... responsible for Solon's... death, too," she finished in a haunting whisper. The dark woman's tormented heart throbbed with pain... for Solon, for Gabrielle, for herself.

Xena squeezed her eyes closed and she clasped her long arms around her stomach. She doubled over in anguish, moaning, gnashing her teeth, and rocking her body up and down.

Gabrielle was startled into a flash of insight. This is a woman who lives every day with pain and never shows it, refuses to give in to it. Gods, what grief she must be suffering to react like this. And she doesn't know how to handle it. That's what provoked her insane rage. The bard placed her hand on her friend's shoulder in an attempt to comfort her.

Xena, still bent over, gradually stopped rocking. Slowly, she reached up to her shoulder and took hold of Gabrielle's hand. The stoic Warrior Princess made a totally uncharacteristic gesture. She brought her friend's hand to her lips, kissed it and held it against her wet cheek. "I've lost almost everyone I've ever loved... I don't want to lose you, too," her voice rasped.

"Oh, Xena," the bard was talking and crying at the same time, "I donít want to lose you, either. Please give me a hug... but be careful of my ribs," she cautioned with a soft grimace.

Xena climbed onto the bed of branches and stretched out next to Gabrielle. Then she very gingerly put her arms around her friendís shoulders, and carefully, but warmly, hugged her. The dark-haired woman remained beside the golden-haired one and both found solace in their nearness.

After a few moments, the bard, intent on trying to resolve as much as possible while Xena was still receptive, continued, "Xena, I know Solon's death has devastated both of us. But I was facing a double devastation. When I finally was convinced that Hope truly was evil, choosing to poison her seared my soul. When I wanted your support, your comfort, the most in my whole life, you left me. I was bereft. I needed you; I couldn't bear the thought of life without you." The smaller woman's body heaved with sobs, and she moved, painfully, closer to her friend.

Without conscious thought, Xena lifted her right arm and the bard slid her head onto the warrior's shoulder. The dark-haired woman soothingly stroked the golden head until the sobbing subsided.

Had she looked up, Gabrielle would have discovered that the stoic Warrior Princess' remarkable blue eyes were brimming with tears, also. She made several tries before her voice was audible. "Gabrielle, let me try to... explain why... I acted as I did."

Xena knew Gabrielle needed to hear this from her, so she made the effort to let down her defenses and open her heart. "I felt battered by grief. I needed solace, but I was so angry with you for lying to me about Hope..." she forced the words past lips that couldn't restrain a developing tremor. "I needed you; I needed the light you shine on me to guide me out of the darkness. Yet... I couldn't relinquish my anger. I felt... abandoned, too... and that pushed me beyond anger, into rage."

The dark woman struggled to continue. "You weren't there to pull me out of it as you have so many times in the past... so I fell completely under its spell. I became crazy with a fury that demanded action." The woman paused, her jaw rippling as she fought to keep some remnant of composure. Painfully prying the words out of herself, because she knew her friend needed to hear them, she continued. "I had to *do* something. And I guess that's when I lost control. I remember mounting Argo, and after that I only recall bits and pieces." The warrior sucked in a tremulous breath, and rasped, "I know I broke Ephiny's arm." A shaky hand covered her eyes for a moment, then fell to her mouth. "And I hurt you." Xena's blue eyes blazed torment and she pressed her hand, hard, over her trembling lips.

I didn't know she had broken Ephiny's arm! Oh, Xena, one more guilt-driven thorn to pierce your heart. "Xena," Gabrielle clasped her arm against the bronze one laying across her waist. "You know you love me... and I know I love you. That bond is too strong to break and too precious to risk. Please let's stop torturing ourselves. We need to fight our way through this turmoil and learn to forgive ourselves and each other. I think it may take a long time... but I'm willing to try. Will you try, too?"

That bond is too strong to break and too precious to risk. Xena had set her iron discipline aside to open her heart for her friend. Now, Gabrielle could see emotions flitting across her face and being buried once again, one by one. Finally, the Warrior Princess had reasserted her control, and was ready to answer. "Yes, Gabrielle, I'll try, too," came her low reply. "That's a promise."

The two friends, side-by-side, talked off and on for hours, resolving what could be resolved, trying to let go of what couldnít be resolved and searching for forgiveness. The only break they took was when Xena hobbled out while it was still light and found some berries and nuts for them to eat. They realized that talking would not heal all the wounds they had inflicted on each other, but it was a start. The door was still open for them to find their way back to each other.

They finally fell asleep, not completely at ease with each other, but knowing they were on the right path.

***************************

The next morning, Xena could barely walk. Her wounded thigh had developed an infection, and her body was feverish. To make matters worse, Gabrielle couldn't even lift her head. Despite the fact that her ribs were cracked and tender, the bard had attempted to rise to see if she could help Xena clean her leg wound. But each time Gabrielle raised her head, everything would start to get black.

"Xena, this could get pretty scary," Gabrielle pointed out. "If you can't get rid of that infection, and I can't get up, we could be in deep trouble."

"You're right," Xena agreed. "I need to gather some dry wood and twigs to start a fire. The Amazons should be out looking for you. If we can make a big enough fire, we can lead them here. And maybe I can find some herbs to treat this infection. And," with a tiny grin and raised eyebrows, "maybe some more berries and nuts."

"Just be careful, Xena, please. You're in no shape to fight anyone. The Amazons are hunting a madwoman who kidnapped their Queen. What if they find you and hurt you before I can stop them?" Gabrielle was seriously concerned over this possibility.

"Well," Xena drawled, "they've never found me yet when I didn't want them to."

Gabrielle knew this was true. "Just be careful, OK?"

"Yes, my Queen," Xena agreed.

Gabrielle smiled as this little bit of levity warmed her heart. Her leg is obviously swollen and sore. But she's joking, even though she must be in excruciating pain. That's my Xena... Or is she?... Was that MY Xena who dragged me through the Amazon village? No, it wasn't. But at least now we're working on getting her back.

Xena struggled to the nearest tree that had branches suitable to make a crutch. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. OK, Warrior Princess, get your act in gear, here. Gabrielle's counting on you. If this infection keeps working its way through your body, you could be out of commission at any minute. So, MOVE.

Using the crutch made a marked improvement in Xena's mobility, but the effects of the fever were rapidly sapping her strength. First priority was the fire, so she gathered enough twigs to use as kindling and as many larger dry pieces as she could carry and brought them back to the front of the cave. She planned to put some of the brush she had cut for bedding on the fire. That would make good dense smoke.

The warrior leaned for a moment against the side of the cave entrance. She feared if she sat down, she might not get back up again. And they still needed something to eat. Back the relentless woman went to get some food for her bard. Along the way she watched for herbs and was lucky enough to find a few, which she tucked into her waistband. She pulled the largest leaf she could reach and filled it with nuts and berries.

Struggling back to the cave, Xena composed herself before entering, so as not to upset her friend. She handed Gabrielle the berries and nuts, but when Gabrielle asked her to break the nutshells, Xena used, not her hands as she usually did, but the butt of her sword.

The bard, instantly suspicious, reached out and grabbed Xena's hand as she held out the nuts. "Xena, you're burning up! Did you find any herbs for fever?"

"Yes, I found a few, Gabrielle, but I need to build a fire before I can prepare them," Xena answered. The tall woman turned around and staggered back outside to start a fire. They didn't have a flint, so Xena drilled a small hole in two flat pieces of wood with her breast dagger, then sharpened another round, narrow piece about as long as her hand. She made a small bow from a branch and a vine, and looped the vine around the round piece of wood. She then set the sharpened end in a hole she had whittled in one of the flat pieces and held a second flat piece against the top of the round one.

Sawing the bow back and forth while holding the narrow piece in the hole caused great friction between the round piece and the flat piece and they started to burn. As Xena blew gently on the incipient fire, the small twigs that she had laid next to the hole started to catch fire also. She laid down the bow and fed small twigs into the fire until it grew strong enough to add the larger pieces. Soon, a lively fire was burning.

Xena managed to fetch a couple of still green branches from the bedding pile and she added these to the fire. Because they were a little dry, they caught fire easily, but because they were still green, they produced voluminous amounts of dense smoke.

Perfect, Xena thought, as she saw the smoke rising above the trees. If the Amazons can't see this, they better hang up their tracking reputations.

Xena stripped several large leaves from a nearby branch and dragged herself into the cave to get some water. She made a bag from several leaves, filled it with water, and added some of the herbs. She tied the bag to the end of a long twig with pieces of vine. She prepared a second bag with different herbs and tied it to the twig also. Then, she went back out to sit next to the fire, holding the twig with the bags on it over the fire to get the water hot.

When the water was hot, she moved the twig away from the fire and propped it against a Y-shaped branch to cool the bags down a little while the herbs steeped in the water. Once they had steeped long enough, Xena opened one bag and drank it herself. She then took the second bag in to Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle, here's something that should help your headache," the concerned woman said as she handed the second bag to Gabrielle.

The bard accepted it and drank it right down. "Ugh! That must be good for me, it tastes as bad as some of your other remedies." Gabrielle looked up just in time to catch a ripple across Xena's jaw. "But they always seem to work. Thank you," she finished meekly.

"There's a good, smoky fire burning right now, but it's almost sundown. I'll damp the fire for the night. There's plenty of wood to put on it tomorrow and a couple more bedding branches should be added to it." The warrior's cobalt-blue eyes looked directly into the bard's mist-green ones. "Gabrielle, if I'm not able to stoke the fire, you're gonna have to do it, understand?"

"Sure, Xena. I'll manage. And the Amazons should be here before too long," Gabrielle said optimistically.

"I hope so, Gabrielle," Xena murmured as she lay back across the pile of branches and fell asleep.

 

Chapter 2

The air in the healer's hut was hot and heavy. Two Amazon's were holding Ephiny still while the healer pulled on her arm to set the broken bone. "Hades' Helmut!" Ephiny yelled, as the bone snapped into place. But it did feel a little better. Ephiny winced as the healer bound two sticks along her arm and fashioned a sling to go over her head, for support. Getting up, she looked toward the doorway where Eponin was just entering.

"Come back to my hut with me, Pony," Ephiny said as she leaned her free arm across her friend's shoulders. "You can make your report there." Eponin realized the regent wanted some support while returning to her hut, but was unwilling to ask for it in front of the other Amazons. With the Queen missing, Ephiny wanted to put up a strong front. The two strolled together across the compound and into Ephiny's hut.

Even though she was the Queen's regent, Ephiny's hut was simple to the point of austerity: bed, table, two chairs and a few colorful mats on the walls and the floor. She and Eponin sat down at the small table.

Ephiny tiredly propped her head up with her good arm. "Well?" she asked.

"Solari's leading four of our best trackers out to follow the horse's trail. As soon as they get some news about where Xena has taken Queen Gabrielle, one will come back to report to you. I stressed that they are not to take any chances with Xena. Even the five of them canít overcome her in a fight. Solari knows that, but I'm not sure the other four really believe it," Eponin grimaced. "I guess it's that 'I'm tougher than you are' Amazon thing."

"Yeah, well let's hope they have sense enough to stay away from a raging maniac," Ephiny retorted worriedly.

"Ephiny, do you really think Xena's a maniac?" the older warrior questioned.

"I don't know, Pony. We both have seen her unleash the fury that lies hidden beneath a thin veneer of iron discipline. Only, before, she used it against the bad guys and it was under some control. This time, gods help us, she turned it against Gabrielle, and it was totally out of control. I can't imagine what could have happened to cause that... unless maybe Solon's death unhinged her," the blonde-haired woman agonized.

"Those two had such a deep bond of friendship... such a need for each other... that only seemed to be fulfilled when they were together. I don't even think anymore of only Gabrielle, or only Xena. It's always Gabrielle and Xena or Xena and Gabrielle," Ephiny continued.

"I'm afraid for our little Queen," Eponin uttered disconsolately.

"So am I, Pony," the regent confessed her own fear. "Who would have believed that Gabrielle's greatest danger would come from Xena? You've heard the bard's stories... Xena has saved her life again and again. Now, apparently, she's Gabrielle's enemy."

Ephiny put her hand on Eponin's arm. "You know, if it comes to a choice between Xena and Gabrielle, we may have to..." kill her. The acting Queen couldn't say the words aloud. She had considered Xena a friend.

"Oh, gods, I hope it doesn't come to that. What a waste that would be," Eponin mumbled with her head hung low.

There was a commotion in the yard and an Amazon ran through the open door and stopped at Ephiny's side. She was one of the tracking party who was returning to report what they had found. "Out with it, Gwynna, what did you find?" Ephiny ordered sharply.

Gwynna was having trouble catching her breath. "We think... they... went... over... the cliff!" she finally managed to blurt out.

"What? Where?" Ephiny demanded. "Did you see them?"

"We found the horse... by the first cliff... east of here... No, Ephiny... they would have fallen... into the river." The girl was starting to recover her ability to breathe. "Solari split the search party up... to track along both sides of the water... to see what they can find. She sent me back to report and to ask you to send more people to help look for them."

"Good work, Gwynna. Go get some rest. I'll send you back out in the morning. In the meantime, Eponin, get about ten more women and go help Solari's group. Take enough provisions for several days, just in case," Ephiny directed.

"I wish I could go, too," the regent continued. "But I'll do more good here. Everyone is probably on edge after Queen Gabrielle's violent abduction," Ephiny conjectured. By the Warrior Princess! Gods, I just can't get that straight in my mind. It's incredible.

"I think you're right, Eph," Eponin agreed. "You need to rest anyway; that broken arm will feel worse tomorrow."

"Thanks a lot, Pony, I really needed to hear that," the acting Queen snorted. "Now get going. And, Pony..." Ephiny's usually warm brown eyes took on a haunted look. "Take some of our best archers. Remember what I said... about a choice between Gabrielle or Xena."

Eponin nodded her head sadly, and left.

***************************

It was almost sundown when Eponin's group caught up with Solari, so they decided to make camp and resume the search in the morning.

"You know, Solari, maybe they never made it out of the river. Maybe we're looking for two bodies," Eponin proposed.

"No, Pony, we found evidence that they both made it out of the water, but it looks like a litter was pulled back into the river," Solari explained. "I'm not sure what to make of that, but I would guess that Xena tied our Queen to a litter and hauled her along the edge of the water so we couldn't track her. The most we can do is just keep searching along the shores until we find where she came out."

"That would take an awful lot of strength and stamina. She probably didn't get far," Eponin suggested.

"C'mon, Pony," Solari disputed, "this is Xena we're talking about. Maybe some of these new kids don't have the proper respect for her abilities, but you and I know better! Remember how she fought for us at Ellaria. And for Queen Gabrielle against Callisto and Velaska."

"Yeah," Eponin agreed. "And we should owe her for that. Instead we're out here hunting for her like she's some wild animal. I have to admit, Solari, I don't feel right about this."

"Solari..." Eponin continued slowly, "Ephiny thinks Xena may be insane. She said not to take any chances with Queen Gabrielle's life when we find them. She told me to bring some of our best archers and ordered me to use them if necessary."

Solari looked stricken. "I'd come to think of Xena as a friend of the Amazons. But our first responsibility is to our Queen, no matter what it takes. I understand that. Youíll do what you have to, Pony."

The older woman nodded, stood up and stretched. "Let's get some sleep. We need to get an early start in the morning. I remember Gabrielle saying that Xena only sleeps about half the night and is always up before dawn."

 

Chapter 3

Xena wasn't up before this dawn. She was unconscious and burning with fever.

As morning light poked into the cave, Gabrielle awakened. She could feel the heat emanating from her friend's body. Gabrielle rolled over away from Xena and slowly attempted to rise. Although the pain in her head was less severe, it still hurt badly enough that she didn't want to stand up.

Remembering the fire, Gabrielle crawled on her hands and knees to the pit outside the cave. She took a long stick Xena had left there for the purpose, and stirred up the embers. Then she retrieved a few logs from the stack the warrior had made and put them on the fire. Remembering about the bedding branches, the bard crawled back into the cave and tugged a few outside. Shortly after she laid them on the fire, a thick smoke was spiraling above the surrounding trees.

The golden-haired woman then made her way back into the cave to the spring. Tearing another small piece of cloth from the bottom of her shift, she dipped it into the cool water, then crawled to Xena's side and laid the cloth on her feverish forehead.

Xena swung a fist up that Gabrielle barely dodged. The only thing that saved her was that the fever had slowed the warrior's lightning reflexes a bit. "Xena, it's me, Gabrielle," the bard soothed. She tentatively reached over and patted her friend's arm, and this time the warrior did not react viciously. She mumbled something unintelligible and started thrashing around. She's delirious, the fever must be getting worse, the bard thought. I hope the Amazons get here quickly. Gabrielle crawled over to the spring and sat at its edge. From here she would be able to change the cloth on Xena's forehead without being hit by her flailing fists.

***********************

Even before the dawn's light sifted through the trees, Eponin and Solari rousted the other Amazons from sleep. Biscuits and dried meat were passed out for a quick breakfast. Eponin wanted to get as swift a start as possible. She knew if Xena was running ahead of them, they might never catch her, but they had to try. Maybe they'd get lucky.

Soon, blankets had been stowed in knapsacks, morning rituals had been attended to and the Amazons were ready to resume their search for any signs of their Queen or Xena.

Eponin put six black pebbles and six white pebbles into a sack and had each woman draw one. Those who drew black pebbles would swim across the river to search on that side with Solari. No one was anxious to swim against the fast current, so Eponin didn't bother to ask for volunteers.

Once the two parties had been selected, they moved out of the trees toward the river. The first two out on the shore turned toward the dawning sun and immediately saw tendrils of dark smoke rising above the trees several miles away. "Eponin, Solari, come look!" they shouted.

"Didn't anyone teach these women to be quiet?" Eponin snorted to Solari as they joined the others on the shore.

Solari grinned wryly, "This is the first time those two have been out of the compound on a mission."

Eponin was goggle-eyed, "And they are hoping we find Xena? What are they going to do if we do find her?

Solari shrugged, "What are WE going to do if we find her?"

"Good question." Eponin's voice was flat. "I'm hoping we can use nets."

"Yeah, and you get to put the first net on her," Solari retorted. Eponin just gave her a crusty glare.

"Look, Pony, that smoke is getting heavier, but it's pretty concentrated. Kinda looks like a signal of some sort. Do you think it might be the Queen?" Solari questioned.

"Hard to tell, but we're going to have to check it out. Only, let's stay together, in case it is Gabrielle. Fourteen of us might have a chance to do something," Eponin suggested seriously.

Just then Gwynna and three others arrived, bringing the count to eighteen. "Ephiny sent us to help," Gwynna explained, and they joined the group waiting to hear their orders.

"Okay, listen up," Eponin addressed the group. She selected the three fastest runners. "Solari, Gwynna, Elisa, you three take the point. Get to the source of the smoke as quickly as possible, then report back to me right away. Don't do anything. If it is the Queen and Xena, a premature move might jeopardize the Queen's life. The rest of us will be following as quickly as we can. Get going." The three scouts left at a trot.

Eponin questioned the rest of the group, "How many of you have ever seen Xena, the Warrior Princess fight?" Six hands went up.

"The rest of you, how many of you would be willing to attack her one-on-one?" the grizzled warrior continued. Eight hands went up.

"Well," Eponin waggled a finger at them, "you eight are very brave, but you're also very dead." A little wave of shock went through the group.

"This woman we're hunting is, without a doubt, the best warrior I have ever seen. No one else even comes close. I've seen her take on 20-30 soldiers at one time and she was the only one left standing." A murmur went through the group.

"I want to emphasize this, a frontal assault on her is doomed. That's why I made sure that you packed your nets. Our only chance is to get enough nets on her that she is immobilized. One net won't do that; it will probably take five or six. Are you paying attention?"

"Yes," came the resounding answer.

"Good," said Eponin. "That might save your life. Now, let's move out." The group fell in behind Eponin as she started in the direction of the smoke.

About forty minutes later, Elisa came running toward them. "Eponin, we found the fire. It's right outside a cave, about ten minutes from here. Some loose branches and extra wood are lying next to it. Didn't see anyone around it. They're probably inside. Solari and Gwynna are watching it."

I hope they're inside. Wouldn't want a crazy Warrior Princess climbing up my back out here. "Good work, Elisa. Lead us on. The rest of you, keep alert. Get your nets out. Itís possible Xena could be somewhere in the forest," Eponin ordered.

***************************

When Solari and the other two Amazons came upon the cave, Solari sent Elisa back, right away, with a message for Eponin. Turning to Gwynna, she said, "Now, let's keep watch on the cave to see if there is any movement in it. But, be careful, Xena could be out here someplace." There's something odd about this, Solari thought. Xena would never make a fire like that unless she wanted us to find it. And why would she do that?

After waiting about 15 minutes, Gwynna was restless. "Solari, I'm going to get closer, to get a better look," she said. "We might be watching an empty cave."

"No, Gwynna, we'll wait for Eponin, just like she said," Solari retorted. "She should be here any minute now."

But Gwynna wouldn't listen. She crept over to the edge of the cave before Solari could stop her. Now, Solari couldn't do anything without giving them both away.

After a moment, Gwynna's eyes adapted to looking into the darkened cave and she could see Xena lying on a bed of branches. The warrior was moving her arms in a threatening way, and the Queen was sitting beyond reach at the edge of a spring of water.

She doesn't have her armor on, or her sword. This is too good a chance to miss, thought Gwynna excitedly. Gwynna jumped up, drew her sword, and dashed into the cave, heading straight for Xena. Solari was appalled. She jumped up, too, but just then Eponin and the others arrived.

"Pony, Gwynna just drew her sword and ran into the cave," Solari blurted. "I don't know what possessed her to do that."

Eponin didn't hesitate, "All of you, surround the entrance to the cave, but leave room for someone to come out. If Xena comes out, throw your nets. And don't miss! Come on." The Amazons ran for the cave.

***************************

Gabrielle saw Gwynna charging toward Xena with her sword pointed at the warrior's body. "NO!" the bard screamed and tried to throw her body toward her friend, in an attempt to protect her. But her injuries slowed her down too much.

Even though the Warrior Princess was delirious, Gabrielle's scream cut through the delirium and Xena at once saw the Amazon lunging at her. With incredible swiftness and strength, Xena threw her uninjured leg sideways at the Amazon who was almost upon her. A solid 'thunk' lifted the attacker from her feet and propelled her against the cave wall, near the entrance. She hit the wall with a thud, and slid down it. Dazed, but conscious, she had sense enough to jump up and run out of the cave.

The dark-haired warrior was still delirious, but self-preservation was pumping adrenaline through her feverish body. She charged out of the cave after her assailant, not even limping on her injured and infected leg.

Gabrielle started to crawl after her overwrought friend, calling, "Xena, no, please, no, she's an Amazon!" Then the Queen forced herself upright and staggered out of the cave after the warrior.

The Amazons had deployed perfectly. By the time Gabrielle reached the outside of the cave, Xena was entangled in about ten nets. She was thrashing about on the ground trying in vain to get loose, all the while depleting what little reserves she had left. Six Amazon warriors with crossbows surrounded her.

Gabrielle spied Eponin and cried, "Eponin, please don't let them hurt her. She's wounded. She's delirious."

Eponin was startled at this turn of events. She thought they were rescuing their Queen from a deranged and dangerous ex-warlord, who might have to be killed. But the Queen was asking them not to hurt her! I knew they had a special bond, but I didn't think that included letting the Warrior Princess beat her up. Eponin was confused, but she motioned for the crossbow archers to stand down.

The bard rushed to the side of her friend, and reached a hand through the netting to touch her, calling, "Xena, it's OK, it's Gabrielle. It's OK, please calm down." The thrashing slowed and, at last, stopped.

"Eponin, please, take the nets off her," the Queen pleaded.

Eponin looked reluctant. "My Queen, we'll have to tie her up first. In this condition, we don't trust her."

"Very well," the golden-haired woman agreed, grudgingly.

All the nets but three were removed and Eponin herself reached through the netting and securely tied Xena's hands and feet. Then the last nets were removed. Xena was unconscious. The Amazons could see that her left leg was severely swollen and oozing pus, even through the makeshift bandage.

"Please, Pony," Queen Gabrielle beseeched. "Get her to a healer as quickly as you can. Her leg is in really bad shape."

Eponin looked closely at the Queen. "You aren't in very good shape, either, and YOU are MY worry. I need to get YOU to a healer right away."

In spite of her terrible headache, Gabrielle pulled herself up to her tallest height and spoke to Eponin severely, "If anything, ANYTHING, bad happens to my friend, Eponin, understand this. The Warrior Princess' wrath will seem as nothing compared to mine. You got that? I'm putting you in charge of her well-being."

Eponin's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. Then she quickly recovered. "Yes, my Queen, I will do as you wish. Elisa, run as quickly as you can back to the village. Tell Ephiny what happened here and that we will be coming in with two injured people, the Queen and the Warrior Princess. Ask her to send horses to pull the litters. In the meantime, we will pull them ourselves. Go." Elisa stopped only to pick up her knapsack, then ran from the gathering.

Solari walked over to the Queen and helped her lower herself to a sitting position on the ground, next to Xena. "Thanks, Solari," the grateful bard smiled. "Do any of the women here have any healing skills? That wound should be cleaned and re-bandaged."

"Brisia has helped out in the healer's hut a few times," Solari answered. "Brisia," she called, "come here and take care of the Warrior Princess' leg."

The young Amazon trotted over and examined Xena's thigh. "You'll need water," Gabrielle noted. Looking around, she called out to the other Amazons, "There's a spring in the cave. You can all get water there."

Brisia was thoughtful enough to hand her waterbag to the Queen, "Drink what you want, then I'll refill it."

Gabrielle smiled her thanks, then held the proffered bag to Xena's lips. Still only semiconscious, the warrior's parched mouth seized on the waterbag and drank it dry. Solari handed hers over and when Xena had finished drinking, the golden-haired woman slaked her own thirst.

Brisia, with fresh water and bandages, cleaned and rebound the wound. All the while, Gabrielle held her friend's hand and spoke soothing words to her so that the barely alert, but still self-protective, warrior would submit to Brisia's ministrations without attacking her.

Eponin was directing preparations for the trek back to the Amazon village. She looked at Gwynna and could see the young Amazon had large bruises on her arm and shoulder from hitting the cave wall, and another on her opposite side, suffered from Xena's broadside kick. "Gwynna," Eponin ordered wickedly, "you are in charge of making a litter for Xena, and you will help pull it." I wonder if she realizes how lucky she is to still be mobile? Eponin indicated two women to assist her.

Gwynna, abashed, nodded her head and the three started to build the litter. Solari and two others set about making a litter for Gabrielle.

When they were finished, Solari went over to Gabrielle to help her walk to her litter. Gwynna approached Xena's head, reached over, grabbed her bound hands and pulled them toward her, meaning to drag her to the other litter.

So fast that Gwynna could only drop her hands, the warrior flung her tied legs up, rolled backwards onto her shoulders and exploded a kick into the unfortunate Amazon's body. Gwynna went flying and, luckily for her, landed on the litter herself, forestalling any further harm to her already damaged body.

Eponin snorted in disgust. Then, she saw that Xena was standing up and some of the Amazons were warily approaching her. "Stop!" she yelled. "Don't anyone go near her! Haven't you learned anything from Gwynna's mistakes?" The Amazons halted in their tracks.

Walking over to Gabrielle, Eponin reached a hand to help her up from the litter. "Come, my Queen, and work your magic one more time," the Amazon asked. Gabrielle took Eponin's hand and moved over alongside Xena. "Bring Xena's litter over here," she commanded. Then, when the bard's touch had calmed the imposing woman, she and Eponin lowered Xena gently onto the branches. Gabrielle's hand caressed her friend's hot and clammy cheek, while Eponin fastened the bronzed woman's already bound hands and feet to the litter poles. Gabrielle reluctantly returned to her own litter.

"Wait," the Queen commanded. "Xena's armor and sword are still in the cave. Bring them along." Solari brought them out and fastened them to Xena's litter. The party moved out.

Halfway back to the village, they were met by several Amazons bringing two horses to pull the litters. "You can get rid of my litter," the Queen announced. "I'm riding with Xena." Thereupon the bard rose and climbed onto the litter bearing the Warrior Princess. Not only did she feel a need to be near Xena, but also she knew the added weight would relieve some of the agonizing jostling her friend was undergoing. Once Gabrielle lay next to Xena and placed her hand on the warrior's sweat-bathed face, the dark-haired woman succumbed to the fever and dropped into unconsciousness.

Eponin walked next to the litter and made sure the passengers were kept supplied with water. The procession was moving slowly, and took about two more hours to reach the Amazon enclave. Eponin steered the horse toward the healer's hut where Ephiny was waiting on the porch.

A look of pure relief crossed Ephiny's face as she saw for herself that Gabrielle was safe, and relatively sound. The Queen's proximity to Xena was confusing, but then Ephiny noticed that the Warrior Princess was bound hand and foot.

 

Chapter 4

A stretcher was brought out for Gabrielle, but she refused it, insisting that they transport Xena inside first. The Queen stayed next to Xena, murmuring to her friend as they moved her. She held onto the side of the stretcher and, assisted by Eponin, walked along with it.

Solari unfastened Xena's armor and sword from the litter and took them to the Queen's hut.

A special place in the healer's hut had been set up for the Queen, but Gabrielle demanded that Xena's bed be placed right next to hers. When this was taken care of, Eponin left. The bard sat on her bed and held one of Xena's tied hands. She directed Claris, the healer, to attend to Xena's leg at once. Claris moved to a table to prepare an ointment.

Gabrielle knew the Amazons felt unsafe with Xena in their midst, so she didn't insist that they remove the warrior's bonds. I'm a little afraid myself. I'd rather wait until Xena is fully conscious.

Ephiny had not yet spoken. When the bard became aware of this, she turned and reached her free hand up for the tall, blonde Amazon. Ephiny's face twisted. She bent down awkwardly, because of her broken arm, and hugged Gabrielle. "Thank the gods you are safe," she uttered hoarsely as tears welled up in her concerned brown eyes. "Xena has a lot to answer for... "

"Ephiny, we can discuss that later, please," mist-green eyes pleaded. "Right now, Xena needs help. That wound in her thigh is badly infected. I'm really worried... I can't think straight about anything else."

"You need some attention, too," Ephiny retorted, angrily. "How can you worry about this maniac after what she did to you? Besides, you're our Queen. She abducted you and injured you and now you want us to heal her? Why?"

The trauma of the last few days weighed heavily on the bard. She passed a hand over her weary face and gathered strength from a kernel of courage deep in her soul that had been unselfishly nourished by the endangered woman lying in the next bed.

"I AM the Amazon Queen," Gabrielle stated firmly. "Xena will be tended to, NOW. We will discuss this, LATER." She turned away from Ephiny and beckoned the healer, who had heard every word. The blonde regent paused for a moment, indecisively, then left the hut.

Claris brought over some ointment, cloths and a bowl of water and prepared to examine the suppurating wound. "Wait, Claris," Gabrielle admonished her. The bard lifted one of the cloths, dampened it in the water and began to wipe Xena's face, softly talking to the warrior all the while. She glanced over at Claris and cautioned her, "Please remember this for your own sake. Don't untie Xena while she's unconscious. And don't touch her without warning if sheís unconscious... or asleep. If she's not sure whether you are friend or foe, she will instinctively treat you as a foe. Her reflexes are so sharply honed that she would injure you before you could move out of the way. Are you clear about all this?"

"I... believe so," Claris responded. "Just before you came in, Gwynna arrived and warned me of the same danger... from a first-hand point of view," the healer grinned wryly. "She showed me the bruises she got from an 'unconscious' Xena. First time I ever saw bootprints on an Amazon's... uh... chest."

"Yeah," Gabrielle replied. "If she hadn't dropped her hold on Xena's hands, those bootprints would have been on her face. Solari warned her to wait but she thought she knew better. I'm glad she wasn't hurt worse." The bard took a long look at her fitful friend. "I think it's okay now to work on Xena's leg. As long as she knows I'm with her, she's usually pretty safe," Gabrielle said.

The healer washed the pus from the wound and trimmed away the lacerated tissue. She spread ointment in and around the wound and bound the bronzed thigh tightly with a clean bandage. "I think we should give the ointment some time to draw out the infection before I sew it up," Claris explained. "It will need some stitches, probably in a few days, after the fever breaks. I think she's going to be all right. Now... do I have your permission to take a look at you?" the healer asked with an understanding smile.

Gabrielle, finally relieved by the healer's prognosis for Xena, acquiesced. "Sure," she agreed, "I'm all yours."

Claris removed the bedraggled shift and undid the binding around her patient's ribs. She was shocked at the condition of the Queen's body. Xena did this and the Queenís protecting her? Must be something special about that woman. The healer washed the bruised body, then cleaned and spread ointment on the broken blisters left from the burns. She rebound the cracked ribs and clothed Gabrielle with a clean shift.

"I've had a pretty bad headache, too, Claris. Xena gave me some herbal tea for it before she passed out. She got the herbs from the forest near here. It helped a lot. Do you think you might have any?" the golden-haired woman asked.

"Yes, I have some already made. If it's not the same it will be pretty close. This has helped others who have gotten Ďclunkedí in the head," the healer answered. She brought some to Gabrielle who drank it down greedily.

"Yuk," it sure tastes just as awful as what I had before," the bard made a wry face. "But it's worth it if it helps," she added. "Thanks, Claris... for everything."

The golden-haired woman carefully stood up and tried to shift her bed over against her friend's bed. Claris moved quickly to do it for her. "You just lie down now and rest. I'll be right here keeping an eye out for you and your friend. I'll be putting cold compresses on her forehead, probably all night, to try to lower that fever." The healer turned an appraising look on the restless warrior. "She would be a lot more comfortable out of those leathers, but I can't do much until she is untied. Guess they'll have to wait."

 

Chapter 5

Xena awoke in the early hours of the morning, sopping wet. With her usual quick perceptions, she knew immediately where she was, and that her hands and feet were tied. An Amazon was coming toward her with a wet cloth, probably to replace the one resting on her forehead. Someone's arm was touching hers. Xena turned her head toward the adjacent bed and saw the bard, cleaned up and sleeping peacefully. The two beds were touching and Gabrielle's arm rested on top of Xena's. This brought a gentle smile to the warrior's face. She tenderly removed the bard's arm and set it back onto her friend's bed. She didn't want the golden-haired woman to be awakened by the healer's ministrations.

Xena turned back to face the Amazon and saw she had stopped in her tracks. Questioning blue eyes met cautious gray ones. When Claris' gaze recorded the remnants of the gentle smile on the warrior's face, a warm return smile appeared on the healerís lips. Xena spoke up softly, "C'mon over. I won't hurt you."

"That's what the Queen keeps telling me," Claris chuckled as she approached. "How do you feel?" The healer started to lay her hand on the warrior's head, but quickly jerked it back. "Is it okay to touch you?" she queried.

"Sure, as long as I know you're going to. I guess Gabrielle's been telling you that, too, huh?" Xena's mouth quirked up. "My fever's broken, so my clothes are kinda drenched," she continued, "but my leg feels a lot better."

"I wanted to get you out of those leathers, but Gabrielle said not to untie you until you regained consciousness," Claris apologized.

"Yeah, she was right," the warrior admitted in embarrassment, as a slight flush moved across her beautiful features. "But, I'm awake now, so if you will get these ropes off of me, I'll get the leathers off. Deal?" An agonizing remembrance of the last time she had used that word -- with her son -- flashed pain across the sculpted face but was gone so quickly, Claris wasn't sure she really saw it.

The healer looked intently into those remarkable blue eyes, and could sense no danger. "Deal," she pledged. She went to the table, picked up a knife, and brought it back to the bed. Claris leaned over and sawed through the bindings holding Xena's legs and then, as she made a move to cut those on Xena's wrists, the warrior pulled her own hands free and handed Claris the rope.

Claris, stunned, looked up into twinkling cobalt blue pools. "I have many skills," the Warrior Princess smiled crookedly.

Claris covered her mouth to smother the laugh that tried to escape. "Okay, Warrior Princess," she recovered, "let's see how skilled you are at removing wet leathers. I'll get some warm water to bathe you. Call, if you need help. Those things are probably fused to your body by now."

Though weakened by the infection and resultant fever, Xena coped with unlacing and removing her leathers, arm and leg guards, and bracers. Because of the thigh injury, it was difficult to lean forward, but, with some welcome help from Claris, she got her boots off, too.

The warrior managed to bathe herself, except for her legs and feet, which Claris completed for her. Where does this woman get her energy? She's been sick unto death for the last two days and she wakes up with more vigor, more quickly, than anyone else I've ever seen!

Xena slipped on the clean shift that Claris handed her and lay back on the bed. The healer brought over ointment, fresh water and bandages to dress the wounded thigh. "I think my leg is ready to be sewed now," Xena suggested.

Claris opened her mouth to protest, then flapped it shut. Let me take a look, first, before I put my foot in my mouth. The healer unwound the old bandage, washed the gashed thigh and looked closely at it. The leg was cool, and the swelling had just about disappeared. The wound was clean, and already starting to heal. Claris was amazed, "You're right! Let me take care of that right now."

Procuring a curved needle and some thread, she proceeded to sew up the injury. The Warrior Princess never flinched. When Claris finished, Xena reached over to the next bed, lifted Gabrielle's arm back onto her own arm, and went to sleep.

Why is everyone so afraid of this woman? She seems like a pussycat to me. Or is she a sleeping tiger? Claris mused.

 

Chapter 6

Ephiny had just returned to her own hut after being "thrown out" of the healer's hut and she was furious. She was striding... no, stomping... back and forth across the room, her free arm swinging. Eponin and Solari, her audience, were seated on her bed. "Tell me if I'm missing something here!" the regent ranted. "Xena comes charging in here like a maniac, bruises half a dozen warriors, breaks my arm, grabs Gabrielle, drags her off behind a horse and throws her over a cliff, and Gabrielle wants me to TAKE IT EASY on her?"

Eponin and Solari exchanged chagrined looks that were not lost on the blonde Amazon, no matter how angry she was. "And you two seem to agree with her!" she accused sarcastically. "I don't get it."

"Look, Eph," Eponin tried to explain. "Granted, Xena broke your arm and you have a right to be angry about that. But most of the damage she did was to Gabrielle, and if our Queen wants to forgive her for that, who are we to argue with her?" She looked over to Solari for support.

"I think she's right, Ephiny. Xena hasn't really hurt the Amazon Nation except by hurting Gabrielle -- and Gabrielle's willing to let it go. You know how close those two are. If you cut one, the other one bleeds," Solari offered. "If you insist on some kind of punishment for Xena, Gabrielle will be the one who gets hurt."

Eponin stared with surprised glee at her dark friend. She reached over and slapped her on the back. "Wow, Solly, that was pretty good!" she praised. Solari, pleased, looked back with a small shrug and a big grin.

Ephiny stopped her pacing and stood in front of the two Amazons with pursed lips and a belligerent scowl. The two squirmed under her scrutiny like recalcitrant schoolgirls. "Are you trying to tell me that you think the Warrior Princess should get off free as a bird? No punishment at all?" she barked.

"Ah... well... um... yeah. I guess that's what we're saying," stammered Eponin. At her side, Solari was nodding agreement. Eponin, encouraged, took a deep breath and continued, "Xena has done an awful lot of good things for the Amazon Nation, Ephiny. She helped us make peace with the Centaurs. She led the battle at Ellaria and preserved our safety. She saved Gabrielle and us, too, from Velaska. She rescued us and the Centaur children from Callisto. Gods, she even saved your life when she delivered your son! These were all selfless acts, not something she had anything to gain from. I think she deserves a second chance."

"Yeah, me too," seconded Solari. "Remember, when Gabrielle first got here and asked for the penitential rite, she told us her daughter killed Xena's son. And that it happened because Gabrielle lied to her. It's no wonder Xena was crazy with grief. Her son and her best friend were torn away from her at the same time. What would you have done?"

Ephiny had gradually calmed down as Eponin and Solari presented their views in defense of the Warrior Princess. The regent stood there silently for a few moments weighing the remarks of these two women whose opinions she valued. Then her countenance lightened and she capitulated. "Okay, okay, okay, you win. If Gabrielle can forgive what she did to her, I guess I can, too."

Eponin and Solari breathed sighs of relief, glanced at each other, and smiled broadly. "You know, Eph," Eponin added, "for a long time now, we've considered the Warrior Princess our friend. A dangerous friend," she conceded, "but an honorable one. I'd hate to ever have to call her an enemy."

"That's an important consideration you've brought up, Pony," Ephiny acknowledged. "I don't want Xena for an enemy, either. But she DID break my arm, and she has to answer for that." The regent closed her eyes for a moment as if to make the thought go away. "But, I'll worry about that tomorrow. Let's all get some sleep."

Just then, Gwynna knocked at the open door. "C'mon in, Gwynna," the regent beckoned. "It's getting pretty late. What do you want at this hour?"

The young Amazon was black and blue up the front and back of her body and down the length of both arms. "Iíve been wondering what's going to be done with the Warrior Princess. Look how she beat and battered me. I can't even get to sleep," Gwynna complained.

Ephiny glanced over at Eponin with raised eyebrows. Eponin fairly leaped off the bed and waggled her finger in Gwynna's face. "Stop your blasted whining, pup, and grow up. If Xena hadn't been but half conscious when you decided in your misguided mind to pick on her, you'd probably be dead now, and you wouldn't have to worry about sleeping." The grizzled Amazon had worked her way up to a shout, "Someday you might get a chance to see the REAL Warrior Princess in action, and when you do, remember that you're still walking, and count yourself lucky! Now get outta here and get to bed, before my foot bruises your arse!"

The embarrassed youngster turned about and fled out the door. "Hades' horsecakes! Kids!" Eponin scoffed, throwing her hands in the air. She turned to Ephiny with a snort, "Let me tell you THAT story..."

**********************

Roseate light from the dawn sky trickled through the overhanging trees and seeped into the healer's hut, overwhelming the flickering candles. The golden-haired woman's eyes fluttered open and she lay there a moment gathering her thoughts. Suddenly she realized her arm was touching flesh and she pivoted her head sharply to her left. And saw, not two feet from her own mist-green eyes, the most important blue eyes in her whole world shining back at her.

"Xena." Not a question, just a statement. The bard carefully rolled over to her right side and reached with her left hand to caress her friend's lovely face. "Xena." She said again. Tears welled up in the mist-green eyes and spilled down Gabrielleís cheeks. "Does crying for joy make me a wimp?" she sniffled.

The dark-haired woman smiled and moved closer to the bard. She placed her hand on the side of Gabrielle's face, leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "Doesn't matter," the throaty voice chuckled. "Just so long as you're MY wimp."

Happy surprise lit up the smaller woman's countenance. "Always," she reaffirmed. Can things be this good between us already? Can I dare to believe in US again?

"How do you feel this morning?" the warrior's face showed her concern as she brushed the tears from her friend's cheeks.

"Weeelll, I feel great lying down. Let me try sitting up," the bard suggested.

"Wait," Xena admonished. "Let me help you." Gabrielle was not at all surprised to see the Warrior Princess get up, without a limp, and come around to the other side of her bed.

"You know, Xena, if we could bottle that magic healing power you have, we could make a fortune," the bard grinned. The warrior sat down next to her, reached a long arm under her shoulders and helped her to sit up. "And," she added as and her cracked ribs throbbed, "I'd be first in line to buy it. Oooww."

The stirring of the two women had roused Claris and she came over to check on their progress. "Xena, what are you doing using that leg? You want to break those stitches open?" she scolded. "You get back to your bed. I'll take care of Gabrielle. That's my job." The healer put both hands on Xena's shoulders and pulled, in an attempt to move her away from Gabrielle.

Xena didn't budge. Hooded eyes slanted an enigmatic look up at the healer and a tight little grin thinned the warrior's lips against her teeth. "Right now, it's MY job," the dark-haired woman growled.

Claris recoiled as if stung. Whoa! A sleeping tiger, with claws! she warned herself. "No problem, Xena. But how is she?" the healer's voice quavered a little.

"Xena!" Gabrielle chided. "You're scaring Claris. I'm much better, Claris. The headache is gone, but the ribs are still tender. And my friend here has some kind of magic power that heals her faster than should be humanly possible. Her leg is fine."

"May I look at it, Xena?" the healer asked tentatively.

"Sure," the warrior thrust her injured leg out toward Claris. When the Amazon unwrapped the bindings, her jaw dropped open. The wound was clean and dry and almost completely healed. In two days! Who is this woman? "Are you magic?" she asked, holding her breath.

"No magic," Xena shrugged. "I just seem to heal very quickly. In my line of work that comes in handy," she remarked with a wry grin. The healer put a clean bandage on the thigh.

The warrior looked down into Gabrielle's warm green eyes. "Claris can feed you and rewrap your ribs; you probably should get some more rest while you can. There's someone I have to see."

Gabrielle's face showed her concern. "Ephiny?"

Xena sucked her lips in and nodded reluctantly. "Might as well get it over with. Find out what's in store for me." She gently laid the bard back down on the bed. "Well, she's all yours, Claris... Sorry about my reactions earlier. It's not a good idea to grab me like that," the Warrior Princess disclosed. "Makes me... edgy."

"Xena, promise me you won't do anything wild, please. Ephiny's our friend."

"I don't know how friendly she feels toward me right now, Gabrielle, but I promise. I'm just going to give her a chance to break MY arm if she wants to," Xena said matter-of-factly.

"Xena! You WON'T!" Gabrielle insisted in shocked tones.

The Warrior Princess lifted one eyebrow, shrugged, and walked barefoot out the door.

"She WILL," the bard muttered apprehensively.

 

Chapter 7

Before sunset, Claris had sent word to Ephiny that both patients were improving. Now the regent had to figure out what to do about Xena. Mulling it over in her mind, she had fallen asleep sitting in a chair with her good arm and her head resting on the table. She had slept that way all night.

Tiny streams of morning light flooded through the window, washed across the table and overflowed onto Ephiny's face, waking her. Her startled brown eyes widened as she perceived a pair of bronzed legs resting on her bed. Ephiny jumped up from the chair. "Xena! What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in the healer's hut," burst out of her mouth. "How long have you been here?"

"Long enough to do plenty of damage had I chosen to," the dark-haired woman drawled. Xena was sitting on Ephiny's bed, legs stretched out and arms crossed, with her back propped against the wall. "Eph, your security here is lousy. You suspect you might have a deranged Warrior Princess in your village... and there's no guard on the regent, no guard on the Queen, not even a guard on the Warrior Princess. Not very smart."

She's right. I was so mad at Gabrielle last night I overlooked the danger that Xena could pose. Guess my subconscious couldn't see her as an enemy even after all that has happened. "So, what now, Xena? Did you come to break my other arm?" the regent asked sarcastically.

Xena swung her feet off the bed, stood up and walked toward Ephiny. It took all the regent's self-discipline not to back away. The warrior stopped about six inches from the regent and her whole attitude changed. Xena's face became somber, her eyes bottomless blue pools of sorrow. Ephiny had never experienced another's sadness in such full measure. She suddenly felt limp and reached for the back of her chair to steady herself.

Without preamble, Xena stated hoarsely, "I came to let you break MY arm."

"Whaaat? You're not serious!" the Amazon protested. "Gods, Xena, I'm an Amazon, not a barbarian." But Ephiny knew she WAS serious. She actually would stand there and let me break her arm! It was part of every warrior's code: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And Xena had lived that code for ten long years.

Majestic, even though barefoot and in a plain shift, the Warrior Princess stood there without batting an eye and offered Ephiny retaliation in kind. Ephiny, deeply affected, recognized that this was the dark-haired womanís way of attempting to atone.

Both women just stared at each other for a full minute. A hundred thoughts swirled through Ephiny's head but in the end they all boiled down to one. This is the woman who saved my life and my son's. I can forgive her anything sheís done to me. I owe her that.

Ephiny wrenched her eyes away from the warrior's and walked over to a cupboard next to her bed. She opened the door and took out a bottle of wine, stuck it under her splinted arm and picked up two mugs.

"Suppose we break something else," she suggested, as she set the mugs on the table, opened the bottle and started pouring. "Like that unwritten rule that we don't drink before noon. Grab a chair, friend, thereís more where this came from."

Xena wasn't often surprised, but this time she was stunned. "Eph..." she started, but nothing more would come out. She stood there, her mouth working, shaking her head in bewilderment.

Ephiny laughed out loud, "C'mon, Xena, will you stop babbling and sit down? I don't want to drink alone, but I sure do want to drink!"

The dark-haired woman sat down, picked up her mug and downed half of it in one long drink. For the first time since Ephiny had known Xena, the Warrior Princess was disconcerted. Another small sign that she really is human, Ephiny smiled to herself.

After the two women had put away a couple of mugs of wine apiece in silence, Ephiny spoke up. "You know, Xena, I REALLY wanted to break BOTH your arms, but Pony and Solari talked me out of it. They convinced me the Queen would hate my guts if I hurt you. You got a couple of good friends there."

"I'd say I've got a pretty good friend right across the table from me," the warrior replied, and picked up her mug in a salute.

"I'll drink to that," the regent grinned, and saluted her right back.

************************

"Listen, Claris, I've been waiting several hours for Xena to come back. I'm going to Ephiny's myself to find her," Gabrielle threatened.

"No, no, you need to rest, my Queen. Here comes Solari, we'll get her to check for you," the healer replied.

Solari entered the healer's hut and came right over to Gabrielle. "How are you feeling?" she asked solicitously.

"I feel a lot better, Solari, just tired, and still a little sore. Have you seen Xena? She was looking for Ephiny about three hours ago," the bard asked.

Solari's eyes widened. "Looking for Ephiny? And she's not back yet? I better go check Ephiny's hut. I hope everything's okay. Eph was pretty ticked off last night."

"Please go look. And if you find Xena, see if you can get her to come back here. She's not completely well yet and she should be getting some extra rest," the golden-haired woman worried. What if she and Ephiny had a fight and Xena took off. No, she wouldn't do that. Would she? "Please hurry, Solari."

The dark Amazon turned and ran out the door. For the next fifteen minutes, Gabrielle fidgeted and worried. Yeah, I'm getting lots of rest. I should've gone to see for myself.

The bard got up from the bed and walked to the window. She could see Solari loping into the clearing from the path to Ephiny's hut, alone. She met Solari at the door. "Well?" she prompted.

"You'll never guess," Solari grinned. "The two of them are sitting at the table in Ephiny's hut, knocking off a couple bottles of wine and telling old war stories. The second bottle's half-gone, so they must have had an early start. They look like a couple of old drinking buddies. And neither one is in top form, if you know what I mean."

"Thank the gods they're not fighting! But I don't know if drinking is such a good idea. Imagine what might happen if they drink too much. Xena usually knows better," Gabrielle fretted. "Did you ask her to come back here?"

"I didn't even go in," Solari admitted. "I wouldn't have had the courage to ask Ephiny to stop drinking, let alone the Warrior Princess! Why don't we just leave them be? They seem to have worked out their problems."

"That may be the best idea," Gabrielle conceded. "Just kinda keep an eye on them, will you please, Solari? I don't want anything to happen to either one of them," she frowned.

"Sure," the dark Amazon agreed. "I'll go sit on Ephiny's porch. I'll keep you posted." Solari nodded to Gabrielle and left. About an hour later, she was back.

"Gabrielle," she reported, "they're both sound asleep. Xena's sprawled on the bed and Ephiny's in her chair with her head on the table. I don't think you have anything to worry about."

"Thank the gods," breathed the golden-haired woman. "Let them sleep until the evening meal. Hopefully, they'll be okay by then."

Eponin arrived at the healer's hut as Solari left. "You won't believe what I just saw!" she blurted to Gabrielle. "I stopped at Ephiny's hut and she and the Warrior Princess are both sound asleep... and it looks like they had a little help. There are two empty wine bottles on the table!"

"I know, Pony, Solari's been watching them for me," the Queen answered. "She just gave me the news -- looks like they've made up. I'm really relieved about that."

"Yeah, me too, Xena's a good friend." Eponin replied, gruffly. "Guess now you can get some REAL rest. I'll get outta here. Just wanted to pass along the news and see how you were."

"Thanks, Pony. You've been a good friend to Xena, too. And, yeah, I'm going to take a nap, now that everything looks okay. See you later."

Eponin left and the bard stretched out on the bed as well as her sore ribs would let her. A small grin tugged at her lips. All's well with my world (my Xena) for the moment, thank the gods. She closed her eyes and promptly fell asleep.

***************************

Several hours later, a commotion outside disturbed the bard's sleep. Without remembering her cracked ribs, she attempted to rise. Just as pain stopped her motion, a strong arm slipped around her shoulders and boosted her into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Gabrielle grinned at the cobalt-blue eyes gazing at her with concern. "Thanks, Xena, I forgot to take it easy. I hear you and Ephiny settled your differences over a couple bottles of wine. How do you feel?"

"Better than I have a right to," the warrior admitted wryly, rubbing a hand over her head. "Ephiny was afraid you would get mad at her if she broke my arm. So, she decided to break open some wine bottles, instead. Better for my arm -- not so good for my head!"

The bard chuckled, "At least it won't take your head as long to heal!" Gabrielle saw that Xena had recovered her leathers and her various pieces of armor and was now fully clothed, except for her sword and chakram.

"Ephiny gave me some good news, too," the tall, dark-haired woman announced. "The Amazons have been boarding Argo in their stables. I just stopped over there to see her. Sheís been well taken care of."

"Oh, Xena, that IS good news. I wondered where she was," said Gabrielle.

Both women turned toward the doorway as a stretcher was borne into the healer's hut. On it lay a man, partially covered with blood, and moaning.

Xena immediately rose and walked nearer to the bed on which the Amazons were placing the patient. With a practiced eye, the Warrior Princess checked out the man's wounds. Most of the blood was coming from his nose and a gashed forehead, and one knee appeared to be badly swollen.

One of the bearers was telling Claris, "We found him, unconscious, lying near the eastern trail. Looks like he was beaten up. We've already informed Ephiny of his arrival. She said to ask you for a report on his condition when you finish taking care of him." Then the stretcher-bearers left.

Claris washed the man and tended to his injuries. Xena noted that he looked to be in his early thirties, had shoulder-length black hair, and was clean-shaven. His build was slender, not especially muscular, and his attire indicated he was someone of refinement.

When Claris had sewn his cut forehead and finished her other ministrations, she turned to the Warrior Princess, "Xena, would you keep an eye on him while I report to Ephiny?" Xena nodded and Claris went out.

After a few moments, the patient regained consciousness. He blanched as his eyes fell on the imposing warrior. "Where am I?"

"You've nothing to worry about." His eyes swiveled to a nearby bed on which sat an attractive blonde-haired woman with a friendly smile. "Amazons found you lying on the trail, bleeding. They brought you here, to the Amazon healer's hut, to dress your injuries."

His eyes came back to Xena. "Are you an Amazon?" he asked, fascinated.

"No," Xena answered, with cool dignity, "I'm Xena, Warrior Princess, the Amazon Queen's protector." She indicated Gabrielle with a nod and a small smile appeared on the bard's face. "Who are you, and what are you doing in these parts?"

"My name is Phintias. I'm from Syracuse, but I had reason to come to Athens to set my affairs in order. One of the holdings I needed to make a decision about is an olive orchard near Amphipolis. I was attacked after I left there." Phintias became very agitated. "It is extremely important that I get back to Syracuse before the next full moon."

Gabrielle tried to soothe him, "That shouldn't be too hard. You have almost two full weeks."

"But, it's not that simple, I.. . I need help," he sighed.

The warrior spoke up, "What kind of help?"

Phintias focused his attention on the majestic woman by his side. She looked powerful and formidable and he admired that. "A cousin of mine has always resented that my parents provided me with an education and prospects far beyond his own. I have achieved some small renown as a student of philosophy."

Phintias paused to gather his thoughts. "Now that I am selling some of the properties I own, he has kidnapped my parents, hoping to secure some of my possessions for himself. He has proposed a challenge to me."

"He wants to fight you?" the dark-haired woman asked.

"No, this is a mental challenge, a puzzle. You see he has a double purpose: he wants some of my wealth and he also wants to prove he has the better intellect. He has threatened bodily harm to my parents if I don't pay him off, but in his arrogance he has agreed to return them unharmed if I can solve the puzzle. I've tried, and tried, but it has me stumped."

Gabrielle queried, "And you have two weeks to solve it?"

"No," Phintias explained, "I have two weeks to return to Syracuse. It is, literally, a matter of life or death. A very dear friend of mine will be executed if I don't return in time." A shadow crossed his desperate face. "So, you see, I MUST solve this puzzle as soon as possible, rescue my parents in Athens, and leave for Syracuse in time to save my friend. My parents and my friend are depending on me, and here I am, attacked and disabled!" Phintias seemed dejected.

A look passed between the Queen and the warrior. The smaller woman's demeanor showed her concern. "What is this puzzle? Maybe we can help you solve it?"

Phintias reached inside the fine linen shirt he was wearing and pulled out a folded parchment. A long, bronzed arm reached toward him and he placed the parchment in Xena's hand. "Please, I'd appreciate any help you can offer."

"Why don't you get some rest for a while?" the warrior suggested as she tucked the parchment into her arm bracer. "Claris should be back soon; she probably will bring you something to eat. We'll take a look at your puzzle and get back to you later." Xena turned to Gabrielle. "C'mon, my Queen, let's take a walk over to the dining hut. A little fresh air will do you good."

The Warrior Princess helped the bard rise from the edge of the bed. Gabrielle could walk without pain, but was still uncomfortable getting up and down. The two friends nodded goodbye to Phintias and set out for the dining hut.

"How's your headache?" asked the ever solicitous bard.

"What headache?" rejoined the Warrior Princess with a lopsided grin.

Gabrielle snorted and poked her friend in the side with an elbow.

 

Chapter 8

The two women had finished their meal and the used vessels had been removed. Xena pulled the parchment from her arm bracer and spread it out on the table. They both began to read:

"The following words were written on a tablet at a gravesite:

Here lie:

Two grandmothers, with their two granddaughters;

Two husbands, with their two wives;

Two fathers, with their two daughters;

Two mothers, with their two sons;

Two maidens, with their two mothers;

Two sisters, with their two brothers.

Only six lie buried here,

There was no incest, never fear.

If you know how this can be,

Both your parents will be free.

ANSWER THIS PUZZLE AND YOUR PARENTS GO FREE. IF YOU CANNOT ANSWER IT BEFORE THE NEXT FULL MOON, YOU MUST GIVE ME THE VALUE OF ONE-HALF OF YOUR ESTATE, OR NEVER SEE YOUR PARENTS AGAIN.

I SWEAR IT. Signed: Eldred of Athens"

Xena and Gabrielle finished reading the puzzle and both sat in deep thought. After about two minutes, the Warrior Princess slapped her hand on the table and said, "Let's go." She stood, picked up and refolded the parchment, and started toward the door.

Gabrielle scrambled to keep up. "Xena, you can't know the answer to that already, can you?"

The warrior looked down at her friend and changed her stride to an exaggerated swagger. "Don't forget, I have many skills," she smirked. And dodged, chuckling, as another elbow was aimed in her direction.

***************************

The two friends entered the healerís hut. Phintias was just finishing the meal that Claris had provided for him.

"Get yourself rested up tonight, Phintias. Tomorrow we start for Athens to rescue your parents," the dark-haired warrior promised. "Iíve got the answer to your puzzle."

The philosopherís mouth dropped open in amazement. "You have the puzzle figured out already? I canít believe it. I worked on it for hours and got nowhere. Whatís the answer?"

Gabrielle added her voice to Phintiasís, "Yes, O Warrior Princess of Great Puzzle Solvers, tell us the answer."

The taller woman tilted her head back and looked down her nose at the bard. "Do I detect some skepticism here? Just for that, I wonít tell you until tomorrow."

"Aw, címon, Xena, tell me now," her friend begged.

"No, no, Gabrielle, you know you would like to figure it out yourself. You have all evening and part of tomorrow. Letís see how you do," Xena teased. She turned back to Phintias. "If you think you can be ready to travel at first light, Iíll get you a horse and we can get on the road right away. You donít have much time."

"I donít know how to thank you! I am most grateful that you are willing to help me. I can pay you for your time and trouble when we get to Athens," the appreciative man offered.

"No payment is asked for or wanted," the warrior assured him. "You need help and we offer it to you freely. Try to get some rest; weíll be in the Queenís hut if you need us for anything. Weíll come by right after dawn to pick you up for the journey."

The two women nodded to the philosopher, waved to Claris, and left. They stopped by Ephinyís hut to let her know they would be leaving in the morning, and that they were escorting Phintias to Athens. "Pony has my staff, Ephiny," Gabrielle informed her. "Iíve asked her to hold onto it for me until I return. With these ribs, I canít use it anyway. Weíll stop for it when we get back."

Ephiny promised to lend them a horse and saddle for Phintias and told them to pick up, from the Amazon stores, whatever provisions they needed for the journey.

"Ephiny," Gabrielle smiled, "thank you for everything. Tell Pony and Solari and the rest that we said goodbye and weíll be back this way before you know it. Just keep taking as good care of the Amazons as you have been. Iím grateful for that, too."

"Youíre welcome, Gabrielle," the regent answered. The two blond women gave each other a great hug.

Ephiny turned to Xena. The Warrior Princess stuck out her arm. "This is your last chance, Eph. Do you want to break it?"

Ephiny grasped the arm in a warrior handshake. "Iíd probably break my other arm, trying," she grinned wryly. When the handshake ended, the Amazon reached back out with her one good arm and pulled the surprised warrior into a hug. "Thatís for having the courage to come back to us," she explained in a husky voice.

"Gabrielleís the one whoís good with words, Ephiny, but I hope you know that I, too, thank you for everything," Xena declared warmly. The two women nodded as one warrior to another.

***************************

True to her nature, Xena was up and about before first light. The air was cool and crisp, and faint smudges of pink and yellow in the eastern sky promised another good day.

The warrior removed the wrappings from her thigh and discarded them. The wound was completely healed; the sutures had fallen out, and only a faint white line gave evidence of the harm her leg had suffered.

The Warrior Princess woke Gabrielle, then went to the stables. Argoís welcoming nicker could be heard as her beloved owner approached. Xena wrapped her arms around the big Palominoís neck and the warhorse nuzzled her in return. "Hey, girl, ready to hit the trail?" the tall woman asked, in anticipation, as she forked some hay into Argoís feeding trough. It was difficult to tell who was more anxious to get underway, the warrior or her golden mare.

She packed the saddlebags with the provisions she had obtained the night before. The Amazons also had given her the promised horse and saddle for Phintias. Because time was so critical, they would have to ride. The warrior knew that Gabrielle, with her ribs cracked, couldnít handle a horse, so she would ride double on Argo. Xena prepared Argo and the borrowed horse for the journey and went to get the bard and Phintias.

The three travelers made good time on the trail and decided to stop near a stream for a short lunch break. Phintiasís left knee was still badly swollen; it was a severe sprain. He had managed to pull himself up onto his horse at the beginning of the trip, but getting down was a little more awkward. Xena dismounted and lifted Gabrielle down from Argoís back. Then, recognizing the philosopherís plight, she walked over to assist him.

"Let me help you down" the dark-haired woman offered.

"Uh... Xena, I saw you lift Gabrielle down, but Iím a lot bigger. Weíll both get hurt if I fall on you," Phintias pointed out as he hesitated. The Warrior Princess gave a little shrug and stepped closer. Her hands closed on both sides of Phintiasís waist. She bent her legs at the knees and tightened her hands. Before he realized what she was about to do, Xena thrust up with her arms and her knees, heaved the philosopher clear of his horse, swung him around and settled him gently on the ground. About six inches from an exquisite face with the most luminous blue eyes he had ever looked into.

He was flabbergasted. For a moment, they just stared into each otherís eyes. Finally, "By the gods, you are a strong woman," he exclaimed. "When Ephiny stopped to see me last night, we talked about our journey. She told me I was in the safest hands in Greece. Maybe she should have said the strongest!"

"That, too," advised the bard, smiling at her friendís discomfort at the praise.

"Iíll... ah... see if I can find some berries, and... er... get you a crutch," the brave warrior stammered and disappeared into the forest.

 

***************************

The next two days passed uneventfully. Phintias made a number of attempts to engage Xena in trivial discussion but wasnít successful. Finally, exasperated, she blurted, "Phintias, Iím trying to get us safely to Athens. To do that, I need to stay focused. If you want to carry on a conversation, thatís Gabrielleís department. She talks, I fight." The three were just entering an area where the trail widened.

"Sorry, Xena, I meant no harm, I just..." Phintiasís words were cut off as Xena leapt from Argoís back, sword in hand.

"Gabrielle," she urged quietly, pointing, "take Phintias off to the side into the trees. Hurry!"

"But, Xena, I can help... " the young Queen objected. She could hear hoofbeats and knew it was more than one or two coming.

"Just DO it," Xena hissed. ĎYouíre in no shape for an extended fight. And you might have to protect Phintias." The bard frowned, but whirled Argo toward the philosopherís horse.

Just as Gabrielle and Phintias entered the protection of the forest, a band of twelve brigands appeared. They came to a halt when they saw a lone woman, sword drawn, standing in their path. "Well, well, what have we here? Are you going to fight us all, lady?" As he spoke, the leaderís eyes were searching the area around them.

Who is he looking for? "Iím no lady, and if you fellas have any sense, youíll go quietly, and leave me in peace," the dark-haired woman advised. She didnít look very threatening and the gang was laughing and joking among themselves.

"Canít do that, LADY, we have to earn our wages, now, donít we?" the leader sneered.

"Wages? For fighting me?" Xena asked.

"Maybe, maybe not. Weíre looking for a guy whoís traveling with two women, oneís a warrior. His name is Phintias. Have ya seen him? Or them? LADY?" he jeered.

A sudden and scary transformation occurred before the groupís eyes. The woman grew taller, darker and more threatening as her relaxed stance changed abruptly to warlike readiness. The ex-warlordís lowered brow and stone face exuded menace. Electric blue eyes gleamed with a terror-invoking light and her lips slowly pulled back against her teeth in a feral grimace. "I guess Iím the one youíre looking for, after all," a slow, deceptively soft, voice drifted across the open space.

The laughing and joking stopped. The humor had turned to dread. Every brigand there had been in enough fights to know when someone was bluffing, and they all knew this was no bluff. This woman was ready to fight. Whispers of the name, "Xena," could be heard and three of the bandits turned their horses and ran off. The other nine charged.

Xena whipped out her chakram and flung it to her right. The death-dealing weapon hit a tree, ricocheted straight across the trail through the throats of three outlaws, bounced off another tree, and returned to the warriorís hand. She hooked it back onto her side.

The Warrior Princess ducked the sword thrust of the leader, the first man to reach her, and grabbed his arm with one hand. Allowing his momentum to carry him, she unseated him with a vigorous yank and threw him against a tree, breaking his neck. I told you I was no lady. The second arrived just in time to be impaled on her sword. Placing one hand on his saddle as a pivot point, Xena extricated her sword from his chest, thrust her body up horizontally in the air and took out the third bandit with a mighty kick to his throat. In the same motion, she used his chest to propel herself into a flip even higher in the air and kicked out with both powerful feet to the heads of the next two riders. The last rider was knocked off his horse with the flat of her sword as the warrior was returning to earth.

Rushing to the outlaw lying in front of her, she applied pinch points to his neck. "Who sent you?" she growled. "You have about thirty seconds to answer before all the blood will rush out of your head, and youíll be dead."

"Someone all dressed in black leather, with black hair and a black beard, kinda creepy," the brigand answered in an agonized voice. "Paid us to find and kill a man named Phintias. We were told he would be coming this way with two women, one a warrior. He didnít say the warrior was Xena. Weíve been patrolling every day watching for him."

Ares. Why doesnít that surprise me? Xena released the pinch on the manís neck and slammed a fist into his jaw, knocking him out. What does Ares have to do with all this? Something beyond this cousin and property stuff. Thereís no gain for him in that.

Gabrielle and Phintias were approaching from the trees. The bard started out with a big smile on her face but when she got closer to the carnage, and realized only a few outlaws still lived, the smile wavered. Xena noticed the change and was troubled by it. The golden-haired woman noticed that Xenaís face had not yet shed its stone warrior mask. "Xena, are you all right?" she asked.

"Yeah, I guess," was the warriorís short reply as she stared into space. Then she looked up toward the bard and fixed her with those intense blue eyes. "No, Iím not. Look, Gabrielle, I didnít start out to kill anyone but we donít have any time for finesse. I had to get rid of them quickly, and I did it the fastest way I know how. Itís hard to protect us from harm and worry about killing the attackers, too. But there wasnít any vengeance in it, OK?"

ĎI understand, Xena. Itís just... killing bothers me, especially when it may not be necessary. You know that. And I know it sometimes is part of this life we lead. Iím working on learning to live with it when it happens. I donít mean to upset you. Forget it?" The bard asked.

"Forgotten," answered the warrior, and her stony expression finally softened. She turned to the philosopher, "You know, Phintias, these outlaws were hired to kill you. Do you have any idea why?"

"No, I canít think of an answer to that. My cousin wouldnít want me dead. His scheme will work only if Iím alive. Heís not in the line of inheritance from me or my parents."

"Another puzzle to solve," the Warrior Princess murmured, as she rubbed her chin in contemplation.

"Speaking of puzzles," piped up the bard. "When are you going to tell us the answer to the graveside tablet? I havenít been able to figure it out," she admitted.

"As soon as we reach Athens," the dark-haired woman answered with a small grin. "Thatíll give you some motivation to keep moving. So letís get outta here. Oh, and just in case there is an emergency, I wrote the answer on the parchment thatís still under my bracer." Xena swung up onto Argo, behind her friend.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "You know, Phintias, she just loves to keep us guessing."

"I rather like mysterious women," Phintias smiled.

"I never did get that smelly wolfskin," muttered Xena in Gabrielleís ear. "Or stop bathing, thank the gods," the bard smothered a giggle.

***************************

Finally, they were approaching the city. "You are both welcome to stay in my parentsí home," offered Phintias. "There is plenty of room and the servants keep it open all year round. There are stables on the grounds, too, where the horses can be taken care of."

"Right," agreed Xena.

Gabrielle smiled to herself. Real beds, table food, servants, personal stables, and all Xena says is, ĎRight.í Maybe the Warrior Princess was pampered sometimes, but I never have been. Sounds like a nice treat.

They traveled around the outskirts of Athens until they reached a luxurious estate. Servants rushed out to greet Phintias and his companions and to relieve them of their horses. The three crossed a colonnaded portico into an ornate, well appointed home. Phintias had a woman servant show Xena and Gabrielle to adjacent bedrooms, connected by an adjoining door. Xena removed her armor, including her sword and chakram. She laid her armbands and bracers on a table with the parchment. The servant, Posea, informed them that there was an enclosed bathing pool at the rear of the home that they were free to use.

Welcoming the opportunity to refresh themselves after three days of traveling, the two friends followed Posea to a huge, marble room with a large pool. Several marble benches were placed around the perimeter of the pool and nearby tables held soap, towels, washing cloths, robes and jars filled with perfumed crystals.

"Gabrielle, you better keep the binding around your ribs. Iíll put a fresh one on for you after we bathe," Xena suggested.

The two women disrobed and walked to the edge of the pool. Xena was relieved to see that the terrible bruises on her friendís body were healing well.

"Wow!" breathed Gabrielle as she dipped a toe in the water.

"What?" The warrior teased. "Doesnít your family have a pool like this?"

"Well," the bard wrinkled her brow in mock seriousness, "our pool doesnít have heated water." With that remark, she gave the Warrior Princess a shove into the pool. Of course, being the Warrior Princess, she didnít hit the water alone. At the same time that Gabrielleís hand pushed her, Xenaís bronzed hand closed around the bardís wrist, and they went in together.

When their heads bobbed back to the surface, Gabrielle spluttered, "No fair, I have cracked ribs. Youíre supposed to take it easy on me!"

Xena put on one of her nastiest warrior looks. "Remember, bard, if youíre going to live dangerously, you gotta take the consequences." And promptly got splashed in the face. "Now youíre in REAL trouble," she growled, reaching her long arms to her friendís shoulders, and dunking her.

While the two women were cavorting in the water, Posea placed some washing cloths, towels, jars of fragrant crystals, and a dish of soap within reach at the side of the pool. She took their discarded clothing and boots, leaving clean shifts for the women to wear. She left the room for a short interval then returned bearing fresh bandages for Gabrielleís ribs. She placed those on a table and retired from the room.

When they had finished their play, the friends made good use of the scented soap, covering themselves from tip to toe in its pleasant aroma. Xena unbraided and washed her own hair and then did the same for Gabrielle. "Xena," Gabrielle asked, "what do you think the crystals are for? The soap already makes us smell pretty good."

Xena started removing the tops of the crystal-bearing jars and sampling them with her nose. "Iím not sure, Gabrielle, maybe a special perfume for your hair. Each person could choose her favorite. Hereís one that smells like spices from the east, one like a flower garden, one like sweet berries, and this last one kinda like the forest after a rainstorm. Maybe Iíll try the forest rainstorm."

Gabrielle began checking each one out, too. "Xena," she coaxed, "You can smell like a forest rainstorm anytime. Why not be daring and try something different? The flower garden is more my style, but how about trying the sweet berries for you? It smells scrumptious."

The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes. "Leave it to you to pick something that reminds you of food," she gibed. "OK, Iíll give it a try." She dipped her head completely under the water. When she lifted it back out, Gabrielle took a handful of crystals and rubbed them through her friendís hair. The crystals dissolved immediately and left behind their sweet berry fragrance.

"Ummm... that does smell nice," the bard assured her. "Now, do my hair with the flower garden crystals."

When they were finished, they got out of the pool and donned the robes. Xena wrapped the fresh bandages around Gabrielleís ribs then towel dried her own hair and Gabrielleís. When they both were completely dry, they exchanged the robes for the clean shifts.

"I wonder if our clothes will be cleaned when we get them back," Gabrielle speculated.

"I just hope theyíre not wet," the warrior said. "We donít have time to sit around waiting for them to dry."

Returning to their rooms, they were startled to see their outfits laid out on their beds, cleaned AND dry. Xenaís leathers and all her armor gleamed with a fine sheen of oil. Even their boots had been cleaned and buffed.

"Xena!" the bard came rushing into her friendís room with one of her boots in her hand. "Smell this! You wonít believe it... it actually smells fresh!"

"Well thatís a first," the warrior said dryly. "Smell one of mine, if you dare. Thatíll be the true test."

The golden-haired woman leaned over one of Xenaís boots and took a large sniff. "Arrrgh," spouted from her mouth and she grabbed her throat. Tossing her own boot in the air, she slowly collapsed onto the floor, her eyes closed and her face twisted into an agonized mask.

"I thought only horses could lose by a nose," the warrior drawled. Gabrielle started giggling and the Warrior Princess couldnít keep a straight face either. They both had a good laugh.

"Ohhh, it hurts to laugh with cracked ribs," the bard gasped, "but I needed that."

"Me, too," seconded Xena. "Now letís get dressed and go find some food. Then weíll have to talk strategy with Phintias."

***************************

The noon meal had been a feast. Gabrielle had been in her glory, out-eating Xena and Phintias combined. After eating, the three had moved to a conference room and sat at the end of a large table. "Phintias," Xena remarked, "before we do anything else, I want to thank you for your marvelous hospitality. Gabrielle and I have been through a lot these last few months, and this was a very welcome change. Now we feel refreshed and ready to get back to business."

"Xena," the philosopher answered, with a sad, sweet smile, "Iím happy you both had an opportunity to enjoy yourselves. If I could, I would choose to have us stay here for a while so we would have the chance to get to know each other better." Phintiasís eyes were locked on Xenaís fascinating blue ones.

The philosopher began to shake his head. "Sadly, for me, I donít have any extra time. The business I must attend to in Syracuse is extremely serious. Until that is settled, if it even can be, I am living under a death sentence."

Gabrielle reached out and touched Phintiasís hand. She looked over at Xena. The Warrior Princess sat almost impassively; the only movement on her face was the quirking of an eyebrow.

Phintias wrenched his eyes away and took a deep breath. "But thatís a tale for another day. Letís see what can be done for my parents, please."

Xena, glad for some action, produced the puzzle parchment and read it aloud to refresh everyoneís memory.

"The following words were written on a tablet at a gravesite:

Here lie:

Two grandmothers, with their two granddaughters;

Two husbands, with their two wives;

Two fathers, with their two daughters;

Two mothers, with their two sons;

Two maidens, with their two mothers;

Two sisters, with their two brothers.

Only six lie buried here,

There was no incest, never fear.

If you know how this can be,

Both your parents will be free.

ANSWER THIS PUZZLE AND YOUR PARENTS GO FREE. IF YOU CANNOT ANSWER IT BEFORE THE NEXT FULL MOON, YOU MUST GIVE ME THE VALUE OF ONE-HALF OF YOUR ESTATE, OR NEVER SEE YOUR PARENTS AGAIN.

I SWEAR IT. Signed: "Eldred of Athens"

Xena looked at her two rapt listeners.

"Think of two married women who each have a son: Two mothers with their two sons.

Then their husbands die and they are widows.

They each marry the other womanís son: Two husbands with their two wives.

A daughter is born of each marriage: Two maidens with their two mothers; Two fathers with their two daughters and Two grandmothers with their two granddaughters.

And each husband is also a brother to the other coupleís daughter: Two sisters with two brothers.

"Now if you count the people, there are only six. But all the relationships mentioned in the puzzle exist," said the warrior.

"Xena, how did you figure that out so quickly?" demanded the bard. "It only took you a few minutes, but Phintias and I never did get the answer."

"I have many sk... " the taller woman caught the exasperated look on her friendís face and broke into a big smile. "But this time, I have to admit, I just got lucky. Believe it or not, there was a widow in Amphipolis who married her best friendís son. Everyone used to kid them about their relationships. There were other children in both families and when grandchildren started coming, it got really mixed up. So, when I read the puzzle the first thing that occurred to me was that a widow who remarried was involved. It took me a minute to figure out that there were TWO widows. As soon as I realized that, the rest of it fell into place."

"Thatís wonderful, Xena. Now if you will accompany me to my cousinís house, perhaps we can secure the release of my parents," Phintias requested eagerly.

 

***************************

Eldred was stunned that his cousin had secured the answer to the puzzle. All his dreams of being wealthy evaporated. But, true to his word, he returned Phintiasís mother and father to him. They had not been mistreated and were only mildly confused as to why their nephew had invited them to his home and then refused to let them return to theirs. Phintias greeted them warmly, then made arrangements to have them escorted safely home.

Phintias was filled with joy that his parents were unharmed and free. He knew he had Xena to thank and he did this profusely. "Tell me what you want, Xena, and if it is in my power, it will be yours. Please, I am so grateful, I want to do something for you." Just looking into those magnificent blue eyes made him want to give her the world. But his time in this world was sorely limited.

"Well, maybe you can do something for your cousin, instead. He really didnít hurt your parents. Perhaps you can find it in your heart to tell him you forgive him. And you have so many possessionsómaybe you could settle something on him. It just might change his life, make a new man of him. Everybody deserves a chance at forgiveness," Xena suggested.

Phintias gazed at the imposing woman and his small smile kept growing and growing. "So, our magnificent warrior has a heart even more powerful than her sword," he beamed. "Consider it done. Iíll give him the olive grove near Amphipolis, and hope that the gift will soften his resentment. And, Iíll forgive him," he made a small bow to the Warrior Princess, who smiled her thanks to him.

The philosopher sent a message to the keeper of his accounts to have his promises carried out, and the three travelers began the next leg of their journey. This part would be a short one to the seaport of Piraeus adjacent to Athens. From there it would be a journey by boat to Syracuse.

"Xena," the bard confided, after Argo had carried them through the streets of Athens for a while, "I think that was a surprising suggestion you made to Phintias about his cousin. I mean, it was surprising to me. I mean... I was surprised you thought of it... I mean... you know what I mean," the bard finished lamely. For someone whoís supposed to be good with words, I sure butchered that thought.

"Yeah, well, maybe Iíve been around you long enough to have learned the power of forgiveness. Maybe Iím finally starting to catch on," Xena answered softly.

Raising her voice, she continued. "I know something else Iíve learned. No more flower garden crystals on your hair. I didnít consider that youíd be riding with your head right beneath my nose. Sometimes even a good thing can drive you crazy!"

"Hahaha," the bard rejoined, "are we talking about me or my hair? Anyway, flower garden is better than Carrion Number 4," she suggested.

"Number 4?" Xena queried, with a quirked eyebrow. "Whatís that?"

"Four days deader than Carrion Number 1, of course," the golden-haired woman laughed. "Gotcha!"

"You know, my bard, people with cracked ribs shouldnít try to put one over on the person who has two elbows right next to those ribs," the warrior warned.

"Yes, my dear. Anything you say, my dear," Gabrielle said with mock fear. But her heart was singing. Thatís the first sheís called me Ďmy bardí since...

"And donít you forget it," the bronzed woman growled.

The golden-haired woman reached behind her for a handful of the warriorís hair and sniffed it. "Well, this berry aroma is very pleasant," she remarked saucily. "Only...it makes me hungry."

"Figures," chuckled Xena.

Phintias, riding just behind Argo, smiled as he listened to the friendly banter. The closeness of these two women made him long to see his own best friend, waiting in Syracuse. His friend would die if Phintias didnít reach him in time.

The three were approaching the docks of Piraeus. "Xena, nobody said anything about a boat trip," the green-eyed woman remarked worriedly.

"Sorry, Gabrielle, I didnít realize you didnít know where Syracuse is. Itís on an island off the coast of Italia. You just canít reach it without a boat," the warrior explained. "Itís not a long trip, though, just a few days."

Phintias nudged his horse alongside Argo. "My father owns a shipping line here. Iíll commandeer one of the ships to take us to Syracuse right away. Iíll try to get one that trades in horses, Xena, that way we can take your warhorse with us."

"Thatís very thoughtful of you, Phintias." She reached back and patted the big palomino, "Argo here is a member of the family. Iím glad I wonít have to board him somewhere. Will you need the mount youíve been riding?"

"No, I live in Syracuse," the philosopher assured her. "I have horses there. Iíll find a place here in Piraeus to stable the animal and you can pick him up when you return. Why donít you and Gabrielle take a look around the docks while I make travel arrangements?"

Xena nodded and dismounted. She reached up and lifted Gabrielle to the ground. She turned to Phintias, raised her hands, and quirked an eyebrow. "No, no," he raised a restraining hand and laughed. "I need to ride further down the dock. Iíll get help there, thank you. Iíll meet you along here in about twenty minutes," he said as he turned away.

The docks were laden with a wide variety of goods either being loaded or unloaded. The friends strolled among them with interest. "I have a question for you, Xena," the bard laid her hand on the warriorís arm to stop her progress. Xena stopped and looked down with a slight lifting of her eyebrows. Gabrielle looked up into those remarkable cobalt-blue pools. As occasionally transpired, her friendís overwhelming beauty made her heart lurch a little. I never know when thatís going to happen, but itís such a nice, warm feeling when it does, the bard thought blissfully. She doesnít even know how beautiful she is. Or how happy it makes me sometimes, just to look at her.

"Yes?" Xena prodded.

Gabrielle took a moment to pull her thoughts back together. "Mostly in the past, you never offered to help someone, like Phintias, who obviously could hire people to assist him. What was different this time?"

The warrior pursed her lips and frowned. "Funny you should ask that, Gabrielle. From the first moment I saw Phintias, in the healerís tent, I felt some sort of attraction. Iím not talking about physical attraction, though he is good looking," the dark-haired woman smiled. "No, Iím talking about some outside force that seems to be drawing me to help him."

Xenaís demeanor became more intense and she grabbed both of Gabrielleís arms. "Think a minute. Doesnít this all seem a little strange? Phintias needs to get to Syracuse to save his friend. First, heís slowed down by a ridiculous kidnapping of his parents; second, heís beaten and deliberately disabled--someone purposely twisted that knee of his; third, he was attacked on the trail and the danger escalated into intent to kill. That change seems to have occurred because we offered to help him. And, as I said, I think somehow Iíve been LED to help him."

The warrior was deep in thought. "I believe Ares hired those outlaws, probably both times. For some reason, he doesnít want Phintias to reach Syracuse."

"But why?" the bard asked, confused.

"I havenít figured that out yet," the warrior dropped her hold on her friendís arms. "But, until I do, I just have to keep following wherever Iím being led."

Xena reached again and grasped Gabrielleís shoulder. "Gabrielle, you donít have to come on this trip. Maybe... "

"NO!" the golden-haired woman stated emphatically and stomped her foot in irritation. "Xena, when we talked things out in the cave and agreed to try to straighten out our troubles, I should have put this on the list of major complaints. You will FORGET trying to leave me behind Ďfor my own good.í We are partners. ĎWhere you go, I goí is still in effect! So, FORGET it!"

The penitent Warrior Princess put her hand up to ward off the bardís annoyance. "OK, OK," she soothed, "Itís forgotten."

"Thatís better," muttered Gabrielle, mollified. Looking past Xenaís shoulder, she saw Phintias approaching, still on horseback. "Here comes Phintias," she told the Warrior Princess unnecessarily. But the momentary diversion gave her a chance to calm down.

"Everythingís all set," the philosopher called. "Follow me. Weíll get the horses aboard and stabled and find our cabins. The ship will leave in about an hour, so weíll have an opportunity to eat while still at port," he smiled at Gabrielle.

She smiled back up at the considerate man, "Sounds great to me." Xena picked her friend up and put her on Argoís back then swung up behind her. The travelers set out to find the ship.

***********************

Even on shipboard Xena arose before daylight. Each morning, she donned her leathers and gear and climbed topside. The deck in the stern of the ship was deserted so she used the empty space to perform the regimen of exercise that kept her in top condition.

This morning, as usual, she started out slowly, brandishing her sword in all possible directions as she moved with agility about the deck. Thrusts and twirls and leaps and kicks were added as she warmed to the task. Suddenly, her skin began to crawl and she came to an abrupt halt. "Show yourself, Ares, my crawling skin knows youíre here," she challenged.

With a burst of light, the God of War appeared. "I just canít sneak up on you anymore, Xena, our connection is growing too strong," he taunted.

"Iíd like to connect you with my fist," the Warrior Princess jeered contemptuously. "What are you doing here, Ares?"

The god put a hurt look on his face, "Iím just looking out for you, Xena. I want you to turn around and go back to Greece. Youíre getting mixed up in something that doesnít concern you and you might get hurt. Or your little friend might get hurt," he scowled.

"You know your threats have never stopped me before, Ares, and they wonít stop me now. Besides, I feel drawn to help Phintias. Almost like itís my destiny to be here." The dark-haired woman tried a more intimate tone, "Whoís been leading me here, Ares? Some god youíve made an enemy of?"

"Oh, this is Ďprecious,í Ares sneered. "Youíve been leading yourself here, Xena, and you donít even know it. You have some kind of extra sense that tells you when Iím involved in something and an unconscious urge seems to compel you to stop me. Youíve led yourself into this mess, just because you love to interfere with my plans," the dark God of War complained sarcastically.

The handsome godís voice changed and he reached for a handful of the warriorís hair, "Those unconscious urges used to lead you TO me, not against me," he purred. He lifted the hair to his lips but stopped, wrinkled his nose and, with a comical expression on his face, snorted, "Berries? Oh, mighty Warrior Princess, how youíve changed! That irritating little blonde is turning you into a softy." He waved his arm and was gone.

Softy, huh? You just keep on believing that, Ares. Weíll see who the softy is. Xena smiled to herself in anticipation of going head to head with the God of War. She resumed her exercises with renewed vigor.

Later, Xena informed Gabrielle and Phintias of her run-in with Ares. "Phintias, when we disembark make sure you stay close to me. Ares sent those other assassins and he may try again to have you killed. For some reason, he wants you dead."

Gabrielle was used to the eerie relationship between her friend and the God of War, but the philosopherís eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You know the God of War?" he asked incredulously.

"Yeah, Phintias, I used to work for him. Iím an ex-warlord," Xena confessed tersely. "Thatís how I learned most of my fighting skills."

"But now you fight on the side of good." The philosopher understood at once that the warrior had changed her path.

"Maybe someday you can persuade Gabrielle to tell you all about it," Xena smiled. "She is an accomplished bard, you know."

"Iíd like that," the philosopher enthused, then his countenance darkened. "But Iíve just about run out of tomorrows. I canít figure why Ares would want to kill me. Iíll be dead by this time tomorrow, anyway."

Phintias knew it was time to tell his companions the full information about his situation. "Xena, Gabrielle, let me tell you MY story about this journey to Syracuse. Perhaps you know that the ruler of Syracuse is a man named Dionysius?"

The bard looked at her dark-haired friend who nodded in agreement. "Heís the Dionysius who first used the catapult in a battle, isnít he? I heard he invented the idea," the ex-warlord stated.

"Thatís correct," the philosopher said. "My best friend and I were visiting his court and I was falsely accused of spying. Dionysius was so angry with me, he sentenced me to death. My friend offered to stay in Syracuse in my place, under sentence of death, if the ruler would let me return to Greece to settle my substantial affairs. Dionysius finally was persuaded to do this, but he was adamant that my friend would be executed in my place if I didnít return at the appointed time. And tomorrow at midday is the appointed time."

Phintiasí brow furrowed. "Weíll be docking at Syracuse near first light tomorrow. If Ares makes another attempt to stop me, that could very well prevent me from saving my friendís life. Xena, please," Phintias reached down, took one of Xenaís long hands in both of his and pleaded, "you and Gabrielle know how important a good friend is. Help me get to the palace in time to save mine."

A very slight tremor passed across the warriorís sculpted face. She gently extricated her hand from Phintiasí grasp. "Phintias, we agreed to help you. Weíre not leaving until your friend is saved. If Ares sends you any further trouble, itíll have to get past me."

Phintias knew he himself was no fighter. "Thank the gods for having sent me to you, Xena."

Xena smiled to herself at the ironic truth to that statement. If Ares hadnít sent brigands to waylay Phintias, he would not have been brought to the Amazon camp where he met Xena and Gabrielle. I guess you could consider that being sent by the gods! she mused.

"Letís all get some sleep. Tomorrow could be an active day," the warrior suggested.

Xena was up pre-dawn readying Argo for disembarking. "Hello, girl, ready to leave this moving stable?" The golden mare nickered in welcome. Xena led the warhorse out of the stall and took her out onto the deck. She walked Argo several times around the deck, as she had done each day of the journey over the water. Then the warrior took her steed back to the stall, brushed her down, then saddled and bridled her. She gave the mare a hug and the horse nuzzled her ownerís back. "Iíll be back to get you soon, girl," Xena promised.

The Warrior Princess went forward toward the bow of the ship and could see the approaching dawn outlining the houses and docks of Syracuse in the east. As she passed Phintiasí room, she knocked on the door. Phintias, fully dressed, popped his head out. "All ready, Xena," he greeted her.

"Great," Xena returned. "Now let me check on Gabrielle," she smiled. She knocked on Gabrielleís door and entered. The bard was dressed and sitting on her bunk, slapping her wrist. "Are you still doing that?" Xena laughed.

"Itís NOT funny, Xena, just because you never get seasick," grumbled her friend. "Thank the gods, weíll be on dry land soon," she breathed.

"Looks like weíll be docking in about 15 minutes," the dark-haired woman informed her. "Címon out on deck with Phintias, youíll feel better. Iíll go get Argo."

The ship pulled into the dock just as Phintias finished expressing his gratitude to the captain. The three shipmates walked down the gangplank with Xena leading Argo. Phintiasí knee was almost as good as new, so he was no longer limping. As soon as they hit the dock, Xena lifted Gabrielle onto the golden mare and climbed on behind her. It felt good to wrap her legs around the familiar warhorseís flanks.

"The palace is on the northern side of the city," Phintias said. "It will take a while to get there. Weíll have to stop at a stable to get a horse for me but we wonít need to stop for food. Iíve brought us some cakes to eat as we travel."

"My stomach is very grateful," Gabrielle smiled. "I can eat again now that weíre on land. I have a little trouble keeping anything down when the ground shifts every time I take a step!"

"I own a stable behind that shipping office just ahead. Iíll get a horse there," Phintias explained and turned in to the doorway. The two women surreptitiously exchanged raised-eyebrow looks. "I knew that," Gabrielle nodded sagely.

"Keep it up, my bard, and your ribs are going to be screaming, ĎElbow alert,í" the warrior warned.

The golden-haired woman snickered and thrust her elbow back into Xenaís stomach. Of course, the only thing that resulted was a sore elbow for the bard. She was saved any retaliation from her friend by Phintiasí quick emergence on the back of a beautiful black horse. "Follow me," he prompted and they fell in behind him.

They were making pretty good time through the city even though the people seemed to be unusually restless. Xena, who picked up quickly on dangerous situations, was uneasy with the discontent she felt in the atmosphere. "Phintias, do you have any idea why the people seem so upset," she called to him as they approached the center square.

"I havenít a clue, Xena," he replied. Just then, the Warrior Princess spurred Argo forward and pulled next to Phintiasí mount. The hair on Gabrielleís arms stood on end as she could feel the tension flowing through the body of the woman behind her.

Xena stood up in her stirrups, grasped the bard on both sides of her waist, picked her up and swung her over behind Phintias before either of those two realized what she was doing. Without a word, she pulled Argo forward and loosened her chakram. By this time all three of them could hear hoofbeats crashing down the street toward them. "Stay here!" Xena ordered and urged Argo forward into the square. "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," came the war cry that injected paroxysms of shock into those who recognized it. Unfortunately for these attackers, they did not realize it was a death knell.

Eight men, in two groups of four each, were coming toward her at full gallop, their swords raised. Xena cast her chakram against a side building. It bounced off a post, struck a door lintel and swerved into the first two ridersí helmets, putting them out of commission. The lethal weapon then returned to the dark-haired womanís upraised and waiting hand and she rehooked it at her side.

The other horsemen split into two lines attacking on either side. The warrior caught the first rider on the right with the edge of her sword, cleanly taking off his head. The second received a thrust to his chest. She kicked out to her left and unseated the first one on that side with a blow to his neck. She ducked the second oneís sword swipe and delivered an unexpected punch to his nose, driving the bones into his skull. The last two riders hesitated just long enough for Xena to resheathe her sword, stand on Argoís back, bend her knees and thrust up into a mighty leap. "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," spouted forth again from the warriorís mouth. She kicked one rider from his mount like knocking over a toy soldier, bounced on his horseís saddle back into the air and took out the other outlaw by landing on his face with both feet. Then she backflipped to the ground, pulled her sword and looked around for any further attackers.

The people in the square who had witnessed this incredible show of warrior skills burst into applause, led by Phintias and Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess nodded her head in recognition of their adulation and a flush brushed lightly across her cheeks. "Címon, Phintias," she growled, "we have to get to the palace."

She leapt aboard Argo.

"Did you say Phintias?" queried one of the bystanders.

"Yes, Iím Phintias," the philosopher admitted.

"Well then, Phintias, thatís your scaffold theyíve built over there," the bystander informed him, pointing to the contraption across the square. "But we all thought Dionysius was going through with his threat to execute the philosopher, Damon, in your place. Everyone is fed up with the way Dionysius has been jailing and executing the very people who brought him to power, us. Then, on top of that, weíve been appalled that he would actually kill an innocent man if the condemned one didnít show up in time. We are prepared to rise up against him."

"No, no," Phintias remonstrated. "Please give me a chance to talk to Dionysius, first. Perhaps I can make him see reason. A lot of good people could get hurt if you fight."

"All right," the man promised. "Iím one of the leaders of the revolt. We will wait to see what success you have. But if Dionysius continues to unjustly jail people, we will revolt no matter what happens here today."

"Weíre on our way to the palace now," Phintias informed him. He turned to Xena. "Are you ready?"

"Lead on," the Warrior Princess directed.

 

Chapter 9

The palace was one of the grandest buildings Gabrielle had ever seen. They passed through a huge grass-lined colonnade at the end of which servants waited to tend to their horses. Xena dismounted and handed Argoís reins to a young man. She moved to Phintiasí horse and lifted Gabrielle down from behind him.

Phintias swung his leg across his mount and slipped down. The same young man took the reins of Phintiasí horse and moved away.

"Tell Dionysius that Phintias is here to redeem the philosopher, Damon," Phintias said to another servant. The young man disappeared into the vast building and returned shortly. "Follow me, sir, I will take you to our ruler." Phintias and the two women trailed after him.

They were led into a huge room where Dionysius was ensconced with several of his courtiers. Damon was being held off to one side of the room, in preparation for his imminent execution. When he spied Phintias, his whole expression became one of joy, but this was followed in short order by one of regret. When Xena saw his reaction, she recognized that this must be Damon. Phintias longed to go to him, but, as the returning prisoner, he first had to pay homage to Dionysius. He approached the ruler with deference and bowed. "Hail, Dionysius. I, Phintias, have returned as promised. And I have brought with me two visitors from Greece, Xena, the Warrior Princess, and Gabrielle, a renowned bard."

When Dionysius heard Xenaís name his face paled. "I have heard of the mighty Warrior Princess and her title, Destroyer of Nations. Are you here with your army, Xena?"

"No, Dionysius, I come in peace. If there is a war here, it wonít be because of me, but rather because of you," the warrior pulled herself up into her most imposing stance, her cobalt-blue eyes sending a barely veiled threat. "Your people are prepared to revolt against you because of your unjust jailing and executing of the very ones who brought you to power, the common people."

"How can you know this?" Dionysius demanded, frowning.

"We have just spoken to one of the leaders of the revolt," Phintias claimed. "He said that your threat to execute Damon, even though he was innocent of any wrongdoing, was one too many twigs in a bundle of injustices."

"But, you are here now. Damon wonít be executed, you will be," Dionysius said.

"NO!" Damon broke loose from the man who was holding him. He ran to Phintias and threw his arms around him in a bear hug. "I wonít let you kill Phintias. If he is guilty, then so am I. Kill me as you planned and let him go free."

Phintias returned the hug of his friend then stepped back, holding his shoulders. Tears welled in the eyes of both friends. "No, Dionysius, I am the one who was condemned. I am the one to be executed."

"I wonít allow it, Phintias. Your death, to me, would be the same as my death. My dear friend, I canít imagine life without you beside me," Damon agonized. "Please, Dionysius, take me."

"Never, Damon," Phintias began, "you...

"WAIT!" Xenaís commanding growl brought dead silence and a snapping of every head toward her piercing glare.

She stepped to within two feet of Dionysiusí raised dais, putting him at eye level with her, and fixed him with the floodlight brilliance of her electric eyes. "May I speak?" more a demand than a request. The ruler dipped his head in permission.

Xena stood for a moment gazing into Dionysiusí rapt eyes. "I have traveled with Phintias, from the Amazon Nation in Greece, to your city. I will vouch for his honesty; and I do not believe he is guilty of spying."

The ex-warlordís whole demeanor softened perceptibly. "Youíre an intelligent man," she caressed Dionysius with her enticing voice. "Surely you can see that executing either one of these innocent men could trigger the uprising that has been threatened. An uprising that will remove you from power and may even lead to YOUR execution." Dionysius frowned at the implications of what she was saying.

The beautiful Warrior Princess continued, stroking the rulerís ego with her alluring tones, "On the other hand, if you pardon Phintias... and let it be known that it was because you were touched by the remarkable friendship of these two comrades... you save face and make yourself look good again to your people." The ruler started to nod slowly as he began to see the worth of what Xena was suggesting.

"And..." the gorgeous blue eyes and sweet smile recaptured the rulerís complete attention, "if you go one step further... and pardon those in your jails who were unjustly put there... you will be a HERO to your people again... Instead of an uprising, you will have a celebration."

Dionysius sat turning all this over in his mind for a full minute of silence. Then her rose and stepped down directly in front of the extraordinary woman, face to face. "Xena," he smiled, "you missed your calling. You should have been a diplomat." Then he shocked everyone there, and especially Xena, by seizing her shoulders, kissing her full on the lips and pulling her into a big hug. As his mouth came alongside her ear, he whispered, "You owed me that, my dear, for allowing you to seduce me into this." Dionysius and Xena were both smiling broadly as he pulled back and stepped up to his throne.

"I choose to do what Xena has suggested. I hereby decree that Phintias is pardoned and all prisoners, except those who have committed major crimes, shall be set free. Tomorrow we will have a great banquet here and the whole town will be given food and drink to join in the celebration. And Xena will sit with me at the banquet," he directed, with a bow in her direction. With a raised eyebrow, and quirked smile, the Warrior Princess nodded acquiescence.

Applause rang out through the huge room.

Damon and Phintias hugged each other again, then Phintias turned to Xena. "May I give you a thank you kiss, also," he smiled inquiringly. "Hey, join the crowd," laughed the warrior and she allowed the friendly philosopher a hug and a kiss.

"My heart-felt gratitude, Xena," murmured the philosopher, "for saving my life and the life of my friend. I will always be in your debt. I..."

The Warrior Princessí eyes glinted and she put a bronzed hand on Phintiasí lips. "You donít owe me anything, Phintias," her husky voice assured him. "Now, how about introducing us to your friend."

After the introductions, the four friends left the palace and made their way to Phintiasí home. The two women were shown to their rooms where they had an opportunity to bathe before eating. Phintias had one of the servant women leave a choice of several comfortable silk shifts in their rooms to change into after washing.

"Xena, look at this pattern," Gabrielle enthused as she picked up a shift splashed with a variety of colors.

"That oneís definitely for you, Gabrielle," the warrior smirked. "Itís a perfect match for your flower garden hair."

By now, the smaller woman was tired and a little out of sorts. "Look, Xena, so far, youíve had all the fun on this trip. You solved Phintiasí puzzle, you took care of all the fights, you persuaded Dionysius to free Damon AND Phintias, and you got to kiss two good-looking men," the bard itemized. "I feel totally unneeded. At least let me look and smell good without giving me a hard time about it."

To Xenaís surprise, Gabrielle was obviously upset. The bronzed warrior walked over to her friend and wrapped her long arms around her. "Gabrielle, you know itís my fault you couldnít do any fighting. With that battered body and cracked ribs, your job was to heal. But remember, as long as I am on this earth, you will never be unneeded. I couldnít accomplish all these things--solving puzzles, winning fights, freeing Damon and Phintias--if you werenít here to anchor me. A few weeks ago we went through a terrible time. But we got through it together. If you hadnít been there to help me out of the depths, I would never have made it. *I* need youóalways. And forever. Right?"

The mist-green eyes looked up into the intense blue ones and the bard nodded. "Forever," she whispered, then smiled through a sniffle as the warrior rejoined with her usual growl, "And donít you forget it!"

As they parted, Xena said with a wry grin, "And the next time, YOU can kiss the good-looking guys! Thatís a promise."

"And donít you forget it," Gabrielle growled in imitation of the warrior and then, laughing, gave her friend another quick hug.

"Xena, I kinda thought there was a little spark there when Phintias kissed you," the golden-haired woman teased.

"Yeah, Gabrielle," the warrior admitted, "but we come from totally different worlds and we both know thereís no future for us together. So, the kiss was nice, and a little exciting, but thatís the end of it." The dark-haired woman scowled, "And that IS the end of it, right?"

"OK, OK," the bard conceded. She could tell that Xena was getting a little testy. I guess sheís tired, too. Itís been a tough day. "Which shift do you want, Xena?" the bard held up a lustrous blue one and a pastel lavender one. Xena pointed to the lavender shift.

The two women washed and changed. "I have to admit, these loose clothes are more comfortable," Gabrielle smiled.

A servant appeared at the doorway to invite them to join the gentlemen in the lounge for a small repast.

In the course of the eveningís conversation, shortly before retiring, Xena asked a question she had been wondering about for some time. "Phintias, when we were at your parentsí home, we used the bathing pool. Not only was the water warm, but it was in continual motion. Soap suds moved out of the pool almost as fast as we produced them. Where did the water come from and how was it heated?"

"That is unique, isnít it?" Phintias enthused. "Even I havenít come across anything like it anywhere else except where there are natural hot springs. My father purposely had the house built just above the foot of a mountain that contained the mouth of a large creek. He had the builder put in a huge room suited to building and maintaining fires. Then he had some of the creek water diverted through channeling into the bottom of a large, tipped cistern in the "fire" room.

"The cistern was placed over a constant fire that heated the water. The warm water flowed out of the tipped top of the cistern and was channeled into the pool that was built in the room below. A large hole to receive the soiled water was dug in the ground near the pool. That water filters through the earth and is reclaimed at the very bottom of the mountain and is used to irrigate the lower olive groves. Because the creek always flows, the water is always in motion."

"Ingenious," marveled the dark-haired woman. "And they hung our clothes in there to dry, right?"

"Yes, that is an extra luxury for the household servants. They never have to go outside in bad weather to hang clothes," Phintias elaborated.

"Well that solves that mystery. The next mystery is what to wear to the banquet tomorrow," reminded Gabrielle. "I apologize for presuming on your hospitality, Phintias, but do you think you could lend us some dinars to purchase something suitable to wear?"

Xena looked askance at her friend. "Donít look at me like that, Xena. We canít go in our everyday clothes. Our warrior costumes are not banquet material," the bard scolded.

Phintias laughed at Xenaís frown. "Gabrielleís right, Xena. Iíll be happy to provide the gowns for you. Dionysius will expect something a little fancier than your usual costume. Especially for the Warrior Princess who is sitting with him."

Xena scowled irritably, "Did you have to remind me? I donít enjoy being on display."

"Well if youíre going to go around kissing rulers, you WILL be on display, you know," Phintias teased. Xena curled her lip and snorted and Phintias and Damon laughed out loud. Xenaís eyes narrowed.

Gods, thought Gabrielle, amazed, they donít even have the good sense to be afraid of making fun of her. Hope the Warrior Princess makes allowances for their lack of respect and doesnít knock them across the room. Philosophers!

"Uh... Xena," the bard intervened quickly. "I think maybe itís time to retire, now. Weíve all had a tiring day."

All agreed that was a good suggestion, said their goodnights and left for their individual rooms.

**************************

The next day, after an early lunch, the women went into town. There was bustling activity as the people prepared for the celebration Dionysius had promised them. He was providing free food and drink, and the townspeople were arranging their own entertainment.

The two friends made a search of the shops and purchased their gowns for the banquet. Gabrielleís was a soft yellow and she insisted that Xena get one that was blue and made of a material that changed tint as the wearer moved. "Itís perfect, Xena. Your eyes are always changing color from light to medium to dark blue and now your gown will, too!" the bard observed.

"Right," the impatient warrior observed dryly. "Now that we have our gowns, letís get back. I want to take Argo out into the countryside for a good run before she has to go back on that ship. Iíve told Phintias that we plan to leave tomorrow. This morning, he made arrangements for our passage with the shipís captain."

The two friends returned to Phintiasí home with their packages. Xena changed into her leathers and armor and took Argo out for an extended run while Gabrielle hung their gowns up and then rested.

The Warrior Princess was in her glory. She took Argo into some newly turned fields for a warm-up canter then opened her up into a full gallop. The golden horse and rider flew as one being into the wind. Past the fields into the forest they soared with the warriorís heart singing as the wind whipped her loosened hair across her face. For one short moment in time, Xena could let down the defenses she had to constantly maintain for self-preservation. She was free. The beloved horse and her majestic rider were both exhilarated.

She slowed her warhorse to a stop in a small glade near a stream. While Argo drank from the brook and chewed on the tasty grass, Xena enjoyed the serenity of her surroundings. Unfortunately, the serenity didnít last. She suddenly felt nauseous and her skin got creepy.

"What a way to ruin a lovely day. Show yourself, Ares," she muttered. "I know youíre here." With a flash of light the God of War appeared.

"Well, Xena, I guess youíre happy now," the god sneered. "Youíve spoiled all my plans for a civil war in Syracuse. I spent months preparing the scene," he complained, "and you upset the whole scheme in fifteen minutes. You convince Dionysius to settle for... PEACE." He spit the word out as though it were rotten.

"Stop your whining, Ares," Xena snorted. "I have more right to complain than you have. First, you try to get me to kill my mother, and then you try to get me to kill Gabrielle. Maybe, if you left me alone, Iíd leave you alone. Did you ever consider that?"

"Fat chance of that," the God of War countered. "That nicey-nice friend of yours wouldnít let you ignore me and you know it."

"Youíre probably right," Xena admitted. "Her heart is always in the right place. And sheís teaching me how to get there."

"Why do you think I wish you were rid of her?" Ares confessed. The God of Warís voice became charged with passion, "I want you back, Xena. You were special to me and I want that feeling again. I watched you riding Argo just now. You looked as you used to look when leading your troops into battle. That same freedom of spirit. You didnít care whether you lived or died... you werenít afraid of anything. You were... relentless. Come back to me," his sensuous lips pleaded. "I can give you the world. You know you still have some feelings for me."

The Warrior Princess steeled herself to ignore his entreaties. That dark side of me does still have feelings for him, but I would never admit that to him. "Go away Ares, give it up. I can be just as relentless in denial. I will NEVER come back to you. I like my life now and I like myself better for it."

"What if I do get rid of the bard?" Ares threatened. "How great would your life be then?"

Xena sneered darkly at the God of War. "If you thought you could get me back by killing Gabrielle, you would have done it a long time ago. You know that wouldnít work. I would hate you too much to ever turn to you." She stuck her face right into Aresí face. "And you better keep remembering that," she hissed.

She is the boldest, most aggravating woman I know, Ares scowled in frustration. And the most desirable.

"Some day, some way... You WILL return," the God of War disappeared in his usual flash of light.

Some of the brightness had been stolen from the day. Why wonít he leave me alone? Xena lamented to herself. The warrior climbed on Argoís back and returned to the stable at an easy gallop, walking Argo for the last mile.

She arrived back at the stable, brushed Argo down and left the rest of her care in the capable hands of the stable boy. It was time to clean up for the banquet. And try to get rid of this nasty mood. Why do I let him affect me like this? the dark-haired woman berated herself.

As soon as Xena entered their rooms, Gabrielle sensed a change in her. "Whatís wrong, Xena?" she asked, frowning. "Did something happen out there?"

"Nothing that you need to worry about," the warrior snapped and flopped down in a chair.

Gabrielle flinched as if she had been slapped and Xena was immediately contrite. She rubbed a long hand across her face and stared into space. "Gabrielle... Iím sorry... I didnít mean to snap at you like that. Yes, something happened out there. Ares showed up... but I donít want to talk about it. I donít want you to know that heís still threatening you... and me.

"Xena, sometimes itís better to talk about something thatís bothering you," the bard pressured persuasively.

Xena seemed to be dragging her words out of her mouth. "Gabrielle... you know we are two very different personalities.... You seem to want to talk out... everything that bothers you.... But I donít... I sorta have a secret door... locked away in the darkest, coldest part of my heart... where I put every hateful, nasty thing... that has happened so far in my life."

The bronze face was very still, with only a slight tremor of the chiseled lips. The warriorís fingers began unconsciously tying and untying a leather knot on her body armor. She was silent for so long, Gabrielle thought her friend was finished with her revelations. The bard quietly went about laying their gowns out on one of the beds, half afraid to break the silence.

Xena was obviously struggling with some deep emotions. After a long time had passed, the warrior spoke again. "When something awful happens... I take a look at it, to see if I can fix it or change it... If I canít, then I open that door, toss the awful thing inside... and slam the door shut. I donít want to see it again, donít want to dredge it up again, and most of all... donít want to talk about it.

"Back in the cave, when we were both trying so hard to reconnect with each other, I pulled out everything that concerned our relationship... I did this because I knew that YOU needed to hear and examine them. It was very, very hard for me to do that... but I did it for us. Examining them didnít help me; it helped you. But by helping you... I helped myself.

"There are a lot of terrible things that have happened in my life that have no connection with you... and it wouldnít help you OR me to talk about them... I know you believe hurtful problems would be better if exposed to the light of day, even scrutinized. And maybe that works for you. Thatís fine... But it doesnít work for me... Every time I re-examine or try to talk about something terrible from my past, I hurt all over again, even worse than the first time. If you can understand... and accept... that this is a part of me thatís very different from any part of you... maybe you wonít be so upset when I wonít let you open that door." The somber woman finally turned her cerulean eyes on her friend, beseechingly. "OK?"

"I donít really understand, Xena, how anyone can solve a problem by burying it. But, youíre right, we ARE very different personalities and Iíll accept that how I handle difficulties isnít the same way you handle them. I donít understand it, but I will try to respect it. If I knock too hard on your secret door, just let me know... and Iíll try to back off." The bard walked over to the disturbed Warrior Princess and laid her hand on her friendís hands to still the restlessly tying fingers.

"This thing with me and Ares..." Xena hesitated.

"Yes," Gabrielle prompted.

"You need to back off," the warrior stated softly.

"All right, Xena, I will... for now," Gabrielle gave a tiny worried smile. She laid her palm on a bronzed cheek. Leaning down she kissed the dark head, then dropped her hand and raised back up. "You know, Iíve been wanting to do that for the longest time, but I canít usually reach the top of your head," she grinned, in an attempt to lighten the warriorís mood. "And, by the way, I can still smell the berries!"

Relieved that her best friend was not seriously upset by her words, Xena worked at shaking off her foul frame of mind and forced a grin in return. "Well, now that your ribs are getting better, you can ride behind me to the docks tomorrow," she drawled, " and youíll get another chance to smell the berries. And MY nose will get a rest from your flower garden." The two friends smiled gently at each other in unison.

"Now," Gabrielle took a deep breath, "letís get ready for the banquet."

 

Chapter 10

Phintias had arranged for a carriage to take the four friends to the banquet hall. Just as they were preparing to enter the carriage, a messenger arrived with a note from Dionysius to Xena. Xena broke the wax seal and opened the parchment. She looked up, with raised eyebrows, at the others. "He wants me to bring my sword. Says he has a special use for it." She turned to one of the ever-present servants. "Will you bring it, please. Itís hanging on the clothes rack in my room." The sword was brought and Phintias took charge of it.

"Xena, Gabrielle, you ladies look absolutely stunning," Phintias complimented them. Damon added his agreement. Gabrielle slanted a mischievous look at her friend, half expecting her to come out with her, "Iím no lady" line. Xena just quirked an eyebrow, gave a little shrug and looked back at her with a totally innocent smile on her face. The Warrior Princess swung her head back to Phintias and Damon, smiled sweetly and thanked them for their gallant words.

When they arrived at the reception room adjacent to the banquet hall and were announced, Dionysius himself came to greet them. He bowed to the women and complimented them on their beauty. "Xena, did you bring your sword," he questioned eagerly.

"Here it is, Dionysius," Phintias answered and handed him the unique weapon.

"What do you want it for?" Gabrielle inquired, knowing Xena would not ask.

"One of my courtiers, a sometimes pompous man named Damocles, has constantly belittled the difficulties of being a ruler. When I try to explain to him just how precarious the power and rank of a ruler can be, he disparages my every attempt to convince him.

"So, I thought I would teach him a little lesson. He is here at the banquet and will be seated in a certain chair. I intend to hang a sword, held only by a hair, over his head. The sword will represent the various dangers that a ruler has always hanging over HIS head. Weíll see if he is able to eat his dinner with no loss of appetite," Dionysius rubbed his hands together with glee.

"I thought it would be even more appropriate to hang the sword used by an actual warlord since they cause problems for so many leaders. Hence, my request for YOUR sword, Xena, by your leave," the ruler inclined his head toward the dark-haired woman.

"I kinda like the idea," smiled the ex-warlord. "Here, you might as well use my hair, too," she offered. She reached to the crown of her head and pulled out a single long hair.

Dionysius was delighted. He called over the servant who was supposed to place the sword and handed the weapon and hair to him. The servant went off to set the sword in place as instructed.

Dionysius folded Xenaís arm into his and took her off to introduce her to some of his friends, including Damocles. Damon, Phintias and Gabrielle mingled until dinner was announced. Each person was called by name to enter the hall and be seated.

Because Syracuse was a busy and wealthy port, many exotic viands were available. And plenty of drinks. Different wines were obtainable from huge, spouted tureens placed every five feet along the huge banquet table. Gabrielle was suitably impressed. She was also impressed when she and Phintias and Damon were led to seats at the head table with Dionysius and Xena. In fact, to her pleasant surprise, she was seated next to the warrior, who was sitting beside the ruler.

The room became quiet as Dionysius rose to speak. "My friends, first of all, I wish to admit to a small prank I have played on a friend of the court. Damocles," he called, "look at the ceiling above your head. What you see suspended there is the sword of Xena, the Warrior Princess." A murmur went around the room.

"Yes, this beautiful woman seated next to me is the warlord, Xena." He nodded in the warriorís direction. "And I will have more to tell you about her in a few moments."

"You remember, Damocles, the discussions we have had on leadership. Whenever I tried to explain how every leader always had to worry that at any moment his power and authority could be torn from him, that he had a symbolic sword constantly hanging over his head, you laughed and disparaged the notion. Well, Damocles, now you have a real sword hanging over your head, and it is held only by a hair. This will give you just a taste of every rulerís predicament. Enjoy your dinner, if you can," he finished. The crowd laughed and clapped.

"And now, I want you to meet the four people I am sure all of you have heard about by this time. Next to me, as I said, is Xena, Warrior Princess. To her right is her best friend, Gabrielle, the bard. Next to that lovely lady is Phintias, the philosopher, who was wrongly accused of spying and almost executed. To his right is his very good friend, Damon, also a philosopher, who pledged his life in place of Phintias." The ruler nodded and smiled to each of them.

"I have been so impressed with the outstanding friendship shown by Damon for Phintias, and Phintias for Damon, each of whom was willing to die for the other, that I have pardoned Phintias, thus canceling his execution.

"I have ordered all prisoners not accused of major crimes to be freed. And, in honor of this beautiful friendship, I have had two rings fashioned from gold with the letters P and D carved on them, entwined with the words, ĎFriends Forever.í" A servant brought the two rings in on a satin pillow. The two men rose and Dionysius placed a ring on each manís finger.

The two men were beaming and Xena and Gabrielle were smiling broadly. A round of applause started, but Dionysius held up his hand for silence. "I asked Phintias, yesterday, if there was something I could do for him, to make up for being unjustly accused and almost hanged. He answered that the people who were responsible for his getting here in time to avert terrible tragedy were the two ladies seated here beside me.

"He said that they also were joined in a close and loving friendship that rivaled his and Damonís. Phintias asked if I could somehow honor them. So, I had two similar rings fashioned for these two dear friends. Theirs have the letters X and G engraved on them, entwined together with the words ĎFriends Forever.í" Another servant brought these two rings in on a satin pillow, Xena and Gabrielle rose and Dionysius placed the rings on the fingers of the stunned women. Xena and Gabrielle turned and gave each other a big hug. Then they hugged Damon and Phintias.

Now a huge round of applause greeted all four friends. At a signal from Dionysius, the four rose again and bowed, first to the ruler and then to the crowd.

Dionysius was gratified that his friendship token had been so well received by the crowd. Xena was right, I can be a hero all over again, he smiled to himself. Thank the gods she showed up with Phintias in time to save me from a horrible mistake. What a woman!

"Now, letís eat!" he shouted, to another round of applause.

The banquet was a huge success. Everyone, except Damocles, thoroughly enjoyed it. Dionysius did take pity on the courtier. About halfway through the dinner, he had the sword removed and returned to Xena.

Up to then, Damocles had not eaten one bite. He could not take his eyes off the weapon hanging over him. It was a hard lesson, but Dionysius knew Damocles would never forget it.

The townspeople made merry at their celebration, also. Men, women and children ate and drank their fill from tables of food and vats of mead set up in the town square. They played games and danced in the streets, and at the end of the evening, cleaned up and went home, satiated and happy. Dionysius, by following Xenaís suggestions for reform, had reinstated their faith in him as their leader.

The four friends returned home by carriage, discussing the success of the banquet and the beautiful rings Dionysius had presented to them. Shortly after they arrived home, the women excused themselves for the evening and went to their rooms. Xena and Gabrielle would be leaving in the morning to sail back to Greece, so they wanted to retire early.

Once the women had changed into their sleeping shifts, Gabrielle held out her hand to admire (for the umpteenth time) her new ring. "I think it is so wonderful to have a ring that is dedicated to our friendship.

Donít you, Xena?"

The Warrior Princess put both hands on the smaller womanís shoulders and gazed deeply into her happy green eyes with magnificent blue ones. Her impassioned voice that could move armies, or hearts, spoke with intense feeling, "Itís nice to have the ring, yes. But I donít need a ring to tell me how much we mean to each other. Your heart is beating right next to mine, every moment. Thatís how I know."

Tears welled up in Gabrielleís eyes and she moved into the warriorís arms, where she always felt safe and protected. She can be so eloquent, sometimes. She wrapped her own arms around Xenaís waist and laid her head on her chest. "I love you, Xena."

"I love you, too, Gabrielle... forever," came the longed-for reply. This trip has been good for both of us, the dark-haired woman contemplated, gratefully. The strong friendship between Damon and Phintias mirrors our own. That will help us as we continue to renew our faith in each other and in our future together.

***************************

The next morning dawned clear and bright at the docks, as the two travelers made their goodbyes and were profusely thanked by both men for their invaluable assistance.

"I have enjoyed your company, Phintias, and I wish you and Damon all good things. Thank you for everything." Xena kissed the philosopher goodbye and shook hands with his friend, Damon.

"If we can ever do anything for you and Gabrielle, Xena, anything at all, just send word to us and it is yours. And, please, come again to Syracuse; you are always welcome in my home," Phintias assured them both.

 

Gabrielle kissed each man on the cheek, hugged them and said goodbye.

The two friends turned and walked up the gangplank, accompanied by the golden warhorse. They were returning home, to whatever adventures awaited them.


The End.


Authorís Note: Many people are familiar with this pair of gentlemen friends as Damon and Pythias. One encyclopedia makes reference to the fact that Pythias is more correctly Phintias, so I used that name to, hopefully, conceal the plot for awhile. In the stage play, "Damon and Pythias," by Richard Edwards, originally performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, Pythias is the one who stays as hostage for Damon, but two encyclopedias have it the other way around. Take your pick. Nothing is absolute in the Xenaverse!

Sorry Gabrielle didnít have more action Ė she doesnít heal as quickly as the magical Warrior Princess!

Battle on, Xena!

I hope you enjoyed the story. Comments are welcome!

PruferBlue@aol.com


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