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Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence Ė Violence - yes, there will be violence of a moderately graphic nature in this story. Xena is easily bored, and when she gets bored, she likes to hit people. It's just one of those things.

Subtext - As in all my stories, this one is based on the premise of two people who are very much in love with each other. They happen to both be women. There is no graphically depicted action here.. but if the thought of this gives you a problem, find a different story to read. There are lots of very good general fiction Xena stories that can be found everywhere.

If you read the above, and then persist in reading the story, which won't be a short one, cause they never are, and then you're STILL offended by love... send me your address, and I'll send you some kumquats. It'll be perfect for you, trust me.

ON the other hand, if you kinda like the stuff, send me your address, and I'll pass along some of my favorite snack foods, white raisins, dipped in fresh milk chocolate.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:

mailto:merwolf@worldnet.att.net


Leap of Faith - Part 2

By Melissa Good

Ephiny sat back against the wall, with her legs extended, slowing chewing on the roll she'd been given. It wasn't, all considering, too bad a roll, it had several different grains, and had been freshly baked. But she barely tasted it, only eating it because she knew going hungry was just stupid when you didn't have to.

She drew a knee up, and leaned her arm against it, gazing around her in quiet despair. I'm not getting out of this anytime soon. She told herself. At least, not before another session with the blond boar. She chewed the crust of the roll, and tried to decide how to handle that. She had two choices really.. either resist, and probably get a broken jaw or worse, or...

Ephiny's stomach turned. She was a grown woman, and a seasoned warrior, and she knew you sometimes had to do things that you didn't particularly like..she wasn't an inexperienced kid. But that woman... Ephiny sighed. Scared her, in a way she'd seldom experienced. There was an immorality about the brigand's leader, a cruelty that was more than she felt ready to deal with right at the moment.

"Psst... Ephiny?" The voice came floating out of the darkness near her. She turned and peered into the entrance to the further cell.

"Lennat?" She leaned over onto her side, and blinked, trying to focus on his face. "Are you all right?"

He came closer, and suddenly their eyes made contact. "Yes.. are you?"

Ephiny nodded. "Yeah.. for now." She rested her head against the bars and continued chewing her roll. "How long have you been here?"

Lennat sighed. "Two days." He chewed his lip. "They sent a demand on home... but I don't think it's any good. We had most of the village's dinars with us.. buying supplies for the cold season." He paused. "I don't know what they'll do with us if... that woman.. she's a demon."

"Mm." Ephiny agreed, slumping against the wall. "Lemme tell you, I can think of one person I wish was here." She tore her roll in pieces and handed one half to him. "Take it.."

The blond man took the piece and started munching it. "Thanks... they haven't fed us yet." He paused, and gave her an uneasy but sympathetic look. "Guess she likes you." He swallowed. "The person you're talking about tall, dark, and into lots of leather?"

The regent smiled. "Yeah..." She sighed, and rubbed a still sore wrist. "You know her, huh?"

Lennat stopped chewing, and sighed. "She changed my life."

Ephiny studied him seriously. "She's got a habit of doing that." She commented. "What did she do?"

"Well... " Lennat shifted a little. His cell was a half level below the Amazon's, and the difference put his head on a level with the seated Amazon's waist. "Gabrielle's father called her home, oh.. gods, almost a year ago, I guess." He nibbled on the roll. "He.. wanted to marry her off to a merchant.."

Ephiny's eyebrows shot up. "That's nerve."

Lennat blinked at her. "He'd the right.. or he thought he did..anyways." He paused, considering. "Deal was, if Bree went with this guy, he'd take Lila off Herodotus' hands in the bargain."

"Bree?" The Amazon queried. "I don't think I recall her being called that."

"Umph.. no." Lennat pursed his lips. "She doesn't like it.. but it's a habit of ours." He sighed. "Anyway...that was the deal.. and Lila was praying that Br.. Gabrielle would go along with it so she could get out of that house."

Ephiny turned fully to face him, and sat cross-legged, resting her elbows on her knees and rubbing her temples. "Wait." She put a hand out. "Why was Lila so desperate to leave?"

The blond man stared at her. "Same reason Gabrielle was... tired of their da beating on them." He hesitated, seeing the utterly shocked look on her face. "Oh. You didn't know." He continued in a small voice. "I'm... she.. she always describes you as a great friend of hers.. I thought..."

Damn. Ephiny felt pieces of the puzzle that was their Queen fall into place. "No.. I never... she's a very private person." The regent told him, with a tinge of regret in her tone. "She's.. more likely to find out what's wrong with you, than tell you what's wrong with her." And now, several cryptic comments from Menelda began to make sense. The bard must have broken down and spilled some of that to the healer during their last visit.

Lennat considered that. "You know, you're right." He smiled at her. "Anyway.. she did show up.. but Xena came with her, and that kind of messed things up for Herodotus."

"Eeeeeyah... she has a tendency to do that, too." Ephiny admitted. "No way was she gonna let Gabrielle get married off to some merchant, though."

"No." He sighed. "She... I don't know.. bought off, or talked to.. or .. " He shrugged a little. "Pounded on enough people so that the next thing I knew, I was being apprenticed, and had the standing to ask for Lila's hand." A soft breath. "Gabrielle... she.. I guess they made peace, because they talk now, and her family's kind of accepted Xena.. I think more because they knew if they didn't, they'd lose out on being part of her life." He chewed his lip. "Is she really the Queen of the Amazons?"

Ephiny nodded slowly. "She really is."

A banging interrupted them, and then the tall, burly guard was at the door. "Pota... Potacraps.. whatever you idiots are.. listen up."

"Guess that's us." Lennat snorted softly.

"You're in luck... your little hometown is gonna pay your ransom.. so we'll be in ta feed ya shortly." He laughed. "Now that ye're worth somethin.. you'll be here five days, then out you go..so be good little boys, all right?" He rattled the door lock, and pulled it back, letting in six men. Four of them spread out and guarded the prisoners, with cocked crossbows. The other two bore a black kettle swinging on a heavy stick. They distributed bowls to the men now sticking their hands through the bars, and dumped a portion in each one, then filled the last bowl and handed it to Ephiny.

She was somewhat surprised, as the bowl's contents emitted a delicious scent that started her mouth watering. This place doesn't make sense. Her mind puzzled. She accepted the bread the men were now handing out, and watched them, with a disturbed scowl, as they left, swinging the door shut behind them. "I don't get it." She glanced at Lennat, who hadn't wasted any time in starting to eat the stew with his fingers.

He looked up. "We're worth something to them.. did you hear? It's all a scam, a deal.. they get us, they ransom us.. in order for that to work, you have to send people back in good shape.. otherwise... what's the point?" He swallowed a big mouthful. "Don't understand that, though... Potadeia doesn't have that money."

"Maybe they found it." Ephiny mused, as she delicately fished a piece of meat from the bowl and chewed it. It was, she realized, as good as it smelled, and she shook her head. "Might as well get this down now.. I think I'm the after dinner entertainment." She commented, putting on a brazen front.

Lennat stopped eating, and stared at her. "Oh.. Ephiny... "

She gave him a shrug. "I'll be all right." She bit a piece of carrot in half. "We Amazons are pretty tough.. she won't have come up with anything I haven't seen." Yeah.. her mind sighed. You keep telling yourself that, featherhead. Time to do the Xena special, I'm too tough for my leathers number, is it? "Donít you worry about me."

Eyes the color of sea fog regarded her. "You sound like Xena."

Ephiny's lips twitched. "Wish I had that roundhouse punch of hers." She put herself to work finishing the stew, which sat heavily in her stomach.

"I saw her breaking wall planks with that in Potadeia" Lennat remarked. "It was scary."

A creak of leather, and the scuff of boots against the stone passageway. "All right." The guards bored voice rang out. "You're wanted." He pointed at Ephiny, and the door swung open again.

"Good luck." Lennat whispered, clasping her hand briefly.

"Take care of yourself, Lennat." The Amazon muttered in reply. "If you get outta here...tell Gabrielle it was an honor and a pleasure, all right?" She stood as the guard grabbed her lead, and followed docilely, as they turned out of the cells, and headed back up the long, silent hallway.


"Well." Gabrielle sat down gingerly on what was, until three years ago, her bed. "That went.. um.. better than I expected." Xena was slouched in the other bed, staring peacefully at the ceiling. "Right?"

"Oh.. yeah.. " The warrior drawled, rubbing her eyes. "And you just had to tell me about your father right before dinner, didn't you?" Xena gave her a pathetic look. "Was that fair? Gabrielle, he was staring at me the whole night."

The bard got up, and crossed to the other bed, settling down at her partner's side and patting her belly. "No he wasn't.. you're imagining it.. besides.. good pig's ears, Xena... guys always stare at you...and you know it."

"Guys... " Xena growled. "Are not your father." She gave the wall an evil look.

"Yeah.. well, at least they look at you." Gabrielle sighed softly. "They never look twice at me."

That snapped Xena out of her funk like magic. "Gabrielle." She let her voice drop to it's deepest register, the one she knew the bard loved to hear. "They don't stare at you because.. " She leaned over and delicately kissed the bard's lips. "They know they'll lose their eyeballs if they do." She grinned, and make a flicking gesture with her hand. "Plink.. plunk.. bye bye eyes."

The bard snorted and that dissolved into a giggle. "Oh Xena.. you're so romantic sometimes." She teased gently. "I just always figured I was outclassed."

The warrior's expression went serious. "Not at all.. Gabrielle...people look at me because I'm just.. so different." She traced the bard's jawline with an idle fingertip. "But you... " Xena shook her head a little bit. "You've got nothing to worry about, my bard."

"Glad you think so." Gabrielle replied, with a slight blush. "And people don't just look at you because you're different, Xena.. you're beautiful." She leaned her head to one side and gazed at her partner. "You have.. the most amazing eyes...did you know that?" She sighed dreamily. "I mean.. I used to have to think up excuses to go say something to you so I could just look at them."

Xena gave her a rakish grin. "Yeeeaahhh.... " She rubbed her ear. "I used to make bets with myself as to what subject our nightly conversations were going to be on." She chuckled. "Towards the end there, they got sorta disjointed."

Gabrielle dropped her eyes to her hands, and smiled gently. "Yeah..." A sudden memory of the heady, almost overwhelming feeling of falling in love overtook her. "That was a really magical time for me."

The warrior took her hand. "Me too." She admitted quietly.

The bard looked at her. "It still is." She continued, simply.

Xena just nodded, and they listened to the frogs outside for a little, and the whirr of an owl's wing's as it headed on it's nightly hunt.

Finally Gabrielle exhaled, and decided to change the subject. "I can't believe he got you to tell that sailor story again.. gods.. he loves that.. and the baby was so good tonight.. I think Lila enjoyed the company too."

Xena produced a faintly embarrassed grin. "It wasn't too salty, was it? I saw your mother cringe a few times." She fiddled idly with the tie on the bard's halter, watching the gentle flare of Gabrielle's nostrils as her breath caught. "And sure.. the baby was great.. once you dropped him on top of me."

Gabrielle snuggled closer, and put her head down on Xena's shoulder. "You've just got a soothing effect on people, what can I tell you, love."

The warrior snorted. "I can give you a whooollllee list of names of people who would beg to differ, my bard." She twirled a lock of Gabrielle's hair in her fingers. "In fact... I can't think of anyone outside you who would agree."

"And Ares." The bard commented, as the wolf let out a deep sigh, his muzzle cradled on her partner's leg.

"Doesn't count." Xena countered.

"And that baby." Gabrielle went on.

"Still doesnít' count.. he's too young to know what's going on." Came the answer.

"Uh uh..... " A finger wagged in her face. "And how many people do you let sleep on top of you?"

Silence.

"I see.. so that's... let me see.. one HUNDRED percent of the people who you let sleep all over you who would agree with me."

"Gabrielle."

"Ah ah ah... " A finger poked her chest. "You can't deny it."

Xena sighed, and changed the subject, conceding the point. "So.. this was your room, huh?" She looked around. "Didn't get to see much of it last time." The room was basically square, and had two roughly woven cabinets in it, along with the two pallets, and the table and chairs. The room was... drab.. the warrior realized. Totally unlike their cabin, which was filled with strong colors. "Kinda dull."

Gabrielle nodded against her chest. "That's how I felt here." She pointed with one hand. "I had a little table there.. I used to keep a few trinkets.. I had a small glass fish that would catch the candlelight.. I'd lay there watching it.. making believe it was coming to life." She shifted, and took a tighter hold. "I would imagine he'd bring magic water with him.. and we'd just float away from here."

Xena closed her eyes and just listened, sparing a long, aching moment for her soulmate's wistful dreams.

"And then.. sometimes... " The bard went on softly. "I would roll over, and look up at the roof.. the cracks let in some starlight, and I'd imagine that they were messages to me, little patterns.. and.. and if I could figure them out, I could say them, and I'd just.. be somewhere else." She let the flood of memory drift gently over her. "But.. my favorite, favorite dream was.. I had this soldier." Her voice had dropped to a raspy whisper. "My mother hated it.. she said it wasn't right for a girl to have a toy like that.. but I did.. and I would sit him up there, on the table at night, to watch over me." She paused, and closed her eyes. "And.. I felt that.. if I wished hard enough... really, really, really hard...and crossed my fingers, and just... that someday my soldier would be real.. and it would protect me, and take care of me... " Her voice cracked. "And make him stop hitting me."

The warrior let out a shaky breath. "Gabrielle.. I'm so.. so sorry."

The bard looked up at her with quietly adoring eyes. "Why?" She replied softly. "It worked."

Xena just looked at her for a long moment, a dozen self-deprecating comments springing to her lips. They stopped there, though, as she realized just how tired she was of feeling bad about herself. Enough. A quiet decision was made, and she took all the protests and locked them up, and let herself feel good about the fact that she had been Gabrielle's ticket out of here. And she did do her damnedest to take care of her, even if she failed sometimes. So she smiled, and gave her soulmate a kiss. "I'm glad it did." She replied in a clear tone. "And I'm glad it was me."

Gabrielle felt a little thrill of surprise at the reaction, prompting a grin. "Me too." She confided, tilting her head for another kiss, and this one she took her time with, closing her eyes and just enjoying it. She leaned back when she was done, and regarded Xena's face thoughtfully. "It's so good to hear you say that."

The warrior rested her head against the wall. "It felt good to say it." She admitted. "I guess I'm just... tired.. of feeling like I have to apologize for everything all the time.. like all I've done is make mistakes." She shrugged her shoulders. "I know I have... but..." She brushed her fingertips against Gabrielle's lips. "This isn't a mistake."

"No." A relieved smile split the bard's face. "It's not." She wrapped her arms around Xena's body and settled against her. "Mm."

"Hmm.... Gabrielle?" Xena commented, after a long period of just listening to the night sounds coming in the window.

"That's m'name." The bard mumbled against her shirt. "Brkfst alredy?"

The warrior just let out a short laugh, and shifted them both, reclining on the pallet with Gabrielle still wrapped around her. The bard hardly so much as twitched as she moved, snuggling closer as soon as Xena relaxed, and making a small mewling noise. "Hey.. don't you wanna sleep in your old bed?" Xena whispered.

Gabrielle lifted her head, and opened one clear green eye to peer at her in utter disbelief. The eyeball rotated to peer at the small cot next to them, then shifted to regard Xena's warm, and very comfortable body. The eyebrow above elevated.

"O..K." Xena pulled the thin blanket up and covered them both. "Hope this thing doesn't collapse."

"S'allright." Her soulmate purred. "You'll hit the ground first."

"Gee thanks." The warrior chuckled. "Nice to know I'm appreciated."

The bard blinked her lashes up, and rested her chin on Xena's collarbone, regarding her lovingly.

"Ok..ok.. I was joking." Xena mumbled.

Gabrielle patted her gently and put her head back down. Then her hands started a restless wandering. "You know... we could... "

A dark eyebrow curved up. "How are you going to explain the noise? Singing lessons?" She grinned at the blush that immediately covered the bard's fair skin. She touched the back of her hand to her partner's cheek, feeling the heat, then ducked her head forward, and kissed her, leaving her lips and working her way down Gabrielle's throat as the bard's abruptly quickened breathing warmed her ear.

"D...don't..start something we can't.. " Gabrielle swallowed a few times, then gave up and let her self loose, sliding up and against Xena's body, and allowing the tingling to spread from the center of her gut outward, until every inch of her skin was wildly sensitive to the warrior's lightest touch.

Then her jaw clamped, and she braced her elbows against Xena's chest, and wrapped her hands in the warrior's soft sleep shirt. "I.. " She stopped for a kiss. "Will.. " Another one, this time longer. "Never.. ever.. ." She gasped, banging her head against Xena's collarbone. "Live this down." Her chest was heaving, and she gave her soulmate a desperate, pleading look.

"Shh." Xena pulled her down, and stroked her back. "All right.. all right.. easy.. " She gentled her touch, easing the tension she could feel in Gabrielle's body with patient hands, pressure against points on a body she knew as well as her own. Gradually the bard's breathing calmed, and her eyelids drooped. "Easy now."

The bard blinked at her, in a state of sleepy peacefulness. "How.. how did you do that?" Then her eyes closed against her will. "Never mind.. many skills..." She let out a last, long breath, puffing up the fabric lying across Xena's chest, and relaxed into sleep.

The warrior watched her for a minute, then smiled, and reached up to tuck her folded cloak under her head for a pillow, and let her own body slow it's rhythm. Felt it alter, and change to match Gabrielle's, until her breathing and the bard's joined. Their heartbeats joined, as their sleeping souls mingled in silence of the night.


The long hallway seemed all too short, Ephiny decided, wishing it was a least one, or perhaps even two miles to go before she had to face that door, and what lay beyond it. She imagined being home, letting the vision of thick green leaves and the scent of the cookfires fill her awareness, and held the image close, reminding herself of a reason to just hold on, and survive. She thought about Eponin, a lot, the last little bit, wishing her gruff lover were there, or better, that they were both somewhere else.

Anywhere else.

She felt very alone, following behind the stocky, glowering guard, whose leather armor creaked from ill care. She was very aware of the low flutter of the torches, whose smoky residue tickled her throat, and the harsh scrape of their boots against the sandy floor, as she steadied her breathing, and willed her hands to stop shaking.

They stopped in front of the thick wooden door, and the guard knocked. A muffled response floated through the surface, and he lifted the latch, and shoved the portal inward. "Go." He jerked on her lead, pulling her forward, and pushed her past him into the room.

She stepped in past the door, and waited as it closed behind her, hearing the soft thunk as the carved lock fell into place. The candles were lower, now, a concept that prickled her back with unease, and she stood quite still as she let her eyes absorb the gently drifting shadows. Her nose twitched as a waft of air brought to her an odd scent.. not quite incense, not quite candle wax, that was faintly spicy, and a little sweet. She decided she didn't like it, but wasn't really sure why.

"Well." Paladia sauntered into the main chamber, from the darkened one to the left. She had changed out of her leather outfit into a soft, quilted burgundy short dress, which was loosely belted, and hung just shy of her knees. Her pale hair was damp, and she looked freshly scrubbed. "Come here." She picked up the lead, and tugged, drawing Ephiny after her towards the center of the room, where the two low slung chairs were. A huge fist reached out and shoved the Amazon down into one, then she tied the lead to a thick iron ring set into a heavy beam that bisected the room.

"You've got a choice, Amazon." She spoke in a low, even voice, as she studied Ephiny from behind. "You can make this rough, or you can make it easy." Paladia ran idle fingers through the smaller woman's blond curls. "Though I hear you Amazons like it rough."

Ephiny took a deep, steady breath. "Why do I have to make it anything at all?" She asked carefully. "Why not just ransom me like everyone else."

The tall woman edged around to the side, and dropped into the other chair, throwing one leg over the arm and giving her a somewhat cruel smile. "Because everyone else is little boys, and you're not." She reached over and snagged a wineskin, then poured some into a glass, paused, then poured another glassful and dropped the skin as she handed one over to Ephiny. "Boys are worth more.. didn't you know that? Villages won't pay for women." She leaned back after the Amazon reluctantly took the glass. "But you.. you, I'll get some hard dinars for... and some pleasure in the bargain."

Ephiny held the glass, trying to keep her stomach from rebelling. "Pleasure for you."

Paladia twirled the wine in her cup and took a deep swallow. "I'm the only one that matters." She eyed her captive, giving her a faint smile as she sipped the wine cautiously. "We donít do too bad.. we treat the bastards all right, get our money, and send em back. No one gets hurt."

Ephiny swallowed gingerly, the rich, sweet taste of the dessert wine tingling with unfamiliar warmth on her tongue. "You'll run out of victims eventually." She ventured, in a cool voice. "Or someone'll find you."

Her captor chuckled softly. "Oh no.. no chance of that." She lazily leaned over and plucked a grape from the plate next to them, popping it in her mouth and chewing . "Even if they found this place, they couldn't get in here... we're snug and comfortable." Another grape, as she watched the Amazon finish off her wine. "And we've got enough supplies to last us all winter stacked away in here.. everything else is pure profit."

Ephiny sat back, putting the glass she held onto the table, and feeling the warmth of the wine spread through her. Not a good idea, Ephiny.. She realized. But saying no to her would probably have been a worse one. She was vaguely aware of her anxiety lessening, and attributed that to the wine, until she realized the insidious warmth was intensifying, and edging into another sensation all together. Drugs. Her mind acknowledged sickly, as she looked up and saw the knowing, predatory smile on Paladia's face.

The taller woman stood, and paced over, then knelt and rested her hands on the chair arm. "Relax.. it won't hurt you." She ran a light fingertip up the Amazon's arm, and noted the skin twitching under her touch. "You might even like it."

Ephiny felt her throat go dry, and she struggled to keep calm, as her world suddenly dissolved into a vibrant chaos. The scent she'd disliked before now filled her lungs, and she became aware of a dark uncoiling of desire that sensitized her to every breath of air, and the flickering warmth of the torches, and the teasing strokes her captor was running down her body.

"Feels good, doesnít it?" The low voice vibrated in her ear, and her rebellious body surrendered, absorbing the attentions greedily. "That's it... just let go.. you're gonna like this... "

She did.. though her mind screamed in protest, in outrage.. it felt wonderful, and she stopped thinking.. stopped worrying.. all she could concentrate on was the trickles of fire that were moving over her skin, and the need that drove her hands to reach out, and touch and..

"Oh yeah... " Paladia felt the strong muscles surge under her, as released the lead, and pulled the Amazon down onto the thick, plush rug, never letting up her stroking. "You're gonna like this all right..." She felt Ephiny's mouth on her and sucked in a breath. "Maybe we won't ransom you after.. all."


"Morning."

Hecuba glanced up, startled, as the voice floated gently into the small kitchen area. "Oh... good morning, Gabrielle." She turned and smiled at her daughter, who padded into the room barefooted, pushing her hair back from her forehead with a hesitant hand. "I didn't realize you were up." Her worn face creased into a smile. "Certainly not this early."

The bard grinned back, leaning against the cabinet. "Well... Xena's been a good influence in that area." She stretched her back out. "She's out getting everything organized, and taking care of Argo, and probably several other things."

Hecuba sliced a fruit neatly, and handed her half. "Did you sleep well?"

Gabrielle chewed the fruit and hid a smile. "Just fine, thanks." She swallowed. "Iím going to go visit Lila before we leave... kind of reassure her that everything's gonna be ok."

Her mother bit her lip. "Will it?" She asked, straightforwardly. "Gabrielle.. I don't need to tell you that we're grateful to Xena, and to you of course, for getting involved in this..I couldnít believe it when I saw you ride in."

"It'll be fine." Gabrielle reassured her. "Believe me.. they won't know what hit them after we get done."

Hecuba sighed. "I know... and I believe that." She patted her daughter's arm. "So.. tell me.. how is everyone? Your father says we're invited to another joining?"

"Yep." The bard agreed. "Toris and Granella.. and.. " She gave her mother a mischievous grin. "Cyrene and Johan, only they don't know it." She laughed at Hecuba's confused look. "I know.. but they don't think they deserve a party, and we think otherwise."

The older woman snorted. "I would think so!" She drummed her fingers on the table. "Well, we certainly can't miss that... Cyrene was so wonderful to us." She looked up abruptly, and caught Gabrielle's eye. "You do know your father hasn't taken a drink since she left, don't you?"

The bard blinked at her. "No..no. I didn't." She let out a surprised breath. "That's.. mother, that's wonderful." A glance over her shoulder. "I thought.. he was so different, but... " Damn...I should have realized...wow. "That's really great."

Hecuba sighed. "Yes." She nodded a tiny nod. "It's made all the difference." She fussed with Gabrielle's sleep shirt, straightening the collar. "How is everyone? You look quite healthy."

The bard's lips tightened a bit. "Well, Iím fine, yes... Xena was sick a few weeks ago, but she's ok now. Everyone in Amphipolis is doing great."

Weary eyes studied her. "But?" She waited. "Come now, Gabrielle.. you were never able to keep anything from me. Now is not the time to start."

A breath stirred the fabric of the bard's shirt. "There was... an accident." She replied very softly. "Solon died."

Her mother gasped, and covered her mouth. "Oh no..." She curled her other hand around Gabrielle's. "How horrible... he was such a sweet boy."

The bard could only nod.

Hecuba chafed her hand. "Losing a child.. that's... a terrible thing, Gabrielle. Iím glad you were there for Xena."

The irony almost made her nauseous. "We've.. gotten each other through a lot of things." She finally answered. "But it was hard.. she.. left him with the centaurs for all that time because she was afraid he'd get hurt... because he was her son." She let out a breath. "And that's exactly what happened."

"Oh my gods." The older woman breathed. "That poor thing." Then she studied the floor for a moment before looking up at her daughter.

"I know." Gabrielle answered quietly. "We think about that too." A pause. "It worries her a lot."

Hecuba put her hands on either side of her daughter's head and looked intently at her. "But you'll stay anyway."

Gabrielle nodded. "I have to."

Her mother smiled. "I understand." She hesitantly pulled Gabrielle into a hug, startled by the sturdy, muscular body under her hands. "Wisdom of Athena, Gabrielle..what are you doing to yourself?" She stepped back, and felt her daughter's shoulders, then let her hands drop. "I thought you were a bard."

"She is." The low voice rumbled past them, as Xena padded quietly into the room. "But she's also an Amazon Queen. " The warrior continued. "And my partner.. and she can take care of herself." Blue and green eyes met, and exchanged a gentle warmth. "I've made sure of that."

Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, you have." She slipped an arm around the taller woman and leaned against her, a little surprised when Xena didn't hesitate to return the gesture.

Hecuba's brow creased, and she pursed her lips. "Of course.. of course.. I wasn't..." Her hands lifted and dropped. "I think I'm just a little too old fashioned... I forget sometimes." She regarded the two wistfully. "Well.. here, Xena.. have some tea.. I think my daughter needs to get dressed, unless she intends to wander off in her unmentionables."

Xena cast an eye down her partner's slim form, and bit off a grin. "Right." She agreed solemnly. "They're ready to take off." She turned to Hecuba. "Actually, I'll pass up tea.. I just had some at the inn, and I've got to pack up our stuff anyway.. but thanks."

They left her still fussing with some fruit, and retreated back to the bedroom. "Besides.. you may need help dressing." Xena mumbled, nibbling her hair with a grin. "Can't be too careful."

Gabrielle slapped her lightly. "Yeah, right." Then she paused. "I... I told mother about Solon." She read the startlement in her partner's eyes. "No.. I mean.. that he..."

"Ah." Xena's voice held an understanding note. "I didn't think you.. "

The bard put her hands against the warrior's chest. "I didn't want her... or.. to ask you about him.. I.." She stopped speaking as warm arms closed around her, and she was immersed in the golden feeling that she'd come to associate with their connection. "I know that would hurt you."

"Always looking out for me, huh?" Xena uttered, her voice low.

"Always." Gabrielle answered, in an uncompromising tone. "Thanks for rescuing me, by the way.. I think I was about to get a lecture." She sighed, and released her partner, unbuttoning her shirt and shucking it off. "You don't think I look bad, do you?" She gazed speculatively at her body, then back up at Xena, and had to giggle at the taller woman's expression.

Xena put her hands on her hips, and raised both eyebrows, then made a show of slowly letting her eyes rake her soulmate's bare form from head to toe. "Gabrielle, you look great. And if you mother doesnít like it.. well.. too damn bad." She leaned forward. "She doesn't have to look."

"Just checking." Green eyes twinkled. "It's nice to hear you say it sometimes." She pulled a skirt and halter from her saddlebag. "I used to feel so.. gawky.. I guess.. it's kind of hard to shake that."

The dark haired woman sat down on the next pallet, and knotted her fingers together. "Me too." She sighed. "I grew so fast when I was young.. I kept banging into things.. tripping over my own feet... gods."

Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "You?" She squeaked, unable to picture her graceful, assured soulmate that way.

A wry grin met her eyes. "Yeah." She held out her hands. "All arms and legs.. took me forever to grow into that."

The bard took her hand, and examined it. Xena's hands were so much larger than hers, with long fingers, and powerful muscles in the palms. "Wow.. I never... I guess I thought you just kinda.. "

"Grew up doing backflips?" Xena replied, with an amused grin. "Nah." She exhaled ruefully. "I was pretty awkward there, for a while."

"Hmph." The bard laughed softly. "I can't picture that." But she felt better, strangely, and she lifted the warrior's hand up and kissed it, never taking her eyes off her face. "Guess we'd better get going, huh?" She finished fastening her clothes on and packed up her saddlebag, which Xena tossed over one shoulder. "Let's walk over and say bye to Lila... and my little friend."

"Works for me." Xena agreed. "Let's go."


Ephiny felt like she was clawing her way uphill through boar dung. It was just that kind of mental and physical sludge, worse than a hangover, worse than.. just about anything she'd ever experienced.

She remembered everything. Everything.

The knowledge brought bile to her throat, and she retched helplessly, tugging against the restraints she felt constricting her wrists and ankles. The air smelled dank, and cold, and she wrestled one eye open to blink in unfocused anguish at the rock wall before her. It was dark, and silent, and she realized she was alone.

Gods. Her body felt very tender, and very abused, and she winced as she curled herself into a ball, and rolled over, peering painfully at the shadows around her. The cell? No. Her heart sank, as she was able to recognize the bare outlines of  Paladia's quarters through the roughly cut archway several feet from her. With a groan, she let her head fall back against the blankets she was laid on, and wished the room would stop spinning.

Another odor intruded, and she wrestled her head around to spot a small tray settled on the ground next to her, with two covered bowls, and a cup of what smelled like cider. She eyed the tray warily, wondering what lovely herbs Paladia had seen fit to insert in its contents, then realized it didn't really matter.. if the woman wanted to force something into her, she had little chance of stopping it.

The thought of eating almost made her retch again, but her common sense told her that her body needed fuel, and it would probably make her feel better in the long run. Unless it was poisoned, in which case...

Damn.

She dragged herself up onto one elbow, and reached over, lifting the cover off one of the bowls. Her wrists were manacled, and the chains attached to them were fastened to rings sunk into the cavern wall, along with the ones from her legs, but she had a fairly normal range of motion. With a sigh, she pulled the tray over, and grimly consumed its contents.

It did make her feel better, and was apparently unadulterated, so far as she could tell, anyway. Her stomach settled after a few minutes, and she was able to finish everything, including the ubiquitous hard roll they seemed to include with all the meals here. Must have a captive baker.. she mused, exhausted, as she laid her head back down, now having time to reflect on her circumstances.

She was in trouble. Big trouble. She shifted her body and bit off another groan as her stiffened muscles protested, and she slowly rolled onto her back, then pushed herself up into a sitting position. Hera's tits. Her mind cursed. It felt like she'd been stupid enough to go through Eponin's new conditioning course. Twice. There were bruises and... she closed her eyes. Bite marks and scratches up and down her skin.. none looked serious, luckily. Nice situation you've gotten yourself into, there, Ephiny... you must be hanging around Gabrielle too much.

At least her sense of humor was intact.. surprisingly. She knew she should feel horrified.. and disgusted.. and a dozen other things, but mercifully her practical mind was shunting all that elsewhere and letting her concentrate on the here and now. It had been the drug, and she was not responsible for what had happened.

Keep telling yourself that, Ephiny. Her conscience poked her, as a tiny, unhappy part of herself curled up in a ball of misery. Come on..come on..big tough warrior time... you're a big girl.. you can cope with this. It doesn't mean anything.. she's just using the physical part of you.

Yeah.

She let herself back down onto the blankets, hating the insidious scent of them that served only to prick her memory with flashes of sickening heat. Think of something else. She told herself, as she closed her eyes wearily. Think of.. She let her mind fill with an image of her favorite time of the day, early morning, when she'd get up just at dawn, and spend quiet, peaceful moments with a cup of pungently steaming herb tea, perched on the railing outside her quarters.

The trees always stirred gently at that time of morning, as the wind drifted in, and brought her wisps of smoke from the dining hall, and the fresh smell of running water from the creek. She let that pull her down into sleep, blocking out the dark reality for a little while.

Voices woke her, but she kept her eyes shut, and concentrated on maintaining a relaxed, even breathing. It was Paladia, and one of her lieutenants, she guessed, and they were in the main room, their words soft and burred with distance.

"About time.. I guess they figured out Potadeia's not going to be able to buy their stock out." The man's voice was humorous. "They moved out this morning.. our guy relayed the word a bit ago."

Paladia chuckled. "Right.. right... well, put some birds on them...we should be able to clean up with that lot, and I hear one's carrying some luxuries.. we could have a fine party." She paused, evidently settling into a chair. "Where they headed?"

A pause. "Downriver... not really sure where... probably pass through Amphipolis.. then who knows? Does it matter?"

"Nah." The woman's voice dropped into a purr. "They'll end up here regardless... does Mektus have enough men?"

He snorted. "For a pack of merchants? Sure." A pause. "You're in a fine mood today."

"Mmm." Paladia let out a low laugh. "Good night last night."

Ephiny clamped her jaw shut against a wave of nausea, but held out one tiny bit of hope. Amphipolis. If Paladia's raiders struck close to there.. they might have more to worry about than a bunch of wary traders.

Idly, she spent a few moments imagining a contest between Paladia and Xena. The kidnapper's leader was younger, true, and had the edge in sheer bulk, but Ephiny didn't think Paladia had ever faced the kind of brutal, violent power that the Amazon knew was buried deep in the dark haired warrior. And Xena had a strength that was out of proportion to her own, not inconsiderable size, that she tapped from a source that Ephiny suspected had little to do with her much vaunted drills and constant practice.

No, Paladia might hold her own for a few moments, as youth and energy kicked in, before that same youth started working against her, against Xena's experience which would move muscles faster than the burly blond could handle. Against a relentless power that would knock that superior grin right off her...

Now, now, Ephiny.... She chastised herself wryly. That's not very regently of you. But she kept thinking it anyway, because it was the most pleasant way she could think of diverting her otherwise gloomy thoughts.


Solari stood, dusting her knees off and examining the surrounding forest with a deep scowl. "Damn it.. the track just can't end." She exhaled in disgust, putting her hands on her hips. The clearing was full of Amazons, scouring the dirt, and leaf litter for signs of any trail, no matter how faint. "Spread out."

They'd been searching for hours, covering every square inch of ground outward from Ephiny's aborted campsite, combing the area for the least footstep. Unfortunately, the ground cover was very sparse, and mostly contained hard rock chips, which held no imprint. They'd found faint scuff marks against a few trees, as though something had been carried through there, but other than that, nothing, all the way to the road. Once on the path, they found cart tracks, but there was no way to figure out if they were recent or not...the path's twin ruts were worn deep into the soil, and they found no droppings that indicated any new passage. Solari rubbed her jaw, ignoring the red clay streaks it put across her chin and considered her next move.

There weren't many. They could continue to search, which some of them would anyway, or they could... no. Giving up wasnít an option. Briefly, the dark haired Amazon pondered the odds of Ephiny just going off somewhere.. maybe forgetting her pack?

Zilch, and negative zilch. The question was, did the regent have an argument with someone.. another traveler, and get into a fight.. or was this something more sinister? She looked up tiredly as Cait approached, having stubbornly followed them from the village. "Well, Cait?"

The slim blond wrapped her arms around her chest and hopped once or twice. "It's no good." She admitted. "The tracks just go off to nowhere." She kicked a bit of rock out of the path. "Do you suppose they took her somewhere down this road?"

Solari ducked her head, and let out a sigh. "Possibly.. I don't know." She glanced up at the girl. "Listen, I know you wanted to stick this out, Cait.. but we're getting nowhere fast.. and I think someone needs to at least let Gabrielle know what's going on." She looked around carefully. "And not that I want to knock any of our trackers, but I wouldn't mind a certain pair of blue eyes taking a look at this place."

That brought a tight, unhappy smile to Cait's face. "Too right." She agreed quietly. "I've just had a bit of a rest... I'll go." She blinked "I know the way."

Solari hesitated, knowing the girl had been up all night, despite her claims of resting. But so had they all, really.. since the word had come in and they'd assembled a fast tracking party, and taken off. Besides, Cait really did know the way, and she was a sly, and canny hunter. "All right." She pulled on the girl's arm. "But you get something to eat first, hear?"

"Right." Cait replied, giving her a nod, and trotting off towards where a small group of her sisters were gathered, sharing a waterskin.


The clouds were lowering over the setting sun when they stopped for the night, camping next to the river in a cleared space that even the merchants felt relatively safe in. The caravan had made pretty good time, and Xena was estimating they'd hit Amphipolis by lunch the next day.

They hadn't seen another soul since they'd left the populated area around Potadeia, though her nape hairs had lifted a few times, sensing unseen watchers around them. No one had approached, but she'd been careful to stay mounted when they stopped for water, and left off bantering with Gabrielle to stay on the perimeter, between any possible danger and the caravan.

Now she kneed Argo for another precautionary sweep around the area, extended her senses to try and detect any kind of threat against the already nervous traders. They trusted her, more or less, and Gabrielle had been entertaining them most of the day with stories, some of which she played a ridiculously big part in, but the coming nightfall still worried them, since it was such a large group, and she was only one warrior.

Well, two, of course, counting Gabrielle. She corrected herself with a grin, as she watched her partner order the merchants around from the corner of her eye, followed by a loyal Ares. The murky sunlight cast the bard's shadow along the softly turfed ground and sent it traveling, and Xena cheerfully signaled Argo, who hopped over the dark line in surprise, snorting. The warrior grinned to herself, and put the mare through a few sidesteps, then reined her in near where she'd dropped off their gear, and vaulted off, landing with a little bounce. "Damn, Argo.. " She commented to the horse, who gave her an exasperated look. "Whadda you know...I think Iím actually in a good mood."

The mare snorted, and nipped at her shirt, tossing her head, then whuffling as Ares bounded over, yodeling happily.

"Guess everyone's in a pretty good mood but you, old girl." Xena teased, giving the mare a light slap. "Hey boy.. " She dropped to a knee and gave the wolf a quick tussle, delighting him, then looked up as a shadow slunk over her shoulder. "Hey."

Gabrielle sauntered closer, and leaned on her staff. "Ok.. everyone's as settled as they're going to get, I think...I've got them starting a fire, and getting supplies out.. I told them they owe us dinner for protecting them."

Xena rubbed Ares' ears and nodded. "Sounds fair." She agreed, as she stood up, and started stripping Argo's tack off. "Saw you wandering around the wagons.. doing a little shopping?" Her blue eyes twinkled teasingly.

Gabrielle put on a suspiciously innocent air. "Me? Nah..." She folded her arms and thought about the small packages she'd tucked neatly inside her bag. "Not a thing."

That got her an elevated eyebrow. "Uh huh." Xena mock growled, knowing the bard better than that, but keeping her tongue, since she was guilty of the same, and had several surprises stored away for a later time.

"Grrr." Ares answered, pricking his ears at her.

The warrior put her hands on her hips. "Who asked you?" She went back to her task, scanning the countryside over the mare's back out of habit. "Hey."

The bard responded to the alert tone, and went to her side, putting a hand on her arm. "What is it?"

Xena strained her vision, focusing on the upland treeline. "Don't know.. looks like someone moving in our direction.."

The faint figure spotted them, and altered course, heading their way, and after a few minutes, a suspicion started growing in Xena's chest. "Gabrielle... I think.. I think that's Cait." The adopted Amazon, originally an orphan from Amphipolis had a distinctive, bouncing stride that marked her.

The bard pulled herself up with one hand on her partner's shoulder, and peered over Argo's back. "I can't tell." She paused a moment. "Wait... " The figure bounded closer. "I think you're right." She gave a small shake of the head. "Why do I get the feeling this is not going to be good news."

"C'mon, Gabrielle.. think positive." Xena put a hand on Argo's mane, and vaulted aboard the mare, backing her deftly and using her knees to steer. "Let's go, Argo... move it." The horse edged into a trot, then a canter, navigating the boulders near the water. As the moving figure came closer, apparently they recognized both horse and rider, because their speed picked up as well.

"Cait!" Xena called, pulling Argo up as she came even with the running girl.

"How super." Cait gasped, almost colliding with the mare, and grabbing hold of Xena's leg to keep herself upright. "Just exactly who I needed." She took a deep breath, and let it out. "They've taken Ephiny."

Xena froze, staring at her. "What?"

The girl nodded wearily. "It's true... she was on her way to visit you.. and she disappeared."

Puzzle pieces clicked and slid into place. "Gods." Xena breathed, holding a hand down. "Grab on, Cait... this goes deeper than I thought."


They sat in a mostly silent circle, listening to Cait's tale, as she gratefully plowed her way through a plate of assorted trail rations. "It was quite dark." She explained, licking a finger. "I got to the campsite, and the fire was still neat, but I could see there'd been a scuffle."

Gabrielle leaned forward, clasping her hands together. "But you think she was ok, right?"

"Rather." Cait answered. "There wasn't any blood, you know, and no torn bits of body and whatnot." She chewed on a piece of smoked meat with cheerful gusto. "Solari thinks the same thing.. they spent all morning searching the area, but as much as they could find, only led to the road."

"That's what the pattern is." One of the traders grunted. "Trail only goes so far, then disappears." He shifted. "No body knows where they keep the poor buggers.. and when they get back.. they don't know where they've been."

Xena picked up a piece of jerky, and chewed it thoughtfully. "Has to be close, though." She let her eyes drift to Gabrielle. "Must have started up when we were out of the area."

The bard nodded. "Yeah." She rubbed her arms, and looked around uneasily. "Quite a little racket they have there." She nibbled her lip. "I guess Eph's pretty safe, right? They figure to get a bunch of dinars for her?"

Xena paused and thought, then nodded. "I think so, yeah." She finished her piece of beef and started on another. "Makes the stakes higher, though.. they might figure she's too dangerous if they find out what she is... most folks don't want to tangle with the Amazons."

"Hm." Gabrielle studied her hands. "Yeah." She gave Xena a quick glance. "So.. what do we do?" The words trickled from her, and she realized their meaning as she saw the quiet gleam enter those blue eyes, and the faint quirk move her lips. Still looking to her to solve everything, huh? She acknowledged the moment with a slight grin of her own. Guess some things haven't changed.

"First, we get these folks to safety." Xena slowly let her gaze travel around the ring of traders. "Then we need to find out where these people are." Her shoulders lifted and straightened. "And stop them."

Gabrielle looked up at the strong profile next to her, framed in dark, windblown hair. "Sounds like a plan." She commented with a smile. "Cait, what's Solari's intentions?"

The blond girl cocked her head. "As if she'd tell me?" But Cait smiled. "It's that old people habit... they don't tell you a thing if they don't absolutely have to."

The bard clapped a hand over her mouth hastily, studiously avoiding looking at her partner.

Xena just gave her a wry, sideways glance, and shook her head. "Does she want us to come up there?" The warrior ignored the soft snort from next to her. "She must have said that, at least."

Cait looked from one to the other in puzzlement. "Right... yes, well, she said I should let Gabrielle here know what was going on, and that she'd love to have Xena come up and find Ephiny's trail, but not to tell any of the other Amazons that's what she was doing." She chewed a bit of apple, crunching it enthusiastically. "I rather think she's worried about her reputation." She paused, and examined the fruit, then glanced at Xena. "They do worry about that so awful much."

Xena could feel Gabrielle's silent chuckles where the bard's body was pressed against hers. "Yeah... those Amazons." The warrior intoned with a mock sigh. "Egos the size of a cart horse."

"Too right." Cait agreed solemnly.

"All right.." Xena stood and brushed herself off. "Everyone get some rest.. we need to start at first light."

"Sleep?" One trader asked, glancing around into the darkness. "They could be out there right now!"

The warrior looked him right in the eye and smiled. "For their sakes, I hope not." She gave them all a nod. "I"ll keep watch... g'wan, get some sleep."

Cait opened her mouth to object, and got a genuine Xena glare in response. She subsided. "I could use a bit of a nap." She blinked meekly.

Gabrielle, however, started gathering up some of their stuff and tucking it away. "I'll keep watch with you." She told the warrior, in a no nonsense tone of voice.

Xena started to protest, then thought better of it. "All right." She agreed readily, which got her a suspicious look from her partner. "I'd like that."

They bedded the camp down, and Xena picked spot in front of the caravan, putting it between her, and the river. She settled her back against a tree, which featured a low underbrush that hid her mostly from view. Gabrielle got Cait all set, then joined her, gently tucking her cloak across her knees and Xena's, and leaning back against the tree's rough bark.

"You don't have to sit up with me." Xena remarked, conversationally.

"I know." Gabrielle answered. "But I want to." She wriggled around to get a little more comfortable. "I can tell you stories, if you get bored." She added. "It's a long watch."

Xena bestowed a very fond look on her, then reached over and tucked her arm around the bard's shoulders, and pulled her closer. "Here.. you might as well be comfortable." She waited for Gabrielle to lay her head down, then leaned her own head against the bard's. Less than a candlemark. She bet herself wryly. And she'll be sleeping like a baby.

"I'm worried about Lennat.. and Ephiny." Her soulmate's voice was subdued.

Xena stroked her arm gently. "I know.. I am too." She whispered back. "But these people.. Gabrielle, it really looks like they're using this as a moneymaker.. they haven't hurt anyone." She nuzzled the bard's hair, and enjoyed the faintly herbal scent, mixed with the oak wood smoke from their campfire. "Ephiny's a tough, seasoned warrior..she'll be fine."

"Mmm." Gabrielle sighed. "I guess.." Her voice dropped to a mumble. "Wind's picking up." She pushed her hair behind her ears, and snuggled closer, laying a hand across Xena's stomach.

"Yeah.." The warrior acknowledged. "Don't think it'll rain, though." She adjusted her sword, tucked into its sheath next to her, and moved the chakram slightly to the left, dropping her hand to rest on it. She focused her attention outward, letting the sounds of their surroundings soak into her hearing, identifying what was natural, and setting her ears to detect changes. Gabrielle relaxed against her completely, and she glanced down to see the bard struggling to keep her eyes open. A grin briefly crossed her face. "You know, I always like the sound of the leaves moving."

Gabrielle nodded dreamily. "Yeah.. it's so peaceful." She stifled a yawn.

"And the water going by." Xena added. "Really nice, even pattern.. you hear it?"

"Uh huh." The bard agreed softly, as her eyelids fluttered closed. "Just like your heartbeat. I love hearing that.. so steady.. and regular.. and..."

Xena smiled into the darkness, as she felt the bard's breathing change, and deepen. "Goodnight, love." She whispered, tucking the cloak around her partner's knees, glad of her warm, if sleeping company. Ares had settled against her other side, and she idly rubbed his furry head, which was leaning against her hip.

The darkness settled over her, and she became part of it, a still, quiet figure who breathed in the air, and listened to the sounds of the world, only the faint moonlight reflecting off sharp pale eyes indicating her presence.

It was the early hours of the morning when something nudged her defense. Grass moving, out of place. Xena felt her heart speed up, and her nostrils flared, sucking in the warm night air. Leather and metal, sweat covered, was carried gently to her, and she put a hand on Ares' back, seeing the wolf's eyes pop open. "Gabrielle." She uttered in a bare whisper.

The bard started, then blinked, stirring. "Wh..."

"We've got company." The warrior told her. "Move."

She stood up slowly, letting her pounding heart send blood to warm her muscles, drawing her sword in one hand, and fingering the chakram with the other. They were creeping closer, she could hear the rasp of boots against the short, dry grasses near the water, and she glanced aside as Gabrielle set herself evenly, lifting her staff. "Ready?"

"You let me fall asleep." The bard grumbled, giving her a look.

"Let you?" Xena laughed softly, tracking her closest opponent and feeling the battle fever start to edge along her veins. "A circus couldnít have stopped you." She felt Ares start to growl, where the wolf was pressed against her leg. "That's right.. you hear em, boy?" Ahead of her, the gray and silver shadows sharpened, as her eyes tightened their focus, and she realized with a start that it was the first time, in a long time, that she was looking forward to a fight.

"Shouldn't we wake everyone up?" The bard asked, shifting her grip a little.

Xena shook her head, getting ready to move. "Nah.. there's only 8 of them...these guys'll just be in the way." She shifted her sword and twirled it lightly in her hand.

Gabrielle turned her head, and gave her a long, speculative look, then glanced ahead again, with a slight smile. Been a while since I saw that expression. She mused quietly to herself.

"Let's go." Xena growled, as she slipped forward to meet the oncoming men. "Hello, boys." She let a full smile take over her face, as she sauntered into the moonlight, and they froze. "Nice night."

They stared at her for a long moment, then in utter silence, attacked.

"For a bloodbath." Xena continued her thought, as she twirled her sword in her hand, and met them, disarming the closest with a quick feint, then smashing her elbow into his jaw with a satisfying crunch. She ducked under the next one's wild swing, and kicked him in the knee, hearing his scream of pain as the leg collapsed under him and he dropped to the ground. The blood pounded through her veins, and brought a fierce intensity to her, tapping it neatly from a lately neglected place.

The sound of wood against leather made her grin, and she turned her head a little, to watch Gabrielle efficently take her opponent out, slamming her staff into his head, then dropping down and sweeping her staff in a strong reverse motion, taking his legs out from under him.

"Nice." Xena muttered under her breath, as she grabbed an arm, and pulled a man half her size over her head, throwing him to the ground with a thump. Ares was worrying yet another opponent, and she finished off a man rushing at Gabrielle with a roundhouse right, sending a sharp crack across the silvery landscape.

One left, and he was moving away, but she didn't want that, so she sent the chakram after him, angling it so it would bring him down instead of cutting his head off. He landed in a heap, and she bounded over to him, picking him up by the back of his leather jerkin, and throwing him against a nearby tree.

It had been a quiet fight, only Ares' growls, and the sound of weapons hitting flesh had interrupted the quietly moonlit scene, aside from a few agonized screams, and in fact none of the merchants had even woken up. Gabrielle quietly went from one raider to the other with a handful of leather strips and bound their arms and legs. She looked up to see a backlit Xena watching her, glittering eyes eerily outlined in a shadowed face. "That was quick." The dark energy coming from her parter was almost palpable.

A flash of white teeth joined the silver blue of her eyes. "Guess I haven't lost my touch."

Gabrielle snorted. "As if." She shook her head, giving her partner an amusedly exasperated look.

Xena bounced on the balls of her feet a few times, then let out a satisfied breath. Not bad at all, actually. She decided, as she walked over to the last of her opponents and picked him up, shoving him back against the tree bark. "All right. " Two quick jabs, and she felt his body stiffen, and saw his eyes pop out. "Let me see if I remember how this goes." She paused. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your.. " She peered at his goggling face, and waggled a hand. "Brain." She saw the comprehension. "Right, so you 're going to tell me what I want to know, or in thirty seconds, your head's going to explode."

His jaw hung open, but he managed to get out an "Ok."

"Good.. good." Xena dusted her hands off. "What were you doing here?"

"Get.. merchants... ransom... " He coughed.

"Figures." Xena gave him a disgusted look, and half turned as Gabrielle came up next to her. "They're our kidnappers, all right." She turned back to the man, who was turning purple. "Where's your hideout?"

"Dunno." The man gagged. "We drop.. someplace... someone else.. picks up."

Damn. Xena cursed softly. "Did you pick up an Amazon a few nights ago?"

The man nodded, gasping. "Yeah.. but... heard.. for nothing."

Xena had been counting seconds. She released the hold, and grabbed the man before he could fall. "Why for nothing? You might as well answer.. I can just do that again."

He took a moment just to breathe. "Heard... they're not ransoming her... leader's keeping her." He answered, rubbing his throat. Then he looked up . "You're Xena, aren't you?"

The warrior nodded. "Keeping her for what?"

"Damn.. knew we were getting too blasted close to Amphipolis." He cursed. "I dunno for what.. don't care.. I just deliver, and my family gets taken care of, all right? "

Gabrielle stepped forward. "By selling other people's life and liberty?"

He looked up at her. "Nobody gets hurt.. they can afford it, see?" He rubbed his arm. "I lost most everyone last winter.. it was hard... this.. it's only fair, those who got, give to those who don't."

"No." Gabrielle knelt at his side, and stared at him seriously. "It's not fair... some of the people you took last week weren't merchants.. they were hard working villagers just trying to get supplies for their homes." She took a breath. "And even if they were, it still wouldn't be fair."

"Is my family dying fair?" He shot back. "You look at them living all fat and happy.. and we were starving... don't tell me what's right, and what's not, little girl." His eyes pinned her. "I had to watch my son wither to almost nothing, before Paladia hooked up with us, got us started.. small at first... but it saved him. " His jaw jutted. "So I ainít sorry for nothing."

They tied him up too, and turned him over to the now groggily stirring merchants along with his comrades. "We'll take them in for judging in Amphipolis." Xena said quietly, as she saw them trussed firmly up in one of the wagons, giving the grumpy Cait a wry glance. "Sorry Cait.. wasn't time to get everyone involved."

"It's not fair." The girl unconsciously echoed the raider. "Here you've had this perfectly lovely fight, and I didn't even get to see it. "

"Next time." The warrior promised, as she headed towards Argo, to get her saddled, her mind already elsewhere. Thinking about why an Amazon queen might be kept, and not ransomed, for one thing, and how need sometimes forced even good people into darkness for another.

She was halfway through the process, when a hand touched her back, and she turned as Gabrielle leaned back against Argo's body. "You about ready to take off?"

"Mostly." Gabrielle informed her, crossing her arms. "What'r you doing?"

Xena lifted a brow, then glanced first at her horse, then at her partner. "Saddling Argo?" She hazarded.

"Mm..hmm." The bard nodded solemnly. "And when your'e done with that, we're gonna load everything up, and take off, right?"

Blue eyes blinked in some bewilderment. "Yeah, right."

"No." Gabrielle reached out and took the saddle blanket from her hands, and folded it neatly, putting it over one shoulder. Then she folded her fingers around Xena's, and pulled her gently. "You rode all day, didn't sleep all night, just beat the stuffing out of eight guys, and now you're going to sit down and let me get you breakfast." She said this all in a polite, but decisive tone. "And then you can saddle Argo."

Xena sucked in a breath. "Gabrielle...I'm... "

The bard patted her middle, which grumbled as if on cue. "Hungry. Come on."

Damn. A grin forced it's way to the surface, and she let it. "I guess I can take a hint."

Gabrielle tucked her hand firmly into the taller woman's elbow, and led her towards the campfire. "Hint? That wasn't a hint, Xena." She sniffed. "That was an order."

Xena eyed her in startled amusement. "Ah.. ok."

"Heh." The bard chuckled her triumph.


A boot nudging her side brought her reluctantly to wakefulness, and Ephiny opened one eye, and peered up. Paladia smirked back, and rolled her body over with a negligent shove of her foot, standing back and regarding her with amused contempt. "Well." She eyed the empty tray next to the bound Amazon. "So..youíre not as stupid as the last one.. thatís a good sign."

Ephiny gazed up at her with a dispassionate look. "Stupid?"

The tall blond nodded. "She decided to starve to death." She sniffed reflectively. "So, did you enjoy it?"

The Amazon gave a mild shrug. "I didnít have a choice." She returned her stare evenly, refusing to let her own battered nakedness embarrass her. "Did you?"

Paladiaís nostrils flared, and her eyebrows twitched up. "Not stupid and spunky on top of it? Imagine that." She crouched down, and rested her thick forearms on her knees, letting her eyes wander over the Amazonís body, and producing a crooked grin. "Yeah, I did.. in fact...I decided to keep you around for a while."

Ephiny felt her gut drop, but forced her expression to remain mild. "Theyíre gonna miss me after a day or two." She commented cautiously. "What happened to getting a ransom?"

Paladia laughed. "They can miss you all they want, Amazon... theyíll never find you... and as for ransoms.. " She reached out and traced a line down Ephinyís leg. "There are all kinds."

The Amazon concentrated on keeping her breathing even. "That how you do it? Every once in a while just skim off the top?" For a long moment, she thought the taller woman was going to strike her, but Paladia just finally ended up laughing.

"Sure.. can you think of a better way?" She reached over and tugged Ephinyís curls. "I get to pick what I like, no fuss, do what I like, and then.. move on." She smiled. "No baggage, no whining.. no regrets."

"For you." Ephiny remarked.

"I told you, Iím the only one that matters." Paladia tapped a finger on her leg. "Come on, Ephiny.. you seem to be a realistic kinda gal.. you know thereís no such thing as love Ė itís all what you can get out of the other person. At least Iím honest about it."

"Thatís not true." Ephiny stated softly. "Love exists."

"Oh..no no no no... " Paladia shook a finger at her. "Youíre not gonna tell me a big, bad Amazon like you falls for that." She leaned closer. "Because I sure donít...I know better.. and so do you." She grinned when Ephiny didnít answer. "See?" Then her eyes dropped lower. "Hmm..." She laid a finger on the long, precise scar that bisected her belly. "Whereíd you get that one?"

Ephiny debated on the answer, then decided the truth wouldnít hurt. "I have a son." She paused. "He.. had to be delivered somewhat unconventionally."

Paladiaís brows lifted. "Yeah?" She chuckled nastily. "Didnít think you Amazons went in for the male thing.. but then.. I guess you gotta get babies somehow, huh?" She smiled. "This your royal duty?"

"No." She answered quietly. "I met someone, and fell in love, and decided to have a child by him."

The taller woman stood up, and snorted. "And here I was thinking so well of you." She leaned over and jerked one of the restraints holding Ephinyís wrists, yanking her arm from her body. "Well, gods know Iíve played around with worse.. youíll do for a while." She started to leave, then turned. "Wait.. I thought they didnít allow men in the Amazon villages... what did you do with the kid?"

Ephiny pulled her arm back in and gazed up at her. "He lives with the centaurs."

"Oh." Paladia turned and walked out, then stopped at the entrance to the little alcove and looked back. "Centaurs? Why?"

The Amazon allowed a tiny smile to edge her lips. "Because he is one."

"Oh." The burly woman turned again and got a few steps further, then abruptly whirled. "What???" She took a few quick steps back. "You made love to, got pregnant by, and then birthed a centaur????"

Ephiny nodded mildly. "His name was Phantes. He got killed in the Thessalian War."

Paladia put her hands on her hips. "I was wrong. You are an idiot." She shook her head. "Get up and wash... I want to have dinner, then weíll play some games."


"Dinar for your thoughts." Gabrielle leaned her head to one side, projecting her voice so Xena could hear it. They were riding double on Argo, and the bard had just coaxed her unusually silent partner into consuming some of their trail rations.

Unusually silent. Gabrielle thought to herself. Now there's a new concept applied to her. "Hmm?" She nudged the warrior, and felt Xena release a long breath under her snugly wrapped arm.

"Just thinking." Xena finally answered. "About how to find out where these people are."

Gabrielle rested her cheek against the sun warmed leather and brass that covered her partner's back. "Well.. .I thought you'd just... follow the guys that pick up the ransom.. right?" She traced a whorl in the armor. "I hate waiting that long, but... "

Xena shook her head a little. "I'm... " She sighed. "I don't know if we can take the chance... if they're that careful, if they think we're following them... " She half turned, and caught Gabrielle's eye. "I don't want them taking that out on Eph, or Lennat, for that matter."

The bard examined that statement. "But.. Xena, they haven't shown any inclination to be violent.. not based on what that guy said." She paused, thinking. "What makes you think they'd react that way?" Another pause. "Is it because that's what you would do?"

She felt the body she was resting against stiffen, but she didn't retract the words, feeling her way gingerly into a kind of conflict they'd been avoiding since things had started improving between them.

"Yeah, I'm sure that's it." Xena finally answered, in a remote voice. "Actually, I was thinking that they'd never been challenged before. Their targets are merchants.. people like that.. they paid what as asked, and never tried to find out who they were, or where."

That was true, Gabrielle realized. Xena was still very tense, and she leaned forward to do some damage control. "You mad at me for saying that?"

"No." Came the quiet answer.

"You're lying." Gabrielle replied, just as quietly. "It's all right for us to get mad, Xena."

A flash of blue as Xena turned her head to study her intently. "All right." The warrior exhaled. "Just say I have a feeling, ok?" She shifted uncomfortably in the bard's grasp. "It's not based on anything, just... I don't know."  

A plan had been nibbling at her attention for a while, only the bard knew it was going to meet with resistence, so she'd been hesitant to mention it. But... She quietly reminded herself. If we keep not admitting we have differences of opinion, where does that leave us? Time to sweep away the eggshells and stop walking on them. She took a deep breath, and tightened her one armed hold, bringing their bodies into secure contact. "Mm." Gabrielle patted her gently. "You know.. what you really need is someone on the inside."

Silence.

"They're certainly not going to kidnap you." The bard went on, holding her breath. "But if I let them take me, I can get in there and figure out what's going on.." Still silence, and now she was beginning to be nervously awkward. "And.. and you can find.. me, so..you don't have to stay close.. they won't know you're following."

Argo's hoofbeats sounded ridiculously loud in her ears. "Xena, talk to me." She finally pleaded. "All right, it's a dumb plan, I.. I'm just thinking out loud.. I don't... "

"No." Xena's voice sounded very tired, and very lost. "It's not a dumb idea." The warrior looked off into the distance. "It's a good one." She kneed Argo out of the field they were crossing, and up onto the road that would lead eventually into Amphipolis. Damn. Of all the options she'd been considering, getting someone inside had been one of her strongest. It was the who that had given her pause.. because what Gabrielle had said was true. The bard was strong, she knew Ephiny, she was used to dangerous situations, Xena could trust her, trust her judgment, and, in the worst of circumstances, could find her anywhere. Damn.

"It is?" Gabrielle asked, cautiously.

Xena played with the cream colored mane that fell softly across the saddlebow. "Yes.. it is. Look.. Gabrielle, we're... you're not...you're my partner, all right? Time I started treating you like it, and not..."

"Not like I'm an inexperienced kid with more guts than sense?" Gabrielle finished for her, then gently stroked the leather clad side. "Can I tell you a secret?"

Uncertainty colored the warrior's tone. "Um.. yeah.. sure.."

"I am an inexperienced kid with more guts than sense." The bard ducked her head under her partner's arm, and peered up at her face. "It's ok that you know that."

Xena looked down at her, and finally, grudgingly, a tiny grin surfaced.

The bard returned it. "Your first impulse was to say.. No way. Right?"

A slight nod. "Yeah... I.. don't think I'll ever get over not wanting you to put yourself in danger, Gabrielle." Xena studied her hands, resting lightly on the saddlebow, the reins tangled in her long fingers. "But I.. remember what you said in the cave, and...I.. I know I can't wrap you in wool."

The bard felt a deep sadness sink into her. "I wish you could, sometimes." She whispered, pressing her cheek against Xena's side. "Xena... I know I said a lot of things when I was angry.. and so did you.. but.." She hesitated. "That's not how I felt, most of the time." She fingered the fabric gently. "Don't.. let me do dumb things just because I think I should.. ok? We can argue about that."

Xena let Argo pick her own path, avoiding the deep ruts carved in the road by the rains and the traffic, while she considered her partner's words. Conflict with Gabrielle was something she still shied away from, and she suspected it would be a long time, if ever, that she felt comfortable in the half exasperated, half teasing arguments that used to characterize their relationship.

It had been... she searched for a way to describe it to herself. They'd been so sure of each other, that was what, she realized. So confident in their mutual love, so sure it bound them together in an unbreakable bond.

How heartbreaking it had been to find otherwise. How many months of confusion, and sinking realization, and pain. It was natural that now.. in this timid, tentatively growing belief in herself.. and in Gabrielle again.. that she wanted to stay as far away from those dark times as she could.

Wasn't it?

And yet, she knew instinctively that the healing between them wouldn't truly be complete until.. paradoxically, they could regain the confidence to disagree.

Damn. Xena sighed to herself. Why does life have to be so gods be damned to all Hades complicated? "Well, in this case, it's not dumb." She informed the bard. "I was thinking... we really don't know what's going on in there... much less where they are. I was figuring we could advertise that we captured this bunch, and we're holding them for trial."

"Mmm." Gabrielle mumbled, as she started to recognize the landmarks leading home. "You think they'll try a rescue?"

Xena regarded the horizon. "No... I don't think so.. I think what they'll do is try to get something of value from Amphipolis, and trade off."

"Something of value?" Gabrielle inquired. "Something like... the village bard?"

The warrior gave her a wistful smile. "Oh no.. the great, and well known, published in the Academy, charming, and infinitely talented Bard of Amphipolis, an incalculable treasure."

A blond eyebrow arched. "Get outta here." Gabrielle slapped her. "Besides, won't they know.. well, about us?"

Xena considered. "No... they don't go close to Amphipolis.. if that guy's attitude is any indication.. and most of them seem pretty young." She cleared her throat a little. "He had an idea of who I was, but he didn't know me, and probably had no idea who you were."

"Should I be insulted?" Gabrielle tried for a little humor, as she felt the awful tension start to edge out of Xena's body. She started a slow massaging with her fingers to aid the process, as she felt a nervous twitter start at the thought of putting herself into the hands of those creeps but... she had a feeling they weren't bad people, just misguided ones.

"No." Xena closed her eyes and blissfully enjoyed the bard's wandering hands. "That's a good thing... because if they know really who you are, they won't come within a mile of you." She let a long breath out, glad to see the familiar shape of Amphipolis looming in the near distance. Her eyes turned to the bard. "Having second thoughts?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No.. I think... I'd like a chance to talk to these people, Xena.. maybe I could convince them to stop doing this voluntarily."

The warrior had her doubts, but kept silent on them. "Maybe." She agreed mildly. "Anyway.. .I think you're basically right.. they seem to be more interested in money than violence.. it's just their keeping Eph.. that.. kinda bothers me."

"Mm." Gabrielle agreed reluctantly. "Ok.. yeah.. I see your point."

They filed into the courtyard in Amphipolis, and she moved Argo up to the inn, where Cyrene was standing, hands on her hips. "Here's your caravan, mother." The warrior commented dryly. "As requested."

Cyrene gave her a brisk nod. "Thanks.. um.. " She watched as the wagon went by with it's load of trussed up raiders. "Didn't order that."

Xena slid down off Argo, and caught Gabrielle as she followed suit, sneaking in a quick hug before she turned to face Cyrene. "We ran into a little trouble." She muttered. "Nothing much."

"There's a surprise." Her mother sighed, giving them both a wryly knowing look. "Come inside and tell me about it." She paused, spotting a familiar face among the trudging traders, who were gladly heading towards the inn. "Cait?"

Granella had stepped out next to Cyrene, her eyes pinned on the tall, slim girl. She glanced up at Xena in question. "What's up?"

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance, and a pair of matched sighs. "Let's go inside."


Ephiny forced the cloying fuzziness back, as noise forced her from her mostly dreamless doze. She swallowed painfully, shoving back memories of the 'games' of the previous night as she tried to focus on the here and now. It was dark, still, where she was in the alcove, where Paladia had tossed her after she'd finished, refastening the restraints on limbs too weak to protest, and still twitching from stimulation.

She'd woken once and choked down a tray of breakfast, then slipped into oblivion again, as Paladia laughed, telling her it just took a while for her body to get used to the stuff.

Then, the tall woman snickered. She might even start looking forward to it. She'd ordered one of the guards to give her another bowlful of something, then had her choke down a mugful of something else, which quelled her pounding headache but put her back to sleep.

Voices. She forced her mind to concentrate. Paladia, and another, deeper voice, agitated.

Captured... A jolt of awareness stirred, and she listened closer.

"We just heard, Paladia...the word just passed through the gate.. Minat and his whole crew were captured.. they're being held in Amphipolis for trial."

"What? Bastards..." The woman growled. "Why there? Why not in Potatohead?"

"Potadeia? Don't know...probably cause the merchants was headed there." The man answered, doubtfully. "Got a nasty reeve, does Amph... cousin of mine was hung there."

Ephiny held her breath, wondering. Amphipolis.. could that be a coincidence? A bunch of traders capturing well armed kidnappers.. a coincidence? Pigs flying on gossamer wings would be more of a coincidence. This had a certain.. scent about it. One she was pretty familiar with.

"Well, we can't have that." Paladia sighed in disgust. "Those are good, productive boys...lemme think... we got anyone that knows that area.. knows the people there?"

Shuffling boots. "We... not much recruitment from round there, Paladia.. they took care of they own during the winter.. not the friendliest types there, but I hear they did all right." More shuffling. "We damn stay clear of them... they keep watch.. don't like stealing... nasty, kind of... and b'sides, sometimes that Xena's round there."

Paladia snorted. "Oh please.. spare me tales of her. " She let out a breath. "She's old news.. disappears for months, I even heard she retired.. and you guys run from her shadow like she's some kind of mythic beast." She drummed her fingers against the chair arm, a rapid patter that Ephiny could hear clearly. "Need someone to get in there... scout the place out..here's the plan. We find a couple of valuable citizens.. maybe even that reeve you talked about, and snap em up.. then we'll trade em for our guys and maybe a bonus."

"I"ll send the word back... see what we can find out." The man said, a touch of doubt in his voice. "We could try just breaking them out.."

"Mph." The woman leader grunted. "They're on home turf...breakout could get tricky.. besides, we start using force like that, we get troops after us." She laughed. "A few merchants.. no law's gonna bother with us... if they do, we just pay em off like we did in the south."

"Right." The man agreed hastily. "I'll go now."

Ephiny considered the news and smiled grimly, as she pushed herself upright, and let herself drop back against the cavern wall as heavy footsteps approached.

"Hey." Paladia tossed a rough shift at her. "Here... get up and have dinner with me.. you get a break tonight. I need to think." She released the restraints, and nudged Ephiny with a rough kick. "Hurry."

The Amazon pulled the fabric over her head, wincing as the cloth caught on her scratches. She stood slowly, blinking, then moved quietly into the main cavern, where Paladia was slumped in one of the low slung chairs, busy with her plate.

Ephiny silently took the other chair, and started eating without comment, watching the obviously troubled woman across from her. "Problems?" The Amazon queried, in a carefully neutral voice.

Paladia glanced up, her mouth full. She swallowed half a mouthful, and pointed her knife at Ephiny. "You know Amphipolis?"

"Been there." The smaller woman acknowledged. "Small place, good inn, touchy natives." Inside, she grinned at the description, which was actually pretty damn accurate. Especially certain of the natives "Nothing special."

"Umph." Came the grunted answer. "They got something of mine... gonna grab a few of them an get it back... they got anyone out of the ordinary round there?"

Ephiny kept a grin from curling her lips with supreme effort. She shrugged. "Not really." She chewed her bread thoughtfully. "Not that last time I was there." And that's the truth, she considered virtuously.

"Uh huh." The woman waved a hand. "Hey... you ever meet that Xena?"

The Amazon gazed up at her quietly. "Who hasn't?"

A laugh answered her. "Good answer... she tough?"

Another shrug., and a waggled hand. "She's no Amazon." Another sterling truth "But I've heard stories."

Paladia grunted again. "Who hasn't?" She snorted disgustedly "Figures." She swallowed a huge mouthful of ale, and belched, laughing at Ephiny's wince. "So... Amazon... tell me some Amazon tales." She leaned back and set her plate on her stomach, propping her booted feet up on a small stool. "Make noise while I decide what I'm gonna trade for."

Ephiny cupped her hands around her mug and sipped it's contents gingerly, not wanting to subject her protesting body to any more stress. "All right." Her lips twitched, as she leaned back carefully and took a breath. "Once was an Amazon Queen who didn't believe in war...."


Gabrielle waited for the cabin door to close behind them, and watched her soulmate trudge over and collapse on the bed before she sighed, and rubbed her ear. "That was..um... quite a lecture." She walked over and sat on the edge of the soft surface, and chewed her lip. "I...wasn't sure who she was madder at, you, or me."

Xena rolled her head over and gazed at her. "She certainly has an opinion, huh?"

Cyrene had been, in stages, incredulous, disbelieving, and then furious that they were planning on quite deliberately arranging for Gabrielle to be kidnapped. And even more furious that not only was the bard intending on going through with the plan, but that both of them were actually pretty casual about the whole thing. Xena had finally had to stand up, and put an end to the debate, stating that Gabrielle was more than competent enough to make her own decisions, and that the bard was, after all, responsible for the leadership of the Amazon nation.

Which would fall to her, if Ephiny were not recovered, or if something happened to the regent.

That reminder seemed to settle her mother's outrage a little, and to tell the truth, was what was niggling her own conscience, because spending a lifetime with the Amazons... was not something she wanted for her future.

No sense in telling Gabrielle... and if it ever came to that.. well...

She'd adapt. Somehow.

Right now, she lifted a hand and traced a circle on the bard's bare skin above the waistband of her skirt, and smiled a little. "She'll get over it."

Gabrielle turned, and laid down on her side, propping her head up on her hand, and scowling. "Thanks for standing up for me." She picked up Xena's hand, lying quietly on the bedding, and fit its fingers with hers. "Does everyone else think I'm nuts, too?"

"No." The warrior gave her a wry look. "Everyone else thinks you're brave, noble, and selfless."

The bard rolled her eyes. "Give me a break." She examined the hand linked to hers. "It's nothing like that... it just makes sense, to figure out what's going on before we try to do anything."

Xena smiled at her. "All depends on your perspective, I guess." Her low chuckle sounded. "I always think the stuff I do is just practical.. then you go making stories about it, and I'm saying to myself, Self, what were you thinking?? You did WHAT???"

Gabrielle stuck her tongue out. "You do not."

"Yes I do!" The warrior protested. "What were you telling the other day.. oh yeah... the Cecrops thing.. and you were saying I jumped off a cliff onto a moving ship out in the water.. and my mind just said, there is no way I did that."

"But you did." Gabrielle replied, in a mild voice. "I saw it.. I was there.. and so did the rest of the crew." She paused. "And Xena, there's no other way for you to have gotten on board."

Xena shook her head. "I know." She lifted their linked hands and let them fall against the bed. "But I don't know how I did it."

Gabrielle shrugged, her good humor restored. "Magic." She pulled Xena's hand closer, and started to nibble on her knuckles. "I can always tell when you're going to do something like that too...you get this little..." She squinted up at her partner, and cocked her head. "Just kind of a..look..."

The warrior lifted one brow slightly, and grinned, just a tiny bit, a crooked half smile that brought a glint to her eyes.

"Yeah.. just like that." Gabrielle laughed in delight. "I always watch for it, because I know I"ll have something to write about real soon after." Seeing Xena's indulgent smile, she rolled over, and tucked herself neatly into the warrior's arms, which enfolded her gently. "Mmm." She pondered for a bit. "Everyone else seemed... kinda... "

"Excited." Xena supplied dryly. "To be part of 'a plan' - what a bunch of goofs.. did you see Josclyn practicing his little speech with Johan?"

Gabrielle produced a little giggle. "If he really calls me the Flower of Amphipolis, I'm gonna lose it, Xena."

The warrior snickered. "That was my idea, actually.. oof." A poke in the ribs stopped her. "Ok..ok... so you put on a command performance tonight, the town babbles about how priceless you are, and hopefully the kidnappers fall for it, and snatch you."

"Right." The bard snuggled closer, and stretched her body out, winding it neatly around her soulmate's. "Then nobody follows.. but the watch figures out which way they go.. and you pick up the trail after they do the transfer."

Xena nodded, nibbling on the red gold hair tucked under her chin. "Uh huh.. and when you get there.. you give me a signal...mad or scared, I come after you.. otherwise, I let you try to work things out." She paused. "For a day, Gabrielle.. got that?"

"Got it." The bard replied, taking Xena's earlobe between her teeth and biting down gently. "Mmm... your ear tastes like honey." She licked delicately.

Xena blinked against the barrage of sensation. "Wow..uh... must have been when mother grabbed me by it.. she was making cakes, I guess.. had the stuff on her hands."

"Heh..." Gabrielle conscientiously removed all the offending honey. "Can't let you get all sticky, can we?" She breathed into the now clean ear. "Your mom tugging you across the room was pretty funny, though." She explored for further surprises. "Oo... cinnamon."

The warrior surrendered to the touch, letting the sensual wave dissolve the worry she couldnít help feeling. She was aware of the bard's hands working their way under her shirt, and sent a quiet, humble thanks to whoever was listening that they had regained this most intimate closeness, which had done a lot towards repairing some of the gaps that had separated them.

For a short while she'd been worried that they were using this as a way of avoiding dealing with painful issues... until she realized that they had to have reached a certain point before it had even become possible to attain the closeness.. and allow the vulnerability that intimacy demanded.

After that, she'd just relaxed and let herself drown in the intensity that always seemed to be present between them again. Like now, when Gabrielle's every touch, every breath sent jolts of pure fire over her skin, as she gently stripped the bard's clothing off, and felt the warm, sultry breeze drift into the window and brush against them.

She felt safe here, with her soul cupped gently in Gabrielle's loving hands, in a place she'd been sure, at one dark point, she'd never see again.


It was nice, Ephiny decided, to wake up with a clear head. She actually sat up and had her thoughts collected before Paladia barged in, grabbing the lead on the collar she was still wearing in lieu of her other restraints, and pulled. "C'mon... Amapet...see if you recognize any of these potential meal tickets."

Ephiny rose and took a long step forward to avoid being dragged, then followed the burly woman into the larger room, surprised when she kept going, and walked right out the door. With a sigh, the Amazon ran her hands through her curly hair, dredging up her coolest, roughest, most too tough for her leathers attitude and plastering it on her face.

The one she'd painstakingly copied from Xena, complete with the little sneer.

They traveled through the corridors, twisting and turning, until the close hallway opened up into a larger cavern, which echoed with the sounds of voices and movement. Ephiny gazed around, impressed despite herself, at the orderly stockpiles of supplies and the purposeful attitude of the men and women. All were dressed in well used, but clean cloth, and most were very young. Younger than she'd expected, actually, and younger in average than Paladia was, who herself was, the Amazon guessed, about ten years younger than Ephiny herself.

Eyes followed her briefly, then turned away, dismissing her with faint shrugs. One in a long series, Ephiny realized, swallowing a distasteful thought. She kept her gaze forward, maintaining her dignified air until she was jerked to a halt, as they reached a table where several people were clustered, peering at a piece of parchment. They turned and two of them stepped back, as Paladia shoved Ephiny up to the table, and pulled the parchment closer. "Here...this is what they reported."

Ephiny lifted the parchment, and studied it, then slowly turned it right side up and studied it further.

They gots good stuff here, good food, and lots of it Big harvest, and they gots four cellers stocked full fer the wingter.
Folks are alright, kinda snootey, they lissen to the reve, his names Jossylen, they rekin he knows what's what.
The taraders what were in the wagin train are stayin in the inn, an so we ate there too, reall good tuck, and saw they storyteler.
I rekin we kin take the storyteler, and they'd pay good for her - she's real pretty, and they all likes her a lot, and the merchants all paid extra to hear her tell storys.
They gots a good smith here, might be worth grabbin, and whoever done the cookin, cause I tell you it was reall good..
And they gots a real good healer.. folks talken bout her like she was some kinda priestess or somethin..but she's setten watch at a birthing, so's we didn't see her none.
Our guys are in a deep cellar, no ways to get close, but I hears two of em are hurt.
B

"Well." The Amazon stalled. No mention of Xena, which was kind of odd. She usually stuck out there like a rooster in a flock of doves, and her presence was almost always commented on by the villagers.

Maybe she wasn't there... Ephiny mused. She could have gotten called away.. gods knew there were more than enough people out there now who would call on her.. but .. without Gabrielle? The storyteller mentioned had to be the young bard. Then she reread the note. Healer? Amphipolis' healer, whom she was painfully familiar with, was definitely male.

So. What in Hades were those two up to? She drummed her fingers on the parchment, aware of the eyes watching her. "I've met Josclyn." She admitted. "He's tough, but a good guy." She glanced up. "And I've eaten in that inn.. he's right, it's good." She actually had extremely fond memories of her extended stay in Amphipolis. "I can't say I know the smith or the healer, but.. " She made a quiet decision. "I've heard the storyteller... she's the real stuff."

Paladia grinned, and took the parchment from her. "Good.. good...." She slapped Ephiny across the shoulderblades. "We'll get more than our guys back... I want more... I don't like these people thinking they can just hold some of us.. that's not good business." She looked around. "Hey.. how would you guys like a pet storyteller, huh?"

A chorus of happy agreement met her. "All right!" She answered back. "Good..send word back to get that reeve, and try for the smith.. and that storyteller. We'll trade the big boy for our guys, the smith for whatever they've got stocked up, and keep the pretty teller of tales.. right?"

Another rough chorus of cheers.

"Um... " Ephiny felt compelled to say something, though she realized just about anything she said would probably not be effective. "That bard... she's got some friends in high places.. you might want to think twice about that."

Paladia laughed. "Even better." She put the parchment down, and tugged Ephiny closer. "We can keep her around for the winter, then sell her off. We win, we win... I like that." She gave one of the men.. boys.. really, a nod. "Send the note off... I'm looking forward to this...they don't know what they've gotten themselves into."

Oh no. Ephiny closed her mouth, and folded her arms. It's you who doesn't know what they've gotten themselves into. I just hope I'm right, and there is a plan.

Somewhere.

"All right... let's have a show, shall we?" The burly leader spread her arms out. "Big dinner in here tonight.. they should be back by then.. we'll celebrate...and show our guests how we got to be as good as we are, OK?"

Wild cheers. "Kin we bring out Fuzzy?" One of the men asked, a tall, very broad shouldered giant with shaggy brown hair and intense green eyes. "C'mon.. please?"

Paladia grinned fiercely. "Yeah... we'll make him bleed... he likes that." She pulled harshly on the lead until Ephiny was right up against her. "Oh.. wait... " Her eyes slitted sensuously. "I forgot.. you like hairy men... maybe we'll put you in there with him... "

Ephiny kept her expression neutral, and clamped her nerves down tight.

And hoped these confident, brash children would find something else to amuse them before things got...

Dangerous.


Continued in Part 3


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