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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@bellsouth.net

 


Leap of Faith - Part 3

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle lolled on the bed, crossing her ankles, and watching the still, tall figure at the window looking out. "Well?" She was dressed in a soft pink linen shirt, with gentle frills that made her feel almost adolescent, and a long skirt that Cyrene had, reluctantly and grudgingly dredged out of her linen press. It had been Xena's, when her soulmate was young, and she kept twitching the fabric with amused pleasure, allowing her mind free rein in imagining Xena in the rich blue green material. "I feel really dorky, Xena."

The warrior turned and leaned against the sill. "Nah.. actually, you look kinda like you did when I first met you." She tilted her head and regarded her soulmate fondly.

That got her a laugh. "Like I said..." Gabrielle fluffed her sleeves out. "I look like a kid." She rolled her eyes melodramatically. "I know I'm supposed to present an easy target, but...did we have to go this far?"

The warrior moved to the bed, and gazed down at her. "They're out there." She remarked quietly. "And yes, we did... it makes a difference, Gabrielle.. one of the reasons they didn't figure out who I was until they came at us was the way I was dressed... I didn't look very dangerous."

Gabrielle cocked her head and studied the tall form standing in a relaxed pose at the foot of the bed. She put aside her knowledge of who and what Xena was, and tried to view her objectively. "Hmm." Other than her height, which you really didn't notice because she was so well proportioned, until she was looming over you of course, and those eyes...you'd think she was a remarkably well favored, good looking, village resident. Maybe an innkeeper, like Cyrene.. or perhaps the wife of a prosperous merchant.

A warrior whose deadly skills were known from one end of the land to the other? Nah.. no way. It was her leathers and armor that made that so apparent. "Ok... I see your point.. it's a perception thing." Gabrielle admitted. "Right?" She eyed Xena further. "I still think they weren't looking close enough though." She muttered under her breath.

Xena nodded. "Right.. and I don't want them perceiving you as any kind of threat." She studied her blond partner and smiled. "Kinda like a disguise."

Gabrielle stood up and twitched her skirt straight. "Not much chance of that." She sighed, running her fingers through her hair and fluffing it, freeing it from under her collar. "Me, a threat?" She let out a nervous breath. "Well, I guess it's time to go."

The warrior gently arranged her hair, pulling it clear of her eyes, and tucking it behind her ears, straightening the two braids that added to her youthful air. "I guess it is." The braids fell down, and she tucked them back, to no avail. "Um.. hold on.. I think... " She ambled over to one of their saddlebags, which was tossed negligently down on the floor, and knelt, digging inside it for a moment, then pulling something out, and rising to cross back to where Gabrielle was patiently standing. "Here.. I think this'll..."

"Wait.." Gabrielle grabbed her hands, and took the object, examining it. "Xena...this is beautiful." It was a finely carved hair clasp, two wooden birds interlocked. "Did you get it from those traders?"

Xena quietly took it from her hands, and worked the bard's braids through it, adjusting them, then nodding in satisfaction. "No." She let her hands drop to her sides. "I.. um.. I made it.. on the way to China." She refused to meet the bard's eyes. "It.. has a little..pocket on one side....I wrote.. a note I was... going to pay to have it sent back." A dead quiet pause. "For you."

Gabrielle lifted a hand to touch the object, her eyes searching her partner's face. "Goodbye?"

A faint nod. "Something like that, yeah."

"But.. you didn't." Gabrielle uttered, softly. "You didn't have this in the palace."

Another faint nod. "I couldnít.. I tried... gods know I tried... but doing that.. made it final. I couldn't."

"But you wrote it." The bard asked. "Didn't you?"

"Yes." Xena glanced up and over her shoulder, obviously losing her composure. "I.. sat there in the harbor.. where I hid my gear..." A shudder passed through her body. "It took a long time...I didn't know what to say to you. Nothing seemed right."

Gabrielle put a hand on her stomach. "Oh Xena." She whispered. "I'm...I..."

Her soulmate let out a long sigh, and cupped the back of her head, rubbing a thumb against her hair gently. "But I couldnít send it... and I remember sitting there, trying to tell myself it was because I didn't want to hurt you.. any more than I had." Her lips tightened. "But that was a lie." She swallowed. "I was afraid to admit to myself that. ." Her jaw worked for a long moment. "Anyway...I.. tore it up..and just put that away... figured you'd get it eventually anyway."

The bard laid her head against Xena's chest, hearing the painfully labored heartbeat. "I would have?" She asked softly, confused. "Yeah.. I... " Xena sighed softly. "Shipmaster had instructions.. if I wasn't back within a certain time, he'd take all.. the stuff I'd left at the harbor and get it back here." She hesitated. "Swords worth something...it's custom built. And the chakram...it's one of a kind." She stared at the ground. "Would have let you live comfortably."

Gabrielle blinked. "That would have really hurt me." She imagined.. being here, and having some ship captain seek her out, and deliver what was left of her life to her. "How could you think I would...gods, Xena." It hurt just thinking about it.

"I didn't...Gabrielle, I was so confused...everything just hurt so much.." The warrior blinked back a stinging in her eyes. "I was afraid of dying.. afraid of crossing over and hearing the thoughts of the living.. of hearing your thoughts.. and knowing for sure that you... I just..." Xena knew she was losing it, and she had to fight her instincts to pull back. This wasn't the time to be doing this, damn it. "Look.. I'm sorry.. I didn't mean to get into this right now.. I was just... in a very bad place.. and I really didn't know what to do." She grasped the bard's shoulder gently. "And I'm glad you came after me."

"For the wrong reason, Xena..." Gabrielle closed her eyes, and turned her head.

"I don't care." Came the stark answer. "You were there.. that's all that mattered." She paused. "You're all that matters to me now." Their eyes met. "I guess this is a.. kind of roundabout way for me to ask you to please... please... be careful." A long pause. "I need you." The admission came in a faint, hoarse whisper.

Gabrielle gazed at her, aching. "Xena... if you had died... all you would have heard was just how much I loved you, and how empty my life was without you, and how desperate I was not to lose you." She replied very softly, and took a shuddering breath. "And you wouldn't have heard it for long." She looked straight up into the misty blue eyes above her. "I'll be careful." One slim finger touched Xena's chest. "You be careful . I need you too." She let her hand go flat against the fabric covered surface, feeling the rapid pounding of the taller woman's heart against her fingertips.

The warrior nodded gently. "I will be." Her eyes focused briefly on the crystal necklace peeking out from between the ruffles on the bard's shirt, then shifted up and found Gabrielle's.

The bard was shaking her head. "I'm not taking it off." She replied in a slightly hoarse voice. "I thought about that.. for a really long time this morning, Xena, and I'm just not." She tucked her folded hands tightly under her arms. "I went through too much to be able to wear it again.. I'm not giving that up." She paused and flexed her hand. "Or this." Her thumb rubbed the band on her ring gently. "If you're right, they're not going to know what it means anyway."

The warrior interlaced her fingers with the bard's and gave her a quiet smile. " Probably not." She agreed, kissing the bard's nose. "Remember.. try not to haul off and bap someone.. you'll blow your cover." She conciously lightened the mood, pushing her own misgivings down deep.

Gabrielle snorted, and pointed a finger at her own chest. "ME???" She shoved the warrior playfully back. "Xena, I have no idea what..." She watched her partner rock gently back and forth on her heels, grinning, and groaned. "Ok..ok..ok....sedate poetess, I got you. " She tugged at the warrior's laces, and patted her chest carefully. "Sorry." She ran her fingers through her hair, and twitched her shirt straight, looking at Xena for approval. "Look ok?"

Xena flicked a bit of dust off her sleeve, and nodded. "Perfect." She took a step forward and gathered Gabrielle into her arms, kissing her with a confident intensity for quite a while. Finally they broke apart, and looked at each other, and smiled. "Go get em, partner." Xena advised quietly. "And you tell Ephiny, when you find her, that she's really gotta stop getting into all this trouble, all right?"

A big grin split Gabrielle's face. "You got it." She gave Xena a little slap on the side, and took a breath, picking up her scroll case and checking herself one more time in the mirror. "Sedate." She glanced back over her shoulder and quirked an eyebrow at her watching partner. "Right."

Xena watched her go, folding her arms across an aching chest and sighing ruefully. "They're not gonna believe that for a minute with that walk, love." She murmured, watching the rolling, powerful gait fondly. "But I'm not gonna tell you to change it." Slowly she walked over to the window, leaning against the sill and let her eyes follow Gabrielle as she traveled up the shaded path, heading towards her stated objective, earlier shouted with cheerful loudness to a patiently waiting Toris, the spring.

Towards where Xena's senses told her six raiders were waiting.

Damn. It took all the willpower she had in her to keep her standing here, fingers gripped around the sill, her breathing tight and rapid. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. Her mind howled, as senses jerked, instincts screaming at the knowledge that she was about to let strange, rough hands take her beloved partner.

I must be nuts. She banged her head against the frame in frustration, until a gentle throat clearing made her look over to the door, to see her mother looking back at her. "Hi." She leaned against the wood, not bothering to dissemble. "She just left."

"Come on." Cyrene held out a hand to her. "Let's go wait for the watcher's signal over a glass of something cold." The innkeeper had her doubts, but right now she could see that her daughter didn't need to hear them. She crossed the room and took hold of the younger woman's wrist, feeling the unusual chill to her skin, and tugged gently. "Let's go."

Xena followed her in silence, her thoughts already far away.


What Gabrielle noticed first, was the silence. Birds, crickets... all the normal noises of the forest, and of this path she was as familiar with as the one that lead to her home were ominously muted. OK, Gabrielle, here we go. She took a breath in, and started gently whistling, as she tossed a packet of quills up and caught them, in rhythm with her walk.

When the first step came out of place, to her left, she heard it, and was wryly proud of herself. Your teaching stuck, Xena...wish it actually was doing me some good this time. Another crackle, to her right, and now she could almost sense them, smell their sweaty bodies on the soft breeze that was traveling towards her from the spring. Gross. She sighed. Can't scroungy bad guys ever take a bath first? She caught a bare glimpse of a dull greenish movement. Guess they wouldn't be scroungy then, huh? She whistled louder, and took the right hand fork in the path, starting the upward climb to the spring.

She was kind of surprised when she made it all the way there, hearing the absurdly conspicuous rustles all around her, and clamping her jaw shut on a muffled, tiny oath when someone slipped on the rich earth of the path. She put her scroll bag down, and looked around. Let's see...how can I make this easy...there's a bush... lots of cover for them to sneak up... She paced evenly over to the side of the spring, next to the thick underbrush, and knelt down, leaning on the rocks and gazing into the clear, cold water. Come on, you guppy toads... I can't make this any easier without knocking myself un...

She felt the sting as the dart hit her, and winced. Well.. she felt a rush of nausea. Beats being hit on the head, I guess. She felt a creeping numbness and didn't try to stand up, slumping onto the rock instead, and hearing the sound of rushing water get louder, and start to echo.. as the world exploded into darkening colors, and her senses faded out, until the only thing she could detect was a thin, golden warmth that pulsed in time with her heart. She held onto that fiercely, and was barely aware of the hands that grabbed her, and the sudden rush of air as she was taken.

The heat and movement nudged her to a sick consciousness, that and the disgusting smell of dirty burlap. She could feel the pressure of the stuff mashed against her face, and she realized she was hog tied, with a bag over her head, in the bottom of what must be... some kind of wagon. The rhythmic movement seemed different... she concentrated her hearing on the sound of the animal's footsteps, and chewed her lip. Oxen, not a horse, and two of them.

The sun baked down on her, and increased the nausea from whatever it was they got her with, and she tried to sense the time, as Xena could.. as Xena had tried to teach her.

Damn. Beneath the burlap, her eyes widened. Close to sundown.. she'd been unconscious for hours and hours. A cold fear buried itself in her guts.. would Xena have been able to follow her? Her heart started to pound, until she forced herself to breathe deep, and try to calm herself. Easy... easy... Gabrielle.. she'll find a way.. these guys are amateurs. She stayed completely still, and tried to sense her surroundings, realizing she wasn't alone in the bed of the wagon. Other bodies were pressed up against either side of her.

She sucked air gently through the musty burlap, pulling in the scent of summer browned hay, and the half rotten wood of the wagon. Ahead of her, the drivers were singing, young voices, raised in a bawdy traveling tune that she had, by some strenuous dint of effort, gotten Xena to teach her after they'd been traveling together for a while.

A finger pressed against her back, and she froze, until the barest whisper reached her straining ears. "Bags need a wash, don't they?"

Gabrielle felt a jolt of amazement and annoyance shoot through her. "Cait?" She whispered fiercely back. Damn it, Xena... I thought you trusted me. "What are you doing here?"

"Don't be mad." The soft, girlish voice answered, tickling against he back of her neck. "It was just too exciting...I had to come."

"Does... does anyone else... did Xena send you, tell me the truth, Cait... it's all right." The bard whispered back, biting her lip.

"Gosh no." Cait sounded utterly chagrined. "She'd be furious...and I had ever so hard a time getting them to take me.. I had to practically ambush them.. silly things." She leaned closer. "I couldnít let the queen go off without a guard, could I? What kind of Amazon would that make me?"

"Cait..." Gabrielle sighed. "Now I have not only Ephiny and Lennat to worry about.. but you too?" She closed her eyes. "Damn.. Xena was right.. the simpler you make things, the more complicated they get."

"Fraid so, lass." Came a very low mutter to her right.

If Gabrielle could have banged her head against the wagon bottom, she would have. "Johan?"

"Makin like I'm Josc, aye." The trader whispered. "As a favor for a friend, who canna rest to see one she holds so tight to her heart go into danger all alone."

Cyrene. Gabrielle realized with a twinge. "I could be really insulted." The bard grumbled softly. "And Xena's gonna have a fit." She fell silent, as the wagon stopped, on it's long, upward trek, and she heard the sound of stone against stone. There was a long period of grinding, then the wagon started forward again, with cheerful salutes from it's drivers, and the sun's warmth was abruptly cut off, as the animal's hoofbeats, and the coarse young voices echoed against hard, close stone.

She could hear a heavy, roaring grinding behind them, then a booming crash, and the echoes intensified. They were in a cavern, she realized.. no... the echoes were very close. A passageway, that was leading inside a mountain.


"You what?" Xena stood, weapons in hand, staring at her mother. "Are you telling me they've got Johan?" She felt like throwing a tantrum, and just barely restrained herself from doing so. "Mother, how could you do that?"

"They think it's Josclyn." Cyrene replied, squaring her shoulders. "Xena, I wasn't about to let Gabrielle just go off into who knows what alone. If you weren't going to protect her, well then..." She watched in a frustrated, angry concern as Xena slid down the support post in the barn and cradled her head in her hands. "Xena? What's the matter with you?"

"So." The warrior pressed the heels of her hands against her temples. "Now not only does Gabrielle have Ephiny and Lennat to worry about, she has Johan too." She groaned softly. "Great.. just great." She let her hands drop to her sides. "Mother, did it... even.. remotely.. occur to you that Gabrielle is very capable of taking care of herself?"

"No." Cyrene stated, unrepentantly. "And neither are you." She sat down on a hay bale and studied her daughter. "You're both being held together with moth eaten sheep's wool, and don't think I don't know that." Her eyes glinted. "I have no idea what these heroics are supposed to prove, but the only thing they're proving to me is that neither of you is thinking clearly."

Xena tilted her head back, and gazed up at the timbers, letting a sense of ridiculousness crash over her. "Mother, I resent that." She answered quietly. "You seem to forget that this is what Gabrielle and I do, or did you think all those stories are fairy tales?" Her voice chilled. "You just put her in more danger because she now has to worry about Johan's safety."

Cyrene caught her breath, aware that she'd gone over a line, by the now cool, guarded gaze she was getting from the tall, dark haired woman seated in the hay. She sighed. "All right... I'm sorry." She gave Xena an unhappy look. "I just... Xena, I care very much about you both, you know that."

The blue eyes found something interesting in the straw. "I know..." Her gaze softened, when she did look up. "Thank you." She played with a hay stalk. "Mother...I know you think this is crazy.. but it something we.. " She searched for words. "Something we had to do."

"Had to?" Cyrene replied carefully. "Xena, you're not in charge of saving the world, honey."

A faint smile. "No." She answered, on the end of a tired sigh. "But this is something that's important to both of us.. we can't just sit by when these people are taking and hurting family and friends. Don't ask that of me."

Her mother gave her an appraising look. "Is this part of your healing?" She asked the blunt question with gentle honesty.

Startled blue eyes jerked up and studied her in silence, then dropped, and Xena nodded awkwardly. "In a way, yeah."

Cyrene clasped her hands together, and gave a single, affirmative nod. "All right then..I'm with you." She replied quietly. "What's the news?"

Xena gave her a grateful look. "The signal came in a little while ago.. they transferred her to a wagon, and it's headed up the range.. I'm gonna get dressed, and take off after them."

The innkeeper shifted off her bale, and settled in the straw next to her daughter, patting her leg gently. "It was Johan's idea to pretend to be Josc...he figured he was as safe as any...and he just wanted to be there in case something unexpected happened." She leaned over confidentially. "In fact, he always volunteers for these things... frankly, Xena.. I think he enjoys it."

That got a smile from the warrior. "He's in the right family, then." She laid her hand over her mother's. "They'll be fine...I"ll make sure of that." She hoisted herself to her feet, then pulled Cyrene up with her. "Let me go see if I can dig up a set of leathers.. haven't seen mine for about a month."

She reached the door and pulled the handle, then jerked in surprise as Toris came barreling in. "Xena... oh.. great.. listen.. .there are a pack of Amazons asking for you.. Ares seems to have retrieved one of the kidnappers, and Cait's missing."

Xena gazed at him, then at Cyrene, then at the ceiling. "I need a vacation." She muttered, as she pushed her way past the door.


The wagon seemed to creak on forever, the haunting echoes fraying Gabrielle's nerves, along with the remembered scent of granite dust which still had the ability to raise nightmare visions before her eyes. She tried to stretch a little, to ease her aching muscles, but the bindings were too tight, and she only succeeded in earning a laughing slap on the back with a the driving crop the closer man was carrying. "No squirming now, ok?"

The motion stopped, and Gabrielle heard voices, several the same as she'd grown used to over their journey, and two new others, one male, one female. They traded jests with their captors, and the woman congratulated them. Interesting. Gabrielle mused. I wonder if she's in charge?

"All right.. bring them out." The woman ordered, confirming her suspicion. "Let's see if this little trip was worth it."

Hands grabbed her, and pulled her upright, holding her up with laughter when her legs almost collapsed. She forced her almost numb limbs to steady, as the hands untied the sack over her head, and lifted it off.

Her eyes took in her surroundings in a quick pass, just like Xena had taught her. A fair sized corridor, stone, with torches at intervals, her captors, and the two newcomers, a burly man, and a tall, heavyset woman. She focused her gaze on the woman, looking her right in her gray eyes, and studying her face curiously.

She was almost as tall as Xena.. and a lot... mm.. chunkier. Gabrielle kept a neutral expression as the woman swaggered over, and put her hands on her hips, staring down at the shorter bard. "So.. you're the famous storyteller, huh?"

Gabrielle thought that over. "I am a storyteller, yes." She replied quietly. "Why am I here? Why did you take me from my home?" A fist closed around her throat, and she was pressed up against the wall. Great. She felt her body react, sending a pounding rush of blood into her veins. She fell silent, but didn't take her eyes off the woman's tense face. Guess she's not into idle chit chat.

"I ask the questions here." The woman growled. "You just shut up until I tell you to talk, ok?" Her eyes scanned the bard's body. "You're just a damn kid."

The bard raised an eyebrow. "So are you." She remarked conversationally, letting her eyes drift. "Everyone here is. That's pretty cool."

Dead silence.

The grip around her neck released, and she dropped to the ground, remembering to bend her knees a little to take the impact. The woman leaned closer, studying her in fascination. "You're not scared, are you?" She muttered. "What's the matter with you? You crazy?"

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Should I be scared?" She straightened her back, trying to relieve the strain from her tied arms and legs. "Right now, I'm a lot more uncomfortable than I am scared." She sighed. "That was a long ride... and those bags could sure use a wash." She wrinkled her nose. "Uck."

"You talk a lot." The woman observed, with a frown.

"I'm a bard." Gabrielle answered reasonably. "It's kinda what we do."

"Oh." The woman muttered, with an unsure look. "Right." She rubbed her jaw. "You look pretty harmless... listen, I'm gonna take you with me, but if you try anything stupid, I'll put you through the nearest wall, got me?"

"Umm...sure." Gabrielle nodded. "Tied this way it's not gonna be easy for me to do much of anything, of course...walking might be tough. I could hop, though, if you want." She demonstrated, more to get feeling back in her legs than anything else.

"Stop that." The woman glared at her, then turned to the escort that had been riding with them. "Put these other two in with the Potatoheads."

"Potatoheads?" Gabrielle inquired, leaning against the wall. She could take a good guess, the amusement value of her hometown name being fairly well known to her. "I know a story about cabbage heads...you think they're related?" They all looked at her, and she smiled. "Just kidding."

They lifted Johan and Cait out, and she watched as they were taken off down a short corridor, then turned as the tall woman walked to her side and drew a sharp dagger out. "What's your name?" Her captor asked as she ran the knife's edge down the bard's cheekbone.

"Gabrielle." Came the immediate response. "What's yours?" The bard closed her eyes as she was spun around roughly, and shoved against the wall, feeling the harsh stone against her skin. A sliver of cold steel slipped between her wrists, though, and sliced through the rope, freeing her hands, which she brought up to hold her balance as her legs were cut free. "Thanks." She muttered, as she turned around, rubbing her wrists.

"Come on." The woman grabbed her sleeve and pulled. "And keep your mouth shut, willya?"

Gabrielle stumbled after her, willing her legs to work to prevent herself from being dragged. "Can I ask a question?" She asked after a few moments of dour silence.

An exasperated look was her answer. "My name's Paladia, is that want you wanted to ask, again?"

The bard absorbed the information. "No, actually.. I was just wondering...why on earth you'd want to kidnap a storyteller just to have them be quiet? I mean.. you could have gotten any number of people, who'd be glad to keep their mouths shut." She paused. "Paladia.. huh? That's a nice name."

Paladia stopped walking, and turned to regard her.

"Ok, so it's not.. you don't like it or something? You could change it." Gabrielle blinked calmly back at her, not even twitching when the woman grabbed the front of her shirt and slammed her back against the wall. "Just a thought."

"Look." Paladia growled. "I got you because you'd be worth something to those people in Amphipolis.. that's all." She twisted Gabrielle's shirt tighter, frustrated by the smaller woman's lack of terror. "I'm gonna trade you for something worthwhile.. if you live long enough and I don't beat you to death for being so damned annoying." She shook Gabrielle hard. "What is wrong with you? Why aren't you afraid?"

"Is that what you expect?" Gabrielle dropped her act, and simply responded, giving the taller woman a very direct look. "Let's just say I've seen enough of the world to know what to be scared of. I don't think you're going to hurt me, despite all your yelling."

Silence.

"You don't, huh?" Paladia asked, in a very soft voice.

"No." Gabrielle answered just as quietly. "Not unless you thought you had to, to make a point." She paused "You don't.. I know that you can." There was, the bard realized very quickly, a little bit of Xena in this young, rough, angry woman. The Xena she'd never known.. the one she'd described herself as in China.. rude, vicious.. cruel.. Gabrielle sighed inwardly. Hurting. It gave her certain insight into her captor, but she was careful not to take it too far, because Paladia was not her partner. "I'm no threat to you. I'm just a bard."

Slowly, the grip on her relaxed, as Paladia stepped back, still staring at her. "You'd better be.. you'll get to prove that in a little while in front of all of us." The woman smiled darkly. "If we like you.. maybe we'll keep you. If we don't.. " She chuckled softly. "Maybe we'll use you as target practice." She grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulder and shoved her down the hall. "Come on."

They traveled another few minutes, until Paladia jerked Gabrielle to a halt, then pushed open a closed door and herded her inside. "Get in there."

The bard stumbled in, and paused, glancing around. A fair sized room, probably Paladia's quarters, she realized with an uneasy start. The walls were bare, and the furniture was very basic, a table, a few chairs, a bed off inside a deep alcove, and a second, smaller area that seemed to have... Gabrielle froze, seeing a motionless form sprawled tangled in some fabric and furs in the shadow shrouded nook. "Is someone hurt, there?" She asked quietly.

Paladia laughed, as she flung herself down in a chair, and leaned back. "Nah... that's a toy of mine... I wore her out this morning.." The bard took a step closer, and blinked. No. Her eyes reluctantly identified familiar curly blond hair. Oh gods...no. "She looks hurt... maybe I can help." Without asking, Gabrielle crossed the few steps to the alcove, and knelt on the furs, her face tightening in anger as she saw the raw cuts and bruises on Ephiny's pale skin. She put a gentle hand on the regent's shoulder, and turned her head a little. "I think I know her."

Paladia drummed her heels against the floor, bored. "Yeah.. she said she'd seen you perform." The burly woman noted. "Leave her alone.. she's fine. Come over here and let me see how good a storyteller you are."

Gabrielle glanced back, and found pale eyes half opened, and gazing up at her. "Hey." She made it a bare whisper. "It's gonna be ok." She put pure confidence and compassion in her tone, seeing the despair and anguish in her friend's face. "We're gonna get you outta here."

Ephiny's lips moved faintly. "What are you doing here?"

The bard tensed hers into a brief smile. "Looking for you."

The regent shook her head in grieving disbelief. "Bad idea... damn it, Gabrielle..."

"Shh." Gabrielle touched her fingers to Ephiny's lips. "Let me handle this." She patted the pale, limp hand at her knee, and stood, closing her eyes briefly before she turned and walked over to where Paladia was impatiently waiting. "What did you do to her?"

A shrug. "Nothing she didn't enjoy... why.. you interested?" Mocking gray eyes studied her speculatively.

Gabrielle sat down and clenched her hands between her knees, taking a breath carefully. "No.. thanks.. I'm.. um.. taken."

The bigger woman lunged forward, and grabbed her hand, tugging it towards her. "Hey.. yeah.. lookit that. " She held Gabrielle's fingers up to the candlelight. "And you travel around? How'd you get him to agree to that?" She released the bard's hand, and settled back, resting her hands on her belly. "Or did you run off?"

"No... " Gabrielle drew the word out. "We have.. an understanding." She considered. "We travel together."

"Ah... " Came the jovial answer. "Then he'll understand if I add you to my little collection here, right?"

The bard shook her head a little. "No.. no... I'm afraid there won't be much understanding there."

Pale gray eyes lanced through her. "Too bad." A pause. "For him, that is... I think I like your attitude... it's kinda different."

Gabrielle stared at her. "Paladia...you don't have a right to keep me here." She gestured with a hand. "Why are you doing this? It's not right... these are people.. that woman there is.. I am... we're not your property."

A soft laugh met her words. "Oh yes you are... don't you understand? That's how it works, Gabrielle.. the strong take what they want, and the weak have to put up with it. " She stood, and paced over to the wall, putting her hand against it. "I learned that, the hard way." She turned and pointed. "Don't tell me about fair... my father had his hands cut off for taking food for us.. my ma died last winter when supplies ran out." Her face turned fierce. "You take what you want, Gabrielle, cause no one is going to give it to you." She smiled. "Survival of the fittest, you ever hear about that?"

The bard shook her head. "You can think that way if you want to... but you're wrong." She replied with quiet certainty. "I'm sorry about your family." She hesitated, then gentled her gaze as she looked up into Paladia's eyes. "It's hard to lose people you love."

Paladia flinched almost imperceptibly, and her attention focused suddenly on the harsh rock floor. She took several breaths, then edged her angry attention up again. "You're the one who's wrong... and I never loved them. "

She got up, and strode to the door, yanking it open. "Just be ready to blab, little miss bard.. I have things to take care of right now." She paused. "And don't try to leave this room, the guard will shoot you right in the guts."

Then the door closed behind her, and she was gone, furiously pounding steps receding down the long hallway.

"Mmph." Gabrielle ran a shaking hand through her hair, and stood up, making her way back to where Ephiny was huddled. The regent struggled up onto an elbow as she settled down cross legged at her side. "Hey... relax." The bard put a hand on her forearm. "How are you doing?"

Ephiny let herself back down, and rolled over, blinking at Gabrielle with bleary eyes. "Honestly? I'd be a lot better if I knew you were safely tucked away in Amphipolis, and not sitting here playing a damn dangerous game, Gabrielle." She groaned softly. "Why?"

The bard pursed her lips. "Eph... it's all right... it's all a plan.. we went to visit Potadeia and found out some of the town had been snatched.. my brother in law among them. Xena and I escorted a merchant train back home, and halfway there, Cait found us, and told us you'd gone missing."

The Amazon's brows creased. "The Amazons know?" She'd been wondering how Gabrielle had found out.. the bard hadn't seemed surprised at all to see her. "But... how.. I was headed to visit you .. "

Gabrielle dragged over a waterskin, and offered it to her. "I know.. but Cait followed you.. found your camp right after you were taken." She watched Ephiny drink in silence. "She came and found us.. we came up with a plan after we captured a bunch of these guys who were after the merchants and Xena persuaded them to talk."

A blond eyebrow arched. "Persuaded?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "You know.. the Ihavecutofftheflowofbloodtoyourbrain thing. "

Ephiny poked two fingers out in mime. "Ah."

"Right.. they told us you'd been picked up, but that they weren't going to ransom you.. that kinda concerned us." She put a hesitant fingertip on a long, ugly scratch down her friends shoulder. "With good reason.. are you all right?" She looked around. "Let me get something to clean these with."

Ephiny stared at the ground. "Don't bother.. they're nothing."

"Oh.. gods.. no.. don't you pull that on me." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "What is that, lesson one, day one of the warriors are us academy?" She tsked in annoyance, gently tilting the Amazon's head up to examine a bruise on her temple. "Wow." Her mist green eyes flicked to Ephiny's. "What happened?"

The regent swallowed a few times. "She um... I.. she's got this stuff... you'd better watch out for it.. it's...it.. makes you.. not mind when she.. um... " Ephiny's eyes dropped to the ground, and searched it intently. "Look, I.. it's nothing, Gabrielle.. just a few bumps and bruises."

"Ephiny." The bard felt her way, carefully. "I... understand.. what you mean.. what she did." She reached out and folded her hands around the regent's. "I'm ..not as inexperienced as I look, remember?" She got a feeble smile at that. "If.. you want to talk about it, I'm here for you."

Ephiny squeezed her hands back. "Thank you, my friend." She gave Gabrielle an affectionate look. "Now that, much to my dismay, you are here.. what's the plan?"

"Oh.. right." Gabrielle grinned a little. "Well.. problem was, no one knew where they were taking you guys... I mean, not a clue.. no tracks.. no nothing... they couldn't find you."

"Yeah?" Ephiny stared at her. "So...?"

"Xena can find me." Gabrielle replied, simply. "I find you, she finds me, she kicks a little booty... you know how it goes." She kept her tone light, and confident.

The Amazon stared at her. "Just like that... that's the plan?"

A shrug. "That's it." Gabrielle sighed. "We figured.. we'd start off simple.. but us being us, it would get more complex after that.. and of course it did... Johan and Cait managed to get themselves captured with me." She fingered the cloth of her own sleeve. "And I was hoping I could talk these people out of this.. but.. well, maybe I still can."

Ephiny nodded slowly. "What if Xena can't get in here.? This place seems like a fortress." She didn't hold much hope in talking Paladia out of anything.

Gabrielle gazed at her. "Eph.. she'll get in here.. and if not, we'll find a way out." She leaned closer and lowered her voice. "It's gonna take more than this pack of really bratty kids to keep us apart."

Finally, that got a smile from the battered regent. "All right.. but.. please be careful of her, Gabrielle.. I don't want to see you get hurt." She studied the bard's face. "You look good." A shaky hand came up and captured hers, moving it so the light reflected off the signet that graced one slim finger. "Things are going all right, I guess, huh?"

A grin was her answer. "Very much so." Gabrielle confirmed quietly.

Ephiny smiled back. "That's really good to hear." She squeezed the bard's hand. "I had my fingers crossed for you." She noted the steady, deep sparkle that had returned to the clear green eyes. "Gabrielle...?"

"Hmm?" Gabrielle leaned closer, and rubbed her shoulder comfortingly. "Relax.. I've got this under control."

"Thanks." The regent gave her a rueful look. "Much as I hate seeing you here... it's good to have a friendly face around." She paused. "Just stay out of trouble, OK?"

Gabrielle laughed gently. "You know, Xena told me to tell you, when I saw you, that you really need to stay out of trouble."

That finally got a smile from Ephiny. "She did, huh?"

"Mmhmm." The bard confirmed. "She most certainly did."

"I'll have a few words for her when I see her ugly mug." Ephiny grumbled.

"Hey." Gabrielle gave her a mock scowl. "Watch who you're calling ugly, there, Amazon, those are my baby blues you're putting down."

Ephiny gave her a tired, but delighted grin. "All right.. but you have to promise to stay out of trouble yourself until we're outta here, right?"

Right. Gabrielle sighed to herself. That might be easier to promise than produce.


The soft rain fell, drenching the leaves that reflected the last feeble sunlight, and darkened the leathers of the grimly serious group that sheltered under makeshift woven mats on the lee side of a small hill. Xena sat a little apart, leaning against a half rotted tree stump, with Ares' damp head resting on her thigh, and her fingers gently stroking his soft, if waterlogged fur. It wasn't how she would have chosen to proceed.. but once the Amazons were there.. She quietly watched them huddle together, seeing Eponin's starkly pale face amongst the small crowd. She couldnít keep them back, and there was no sense in telling them not to follow her.

She could have lost them. But one look at Eponin's eyes, and she'd told them all she knew, and waited for the inevitable squabbling, and let them come with her. They'd tracked the wagon to the bleak, open plains heading up into the mountains, when they had to stop or risk being spotted from lack of cover. Then it was her turn.. she'd led the tensely silent Amazons through gullies and over river washouts for hours without seeing any sign of their quarry, until she'd finally called a halt as the sun touched the western horizon.

They weren't comfortable with her, she wasn't comfortable with them, though she had exchanged a couple of moderately friendly words with both Eponin and Solari, and had inquired after Eponin's healed head wound. They made it clear, however, that their memories were long, and her presence really wasn't wanted in close quarters with them.

So she put up her defenses, and set up her own neatly made shelter, and tucked Ares close by her, mostly to keep him dry, she told herself. And tried very hard to pretend it really didn't matter to her. It was ludicrous, really.. here she was... out in the rain, having sent her partner into danger in their regent's behalf...

Damn. She shifted a little, and laid an arm across Ares' back. Can't change people, I guess.. no sense in dwelling on it. "Hey Ares... here you go.. " She tore off a chunk of the waybread she was chewing on, and offered it to the wolf, who took it neatly and bolted it, sniffing her hand hopefully. "Like that, huh?"

"Arrgrrrrr....." Ares agreed, squirming around and lolling his tongue out and swiping it across her bare thigh. His tail waved as she broke off another portion and handed it over.

"There you go... " She took a bite herself, and scratched his ears with her free hand. "Glad I decided to bring you along, boy... " She tickled his throat, and he wrapped his paws around her arm and chewed her fingers. "You're a good friend."

"Roo?" The wolf paused in his chewing, and panted up at her.

"Yeah, to me." Xena replied with a smile. "Here...hang on.. I think I have one of your grandma's treats here.. " She dug into her pack, and rooted out a small, nut covered pastry, chuckling a little as the wolf's bushy tail thrashed against her leg as he sniffed it. "Hey.. we'll share." She cut the pastry in half, popping part into her mouth, and giving Ares the other. "Mm."

"Arghrm." Ares chewed the tidbit quickly, and swallowed it, eagerly crawling up onto Xena's lap to look for more. "Roo?"

"All right.. all right... let me see if there are any more. " Xena laughed, aware of and ignoring the startled looks from the Amazons. She pulled the saddlebag closer, and fished around in it, discovering another pastry, and... her fingers paused over an unfamiliar object. She slowly drew out the pastry, absently handing it to the delighted Ares, then removed the second object, cradling it in the palm of her hand, and gazing at it with a quiet smile.

"You spoil that dog." A voice intruded on her reflection, and she glanced up, to see Eponin amble out of the misting rain, and duck under her shelter to crouch at Xena's side. "Never thought you'd be such a mushball."

Xena closed her hand around the small bundle, and tucked her hand under her other arm. "He's not a dog."

Eponin snorted softly, and sat down, leaning against the log Xena had chose to shelter next to. "Details.. details..." She remarked, letting her head rest back. She fell silent for a long space, then turned towards the warrior. "So.. we headed in the right direction?"

Xena gazed at her impassively. "Be wasting my time if we weren't now, wouldn't I?" She rubbed the small bundle with her thumb. "We're heading right." She finally added.

The Amazon nodded twice. "How do you know?" She asked. "Haven't seen tracks for hours... they could have gone in any of four directions."

The warrior gave her a look. "You'll just have to take my word for it." She opened her hand, and regarded what it held. "Or don't, Eponin... nothing says you have to follow me."

Eponin chewed her lip. "You ever heard the term 'best game in town' Xena?" She asked the taller woman with wry humor. "Sorry.. you know us Amazons.. we lead about as easy as a wild boar in heat." She sighed. "Guess I'm just... "

"Worried?" Xena inquired, giving her a faint, wry grin.

"No..no.. nothing like that." Eponin waved a hand. "Hey.. Eph can take care of herself...doesn't bother me a bit."

The blue eyes took on a gentle twinkle. "I'm worried, too." Xena announced blithely.

Eponin slid a glance at her. "Mushball." She rolled her eyes. "I tell you, Xena...that bard of yours has ruined you." She leaned over. "What's that?" She jerked her chin at the small piece of tied parchment the warrior was turning in her fingers.

Xena smiled, and gazed at it. "I dunno." She sighed gently and untied the bit of string holding it shut, and let the weight drop out, handing it to Eponin. "Here.. hold that." She unfolded the parchment, and studied it. After a peaceful moment, and a flickering smile, the warrior folded the paper up, and tucked it inside her leathers. "It's..a.. um... shopping list."

Eponin gagged. "Give me a break, Xena." She groaned. " A shopping list??"

"Mm." The warrior acknowledged.

I was sitting next to the spring the other day, Xena.. and I made a list in my head of all the things that were really great in my life... and I started out with you.

"Yeah... a list... you know Gabrielle.. she um...likes to write things down."

I think I realize now just how rare.. and how special what we have is, and I only know that because I almost lost it.

"Likes to kind of just say things."

And I just wanted you to know that, and to know that when I think of you, it makes me feel like the luckiest person on earth.

"Leaves me ... reminders.. sometimes."

You are my love.

"Little stuff. "

You are my life.

"You know. "

You are the keeper of my honor, and the holder of my soul.

"Doesn't Eph do that?" Xena raised an inquiring brow at her.

I love you.

I love you too, my bard. She finished, silently.

"Nah." Eponin shrugged. "She makes sure I take clean shirts out hunting, that's about it." She paused. "So I don't scare off the game with the smell."

"Ah." Xena gazed out into the rain drenched night, and smiled, her eyes glinting in the reflected dull light from the small, protected fire between them. "Must be the bard thing."

Eponin grunted, then turned the small, speckled pebble that had been in the package in her fingers. "You really know where she is?" The Amazon looked up, right into Xena's eyes, an aching worry in hers.

Xena put a hand on her arm, and squeezed it gently. "I really do." She reassured the smaller woman. "Look at it this way, Pony... if Eph is in trouble.. Gabrielle'll find her, and then.. she's home free, because we both know if more trouble's gonna happen, it's gonna happen to that bard of mine."

The Amazon snorted a little. "Yeah.. well...you gotta point there." She looked up. "Don't think I don't... we don't.. appreciate what you're doing, Xena... what Gabrielle did... we do. " She paused. "I do... very much." She cleared her throat. "I know this ain't no picnic for you.. .and I'm sorry... Xena.. I am.. I know we're not being rays of sunshine here towards you."

The warrior shrugged. "It's all right... I'm used to it." She glanced over to where the other Amazons were seated. "You're getting dirty looks. "

The caramel colored eyes followed her gaze. "They can bite my britches." Eponin rasped. "The conversations better over here." She yelled, making Xena choke back a hasty snort of laughter. "So's the smell. " She confided to the taller woman. "One of those guys can't tan leather to save her life."

"Eponin... "

"Look." The Amazon ducked her head, and gazed over at her, now serious. "You and I aren't too different, right?" She shifted a little. "I respect you .. a lot."

Xena blinked at her. "Ep..."

"Shut up, and let me finish." Eponin growled. "This is a talking thing, and I hate doing it, probably as much as you do, so don't prolong my agony, all right?"

The warrior subsided, resting her chin on the arm she had braced against her armored knee. "Go ahead."

Eponin scowled at the ground for a minute. "Where the Hades was I..oh.. right.. right... " She took a breath. "Listen...I know you don't as a rule collect friends. But you got one here. " And she clamped her jaw down pugnaciously, and gave Xena a level stare.

The blue eyes blinked mildly back at her, with a barely perceptible twinkle in them. "Likewise, Eponin."

They considered each other for a period of silence, then Eponin dredged up a half grin. "Glad we got that settled."

"Mm" Xena agreed, turning and rummaging through her pack again. "Here." She tossed Eponin a pastry. "Damn if I know how these things get in here... " She muttered. "Gotta stop letting my mother near my gear. "

Eponin chuckled, biting into the pastry with evident enjoyment. "Yeah? I'd say she's got you pegged." She swallowed. "But then.. I wasn't really sure if Ep wanted to go visit just to preen your feathers, or indulge in your mother's cooking."

Xena eyed her, then let a quirky half smile shape her lips as she pulled yet another tidbit from her supplies and leaned back, popping it into her mouth and crossing her arms. "Probably both." The warrior admitted. "Your stuff's so damn bland."

"Hey.. it's not bland... it's... " Eponin searched for a word. "Um... well, you know.. it's predictable, and that's a good thing, Xena.. you don't want surprises in your mess hall, I always say."

"You do, huh?" Xena muffled a grin.

"Mmmhmm." Eponin nodded. "Got another one of those?"


Gabrielle patiently cleaned the nasty scratches on the feebly protesting regent's battered body, trying to keep her conversation light, while she dredged up and considered which stories to tell at her demand performance that evening. "Ephiny, hold still.. I swear to Artemis you're worse than Xena is." She tried to hurry, wanting to get this finished before Paladia returned. "Wonder where she went off to?"

Ephiny winced. "Ow... who cares?" She gave Gabrielle a weary look. "I'd rather she be out of here."

The bard sighed. "If she's not here, then I can't talk to her.. and try to persuade her that this is the wrong way to do things." She sat back and looked at her handiwork. "There.. I think that's all of them."

"Gabrielle.. forgive me, but I donít' think you understand what kind of person this is you're dealing with. She's not just some misguided kid." Ephiny slowly pushed herself to a sitting position, and eased her back against the wall. "She's selfish, and does things to hurt people, and I don't think she has any intention of letting you leave here." The regent paused unhappily. "Or me either."

The bard gazed at her. "Eph...we're gonna get out of here, one way or the other." Gabrielle rested her forearms on her knees and leaned forward. "Either she lets us out, or, worst case, Xena gets in here and gets us out.. but we're not gonna stay here." Her brow creased. "What's up with you? You don't usually think the worst."

The Amazon let out a long breath, and rubbed her head. "I don't know." She replied quietly. "Maybe it's the stuff she's giving me.. I don't know..I just.. feel so damned overwhelmed." Her eyes blinked slowly. "I'm not used to feeling helpless."

Gabrielle put an arm around her shoulders, and squeezed. "Ephiny, it's gonna be ok." She told the regent soothingly. "I"ll try to keep her occupied.. maybe she'll leave you alone for a while."

The Amazon grabbed her arm, tightening her fingers. "Donít you get trapped like this.. don't let her do this to you, Gabrielle.. please... " Ephiny's voice roughened. "Not after what you've been through.. I couldnít watch that... please.. be careful."

The bard looked down, then back up at her. "Actually.. that all helps." She replied quietly. "I've... seen so much worse than her, Eph." One shoulder rose in a half shrug. "She's an angry, spoiled kid." The bard's back straightened. "I've had scarier things than her for breakfast."

Ephiny couldnít help it, she smirked wanly. "And lunch, not to mention dinner from what I remember."

"Tch." Gabrielle rolled her mist green eyes and blushed. "Gods... that's not what I meant."

"Really?" Ephiny teased gently, feeling a lot better. "C'mon, Gabrielle.. stop blushing, for Athena's sake.. it's not like it's illegal or anything." She poked the bard very softly. "You're joined, remember? And.. whatever it is that Jessan's people do.. about the only thing you haven't gone through is an Amazon ceremony."

"I know.. I know.. " Gabrielle waved a hand at her. "I guess it's just my backwater upbringing.. my parents frown when we hold hands, and they practically lose it for anything else." She giggled. "After we got home.. a few days after that, I guess... we got... anyway, my shirt ended up outside the cabin and I haven't gotten over that yet - Cyrene teases me about it every chance she gets."

Ephiny gave her a tired grin. "So.. does she live up to her reputation?"

Gabrielle's jaw dropped, and she swallowed a few times, making incoherant squeaks.

The Amazon started laughing. "Oh gods.... Gabrielle, you are too much." She shook her head. "Never mind.. never mind.. I'll just take that as a maybe."

The bard scowled, and gazed down at her hands, then she raised her head and gave Ephiny a sideways look. "I..um... don't have much to judge against... " She muttered. "But it's like having your entire body turned inside out and held under a waterfall."

Now it was Ephiny's turn to squeak. Gabrielle grinned. Gotcha. "So.. let me take a look around this place." Shehauled herself to her feet, and strolled around the room, searching for clues to the mind of her captor. She'd gotten halfway around the walls, studying the crude wall hangings, when the door slammed open, and Paladia came striding in, spotting her immediately.

"All right, little bardy... let's get acquainted." She pointed to the chair, and waited for Gabrielle to seat herself, then she tossed something at the bard, laughing when she barely got her hands up in time to catch it. "First thing, you can explain to me what you got in there. " She snatched the bag back, and dumped it onto the floor, sending various things skittering across the floor. "Starting with that." She pointed.

A very battered, almost unrecognizable stuffed used-to-be purple rag. Gleefully scarfed from Cyrene's endless memory trunk, and probably her stoic partner's first, and most beloved toy. Oh.. damn.. I forgot I stuffed that in there. "Um."

"This better be good." Paladia announced cheerfully, leaning back. "Or you'll be doing your storytelling hog-tied tonight."

"That sounds like fun." Gabrielle collected herself. "It's a prop."

"A what?" The burly woman's brow creased.

Gabrielle picked up the toy, arranging it's ragged wings carefully. "A prop.. for stories.. kid stuff. You know." She cleared her throat. "This.. um... this is uh.. Flameball.. and I.. um... I have a story that kind of tells about a little girl who..um... thought he was real." She flapped the wings. "Flameball..um.. saved the little girl's life."

Paladia blinked at her. "Uh...right." She rummaged around. "What about this?"

The bard stuffed Flameball back into his dark cave. "Um.. well, those are blank scrolls.. or partly blank, anyway.. I was working on a story when I got kidnapped." She watched Paladia finger the small case she kept her quills in. "That's a quill case.. and that's the ink jar I use to write with." She offered without being asked.

The woman unrolled the partly completed scroll, and looked at it, then handed it to Gabrielle. "What does it say?"

Gabrielle took the parchment, and glanced at it. "It's...a story about a little boy, who grew up living with the centaurs.. it's an adventure he has where he saves his village from a wild boar." Her gentle tribute to Solon, whose name she'd enter into immortality by the publishing of this scroll, which she'd hoped to do during the winter. "I've been doing a lot of children's stories lately.. I'm not really sure why."

"Oh." Paladia looked bored. "You know any bloody stories?"

"Yes." Gabrielle answered quietly. "Do you want to hear about when the God of War stole the Metal of Hephastus?"

Her audience perked up. "That's more like it.. go on."


"Well." Gabrielle looked around the tiny... room... cell... whatever... Paladia had escorted her to, pushing her roughly inside, and slamming the door behind her, telling the bard to change, and that she'd be back in a candlemark to get her for her performance. "Could be worse." A tiny pallet was shoved against the rock wall, and there was a badly made, lopsided table next to it. That, and a dirty throw rug were the only things inside the room. The walls seemed to loom over her, and she dropped her bag onto the pallet, and sat down next to it, bracing her elbows on her knees. "So... Xena.. here I am." She muttered to the floor. "You were right to be scared for Ephiny... but I think I'm making some progress.. it looks like Paladia can't decide whether to think I'm crazy, or be fascinated by me."

She leaned back, letting her hands fall onto the rough wooden surface as she gazed around the small chamber. "At least I think I've given her something to think about except what she's doing to ... gods, Xena... it's like a game to her."She'd decided to just speak her thoughts instead of writing them.. her diary had been left safely behind tucked in their cabin. "That would certainly blow my cover, huh?" She glanced wryly at the dirty rug, and kicked at it with one boot. "I had to make up a story about using that old toy of yours as a story prop, Xena... Flameball's gonna have to get his own tale now.. hope you don't kill me for that."

She ran through the short list of stories she'd planned on telling, bearing in mind Paladia's command that the tales be amusing, and 'not making us think too much.'. "Ok...the Trojan War, I think.. they'll like that.. it's mostly blood and guts.. maybe I'll slip one of Herc's in there, and, I think.. one of Xena's." She looked up sharply as the door opened, and kept her expression carefully neutral as Paladia entered, closing the wooden panel behind her.

'Is it a candlemark already?" The bard inquired evenly. "Didn't realize it." She studied the taller woman with guarded interest. Paladia was tall, with broad, sloped shoulders, and a small, but fairly well shaped head. Her hair was pale blond, and straight, cut short, but gathered back into a tiny knot at the back of her neck. She had a farmer's squarely built body, with long arms, and powerful legs, but her sturdy form carried a layer of softness that added an almost babyish quality to her features. Her eyes were dark gray, and blinked under thick brows, and her face had fairly broad cheekbones, and a small scar just to the left of her nose.

Paladia folded her arms. "So... you know Xena?"

Gabrielle felt a chill travel up and down her spine, and considered the question in frantic debate. "Yes." She finally answered. "I do." She kept her voice even. "Why?"

The woman shrugged. "One of my guards heard the two they brought in with you talking about her." She smiled. "A lot of people around here are scared of her."

The bard thought about that. "Well, I don't know... I guess she can be scary, yeah...but.."

"She live in Amfishywhatsis?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes.. some of the time."

Paladia settled down onto the small table with a smirk. "I think I'm gonna have my guys try and snatch her."

The bard sighed inwardly. "I.. um... don't think she's there now." She looked up. "Why would you want to do that, anyway?"

"Cause I donít think she's worth that rep she has, and I'm gonna prove it." The woman chuckled.

Gabrielle stood up, and strolled across the room, placing her hands neatly behind her back, and regarding the floor as she paced. "Paladia...you know, I've.. um... I've known Xena for a couple of years now, and... um...she's really pretty formidable."

A laugh. "Come on, bardy, she's ancient!" Paladia shook a finger at her. "She had her day... and I just want to make sure she knows to stay out of my path."

The bard suddenly, unexpectedly, felt a radical blast of emotion. "Well, I.. would certainly like to see a contest like that.. it would make a great story, huh?" Bad bard. Very bad bard. "I could um... really come up with a nice meter for that."

Paladia brightened. "Really?" She shook herself and glowered again. "I mean.. of course it would." She paused. "You'd..um... you'd make a story about that?"

Gabrielle nodded solemnly. "Yes, I would." Oh... yeah.. I sure would.. especially when Xena comes in here and spanks you all. "I've chronicled a lot of Xena's adventures.. it would make a nice addition."

A smirk. "Good." Paladia stood up. "Let's go..it's time for you to earn your food."

The bard stood obediently. "All right." She ran her fingers through her red gold hair, and straightened it, then twisted it back into the clip again, letting her fingers gently caress the warm wood. She twitched her skirt straight, and gazed over at the quietly watching Paladia. "Do I look ok?"

A faint blush colored the taller woman's face. "Uh... yeah, sure. Whatever." She stood up abruptly and waved Gabrielle towards the door. "Get going."

The bard tucked a smile away for later use, and padded sedately through the door. "Is Ephiny going to be there tonight?" She asked quietly, as the burly woman matched strides with her.

"Why?" Paladia asked bluntly. "She's nothing."

Gabrielle turned her head, and fastened her mist green gaze on the woman. "That's not true. She's a person, just like you are." She paused, seeing the darkening look of anger on Paladia's face. "You shouldnít force people like that."

This time she was ready for it, and when Paladia slammed her against the wall, she relaxed, returning the woman's stare evenly. "You can beat me up, but that doesn't change the truth."

"You think you're so smart." Paladia growled, then suddenly a sly smile creased her face. "Tell you what, little bard... I'll let her off the hook.. I'll leave her alone, on one condition."

Gabrielle looked inside herself, knowing what was coming, and remembered the obligation she had towards the Amazons. Towards Ephiny. "What?"

"You take her place." Paladia crooned, with a chuckle.

I can handle this better than Ephiny can, right now. "All right." She replied quietly. "It's a deal."

The burly woman smiled, and lifted a hand to trace the bard's cheekbone.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and let her anger, and shame, and fear take full rein, feeling it pour from her like water, in a hot, relentless wave, until her tormenter laughed. Then she opened her eyes again. You want to meet Xena? All right. I can arrange that. "Are we going?"

"Oh yeah.. " Paladia licked her lips in anticipation. "I know I'm going to enjoy this...what kind of story would you make about that, huh?"

The bard gazed back at her. "I don't make stories about that." She replied quietly. "Forcing someone to do something they donít want to do is not the kind of thing I tell tales about."

The woman drew back, anger coloring her skin again. "Forcing huh? You think you're too good for me, I guess." Unexpectedly, she slammed a fist against the bard's skull, sending Gabrielle sprawling. Then she stooped, and grabbed at the bard's shirt, jerking upward and shoving the bard back against the wall. "Just keep your damn mouth shut." She pushed the smaller woman down the hall ahead of her.

Gabrielle let her eyes drift half closed, and imagined better times, conjuring up the sweet warmth of her partner's smile, and allowing the sensation of strong arms holding her to shut out the damply echoing corridor, and Paladia's audible breathing. I'm still gonna try, Xena... because I think I should be able to reach these people, but I'm not gonna pretend I won't be glad to see those baby blues.. or make believe I didn't wish you were here right this second.

"Hey." Paladia caught her up, grabbing her hair and pulling her to a halt.

Gabrielle kept silent, but turned to face her, letting a bit of her anger show in her darkened green eyes.

The burly woman released her. "Just... don't make me angry, all right?" She fiddled with the short crop she was carrying. "Real life isn't like those stories you tell...there aren't little heroes to save the day, just poor slobs doing what they have to do."

The bard straightened, and put her hands on her hips. "Do you know what a hero is?" She asked quietly. "It's someone who sacrifices themselves for other people." She paused, thinking. "And those people really do exist. I know some of them. I write stories about what they do."

"You're deluded." Paladia scoffed. "It's all about this. " She held a fist up.

"You're wrong." The bard replied, holding up her own closed hand, and putting it over her heart. "It's all about this."

The woman rolled her eyes. "Just move, and shut up." She pushed Gabrielle around and shoved her forward. "You and that Amazon... you should have heard her blabbing on about some dumb story about some Queen of theirs who didn't believe in war... what garbage."

Gabrielle smiled to herself. "Just a different point of view." She replied quietly.


Xena had let herself drift off a bit, ignoring the damp mist. The Amazons had settled down, and were dicing in idle boredom after they'd finished cold trail rations. Eponin had remained where she was, on the other side of Ares' dozing form, working on a couple of arrowheads, before she tucked her cloak around her, and pulled her hood over her eyes.

The warrior let her own eyes close, absorbing the surroundings and filtering it's sounds and smells, on guard for any intruders. The air was thick with moisture, and the familiar brassy scent of rain, which gently drummed against the rich brown earth, and mixed that loamy smell in.

She thought about Gabrielle, wondering what the bard was doing.. hoping she was safe. Gingerly, she probed the vague warmth that had gently resurfaced in tune with their growing confidence in each other. It didn't seem par.... A cold, sweeping rage, fear.. anger..."Damn." Xena felt her heart start pounding, as she caught her breath, and raised a hand to her head. No mistake.. it was there.. it worked... damn...

"Hey." Eponin put a concerned hand on her arm. "What's up?"

It faded, easing into the more normal barely felt tickle. "Um...nothing." Xena replied hesitantly. "Headache." Stay here? Go? She waited, listening to the faint rasp of the rain against the grass and felt nothing further out of the ordinary. And then...a gentle, caressing warmth, almost a hug that touched a raw spot inside her and made her breathing catch.

So. That meant, not an emergency.. but when you get here, don't wait. Just c'mon in. Xena sighed inwardly. All well and good, my bard.. .but you've just made it damn near impossible for me to do anything but fidget and worry until sunrise. A rueful smile touched her lips, as she clamped down with sheer will power against the almost irresistible urge to just stand up, grab her gear, and run. Especially now...unsure as she was of the bard's confidence in her.

"Xena?" Eponin's voice sounded hesitant.

She took a breath, and looked up. "Yeah?"

"You all right?" The Amazon queried. "You got a really weird look on your face."

I bet. The warrior ran a hand through mist dampened hair and nodded. "I'm fine.. yeah...just thinking."

"Of what?" Eponin asked with a hint of wry humor. "You look like your armor's pinching you."

That got a grim laugh from Xena. "Teach me to sleep in it. " She muttered, forcing her body to relax against the sodden tree stump, making a small show of adjusting the buckle that fastened under her right arm. She was wearing her dark blue leathers, which still hung a little on her, despite a solid month of rest and relative peace, and the armor fit a little differently than it did over the brown ones. "Need to rework that catch."

"Stuff looks as thought it's like wearing rocks." Eponin accepted the change of subject with philosophical grace. "Nice work, though."

Xena shrugged. "You get used to it." She thumped a knee guard idly. "Had people taking leg shots at me all the time before... cause I'm so damn tall. These help."

"Never thought of that.. " The Amazon studied the armor. "But then we do more archery and group work than hand to hand with the heavy stuff." Her eyes fell on Xena's hands, resting lightly against her muscular thighs. "How do you protect your hands? I'm always getting knicked.. I had to start wearing these." She held up her own arms, covered from fingertip to elbow in thick leather.

Xena turned her hands over, and studied the palms, then grinned a little. "Speed, I guess." She admitted with a wry look, glad of the distraction for once. "I try to catch stuff on the bracers.. " She ran a finger over the hardened leather and metal protector. "But if I wear even a half glove armor, it restricts my hand motion...here.. " One finger idly touched the joint where her thumb attached to her hand. "And here." She indicated her wrist, rotating it and flexing the tendons.

"That's important?" Eponin gazed at the hand in interest. "I mean.. don't you just grip.. " She flexed her own hand around an imaginary sword hilt.

"No." Xena reached over her shoulder and drew her sword, then held out her arm, turning the palm upmost to demonstrate. "See?" She shifted her hand, and the sword rotated, changing its angle. "It's all in the blade presentation.. " Her voice grew a touch more animated. "Depending how you move here.. " She tilted the weapon. "You can deflect a strike up, or down, or to one side or the other."

"Hmph." The Amazon peered down the blade, then studied Xena's hand motion. "So that's how you do it." She glanced up. "You do realize you've now given up your secret to me."

Xena grinned, and in a flickering motion, spun the blade in her hand, then sheathed it. "Theory's one thing... doing it's another."

Eponin snorted softly, then sighed, staring down at her lightly clenched fists.

The warrior watched her for a long moment, then fiddled with her bracer. "Something wrong?" She asked, somewhat awkwardly.

Caramel colored eyes raised reluctantly to meet hers. "Xena... do you...I mean, does it have to be light out for you to..um." She blew out a breath and fell silent. "Never mind."

A tiny, wry grin tugged at the taller woman's mouth. "No." She answered. "It works at night, too."

"What about.. rain, does that ..." Eponin kept her eyes firmly glued to the ground between her knees.

"No." Xena replied solemnly. "Rain, shine, snow, sleet, you name it. Doesn't matter."

Eponin nodded gently. "Um... Xena... "Now she looked up. "Do you think...I mean... I don't know what it is, I just.. I've got this.. it's like.. kind of bugging me and.."

"You're telling the other Amazons." The warrior replied simply, as she gathered up her things and pulled her cloak closed. "I'd don't want 'em any madder at me." She felt a wave of guilty relief, as Eponin gave her a handy excuse to do what she really wanted to do anyway. She felt the day's weariness slip from her, as a pulse of energy replaced it, despite the damp mist, and the darkness.

Eponin took a huge breath, and released it. "Thanks." She looked up at Xena in simple gratitude. "I"ll go kick their butts... they won't hate me forever." She paused. "I hope." She rubbed her temples. "We're Amazons.. it's logical to want to find our Queen... both of them... as soon as possible." A small nod, and a glance up at Xena. "Right?"

The warrior gave her a quiet, understanding smile. "Right." She got up and tugged her cloak up over her head to block the rain, then settled her pack onto her shoulders, as she heard the rising groans from the other campfire.

A few short, sharp words from Eponin, though, and they were moving, and it wasn't long before they joined her at the head of the path, silent, wet, and annoyed.

Xena grinned, and shook her head, moving the wet hair from her eyes as she gave into her instincts, and headed to where her heart was leading.


The long, sloping path angled downward, and Gabrielle could feel the strain against her thighs as she walked, uneasily aware of the silent Paladia at her back. The passage seemed to be getting smaller, then it took an abrupt turn to the right, and a light streamed into it from an upcoming opening.

A dull rushing sound became evident as they stepped out into a much larger cavern, and the bard glanced around in surprise at the spacious room. "Wow." She commented, taking in the roughly built tables, and the cooking area off to one side, where steam was rising above an unmatched assortment of cooking pots.

The room was fairly filled with people, both men and women or, Gabrielle realized, boys and girls. Most of the inhabitants were very young, though some of them were older, and most of those seemed to be working at something or other. Wooden trestle tables were laid out in orderly rows, with benches next to them, and the walls featured garishly colored hangings, some of which depicted bawdy scenes and were damaged.

The air smelled like roasting meat and boiling vegetables, and she noted a jumble of assorted casks clustered against the far wall that were getting eager attention from crowds with mugs. The floor was granite, but scattered with sandy hay that absorbed spills, and could have used a changing. "Who are all these people?" She half turned to ask Paladia.

"Discards." The woman answered coolly, watching her face. "Displaced villagers...folks who lost everything last winter... who had to learn to take what they needed to live." She paused. "Kids.. from families who had too many." She shoved Gabrielle towards one table which was separated a little from the others.

"Which are you?" The bard asked, as they reached their destination, and she was slammed down onto the bench. She rested her arms against the table's surface, and watched as Paladia took the large, carved chair next to her.

"None of your business." Came the cold answer.

"Ok." Gabrielle shrugged, taking in her surroundings. "Just curious."

Paladia reached over and tugged her hair hard. "Donít be so damn curious." She leaned closer, and peered at the bard. "I heard you had it pretty sweet in Amfishyless this winter."

The bard half turned and met her eyes. "It's Amphipolis."

The younger woman shook her head slowly. "You are really something else." She motioned an older man over. "Get some food over here."

"You know... " Gabrielle persisted tenaciously. "People like it much better if you say please."

Paladia propped her head up on one fist, and snorted. "He lost his homestead down south of here during the cold.. his village ran him out, put his wife, their two kids out to freeze... he stumbled in here half dead, his wife so sick with coughing sickness there weren't no hope, and the kids half gone." She spoke in a dry monotone. "He don't give a damn if I say please, so long as he gets fed, and someone takes care of those kids." She gave Gabrielle a disgusted look. "But you wouldn't know anything about that, right little bard? I bet you didn't starve, did you?"

Gabrielle held her gaze. "No." She admitted quietly. "We all worked together, and pooled our resources, and we did fine." Her eyes dropped to the table's surface, and she traced a woodgrain. "But I've been out on the road... and had to constantly wonder where and when the next meal was coming from.. I know what that's like." Not really, she privately admonished herself. Not when her companion was a hunter of Xena's caliber, who seemed to sense the exact spot to fish, to grab small game, to find berries.. nuts... roots.. shoots... the woman was amazing. She could find edible substances in the middle of a desert, and even when things had been really, really tight.. well...

She felt a tiny rush of shame. She hadn't been the one to go without. She knew Xena had, sometimes.. but the tall, taciturn ex warlord had just given her one of those looks when she protested, and simply said she wasn't hungry. And then, she hadn't had the guts to argue with her. Not like now, when she kept a solicitious eye on her partner to make sure she didn't give up too much either to Gabrielle, or the ever hungry Ares, and she didn't put up with that look, or the scowl, or that too tough for her leathers attitude anymore.

"Yeah?" Paladia leaned back, releasing her braid. "Well, maybe.. you sure don't look like you eat much." Her eyes studied Gabrielle appraisingly. "All frills and lace and.. " She poked the bard's arm, then paused, and her brows creased. She poked again, then folded her fingers around the fabric covering the surface she was prodding. "Hey."

Whoops. Gabrielle kept a mild, interested look on her face, and tried not to tense her muscles. "Yes?"

The tall woman slowly drew her dagger, and slashed the fabric through, exposing the tanned skin underneath. She peeled the sleeve back, and used the sharp edge of the knife to trace the well defined biceps, smiling when she raised goosebumps in its path. "Well, well.. what do we have here?" Now sharp suspicion colored her gaze.

Gabrielle tilted her head, and regarded her own arm, then glanced up. "Is it the wrong color or something?" Her tone was utterly innocent. "Oh... you mean the muscles...right.. well, it's tough out there on the road... " She flexed her arm. "I've um... gotten pretty good at arm wrestling...it gets real rough out there sometimes.. gotta get fed somehow."

Paladia stared at her. "You're telling me that you go out and arm wrestle for your keep?"

"Well... " Gabrielle laughed self deprecatingly. "If I can't earn it through storytelling, that is... most of the time that's how I do it." She folded her hands together. "But it's... there are some shady folks out there... you have to kind of be careful."

Gray eyes regarded her suspiciously. "I find that kind of hard to believe." She stood, and gripped Gabrielle's arm, pulling her up. "Let's' find out what the truth is... go on." She pushed her out towards the center of the room. "Tell a story... 'bard'."

Gabrielle brushed herself off, and moved to the middle of the tables, feeling the eyes settle on her. Bright eyes, in young, confident faces that watched her every move, her every expression. She took a deep breath, and got herself in order. "Wars are fought for many reasons.. " She began. "This is the story of a place called Troy...."

She started in on the tale, bringing them into it, making eye contact around the room as her voice strengthened, and gained confidence. They sat spellbound, as she described the city, and the lovely Helen.. and the siege broken with a gigantic sleight of hand.

When she finished, she let out a breath, as they whistled and clapped, and she put a hand out to a passing server and claimed a mug of whatever it was he was serving. It turned out to be cold juice, which she gratefully applied to her dry throat. "Stone dust." She glanced apologetically at the nearest table, clearing the hoarseness out.

Eyes shifted as Paladia rose, and sauntered around her table, arriving in front of where Gabrielle was standing, and putting her hands on her hips. "So." A faint smile was playing around her lips. "You really are a bard."

Gabrielle raised both eyebrows. "What'd you think I was... an Amazon Princess?"

Laughter rang out around the circle of tables, as they heard her, and their leader joined them. "Oh yeah.. that's what I thought.. right?" She slapped Gabrielle on the shoulder. "All right... you're.. all right."

But there was a faintly relieved tone in her voice that surprised Gabreille. "I've got a few more to tell... " She ventured, taking a sip from her mug.

They kept her up there for hours, until she was so hoarse she could barely speak, and then Paladia dragged her back up to the table and shoved a plate in front of her. The stories had gone well.. they'd laughed at the funny ones, and been properly amazed by the serious ones.. but she'd gotten the strangest response to the couple she'd told that were Xena's.

Oh, they liked them, all right... but not without nervous glances up at the head table, and Gabrielle realized they were worried their leader might take offense at the admiration. Especially when her own voice tended to take on a special luster when she talked about her soulmate, an added, extra warmth that she could feel pouring from her. She'd never realized it, until she'd been talking to Ephiny about a story she'd been telling at the village, and Ephiny had correctly identified it as a Xena tale... even though the bard knew she was way to far away to hear her.

She'd called Ephiny on it, and the regent had laughed, and told her she could have been speaking in another language, and Ephiny would have known it was a story about her best friend. Her face, Ephiny explained, just lit up when she told one.

She studied her captor's face cautiously out of the corner of her eyes, and wondered. "So... were the stories ok?" She asked carefully.

Paladia looked up from her plate, and scowled. "Yeah.. fine.. they were great." She stuffed a forkful of meat into her mouth. "Listen.. it won't be so bad for you here. You tell stories, I'll cut you some slack."

Gabrielle considered that. "Paladia... I have family back there.. people that are very important to me."

Cold eyes regarded her. "Too bad. Get used to it. We all did."

Oh brother. "It's not that easy." The bard replied. "Look.. I know you had a bad time.. and I'm glad you found these people...and made them into a new family, but.." Her body reacted before she could stop it, moving her out of the way before Paladia's hand could strike her. The larger woman overbalanced, and would have toppled off the bench if Gabrielle hadn't caught her arm, and steadied her. "Would you stop that, please? I'm not a punching bag."

Paladia gripped the edge of the table. "I could break you in half."

"I know." Gabrielle answered, with a vivid intensity. "But what's the point? You're not going to intimidate me."

Confusion was written all across the blond woman's face. "Just... stop talking."

"Why?" Came the gentle answer. "Because you know what I'm saying is true?"

Abruptly, Paladia stood, and stormed off, grabbing a few of the older boys, and yelling for others to get their weapons, organizing some kind of drill. Gabrielle leaned back, crossing her arms on her chest, and letting out a long, tired breath, as she watched them.

They clustered in the center of the room, and tables were dragged back, as the boys stripped out of their shirts, displaying youthfully bare chests that were nevertheless supple and muscular. Five or six of them grabbed iron bars sunk into the slight platform she'd been standing on, and tugged, their faces reddening with the strain.

What the... Gabrielle leaned forward, as the slab started to move, sliding to one side to reveal a hole in the floor topped by a lattice of uneven wooden poles. A faint, musky, feral scent rose, and as one of the boys jumped onto the lattice, a dull, angry roar emerged from the dark pit.

The other boy joined him, and they both turned to accept staves from the light ring of watchers, who then cleared back, and settled down to watch with evident enjoyment.

Gabrielle turned to the tall, lanky boy sitting next to her. "What is that?" She asked quietly.

He grinned, his uneven, gap toothed grin jarring. "Fuzzy." His voice was very deep. "They fight.. whoever loses, Fuzzy get's em." He stuck his boots out and folding his arms. "Most of us got scars from Fuzzy.. but he kills some." He displayed his arm to the bard, tracing an ugly, uneven scar that snaked up past his elbow.

Against her will, Gabrielle stood, staring at the darkened pit. "But... what is it?"

The boy shrugged. "Beats me.. some bear..animal or other... big thing, fur, fangs... some of the guys found it in the north woods, and captured it."

A roar echoed, and Gabrielle glanced up, to see the tips of a pair of curved claws reach out, and snag the boots of one of the boys.

The youth laughed, and hopped out of his grasp, balancing precariously on the wooden surface. "Not today, Fuzzy... " He dropped the end of his staff into the pit and Gabrielle heard a muffled contact. "Yah... getddown."

The other boy took the opportunity to get in a solid hit, which overbalanced his opponent. The ginger haired youngster struggled, and waved his arms, but lost the battle, and tumbled into the pit, losing his staff with a clatter against the wooden strips.

The crowd rushed forward, yelling, as the hideous roar echoed into the air, suddenly enhanced by a single, curdled scream.

"All right.. get him back." Paladia laughed. "Idiot." She stepped onto the wooden lattice, and picked up the staff, jabbing down viciously. "Back!"

A bloody arm stretched feebly up, gripping the bar. Two of the other watchers grabbed a hold of it, and hauled, pulling the ginger haired boy up and onto the stone ground.

Gabrielle felt her stomach turn, as the bright red blood ran off the boy's bare chest, welling from long, deep gouges in his flesh. A second gash was cut into his right thigh, so deep a flash of white bone showed briefly. Gods. She closed her eyes, then looked up at Paladia's laugh.

"Next?" The woman grinned, hefting the staff, and smiling at the eager response. "C'mon... I'll give it a turn" She pointed with the staff. "Get him out of here and patch him up.. he's a bad boy. No dinner for him." Now her eyes lifted and found Gabrielle's "Won't this make a good story?"

Eager eyes turned towards her, and she measured their cruelty. "Oh yeah." She replied quietly, but her voice carried in the sudden hush. "I"ll make a story out of this."

A cheer rose.

"But you're not going to like the ending." Gabrielle concluded to herself, as she sat down and grimly watched.


The grumbling really didn't start until the terrain started sloping upwards, as they followed Xena up dimly seen paths. The rain dripped down unceasingly, drenching them, and the soft leaves they brushed through, which now thickened as she lead them into the hills.

Xena cocked an ear back, and heard the stumble, then slowed her pace, and came to a halt near a cluster of rocks, waiting until Eponin trotted up, shaking her chestnut hair to move it out of her eyes. "Need a break?" The warrior inquired, glancing back over her shoulder to where the rest of the Amazons were clustered.

Eponin put her hands on her hips, and quirked an eyebrow at her. "If I say yes, I'll never hear the end of it, will I?"

Xena sat down on the nearest rock, and rested her elbows on her armored knees. "Not a word from me." She assured the smaller woman. "I could use a breather." Not exactly true, but Xena didn't see any point in saying that.. the Amazons were annoyed enough.

Eponin sighed in relief, and half turned. "All right.. let's take a rest..." She turned back around. "How far are we?"

How far indeed? Xena considered quietly. "I don't know." She answered honestly. "It's not like a map, Eponin.. more like a.. kind of an instinct." She dropped her gaze to the leaf littered ground, and flexed her shoulders. "I just...know."

"Mmph." Eponin considered that, regarding the dark looks she was getting from her sister Amazons with a scowl. "I gotta go kick some butt. Be right back." She left the warrior in her quiet contemplation, and walked over to the rest of the group.

Solari met her, with a grim look. "Eponin...do we really need to.."

"Yes." The chestnut haired woman answered, grabbing her leathers and pulling her close. "This is our Queen we're talking about, damn it, Solari, who shouldn't have been out wandering the countryside alone in the first place."

Solari's eyes dropped. "I tried to.."

"Not hard enough." Eponin seethed. "Even Xena thinks it was a crazy thing for her to do.. so we're gonna find her, and she'd better be in one piece." The weapon's master leaned close. "Because I'm gonna knock her into next month for doing something that stupid, and you all are gonna be taking a trip with her."

Her voice had risen, and she was shaking Solari hard, ignoring the woman's widening eyes. Her anxiety got the better of her, and she felt her control slipping, until a warm hand dropped onto her shoulder.

"Eponin." Xena's voice was far gentler than she'd expected. "Let it go."

She turned and started to snarl a protest, but found a startling compassion in the blue eyes gazing back at her. It drained the nervous anger from her, and she released Solari, letting her arms drop to her sides. A prickly silence fell. "Damn." Eponin finally said, her shoulders dropping. She turned and leaned an arm against a nearby tree, staring out into the misty darkness.
"Sorry." She raised a hand and scraped it through her wet hair. "Don't know what's wrong with me."

Xena patted her shoulder awkwardly. "I do." The warrior sighed. "Just go siddown for a minute." She watched as the smaller woman paced over to the boulders, and seated herself, back to them, head cradled in her hands, then turned to face Solari. "You all right?"

Solari blinked at her. "Yeah." She straightened her leathers quietly. "Look.. she's right... we have to find her." She glanced around at the darkness shrouded group. "It's just... we've been going non stop for a couple of days, and I think we're about at the edge of what we can do." She looked up, as the fitful moonlight peeked out from the clouds, outlining Xena's profile in flashes of silver and gray.

Xena let out a breath, and nodded. "All right." Her eyes lifted, and searched. "There's a rock outcropping there.. " She pointed. "Take cover.. I'm gonna go scout around a little."

"I'm going with you." Eponin appeared at her elbow.

"Epon.."

"Donít argue with me." The Amazon snapped.

Xena regarded her, noting the stark exhaustion in her blinking eyes. "All right." She moved with snakelike swiftness, jabbing two fingers into a certain spot on the Amazon's neck, before she could even twitch. She caught Eponin's body as it slid down limply, and hoisted the woman over her shoulder. "C'mon. Let's get you settled." She absorbed the frozen silence around her with an inward sigh. "She said not to argue. Let's go.. I can't hold onto her forever."

The frosty air around her got on her nerves, as she settled Eponin's quiet form against the back of the overhang. Solari approached and knelt down, twisting her hands. "She'll be ok, right?"

Xena let her hands still, and let out a disgusted breath. "Yeah." She muttered. "Don't worry.. I didn't do anything permanent." She checked the Amazon's pulse. "She'll be fine.. just needs a little rest."

Solari sucked in air. "I didn't mean... "

Blue eyes glared up at her. "Yes you did." Xena's temper snapped. "And I'm getting a little tired of it." Her glance shot over to the other Amazons, who were silent, and now watching her uneasily. "So you can stay here, or follow me, or drop off the face of the earth for all I care." Abruptly, she stood, and ducked out from under the rock, heading off into the rain as a long, low rumble of thunder echoed overhead. Ares blinked golden eyes gone silver in the darkness at them, then followed her in ghostly silence.

Solari let her head drop back against the rock, and closed her eyes.

"What... damn, she's got nerve.." The voices started to blurt.

"Shut up." Solari ordered, in a bark. "Just.. shut the Hades up."

"But.. " A chorus of protest.

The dark haired Amazon turned her head and glared at them. "Damn it, she's right." She muttered. "Gabrielle's in there, remember? She put herself in danger just to find Eph.... Xena's out here in this blasted weather trying to lead us to her, and we treat her like she's some kind of stray damn dog looking for scraps in the village."

"She doesn't care." Terra snorted, dropping down onto the ground with a disgusted look.

Solari looked up at her. "Maybe not, but I do." She shot back. "I care.. and I know Ephiny would... she was going to Amphipolis to make peace with her." She tightened her jaw. "And I'm going to honor that, damn it."

Xena left the tense scene behind her, wanting to put distance between herself and the Amazons, and a little disgusted with herself for overreacting. She shook her head angrily, as she slipped through the underbrush, heading up a steep slope which crested on a ridge topped with oak trees. Ares pressed close to her, his wet fur damp against her skin, and she let her hand drop down to curl itself in the thick hair, glad of his company. "Who needs em anyway, right boy?"

"Grrrr." Ares muttered, sniffing the air warily.

"Shh.." The warrior put a hand over his muzzle, and dropped down, her hackles lifting as she sensed the presence of strangers. She crept slowly up the ridge, and ducked under a fragrant, leafy bush, parting the leaves with careful hands, to peer out over the top of the crest, and down into the small valley beyond.

Rain blurred her vision, and she rubbed her eyes impatiently, spotting the fitful, errant flutter of torchlight ahead of her. "Well. Well.. " She mumbled to the attentive Ares. "What have we got here?" She eased forward, flat to the ground, creeping over the top of the ridge and down the opposite slope with infinite caution. The leafy ground's dampness muffled her passage, and plastered sodden grass to her body, but she ignored that, as she gained the relative safety of a small bush that gave her a clearer view.

Damn.

The valley lifted up into a tall, vertical wall of a mountainside, the sides funneling into where a small, ill grown path terminated at the rock surface. The dim moonlight showed a dark, uneven cut in the stone, bordered by a short outthrust, which sheltered what looked like a guard post. Two torches fluttered in the wind, half extinguished by the rain, and outlined the huddled forms of several bodies.

Lightning cooperatively flared, and revealed a stout iron studded surface closing off the opening, and niches to either side which held further clustered forms. Xena leaned close to the ground, and pressed her cheek against Ares' head. "Whaddaya think, Ares.. your other mommy in there?"

"Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr" The wolf growled very softly.

"Yeah.. I think so too." Xena confirmed, chewing her lip. The entrance had no cover anywhere near it, making any approach very obvious. Also.. she studied the portal uneasily. No way to open that without burning it out.. or hooking up a few chariot teams to it.

Both would give the inhabitants more than adequate warning of an attack, and that...was not a good thing. "Well, I guess we gotta find another way in, huh?"

"Roo?" Ares' ears pricked.

"Yeah, me." Xena whispered absently. "Your other mommy needs me, Ares... you know how that is."

"Agrrrroo." The wolf sighed, and settled down in the damp grass, chewing on Xena's fingers idly. The warrior glanced up, judging the time. "Almost dawn, Ares... guess I'll wait for then to start hunting.. better to see this place in the daylight, huh?" The soft rain drenched her, and she regarded her surroundings tiredly. "Good a place as any to hole up." She crawled into the center of the bush, with Ares wriggling in beside her, grateful for the partial protection of the leaves. She moved her head, and jerked, as a soft, dark object struck her face, and raised a hand to grasp it.

A very soft, very weary laugh escaped as her fingers identified the object as a blackberry. "Well." She curled up, avoiding the thickest brambles and plucked a few fruits. "It's almost dry, comes complete with a snack, and no Amazons... how could I beat that, huh?"

Ares snorted.

"Yeah." Xena nibbled on the juicy blackberry with a wistful smile. "Gabrielle could be here." She closed her eyes and let the image of her partner's face spring to mind. "Hang in there, my bard." She mentally whispered. "You can count on me.. you know that... " Her chest contracted. "Don't you?"

A sound behind her made her stiffen, and she half turned, eyes flashing as she scanned the terrain, her vision picking out details invisible to just about anyone else. She saw a fern rustle, then again, and slowly, a dark head lifted out of the grass, peering forward.

Xena sighed. Amazons. Shaking her head, she poked a fist out and signaled, watching the head flatten back against the ground, and waited, until the cover close to her moved and Solari appeared, putting a hesitant hand on the bush's thick branches, and squinting inside. "What?"

Solari jumped a little at her low, vibrant voice. "Gods." She breathed out. "Is that the place?"

"Yeah." Xena answered, stubbornly remaining curled up in her haven.

"Looks like a fortress." The Amazon whispered. "Is there another way in?"

Xena remained silent for a minute. "Guess we'll find out at daylight."

Solari dropped her head, and let the rain drip off her hair, dropping lightly onto the ground in front of her. "Look.. Xena... "

"Solari.. get outta here just leave me alone, all right?" Xena bit off the comment tightly.

Long silence. "All right." The Amazon finally muttered, unhappily. "I'll see you in a little while.. be careful."

"You too." Came the quiet response, as she reluctantly turned, and headed back up the hill.


It was very late when the battling finally stopped, and Paladia rejoined her at the table, throwing down a worn staff, and dropping into her chair with a sigh. "So." She regarded the quiet bard curiously.

Gabrielle played with the wooden mug in her hands, turning it over and over. "That boy got hurt pretty badly." She looked up. "Was there a point to that?" The long day was starting to wear on her, and she was dreading what else the night might hold. Fortunately, she noticed, Paladia seemed to have worn herself out with the sparring.. the woman's face was still flushed, and she was breathing hard, and Gabrielle speculated that maybe she'd get lucky.

"Of course there is." Paladia answered, annoyed. "We keep strong and sharp that way... nothing like a little danger to perk you up, right?"

"Ah." The bard nodded "Well, I'm glad practicing my craft doesn't require bleeding." Most of the time, she admitted, with a private, wry smile. "Paladia, I don't understand... you have skilled people here... why don't you just work together and make a community.. instead of breaking the law?"

A soft snort answered her. "What.. and grub in the dirt for roots and berries?" The burly woman loosened her belt a little, and leaned back. "We've had enough of that...scratching and scrabbling for everything. Why not let those damn merchants pay a little? They can afford it, Gabrielle... they suck the life out of most folks anyway, you know that's true." She dragged a cup towards her, and drank it down, then looked around at the chamber, which was thinning out as the residents went to their pallets, which were stacked against the walls. "But I don't expect you to understand.. you're not a warrior."

Gabrielle reflected on giving Paladia a critique of her quarterstaff technique, which the bard had found sadly lacking. The larger woman was strong, but she tried to use that to overpower whoever she was fighting against, and she wasn't in really good shape, which caused her reactions to slow as her body reluctantly responded. She wouldn't last a candlemark against most of the Amazons.

Or me, for that matter. The thought tickled her. "Well, yeah.. you're right, I guess." She agreed demurely. "But what are you going to do when you run out of people to kidnap? It's kind of a limited pool, right?"

Paladia chuckled. "No..see.. after we suck all we can from the merchants, we're gonna start charging for protection round here. I figure between all the villages they'll decide to support us, instead of having us ride them down and cut them to bits." She gave Gabrielle a cheerful look. "Better us than some of those warlords." She reached over and slapped the bard's arm. "Donít worry, Gabrielle... you won't go hungry, I promise you."

The bard gave her a forced smile. "Thanks.. but... you can't keep this up, Paladia... someone will stop you."

"Oh yeah?" The woman leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table, and slitting her eyes. "Who?" She snaked out a swift hand and tangled it in the bard's hair, pulling her head to one side sharply. "No one's going to touch us, Gabrielle...let me show you why."

She stood up, yanking the bard by the hair after her, as she headed down a dark corridor.

"Hey." Gabrielle stopped, steeling herself against the jerking pain.

Paladia turned, a dark, wildly angry look on her face. "What?!!"

"I said, I'm not a punching bag." The bard stated, her eyes tearing from the pain of the pull on her hair. "Let go."

Paladia stepped closer, and wrapped her hand in the red gold locks, jerking Gabrielle's head up. "You're walking a real fine line, little girl." Her voice was thick with rage. "I could forget I like you."

Gabrielle moved towards her, and focused her gaze intently on the woman's face. "I'm not a little girl." She let her own voice drop to its lowest register, and summoned up all the lessons Xena had ever taught her about confrontation. "You can only go around beating up on people so long, Paladia...until eventually you find someone who that won't work with." She let a pause fall between them, seeing the startled confusion in the taller woman's eyes. "You have."

The balance wavered, and she knew she was as close to pushing Paladia over the edge as she'd dared to go. If the woman chose violence... No. Gabrielle told herself. I guessed right... she's not going to hurt me. I've got to believe that. A dark memory trickled over her, and she fiercely discarded it. She watched the pulse pound at Paladia's temple, as the woman's teeth ground against themselves, and the fingers in her hair tightened almost unbearably.

Then the hand released, and she was free, looking up at gray eyes which held whirling uncertainty. "Thanks... that's better. Now...what is it you wanted to show me?" She asked , feeling a quiet elation.

Paladia turned, and stalked down the hall in silence, and she followed. Eventually the path led upward, and the tunnel narrowed, until she could feel a faint breeze hitting her face, full of the rich dampness of rain. They turned a final corner and she saw a darker spot against the stone, which Paladia ducked through, and then they were outside.

It was dark, and windy, the rain drove against her but she closed her eyes, just relieved to be outside. Then lightning flashed, and she let her eyelids drift open.

And swallowed in shock.

She was standing on a small, irregular platform high on the wall of a sheer mountainside. Below her, far, far below she could hear the faint roar of water. To either side, the mountain curved away, to be faced with another sheer wall that rose higher, and blocked out all sight of a horizon. She turned to Paladia in confusion. "What...."

The taller woman let out a satisfied breath. "Now you see." She spread a hand out. "You're in the safest place in the world, Gabrielle...no one can find you. No one can reach you. She pointed, as the lightning flashed again. "That's the outer wall of a volcano.. this is the inner cone. The only point of entrance is the way you came in.. an old tunnel that's sealed in three spots, and guarded." The woman smiled, her good humor restored by the stunned look on Gabrielle's face. "We've got a running stream through the lower level.. and there's enough heat left in this old thing to even give us some hot springs." Her voice turned awkwardly coaxing. "Don't you see? It's perfect.."

Gabrielle looked out into the darkness, ignoring the sting of rain on her face that was also soaking her clothing. Somewhere out there her soulmate was waiting, listening... maybe even watching her as she stood here, outlined against the granite. She could feel it.. feel the warmth that trickled under the surface of her skin, despite the utter coldness she felt in realizing just what kind of trap she'd gotten herself into.

Xena. Her mind spoke clearly, quietly out into the night. I have no idea how you're going to get in here. But I want you to know something.. and I'm going to think this really, really hard...

I believe that you will. With all my heart. So I'm gonna do my best here, to keep things under control until you do, OK? Because.. see.. I could probably get myself out of here.. but there's Ephiny.. she's not doing so good.. and Johan, and Cait.. and Lennat.. if I get myself out, what happens to them?

Xena, I need you. I can't do this alone.

"Hey." Paladia moved closer, and peered at her. "You sick or something?"

Mist green eyes fluttered opened, and tracked to her. "No.. I was just thinking... rain always puts me in a.. kind of ... creative mood."

"Yeah?" The burly woman replied doubtfully.

"Yeah." Gabrielle confirmed. "It makes me believe.. in possibilities."

"Oh." Paladia rolled her eyes a little. "Right." She turned. "Come on..." One hand raised to grab the bard 's arm.. then hesitated, and fell back to her side. "No games tonight... I've got things to take care of."

Gabrielle noted the exhausted set to her face, but said nothing, and was just grateful as she followed her captor through the dimly lit tunnels at her own pace, a small victory in a day long on adversity.

Paladia stopped in front of the small room she'd been put into earlier, and gestured awkwardly. "Get.. some sleep. Tomorrow you have to live up to your part of the bargain, remember?" There was a strange, tentative note in her voice that intrigued Gabrielle. It's was almost a questioning tone.

The bard put her hand on the door and gave her a brief nod. "I remember." She pushed the door open and let it close behind her, facing the rock walls with a heavy heart, hearing the solid sound of Paladia's footsteps as they faded away.

She trudged to the pallet and sat down, clasping her hands between her knees and letting out a long, tired breath. "Guess I'd better get these damp clothes off." She remarked to the wall, heaving herself back up onto her feet and peeling off the linen shirt, examining the ripped sleeve with a shake of her head. She spread the shirt out over the small table, and added her skirt to it, returning to her pack and pulling out the one sleep shirt she'd tucked into the bag, fingering the fabric as she opened it up.

A weary smile tugged at her lips as she settled the fabric over her head, and felt the softness cling to her skin. The sleeves dropped down below her elbows and the ends fell almost to her knees, and the most wonderful, rich scent wafted up from it, a mixture of soap and sunlight, and the freshening herbs from the linen press in their cabin.

"Could be worse, I guess." She murmured, as she sat back down on the pallet. "I could be in the dungeons.. I hope Cait and Johan are ok." She considered that. "Guess they're better off not involved in her and all this stuff."

There was no pillow or blanket on the pallet, so she tucked her bag under her head, and curled up into a ball, letting the silence of the mountain settle around her. There was a soft sound of pebbles trickling down, and far off, water running. Against the wall, the sconced torch fluttered, sending a coating of black soot against the stained ceiling, and releasing the smell of burned pine into the air.

It was too quiet, Gabrielle decided. She missed the sound of the wind, and the rustling of leaves that she could hear even outside their cabin.

And the sweet echo of her soulmate's heartbeat.

It reminded her of the long nights in Chin, waiting for Xena to get there. Even though they hadn't been close for months, she'd still missed her terribly, and she'd wistfully wondered if Xena would even..talk to her after the whole thing was over.

Of all of it, losing that close friendship had hurt the worst. She'd had a lot of time to think about that, cooped up in Ming Tien's palace, just waiting. A lot of time to remember, and count her regrets. She'd cried a lot.

Going down into that dungeon after she'd heard Ming Tien sentence Xena to death was at once the hardest, and one of the easiest things she'd ever done. Stepping into the dank, stinking water, and seeing that still, suffering form .. trying to make eye contact and failing.

Seeing the pain etched into every line of Xena's body, which had tensed as she started to speak, almost as though the words were a blow.

Maybe they were...but when that exhausted blue gaze had finally, finally turned towards her she'd fallen silent, unable to go any further, letting all her pain, and all the grief just erupt into her eyes.

It had felt like a gift from the gods, that softening in Xena's, and the gentleness in her voice when she answered at last.

The bard sighed. "C'mon, Gabrielle.. it's only been one whole day. " She scolded herself sternly. "You can't be lonely." She chewed her lip. "Yet."

She punched her bag, trying to find a comfortable spot, and flipped over, staring uncomfortably at the half hidden ceiling. "Ok, so I am." She admitted quietly. Her soul ached for it's other half, and she wondered what Xena was up to. Tucked away in some cave, she was sure.. nice and dry, and waiting for morning. What would she say when she saw the mountain?

Nothing good, that's for sure. But she'd find a way in.Gabrielle allowed her mind to create a vision of her partner, seeing the angular face outlined with midnight dark hair, and lightened by the startling clear blue of her eyes.

Allowed herself to hear that low, burring voice, and feel the sure, powerful grip of hands on her shoulders, and see that quirky half grin which lit up her partner's face.

This sure isn't helping. Gabrielle sighed, and hitched herself up on one elbow, fluffing her bag again fruitlessly. She opened the flap, and poked a hand in trying to find what was causing...oh.

Her hand came out with the ragged, bedraggled shape of a somewhat purple dragon in it. She looked at it for a long moment, then put her head back down on the bag, and tucked the toy under her chin, hugging it gently, as exhaustion finally eased her into sleep.


Continued in Part 4


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