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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 –Why does anyone ever disclaim violence in a Xena story? Of course, there's violence. Do you think we'd put out a story that consisted of pages and pages of Xena just.... fishing.. or something? She is a Warrior Princess, not a Mary Kay consultant. (no insult intended - some of my best co workers are Mary Kay consultants, and I purchase from them regularly) And Gabrielle is no slouch with that staff, either. So, yes - there is violence.

Subtext - C'mon. Even the show has subtext. Heck, sometimes, it's not subtext. Sometimes, it's maintext. But anyway, this is an alternative fan fiction story. That means, it's based on the premise that Xena and Gabrielle are more than just best friends. If that's not your cup of mint tea, there are many, many talented bards out in the Xenaverse who post general fiction, which does not follow this premise. Go find them. Enjoy them.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more.

So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story, and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.

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

mailto:merwolf@bellsouth.net

 


Promises Kept - Part 8

By Melissa Good

"Ouch."

"Sit still, and it won't hurt."

"Gabrielle!"

"You're such a baby." A rolling of mist green eyes. "I swear, Xena...you could get poked with half a dozen arrows and not say a word, but something like this?"

"It pinches."

"Well, just sit still for one blithering minute and it won't." Gabrielle got the cuff curled neatly around the edge of one tanned ear and sat back. "There.. now, does that hurt?"

"Mph." Xena watched pensively in the mirror as the bard fastened the other cuff, then stood back and gazed at her handiwork.

"Well?"

The warrior's ears twitched, and she gave her partner a long suffering, grumpy look.

Gabrielle smiled at her, and tipped her chin up a trifle. "They look really nice."

Xena's lower lip poked out, in a pout. "I can't believe I let you talk me into this." She grumbled, but cast a reluctant glance at the mirror. The two silver cuffs were neatly balanced on each ear, with the vivid blue stones catching the candelight, and matching her eyes with an almost total perfection. She realized just how ungrateful she sounded, and managed a wry grin for her waiting partner. "Serve me right if you never got me another thing, huh?" She wound an arm around the bard's leg, and leaned against her. "Thank you, Gabrielle.. they're very nice."

"Tch tch." Gabrielle draped her arms over the broad shoulders in front of her. "Such a curmudgeon." She gently straightened the edge of Xena's leathers. "If you're going to have to wear all the clanking bits, at least you should have something pretty on, too."

The illogical nature of the statement just made Xena laugh. "Right.. right... " She let her chuckling wind down, then stood up, and walked over to where her armor lay, gleaming dully in the mixture of crimson sunset and candlelight. She sat down and fastened her leg armor on first, tightening the worn straps behind her knees and fastening the brass buckles, then she lifted her breastplate over her head and settled the pieces, smiling as Gabrielle eased over and fastened the clasp under her right arm. She'd added the extra pieces to her shoulder armor, and now she thumped them down into place as the bard moved around and fastened the other strap.

"Between the two of us, we've got enough leather on to make a steer nervous." Xena commented, running a playful finger across the bard's Amazon gauntlet. "But.. you really do that justice, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle paused in her fiddling, and glanced down. "Do I?" She was dressed in her full Amazon regalia, complete with a ceremonial dagger strapped at her left hip. "I think I make too much noise." She hopped up and down, then winced. "Ow... gods.. "

Xena grabbed her arm. "Save the bunny routine for when your knee heals, all right?" The warrior warned her jokingly, then held her out at arm's distance and smiled.

Unconsciously, Gabrielle straightened under her scrutiny, sucking in a breath, and squaring her shoulders. Her Amazon leathers shifted as she moved, the rust brown leather sliding gently against her skin. Her pale hair was caught up in two braids, and pulled back from her face, exposing the twinkling ear cuffs of staves and quills, and the brilliant crystal pendant resting in the hollow of her throat.

She clenched hands inside the cutoff gauntlets, and flexed biceps unused to the confinement of the leather bands that circled them. "It takes a while to get used to this." She gave Xena an apologetic glance.

Xena nodded quietly. "I know... but relax.. you look great."

Gabrielle accepted the compliment with a grin. "Thanks.. so do you." She watched as Xena fastened a light cloak to her shoulder clasps, after she clipped her sheath to her back, and settled her chakram.

The warrior adjusted a bracer, then glanced up, and spread both arms out as she straightened up to her full height, with a questioning glance. "Do I pass muster?"

Solid black leathers, and warmly glistening armor plate, contrasting with tanned skin that rippled over the sleek muscles in her arms and legs, and dark hair let loose to cascade across her shoulders like an extension of her flowing cloak. Other than her ear cuffs, the only other ornamentation she wore was the pendant matching Gabrielle's, and the ring on her hand.

She looked, Gabrielle decided, about as intimidating as it was possible for her to look without actually having her sword drawn. "Wow." The bard whistled. "You're making my heart beat faster."

"If I have to put all this on to do that to you, I'm in trouble." Xena replied, wryly.

The bard smiled, and stepped forward, catching her hand, and pressing it to her chest. "Say my name."

The warrior did, and felt the skip under her fingers. She chuckled. "Is that all it takes?"

Mist green eyes gone suddenly serious in the dying light of the day gazed up at her. "One look... one touch... " She stepped up and circled Xena's neck with an arm, pulling her head down until their lips met. "One kiss. " She whispered when they broke apart.

Xena gazed down at her in peaceful dreaminess for a long moment. Then she gave her nose a little tweak. "C'mon... let's get this farce started, all right?"

"Right." Gabrielle agreed, giving a few last moment twitches to her outfit. "Ready Ares?"

The wolf, freshly brushed, and looking very handsome, was curled up near Xena's saddlebags. At the bard's question, he lifted his head, and pricked his ears. "Roo?"

"I'd say we're all ready... so.. " Xena checked to make sure she had enough weapons clipped to her, and bounced a time or two, just to settle everything. "Let's go."

They exited their assigned quarters, and paced down the stairs together, with Xena consciously slowing her steps to allow for her partner's injured leg. As they reached the foot of the stairs, the two guards stationed there came to attention, saluting Xena smartly. She gave them a nod, and continued on, crossing the large entranceway, and approaching the doors to the banquet hall.

They could hear faint music coming from within, and she gave Gabrielle a quick look before she signaled the door guard to open the large panels. "You ready, my Queen?"

Gabrielle felt a pleasant shock shiver down her back at the title. "You bet." She took a deep breath, and straightened her shoulders, assuming the mantle of authority this outfit bestowed on her. "Go for it."

Xena chuckled faintly. "Gotta work on your queenly dialog, love. " She muttered, then gave the doorman a nod. "Open em up."

The doors drifted open, and a wave of food smells, mixed with incense, and warm bodies washed out. Xena waited for the opening to be large enough to admit them both, then strode in, with Gabrielle close at her heels. As she cleared the entrance, all the soldiers present stood in place, with quiet deference. It sent a little shock wave running around the room, and a buzz followed it, as the city residents glanced uneasily at the still, disciplined faces.

Xena felt it, felt the animal surge of excitement at her presence that made her own blood rush, and she grinned, as she crossed the floor and watched all the eyes in the room follow her, and the Amazon Queen walking proudly at her side. She could see the serious, no nonsense look on Gabrielle's face as she scanned the room, and felt the startled reaction wash back on them from the watching eyes.

As they reached the head table, she caught Garanimus staring, wide eyed at her, and she gave him a look, which made him glance down, then back up, with a slow, appreciative smile starting to cross his handsome face. Casually, she took her seat, aware of the wave of motion as the soldiers sat down after she did. "Hi." She settled the folds of her cloak neatly. "Something wrong?"

Garanimus rubbed his eyes, and indulged in a long, frank stare at her. "Zeus' eyeballs, Xena...I'd forgotten what you looked like in all that." He let out a delighted laugh, then craned his neck to oogle Gabrielle, who gave him a cool stare back. "And uh... " One hand waved in her direction. "Where did um... "

"Oh." Xena took a cup from the table, and swallowed a sip of it's contents. "Didn't I mention Gabrielle is a queen of the Amazons?" She commented, innocently. "Damn.. I meant to."

He pointed. "You?"

Gabrielle looked at him, giving him her best imitation of one of her partner's dour looks. "Yeah, and you're really lucky we happen to worship sweet peas among other vegetables." She informed him. "Or I could have been really offended."

He goggled at her, then jerked his eyes to Xena's face, which was solemn, and impassive. "Uh.. right... sorry." He cleared his throat. "Word just came that Framna is at the main gate.. I'm having him escorted in."

Xena just nodded, and leaned back in her chair, resting her elbows on the arms, and steepling her fingers. She was vaguely aware of Silvi on Gar's other side, sitting stiffly, and shooting her evil looks. Her soldiers were scattered around at random, as usual, and were partaking from the platters and pitchers eagerly. At her side, Gabrielle was also daintily plucking goodies from the trays, and consuming them, occasionally offering a selection to the patiently waiting Ares.

She herself, didn't touch a thing, other than the heavy wooden mug she had clasped in both hands, full of plain cider. Her pale eyes moved ceaselessly around the room, watching soldiers, and citizens, servants and guards. She could feel the tension in the room, that was making gestures to frantic, and voices too brittle.

She could smell fear, as sharp and distinctive as thyme, and felt her battle instincts perking up, recognizing that as a signal. Eyes were watching her, and she ignored them, waiting for that large door to open again, and for the show to begin.

It seemed to take forever, but at last they did, and the voices died down, as Framna walked stiffly in, flanked by Bennu and one of her other lieutenants. They brought him before the dais where the head table was planted, and stopped, saluting.

Saluting her, Xena realized, as she lifted a hand in acknowledgement, then dropped it. She elected to remain seated while Garanimus rose in place, letting his long fingertips rest on the table, as he studied his opponent..

Framna had dressed the part, full leathers and armor, including his sword left in place by the guards at Xena's explicit order. His gear was in good condition, and well cared for, and was obviously functional. Now, he lifted his head confidently, and gazed back at them. "I have come to hear your terms." He paused. "Of surrender."

Garanimus laughed, not one of his nicer ones. "Hope you brought a sandwich. You'll be waiting a while." The soldiers around the room chuckled with him, a circle of low sound that echoed gently against the stone floors. "We're not surrendering, you low browed excuse for a mule handler."

Framna's eyes narrowed. "You are outnumbered and outclassed, dog face."

Gabrielle leaned over to where her partner was relaxedly listening. "Sounds like they know each other." She whispered.

Xena lifted a lazy hand and smothered a grin.

"I'm not outnumbered." Garanimus shrugged. "I have Xena." He darted a glanced towards the watching ex warlord. "And as for outclassed, my butt has more class than your entire pathetic army."

The tall, red haired man squared his shoulders. "One person does not an army make, you pigheaded fool." But his eyes darted around the room , to the disciplined stance of the soldiers, and Bennu's silent, menacing presence at his shoulder before he returned his attention to the front table.

"Sure it does." The blond man answered cheerfully, obviously enjoying himself. "You just gotta pick the right person...see, I happen to know Xena here.. " He half turned and gave the warrior an affectionate glance. "Could handle your whole army by herself.. the rest of the boys are just around to carry her sword, and bring her cold water, and that kinda thing.. so.." Another round of chuckles from the army, and a few low yells of agreement.

It was hard to keep a straight face, but Xena managed, making a mental note to kick Garanimus' butt later on for that remark. She maintained her slightly bored, slightly amused expression, and laced her fingers across her stomach, twiddling her thumbs idly.

"You're blushing." Gabrielle whispered, barely moving her lips.

"Too dark for them to see it." Xena muttered back, with a tiny chuckle.

"It would make a great story... " The bard breathed.

"Donít you get any ideas." The warrior sighed, waiting for Framna's next salvo.

"I find that hard to believe." The redhead stated flatly.

Garanimus spread both arms to either side. "Try me." He cast his cards on the table. "I didn't ask you to show up here... go back out to your army then, and find out for yourself. You won't take this city."

Framna half turned, and now, for the first time, looked directly at the lounging Xena. "I have a better idea."

Uh oh. Xena sighed inwardly. There always has to be someone who can't follow a plan. She exchanged wry looks with her soulmate, then raised an eyebrow at the enemy leader. "And that would be??"

"A challenge." The tall man replied. "Between you, and I."

Xena folded her arms across her chest. "What'd you have in mind?" She asked casually.

He held up a hand. "First, you have to agree, that whatever I name as a challenge, you'll meet, no matter what it is... no backing down, no changing your mind." His eyes studied her. "Unless that disturbs you... and if so, we'll just do this the conventional way, and I'll be going out back to my army. It's a good night for fighting."

Xena stood, and stepped around the edge of the table, strolling down the two stairs from the dais and making her way over to him. She stopped within arm's length, and studied him. "All right." She let a faint grin edge her face. "You have my word." Now she waited, wondering what he had up his sleeve. She suspected she knew how to fight with more weapons than he did, just from the sheer number of years longer she'd been doing it, and even if he chose to forgo weapons and try a wrestling match...well, she had tricks of her own there, too, to compensate for his size and height.

He smirked, a somewhat unpleasant look, and rubbed his hands together. "We fighters can be such one dimensional types, don't you agree, Xena?" He turned his head, and pointed at the small group of musicians who were huddled to one side, waiting for this tedious business to finish so they could continue playing. "I aim to change that. My challenge is music... I will charm the good people here, and see if you can do the same."

He didn't look back at her, just gestured for the harpist to come forward, and when he hesitantly did, took the instrument from his hands.

A murmur ran around the room, and everyone looked at Xena, who had leaned back against the head table, and crossed her arms, an inscrutable expression on her face. Garanimus gave her a nervous look, then took a quick peek at Gabrielle, who had this.. He blinked. Had this completely delighted smile on her face for no apparent reason.

Framna settled the instrument, and fingered it, then started in to a nice melody, which he produced with respectable skill, if a little uneven meter. He circled the room as he played, receiving smiles from the city residents, and ended up in front of Xena as he finished, with a flourish.

"Well?" He asked her, a hint of triumph in his voice.

"I'd say you did this just to show me up and embarrass me in front of all these people." Xena remarked. "That's not nice."

He smiled. "You gave your word."

She nodded. "I did... so.. you want me to.. " She flicked a hand at his harp. "Make some kinda music, or something, huh?"

The room was silent with tense expectation. "That's right." Framna stated, with a smile. "A simple challenge, really... just to prove we're not all dirty, mindless, killers." He looked right at her. "Surely, that's better than me bringing my army in here, and wiping your ugly faces off the land... consider it.. a mercy on my part."

Very cold, very blue eyes lanced right through him. "Music?"

"Meet the challenge, Xena.. or admit you can't." He answered.

She shrugged. "Okay.. you asked for it." She straightened up, and let her hands drop to her sides, as she sorted through a list of possibilities and picked one of Gabrielle's very favorites. Then she closed her eyes, and took a breath.

And sang.

Gabrielle recognized the song by the second note, and she let a warmly contented smile cross her face, watching the jaws drop around the room as her soulmate's beautiful, powerful voice filled the chamber and soared above them, sending chills down her back as it always did.

Suckers. She would have started laughing, except she was too busy absorbing the tune, which Xena knew she loved, and enjoying the looks of total astonishment the tall, dark haired woman was getting from most of the listeners. She let her chin rest on her hand, and watched Xena's chest move as she took in breath to continue, her true pitch and warm, well rounded tones snaring in even the most skeptical of them.

They were spellbound, and when she finished, and the last gentle echo had finally left the stone, there was a stunned silence, which was finally broken by whoops from the army who stood and cheered their general in delight, which slowly spread into sheepish applause from the city residents.

Xena just folded her arms, and chuckled, watching Framna try to recover his composure. She stepped closer to the man. "I didn't appreciate that."

His eyes refused to meet hers.

"I really don't like it when people try to make a fool out of me." Xena continued, her voice taking on an icy coldness. "You try that again, and I'll break every bone in your body, you got me?"

Framna looked up at that, right into her eyes. What he saw frightened him. "I .. I got you."

"Good." The warrior growled. "Now tell Gar you want to stick around over night, to get details hammered out in the morning, and when he agrees, you go sit down, and shut up, understand?"

A brief nod. Xena gave him a last, dark look, before she turned, and gave a wave to her chanting soldiers, returning to her seat and settling into it with a little sigh. A hand settled on her wrist immediately, and she turned her head to see warm, green eyes sparkling back at her. "Surprise, huh?"

"It was perfect." The bard replied, with a grin. "And thank you for choosing that one.. I really like it."

Xena smiled back. "I know." She tore her eyes from Gabrielle reluctantly and returned her attention to Framna.

"It seems... we might settle this amicably after all." The warlord said, through obviously gritted teeth. "Perhaps we can hammer out the details in the morning?"

Garanimus was rocking back and forth in utter delight. "Sure!" He waved at the soldier's escorting the enemy leader. "Bring him over there... hey.. maybe you'll play the harp for us again later, huh?" He laughed, as they moved to a smaller, side table, then he turned to Xena, and slapped her in the shoulder. "You never told me you could sing!"

Pale blue eyes regarded him. "You never did anything that inspired me to demonstrate I could." She answered dryly.

"Ooooo... " The warlord gave her a look of mock hurt. "I'm wounded...." He leaned closer. "Seriously, Xe... that was great.. ya had me worried for a minute.. but I shoulda known better." He grinned. "Hey... swe... I mean, um... Queen Gabrielle... " He winked at Xena, who rolled her eyes, then he looked over at the bard. "You know any good stories about her?"

"Heh." Gabrielle chuckled. "You're kidding me, right?"

Garanimus gave her a charming smile. "Figured you did.. why doncha get up and tell a few.. just to kinda round the evening off." He gave Xena a poke. "Show these stuck ups we're not just dirt grubbers, huh?"

"Excuse me." Gabrielle tapped his arm. "My parents are farmers, and I donít appreciate that term."

He blinked at her.

She smiled back. "Never assume." She gave Xena a gentle pat on the arm, and stood, watching the crowd's interested eyes track to her as she moved down from the high table and took her place in the center of the floor. The servers were still making their rounds, but the room quieted as they focused on her.

"My name is Gabrielle." The bard started. "And tonight I'm going to tell you a tale about Amazons, and Centaurs... " She took a deep breath. "And how faith and love can change the world. "

All Xena remembered, later, was green eyes, and a voice that seemed to speak directly to her, tugging out her memories, and coloring them with a new wash of brilliance. She could feel their connection, as solid and as real as the arms of the chair curled under her hands, and she allowed herself to get lost in Gabrielle's skilled talent.

As the bard finished, and accepted the resulting applause graciously, Garanimus leaned over her chair arm again. "She's the real stuff.."

Xena spared him a glance. "Yeah."

The tall warlord eyed her. "She's got you snared good, huh?"

The warrior just nodded.

He snorted softly. "Never thought I'd live to see that."

Xena finally turned and looked right at him. "Neither did I." She answered quietly. "Surprises me every single damned day." She picked up her cup, and sipped her cider. "All right.. enough socializing.. " Her voice regained it's crispness as she stood, meeting Gabrielle as the bard returned to her place. "See you tomorrow, Gar."

He looked up at her. "Yeah.. take it easy, okay?"

The warrior put her cup down, and nodded. "Yeah." She let her eyes scan the room, then she put a hand on the bard's warm shoulder, and guided her out.


Gabrielle kept quiet as she accompanied her silent companion up the stairs, concentrating on maintaining an even pace with her injured knee. She stumbled once, and that got a reaction from Xena, who paused, and took her arm, steadying her as they walked on.

"You're really mad, huh?" The bard ventured, after a minute. "That was a really nasty thing for him to do."

Xena shrugged. "Yeah.. it was.. but it backfired." She replied, as they reached the door to their room and she pushed it open. "It does show he has an independent mind, though.. and he's not intimidated easily."

The bard made a small noise of agreement. "You should have seen his face when you started singing...Xena, he looked like a centaur had just farted on top of him."

That got a surprised chuckle out of the otherwise grim ex warlord. "Yeah.. I guess I kinda surprised everyone.. except you, of course." Xena admitted, unclasping her cloak and letting it drape down over her saddlebags.

Gabrielle tugged off her own gauntlets, and dropped them on the desk, as she headed towards the fireplace. "I could use some tea.. can I get you a cup too?" She paused, and waited for an answer, as she put the water on, then turned. "Xena?"

The warrior had seated herself on the low couch, with her elbows braced on her armored knees, and was staring into a pensive nothingness. At the bard's call she glanced up. "Sorry.. what? Oh.. tea.. yeah.. sure. That would be great."

The bard nodded, and portioned out two sets of herbs. "What's wrong?" She asked, after a long, quiet moment.

Guilty blue eyes found hers. "Um.. nothing... I guess I'm just a little.. I don't know." Xena just ended up shrugging.

Gabrielle watched quietly as her soulmate studied her own hands, turning them back to front, then clasping them together, tensing her grip almost compulsively. She poured hot water over the herbs, idly drizzling honey from their supply into the cups as they steeped. After a minute, she stirred both of them, and picked them up.

"You know what I think?" She commented, as she handed Xena hers, and seated herself next to the warrior. "I think I know someone who doesn't like to lose."

Xena shot her a look. "What are you talking about? I arranged this whole thing, remember?" She protested, taking a sip of the tea.

Gabrielle just kept quiet, watching her face, and allowing one hand to rest against the tense back, rubbing it just... so.. in just the right spot....

It worked. After a moment, Xena's eyes closed wearily. "That obvious, huh?" She finally murmured, exhaling. "Well, you've called me on my ego before, Gabrielle... you can just start that lecture up now, I guess."

"Nu huh." The bard leaned over, and let her cheek rest against the taller woman's shoulder. "No lecture." She tucked one hand around Xena's arm, and squeezed it gently. "I was really amazed at how fast you got this army turned around... I think everyone else was, too.. it's more than you being in charge, Xena - those men want to please you." She watched the shuttered eyes. "They put their trust in you."

A slow nod. "And now I'm selling them out." The warrior whispered bleakly. "I can tell myself it's for the best of reasons.. but.. " She shook her head. "It hurts." She put the cup down on the floor and lowered her head into her hands, rubbing her temples with stiff fingers. "And I know I'm going to have to face them, and see that betrayal in their eyes tomorrow."

Gabrielle set her own cup down and slid sideways, then tugged at Xena's armor. "C'mere." She patted her lap. "Lay down, and let me work those kinks out."

The warrior hesitated, then gave in, leaning back and letting Gabrielle unclasp the armor from her shoulders, and lift it off, then closing her eyes as the bard's warm hands started at the base of her neck, and worked outwards. "I know... I know it's stupid.. " She muttered. "No one's gonna get hurt this way... I just... "

"Shh." Gabrielle concentrated on her work, feeling the tension start to relax under her fingers. "I know.. you've got this great big competitive heart in there..." She leaned over and brushed the warrior's forehead with her lips. "That doesn't like to surrender."

Xena gazed up at her for a long minute, then sighed. "You make me sound like an adolescent at their first festival wrestling competition." She mock grumbled, feeling herself start to relax.

"Oh no." Gabrielle started working on her neck. "I'm sure you won that." She paused, and nibbled Xena's nose. "Didn't you?"

Very slow, a grin appeared, wrinkling the skin at the corner of her partner's eyes and mouth. "Um... as a matter of fact.... " She paused, remembered, and chuckled. "Yeah." Ooo.. and had Toris been ticked off at her. Hadn't spoken to her for nearly a month afterward. "Prize was this really nice bridle...Toris was working with this dumb colt who wasn't worth a bunny's butt but he wanted the damn thing to have this nice looking stuff... he pranced around all week saying how he was gonna win it.. "

"Did he?" Gabrielle felt a wave of relief as she realized her companion was responding to her touch.

"Almost." Xena told her. "I decided no dumb horse that couldnít tell it's right leg from it's left was gonna wear that pretty thing."

"You beat him." It wasn't a question.

"Ohhhh... yeah..... I sure did." Now Xena gave her a real, honest grin. "Then I gave the bridle to our old weaver's wife.. she had this pony, a real cute one, but he hated Toris.. used to bite his butt whenever he went by.. anyway.. I gave it to her and that pony wore that thing until he....." She stopped, and sighed. "He died in the raid."

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her soulmate's neck, and hugged her. "I was never good at that stuff.. and anyway, girls didn't enter the wrestling and boxing.. we got to do weaving, and cooking... I never won anything."

Xena focused on her. "Bet you would now." She reached up and folded her hands around the bard's. "I know in quarterstaff there'd be no contest...Hades, I don't think I'd want to go up against you."

The bard snorted. "Come on, Xena."

"I'm not joking." The warrior protested, earnestly. "We're pretty evenly matched, Gabrielle...you've got much better technique than I do, and you're compact., so youíve got a much better hitting angle."

Green eyes widened. "You're serious?"

Xena nodded. "Yeah.. I was thinking about it the other day... I mean, sure.. I'm stronger than you are, but that doesnít count for a lot in quarterstaff." She blinked at her still stunned partner. "What's wrong?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "My brain is trying to get itself wrapped around the idea that you are telling me I'm better than you are with a weapon." She shook her head. "And I'm having the hardest time doing that."

Xena chafed her hands. "Gabrielle.. if you choose the weapon, you don't need a champion anymore." She said gently. "The Amazon Queen's perfectly capable of defending her own title now."

The bard's eyes popped open. "No... no that's not true." Her voice rose. "Don't you say that." Her breathing quickened. "Are... are you saying you donít... .I... "

"Whoa.. whoa.... hey.. " Xena's eyes widened in alarm as she felt the bard's violent reaction.

Gabrielle jerked herself free, and untangled her body from her partner's then stood and paced across the room, wrapping her arms around her body tightly. She felt a solid panic rising, and couldnít stop it, her mind whirling with Xena's words. Didn't she want to be ...but.. I thought......

What in Hades did I do? Xena rose herself, and tentatively walked towards the now silent bard, who was standing near the window, staring out. "Gabrielle?" She said, hesitantly. "I didn't mean to upset you with that... I kinda thought it was a compliment."

"What, that I didn't need you anymore?" The bard felt the words leave her lips almost without permission. "Thanks. It made me feel great."

Xena was at a loss for words, so she tried a couple that generally worked. "I'm sorry." No answer. "I didn't mean for you to think I didn't want to be your champion... I'm very proud of that."

Gabrielle let out a slow breath.

"I just.. thought that if it ever happens.. and you wanted to... answer the challenge personally.. well.. you could." Xena finished, letting her voice trail off a little. "Please don't be mad." She heard the unexpected ache in her voice, and saw the bard's back stiffen.

Gabrielle turned, and gazed at her, apologetically. "I'm.. not .. sure where that all came from." She admitted softly, as she limped towards Xena, and fit herself into the waiting embrace. "I'm sorry... I donít know why I reacted like that." She could hear Xena's heart hammering erratically against her chest, and almost kicked herself. "That was really stupid...of course it's a compliment."

Xena held her close, until her body calmed down, then considered what had happened. She finally pulled away from the bard with a wry smile. "I think I know where that came from."

Gabrielle had no interest in leaving her warm spot. "Where?"

The warrior reached down and gently patted her belly. "Right there." She curled her arms back around the bard's body. "You get a little more... um... "

"Emotional?" Gabrielle hazarded.

"Unsettled.. yeah... " Xena confirmed. "When you're pregnant."

"Oh. Great.." The bard groaned softly. "Just what I needed to hear." She put a hand against Xena' chest, above her heart. "Are you going to survive this?" She gazed up at her anxiously. "I didn't mean to.. get you all shook up like that."

Xena made her answer a kiss. "I'll live." She mumbled softly, as Gabrielle wrapped arms around her neck. "After all, you put up with my egotistical ranting." She breathed in a lungful of the uniqueness of Gabrielle's usual scent mixed with leather and decided she liked it. Her hands roamed gently over the bard's body, touching the smoothness of skin that shifted under her fingertips.

"Mmmm... " The bard murmured. "Cider." She let her arms slip down over the bared shoulders, and traced the outline of her leathers, hands coming to rest on the buckles that held them on. "We got any other plans for this evening?" She nibbled on the warrior's collarbone, smelling the faint hint of woodsmoke that clung to her from the hall. "Or can I have my way with you?"

Big, round blue eyes fastened on her face. "Yow." The warrior spluttered a little. "I don' t know... what are you planning on doing with me?"

"Oh." The bard undid one buckle, and gently licked the skin under it. "I'll think of something." She nudged Xena backwards, until the taller woman's legs hit the bed, then pushed her down onto it.

Xena allowed that, folding her hands quietly to see what the bard had in mind next. She watched Gabrielle remove her leg armor and boots, enjoying the candlelight's movement against her burnished skin, a lot of which was on display in the Amazon leathers.

Gabrielle finished her task, then crawled up the length of her partner's long body, and slid a hand over the front of her half unfastened leathers. "Now.. where was I?" She gazed down into darkened blue eyes. "Oh yeah." Her lips found their place, and she let her hands wander, impatiently pushing aside the heavy leather. She paused as her lips nibbled a ticklish spot. "I could just torture you." She felt Xena's skin tense in reaction, and grinned. "But I guess I'll be nice."

Suddenly a deep, seductive voice claimed her ear. "Nice?" Teeth captured her lobe. "Oh.. I don't think so."

"Uh.. did I say nice?" Gabrielle squirmed, then nipped at the soft skin under her lips. "Silly me." She managed to get ahold of both the warrior's arms, and held them down, then started in a campaign that finally had her soulmate helpless with laughter. Then the hands she'd been holding lifted up off the bed with little effort, and broke her grasp, coming to rest on her waistline and lifting her up. "Urk." She squawked, grabbing for a more secure hold.

Xena settled her down into a favorite spot, and kissed her. "My turn." She worked the bard's top off, and felt Gabrielle slide against her, bringing their bodies into warm contact. She let her fingertips brush gently up the bard's sides, feeling the muscles shift and the ribs suddenly expand as Gabrielle gasped. "You're getting more ticklish, yourself." She kidded the younger woman gently, as she explored the soft skin of her throat.

"M.. m mmore sensitive... to... " Gabrielle sucked in another breath as her partner's hands hit familiar spots. "you.. I.. I guess." She felt her breathing go out of control as her body responded, craving the contact, and demanding more.

"Oh yeah?" Xena whispered against her flesh, as she let her hands explore the bard's contours. She could feel Gabrielle's heartbeat pounding against her lips, and as the bard pressed against her, her own rate sped up, until they were in synch.

Then their connection surfaced, bringing them together, and blocked out the future for a long stretch of time.

Afterward, the bard rested contentedly, sprawled over her soulmate's comfortably relaxed body, listening to the wind tinkle against the chimes just outside the balcony door. "Guess we just wait for tomorrow morning now, huh?" She mumbled against Xena's skin, drawing idle pictures on it with one finger.

The warrior pried her eyes open reluctantly, and checked her time sense. "Actually.. I'm going to go make sure everything goes all right at the gate." She let her fingers run up and down Gabrielle's bare back, grinning when the bard mewled like a kitten, and arched her body into the touch.

"Feeling better now?" Gabrielle inquired, giving her a pat on the belly. "You seem much less tense."

"Tense?" Xena chuckled. "Gabrielle, if I was any more relaxed, I'd be asleep." She exhaled. "Unfortunately... because now I gotta get dressed and go sneaking." She tangled her fingers in Gabrielle's hair, and scratched the back of the bard's neck.

 "I love when you do that." Gabrielle closed her eyes blissfully.

"I know." Xena replied softly, glancing down at her soulmate's candelit face. "Gabrielle?"

"Mm?" The bard kept her eyes closed.

"Do... do you remember a note.. that you wrote me, before I got on the boat to Chin?"

Gabrielle's body stiffened, and she raised her head, letting her eyes blink open. "I... yeah....I .. of course I do." She answered, giving Xena an anxious look. "What... what brought that up? "

Xena traced her jawline with a finger. "I read it for the first time today."

Real surprise. "Wh... I.. thought you would have... I mean, it was... you usually find that stuff.. um.. "

"I did." She let out a breath. "I did.. find it.. then, but I didn't have the guts to open it." Long pause. "I should have... I should have, because it would.. have made a difference." Her eyes unhappily met the bard's. "I just wanted you to know that."

Gabrielle exhaled. "Well.. I.. " A smile crossed her face. "Thank you.. for telling me that.. I always thought...maybe you just tossed all that stuff overboard."

The warrior gazed at her. "Hardly...I had all your little notes with me, Gabrielle.. and every day, I'd take one out, and read it." Her eyes dropped. "I think that's about the only thing that kept me going."

"Oh." It didn't hurt quite so much anymore, to think about the past year, Gabrielle realized. Or maybe it was just because she could think about it while cuddled up with Xena that removed the sting. "I didn't really have anything of yours... just my memories.. really. I went to sleep every night in Chin while I was waiting for you dressed in your shirt, though... they thought I was crazy." She paused, remembering. "Even after everything, I really, really missed you."

Xena smiled sadly. "I missed you too." She plucked at the blanket. "I thought about you all the time."

Gabrielle buried her face in her soulmate's shoulder. "I thought they were going to kill me because I wouldn't stop talking about you... I think I used to give Ming Tien a headache.. he would get this weird little twitch after I'd been around him for a while."

The warrior stayed silent for a moment. "I wasn't going to kill him." She finally said, almost to herself. "I wasn't... I didn't, until he... he egged me on, Gabrielle... it was almost like... he gave me the hairpin on purpose."

"You mean.. he wanted you to kill him?"

Xena shook her head. "I don't know... but I wasn't going to, until he called me over that one last time." She gazed off into nothing. "Something snapped." Slowly , her eyes refocused on the bard's watching face. "I should have told you when it happened. I'm sorry."

Another piece in the puzzle slid quietly into place. Gabrielle nuzzled her comfortingly. "It's all right." She told her, peacefully. "You were safe... that's all I cared about." She sighed. "I was too busy being overwhelmingly grateful that you'd forgiven me enough to talk to me at all."

They hadn't even discussed it... not that first night out on the boat home, when the high seas had made Gabrielle miserable, until quiet fingers had closed on her wrist, and she'd looked up into bruised, sunken eyes that wanted nothing more than just....

Peace. And they'd found it, for a brief time, on stormy seas, in each other's arms. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel that warmth, that had gently held her shattered soul together through the long night.

The warrior accepted that. "Mm." She gave the bard a brisk rub. "Gotta get up, love."

"Gotta?" The bard oozed over her, spreading warmth and comfort in her path.

Xena felt her body respond to the insidious attack with cheerful abandon, and she had a tough time convincing it otherwise. "C'mon... gimme a break ... I want to make sure everything is nice, and peaceful.. so we can get the Hades outta here tomorrow."

The bard mock sighed, and rolled over, letting her head rest on one hand as she stretched out on her side. "What are you going to do about your agreement with Vasi?"

Xena allowed herself to be distracted by her partner's slim body for a long moment, before she thought about the question. "Nothing." She shrugged. "Framna's deal takes precedence.. if he asks, I'll just say Framna made a better offer."

Gabrielle absorbed this thoughtfully. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" The warrior had rolled out of bed and stood up, pulling her leathers from where they'd fallen. She stood outlined in golden light for a moment, her lithe form showing dips and shadows when she moved.

"What... would happen if... there was no deal? If you.. if the army really did have to defend the town?"

Xena grinned, and fastened the straps on her leathers. "Wanna see?" She padded over to the desk, and sorted through some scattered parchments. "C'mere.. I'll show you.. I had it all planned out."

Gabrielle meant the question rhetorically, and she had no real desire to leave her warm nest, but the warrior's enthusiasm was rare, and catching, so she scrambled out of bed and joined her, after retrieving a simple shift and tugging it over her head. "Okay.. I'm here."

Xena spread a map of the surrounding countryside on the desk, and one of the fortified parts of the city. "Look... this is where his army is.. " Her finger found a spot. "And it's not a bad position, but what he doesn't know is that he's at the bottom of a water slope here.. and here.. " The finger moved. "So first, he's gonna be fighting uphill. That's harder.. and second, you can do more stuff if you have time, and momentum." She picked up another sheet. "If his main force is here, then he's in a funnel.. I'd have small bands of hunters slip alongside these ridges here, and here.. and try to pick off as many of them as they could.. leading them up to here. " A finger. "This is the main stockyard for the city, and the market.. if you stampede the herds, they can only head down one way. " She traced the path down to where the army's position was. "That throws everyone into confusion."

Gabrielle stood quietly and watched her, seeing the intelligence and vivid interest light in her eyes.

"Once you get them off their stride, it's a matter of using your resources wisely." Xena continued. "You put your best archers on these walls here." She pointed. "Because as they're coming up the slope here, there's this one point where they have no cover." She took a breath. "Then you use traps and pitfalls here, to discourage them. By the time they're in siege position, you can knock out half of their fighting force, and that makes even taking the city problematical."

Gabrielle blinked at her, silently shaking her head just a tiny bit. "You're amazing."

Xena looked up from her plans and her brow creased. "No I'm not.. it's the basics, Gabrielle.. there's nothing amazing about it."

"You didn't need to bluff Framna. You were serious.. you would beat him, wouldn't you?"

A puzzled pause. "Yeah.. I mean, anything can happen, but..." A shrug. "With any luck at all, sure.. I'd win." She looked at Gabrielle. "You surprised?"

"That you'd beat him?? No no no.... " The bard waved a hand frantically. "I just... I didn't know you'd thought it all out... like that." She let out a surprised little chuckle. "I mean... you knew, one way or the other you weren't going to have to do that."

Xena rubbed her chin, and gazed down at the documents. "I... " She seemed a little confused. "Mental exercise, I guess... I haven't gotten to use that in a while." Her voice trailed off.

Gabrielle felt a quiet understanding come over her. She stepped closer, and put a hand on the taller woman's arm. "You miss this, don't you?" A pause. "No.. not the fighting... we get enough of that...but the army.. and the respect of the soldiers.. and the planning.. you miss it."

The warrior looked down at her hands for a long time, one finger tracing idle patterns against the parchment, before she took in a deep breath, and looked up to meet Gabrielle's patiently waiting eyes. She searched the bard's face for a few breaths, then gave a tiny nod of admission. "Yeah."

Xena felt this wasn't enough explanation, though, so she tried to gather her thoughts up. "It's like...I know we both have to use our minds all the time, Gabrielle.. to solve problems.. get ourselves out of things... but this is different. This is like.. okay, how would you feel, if the only people you could ever tell your stories to were children?"

Gabrielle's brows contracted. "Children?"

"Yeah." Xena eyed her. "As an audience."

The bard thought about that. "Children love stories...I like to tell them to kids.. but.. "

"But." Xena agreed. "There's no challenge, really, is there? You know they're going to accept what you tell them."

Green eyes shot up, in sudden comprehension. "Yeah... with adults it's different.. I have to persuade them.. use different techniques.. it's more complicated, and I have to slant my storytelling depending on the situation, who's there, what I'm trying to acc..." She let her voice trail off as she stared at Xena, seeing a whole new window of understanding open up. "That's why you like word puzzles." She breathed. "And guessing games...isn't it?"

Xena gave her a wry little grin, as she retrieved her armor, and began putting it on. "Don't get to use this much. "Her fingers tapped her head. "It's nice to be known for something besides brute force.. I guess that's where the respect comes in." She looked up. "My army knew... I could think my way out of a trap just as well as I could fight my way out of it...I guess that's what I'm missing... everyone remembers the fighting part, but not too many people remember the thinking."

Gabrielle walked over, pensively silent, and fastened the buckles dangling on either side of Xena's chest. She knew it was true... even she forgot that sometimes.. but if she thought back, to their past adventures, she could pick out the times when Xena would exhibit a well hidden, but gleeful delight in solving the most convoluted problems. Like how to battle a giant, and a warlord in the same day. Or defeat a god. Or when they'd gotten caught in that repeating nightmare.

A restless, active, intelligent mind, stuck in Amphipolis, relegated to figuring out how much barley to feed the horses. Gabrielle exhaled slowly. That, was a problem, no matter how much Xena assured her she was happy at home. Troubled, she looked up, only to have Xena cup her face.

"I don't want to go back to that, Gabrielle." Her voice was very soft. "It's just nice to practice once in a very long while."

"But... " A finger touched her lips, stilling them.

"No buts. No regrets." Xena insisted. "You keep me busy enough, my bard... just get me a few of those new wood puzzles for the winter. .I'll be just fine."

Gabrielle regarded her intently. "We're going to talk about this later." She warned gently. "I don't want your brains rusting."

Xena laughed quietly. "All right.. we'll talk later." She bent her head and kissed the bard. "Lemme go check things out." She settled her weapons, and ambled to the balcony, peering over with interest. "No sense in alerting anyone, right?" She powered her body up and over the railing, and sat on the top of it, planning her decent.

"Be careful." Gabrielle grumbled, glancing uneasily over the edge. "Okay?"

The warrior winked at her. "No problem." Then she leaped off the balcony, landing on a ledge just underneath it, and walking along it's narrow width as thought she were out for a stroll by the river.

"Yeah. No problem. " Gabrielle repeated, watching her nervously. "Did I ever mention just how much I hate it when you say that, Xena?" She kept her eye on the warrior until she jumped from one ledge to another, finally swinging gracefully down onto the cobblestones with a slight hop. Then she disappeared into the shadows.


The bard trudged inside, and limped over to the desk, leaning against it for a moment before shuffling the parchment together. She was about to sit down, then changed her mind and went to the lump of saddlebags, kneeling down stiffly next to her own, and digging inside. "Ah." She came up with two of their travel bars, and took them back to the desk with her, nudging Ares' sleeping form aside as she settled down in the chair.

"Aw, Hades." She cursed softly, standing back up and going to the fire, where she prepared more tea, and stirred it, bringing the gently steaming cup back with her. She set it down, then pulled her diary over and settled herself comfortably, taking a sip of the hot liquid, then nibbling on a trail bar. "Y'know, Ares... I think I'm glad we're going to visit the Amazons... especially for the Festival of Dionysus."

"Agrrro?" The wolf wagged his tail.

"Mm hmm, I am... maybe we'll even find you a girlfriend, huh?" Gabrielle mused, as she munched her trail bar, and smoothed a blank sheet of her diary down. "Would you like that?"

"Grrrrrr..."

'That sounds very noncommittal to me, Ares.. you're getting too much like your mommy."

"Roo?"

"Yeah, well, it's okay to show you like something, all right?"

A tail wag.

"That's better." Gabrielle smiled at him, then dipped her quill in the pot of ink.

Where do I start.

I've had to start with that statement for a few days now.. is that a bad sign? So much keeps happening, I have to stop and think about what I've put down before I put more down.

I'm still pregnant... I'm starting to kinda.. I don't know, I remember Lila saying she was starving all the time..and I am... but how can I tell if that's because I'm pregnant, or my usual appetite? I guess it doesn't much matter... Xena thinks it's 'cute', of course.. though I'm not sure how much of that is real, and how much is her trying to make me relax, and feel good about it.

I guess that doesnít matter much either... whether she thinks it really is cute, or whether she's doing her best to make me feel good... they're both really great things, so... who cares? I'm laughing about that. Poor Xena.. she's gotten my part of the nausuea thing... but she's holding up pretty well, really...that and the food cravings... to see her face when she catches herself eating something she usually hates... it's soooo funny. She looks like Ares that time when Cyrene put a blob of apple butter in his mouth just to see what he'd do. He poked his tongue all out, and got this really disgusted look on his face.. that's what Xena does, only she usually keeps her tongue inside her mouth.

She's... been acting kinda strange, too. Quieter, in some ways, more open.. a few times tonight words just came bubbling up .. and that's so unusual for her. Like when she was telling about that bridle, and then again when she showed me her battle plan. I wonder if that's part of what we share too.

I'm finding myself.. daydreaming a little more, I guess.. I just get lost in these thoughts, nice thoughts, mostly about her, about us.. it's almost like I'm focusing more tightly on our life together. I've noticed that I'm touching her more.. I can't help it, it's like my body always wants to be in contact with her, and I hope it doesn't start driving her crazy.

That little temper tantrum I had tonight worries me. I totally overreacted to something she said, and I know I freaked her out a little. Her heart was pounding so hard... I hope I can realize what's going on next time and just kinda stop it. I don't want to put her through nine months of that.. it's not good for her. Or me, for that matter.. but I've got an excuse, at least.

She really feels bad about just turning the army over. It goes against all her instincts, and the fact that she's actually going through with it kinda amazes me. She wants to fight, especially after tonight at dinner, after Framna that jerk challenged her.

Boy, did she ever show him. I almost stood up and cheered when she just opened up and started singing, and all those stuck up people practically swallowed their wine goblets. Serves them right. I enjoyed that a lot, kinda like sticking your tongue out in front of everyone going nyah nyah... That's bad, but.. I can't help it.. I felt so proud of her, I could hardly sit still.

I realized something else, tonight. I realized..

A soft knock at the door interrupted her, and she looked up with a sigh. "Damn it, Ares...I hate when that happens." Her eyes located her staff, then she cleared her throat. "Come in."

The door slowly edged open, and Mestre poked a dark, suspicious head in, her eyes finding Gabrielle and narrowing.

The bard bit down several cutting remarks. "Come on in, Mestre."

The girl did so, followed by the bulkier form of Gramma. They both stared at Gabrielle intently.

"She's out by the gates somewhere, checking things." Gabrielle folded her hands over her diary.

Gramma gently shoved the younger girl out of the way, and moved forward. "Didn't see er leavin... " The old woman accused.

"By the door?" Gabrielle propped her chin up on one hand. "That's way too conventional for Xena. No.. she climbed down the outside wall." She assured her. "She wanted to make sure everything went as planned... she hates leaving things to chance."

Mestre had sidled over to the pitcher she'd left and examined it, then given Gabrielle a somewhat friendlier look. "We gots things to discuss wi her."

The bard leaned back in her chair, and pulled one knee up, circling it with her arm. "Let's see.. is it Vasi's doublecross? Elanora's plot? Framna's sleeping in Silvi's room? The soldiers didn't actually take the drug? Or is it something we don't know about yet?"

The goggled at her.

Gabrielle shrugged modestly.

Gramma sat down on the couch with a thump. "Ye're her lover?"

The bard blinked, not used to having the question phrased quite so bluntly. "Um... among other things, yes."

The old woman exhaled. "Word is.. 'is army's not pleased w'his bargain... Janas, our hunter just come back in, says he found em milling round... he's not sure what's the doings."

"Who... Garanimus' army?" Gabrielle asked, confused. "They're upset about surrendering?"

"Nah." Gramma shook her head. "T'other one's.. I'm thinking we might have kicked t'cow patty on this un."

Gabrielle froze. "Gramma.. they're about to open those gates." She was already rising, and grabbing for her boots. "Do you mean to tell me they might just attack instead of taking over peacefully?"

A shrug. "Dunno, little lass... s'why I came t'talk to the sprout."

The bard paused in her lacing. "The what?"

The old woman grinned toothlessly. "Little sprout.. s'what I call that tall, dark thing you run around wi." She sighed. "She was a cute little bugger, allus into something."

Gabrielle stood up and fastened a belt around her light tunic to keep it in place. "She still is." The bard muttered, grabbing her staff. "She's down by the gates... if they do attack, she'll be the only one there to try and stop them."


The cobblestones felt cool under her boots, and Xena reflected that fall was, indeed, underway. She slipped through the shadows, feeling the dampness of dew starting to form on the stones under her fingertips as she ran lightly along the mostly deserted streets, muted sounds showing where families were settling down to bed.

On either side of her, she could hear creaks and motion, people closing down their homes and animals shifting restlessly in snug stables, ignorant of her passage. On the wind, she scented woodsmoke, and different kinds of foods cooking, and a faint hint of rain in the air. She launched into a quick flip, to loosen her body up, and landed with a faint scuffing sound on the cobbles.

Down through the castle gates, then through the homes of the nobility, set a bit back from the narrow street, then through the middle class homes, where small workshops of the craftsmen and women sat next to their dwellings. Now the roads became narrower, and dirtier, and she was among the homes of the poor, who shared their tiny huts with their beasts, and whose meager belongings were clustered outside in neat piles.

The smell here was of bread and boiled wheat and vegetables, not the roasting meats and delicate scents of baking of the more affluent homes. Xena pulled to a halt near the edge of one crooked path, and put her hand on the wall of the nearest hut, peering around the corner to the large main city gates, closed tight now in the darkness.

She could see the torches mounted on the inside of the walls, which shed flickering shadows on the beggars huddled against the sheltering surface, and the quiet guard that stood there, in royal livery as she'd suspected.

The palace guards would offer to take the night watch so that her soldiers might enjoy the festivities, of course. Xena watched as they leaned against the closed gates, making low, ribald comments that carried to her sharp ears. She caught the familiar sound of her own name, and grimaced at the comment, then shook her head, and turned to watch as a small group of well dressed nobles issued past her.

She blended into the wall, watching them pass, their purposeful walk at odds with their casual conversation. They approached the gates, and the royal guards came to attention, saluting the foremost man, who looked carefully around, then gave him a nod of permission.

The wind blew lightly against Xena's face, and she stiffened, catching an unexpected scent on the wind.

Excitement. Fear. Sweat. A small force was supposed to be waiting on the other side of the gates, to enter, and take charge of the city, moving directly to the castle to overwhelm any opposition still awake after the drugged meal.

But that scent wasn't coming from a small force. Xena loosened the sword in her scabbard, and stood on her toes, catching another scent.

Burning canvas.

Beyond the city gates was the market, with it's colorful booths.

The guard unclasped the huge lock holding the gates closed.

Xena started running, drawing her sword as she did. "NO!!!!!!"


 Gabrielle darted down the stairs, ignoring the pain in her leg as she ran, balancing her staff in one hand. "Come on, Ares." She called to the wolf, who was bounding at her side. "Let's go find mommy, okay?"

"Aagggrrrroooo!" The wolf howled, picking up her nervousness.

The bard bolted across the hall, and out the small side door that led to the courtyard where the troops were billeted. As she passed the well, she felt a stark, cold, bolt of emotion that almost made her trip and she stopped dead, clutching her chest. "Xena."

Panic urged her on, and she stumbled, falling to her knees painfully. She cursed, and hauled herself up, heading towards the first barracks door and slamming her body against it, hammering at the wood with her staff. "Open up!"

A long pause, startled, male voices, then the door jerked open, and she was almost overwhelmed by the tall, muscular Bennu. "Wait.. "

"Lass?" Bennu looked down, startled, and move a torch to where he could see her face. "What's t'matter?"

Gabrielle got control of herself, so she wouldn't sound like an idiot. "I think we're under attack."

He jerked. "What?"

She prayed for patience, when her heart and soul were dragging her elsewhere. "They opened the gates... and I think Framna's army is overrunning the city."

"Ares balls!" Bennu cursed, cupping his ears, and turning towards the gates. By now, six or seven other soldiers were standing at his back, clamoring to know what was going on. "Be still, damn ye bastards!" He abruptly blushed. "Pardon, lass." Then he listened again. "Y'hear that?"

Silence fell, as they listened.

Yells. Steel on steel. And suddenly, ringing on the damp air, a high battle cry that wrung a moan from Gabirelle's throat.

"C'mon!" Bennu yelled, at the top of his voice. "Just like the genr'l planned! Move yer butts!"

Men started running, fully clad, Gabrielle realized, and already armored. The next barracks over burst open it's doors, as more men poured out on hearing the alarms. "She knew." The bard breathed.

"Genr'l said.. best be ready... a drill, she said!" Bennu was buckling on his sword. "C'mon lads! To th' gates.. just like we practiced!"

Gabriellle felt the pull now, and she started running, heading down the long, lonely path, her boots and Ares' claws sounding unaturally loud on the stone surface. "Come on.. come on.. Ares... it's just her.. just her... against all of them. " She chanted, then almost slipped as a scent of animals came to her.

She skidded to a halt. "Wait... Ares... her plan.. come on.." She darted to the left, towards the stockyards.


The gates exploded open, under the force of many, shoving hands, and Xena watched in horror as the nobles before the gates were swept under the boots of the first wave of the army. They were trampled, and she saw a pikeman gleefully spit one of them, putting a splash of red against the rich green of his tunic.

What was she doing? Her feet were carrying her foreward, heading towards the oncoming army, but she wasn't stupid enough to believe she could stop them, or even appreciably slow them down. There were 600 of them, and she was only one person.

Right?

The gates were swinging open, and she knew if they got all the way back, there was no chance.. but on either side, two teams of draft horses were standing, wild eyed, watching the oncoming army.

A yell, in just the right place, and sting from her chakram, and the horses bolted, dragging a heavy cart behind them right towards the rushing men. They crashed through the front line, and smashed against the gate, holding it in a semi closed position. Xena headed for it, and leaped onto the back, meeting the first of the men with a wild, desperate yell.

Her sword slashed out, beheading two men at once, and she jumped down into the first ranks, cutting and stabbing. She pulled her chakram out and used it as a second edged weapon, cutting gashes into armor, and sinking it's edge into chests as men screamed in fear and disbelief.

Another yell, and she leaped forward, slashing and taking off an arm, a leg, she turned in one circle with her arms locked and gutted three men, leaving a pile of bodies in her wake.

Her blood was up now, and the part of her that was Ares was surging and awake, and she headed into the lines with a deadly, unstoppable fury. The half closed gates limted the flow of the soldiers, and as she killed her way forward, she let the falling bodies help her block the rush too.

The leaders of the attack realized what the bottle neck was, and two of them shoved men to either side, trying to get the gates more fully open, and directed the flow of the battle toward overrunning her with sheer numbers.

The line surged ahead, throwing her back, and then she stumbled over a body, and a wave of yelling soldiers swept over her, stabbing and clubbing her stunned form with battle maces.

Xena felt the blows connect, and a dark wave clouded her vision, as she felt her blood slick sword loosen in her grasp, and a boot catch her in the side.

No. She got her hands down on the ground and shoved up, throwing two soldiers off of her back, cutting up with her sword and gutting a third, whose blood spurted over her in a hot, moist wave. She grimly kept on, regaining her ground step by step, forcing the front ranks of the attacking army back to a standstill, jumping up on the pile of bodies from her earlier efforts, and keeping up a determined defense of the ten foot wide opening in the gates. "You're not getting in here, boys!" She yelled, spotting the leader of the troops heading towards her,shoving his men aside.

The tall Linnus. He drew his sword as he reached the knot of men around her and engaged her, driving her back by sheer weight. He was also fresh, and she had been holding the gates for almost half a candlemark by now, stressing her reserves to an almost incredible degree.

His technique was brilliant, and he was taller, and outweighed her by half again, and he was determined to remove this obstacle from his plans.

"What happened to an agreement?" She yelled, ducking under a blow that should have beheaded her.

"An agreement with him, not with me." Linnus snarled. "I'm not sitting here babysitting that bastard.. and handsoff? Like Hades." He slammed his sword hilt against her chest, shoving her back. "You fought a good fight here, Xena.. now give it up, before I spit you!"

"You offering me safe passage?" Xena replied, meeting his downward stroke, and deflecting it.

"Just get the Hades out of my damn way!" He yelled.

"NO!!!" She yelled back, feeling the dark energy surge, as her reserves exploded inside her. "You'll have to take me down, you stupid bastard!" She loosed her temper, and let the rage take over. Anger and will and sheer ability drove him back, into the oncoming rush of men trying to get inside the gate.

A rumbling overran the yelling, and before they could turn, thundering hooves and outraged braying floated in the opening. Xena heard it, but kept swinging, aware in the peripheries of her vision that she was no longer fighting alone, letting her fury carry her forward. Amounted horseman managed to squeeze in, and thundered past her, screaming in rage, as his arm swept up and he jerked his mount to one side at the last moment, smashing into her and rearing the horse as he brought down his mace in one, savage blow.


The stockyards smelled like... well, stockyards, but Gabrielle couldn't have cared less. She stumbled to a halt at the main gates, and threw them open, then slipped inside, nudging aside the large cows and sheep with impatient thrusts of her hip.

With a lot of effort, she reached the front shoots, and jogged them open, then turned and yelled at the animals.

They stared back at her, phlegmatically chewing their feed.

She yelled again.

They stared at her. "Mooo." The lead cow gave her a disapproving stare.

Gabrielle thought frantically. Then, she cupped her hands to her mouth. "Ares!!!!"

"Arrrooo!!!" He answered, back at the back of the stockyards. An uneasy stir greeted his wild howl.

"Come here, boy!"

"Rooo!" He stood on his hind legs, and yodeled at her, and the wind shifted.

Bringing the scent of wolf across the herd. With a wild bellowing roar, they scattered, running from it and almost trampling the bard in their haste to quit the suddenly stinking stockyard.

She waited for them to pass, then took off running again, dashing through the hay covered yard, and exiting back out onto the street. "Come on, Ares... " She panted, tucking her staff under one arm. "Let's get going... mommy needs us."

She pounded down the street, where doors were now being thrown open, and voices raised in question. "Stay inside!" She yelled, as she dashed past, aware now of soldiers catching up to her, and heading in the same direction. "Close your doors!"

Gabrielle joined a small clump of soldiers as they pounded down the last thin alley, and rounded the bend towards the city gates.

And, for a long instant, they all just stopped dead.

The gates were lit with torches, those in the walls and those held by the attacking soldiers, and much of the area around them was on fire. The gates themselves were partially open, and a huge crowd of men was shoving against them, yelling, and swinging weapons.

Standing in the opening, atop a pile of dead and dying, outlined in flames, was Xena, holding the gates against all comers. At the very moment, she was faced off against a very tall, brawny soldier, who was reeling at one of her blows.

"Ares..." Bennu breathed. "Come on!!!!!" He bolted forward, followed by the eager soldiers. "To t'genrl!"

Gabrielle found herself getting caught up in the excitement of the charge, and she gathered speed, running in their wake and trying to keep her soulmate in her range of vision. She dodged several clashes, as their soldiers began to fight with the attackers, and slipped around in back of where Xena was standing, seeing a fire in her partner's eyes more wild than she'd ever experienced before. She doubted if Xena even knew where she was, judging by the animalistic growls issuing from her.

A horse appeared, and she suddenly saw the danger, as the animal crashed into Xena's back, knocking the dark haired woman off balance. The rider swept his club up, and Gabrielle bolted forward, leaping up onto the edge of the wagon blocking the passage and slamming her staff into the screaming rider's face.

He was swept off his horse, which went thundering by, and she ducked the next soldier's pike, hopping onto pile next to Xena with a grimace. "Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" She yelled at her soulmate, while sweeping her staff in a vicious arc and nailing a soldier in the groin, doubting she'd get a response.

It took a long moment, as her presence registered, but then.. "Hey.. I was winning!" Xena answered, as she let out a fierce growl, gutting an opponent and sending a spray of blood everywhere. "Damn, you're a sight for sore eyes, Gabrielle."

"Always like to be appreciated." The bard responded. "Your army's headed up."

"I know." Xena ducked a wild slash, and kicked it's wielder out of the way. "I saw Bennu... you send those animals down?"

"Yep." Gabrielle crouched, then lunged forward, knocking the sword out of the hands of the next man to step through the gates. "I remembered your plan." She slammed her staff against an oncoming pike. "Gramma heard rumors this might happen.. so.. "

"They didn't agree with Framna." Xena pushed her current opponent back, watching him fall down the small hill of dead bodies she was standing on, and took a short breather, caused by the sudden blizzard of arrows being poured into the attacking army from the walls. She glanced to either side, and saw her troops in position.

Just like she'd planned it. The soldiers held their places, skillfully picking off the men wedged in the gate, and the attackers hesitated, then drove forward again.

Xena took a breath, and shoved the damp hair out of her eyes, and dove back into the fray, with a yell. "Be careful!" She hollered back over her shoulder to the bard.

Gabrielle lost track of how long she'd been in the fight, constantly watching out for her partner, guarding her back, swinging again, and again, and again, until she could hardly lift her staff. Finally, after what seemed like forever, and what was, she realized, several candlemarks, she realized she was right up against the gates, and that was Xena's muscular back in front of her, her hands pressed against the edges of the portal, shoving it closed.

Bennu's brawny arms shoved the locking bar in place, and then there was a brief silence. Only the flutter of torches, and the buildings on fire around them broke it, as Xena turned, and leaned back against the blood-spattered surface, her sword still clenched in her hand.

Archers manned the walls, and three squadrons of troops leaned on their weapons, exhausted, but successful, in pushing the enemy back, outside the gates.

Slowly, a chant arose. Xena's name.

It brushed against her like an ocean wave, stirring her short hairs, and prickling her blood with the dark, seductive energy of war. Xena locked her knees in place to keep them from buckling, and raised her sword, acknowledging the chant. "Get the wounded back to the castle courtyard." She raised her voice, hoarse with strain and effort. "Keep a guard on the gate, and get some water to put out these fires."

Men ran to do her bidding, as Gabrielle limped over, and put her back to the wall next to her exhausted soulmate. "You all right?" She ran her eyes over the taller woman, seeing the pain and stress written all over her. "You want to sit down a minute?"

Xena took a deep breath, and dug deep into her flagging reserves. "No.. I'm all right." She straightened, and looked around the gateyard. Bodies were everywhere, piled haphazardly amidst pools of drying blood, and she realized dully that the vast majority of them had fallen under her own sword. "No one was supposed to get hurt." She exhaled wearily.

Ares came galloping up, shaking his head violently as he shook a large, square of fabric. He trotted over and stood up, placing his paws against Xena's chest, and shoved the fabric at her. She took it an examined it. Framna's flag. "Thanks, boy." She gave the wolf a pat, and slung the flag over her shoulders.

Gabrielle put a hand against her blood spattered back. "This wasn't your fault, Xena... if you hadn't been here, they'd have swept right through the city."

The warrior looked around, then dropped her eyes to her gore covered hands. "Yeah. I'm a regular hero." She replied bitterly, then looked back up as Bennu trotted up.

"Genr'l!" He gazed at her with worshipful eyes. "We only lost six men.. last count fer them is twenty score." He looked around. "They're dispersing outside t'gates.. I think they're backing off." He took a breath. "At least.. fer tonight."

Xena pushed away from the wall. "Lemme go look." She knocked her sword against the gates, to get the bits of bone and gore off of it, then went to the rickety ladder which led up to the guard post, and pulled herself up it, tucking the sword under her arm.

Gabrielle watched her carefully, standing next to Bennu. "Thanks for coming out so fast, Bennu." The bard said quietly. "I'm glad you guys were ready.. and not asleep or anything."

"Ah." The soldier kept his eyes glued on his leader. "T'genr'l said she had a feeling something just weren't right.. wanted us to be up and ready just in case. " He blinked as Xena reached the top of the guard post, and caught an arrow as it sped towards her. "Bloody Hades!" He exclaimed, as the warrior dropped the arrow negligently at their feet. "She's amazin!"

Gabrielle pinned her eyes on her soulmate. "Yes."

Xena stayed up there for a long moment, then she ducked under the bar of the guardpost, and eased down the ladder, ending up at their side again. "They're settling for the night." She acknowledged. "But they'll be back ."

Bennu snorted softly. "Let em.. we'll just open the gates a bit and let you at em, genr'l" He looked around. "Never believed I'd see this... never forget it, none of us will."

The warrior just looked at him. "Put a guard on the walls, and the two back places I showed you." She answered quietly. "Tell everyone else to get some sleep.. they might need it." She turned, and took a breath. "Time for me to go have a chat with our friend the warlord."

Gabrielle pushed aside her own exhaustion as she followed her soulmate up the long, bloody road, taking a quick detour to grab a waterskin hanging against an abandoned wagon. She took a sip, then caught up to Xena, and passed it to her. "Here... get some of this."

"No.. it's all right.. " Xena mumbled.

The bard watched her catch herself in a stumble, then she sighed, and firmly took hold of the warrior's arm, pulling her to a halt with dogged determination. "Xena."

"Gabrielle.. I've got to.. " A protest.

"You've got to sit down for a minute." The bard overrode her, nudging her to a seat on a barrel they were passing. "Come on now.. just for a few seconds.. I need a breather."

Xena sat down, and seemed to consider this, then she turned to Gabrielle with a concerned look "Are you all right?" She put a hand on the bard's arm. "You didn't overdo it, did you?"

Gabrielle looked at her partner, who had just held off an entire army and was covered with gore, cuts, scrapes, bruises, and plainly exhausted, and patted her arm. "I'm fine.. just a little tired. "

The warrior nodded a little, marshalling her strength. "You saved my butt." She commented quietly. "You know that, right?" Blue eyes peered at her. "That guy on the horse almost had me."

The bard studied her quietly. Xena's hands were twitching, and her whole body was shivering in reaction. Gently, she pried the taller woman's hands off her sword hilt. "You sit here.. I'm going to wash this off for you, okay?"

Xena took a breath to protest, then subsided, sucking instead on the waterskin.

Gabrielle took the gore encrusted weapon to a small trough that had rainwater collected in it, and dunked it in, washing the length of it down and rinsing the hilt. Then she stood, and went back to the silent warrior, sliding the weapon back into her sheath and patting her shoulder. Xena had her eyes closed, though they slid open as the bard approached. "How are you doing?"

Bloodshot blue eyes blinked a few times. "Not real good." She admitted. "I haven't let.. things.. go like that in a long, long time."

Gabrielle had suspected that. She gently ran her hands through the sweat dampened hair, and stopped as she reached the back of Xena's neck. "You have a big lump here... " She told her soulmate. "Do you remember that happening?"

Xena thought, then shook her head. "No." A pause. "After a certain point, I don't remember much at all." She swallowed. "I...remember getting buried .. and I got real mad.. and then.. then I remember you being there." She looked down at her twitching hands, and folded them together.

 "Okay." Gabrielle breathed out. "Well, you managed to save the day, love."

The warrior shook her head in disagreement. "No.. you did.. " Xena straightened a little, and regarded her. "If you hadn't realized what was going on, and brought help....what I did was incredibly stupid, Gabrielle.. I should have come back here and gotten the army."

Gabrielle gently caressed her face. "No.. you did something incredibly just you, Xena...if you'd have let those soldiers in, they would have slaughtered all those people inside the gates, and wrecked half the city.. that was so amazingly brave of you." She put a fingertip on her nose. "You knew I'd know something was wrong, and I did, even without Gramma's warning."

Xena watched her face. "I didn't want...." Her eyes dropped. "You to see that side of me again." She sighed regretfully.

The bard pulled her head over and hugged her very gently. "It's all right...it's part of who you are, Xena... I've... known that for a long time." A pause. "I've accepted that for a long time." She brushed the bloody head with her lips. "Come on.. let's get you cleaned up."

The warrior circled her with her arms, and held on for a long moment, then straightened, and stood up, leaving her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Let's go."

The streets were in pandemonium as they walked through them, men and woman running back and forth, a buzz of voices filled the air which hushed as they were recognized, and they walked on in a cone of eerie silence, broken by the damp fluttering of the torches, and the soft rasp of their boots against the cobblestones.

Finally, one man stepped bravely into their path. "Is it true they destroyed the market?"

Xena stopped, and regarded him. "It's true."

Mutters met her words. "Bastards.. we thought they..." An awkward silence fell, as they looked at Xena uneasily, put in an uncomfortable position by their duplicity.

The warrior sighed. "You counted on the intent of one man, whose eyes were clouded by love." She started walking again. "His army felt otherwise."

A shocked whisper traveled through them. "You knew?"

Xena stopped, and looked at him. "Yeah." She paused. "I just didn't trust anyone."

The man stepped forward, holding a hand up. "You knew, and you defended the city anyway?"

The warrior's back stiffened, and she regarded him in brief silence. "People don't deserve to die because they're gullible." She finally answered.

The man moved back out of their way, and sketched a brief bow at her. "They were right about you." He glanced around, seeing nodding heads. "They said you weren't just another warlord."

Xena gave him a short nod, then headed on, leaving an excited buzz behind her.

The bard didn't say anything, but she could feel the gentle swagger settling back into her soulmate's walk, and she smiled to herself. She kept a steadying arm around Xena, as they walked up the long slope towards the palace, where soldiers were clustered, moving purposely back and forth.

Until they caught sight of them. Then items were dropped, and a yell of welcome went up, a cheer that turned into the vibrant chant of Xena's name, as the reserves came pouring out of the barracks, cheering wildly.

Xena sucked in a deep breath, raising a hand to quell the noise. "Save it.. save it.. there's still an army out there." She waited for them to gather. "They've retreated for the night, looks like."

"Damned right!" A short, stocky man yelled.

The warrior waited for the noise to die down again. "I don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow, but we've got to be ready for anything... full watches the rest of the night, and we'll see what we can arrange in the morning.. after tonight, they might be ready to give up."

Another wild yell, then the chant of her name started up again. She let that go on a short while, then raised her hand again. "All right.. all right.. get going." She watched them scatter, then looked up as one of the younger men trotted near. "What?"

"It's Garanimus." The boy stopped a few feet from her. "He got bad hurt, in the fight down there.. he's askin for ye." He hesitated, swallowing. "Healer says.. ye'd better hurry."


Continued in Part 9