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Copyright 1998 by The Fyrequeene. All rights reserved. Any reproduction for other than reading pleasure without the express written consent of the Fyrequeene and the ABL is strictly prohibited.

Disclaimer The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo are the property of MGM/UA and Renaissance Pictures and are used here without permission and without malice. No copyright infringement is intended.

All other characters are mine, and I take full responsibility for their faults and actions.

Warning This story contains violence and its often gory aftermath. If this bothers you, read no further.

This story also depicts a relationship of love between two women, both consenting adults. There is nothing graphic about it, but it is clear how they feel about each other. If that bothers you, this might be a good time to stop.

Authorís note Comments and criticism are welcome and should be directed to Fyrequeene@aol.com. Praise is the food of the gods for writers. Be generous. Criticism is like a diet. Ugly, but occasionally necessary. I will read, though not necessarily answer, both. I can always ditch a diet....


Follow the Blood

Fyrequeene@aol.com

 

Prologue

In the depth of a distant, isolated forest, three men sit around a campfire, drinking and boasting. It is late night. An animal of some kind whimpers in the background.

"Lozious, you should just put that thing out of its misery."

"What fun is there in that? It would kill me if it had the chance."

"Why not just kill it then and be done?"

"Easier to skin if it starves a couple of days. Itís going to be a real prize, too, youíll see."

"I donít think so. Iíll be moving on in the morning."

"Not like you havenít done your own share of cruelty, Nimas."

"Twasnít cruelty for crueltyís sake."

"Tell that to the ghosts of the village burned down."

"No ghosts there, Lozious."

"Ah, Argent, thatís where youíre wrong. You and Nimas both should stick close with me, lest the sprite come after you in the night. Itís well known what you did with Xenaís army. The sprite might take her revenge."

"Thatís a childrenís tale, Lozious."

"Then why have you sent for the mighty Warrior Princess? I think youíre scared."

"My reasons are no concern of yours."

Nimas rises to find another wineskin, looks toward the tree where the animal is tied.

"Hey, foolish hunter, I told you you should have just killed it. Your great black prize is gone. Look."

Lozious jumps up, staggers, then moves to the tree where he had tied his catch. There is nothing there.

"Ahhh, by the mother of Hades, who checked on this last?"

"You did, Lozious."

"Well, it was near death anyway. It wonít get far. Break out that second wineskin, Nimas, and Iíll tell you of the wolf I trapped last summer...."

*****

Chapter 1

Two women, one on horseback, amble through a distant, isolated forest. It is early afternoon. The trees are thick, but the path is open to a bright, cloudless sky. The woman on foot mops sweat off her forehead.

"Itís hot, Xena. This had better be a good friend of yours."

"Friend? Heís a jerk. I canít stand him."

"Then why are we traisping through this gods-forsaken jungle to go see him?"

"Argentís had important information for me before. I canít take the chance of missing something."

"Five days from the nearest village, hot, creepy forest--I think Iíd take the chance, Xena."

"Hey, whatís a little heat? Besides, Aktemto is in the hills. Itís cooler there."

"If we live to get to it...."

"Why wouldnít we?...Gabrielle?"

Xena whirls around. Gabrielle has stopped stockstill, looking in the woods off to their right. Xena follows her eyes, and blinks. There is a body hanging from a tree, tied by the legs.

"Wait here."

"No problem."

Xena gallops up to the figure. This is not easy because Argo doesnít want to go. The body is--was--a man. His throat has been cut. Dried blood covers his neck and face. Heís been dead about a day, maybe. Arms hanging down, the corpse twists slowly in the still air. The blood on the ground trails off into the woods, away from the path the women have been following. Puzzled, Xena nudges Argo along the blood line. Argo takes about three steps, and stops. She will go no further.

"Okay, girl. LetĎs go back."

They return to Gabrielle, who hasnít moved.

"I donít want to know, do I?"

"Not really. Can you keep an eye on Argo for a minute? Thereís something I need to check out."

"It had better be good."

"It had better be done."

Xena dismounts, hands the reins to the bard, and goes back to follow the blood. It leads deep into the forest, then snakes back around toward the path. She is amazed that there is so much, leaving so clear a trail. Before it can join the path, it stops. Splashed onto a rock is a jagged red X, and an arrow pointing away...

A snap from behind has the warrior whirling around as her sword is drawn. She looks, but sees nothing. Slowly she backs away from the rock and the blood, rejoins the path and makes her way to Gabrielle.

The bard notices the sword right away.

"What happened? What did you find?"

Xena takes Argoís reins back. Again she scans the area carefully before resheathing her weapon.

"You donít want to know."

"Okay, wait a minute. That means you donít want to tell me. Thatís different. Spill, Xena."

"Later."

"Youíre going to make me find out for myself. I can do that." With a deep breath, Gabrielle sets off toward the body. In three quick strides Xena catches up and lays a hand on the bardís shoulder.

"No, donít." She sighs. "The blood from the body has been trailed into the woods. It goes about fifty or sixty feet, then stops. Thereís an arrow in blood at the end."

"Pointing where?"

"That way." Xena points too.

"Whatís that way?"

"I donít know."

"Well, the path goes that way, doesnít it? I guess weíre going to find out."

"Yeah."

Xena walks beside Gabrielle now as they resume their trip along the path. She is quiet. Gabrielle keeps silent too, knowing that Xena wants to keep her senses tuned to the surroundings. The afternoon passes with no more grisly finds, and by nightfall the pair are relaxed again.

"Letís camp by the river."

"Great. We can swim. This heat is murder--oops, poor choice of words."

Quickly they set up camp, then head for the water. Soon , they are splashing around in the shallows, Xena idly trolling for fish while Gabrielle relaxes with her face just barely above the surface. Xena cannot resist; she ducks under the water and grabs the bard by the foot.

"Ahh--ulp!" Gabrielle sinks abruptly, pulled into deeper water. She struggles, but another arm takes her waist and brings her up to the surface again. She opens her eyes to find her face about two inches from Xenaís.

"Boo." The warrior is shaking with contained laughter.

"Xena, someday--" Gabrielle is mad, but it melts quickly as she gazes into her companionís blue eyes. Xena stops laughing, but her smile deepens as she slowly draws the bardís lips to hers. It is a long soft kiss, only hinting at the passion waiting to be unleashed.

"You were saying?"

"Nevermind..."

They hold each other close and still, letting the current flow within them and without. Suddenly there is a loud, feral roar from the woods. Instantly, Xena is moving to the shore and her weapons. Gabrielle treads toward the shallows, exiting the river near her clothes. She watches the warrior standing tensed, facing the trees, sword ready, water dripping off her muscled frame. Very unbardlike thoughts run through her head.

The roar is not repeated.

"Gabrielle, get dressed."

"Oh , those werenít supposed to be your next words."

Xena turns, blushes at the frankness of Gabrielleís stare. She walks over and takes the bardís arm.

"That scream sounded like an animal in pain. A large animal. We really ought to be careful."

Gabrielle sighs, resigned. She turns, but Xena reaches out and gently holds her chin.

"Iíll make it up to you."

She gets a bright smile with this. "I know."

They dress, build the fire up high, break out the bread and cheese for dinner.

"So who exactly is this Argent character, anyway?" Gabrielle feels like conversation--this seems as good a subject as any. "Other than being a jerk."

"He used to provide intelligence for my army. Strictly for money; the highest bidder--or, in my case, the one who held his life in her hands--got the information."

"Sounds like he could lie as easily as tell the truth."

"No--Argent knew he wouldnít get paid that way. His information was almost always accurate."

"But you donít have an army anymore. Why listen to him now?"

"I said I hated him. The feeling is mutual. Argent wouldnít contact me unless he was sure he had something Iíd be interested in. Something important."

"Something youíd pay a lot of money for?"

"That--or Iíd owe him a really big favor. Iím guessing the favor. He knows what I do now." Xena smiles. "I donít have a tenth the riches I used to."

"Oh, really?"

"You know what I mean." Xena reaches out and draws Gabrielle close. "I wouldnít trade this for all the gold in Greece."

"Thatís better." They kiss again, briefly. Then Xena rises to get the sleeping furs as Gabrielle banks the fire. They settle in for the night, the bard sleeping deeply in the security of the warriorís arms. Xena dozes fitfully, alert for any changes around them. They are not bothered.

*****

Chapter 2

The next day they are on the road quickly. Xena leads Argo, and she and Gabrielle walk side by side. The heat starts early, and before long they notice something else.

"Is that smell what I think it is?"

"Yes."

"Do you suppose--?"

"Weíll find out. Itís in front of us."

"Wonderful."

The stench of rotting flesh gets stronger and stronger. Argo grows skittish. The travellers round a curve to see a dark brown streak running across the path. They stop.

"You want to wait here?"

"Sure."

"If you hear anything unusual, shout."

"No problem."

Xena goes to the streak, looks both ways, then picks a direction and follows it. She doesnít go far--about thirty feet inside the forest is another body, this time spreadeagled on the ground, arms and legs tied to rope in turn tied to trees. This man has been dead longer than yesterdayís corpse, but the throat is sliced open just as the other one was, and there is dried blood everywhere. She carefully examines the ropes, holding her breath as best she can, searches the area for anything that will help tell what happened. Then she works her way back back along the blood trail, reaching the road.

Argo is tied to a tree. Gabrielle is nowhere in sight.

"Gabrielle!"

"Over here." The voice comes from the woods on the other side of the path. Quickly Xena runs that way, finding her companion a little way into the trees.

"I told you to stay put."

"No you didnít. Itís okay. I just got--curious." Gabrielle points to the blood. She had followed it in. "Look. Itís like you said yesterday. It goes, then it ends in an arrow. But thereís a letter here, painted on the rock."

The letter is a crude E, and Xenaís eyes widen. Gabrielle catches the look.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Xena," Gabrielle says in a threatening tone.

"Nothing, Gabrielle." Her tone is firm. The bard very reluctantly lets it go.

"All right. Youíre better with direction than I am. Does this arrow point the same way the other one did?"

Xena looks up at the sun, figuring positions. She nods.

"Yes. Yes it does."

"Any idea what it points to?"

She shrugs. "Your guess is as good as---" Then realization floods into her head, and she peers off into the forest, speechless.

"What is it, Xena?"

"Sweet Hades..."

Gabrielle raises an eyebrow. "Thatís a new one." Then, a little louder, "Xena, whatís going on?"

"Iím remembering something."

"Okay, thanks, Iíd figured that one out. Care to tell me what?"

"No." Abruptly the warrior turns and heads back to the path. "Come on."

Gabrielle follows, angry.

"Xena, Iím not going to let up on this. You may as well tell me now, save us a lot of trouble."

"Later, Gabrielle."

"How much later? Weíre going to be here for days, I donít see--"

"Gabrielle! Not now! Letís get going!"

Xena unties Argo and mounts the horse. She does not offer a hand to the bard, but sets off at slow canter. Steaming, Gabrielle walks behind, losing ground with each step. She considers stopping completely to see how long it takes Xena to notice, but thinks better of it. Sheís still too close to that smell. What had Xena found there anyway? Maybe sheíd at least tell her that...

Xena does not let herself go too far ahead, doesnít let Gabrielle catch up right away, either. Two bodies, blood, and X and an E. She wonders if this relates to what Argent wanted to tell her. Memories, painful ones, flood through her head. Heíd been with the army, then, too. He knew what had happened here...

"Xena!" Gabrielleís cry has a bit of fear in it. The warrior whirls Argo around and starts a gallop. The bard stands in the middle of the road, quarterstaff at battle readiness. Xena comes up alongside her and stops.

"What is it?"

"I heard something. Something in the trees. Big, sounded like it was following me."

Xena listens. No sound, but her deeper senses feel--something. Jumping off Argo, she draws her sword, but whatever it is fades. After a moment itís gone. She knits her brow.

"Was I wrong?"

"No. There was something there..."

"But--?"

"I donít know. It just--left."

"Without you hearing it?"

"What did you hear?"

"Branches snapping. Three, maybe four, like somebody moving through the trees."

"The trees, or on the ground?"

"The--" Gabrielle pauses as she realizes something. "The trees. The trees?"

Xena nods. "An animal. It was in the trees, then on the ground. That might have been how it snuck away."

"You still should have heard it."

"Too far away, maybe." She takes Gabrielleís arm and leads them to Argo. "Weíll both ride. Letís get out of here."

No argument from the bard. She lets Xena pull her up onto the saddle and wraps her arms around the warriorís waist. They set off again, faster now.

"Xena--"

"Yes?"

"What did you find back in the woods?"

"Another body. Killed like the first one. But tied to the ground, not hanging."

"You think it was the same killer?"

"Definitely."

"Could that have been what I heard?"

Xena brings a hand down to her waist and interlocks her fingers with Gabrielleís.

"No."

They ride hard for the rest of the day, stopping when the path once again veers close to the river. This time Xena scouts the bluffs on the opposite shore, looking for a cave to shelter them. No caves, but a little beach area under a cliff is almost as good. Fording the river, they throw out the sleeping furs and build a fire. Xena wades out into the current.

"Fish for dinner tonight. We could use the change."

Soon two large fish are roasting over the flames. Gabrielle prepares the rest of meal (bread and cheese again), sitting across the fire from Xena, and as soon as everythingís ready she starts in again.

"Itís later, Xena."

"I know."

"Whatever hit you this morning hit you hard. Please donít keep it inside."

Xena picks the meat off the fishbones and lowers her eyes.

"It was a memory. A really bad memory."

Gabrielle sits silent, patient.

"You may want to finish eating first."

"Iíll take that chance."

The warrior sighs and plunges in.

"I was here five summers ago with my army. We were going to Aktemto to raid the town and pick up some of the silver they mine there. All the villages along the way paid tribute to us so we wouldnít destroy them. We got into the forest and came to a little place--not far from here. The men were tired of tribute, they wanted blood."

She stops, puts her fish down.

"And they got it?"

Xena refuses to meet Gabrielleís eyes.

"We looted and burned the village to the ground. There were no survivors." She looks up at the sky, and Gabrielle sees the tears glisten in her eyes. "As low points go, it was rock bottom."

Gabrielle rises, moves to sit next to Xena. She doesnít touch her, but just sits close. Xena will not look her way.

"Thatís past, now."

"Those arrows were pointing to where the village was. Itís not past anymore."

"Someone knows youíre here?"

"Maybe."

"Argent."

"He does leap to mind, yes. This isnít his style, though. Argentís a coward."

"Would he take money to bring you here? To send you a message and lead you into a trap?"

"He might..."

"Maybe we should just go back."

"No, I want to find Argent. And if this is a threat, Iíd rather face it."

"Well, I had to try."

Xena smiles, but still keeps her distance. Gabrielle scoots closer and puts her arm around the warrior.

"Hey, it wouldnít be life with you if there wasnít some sort of danger involved."

"In that case, you can look forward to years of danger."

"All the more stories to tell."

Finally Xena returns the hug, holding Gabrielle tightly, kissing the womanís forehead.

"Letís get some sleep."

*****

Chapter 3

The next day they continue toward Aktemto. It might be a little cooler than yeaterday, but the bard canít tell. Xena, leading Argo, sets a good pace, unperturbed.

"Heat, cold--it just doesnít get to you at all, does it?"

"I donít worry about things I canít do anything about."

Gabrielle sighs. "Thank you, I guess I deserved that."

"It is hot."

"Hey, I just thought of something. Was there a letter E by the first trail of blood?"

Xena thanks the gods Gabrielle has phrased it that way.

"No. No letter E."

"Thought there might be a pattern there. Someone sick enough to sign his work."

"Like a renegade bard, maybe?"

"Thatís not funny. Still, there is a pattern. You think weíll find more, uh, victims?"

Argo picks this moment to rear violently, nearly snapping the reins from Xenaís hands. Everybody jumps, Gabrielle slightly off the path to get out of the horseís way. Horse and warrior dance around a couple of times while Xena pulls hard on the reins. She finally gets some semblance of control, but Argo is facing in the opposite direction now, and no amount of coaxing will get the mare to turn around.

"Uh, Xena--"

"Just a minute, Gabrielle."

"I donít think Iíve got a minute."

Xena looks up to see Gabrielle leaning hard on her quarterstaff. Her face is ashen. Sheís trying to step back on the path, but--

"By the gods!" Xena drops the reins, rushes over, and picks the bard up. Pieces of the corpse Gabrielle has stepped in come up with her. Xena moves them about twenty feet away. Gabrielle retches as she is set down.

"Iím sorry," she chokes. "Hades."

"Itís all right."

"I was just trying to get out of the way--" More choking.

"Gabrielle, itís okay." Xena pulls off the gore-covered boots. "Just sit there for a minute."

Slowly the bard puts together the pieces of her composure. Xena looks up for Argo, spots the horse well down the path, standing still. She decides to leave her there for now, turns back to Gabrielle.

"Better?"

"A little."

"I need to go look at that body, Gabrielle."

"I understand."

"No--you need to come with me."

Gabrielle starts to pale again.

"Whoeverís doing this may still be here."

"We know theyíre still here, Xena."

"But they may be close."

Shakily, Gabrielle stands. Gestures to her boots.

"Iím not putting those back on."

"I understand."

The two women walk back toward the corpse, Gabrielle stopping a few feet away.

"Keep an eye out, Gabrielle."

"Iíll be looking everywhere but there."

Xena approaches the body. It is right off the path, in thick brush, and it hasnít been dead long. This time the torso has been ripped open, organs, bone, and viscera visible. She looks to see if the throat has been cut as well, and catches her breath. The throat is bloody; the cut is there. What stops her short though, is the face.

"Itís Argent."

No answer from Gabrielle. Xena looks for the trail of blood and finds it, leading back into the woods, as usual, in the general direction of the destroyed village, as usual. What isnít usual is that the blood only goes a few feet, right to a rock on which is painted a large letter N. The arrow is splattered next to it.

Xena stands up.

"You were right, Gabrielle. I think Argent was tricked into calling me here."

No answer from Gabrielle. Xena turns to look at her friend, finds her staring hard at the letter on the rock. She looks more than a little pissed.

"What was the letter you found with the first body, Xena?"

No answer from Xena.

"Could it possibly, oh, let me take a wild guess here, have been an X?"

Gabrielle redirects her stare to the warrior. Xenaís expression is all the answer she needs.

"Xena, why is it that after all this time---"

"Gabrielle, what difference would it have made if you had known or not known? You would have worried for three days instead of three minutes."

"I would have worried like youíve been worrying. Must you take it all upon yourself?"

"I havenít been worrying."

"No, youíre just keeping me within armís reach of a bloody corpse because you want the company."

"That could be true."

Gabrielleís glare catches fire. "If thatís true, then I can turn around right now, go back to the village we passed six days ago. Alone. Shall I?"

Xena glares at her companion. "No." Grudgingly. "I want you here with me."

"Because itís dangerous here?"

"Yes."

"Then I need to be as aware of whatís going on as you are. Is that too much to ask?"

"No."

The bardís gaze softens somewhat. "Okay, then."

Xena sighs. "Well, you know as much as I do, now, Gabrielle. Three bodies, three letters, lots of blood, and an old nightmare. Any more questions?"

"Yeah." Sheís not angry anymore. "Argentís dead. What do we do now?"

"Go to Aktemto. See if anyone there knows anything."

"I was afraid youíd say that."

"Weíre about two days away. It makes more sense than turning around. We can get you new boots there."

"Good point. Letís go get Argo."

Xena pulls Argentís corpse deeper into the woods, covers it with a few branches. She reemerges onto the path and whistles for the horse. Argo will have none of that. Xena walks down to get the mare, mounts her, and gallops past Argentís makeshift grave. Gabrielle walks gingerly after her, catching up when Xena stops.

They switch places.

"Why donít you ride, too?"

"I donít want to tire Argo out too much. We may need her later."

*****

Chapter 4

Shortly after noon the women stop for lunch. The path has once again worked its way close to the river. They find a nice spot and settle in the shade.

"Good to see your appetite hasnít suffered."

Gabrielle ignores that remark, sort of.

"How far are we from the village you destroyed?"

Xena raises an eyebrow. Theyíre even.

"Maybe two days."

"Iím surprised the path doesnít go through it."

"It used to. It seems to circle around it now."

"Why didnít they rebuild it?"

"Iíd rather not think about that, Gabrielle."

"Did you get the silver from Aktemto?"

"Yes. News of what weíd done travelled quickly. Aktemto gave us everything we wanted."

"Somebody must have survived to get there ahead of your army."

Xena shakes her head, puzzled.

"No..."

"But they knew. Somebody told them. Itís not like itís people central out here." Gabrielle rips into another piece of bread. "That might be who we want to look for. Hey, can you catch a couple of rabbits tonight?"

"What?"

"Iím thinking I could make a pair of shoes with the skins."

Xena adjusts to the change of subject, leaves the back of her mind on the idea of a survivor.

"By the time the skins dried properly, weíd be in Aktemto. Iíve got some old leather, though. I could fix up a quick pair of sandals for you."

"Would you? You sew much better than I do."

"Itíll take a while."

"I donít mind. I donít think Argo will, either."

Xena smiles, and lunch turns into an afternoon by the river. Gabrielle goes swimming, then does some writing while Xena improvises a pair of sandals and keeps an ear tuned to the forest, and her mind, reluctantly, on the events of five summers before. When the footwear is ready Gabrielle tries the sandals on, and soon they are walking once again toward Aktemto.

"Not bad."

"You know me. I have--"

"Donít say it."

The path leaves the river and cuts through the densest part of the forest. Xena watches the light of the sun sink into the tree line.

"You know, there were deserters from the army in Aktemto. I didnít give it much thought at the time; it was two less people to feed and split tribute with. We should look for them too, when we get there."

"You think they could have done these killings?"

"Maybe. Why wait so long, though?"

"It hasnít been that long since youíve had an army. They might think youíre an easier target now."

Xena frowns. "Could be. But that doesnít feel right, somehow." She shakes her head. "That sounds like something youíd say."

"All my good qualities are rubbing off on you."

Evening becomes dusk, and finally Xena calls a halt.

"We wonít get much further. Darkís coming fast."

"Can we go back down to the river?"

"Weíre not that close now. Weíll find a clearing nearby."

Xena scouts the perimeter of their chosen clearing while Gabrielle gets the fire going. The warrior returns with two rabbits and more firewood. Gabrielle grins at the sight of the animals, sets to preparing them.

"Put an idea in your head, did I?"

"Iím getting really tired of bread and cheese."

"Anything else interesting out there?"

"No new corpses, if thatís what youíre asking. Thereís been a panther here recently, but I donít think thatíll bother us."

"That animal we heard two nights ago. Was that a panther?"

"Maybe. This would be a different one, though. They donít range that far."

"How do you know?"

Xena spits the rabbits and set them over the fire. "I--"

"I mean, youíve wandered all over the place. Why canít an animal?"

Xena shrugs. "I donít know. You could be right." Reluctantly accepts a piece of cheese from the smiling bard. "I like wandering."

"Oh, so do I. Especially with you."

"Even when we find the occasional murdered human and strange trails of blood?"

"Hey, for better, for worse."

"Thatís a new one."

"Sounds good though, doesnít it?" Gabrielle shoots a serious look into Xenaís eyes. "Believe me, the better far outweighs the worse."

"So far."

"So always, I think."

"Same here."

The serious looks turn to smiles, and they would kiss, except something chooses that moment to fall heavily out of a tree in the woods nearby. Xena leaps to her feet, sword at the ready. Gabrielle picks up the skinning knife and stands as well.

There is a rustling sound now, slow and irregular, coming from the forest. It gets neither closer nor farther away. After a moment, Xena reaches to the fire and pulls a branch out. With this makeshift torch, she walks toward the noise.

"Iíll be back."

Gabrielle knows better than to tell her to be careful. She stands, waiting, knife in hand. Minutes pass. The rustling has stopped; the silence is worse.

"Come on, Xena...."

Something suddenly crashes through the underbrush and startles the heck out of the bard.

"Gabrielle, get the medicine pouch!"

Gabrielle jumps a foot and drops the knife.

"Medicine pouch, yeah," she mutters. "To revive my terrified heart."

Moving to the supplies on the other side of the fire, she finds what sheís looking for, all to the background noise of Xena heading quickly toward the camp. Turning, she sees the warrior come into sight with--

"By the gods!"

Xena carries a young girl, bruised, dirty, stark naked. Gently she sets her down near the fire and takes the medicine pouch from Gabrielleís nerveless fingers. She talks while she opens the bag.

"Build the fire up. Weíre going to need hot water. And get the extra sleeping fur--Gabrielle, move!"

The last shout registers. The bard throws another log on the fire, fills the stewpot with water and sets it to heating, then gets the extra sleeping fur and carries it to Xena. The warrior kneels over the girl, and Gabrielle joins her, taking a closer look at their find.

She is small, maybe half a head shorter than Gabrielle, and young, maybe a teenager. Her black hair is chopped short, and her skin is olive under the red flush of fever. Sheís covered with dirt and bruises, but the scary thing is her right leg. It is swollen below the knee to twice its normal size, oozing blood and pus and streaked with fiery red lines.

Xena, busy examining all this, notices Gabrielle beside her.

"Take some water and clean her off. Donít touch the leg. When youíre done cover her with the sleeping fur. Sheís running an incredible fever."

"How about a cold compress for her head?"

"Good idea. Do that first." The warrior starts choosing herbs and powders from the medicine pouch. "Do we have any cloth we donít really need?"

"Thereís that shirt of mine you hate. I suppose I could give it up."

"Okay. Rip it into lengths for bandages. Her elbowís dislocated. Donít look..."

Gabrielle cringes with the *pop!* as Xena resets the arm, then continues wiping off the worst of the dirt as gently as she can. The girl is delirious, moaning and trying fitfully to move.

"Will she live, Xena?"

The warrior takes the boiling water off the fire and starts mixing the poultice.

"I donít know. I wouldnít bet on it."

*****

Chapter 5

Morning comes and the girl breathes still. It is a raspy, tortured breathing, but it is life. Xena has been up most of the night, changing the headcloths and just keeping an eye on things. She listens, too, for any more unusual noises from the forest. With the sun she is better able to see the childís injuries, particularly the ugly, infected leg.

Waking Gabrielle, the two have a quick breakfast and discuss matters.

"Sheís still really feverish."

"Do you think she was attacked by the same person that killed the others?"

Xena nods. "Sheís got wounds around her wrists, like she was tied. Tightly. Thatís probably where the leg wound came from, too."

"Did she fall out of a tree?"

"Yes."

"How could she climb with a wound like that?"

"I donít know. Desperation, trying to escape. It could happen."

"I think we should take her to Aktemto. Maybe a healer can help."

"Sheís too sick to move."

"Will she get better if we stay?"

Xena ponders this one for awhile.

"I think we should get out of this forest, Xena. Whoeverís doing this could be ready to get us next."

"He wonít get us."

"Letís not give him the chance to try. We can rig a carrier for the girl. Argo can pull her."

The warrior frowns, then nods. "All right."

Xena goes into the forest to find suitable logs for a travois. Gabrielle breaks camp, dousing the fire and packing up their gear. As the last of it is stored away she turns to check on the girl, and jumps a foot in the air, dropping the waterskin.

The girl is watching her.

After a moment, Gabrielle starts her heart again, picks up the waterskin, and goes over to the girl. Kneeling down, she puts on her best "trust-me-Iím-a-saint" expression.

"Itís okay," she says soothingly. "Youíre sick, but weíre taking care of you. You need to rest."

The girl watches, eyeing the bard with piercing slate-grey eyes that miss nothing, despite the glaze of fever.

"Here, you should drink some water."

Gabrielle puts the waterskin to the girlís lips, and slowly the young one drinks. First drops, then swallows, until she turns away. She closes her eyes.

"Hurt," she rasps painfully.

"Donít try to talk. Just rest."

"Where, hurt?" The eyes open again, locking with Gabrielleís in a determined stare.

"Your arm is broken. And your leg is -- pretty bad."

"Leg....leg." They eyes close again, and this time the girl drifts off. Gabrielle sits back and watches her. Xena emerges from the trees.

"Nice job."

"You heard that?"

"Most of it. Iím surprised she woke up at all."

"Not as surprised as I was. Sheís got the most incredible eyes, Xena."

The warrior nods. "Weíll be moving pretty soon. Help me put this together."

Before long, everything is ready to go. Xena changes the dressing on the leg of the young one, then carefully lays the girl on the carrier, a sleeping fur above and below her. She sleeps deeply again, but the breathing is steadier now, more quiet.

"She seems better," Gabrielle says.

"Thatís not saying much."

Their pace today is slow and deliberate, trying to put as little stress on the girl as possible. Not that she would notice--she does not stir at all.

"Weíll get to Aktemto tomorrow, probably in the late afternoon."

"Whether or not we find another body?"

"If there were only supposed to be four, then I think weíve got the fourth one with us now."

"The girl?"

Xena nods. "Or me."

Gabrielle shudders. Xena takes Gabrielleís hand.

"Donít worry; I said he wouldnít get us, remember?"

The bard does not answer.

The group stops frequently so Xena can check on the young one. Her breathing seems to improve as the day passes, but she does not wake again. Gabrielle kneels near the girl at one point and idly strokes her hair, examining her face.

"Xena, sheís not that much younger than I am."

"I noticed that this morning."

"Whoever cut her hair needs some serious lessons."

"Looks like she did it herself. Just chopped it off. Easy to take care of that way."

"Her nose is crooked."

"Itís been broken." Xena has unwrapped the leg dressing, stares at the wound. "That pannis mold is amazing."

"What?"

"The pannis I use as an anti-infectant. Did you see her leg last night?"

"I tried not to look."

"Look now."

The legís swelling has reduced to almost nothing. The oozing pus is gone, and the red streaks have faded to pink scars. Xena examines the rest of the girlís body. The bruises have faded, and careful movement of the injured arm produces no reaction from the girl.

"If she keeps healing at this rate, sheíll lead us out of the forst herself."

"Oh, so you think youíre the only one that can heal quickly?"

"I wish I knew her secret."

"Ask her when she wakes up again."

"I might."

Rewrapping the leg, the travellers continue down the path for another couple of hours, then come to a good campsite as the sun sinks beneath the trees.

"May as well stop here."

"Hey--we got through the whole day without seeing any blood."

"Iíll still feel better when we get to the village." Xena helps Gabrielle manuever the travois off of Argo, then settles the horse in. "Iíll get some firewood. Back in a minute."

Gabrielle starts unpacking the dinner stuff, smiles as she pulls out the dregs of the bread and cheese. She glances over at the girl, is almost ready this time to find the eyes watching her.

"Hi! How are you feeling?"

She kneels next to the patient with water at the ready. The girl drinks thirstily, and Gabrielle notices her skin tone is normal. The fever is gone.

"My name is Gabrielle. Whatís yours?"

The girl thinks about it, wary. Gabrielle cuts a small piece of bread, offers it to her. The girl looks at it, reaches out from under the sleeping fur, takes it gingerly. The arm is working fine now.

"Thank you." Her voice is still raspy, like it doesnít get used often. Gabrielle smiles again.

"Whatís your name?"

"Traisa." Her eyes leave the bard, lose their focus, like sheís looking at some distant memory.

"Weíll be in Aktemto tomorrow, Traisa. Youíre doing well, youíre doing amazingly well, but you need a healer to see you."

"No. No village."

"Isnít that where youíre from?"

The girl barks shortly, whether in pain or as a denial Gabrielle canít tell.

"What happened to you, Traisa?"

The eyes snap back and pierce Gabrielle with ferocity.

"Village...burned. Warlord...came."

The bard blinks, stunned, as she realizes what this means. It takes her a long time to find her voice again.

"H--how did you survive?"

"Hid. Woods."

"Alone?"

A hint of a tear shows now. "Only one..."

Gabrielle reaches out to take Traisaís hand, but the sudden glare stops her. She pulls back.

"Why not go to Aktemto? Or Zerar, the other village?"

"Army--Aktemto. Army--Zerar. Warlord--everywhere."

"Sheís not a warlord anymore."

The look of pure venom that Traisa gives her convinces Gabrielle to get off the subject, quick.

"How did you hurt your leg? And how did you heal so fast?"

The girl swallows, thinks about it. Maybe, maybe a small smile plays across her lips.

"Hunters trapped panther," she says quietly, then closes her eyes.

"Looks like they trapped you, too," Gabrielle says, puzzled. But Traisa is silent now, like sheís gone back to sleep. Xena walks back into camp with wood.

"How much of that did you hear?"

"I heard her say "Warlord." She meant me, didnít she?"

"Traisaís from the village your army burned. She survived, Xena." Gabrielle looks again at the still figure. "I think sheís been living in the woods all these years."

Xena starts to build the fire. She doesnít reply.

"Sheíd have to be really tough to do that, wouldnít she?" Gabrielle continues. "Of course it helps that she can heal so fast. But to be alone like that. Somebody must have known she was here."

"Maybe not. Isnít there any rabbit left?"

"Yeah, a little." Gabrielle pulls a few chunks out of the pack. "I was saving it for breakfast."

"Just a bite, then."

"But if they knew she was here, why not take her to the village?"

Xena is extremely withdrawn. She eats without paying attention.

"She didnít want to go."

"Why not?"

"Why--if those villages were going to get burned, too? I wouldnít have."

Gabrielle finally sees the effect this is having on the warrior and shuts up.

"Iím sorry."

"Donít be. Itís not your fault. I made the choice about the direction my life would take 10 winters ago. Itís only fair I live with consequences now." Xena puts the food down. She isnít hungry anymore. "What did you say her name was?"

"Traisa."

"Traisa made a choice, too. A choice she shouldnít have had to make--but a choice."

"She doesnít want to go to Aktemto."

"She really ought to see a healer. But we can ask her in the morning."

"We canít leave her here. What if the killer finds her again?"

"Weíll tell her that. Remember, though, sheís with a killer now...me."

Thatís it--Gabrielleís appetite disappears. Slowly she puts what food is still out away. Xena watches quietly.

"You really should offer Traisa some."

Gabrielle nods distractedly. "Right."

She gets up and goes to the carrier. It is empty.

"Xena, sheís gone!"

In a flash the warrior is at her side, scanning the furs and the area around them. She looks up toward the forest. Listens intently. There is nothing there...

Gabrielle knits her brow, upset. "How could she have moved without making any noise?"

"I donít know." Something eles occurs to Xena. "Is there anything missing?"

A quick search of the camp turns up everything that should be there, save one item.

"She took the skinning knife," Gabrielle tells the warrior. "Sheís got a weapon now."

*****

Rage flies through her as she herself flies through the night. The freedom to run, the freedom to feel the wind move with her, denied for so long, energizes her now, moves her like a demon through the forest. She takes to the trees, just to prove she can, jumping from branch to branch like the darkness blazes with sunlight. She has her motive now, she has her goal. Just one more, and then she can---what?

What then???

*****

Chapter 6

They waste no time the next day, starting for Aktemto before dawn, arriving in the early afternoon. Xena has it all planned out.

"Get us a room at the inn. Iíll stable Argo, then weíll get you some boots. We can find out if anyone here knows anything about the bodies in the forest."

"Iíll get lunch too. Meet me in the tavern."

Aktemtoís lone tavern is attached to Aktemtoís lone inn. Gabrielle goes into the tavern first.

"Iíd like lunch for two, and where do I go to get a room?"

The bartender looks up and smiles.

"You can do both right here," he says in a slightly accented, lilting tone. "Colinís the name."

"Gabrielle." She returns the smile.

"Youíve wandered far to get to this little hamlet, eh?"

"And itís been a terrible trip."

"Itís not an easy journey. That forest is full of---things."

"No offense, but I canít see why anyone would live so far away from everything."

"ĎTis the silver, lass. Mining is lucrative. Most people that live here like the solitude, anyway." Colin deftly sets up a plate of meats, another of cheese and fruit. "Iíve got nutbread recently baked, if you care for that."

"Absolutely."

"Ale to go with it all?"

"Sure."

"Right. A seat at the back table, itíll be there in a thrice. Weíll do the room after you eat. You look like the food matters more to you at the moment."

Gabrielle smiles and takes a seat. Itís past noon meal time, the tavern is empty save for one or two customers. Colin follows quickly with two mugs of ale and the food.

"So what is it that brings you to Aktemto, then?"

"We were looking for a man named Argent."

The tenderís eyebrows raise, and his smile fades.

"Heís a friend of yours, then?"

"No, not at all. He, claimed to have information for us."

"Ah. I thought you might do better than to be acquainted with the likes of an Argent." Colin turns to go back to the bar, stops.

"Claimed, you said. Have you found the man, then? He was travelling to Zerar, last I heard."

Gabrielle nods, determined not to let the memory of "finding" Argent spoil her lunch.

"We found him."

"And still you come here?"

"Itís a long story."

"Right. Eat, then, lass. Iíll bother you no more."

The bard digs in. Shortly afterward Xena walks into the tavern, spots her friend, and joins her.

"Save some for me."

Gabrielle looks up with a mouth full of food.

"Hmmp. Yours is coming."

Xenaís eyes widen, and the bard grins as she swallows another piece of nutbread.

"Fooled you, didnít I?"

She laughs, Xena laughs too, for the first time in days. Sitting down, she selects some meat and fruit, takes her ale. They enjoy their lunch and each otherís company, relaxed as they have not been since entering the forest. Colin refills their mugs, and this time Xena catches his attention.

"Is there a hunter in this village who traps with snares?"

The bartender nods. "That would be Lozious, aye." He eyes Gabrielle again. "Are you quite sure about the company you keep, lass? First itís Argent, then asking after Lozious. Next youíre going to tell me this is the warlord Xena."

Xena stops her mug halfway to her mouth. Gabrielle puts down the last of the nutbread.

"She is Xena. And sheís not a warlord anymore."

Colin says nothing, merely gives them a long cold stare, then goes back to the bar.

"Iíve been getting that reception all over town," Xena says wryly.

"Should we just leave?"

"No. Money talks in Aktemto. As long as we can pay, we can stay. Besides, your boots wonít be ready Ďtil tomorrow morning."

Gabrielle puts down her mug, calmly, if a bit unsteadily, stacks the empty plates, gets up and carries them to the bar before Xena can move. She sets them down with authority in front of Colin.

"I know what happened here five years ago," she says quietly, showing a contained fury. "And I know the Xena with me today. If you give people a chance, they can change. For the better."

Colin takes the plates and stacks them under the bar, never breaking his stare with the bard.

"That may be. I tell you this. Convince Raijan over there that itís true, and convince the sprite, and I might be inclined to believe it. Until then, lass, warlord she be."

Xena walks up behind Gabrielle, bearing the mugs. She sets them on the bar.

"Weíd still like a room for the night, if there is one available."

"Oh, your moneyís good here. I donít have to like who I serve."

Colin shows them a room at the back of the inn. Small but clean, the window looks out into the forest beyond. Xena pays him, then turns to Gabrielle, now sprawled on the bed.

"Iím going to find out more about Lozious, and what Argent was doing here. You are going to take a nap."

"I want to go with you."

"With one less mug of ale in you Iíd agree. Now I think you should sleep."

Gabrielle glares, but it half closes her eyes, and the alcohol does the rest. Xena smiles.

"Iíll be back for dinner," she says to the sleeping bard.

*****

Chapter 7

When Gabrielle wakes up the sun is setting--right through her forehead. She groans.

"Just two little mugs of ale." She sighs. "It isnít fair..."

Gingerly she rises from the bed, straightens her clothes, splashes her face with water from the basin, and goes down to the tavern.

The dinner rush is in full swing. Colin is there, behind the bar, and he gestures Gabrielle to a seat.

"Whereís your friend?"

"I was hoping sheíd be here."

"Soon enough, I imagine. Dinner?"

"Letís start with some water."

Colinís expression shows concern despite himself.

"Iíve got just the thing. Hold on a minute."

He returns as promised with a mug. Gabrielle eyes it suspiciously, sniffs, tries a sip. Itís cold, and it tastes wonderful.

"This isnít water."

"Itís better. Trust me."

"Like you trust me? A woman who associates with warlords?"

"Just because you donít know any better is no reason to deny you aid when itís needed."

"I do know better." Takes a long sip of the drink. "It would be nice if more people thought like you."

"More arenít bartenders with businesses to run."

"Thatís right. ĎI donít have to like you to serve you.í "

Colin turns away.

"Just let me know when youíre ready for dinner."

"When Xena gets here."

Gabrielle finishes the mug, feeling better by the second. Eventually Xena walks in.

"So what did I miss?"

"Not much. That better not be ale."

"No. Itís delicious, though. I think Iíll have another with dinner. Are you hungry?"

"A little. Letís get a table."

Itís possible now, the crowd has thinned a bit. The women end up with the same table they had at lunch. The tender comes to take their order, and soon a light repast sits before them. Xena lets Gabrielle eat most of it while she nurses an ale--really good ale, she notes--and watches the crowd. One man in particular watches her back. Xena remembers him from lunch, remembers him drinking a lot then. She wonders if heís left the tavern at all.

"Did you find out anything?" Gabrielle asks.

"That people donít want to talk to me, mostly. Lozious was a first class bastard. Argent wasnít much better--but I knew that."

"What about the third man?"

"Nimas. He was one of the deserters from my army five years ago. I should have recognized him, I guess."

"Was he the first body, or the second?"

"The first."

"What were they doing out in the woods?"

"Thatís what I couldnít find out."

"What about Traisa?"

"I didnít ask about her."

"Why not?"

Xena has no good answer for this, and Colin comes up in time to save her answering.

"More drink?"

Gabrielle nods eagerly. Xena shakes her head no, then changes her mind.

"Iíll have what youíre giving her."

"Fine choice." He returns in a moment with two fresh mugs. As he sets them down, the man who has been watching Xena all night comes up behind him. Heís been drinking steadily, but it doesnít show as he nimbly sidesteps the tender and leans against the table.

"I hear you ask of Lozious, the hunter."

Xena looks up warily.

"True. Do you know him?"

"I know heís been in the forest for a moon, and thatís a fortnight longer than normal. And I know Lozious is a cruel man, and there are those who would not mind him dead."

"Meaning?"

The man ignores the comment, continues.

"But, then, they same the same of you. I imagine you know a thing or two about cruelty, donít you?"

Gabrielle can almost feel the coldness settle over the warrior as she gives her most dangerous look to the man. Slowly Xena stands up. She towers over him.

"Would you like to find out?"

Her voice is low, threatening. The drinker doesnít even flinch. He lowers his mug, meets her stare full bore.

"Thereís nothing you could do to me that you havenít done already--warlord!" The last word is spat out, a challenge. Xenaís eyes blaze like she will rise to meet it.

"Sheís not a warlord anymore." Gabrielleís voice is quiet, resigned. It breaks the stare but not the tension. "Whatever she may have done to you, itís past now. Thatís no comfort, Iím sure, but it wonít happen again."

The drinker looks at Gabrielle, and she sees the pain behind his rage.

"Sins of the past are sins all the same." He turns back to Xena. "We bear the scars of yours everyday that we breathe."

Xenaís hand moves to her chakram; ignoring Gabrielleís touch on her arm, she leans forward until her eyes and the manís are a hairís breadth apart.

"And you think that I donít?" She hisses.

The man blinks. He wasnít expecting that. But after a second he smiles and sets his jaw.

"I hope you do, Xena," he says with contempt. "I hope it eats you away until Tartarus claims you."

The tavern is deadly quiet now; everyone hears those words. Xena holds his stare, hand tightening on the chakram. Even Gabrielle knows better than to move. Then, infinitesimally slowly, she straightens up and backs away. Her hand falls to her side.

"That is for the gods to decide." The warrior voice is scary calm now, quiet. "Not you or I."

And she turns and walks away to the stairs that lead to the inn. Surprised, Gabrielle throws a last glare at the drinker, then jumps up and follows.

She gets a foot in the door just as Xena slams it shut. "Oh, no you donít, Xena---"

"Gabrielle, leave me alone." Xena has moved to the window and sits on the sill, looking out into the darkness. "Please."

Gabrielle limps over to stand behind her friend.

"No. You never leave me alone when Iím in trouble; itís time I returned the favor."

"Iím not in trouble."

"You know what I mean."

Gabrielle lays her hands on Xenaís shoulders. They are not shrugged off. The bard takes this as a good sign, and starts a slow, gentle massage. The moon is rising; this is what Xena watches now.

"Iím not going to talk about it."

"Thatís okay."

The bard fights the urge to chatter and continues the massage, hoping to at least symbolically ease some of Xenaís pain. How many times has she let the warrior comfort her just like this? She hopes it helps now...

Xena never moves, just sits and watches the moon. When Gabrielleís hands grow tired she stops the massage but not the contact. She wishes now she had magic words to make everything peaceful again, magic words to cleanse the darkness in the warriorís soul. Wishes for a hundred things. If wishes were horses....

Suddenly she is tired beyond belief, and her head drops. Xena moves then, turning in one smooth motion to catch Gabrielle before she falls to the floor. She picks her up and lays her gently on the bed.

"I shouldnít have brought you here, Gabrielle."

"Where else would I go?" the bard asks, barely audible. "Who else would I want to be with?" She fights to keep her eyes open. "Am I going to sleep?"

"Yes," Xena replies with a quiet smile.

"Donít let me. Donít let me leave you..."

Xena brushes her fingers gently against Gabrielleís cheek, forgets for a moment the scene in the tavern, the colds looks that have followed her all day. It isnít all darkness anymore, her world, and she kisses the sleeping womanís lips for being the reason why. Then the image of another sleeping figure floods into her head, and she turns once again to the window, the forest, and the moon....

*****

Chapter 8

Xena, as is usual, wakes before Gabrielle. Itís still early, but when she enters the tavern for breakfast she finds Colin there, behind the bar, drying dishes. They have the place to themselves.

"Do you ever sleep?"

"About as much as you, I imagine." He is curt. His eyes are cold.

"Weíll be leaving this morning. You wonít have to worry about us much longer."

Colin puts one mug down and picks up another.

"Thatís your choice, then. Iíve gotten no trouble from you so far."

"Last night doesnít count?"

"Nothing happened. At least, nothing was broken." He takes the freshly dried mug, pours a drink, lays some bread and cheese on a plate and serves it to Xena. Her favorite. She slices the cheese, lays it on the bread, and eats slowly, watching Colin as he continues his drying.

"Tell me who the drinker was last night."

"No. Iíll not have you going after him."

"I donít want to go after him. I want to know what--what I did."

The tender hears the catch in her voice, or imagines he does. He nods.

"Raijanís fiancee lived in the village burned down. They were to be married the same week your army came. He was in Zerar, the far village, followed you after you left there, saw everything that happened."

"Why didnít he try to stop it?"

Colin looks at her in astonishment. "One man against a savage army? Your savage army? Would you have?"

"Yes." Thinking of Gabrielle...

He just stares at her, silent, thinking.

"Well," he says finally, "you both have lots to live with then, donít you?"

Xena acknowledges this with her eyes, goes back to her breakfast. Realizes she has not talked to this probable clearinghouse of information at all. Thinks of a change of subject.

"Lozious is dead." The towel stops in mid-motion, then starts up again. Slowly. "Know anyone whoíd want to kill him?"

"How about your friend Argent?"

"Argentís dead, too." Colin stops the towel again, puts it down, gives Xena his full attention.

"And Nimas?"

The warrior just nods. Slices another piece of cheese.

"They werenít killed in the same place, and they werenít killed on the same day. But they were killed by the same person. Their throats were cut."

"You chose some fine topics for the break of day, warlord."

Xena ignores the warlord part.

"Lozious was tied down with his own snares, Nimas hung from a tree. I think Argent was trying to get back here. He died last. Whoíd want them dead, Colin?"

"Truth? With Argent and Lozious, half the town. Likely Nimas was just in the wrong place. But whoíd actually do the deed? None. They were bastards, but they werenít that terrible." He picks up the towel again. "If you want a suspect, most people here would be happy to point to you."

"I didnít kill them."

Shrugs. "I believe you."

"Why?"

"The lass, that Gabrielle. Sheís not the killing kind. And thereís been no murder done in her sight--lately."

"You like Gabrielle, donít you?"

"Aye--despite the company she keeps, and the people she asks after."

"Iím really not a warlord anymore."

"Well, you got her convinced of that, anyway. There might be something to it."

Xena smiles in spite of herself. Asks her most important questions.

"Who else from the village isnít here, Colin? Who else has gone into the forest and not returned yet? Or went and has returned?"

"Truth? No one. The last people to leave--Argent and Nimas. The first to return--You and the lass. The mine is busy right now. Everyoneís working hard. Itís a small village. Iíd know if someone was missing." A thought occurs to him; he goes still for a fraction of a second. But Xena catches it.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"No, Colin, what is it?"

"The childrenís tale, nothing more." But heís uncomfortable, and Xena presses him.

"Tell me."

Thereís a sound behind them. Gabrielle comes down the stairs, spots Xena, smiles and walks over to join her.

"Did you sleep?"

"Yes."

"Hmmmm. Morning, Colin."

The bartender smiles. "Good morning, lass. Some breakfast for you?"

"That would be great."

In no time a full plate and mug sit in front of the bard. Xena pushes her own plate away, and Colin whisks it under the bar.

"I still want to hear the childrenís tale, Colin."

"No, you donít."

"Childrenís tale?" Gabrielle pipes up. "I can always use a new story."

"Not this one, lass."

Three people spend the next minute just staring at each other: Gabrielle puzzled, Xena miffed, Colin determined. Then Xena breaks the deadlock.

"We can find out from someone else, you know."

"You think so? Thereís none would tell you, Xena."

"Theyíd tell Gabrielle."

"You think so, do you?"

"Oh, yes--she has many skills."

Gabrielle chokes on her breakfast, stops Xena from delivering a crushing blow to her back--just.

"Iím okay," she coughs. "Really." She takes a long swallow of her drink.

"Gosh, that is good," she says to Colin. "What is this stuff?"

"A tea I brew from local plants, with a root from the far east land thrown in."

"I donít suppose youíd tell me whatís in it?"

A smile. "You canít make it anywhere but here."

"Colin--"

"Aye, lass?"

"Do you know anything about a girl who lives in the forest? Or did Xena ask you that already?"

The tender doesnít answer, goes white with shock instead. Xena watches him with interest while Gabrielle looks concerned.

"Colin, are you all right?"

He swallows hard, tries mightily to recover his composure.

"Youíve heard the tale already, then." He whispers.

Gabrielle looks puzzled again.

"No--but we found a girl."

*****

Chapter 9

Colin grips the bar, white-knuckled. Itís clear he would fall if he didnít. "Nobodyís ever found the girl. Youíre not telling me sheís dead too, are you? She canít be dead!"

"No, sheís not dead," Gabrielle answers. "She almost died, though. She was dying when we found her."

The bartender breathes hard now. He takes a small cup, fills it with something, gulps it down. Gabrielle looks over at Xena, who motions her to continue.

"Did you tell him about the bodies?"

Xena nods. Gabrielle turns back to Colin.

"We think the same person who killed the men tried to kill her. We found her three nights ago near our campsite, badly injured. She would have died, but Xena had medicine and saved her."

"Mostly." This from Xena. "She basically saved herself."

"She wouldnít come with us to Aktemto. She ran away instead. Why, Colin?"

"And what does she have to do with this Ďchildrenís taleí ?" Xena again.

The bartender looks hard at Xena. Heís regained most of his calm.

"There was a family lived in the village burned down. They had a daughter. Her body was never found. No one was really surprised." His eyes chill just a little. "You remember how much destroyed the hamlet was. No surprise at all a body was burnt to nothing.

"Afterwards, though, people started seeing someone in the forest. Small, a child, never close enough to catch. A ghost, twas said, the ghost of the daughter. We took to calling her the sprite, and thatís what we tell our children; "be good, or the sprite will get you, and youíll have to live in the forest, too." A childrenís tale."

"Only you know sheís real. How?"

Colin shakes his head. "Letís just say I do, leave it at that. Iíve said far too much already."

"Not really," Gabrielle notes. "She told me she came from the village. We knew that. She told me she survived, lived alone in the forest. She even told me her name. Traisa."

"Did she know you travel with Xena, then? Sheíd certainly know that name."

"I--I think so. She didnít talk to me when Xena was there."

"I thought not. And, knowing so much, now, you donít need me to tell you more." He takes Gabrielleís plate and mug, puts them under the bar. "Itís time I prepared for lunch. You can check out anytime you like. Iíll be here."

"But--"

Xena pulls the bard to her feet.

"Letís go, Gabrielle. Weíll pick up your boots, then weíll leave. Go get our things."

"Xena--"

"Gabrielle, please."

The look in her eyes stops the bard short. It is intense. Not angry, though, almost--pleading. Gabrielle nods shortly and goes back up the stairs. Xena turns to Colin.

"One more thing, tender."

He looks back at her. She moves close to him, keeps her voice quiet. "Argent saw you with the girl, didnít he? He saw Traisa."

Colin looks puzzled.

"No. He couldnít have." Then it dawns on him. "Thatís not what he was calling you here for."

"What, then?"

"They found a new vein in the mine. Lots of silver coming out now. He had his eye on it. I think he meant to tempt you to it, appeal to your old ways. It worked once before, after all."

"He knew Iíd changed."

"What is it they say about leopards and their spots? Worth a try in his eyes."

"And Nimas?"

"In on it with him."

"And you?"

Colin laughs. "I? Iím honest as summer solstice day, Xena. Iím a tender and keeper. I hear lots of things, I see lots of things. I knew the pair was planning something, didnít really put it together Ďtil I saw you."

"Why did they leave, then?"

"They wanted to meet you in the forest, put a plan together there, Iíd guess. Be all ready and come back with you."

Xena nods. It makes sense. Colin continues as Gabrielle descends the stairs with their stuff.

"It was nothing to do with the girl, then. But I tell you this, warlord." Xena glares at him, but he has her full attention. "I saw your mind turning earlier. You keep thinking that way. Be very careful going back to Zerar. For the sake of the lass, you know."

Understanding, and a hint of respect now passes between them. Gabrielle doesnít miss this.

"What are you talking about now?"

Xena and Colin speak in unison. "Nothing." The tender smiles. Gabrielle starts fuming. They ignore that.

"Good-bye, Xena. I wish I could say it has been a pleasure."

"At least it wasnít dull. Good-bye, Colin."

He turns to Gabrielle.

"Good-bye, lass." He winks. "Be good to her now. Be good to yourself, too."

A bit of her anger fades. Sheíll take it out on the warrior later. "I will. Good-bye, Colin."

Xena has picked up their packs. They start out the door.

Continued