Convert This Page to Pilot DOC FormatConvert this page to Pilot DOC Format

Chapter 10

Gabrielle waits until they are well outside of Aktemto to lay into Xena. The warrior makes the mistake of leading Argo again; walking by the bardís side, she is ripe for the taking.

"Okay-- Ďif only for the sake of the lass.í What in Hades was Colin talking about, Xena?"

"Youíre not going to like it."

"Donít put me off--just tell me."

Xena hesitates, tries out the indirect approach.

"The only people in the forest when those men were killed were the men, you, me, and Traisa."

"And the killer."

"And the killer. Except that Colin was sure that no one else from Aktemto was there."

"So? He could have been from Zerar."

"Lozious was killed before we left Zerar."

"How do you know?"

Xena sighs. "Itís not one of the things Iím proud of, but I can usually tell how long a body has been dead. Lozious died before or about the time we left Zerar."

"It still could have been someone from there."

"We were in that village for two, maybe three hours, Gabrielle. We bought supplies, we kept going. We werenít in Zerar long enough for anyone to put a plan like this together. To think up the blood, the letters, to find Argent and Nimas and Lozious. It doesnít work."

"What about the other deserter?"

"Heís the one who made your new boots. He hasnít left Aktemto since he deserted five summers ago."

Gabrielle looks down involuntarily. "Small world."

"So far as we know."

"What about a fourth man? One who was with Argent? Who betrayed him? He would have known."

"Who could it have been? That brings us back to Aktemto again."

"Xena, youíre not making sense. You didnít kill the men. I didnít kill the men. Traisa didnít kill the men. Thereís nobody left."

"Why not Traisa?" the warrior asks softly. So much for the indirect appoach.

Gabrielle stops still, incredulous. "What? She was almost dead when we found her! The killer had tried to get her too!"

Xena keeps her voice quiet. This isnít easy for her at all.

"Suppose Traisa was trapped by Lozious. That would explain the tie marks on her arms and legs, and the infection. She gets away, but not before hearing that Iím coming. She knows this forest--sheís survived in it for half her life. She escapes, thinks up her plan, kills the hunter. Tracks Nimas and Argent, kills Nimas, lets Argent start back toward Aktemto. Maybe she tracks us--"

"You would have known."

"There was something in the woods that day we found Lozious."

Gabrielle shakes her head. "I donít believe this, Xena. Sheís hardly more than a child."

"Not much younger than you. You said that yourself."

The bard starts walking again, thinking hard.

"Okay; suppose she heard you were coming. She couldnít have known when."

"Blood lasts a long time. The trails would have been there. Probably the bodies, too. All she had to do was wait."

"With an infected leg?"

"She didnít know how bad it was."

"So how does she kill three men, twice her size, with a leg thatís draining her own life away?"

"Infections like that take time to develop. She probably wasnít that sick at first. And Argent broke the pattern. He wasnít tied, he was right by the side of the path, and the blood trail only went a few feet." Xena pauses a second, then continues. "And we found her that night, right by the camp."

Gabrielle shakes her head.

"You didnít answer my question. How does she kill three men twice her size?"

"With the same strength and skills that let her survive alone in this forest for five years."

"I donít believe it. I--"

"Gabrielle, it isnít just me. This is what Colin and I were talking about. He didnít tell us how he knows Traisa, but he does. He thinks itís possible. Believe me, his concern was all for you."

"Thatís supposed to make me feel better?"

"Think about one more thing. If Iím right, if Lozious trapped Traisa somehow, then she had reasons to kill him and Argent and Nimas--like she has reason to kill me."

"Like Callisto," the bard says softly.

"Only the gods know how many monsters Iíve created, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle does not reply to this. They walk along in silence for quite a while. Then the bard speaks again.

"So what are we going to do?"

"Get to Zerar as quickly as we can."

"No confrontation?"

"I donít want one." Surprising herself.

"I still donít believe that Traisa is a killer."

"I know."

"And if Iím right, Xena, if the real killer is here, then Traisa is in danger, too. We should try to help her."

"Well, all we have to do is walk through this forest, Gabrielle. Whoever is doing the killing will come after me."

"He might go after Traisa first."

"I really donít think we have to worry about Traisa."

"It would be nice if somebody did."

Xena turns to meet her companionís eyes. "Youíve got that covered."

"For all the good itíll do her." Gabrielle frowns. "If youíre so eager to get away from here, why arenít we riding Argo?"

"We will. When we get closer to the burned out village. I want her well rested until then."

And so they walk all day, carrying a running argument back and forth as they move, pushing hard until the path approaches the river. They ford the river to settle in again under the bluffs. They will build no fire this night.

"No fires at all?"

"It makes a beacon. We donít want to be obvious."

Dinner is quiet; the bard finally seems talked out. Until the end, when she thinks of something.

"You know, Xena--"

"What?"

"We should bury those bodies."

Xenaís look is, to say the least, skeptical. "Where did that come from?"

"I know they werenít the greatest human beings in the world and all, but we should."

"We donít really have time for that."

"Suppose it were us? Killed in a far away place. Youíd want someone to bury you."

"I donít think Iíd care at that point."

"I would." Bard and warrior stare at each other in the darkness. Xena canít see so much as feel Gabrielleís intensity.

"Youíre serious, arenít you?"

"Yes."

"You know Gabrielle, youíre too nice for your own good, sometimes."

"True."

They fall silent again, and shortly afterwards retire for the night. It is not the sleep of the calm at heart....

*****

Chapter 11

Next day, the telltale smell of death hits them early. When they reach the place where Argent died, Xena ties Argo to a tree, very reluctantly takes the small spade carried in their supplies.

She looks a little way off the path for a burial spot. "I canít believe Iím doing this..."

Gabrielle, staying with her, sees again the bloody rock, the letter N.

"You know, right here by the rock works."

"Too close to the path."

"We donít have to be that thorough, do we?"

Xena glares at her. "We donít have to bury him at all!"

The bard stands there, eying the letter, sighs.

"Yes, we do."

Xena taps the ground with the spade, not daring a reply, and starts digging.

"Why donít you gather some rocks, Gabrielle," she says after awhile. "We can cover him with those, too. But stay in sight."

Gabrielle rolls her eyes, but obliges, glad for something to do. Before too long there is a shallow trench and a pile of stones ready. Xena wipes the sweat from her forehead, puts the spade down, goes over to the branches that cover whatís left of Argent. Gabrielle moves to help.

"I can get this," the warrior says.

"Quicker if two do it." They each take a deep breath and grab, Gabrielle the legs, Xena the upper torso. The body stays in one piece, barely, no thanks to the maggots and the nearly severed trunk. They set it in the trench, cover it with dirt and rocks, and are done. After a moment of silence, the women rejoin Argo, wash the dirt and gore off, and are once more on their way.

"Thereís our good deed for the day."

"Xena."

"Hmmm?"

"His chest. He was ripped to shreds. I didnít do that when I stepped on him, did I?"

"No."

"Traisa couldnít have done that."

"It looks like an animal got him. The throat, though, was cut with a knife."

"And of course thereís the blood. And the letter."

"Yes."

Someting skips rapidly through the trees off to their left. Xena stops and listens, eyes searching the direction of the sound. Nothing now, except for a few birds chirping around them.

"Someone?"

"Something. Running too fast to be human. But something big."

"A wolf."

"Or that panther we keep not seeing."

"Oh."

They walk on again. Come to a barely visible fork in the path. Xena stops them again.

"The burned village is that way." Unwanted memories flood her mind. Gabrielle reaches out and takes the warriorís hand in hers.

"We could go there. Maybe we should."

Xena snaps back to reality. "No. No time. Come on."

Theyíre not far along the path when something again skips through the trees, this time on the other side of the path. One, two, three, four distinct steps, then nothing.

"Itís following us," Gabrielle says. "Are you sure itís not human?"

"Positive."

A cold chill runs down the bardís spine, stark contrast to the heat of the day.

"Why is it following us, then?"

Xena shakes her head, keeps them moving. The path veers back toward the river, and as it snakes along the waterís edge the warrior calls a halt.

"Letís do lunch here. I need a swim."

"Do we have time?"

Xena takes in the sarcasm, the stance of the bard. Sighs.

"What do you want to do?"

Gabrielle backs off.

"A swim would be great."

"Okay."

The river, flowing down from the hills, is cold and clear. Its freshness clears Xenaís head, and eases some of Gabrielleís apprehension. As the warrior starts to climb out of the shallows, Gabrielle reaches out, pulls her close. Holds her for a long time.

"Iím sorry. I know youíre doing your best here."

"And youíre doing what you think is right."

"Even if you donít agree?"

"Oh, especially if I donít agree." Xena smiles, smooths back the bardís wet hair, brings their lips together. They both know it has been way too long....

"Promise me something, Xena."

"Anything."

"We donít ever come back here."

Xenaís smile fades, her eyes grow serious as they look into Gabrielleís.

"I promise."

They leave the water, holding hands, towel each other off, dress. Xena gets the whetstone out, decides to do a quick sword sharpening, while Gabrielle chooses lunch.

"Fruit, I think. And the last of that nutbread Colin sold me. Smoked venison."

"Sounds good. Pity he didnít sell you any ale."

"Like youíd let me drink it."

Gabrielle brings the food over, sits close to Xena. A movement in the trees about thirty feet away catches her eye. She looks up.

"Xena, it is a panther."

The warrior follows the bardís eyes, sees the animal on a tree branch.

"Itís been here since we stopped."

"Why didnít you tell me?"

"It was moving around. Itís getting closer now, though."

Xena watches it warily even as she sings the whetstone on the sword blade. Gabrielle watches it too, fascinated. The panther is large, well muscled, with sleek black fur, and an unmistakable aura of coiled power. It looks at them with hooded eyes.

"Itís beautiful." Gabrielleís voice is hushed.

"If it doesnít get too close."

"I wonder why itís here."

"Me, too."

Suddenly the panther springs from its tree to one closer to the women. Its frame ripples as it catches a branch and lands nimbly, with hardly a sound. Xenaís eyes narrow, and she follows the catís every move as it settles on its perch, gets comfortable, and watches right back. She puts the whetstone down, lays the sword across her knees, right hand around the hilt, ready.

Gabrielle hands her some fruit. Xena takes it without breaking eye contact with the animal in the tree.

"Itís not going to attack us, Xena."

"Then why is it here?"

"Maybe it likes seeing a warrior woman dressed in black."

That breaks the stare. Xena gives Gabrielle a comical look, and a ghost of a smile plays across her lips. Then the panther growls as if in agreement, startling the women below. They look back at the cat. It hasnít moved.

"Funny," Xena says. "Iíve never seen a panther with grey eyes before."

Gabrielle drops her fruit.

"What did you say?"

The intensity in her voice is unmistakable.

"The panther has grey eyes. Itís unusual, but--" Xena sees the stunned look on her companionís face. "Gabrielle?"

The bard peers desperately at the cat. Itís in shadow, and her own eyes are no match for the warriorís. A phrase from many days ago replays in her head now.

"Xena, Traisaís eyes are grey."

Now itís Xenaís turn to be startled.

"What are you saying?"

It all falls into place for the bard. "What do you think?"

"I think you ate too much nutbread."

"Xena, the night Traisa left our camp, I asked her how she got so badly hurt. She said to me "hunters trapped panther." It didnít make any sense--"

"It still doesnít."

"Oh, yes it does." Gabrielle is deadly serious. "By the gods, Xena, Traisa..." She canít bring herself to say it.

Xena stands up. "Thereís one way to find out." She starts toward the panther, sword in hand.

"Youíve heard us," she calls. "Is it true?"

The panther springs off the branch to the ground. Xena raises her weapon, but the animal bounds away from the camp; one, two, three, four distinct steps, then silence. Long silence.

"Letís go, Gabrielle."

"But--"

"Pack the stuff. Weíre leaving."

It takes all of two minutes. Just as they start out of the clearing, Xena hears a rustle in the trees, and she stops, moves so she is between Gabrielle and the noise. Thereís a flash in the corner of her eye. Instinct brings her arm up, and even as her head jerks sideways, she catches the object flying toward her. A feline roar sounds from the forest, and then--again, four steps, and silence.

"Xena? Are you okay? What is it?"

Xena opens her hand, and without a word shows Gabrielle a skinning knife.

*****

Chapter 12

They ride Argo now, moving as fast as Xena dares push the horse. Gabrielle, arms wrapped around the warrior, thinks about the sleek black panther, a sprite with a broken nose, and slate grey eyes....

Sheís seen impossible things before in her life, but this one... Could Traisa be of the gods? It doesnít feel right, that thought. But it explains so much. It explains how she survived in the forest. How she moved so fast. How she moved so quietly. How--how someone so small Gabrielle can pick her up could kill...

The bard realizes that she believes Xena now. It saddens her, but her doubt is gone: Traisa has murdered three men; and she not only has killed, but killed with ritual, scattering the blood of her victims to warn, or taunt, the most important victim of all. Xena...

But she remembers also the eyes of the sick one on the travois, alert, intelligent, wary. She remembers the raspy "Thank you", and the girl giving the bard her name...

"Could this be a godís doing, Xena?"

It seems the warrior has been thinking along the same lines, for her answer is clear and immediate.

"No. There are no gods here. I am responsible for this."

Gabrielle falls silent again, but holds to Xena more tightly. The darkness is right there now, just below the surface, and the bard leans into the warrior to try and will it away.

The warrior, lost in her own thoughts, does not notice. She does not question that Traisa can apparently switch back and forth from human to animal. She has seen things that make the feat seem feeble in comparison. She thinks rather about the precarious position she and Gabrielle find themselves in now, hunted by a killer in the killerís home ground, a killer who clearly targets them next.

Theyíve got to get out of here.

There is no point in going back to Aktemto--the village is a dead end, and there would be no support for her there, anyway. Zerar is six long days away, an eternity of time for the worst to occur.

Anger flares through her apprehension. She wishes Argent were alive now so she could kill him again. Catches herself as she realizes she didnít have to come, could have ignored his message. She alone is responsible for this....

Xena wonders suddenly why she does not want a confrontation. She does not want to kill Traisa. She only wants to leave and leave the girl/sprite/panther alone. The warrior, who takes on all challenges, is running, galloping away from this one...

She senses Argo tiring and welcomes the distraction. Slowing the horse to a gentle canter, she feels now the near stranglehold Gabrielle has on her waist.

"Gabrielle, I do need to breathe every once in awhile."

Instantly the grip is loosened. But the bard does not let go. Not by a long shot.

"Sorry."

"Itís okay." Taking the reins in one hand, Xena interlocks the fingers of the other with Gabrielleís. "Itís more than okay."

"Xena, do you think I could be wrong? Could there really be a panther and a girl?"

Xena pauses a moment to work this one out. "If it is two, then the sprite knows the panther. Remember the traces of it that we found on the way to Aktemto? Too many to be coincidence. On the other hand, Traisa fell out of a tree that night we found her. She couldnít have climbed it with that leg. But a panther could have. Even with three legs, a panther could have done it."

She pauses again, then finishes.

"I donít think youíre wrong."

"How can she do it? How?"

Xena just shakes her head.

"And Argentís body..."

"The panther killed him. Ripped him open. Then switched to the girl and cut his throat."

"She had a knife before she took ours."

"And still has one, probably."

*****

She glides through the underbrush, staying close behind the horse, keeping up with little effort. The panther moves with grace and speed. She is completely healthy again, feels the strength in her, the power, revels in it. Warlord is powerful too, but warlord has no army now. Only a horse, and a girl of her own.

A flash of memory--water and comfort given freely, kindness shining in bright green eyes, the smile of a friend. It confuses her for a second.

Kindness and warlord--no. Not possible. Keep moving. Remember the fire, the screams, the village burned down. Follow the blood now, gather strength from the pain....

*****

Chapter 13

Early evening finds Xena scanning the bluffs intently for a cave. She wants as defensible a campsite as possible. Finally she sees a spot--a cave hollowed out of the rock, with a small rock beach.

"There. Weíll ford here, sleep in that cave. Itíll be nearly impossible to sneak up on us there."

"What about Argo?"

"Thereís enough room for her, too."

"Barely."

They make the crossing with no trouble. Xena backs Argo into the little space, leaving her head out facing the water, and there is just enough room left to lay the sleeping furs together. As darkness falls they eat a cold dinner, then sit close to each other, listening to the quiet current of the river, watching the stars come out one by one.

"Xena?"

"Yes?"

"I donít want you to kill Traisa."

"I donít want to kill Traisa either. But I do want us to get out of here."

"I think we can do that. I think we can do that without hurting anybody."

"I hope youíre right."

"This place is full of death, Xena. Somebody has to stop that. Not by killing, but by not killing."

Gabrielle looks up at the warrior and sees Xenaís eyes unfocused, looking off into some far away place. Doesnít know if sheís been heard or not.

"Where are you?" She speaks softly.

The warriorís reply is equally soft, pitched low. "Do you remember the night at the inn, the last thing you said before you went to sleep?"

Drat.

"Ummm--no?"

" ĎDonít let me leave you.í "

Xena puts her arm around Gabrielle, pulls her close. She looks down at the bard, and her ice blue eyes melt into depths of green.

"I wonít let anyone take you away from me, Gabrielle." She kisses her then, with a fierceness and a passion that overwhelms them both, sets every nerve ending alive. Xena lays them down without breaking the kiss, covers Gabrielleís body with her own, moves her lips down the young womanís neck, kisses the pulse beat pounding there, kisses the hollow of her throat, kisses her ears, her eyes, brings their lips together again. Gabrielle runs her hands through Xenaís raven-black hair, pulls her tightly to her, gives all her love back in return.

And then Xena stops, raises her head just far enough away to meet Gabrielleís eyes again.

"We canít--"

Understanding, the bard smiles at her.

"I know. Weíve got to get out of this forest first." She brings Xenaís face to hers, ever so gently, and touches their lips together as softly as she can. "I miss this, though, Xena. By the gods, I miss this."

Xena smiles, moves off the bard to lie at her side, and Gabrielle turns over and lays her head on Xenaís chest, slides an arm around her waist, intwines her legs with the warriorís, touching as much of her as possible.

"Can you still breathe?"

Xena laughs quietly. "Only as long as youíre here."

Gabrielle tests the theory by squeezing her tight, then relaxes gradually into sleep. Xena strokes the bardís hair until she drifts off herself.

It is the sound of Argo knickering softly that wakes Xena again. She sees the light of dawn, is surprised she has slept this long. Carefully she pulls away from Gabrielle, who is still out like a log. She stretches, sits up, turns to Argo, and looks directly into the grey eyes of Traisa.

Only long years of training keep Xena from showing her complete and utter astonishment. She blinks, quickly recoils into a defensive position, taking in the girlís chopped hair, crooked nose, and those piercing grey eyes. She crouches just beneath Argo, half-in, half out of the water--Xena canít see the leg that so very nearly killed her. She looks fit, healthy again. Her hands are empty.

Traisa doesnít move, just holds herself like a cat; tensed, ready to spring in attack or retreat. No trouble now believing the girl could be a panther if she wanted to. She and Xena stare at each other, silent and still. Even as the warrior wonders how this, this wraith has gotten through her defenses she finds herself almost captivated by those incredible grey eyes. Gabrielle was right. They watch her now with a hint of a smile, alert and confident. Xena waits. She does not have the upper hand here, except in strength. She doesnít think Traisa will be foolish enough to attack her directly. She wants something else.

The girl stirs slightly.

"Xena." The voice is raspy from disuse.

"Traisa," Xena responds. "Gabrielle says your name is Traisa."

The girlís eyes flick quickly over to the sleeping bard and back again. Slowly, she raises both hands.

"Gabrielle...Xena." She clasps both hands together tightly. The gesture is unmistakable, and Xena wonders just how much the sprite saw last night.

"Yes." A shiver passes through her; an admission of vulnerability.

The young woman opens her hands again, holds the left one up.

"Traisa," she says as she clenches the left hand into a fist. The right hand drops behind her back and Xena tenses, but Traisa stops still.

"Traisa," she says again. "Because of Xena. Because of warlord."

Xenaís stomach tightens into a knot. She swallows hard. Thereís really no answer for that one. She fights the urge to drop her eyes.

"I know. If I could change that, I would."

The grey eyes narrow. Warrior watches wraith, waiting for the next move. Traisa unclenches her fist and just stares, no sign of emotion or action in her eyes. The minutes go by. Then the girls shifts her weight slightly and lets a hint of --something-- flicker across her face.

"Village." She hisses the word savagely, then edges sideways and slides into the water, underneath the surface. She is gone. Other than her voice, she hasnít made a sound.

Xena draws her first full breath of the morning. Watches the river for a long time, does not see Traisa resurface. The girlís skill at moving silently is like nothing Xena has ever seen before. She would be in awe, save for the hostility that accompanies it.

And Argo, sensitive, skittish Argo, is not bothered at all. Traisa has a way with animals, too.

"Of course, it helps if you can be one when you want to."

"Xena? Who are you talking to?"

Gabrielleís voice is soft, still full of sleep. The warrior smiles, or tries to, and moves to the bardís side.

"No one. Just myself."

Gabrielle sees the falseness immediately.

"What is it? What happened?"

Green eyes watch the warrior now. Xena feels infinitely better looking at them.

"I finally got to talk to Traisa."

"She was here? When?"

"Just now. She sat right under Argo. She watched us last night, Gabrielle. And she wants us to go to the village. Her village."

The bard lays a hand on Xenaís shoulder.

"Thereís more."

Xena nods. "I didnít know she was there. I didnít know she was there until I looked up and saw her. She got past my defenses, Gabrielle. She could do it again."

The bard looks out toward the river, half expecting to see Traisa appear.

"Look at it this way. If youíre right, she could have killed us. And she didnít."

"Sheís saving that for the village."

"You think so?"

"Yes...."

"Do we go there, then?"

"I donít know..." She gives Gabrielle a long searching look. And Gabrielle understands.

"Donít just worry about me, Xena. Worry about yourself, too."

They forego breakfast to pack and to just get moving. Gabrielle is tying the bundle of sleeping furs when she hears Xenaís gasp. She looks up to see the warrior hastily searching the cave and their other supplies. She is perturbed, almost frantic.

"Xena, what is it?"

The warrior stops searching, leans back against Argo, and meets the bardís eyes with a look of helpless frustration that shakes Gabrielle to the core.

"My chakram is gone."

*****

Chapter 14

The morning rapidly goes from bad to worse. After they ford the river Xena notices Argo limping. She finds the remains of a pasty salve on the mareís foreleg, and though she hurriedly cleans it off, the damage is done.

"Will she be all right?"

"Eventually. She can walk, slowly, but we canít ride her. Iím sure that was Traisaís intention."

"Not to hurt the horse, but to hobble her."

Xena nods, starts walking, leading Argo with Gabrielle at her side. Then she stops again.

Gabrielle raises her head, but Xena doesnít look at her. Instead, she listens, picking out the sounds of the woods around them: the birds, the oh-so-slight rustle of leaves, Gabrielleís breathing. She even imagines she can hear the heat rising off the baked dirt of the path. She tries to go deeper, to just sense all that is there. Rodents burrowing through the underbrush; ants finding crumbs for food. She can see it, she can feel it. The hyperawareness of her senses has kept her alive through battles large and small. Provided pleasure as well as protection.

But Xena has no idea if Traisa is there or not. She cannot sense the human, cannot hear the panther. She fights this battle with a key weapon broken down, and the helplessness that washes over her now is almost dizzying. She cannot track the panther. Or the sprite. Traisa is her match....

"Xena?" Gabrielleís voice is soft, loving, concerned.

"Weíre in trouble, Gabrielle. Weíre in trouble deep."

Gabrielleís realization at this moment chills her to the bone. It is not said, but it screams out in Xenaís body language, her eyes, and the hollowness of those words.

Xena is scared. The great Warrior Princess, who laughs at armies and throws taunts at gods, is scared of a wood sprite with a feline side. Gabrielle shakes her head. Danger theyíve faced many times. Why is this different?

"Xena, sheís just a girl."

"I wouldnít say that."

"But itís true. And thereís just one of her. There are two of us."

"There were three men."

"They didnít know what was happening. We do."

Gabrielle starts walking, forcing Xena to move with her. This sudden reversal of roles throws her, but she rolls with it, uses her own strength--her words.

"Sheís given us plenty of warning. We can use that. We know where she wants us to go. We know nothingíll happen until then."

"Maybe..."

"Xena, donít give up on me! Youíve faced worse than this, and youíve beaten it. Traisa may be clever, and she has gifts that no one else does, but, sheís, just, a, girl."

Xena stops and grips the bardís arm. Hard.

"And sheís right, Gabrielle! I took away her home, her family, her life. Why shouldnít she take away mine? This isnít about revenge or greed or rage. This is justice, and justice is on Traisaís side!"

"Let me go, Xena." The warrior immediately looses her grip. Gabrielle does a marvelous job of hiding her pain, concentrates on the matter at hand. "Do you really believe that?"

"Itís true."

"No. The Xena who did that to Traisa isnít the Xena standing in front of me now."

"That Xenaís still here."

"No." More firmly this time. "Youíre wrong. That warlord canít come back, not like she did then. Too much of you has changed. I know the darkness is there, I know the rage can be there, but it doesnít lash out blindly anymore. You donít feed it for itís own sake. It doesnít control you now, Xena, you control it."

"There are bruises on your arm. Is that control?"

"You let go when I asked you to. Isnít that control too?"

"Gabrielle--"

"Xena! Youíre wrong on this one, and so is Traisa. This is revenge. It might have been justice five summers ago, but itís revenge now. And we can fight that." The bardís intensity boils into anger. She turns from Xena and faces the trees, raising her voice to shout.

"Do you hear that, Traisa? This isnít the warlord anymore. This is Xena, who helped you when you were sick, gave you medicine to heal you. Youíre alive because of her, Traisa! You have no right to kill her now!"

There is a crash in the underbrush. One, two, three, four distinct steps--then silence. Gabrielle tenses, eyes wide and alert, but the steps were running away. She looks back at Xena, still furious. The warrior has her sword drawn.

"Put that away. Weíre going to that village."

Gabrielle starts walking again, giving Xena no choice but to follow. It takes her a moment, but she does, catching up to the bard to walk beside her, quiet. Gabrielle calms down quickly, but Xena is still impressed by this new side of her just revealed. Impressed--and a little wary.

"So--weíre going to the village."

"I donít think we should run away. Itís--" She almost smiles. "Itís not your style, Xena."

"Looks like itís not yours anymore, either."

"I have a very good teacher." Gabrielle looks up at the warrior. "You said last night you wouldnít let anyone take me away from you."

"Thatís right."

"Well, I donít want anyone to take you away from me. Not thieves, not armies, not sprites--and not the coward of a warlord you think still lives in you."

Xena feels her temper flare, but Gabrielleís stare is steady and calm. She knows exactly what sheís said.

"Good. We need you angry."

"You know only you can get away with that."

Thereís just a quirk of a smile on the bardís face. "And I know I canít get away with it often."

Xena feels her anger fade, change texture. Slowly she returns the smile, feels herself rising to the challenge. Turning her eyes back to the road, she starts thinking like a warrior again.

"Okay. Weíre about half a day from the village. Itís near Loziousí body."

"Then we can go there after we bury him."

"You still want to bury the bodies?"

"Yes. I want Traisa to see us do it."

"Why?"

"Iím not sure. But she needs to see it."

Xena hates the idea, and it shows, but she does not argue.

"All right. After we bury Lozious, we go to the village. It could well be a trap."

"Youíll know. Weíll be careful."

"Traisa may be just a girl, Gabrielle, but sheís a dangerous one. Sheís good at what sheís doing."

"So are you. The best."

"You still donít want me to kill her, do you?"

"Absolutely not."

"And if it comes down to her or me? Or her or you?"

Gabrielle sees the trap sheís walked into now. Her silence acknowledges it. She frowns.

"Weíll burn that bridge when we come to it."

*****

Chapter 15

The heat of the day rises steadily, gradually, and so does the tension. The women walk slowly, in deference to the heat and to Argo. Xena, so used to rising head and shoulders above her opponents, considers the one she faces now. A girl with skills so disparate from hers that they complement each other. Xena knows she can defeat the sprite in straight up combat, no matter what form she may take. Traisa knows that Xena cannot track her, does not know where she is, or even what she might be at any given time. She has the elements of surprise and silence on her side. It is a level battlefield.

Except for one thing.

"Gabrielle."

"Yes?"

Xena takes the bardís hand, clasps it tightly in hers as they move down the path. Starts to say something, hesitates, backs down.

"Never mind."

Gabrielle squeezes her hand and smiles, believing she understands.

"Iíve been thinking--"

"When are you not?"

The bardís smile broadens. "Oh, there are moments..." She shakes her head, grows serious again. "Anyway, Iíve been thinking of what we know about Traisa. Weíre pretty sure Lozious trapped her, or trapped the panther. He was going to kill her, so when she got away, she came back and killed him. In her mind, his death was justified.

"Argent was in your army. Argent helped destroy her village. So his death was justified. And the other man, what was his name?"

"Nimas."

"Nimas. Same thing. He was in the army. His death was justified too."

"So why is mine revenge?"

"Oh , itís all revenge. Itís only justified in Traisaís mind. But what wasnít justified to her was killing Argo. Traisa could as easily killed Argo as not. She didnít."

"So?"

"So I donít think killing me is justified in her mind, either. I havenít hurt her."

"Other than screaming at her in the forest awhile ago, no. You donít think youíre guilty by association?"

Gabrielleís voice trails off, remembering.

"She thanked me that night in the camp, Xena. She told me her name. I think itís still possible to get through to her."

"What about all the blood? The letters?"

"Well, I didnít say it would be easy..." Frowns. "I wish Colin had told us more. How he knows her. He must help her somehow--tell me, was she dressed this morning?"

Xena thinks back.

"Yes. Little more than undergarments, but she was dressed."

"Then thereís still something--human, in Traisa. Some of the little girl is still there. We have to remember that."

"Youíre a better woman than I, Gabrielle."

"Youíre learning. You have a good teacher, too." The bard wrinkles her nose. "Weíre getting closer, arenít we?"

The brown trail of blood that crosses the path is visible now in front of them. Itís hardly faded at all.

"Yep. Are you sure you want to do this?"

Gabrielle nods. They leave Argo tied near the path, take the spade and walk into the woods to the clearing. Xena ignores the severely decomposed corpse, finds an open area, and starts digging. The bard, despite her revulsion, stares with fascinated horror at what is left of Loziousí body. She swallows hard as she takes in the spreadeagled limbs, the ropes. She feels faint, closes her eyes, turns away. Sheís leaning against a tree when Xena glances up.

"Gabrielle, Iím sorry." She drops the spade and takes the young woman in her arms. "I forgot you never saw this."

"I just had an image--him lying there bound, and someone coming at him with a knife."

"No--he was killed before he was tied."

"How do you know?"

Xena shrugs. More knowledge sheís not proud of. "Dead bodies donít bleed. Traisa tied those ropes tightly enough to break the skin, but the only blood was from the throat. Lozious probably didnít know what hit him."

"Oh." Gabrielle pulls away.

"Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah. Let me dig for awhile."

Xena nods, and as Gabrielle takes her turn in the dirt she looks around for rocks to cover the grave. There are none handy this time, so Xena gets a knife and goes over to cut the ropes away from the trees. She thinks a bit, then experiments with dragging the corpse by the lines. This works, and she gingerly hauls Loziousí body to the shallow trench. Gabrielle looks up, sees this, and glares.

Xena glares right back. "Hey, I donít have to show any respect to somebody who did what he did. Lozious is lucky weíre burying him at all."

"Well, itís better than just letting him rot."

"Itís better than he deserves," Xena mutters. She shoos Gabrielle away to finish the job herself. The bard, grateful that Xena doesnít push the point, turns away to keep from getting greener around the gills. Her eyes wander idly through the trees, and as she listens to Xena shovel dirt she realizes that this could be her fate, someday, too. Xena might not always be there to save the day, or Xena may fall as well. That Traisa has managed to avoid death for five years is amazing.

In her mind she sees the eyes again, looking up at her from the travois. "The things you must know," Gabrielle says softly, "The things youíve seen and done. Iíd like to tell your story, Traisa..."

A shadow comes up behind her. "But not with her ending."

The bard does not turn around. "No, with her living. Do you need some help?"

"Itís done. Letís get out of here."

Back on the path they clean themselves off and walk on.

"There should be an offshoot up here soon. The old path to the village." Xena eyes the underbrush for signs of it. "Howís your arm?"

"Itís fine." It actually hurts like Hades, but Gabrielle is not about to let on.

"I am sorry about that."

"I know. Itís okay."

Xena stops. "This is it."

The old path is overgrown with scrub and grass, making the going difficult but not impossible. No one has come this way in a long time. Xena puts all her senses on alert, tries to slow her breathing as she fights to concentrate on the present.

As they grow closer Xena starts hearing the screams of terror, the shouts of men in bloodlust. She shudders. Tries to remember if there had been a hint of remorse in her that day, any effort at all to rein the army in. She knows there wasnít. The decision to kill everyone was not her idea, but she agreed to it for reasons of reputation and force. How empty that seems now, in the light of this day, as she remembers the flames--cabins burning, charred flesh, and the smoky haze that melted it all together...

The warrior raises her head, halts.

"Gabrielle, do you smell something burning?"

The bard looks around and sniffs the air.

"No...wait. Maybe."

"I think weíve reached your bridge."

*****

Chapter 16

A few steps more, and they come to a large grassy clearing. Gabrielle looks closer and sees the deadwood buried in the grass, groupings of charred logs that are all that remains of houses, homes, shops. They are on what used to be the main path through town. Nothing is left standing now. Xena looks and sees only blood and death and smoke--

Smoke. There, on the other side of the clearing, a thin trail rises.

"Thereís a fire over there, Gabrielle."

"A small one. Leading us that way?"

"Setting the mood, maybe." She wraps Argoís reins round a tree; then, with Gabrielle, ventures a few steps forward. "I think we should wait here."

"Is Traisa here, Xena?"

The warrior tries again, listens hard, brings all her senses to bear. Nothing. By Hades, nothing...

"Probably." She draws her sword, begins a slow visual scrutiny of the area. Takes in the burnt logs, the overgrowth, the column of smoke. Lots of places to hide, if youíre small. Nothing odd, nothing out of place, except the fire, but then traps arenít supposed to be obvious--

Her eyes catch a slash of red amidst the green grass, just off the path in front of them. Xena brings her sword up and watches for movement, but there is none.

"Itís blood, Xena." Gabrielle has noticed it, too. The bard starts toward it, but Xena holds her back.

"Stay behind me."

"As long as we see what it is."

"Blood is a good guess." Xena doesnít move. Keeps her eyes forward, scanning the path, the grass, the logs.

"Whose blood? Is there a letter to go with it? Or another body?"

"Do we really need to know?"

"If itís Traisa we do."

"Itís not Traisa."

"Who else would it be?"

"Itís just blood, Gabrielle."

"Where did it come from?"

"Thatís probably her trap."

"Thatís way too obvious. I think itís a message. Letís go look."

"No."

"Xena." The warrior still doesnít look at the bard. "What would you do if I wasnít here?"

The warrior clenches her teeth. Gabrielle has cut right to the heart of it.

"Iíd reconnoiter." She unclenches her jaw, moves the tension to her shoulders. "Check out the blood, the fire. Sweep the area, try to flush Traisa out."

"Thatís what we need to do, then."

"Too dangerous."

"For who?"

Xena hears the anger in the bardís voice, finally turns to face her. Gabrielle sees frustration, uncertainty, even fear play in Xenaís eyes--itís all there.

"I donít think I can protect you!"

Gabrielleís expression softens, but not her resolve.

"I know exactly how you feel." Her voice is quiet. "Just because Iím not supposed to protect you doesnít mean I donít want to. Every time you draw that sword, every time you fight, Iím terrified. All I can do is trust you. And I do. Sometimes you just have to trust me, Xena."

Xena breaks the gaze, turns her eyes away. "Thatís not good enough."

"Donít I know it."

Xena closes her eyes. Misses the flash of a figure springing out from behind the logs they stand next to. Gabrielle misses it too, has no time to brace for the impact of an arm on her shoulder, tumbling her head over heels. Stunned, she finds herself righted on her knees some ten feet from Xena; her chin is held tight against another body, head thrown back. Something sharp presses the base of her throat. Gabrielle instinctively brings her hands upward, but the sharpnesss digs deeper. She lowers her arms to her side, fights a rising panic.

"Traisa, no..." she starts to say, feels the stinging slice of a blade, just enough to silence her. Traisaís mouth is right at Gabrielleís ear; her voice is a low, menacing growl.

"Hushhhhhhhhh."

Xena raises the sword, takes a step forward, immediately sees how futile that is. She stops, rapidly running through her options. The sprite is almost totally blocked by Gabrielleís body, except for her arms and face. She watches Xena, eyes bright, waiting for an excuse to draw the knife she holds through. The blade sits so tightly against Gabrielleís skin that Xena sees it draw blood when the bard swallows. With the chakram she could disarm the girl before she kills Gabrielle--she trusts her speed with the weapon. But the chakram is gone...

Any other move would only kill them both--or kill the wrong one. Sheís too far to jump at them, too far to reach out and take Gabrielle back. Xenaís eyes widen in rage, and she fights her own panic now as she looks at the girl. There is no fear in Traisa, no uncertainty. The sprite had made the worst happen, and she knows it--the triumph shines in her face. Breathing hard, the warrior tries to think, to do something before that knife slices further. Something, anything, something--there must be something other than standing here to watch it happen---

Xena drops the sword, then drops her hands to her side. Then, slowly, she sinks to her knees, looks deep into the slate grey eyes.

"Donít. Please."

Traisa blinks. Xena glances at Gabrielle. The bard, tears in her eyes, looks back at Xena frightened but still; Xena thinks she sees the green eyes looking for any sign of hope. Xena looks back to Traisa so Gabrielle canít see what isnít there.

The sprite pulls her captiveís head back and brings the point of the knife to Gabrielleís ear. The look of triumph fades, but the eyes bore into Xenaís with deadly purpose.

"Kill her," she hisses at Xena. "Kill me?"

The warriorís heart lurches. Of course Iíll kill you she thinks youíll be dead before that knife finishes moving---but just before she jumps to reclaim her sword she meets Traisaís eyes again. They wait for Xena to make the move, to grab the sword, and their expression is not determined, not confident now, but--accepting, somehow. Relieved.

And the words of a bard run through her head at that moment. "Somebody has to stop that. Not by killing, but by not killing..."

Xena freezes in place, still eye-to-eye with Traisa.

"No," her voice breaks, and she curses the tears that she feels forming, curses the lump in her throat that fights her words. "I wonít kill you, Traisa. You can kill Gabrielle, and then kill me, or you can kill Gabrielle--and then leave."

The tears stream out now, and Xena looks away from the girl and into the green eyes of her best friend, companion, lover. She hopes some of the love she feels shines through her eyes now, and she hopes that somehow Gabrielle will understand...

"But Iwonít kill you..."

Time hangs still. Traisa sees that Xena does not look at her anymore, but at the one who owns her heart. She is alone again, as for always. She presses the blade hard against a pulsing vein.

The one she kills now gave her care. The one she kills now gave her kindness. The one she kills now asked her name, and received it. And smiled...Traisa sees that smile in her memory now, even as she hears the short sob escape the same lips.

The one she kills now, seeking the peace of her own killing in return, will die unavenged. Sprite will live as warlord does, sprite will live with the blood of innocence on her heart...

Suddenly a pain wells up from Traisaís gut, moves through her heart into her head, a pain so immense it crushes everything but the grief it carries with it. She feels it explode in her mind, take everything away but blackness and loss...

A feral cry of anguish shatters the silence of the forest. Traisa flings the knife as far as she can throw it and pushes Gabrielle into the ground. Then she falls back, stiff and unyielding, landing hard in the grass, bringing her hands to her face, screaming, sobbing tears of uncontrolled despair.

Gabrielle climbs to her hands and knees, feels arms pull her up into a crushing embrace. She wraps her arms around Xena in return, tries to bring her mind back even as the breath is squeezed out of her.

"Gabrielle," Xenaís hold says everything her voice suddenly canít. "Gabrielle..."

The bard listens to the heartbeat of the warrior as she leans against her chest, listens to the tears of relief that come from both of them, hears above them all the painful sorrow that comes from behind her.

"Xena." She looks up, and Xena loosens an arm to trace the thin line of blood that trails across Gabrielleís throat.

"So close..."

Gabrielle takes Xenaís hand in her own, brings it to her lips, kisses it fiercely. Then, still in the warriorís embrace, she turns to look at the girl.

Traisa has turned to the ground, lost to everything but her crying. Her body shakes with wracking spasms of grief, her face buried in the grass, hands clutching the dirt. Gabrielle breaks away from Xena and goes to the sprite. Kneels down beside her, lays a hand on her back.

"Traisa," comes her gentle voice. The sprite only cries harder. "Traisa, look at me." The girl does not move, does not even slow the sobbing. Gabrielle puts her other hand on the girl, senses the incredible anguish within, and her own heart contracts with sympathy and a little bit of fear. Words are useless here, maybe, but Gabrielle uses them anyway, a lifeline away from oblivion and madness...

"Traisa, itís going to be all right...itís going to be okay...youíre not alone now, Traisa."

After a long while, Traisaís crying slows, and a contorted reply at last struggles out. "No...."

"Yes. Traisa, let me help you. Let us help you."

The bard squeezes the girlís shoulders, and slowly Traisa raises her head. Her eyes, swollen almost shut, have nothing in them but tears and despair. Xena stands nearby, helpless; turns away at such a powerful expression of pain, then forces herself to look back. I am responsible for this...

"Go." The raspy voice breaks on the word.

"No." Gabrielleís eyes have tears now, too.

Traisa swallows hard. "Go!"

Gabrielle reaches out to grip the girlís hand. "Come with us."

Xena, for the second time that day, knows complete and utter astonishment. She doesnít hide it this time, but the other two do not notice. Traisa watches Gabrielle with an amazement of her own. The crying slows further, but does not die completely.

"Kill you...I...tried...kill you!"

"But you didnít, Traisa." The bard tightens her grip, pulls the girl to a sitting position. "You couldnít. You knew what was right, Traisa." Gabrielle puts a hand under the spriteís chin, wonít let her look away. "I know someone who can help you. Who can heal you. Let us take you there."

Xena straightens a little, and the movement catches Traisaís eye. She looks up at the warrior, tries to steel herself, fails. The tears rush out anew.

"Warlord wins," she says and shuts her eyes tight. "Warlord always wins."

Gabrielle reaches out and brings the girl into her, embraces her as the sprite, as Traisa, cries on her shoulder.

"No," she says through her own tears. "Not this time. Traisa wins...Traisa wins...."

*****

Chapter 17

Gabrielle holds Traisa for a long, long, time. Long enough for Xena to wander off. She needs to do anything but think right now. She checks the fire, discovers it well banked, intended only to draw attention, not burn the forest down. She smothers it with dirt, and finds her chakram and a small leather pack on a rock nearby. She fingers the weapon for a moment, then clips it to her belt, picks up the pack, and goes back, stopping on her way to examine the red slash that had started the fateful argument.

It is blood. A short arrow, points to a rock that bears a small letter A. Traisa was faithful to her ritual to the end... Xena wonders where the blood came from, looks back at the pair a short distance away. She slowly walks over to join them again, gets there just in time to see Gabrielle pick the sprite up, turn to Xena.

"I think Argo might be able to take her weight."

"If you can, Argo can."

"Then letís go now..."

Xena and Gabrielle place Traisa on top of Argo, letting her head rest on the mareís neck. The horse does not object, and they set a slow pace away from the village burned down. The sprite is quiet, and she falls asleep soon after they start moving.

It is a quiet journey. They reach the path to Zerar, walk until they come to the river. Xena stops them here for the night. It is the same campsite where they first heard the panther, ages ago.

"Weíve done enough for one day."

Xena sets up camp and lights a fire while the bard helps Traisa off the horse, settles her onto a sleeping fur. The girl wakes up just enough to sort of move herself, then falls asleep again as she lies down.

"Xena, come here."

Gabrielle points to blood coming from a slash in the spriteís forearm. Traisa had bandaged it crudely, with a leather strip. Xena takes one look, gets the medicine pouch.

"She used her own blood, then," is her comment as she treats the wound.

"For what?"

"That red mark on the path, remember? You were right--it was blood, and there was a letter there. An A."

"Her own blood..."

The injury needs stitching, but Xena decides to wait until Traisa is awake and able to understand that. She binds the forearm tightly with a clean bandage, puts everything else away. Gabrielle watches the young one sleep for a moment, gently strokes her hair.

"Just a girl..."

Joining Xena by the fire, Gabrielle takes the proffered bread and cheese, then takes Xenaís hand and kisses it.

"Are you okay?"

Xena nods, shrugs. "Mostly."

The bard waits patiently.

"I wasnít able to protect you, Gabrielle."

"Xena, you saved my life. You did the only thing you could have done to save me. To save all of us."

"I did nothing."

"You said you wouldnít kill. Thatís an awful lot of nothing."

Gabrielle scoots close and lays her head on the warriorís shoulder.

"Thank you. For me, and for Traisa."

Xena sighs. "Youíre a better woman than I, Gabrielle."

"Oh, I donít think so."

"No. And you need to know--" she stops. Those cursed tears are back.

"What?"

Xena looks at Gabrielle, eyes glistening. "I might have killed her anyway. If Iíd seen you dead--"

The bard gently caresses Xenaís cheek, wipes away a tear. "No, Xena. You wouldnít have killed her."

"How can you know?"

"Traisa knew. She saw it in your eyes. She believed you because it was true."

Gabrielle pulls Xenaís head to hers, kisses away the tears.

"So thank you, okay?"

"For daring her to do it?"

"For letting her see that she couldnít." Gabrielle kisses Xenaís lips then, lingers for a long moment, then reluctantly pulls away.

"We need to rest. Weíve got a long trip ahead."

Xena looks back at the bard quizzically. "Where are we going?"

"To Widgie."

The image of one of the more remarkable people in Xenaís life brings her up short. A fearless soul; healer, oracle, a woman whose capacity for love was bounded by nothing...

Gabrielleís smile matches the one that crosses Xenaís face.

"There is no one out there who can help Traisa more."

The warrior nods. "It is a long trip. A moon, at least."

"Where else do we have to go?"

"Nowhere. Itís perfect." Xena stands up, pulls Gabrielle to her feet and into a gentle embrace.

"I love you, Gabrielle."

"And I love you. By all the gods and the air that I breathe."

The forest that night watches over the sleep of two calm hearts, and one anguished soul that might finally be given the chance to heal. The heat breaks then, and the travellers wake the next morning to a cool breeze and the promise of much needed rain...

*****

Epilogue

In a village far away, on a cool summer evening, a small mountain of a woman stands in her kitchen cooking dinner. She instinctively adds the spices that will make the stew irresistably delicious, stirs everything together, then pauses and looks out toward the sky. She is still for a long time, and the man who sits at the table behind her finally breaks the spell.

"Wife," he says with affection. "A vision?"

"Tíso," she nods, still gazing into the distance. "Or two--ítis hard títell. Girl, youngíun, nought but pain and grief. And a cat, handsome and fierce, black as tícoal tífire left behind. Both wiítísame grey eyes. They come apart, they come together, Jorgos. I know not how tímake it."

"One into the other, wife? One and the same?"

A light breaks in the womanís eyes, and a keen interest sparks at the thought.

"Aye, tainít so?" She says softly. "Tíso...."

Instinct again brings her back to the stew. Itís ready. Quickly she dishes up two bowls and joins her husband at the table.

"Weíll be findiní out, husband. Tígirl is cominí to here...."