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Standard Disclaimers -

These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.

Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence - this is a Xena:Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.

Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.

Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.


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Dark Comes the Morning - Part 3

By Melissa Good†††††††††

The fire crackled softly, and the scent of roasting apples wafted to the bard, as she lay sprawled on her side, her diary in front of her.She sucked on her quill, then dipped it into the ink again, and continued her entry.

It's just been getting worse, and worse.. the farther we go. Today we saw two burnt out villages, and it was so bad.. all those disrupted lives, and the destruction.. we spent most of today just trying to help one family put together enough shelter to cover their heads, and they had four little children, too. It was awful, those poor kids.. they lost everything, their homes, and their beds.. even their toys…I imagined how I'd feel if it were Dori suffering like that, and it made me so mad…

I think it made Xena mad, too. She got that look, the one that just means "Watch out." She was pretty quiet all afternoon, and tonight after dinner, she disappeared again, like the last two nights, to work on her stuff.

I wonder how that's coming? She hasn't said, but she hasn't looked too happy when she comes back. Of course, now that she'd decided to take that up again, she wants it all to happen at once, but…gods, she gets so mad at herself. You can just see it, like she's cursing on the inside, and just so disgusted.

I want to tell her to lighten up, but I don't think that's a very good idea, because I know this is something that's very, very serious to her. She's a perfectionist, even though she won't admit it, I realized.. after I watched her do stuff around Amphipolis. Anyone else would be satisfied with half the job she puts out, but the stuff she does, it's not just adequate, it's perfect. So she expects that from herself, and I can sit here and say 'it's going to take some time, Xena' until I'm blue and purple in my face, and it wont' really make a difference.

But she's always been like that.. I mean, I can watch her do these amazing things… flips and jumps, and flying through the air like a bird, and all that.. and she just grumbles about how old she's getting. I want to slap her silly sometimes. But then, I realize.. well… she is getting older, and she's a decade older than I am… so maybe it is tougher for her than it used to be. I know how I feel sometimes on cold, wet mornings after a few years of this, I can just imagine what she must feel like, after fifteen years of the abuse she's put herself through.

Or, maybe she's just bucking for a little sympathy from me. I don't mind… it's a chance to make a little fuss over her, which I know now she secretly enjoys, and the times she's just allowed herself to need that are so few and far between that I think I enjoy it more than she even does.She sure gives me pats on the head when I need it, so.. .I guess that's why I decided to make apples tonight.. she loves them, and I figured it would be a nice treat for her when she finishes beating herself up.

Besides, I kinda like them too.

Gabrielle felt the warrior's approach before she heard it, and she looked up as Xena materialized from between two large oak trees, padding across the leaf littered ground in tired silence. "Hey…"She studied her partner's face, framed by black hair damp from the river she'd bathed in. Cold droplets shone in the firelight on her bare arms, and her tunic clung to her body, outlining it in stark detail. "How's it going?"

Xena shrugged, shaking her head a little, as she went to kneel down and put her sword away. She paused in mid motion, and half turned, sniffing at the air, and then raising a brow at her soulmate in question. "What's that I smell?" She asked, sheathing the weapon and tucking it into her pack.

"Oh…just a few apples." The bard answered casually, twirling her quill. "You interested?"

The warrior came over and sat down next to her, plainly tired to the bard's watching eyes. "Sure." She answered, blinking at the fire a little. "Thanks."

Gabrielle closed her diary and picked up a cup she had ready, pouring hot water over the crushed leaves in the bottom, and letting the tea steep. She swirled the liquid around a little, then stirred in a few spoonfuls of honey, and handed the cup to her partner. "Here….take a sip of that.. you look a little chilled."

Xena cupped her hands around the mug and gazed into it, then took a breath, and made an obvious attempt to collect herself. She took a sip of the tea and swallowed it. "It is kinda cool tonight." She commented, turning to look at her partner. "Where's your cloak?"

"Where's my cloak? I'm not the one sitting here soaking wet, Xena…I'm very warm, and very dry here on my nice fur, with my crackling fire and my hot tea." The bard shook her quill at the warrior. "You, on the other hand, look like you could use a toweling off, and your heavy nightshirt."She stood up before Xena could answer, and crossed to their packs, pulling out a piece of linen, and her soulmate's night clothing. Then she walked back over and knelt beside the taller woman, starting on the buckles that held her padded gambeson on.

Instead of the expected protest, the warrior merely straightened, to allow her to pull the garment off. She tossed it gently over a nearby rock, then took the linen and started drying off Xena's broad shoulders. "Tough night, huh?" She murmured, as she patted the fabric gently over a dark, mottled bruise on her upper arm.

Xena shifted a little, then took another sip of her tea as she quietly enjoyed the attention. "It was all right." She finally, grudgingly admitted. "I just wish I could…" She paused, "I don't know."

"You wish you could click your boots three times, and have it all happen at once." The bard supplied pragmatically, as she playfully dried a tan warrior ear. "Xena, you're allowed to take more than three days to bring yourself back up to speed."

Xena scowled at the fire, then peered at the industrious bard. "I am?" She asked. "Says who?" She released a wry smile.

Gabrielle dried her nose, then her lips, forgetting to use the linen. "Says me." She draped her arms over the warrior's shoulders, and gave her an affectionate hug. "And I'm the one who writes the stories, so there."She nudged Xena a little. "Turn over… I'll return the favor from the other night.. it'll be a few more minutes for the apples anyway."

Silently, the warrior complied, stretching out her long length on the sleeping furs and resting her head on her arms.Gabrielle reached over to her bag and retrieved a small jar of clean smelling salve, dipping a little on her hands before she started her work, loving the feel of the soft skin stretched taut over her partner's muscular back.

Xena stared at the fire, letting the soothing rhythm of Gabrielle's hands work the tension out of her, brought on by a nagging anxiety and some very over abused muscles. She was pushing herself too hard, and she knew it, but something in the back of her mind was telling her she was running out of time, and she'd lived as long as she had, and through what she had, by listening to that little voice.

By tomorrow, they'd be in a very dangerous area, and probably meeting up with more than displaced villagers, and homeless vagrants. Of course, there was no guarantee they'd be attacked… but she was determined to be ready if they were, even though she'd only had three days to do it.

Mind over matter.

She sighed, as the bard's hands worked their magic. She was making progress… but it was, to her, frustratingly slow, as though there were a barrier there, holding her back at some level, making every gain come with almost desperate effort. Tonight, she'd started to doubt that she'd ever get past a certain point, throwing herself at a certain set of moves over and over again until she'd simply dropped to her knees in exhaustion, defeated.

She gazed at the flames soberly. Maybe she was just getting too old for this. She'd half jokingly thrown the statement out to Gabrielle enough times…now, the solid reality of the possibility settled an uncomfortable lump in her stomach. A few silent breaths, then she swallowed. All right. So what if she was?She let the bitter thought run its course. They were still out here, and they still had things to do… so another plan had to be created.

You've got a brain, Xena. Use it. You spent fifteen years as a warrior… you had to have learned something… now's the time to find a way to think your way out of this, instead of depending on your fists to get you out of it.

Mind over matter.

"Hey, Xena?" Gabrielle's voice drifted over her shoulder. "You want to roll over?"

"Mm?" The warrior turned her head, and regarded her firelit companion. "Oh.. sorry.. sure… I was um… just thinking." She turned over and stretched her legs out.

The bard settled over her, gently nibbling the very center of her breastbone. "Mm…" She moved down and nipped at her partner's navel, feeling the muscles tense under the skin her lips were roaming over. "I was just thinking too." Her hands slid slowly up Xena's sides and she lifted her head, to gaze into the darkened blue eyes looking back at her. "I was just thinking that looking at you makes my entire body burn." The bard lowered herself and kissed her partner's lips, savoring every taste, every scent of her. "You are so beautiful."

How does she know exactly what to say to me? Xena marveled, as she responded to the compliment, letting her hands explore the sturdy body over her, drawing her down and returning the kiss. They indulged each other for a few more minutes, then relaxed, curling their bodies together into a warm tangle. Xena found Gabrielle's head tucked up against her shoulder, and a pink ear conveniently nearby. "Thanks." She whispered.

Gabrielle smiled against the soft, bare skin she was snuggled against. "Anytime." She gave the warrior a pat on the ribs. "You ready for an apple?"


They stopped on the ridge overlooking the first large town they'd come to, seeing the scattering of ramshackle outbuildings as they approached. Xena leaned on her saddlebow and regarded the place, then gave her soulmate a look. "Not much, huh?"

Gabrielle shaded her eyes, and peered over Hercules' head. "Yow." The smell of the place reached them even where they were, and the outskirts seemed to be lined with piles of trash or…The bard let out a breath. Discarded leavings.

Small groups of armored and half armored figures were scattered in camps around the outer wall, settled around campfires with weapons stacked nearby. At the gate, a watch of sorts sprawled, observing the trickle of traffic passing out of the city.

"Nice." Xena shifted, settling her knees a little more firmly. "You ready?"

Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair, and nodded. "Yeah… we're just passing through on our way to Athens, right?"

"Right." Xena agreed, edging her horse back onto the path. "Let's just get in there, and see what we can find out. Don't start any trouble."

"Me?" The bard pointed at her chest. "Xena, I never start trouble."She gave a dignified tug to her plain, tan shirt, which complimented the dark blue one her partner was wearing. The warrior had debated going in conspicuously armed, but they both figured getting information wouldn't be as easy if they were fighting every moment.

"Uh.. right." Xena agreed, as they started down the road. Despite her partner's protest, experience told the warrior that she'd probably be spending at least a good part of their time inside the town getting them out of whatever trouble Gabrielle managed to get them both into.

She grinned briefly. Just like old times.

They garnered attention as they threaded their way through the mostly silent stream of people heading out of the city, their heads bowed, and their eyes fixed on the ground. Xena wasn't sure if it was the two matched, golden stallions they rode, or what, but a small cluster of grungy raiders gathered as they approached the somnolent watch.

The one closest to them let his pike fall, blocking the gate as they came to it. Obligingly, they pulled up, and looked at him. "Morning." Xena remarked, mildly.

"Well… well..lookie yere." The man smiled, showing a gap between his front teeth a hummingbird could have flown through. 'Whatcha doing here, beautiful?"

Xena peacefully imagined herself breaking his arm. "Just passing through." She drawled. "Problem with that?"

One of the soldiers laid a hand on Iolaus' flank, and the stallion snorted, then kicked out abruptly, sending him flying. "Whoops.. careful there." Xena warned him a little too late. "He's a bit skittish." She gave the horse a pat on the neck.

The guard studied her, taking his time in running his eyes over both of them. "Thems pretty horses."

"Thanks." The warrior pressed a knee against Iolaus' side, and the horse neatly sidestepped. "I train em."

The man nodded, scratching his neck. "What about her?" He nodded towards the bard, who was sitting quietly. "What's she do?"

Gabrielle was about to answer, but her partner circumvented her. "Her?" Xena glanced towards the smaller woman, then chuckled. "Whatever she wants."

The man thought about that, then laughed. "Oh..yeah.. I get it." He lifted his pike up. "G'wan in… maybe we'll see ya later."

"Could be." Xena smiled at him, then she guided Iolaus inside the town, and past the high, bristling walls.

And almost turned around and left, as the city stench hit her nostrils, and she fought down a gag. To either side were tall, rambling walls made of adobe, housing furtive, threadbare residents who ducked behind the sides of the hovels as they passed. Garbage was piled up outside the buildings, and a long, fetid trench went down the center of the street, carrying sewage and dirt down towards a sluggish, brown creek.

"This… is disgusting." Gabrielle commented, very obviously trying to breath through her mouth. Her face was pale and the warrior could see beads of sweat standing out on her forehead.

"Use the pressure points." The warrior advised. "But yeah.. it's pretty bad." She looked around. "Too many people in one place… we're not meant to live like this." She guided Iolaus around a pile of brown goo and turned her disciplined mind to something other than tossing up her breakfast.

They moved through the lower catacombs, then the road sloped upwards a bit, moving them into a slightly more wide open area, with small, but decently constructed huts on either side. As they watched, a woman stepped out of her home and tossed the odorous contents of a bucket into the road's center channel, where it ran down towards the lower areas. Oblivious, the woman turned and reentered the house, leaving the bucket just outside the door. Flies immediately attacked it.

"How do people live like this?" Gabrielle clamped a hand over her mouth.

"Starts out small." The warrior concentrated on ignoring the smell. "Place like Amphipolis.. gets popular, people start moving there, then they have kids… it multiplies."

"Uh." Gabrielle swallowed. "I can see we're going to have a talk about immigration and birth control when we get home."

"Mm." Xena shook her head, and glanced up the road.As they went up, the buildings became cleaner, and better maintained, first a laborers section, then one for the merchants. Above that seemed to be the town square, where the inn was, along with a stretch of shops on either side of the road. Above that was another gate, with more soldiers. Xena could see the fancier houses up above, and pulled up just as they got to the square. "Looks like it's the inn for us.. we donít have an excuse to get through that gate. " She paused. "Yet."She looked around, to see scruffy raiders everywhere, lounging around the square, sprawled across the doorsteps to the shops, their weapons conspicuously present.

Eyes watched her, and she felt her neck hairs bristle, as honed instincts long slumbering came alive, and her body recognized a threat that her mind hadn't quite identified yet. "Gabrielle, stay close." She murmured, feeling her hand flex a little, looking for a hilt that was tucked securely away in their baggage.

The bard heard the tone, and simply nodded, as she allowed Xena to lead them both towards the inn, and it's connected stable, threading their way through the watching raiders, whose eyes took in their horses, and them with an avid hunger that made Gabrielle's skin crawl.

Some of the fighters, she realized, were women, whosefaces bore the same cruel, savage stamp as the men, and the bard was reminded again that the horrors of evil she'd encountered in her travels were not limited by sex.

They stopped in front of the inn, and dismounted, being met by a tall, thin boy in ragged clothing, who eyed them warily. "You g'win to stay 'ere?" He asked, cautiously.

"Maybe." Xena stated. "You take care of the horses?"

He nodded.

"All right.. just take them, and stable them.. I'll be over to take care of them later. Don't you try it.. they're both a little wild." Xena instructed, unbuckling her saddlebag and slinging it over her shoulder, then handing him the reins, as Gabrielle followed suit.

"Right." The boy gingerly took the reins, and led the two horses off. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, and headed toward the door to the inn.


The inn smelled of old ale, and dirty leather, and was filled with somnolent fighters, some hunched over plates of food, the others sucking down ale, or sleeping with their head resting on folded arms.

Eyes followed them with hooded interest as they worked their way through the crowd to the service area, where a tall, muscular woman was filling a brace of mugs with ale for a sweating server.

The innkeeper was about Gabrielle's age, and had the attitude, and body of a fighter, complete with a set of functional bracers, anda well used, impressively carved belt dagger that was strapped to her belt.She glanced up as they approached, her flat, hazel eyes reviewing them with mild interest. "Yeah?"

Bard and warrior exchanged wry, understanding glances. "We'd like a room." Gabrielle responded. "If you have one."She eased in front of her partner, and pulled out a few coins, putting them on the table so the woman could see them.

The woman leaned on the table, her sandy brown head roughly even with Xena's darker one, and towering over the smaller bard. "I have one."

Gabrielle returned her intimidating look with a kind smile. Oh.. are you out of your league here, honey… I've seen scarier things than you over breakfast.. "Great….we're all set then, right?"It helped, of course, to have Xena's reassuring bulk standing behind her, even weaponless and in her soft cotton tunic. "Oh, and stabling for two horses."

"Third one round the back. Four dinars." The innkeeper stated flatly. "You mess up the room, you pay damages, understand?' She gave Xena a look that made the warrior's nostrils flare in amusement. "I donít permit trouble in here."

Xena turned her head and regarded the crowded room of rowdy fighters, then turned back, and lifted one perfect, dark eyebrow. "I can see that."

"Donít get smart." The innkeeper warned, then found herself pinned by a pair of blue eyes so crystal clear they collected the dim light like a shallow pool.

Xena smiled. "Just making an observation."

"Well.. keep your observations to yourself." The woman replied warningly. "You'll last longer around here. Got me?"

Gabrielle clamped her jaw down on a giggle, and felt a light scratch on her back.

"I'll try to remember that." The warrior answered sincerely. "You'll remember that, won't you Gabrielle?"

"Oh yeah." The bard nodded solemnly. "I'll remember that, tiger… c'mon." She tugged on Xena's belt, afraid to leave the warrior in the innkeeper's vicinity for very long. "Thank you."

"You go on.. I'm going to go settle the horses." Xena reassured her. "I'll bring in the bags."She gave the bard a gentle push as they moved away from the intimidating woman behind the table. "Keep your ears open." She added, in a very low tone.

"Don't you antagonize that overgrown Amazon." The bard shook a finger at her. 'She's itching for a fight, Xena."

"Me, antagonize someone?" The wide, innocent blue eyes gazed back at her. "C'mon, Gabrielle.. you know me better than that."The warrior replied. "Besides, what chance does an over the hill, out of shape old nag like me have against someone like her?"

"Oh…I can see where this is going." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, we're supposed to be gathering information, remember? Not making a scene.. or calling attention to ourselves… isn't that what you decided? Hmm??"

Xena sighed. "Yeah, I know.. I'll be good." She grumbled. "G'wan.. make sure the place isn't full of spiders or something. .I'll be right over."

They separated, and Gabrielle paused a moment to watch her soulmate cross the busy courtyard, her powerful, sturdy gait drawing interested looks from the lounging fighters. Even in her nondescript clothing, she stood out like a warhorse in a pen of sheep, and Gabrielle realized that staying undercover was going to be tougher than they'd imagined.

She turned, to find the innkeeper nearby, watching her. Uh oh. "Excuse me." She ducked down the narrow passageway towards the indicted rooms. She was aware of the woman passing behind her, and for a moment she thought she was going to be followed, then she realized the innkeeper had headed outside.

Towards the barn. ††††††††††††††††††

Great.And she tells me to stay out of trouble.


Xena found the barn mostly empty of humans, but full of horses, most of which didn't show signs of very good care. Iolaus and Hercules were in one corner, tied to a hitching post near two bare stalls.She picked up a pitchfork and set to work, loosening her muscles up as she tossed in a good layer of hay and patted it down evenly.

Then she put the pitchfork aside, and led the two horses in, unloading their saddlebags and laying the by the inside stall door. She also unstrapped Gabrielle's staff, and tucked it neatly next to them, amazed as usual that no one ever seemed to question a quiet, traveling bard carrying an Amazon war staff. Maybe it was Gabrielle's kind, and sweet demeanor.

Her, on the other hand, she could be carrying nothing more ominous than a spoon, and she got suspicious looks.

Go figure.

At least she'd taken the ugly, scary head off the damn thing…not to insult Ephiny, it's donor, but because the dried beak on it kept poking Argo in the butt. The mare had not been amused.

Xena laughed to herself at the memory, though she recalled not being very happy with the bard at the time. She uncinched Iolaus' saddle and lifted it off him, turning and laying it over the side of the stall with negligible effort.

The floor outside creaked faintly.

Xena smiled. It's not my fault, Gabrielle… I was in here, minding my own business.. just putting the horses away. I didn't start anything.

Honest.

She could sense the stealthy approach, and decided it was their Amazonian innkeeper, hearing the faint rasp of breathing, and the soft rub of fingertips against the wood of the barn. A tiny, exciting jolt of anticipation ran through her as she felt her defenses come up, pricked by the last few days of strenuous nudging.

"Hey boy, move over there." She gave Iolaus a slap, then quickly brushed him down, one ear following her tracker without effort. She went outside the stall and scooped up a bucket of water, then brought it back for the thirsty stallion, who guzzled it, then nudged her in the belly, dribbling cool water through the fabric. "Gee thanks.. just what I wanted."

Deliberately, she turned her back on the entrance, feeling her neck hairs stand up as her watcher slipped in, and she courted danger for the fun of it. Her nostrils flared out a little, smelling the woman's presence, and the scent of stale, dried ale that clung to her clothing.

Xena went into Hercules' stall and unbuckled his tack, whistling softly and melodically under her breath as she tracked the innkeepers' progress across the barn behind her, waiting until the woman had gotten to the water trough before she allowed herself to turn, and spot her.

Definitely a warrior. The woman stood in a balanced stance, her hands cocked as though waiting to draw a sword. She merely walked to the stall divider, however, and rested those large, muscular hands on it. "Nice horses."

Xena gave her a nod. "Thanks."

"They yours?"

Another nod. "Yep."

The woman examined the animals. "Full stallions.. and they don't fight?"

Xena released Hercules' bridle and slipped a halter into its place, then gave him a pat. "They're brothers." She commented. "And they're trained."

The tawny haired woman chewed on that for a minute. "To do what?" She injected a touch of sarcasm.

For an answer, Xena tapped Hercules on the shoulder, and the stallion responded immediately, rearing towards the innkeeper, and raking the air with his sharp hooves. They swished through the air as he trumpeted, making her step back a few paces. "Let's just say they're walking advertisements." The warrior continued mildly. "Gets me a few commissions."

The woman eyed her. "You train them?"

"Yep." Xena returned to her former taciturnity. "That's what I do." She finished putting away her gear and stood, brushing her clothes off. "You got a problem with that?"The warrior walked to the gate, which the younger woman was blocking and stood waiting, her arms relaxed at her sides.

"I got a problem with people who have smart mouths." The innkeeper didn't move.

"World's full of em. Get used to it." Xena responded, pulling the gate open and brushing by the woman, feeling her reflexes tense as she sensed the motion behind her, and only just barely keeping herself from reacting as she was grabbed from behind, and spun around, a fist wrapping itself in her tunic. .

The innkeeper shoved her back against the support post, and pressed the knife's edge to her throat, leaning in with wicked, hazel eyes. "I don't have to get used to it. I can just fix that."

Xena felt it happen, as a deep, sudden surge of fire erupted inside her, triggering a reaction she hadn't felt for over a year. Her heartbeat slowed and strengthened, pumping blood to muscles the acquired an almost trembling tension as her body eagerly responded to the familiar threat signals.

It felt great.

The reaction shot to her eyes, and she knew it, by the change in expression of her assailant, whose gaze flickered for just an instant, then grew wary as Xena added an irrepressible, sexy grin.

It was so hard to hold back. Half of her was doubting, worried the tall woman would wipe the floor with her. The other half, the darker one, was unpredictably savage, and once let out of its cage…

What if she killed the innkeeper? It was a fifty fifty chance, and lacking the fine control she knew she'd lost, the risk was scary. Brains then, not brawn. "You gonna do something with that?" She drawled lazily. "Or is this the treatment all your guests get?" Her eyes met the woman's, and one dark eyebrow lifted in question.

"I think you better watch your attitude." The innkeeper growled.

Xena pushed against the blade a little, lowering her head and her voice. "I think you'd better put that away, or someone could get hurt." A dark menace had crept around the edges of her words, which even she could hear. She felt her body go very still.

Waiting.

Wanting it. Regardless of the consequences.

Then the hand in her tunic relaxed, and the knife blade retreated, as the woman took a step back, flipping the blade in one hand, and sheathing it.

It was almost disappointing. Xena watched her, not convinced it was over, and the woman justified the caution by surging into motion, aiming a blow at the warrior's ribcage and connecting hard, sending Xena back against the support with a painful crack.

"Make you feel better?" The warrior inquired, silkily.

"Yeah." The innkeeper smiled. "It did."

"Good."The tawny haired woman never saw it coming. Xena released her screaming reflexes, and bounced forward, throwing weight and motion into a roundhouse right that hit the innkeeper so hard it lifted her off her feet, and sent her flying back against the stall divider, cracking the wood and generating a shower of fragile splinters that flew though the air.

Her hands were clenching and unclenching, and she slammed a down a halt on her rage, keeping it to that one, single, very satisfying release. Her fist tingled from the impact, sending little shivers up and down her forearm. "Hey.. you're right. That does feel good."She purred, pacing over to the slumped form. "Wanna go for round two?"

The woman pulled a hand down from what was obviously a broken nose, her skin covered with blood. "What in Hades did you hit me with?"

The warrior held up her right hand, and wiggled the fingers, then gave her opponent a seductive grin.

They looked at each other for a long moment, then the innkeeper raised a hand defensively. "You win." She admitted simply. "I donít' want to get hit like that again, thanks."

Aw. Xena felt her inner tiger pad grumpily back into its cage and lie down with a sigh, as she allowed her body to relax. She offered the innkeeper a hand up. "Better put some cold water on that."

The woman gazed warily at her for a second, then hesitantly took the offer, allowing the warrior to pull her to her feet. "Thanks."

Xena walked over and picked up a piece of linen from their pack and soaked it in the water trough, then tossed it over. "Here."She perched on a corner of the trough. "You got a name?"

Hazel eyes peered at her from under pale eyelashes. "Dani." She winced as she held the cold cloth to her bleeding nose.

"Mmph. Well, Dani…you always try to beat up on your guests, or was it just the special of the day, today." Xena crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back.

The innkeeper sat down on a half empty feed barrel. "We don't get many guests." She commented. "New fighter comes in, everyone wants to know, what do they got..where are they gonna land in the pecking order."

Xena spread her arms out to indicate her linen clad body. "But I'm a horse trainer.. no weapons, see? "

Dani laughed weakly. "You c'n call yourself whatever you want, but you walked in here, everyone knew you're a fighter.. you have it written all over you."

"Do I?" The warrior mused, secretly delighted. "Well, I'm not here to fight." She concluded. "We're just on our way up to Athens.. though it looks kinda torn up round here."

The innkeeper blotted her nose in silence. "Well..better not let Andreas catch sight of you then, if you don't wanna get added to the roles. He's collecting all the fighters in these parts.. or folk he thinks can make fighters."

Andreas. Xena filed the name away for further investigation. "That how you got into this?"

"Yeah…it's my dad's inn.. he went off on a trip to the coast.. never came back. I messed around with it for a while.. then Andreas showed up with a bunch of hacks.. decided to make this his base. He put me in a training group a year ago." She glanced up at Xena. "Your friend called you Tiger.. that really your name?"

Oh… centaur butt hairs. Well… "It'll do." Xena remarked with a sigh. "But what does Andreas hope to accomplish?"

"Oh." Dani rubbed the blood of her hands. "He wants to be king of Greece." She shrugged. "If he has to take every inch of it by force."

The door opened, and they both looked up as Gabrielle entered, taking one look at the bloodied innkeeper, then turning an indignant eye on her partner.

"I was just minding my own business." Xena protested, holding up a hand to forestall the bard's exclamation. "It wasn't my fault."

"I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" The bard sighed in exasperation.

"Um… it really was my fault." Dani stood, wiping the last of the blood off her face. "Scuse me.. I'll just…take off. Sorry, there.. uh.. Tiger… bye." She slipped out the door, leaving a slack jawed Gabrielle and a bemused Xena behind her.

"Tiger?" Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "You let her call you that?"

"Well." Xena pulled a knee up and wrapped her hands around it. "Better than announcing my presence in the middle of an armed, probably hostile encampment which would take a lot of pleasure in using me for pike practice, yes."

"Hmm." Gabrielle chewed her lower lip. "You've got a point there… I found out a little bit about what's going on."

"Before you came in, our new buddy Dani there was telling me that the guy who's running this outfit, Andreas, is gathering an army, because he wants to take over the whole place." Xena remarked.

A sigh. "She's your buddy now, huh? What is it with you warriors, anyway… you hate each other until one of you beats the snot out of the other, and then you're friends." Gabrielle shook her head. "Yeah… I heard about the same, except from the other side. Merchants are scared to go outside the city… he's got roaming bands out there scouring the countryside for conscripts and supplies. If a village says no, he burns it out."

"Nice guy." Xena mused. "Not that I didn't do the same in my time, though."

Gabrielle took a breath. "Did you really?"

Blue eyes met hers squarely. "Yes."

"You burnt out whole villages just because they wouldnít give you their food?"

There was an uncomfortable silence, while Xena hesitated. Her eyes dropped to the straw. "Yes." She admitted softly, hearing a rustle as Gabrielle moved closer. A hand touched her hair, and she exhaled.

"If I ever needed proof of just how much you've changed, that would be it." The bard marveled quietly. "Because I could not, in my wildest imaginings, picture you doing that now. "

Xena accepted the touch with a sense of relief. "That's true." She lifted her eyes, and met gentle green ones looking back at her. "I can't either."

Gabrielle sat down next to her. "So.. what are we going to do?"

The warrior glanced around the barn, and shook her head. "Find out what his troop strength is.. find out where he's headed next.. and get the Hades out of here."

"Sounds like a plan." The bard paused. "Did she really start it?'

"Yes!" Xena told her. "She hit me first." She patted her belly. "Right there."

"And you didn't instigate that?" A knowing twinkle emerged.

"I most certainly did not." Xena told her, virtuously. "Even when she pulled the knife on me, I was nice."

"What?"

"Nevermind.. it's over with."

"And you tell me not to get into trouble??"


They headed out of the barn towards the inn, with Xena shouldering the saddlebags and the bard carrying her staff.As they were almost to the door, a shout came from down the road, and the lounging fighters craned their neck to see what was coming.

A caravan was trundling towards them, with four mounted riders in front, leading a wagon whose rear was closed in like a cage, followed by four more riders. Ribald yells were being tossed towards them, and the outriders laughed as they came steadily closer.

"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked a man standing near the inn door, dressed in the leather apron of a blacksmith.

"Some poor bastard got hisself caught." The man spat carefully in the corner, avoiding Gabrielle's boots. "Prollystealin from the camp or whatnot."

"Thanks." The bard stood on her tiptoes, balancing herself with a hand on Xena's shoulder, and peered. "Wonder who it is?"

The wagon came even with them, and they spotted a small, thin figure inside, with a pale face, and large, blinking brown eyes. Then the caravan moved on, the lead riders singing a racy marching song that Xena knew in two languages besides the one they were using.

"He's just a kid." The bard whispered. "What could he possibly have done?"

One of the trailing riders pulled up and cantered in towards them, waving at a few of his mates as he slowed to a halt. "Finally got us that damn storyteller."He announced. "Caught him right in the act… like to have busted his jaw for it."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances.

One of the soldiers on the porch of the inn laughed. "Andreas is gonna have a field day with him… bet he cuts his tongue out."

Gabrielle's fingers clamped down on a tanned forearm, as the warrior nudged her towards the door. "Xena… we can't let that happen!"

"Shh.. c'mon." Xena got her inside, and herded her down the small, cramped corridor towards the room they'd been assigned. They had to work their way by two fighters in the way, who were disinclined to move, but they finally made it, and closed the door behind them. "Now look, Gabrielle.."

"Don't now look me." The bard warned. "We can't leave that kid in here, Xena… they'll kill him, and you know it."

"They find out who we are, and they'll kill us." The warrior retorted. "You don't even know this guy…"

"Xena, he's just a storyteller." Gabrielle's jaw set. "Just like me."Her green eyes glinted. "He's in here because he was out there telling stories about you.. we are not going to walk out of here and let them torture him."

No, of course not. Xena sighed, gazing at her soulmate unhappily. "All right… let me see what I can come up with.. this means we're going to have to get in to his command area, you realize that."

The bard leaned against her and kissed her shoulder. "I know."She rubbed her cheek against Xena's skin. "But you know I'm right."

The warrior let her head rest against the bard's. "Yeah, I know…I just want to get us both out of this in one piece."

They remained quiet for a bit, then the bard sniffed reflectively. "Hey.. Xena?"

"Hmm?" The warrior broke out of her intense thought. "Yeah?"

"Why does this room smell like a barn?" †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

"Uh.. " Xena glanced around, spotting a bed so dirty, the original color of the bedclothes was impossible to determine, shaded somewhere between pigsty brown andcentaur poop ochre. "Window." She coughed.

"Oh yeah."Gabrielle got to the wooden shutters and flung them open, letting in a draft of cold, fresh air. "Oh boy."

The warrior studied the room, then she pulled out their sleeping furs, and spread them neatly under the window, putting their saddlebags to one side, and sitting down on the soft, furry surface. Gabrielle sat down next to her, and they both regarded the scary, cobweb interlaced, stinky room.

"Your mother would come through here with a horse trough full of water, and a cask of soap." The bard remarked.

"My mother would come through here with a plow hitch and four horses, and pull it all down." The warrior corrected her. "I've been in some bad places, but this ranks right up there."

"This ranks." Gabrielle agreed wryly. "I think I got too used to our place."She spent a moment imagining their neat, peaceful cabin, with her painted mats on the wall, and Xena's carvings scattered about. "Have you figured out how to rescue Devon yet?"

A dark brow edged up. "Good grief, Gabrielle.. giveme a few minutes, willya?" Xena let her head rest against the wall, as the bard snuggled up next to her, pressing their bodies together. She put an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders, and thought.

They could sneak in. That might work, if the soldiers were overconfident, and careless. Somehow, Xena had a feeling the closer they got to the enigmatic Andreas, the more competent fighters they'd encounter, but it might be worth a try.

Of course, if they got caught, they were in trouble… which might range from imprisonment, to hard labor, to being dragged behind a horse.

Or being hung. Xena drummed her fingers on one thigh.

They could run a scam.. say they were there to sell something to Andreas… but they really didn't have anything, save Gabrielle's storytelling talents, and that probably wasn't a good idea at the moment.

Or….hmm. "All right.. I'll offer my services to him… to train his cavalry." Xena stated quietly.

Silence answered her.

"C'mon, itís not that bad an idea." The warrior glanced at her soulmate, then sighed. The bard's eyes were closed and she was sleeping very peacefully, a gentle smile on her face. "Aww…" She moved a bit of fair hair out of the way. "Catching up to you, huh?" After a year at home, she should have realized it would take her partner a few extra days to get used to traveling again.

Or maybe it was just that Gabrielle loved to snuggle with her, especially in the late afternoon, as it was now. She'd missed that lately, and it forced her to realize just how far apart they'd been drifting. Whatever else this trip resulted in, she decided, that was going to change when they got home. They'd both worked too hard to stay together, and sacrificed too much for them to let anything happen to their relationship after all this time.

Not that they would ever break up. Xena smiled sadly, resting her head against the bard's. But they had something very special, something most people never got to have, and she was damned if she was going to give that up again.

Gabrielle's fingers, lying against her arm tightened slightly, and a tiny, contented sound escaped from her, as her body curled more snugly against her partner's. Xena wrapped her fingers around the bard's and brushed her lips over the pale hair with wistful affection, relaxing against the bare wood wall.

She sat there quietly,watching the sun creep across the floor, painting a solid bar of molten gold across their lower bodies, until she felt a stirring in the body she was cuddling, and Gabrielle let out a soft sound of chagrin.

"Ungh.. gods.. sorry… " Penitent green eyes flickered open, and peeked up at her.

"For what?" The warrior asked peacefully, admiring her partner's well-shaped nose, which was wrinkling in embarrassment.

"Falling asleep on you… " The bard stifled a yawn.

"I didn't mind… I sorta miss our afternoon naps." Xena admitted wryly.

"Mm…are you just saying that to make me feel better?"Gabrielle wondered, glancing up.

"Gabrielle, have you ever known me to say anything just to make anyone feel better?" The warrior inquired pointedly.

"Um…." The bard drummed fingers on her soulmate's thigh. "Now that you mention it… no." She smiled. "I'm glad you said that… because I've missed them too.. I find myself getting grumpy around dinnertime if I haven't had my nap." She made the confession with rolled eyes.

Xena chuckled, ruffling her hair affectionately. "S'allright.. gave me a chance to work on my plan." Xena assured her. "You think Andreas needs a cavalry trainer?"

"Oo… hey, you could find out a lot of stuff that way." Gabrielle responded. "Great idea.." She gave her partner an approving pat on the side. "Where do I come in?"

Xena sighed. It had started out to be such a nice plan. "Well, you can come in with me "

"And pretend to train horses? Xena… maybe you should take a nap too." Gabrielle laughed. "I can barely ride them." She nibbled her thumbnail. "But I could get a job in the kitchens… they have to feed their captives."

Kitchens.. okay.. that was fairly safe. "Yeah… " Xena drew the word out speculatively. "Okay.. that's a pretty good idea." She decided. "I'll find out tonight from Dani who to talk to about Andreas."

The bard nodded, satisfied. "You interested in having dinner here?"

Big, round, aghast blue eyes stared at the room, then at her.

"That's what I thought. There's a small market down the road.. wanna go see what they've got?" Gabrielle grinned.

"You just want to shop." The warrior accused, but smiled back. "But I will, on one condition."

Gabrielle lifted a blond eyebrow at her. "And that would be?"

"You find another name for me." Xena sighed. "I can't walk in there with that one. Or with mine."

"Aww.. " The bard stood up, stretching her body out luxuriously. "But it's so cute.. and it fits you, tiger."

"Gabriellleee…." Xena's voice dropped an entire octave.

"Oh, okay.. I'll see what I can do." The bard offered her a hand up. "C'mon, lazybones… let's go."

 


The road widened, as it approached the main army barracks, and it was noticeably cleaner there. Xena took that, perversely, as a bad sign, because she knew a well-run army meant nothing good for them. She was seated on Iolaus' golden back, and had changed her nondescript tunic for one with subtle, silver piping on a coal black background, which draped neatly over her powerful body, and matched the newly shined riding boots that came up to her knees.

The morning sun caught glints off the silver bracelets that clasped her wrists, and Xena lifted her head as she rode, knowing damn well she made quite the spectacle, deserving the long looks she was getting from the casually posted soldiers.

One man strolled towards her, and she gazed at him, letting a faint smile cross her face. He walked into a tree, and she smirked quietly to herself. Nice to know I can still do that, she mused, straightening a little in the saddle. She'd seen it in Gabrielle's eyes when the bard had returned from finding breakfast for them, after she'd dressed. The green eyes had lit with that quiet, gentle appreciation as the bard ran a finger down the silver piping, and whistled softly at her.

Xena had never considered herself a vain person, but she was also human enough to admit it was nice to have people admire her looks on occasion. She resettled her seat as she directed Iolaus towards the guarded gate ahead, where four men were standing at semi attention, looking a lot more alert than most of the soldiers she'd seen along the route.

The tallest one took a step forward as she reached them ,and held up a hand. "No further."

Xena obediently halted, collecting Iolaus into an alert, balanced stance as she observed him. "All right."

He studied her, cocking his head and peering into the sun with intelligent gray eyes, his face stern, and serious. "You have business here?"His voice was low, and raspy.

"Maybe." Xena replied quietly. "I have some skills I'm looking to sell."

A faint, sardonic grin crossed his scarred face. "Really? And what might those be?"

Xena gave Iolaus several subtle signals, and the stallion reared, then kicked back, taking off the heads of two pikes. Then she had him crab step sideways, and rear, hopping forward and slashing at the guards with razor sharp hooves.

He settled to earth after that, snorting slightly, and she patted his neck. "I train horses." She remarked mildly.

The guard had leaped back, and now he moved cautiously towards her again, circling the stallion and evaluating her at the same time. "So you do." His eyes lingered on her bare thighs, and she tensed them a little, aware of the supple ripple of muscles just under the skin. "What's your name, horse trainer?"

Xena tucked her reins in one hand, and extended the other. "Paladar." She answered quietly, having battled with Gabrielle over several choices, and vetoing "Boo" as one of them. "What's yours?"

He met her grip, tightening his fingers around her forearm. "Sedrus." His eyes held wary respect, and definite interest. "Sit tight, Paladar… I'll check and see if we have a need for your… " That faint smile again. "Skills."

"Sure." Xena relaxed in her saddle and sidestepped Iolaus into the shade, throwing one leg over her saddlebow and unhooking a waterbag slung from one of the straps just behind her. She took a sip, watching as he walked back to the gate, whispering to his comrade before he opened the small door to one side and slipped through it.

Now, it was just a matter of time.


Gabrielle wandered the marketplace, picking up snatches of conversation from merchants and soldiers, who wandered from stall to stall. She noticed that the residents of the town would halt, and change subjects when the fighters came near, and she carefully engaged herself in an intense study of some tatty looking fabric as two of the armored men wandered off.

"Did you see, they caught that poor boy." The cloth merchant whispered to the older woman standing in her stall."Tis not fair.. they'll hang him, they say.. as a warning to anyone else stirring up trouble."She glanced at Gabrielle, then lowered her voice. "You think those crazy stories have a grain o truth to them?"

The older woman sniffed. "No smoke there's fire, I say… wouldn't be half so stirred up if the stories were out lies, were they now?"

Gabrielle took down a piece of cloth, and wandered over. "I'm sorry.. I couldnít help overhear.. what stories are those? Was that the boy they brought in yesterday.. I felt so bad for him."

Suspicious eyes studied her, and she returned the gaze with gentle patience. "I used to tell stories myself… I guess I feel for him."

The older woman circled her warily. "Do ye now?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes…I know what it's like to be…punished.. for that." She dropped her gaze, then lifted it again. "Don't all these soldiers around drive you nuts?'

The weaver sighed. "It's part of life here now.. it seems… at first we welcomed it, but now, they takes what they wants…you just learn to give it up."

"Mm." Gabrielle sighed.

"The boy was trying to bring a little spirit in.. " The older woman grudgingly rumbled. "Telling us wild tales of a woman warrior… you heard any of those, little girl?" They both watched Gabrielle like a hawk, suspicion wafting around them like incense.

The bard fingered her chosen cloth. "Hmm…. I might have. " She edged a little closer and lowered her voice. "If the warrior's name is… Xena."

"Ahh." The weaver nodded. "So you have heard of her."

"Yes." The bard agreed. "What kind of stories was he telling…maybe I've heard them."

They looked at her in mute silence, and a short, stocky man slid up on the other side of her.

"Or mebbe you're just a spy for them…wanting us to repeat em, eh?" The man's bearded face seemed menacing. "Be like him to put a little innocent in like you fer that." He shoved her back. "Ye'll get no chatter about idle myths from us, lassie."

Gabrielle could feel the hostility around her, and obscurely, it made her feel better, understanding these people were holding something tight to them that she herself was a jealous protector of. She leaned against the tent pole, and looked at them. "She's not a myth." Her voice was low, but it carried. "What stories have you heard… have you heard about the Titans?" She left her post, and walked through the poles, aware of the tense, gathered crowd. "Or Hades' helmet?" She slipped between two husky men, triggering her own bardic skills as she spoke. "Or how she rescued the Sword of the God of War?"

They all watched her now, suspicion warring with curiosity.

"Or maybe you heard how she stopped the Persians." Gabrielle continued, putting a hand on one of the support poles and winding her way around it. "Or kept the Centaurs and Amazons from going to war…"

"She knows them all." One whisper reached her, and she smiled.

"Yes, I do." She found the speaker, who backed up, a trifle nervously. "And a few I bet you haven't heard."

The crowd darted furtive glances around them, watching for the armored men, and trying to look casual. The older woman and the man moved towards her, witha shushing motion of their hands. "Hush, girl… all right… be still now. Ye'll get us all in trouble."

"Have ye been to Athens, then." The weaver asked, in a soft voice. "It's where the lad says he found them… written in the great Academy there."

Bullseye. Gabrielle felt a quiet rush of disbelief, as her suspicions were confirmed. It made her feel odd, but flattered, to know the stories this person was scattering around the countryside were…

Hers.

"I've been to Athens, yes.. but that's not where I know them from." Gabrielle admitted, quietly.

"Is it true then? Do you think she's real.. that she'll come one day and help us?" The weaver asked, in a bare whisper.

A group of soldiers came down the path, laughing and shoving each other, and the group scattered. Gabrielle examined her cloth intently, then turned her attention to some trim she liked. The fabric, and the trim.. hm… "How much are these?" She asked the weaver, just as the men came up. They gave her a passing glance, then went on, seeing nothing more than a nondescript traveler browsing the market.

"A dinar." The woman answered, watching anxiously until the men had passed.

Gabrielle dug in her pouch, and pulled out a coin, examining it, then passing it to the woman. "Thanks… this'll make a nice sash for someone I know." She smiled at the woman, glancing over at the guards who had stopped at the next stall, and ducked out, tucking the fabric away in her pouch.

"Give us them sweet rolls." One of the men was saying to the merchant next door, who was apparently a baker. "And be quick..we're on guard shift in a quarter candlemark." He slapped the wooden board that served as a counter, and looked around, spotting Gabrielle waiting quietly, her head slightly bowed. "Hey… you're a piece of cute stuff." He hiccupped, obviously slightly drunk.

The bard smiled at him. "Thank you." She murmured. "Those rolls do smell good, donít' they?"

The shorter man next to him turned, and leaned on the board. "Yeah… anything 's better than the mess hall." He poked his neighbor. "Right?"

The other man snorted. "Th' garbage they served today… mah pigs at home wouldn't ha touched." He belched, then spat on the ground. "Trouble is.. they only puts washouts in the cooks tent… ifn ye can't fight, and ye can't make weapons, ya cook. Ugh."

And then sometimes opportunity just drops right into your lap. Gabrielle came a little closer. "Gee…. That's too bad…you guys must work so hard… and you have to go out and scrounge your dinners?" She sighed, leaning against the board and getting their avid attention. "Y'know.. cooking's not that hard."

The taller of the two wandered over, and looked down at her with definite interest. "Oh yeah? You speakin from personal sperience?"

The bard blinked innocently. Oh.. well.. I mean… yes.. I…I do have some… experience…. I mean… my family runs an inn, and you know.."

The man put an arm around her shoulder, and Gabrielle found herself clamping down on suddenly reawakened instincts that almost had her jabbing him hard in the ribs. "Honey… ye're coming with us."

"I.. I am?" Gabrielle stammered gently. "I mean.. uh.. Ihave.. things.. friends… uh.. "

"Don worry… we'll take goood care of yer… " The man hiccupped. "Evrybod's gonna luv you… honest.. c'mon.."

"Well.. maybe for a little while." The bard agreed hesitantly. "I could show them some little tips my mother told me.. you think they'd like that?"

"Honey.. they's gonna luuuuuv it.. trust me…" He started walking towards the huge, guarded gates. "You jest c'mon with old Robbie here…"

"Oh.. well.. thanks..uh.. Robbie… careful there." Gabrielle managed to steer them around a water trough. "I bet you like beef stew, huh?"

"Ungh… ifn it's got lots of that good stuff in it.. " The man mumbled.

"Mmhmm… big chunks of meat.. and nice carrots… with lots of garlic.. "

The man made a sound somewhere between a whine and a groan. "My mammy used to make that.. "

Warriors. Gabrielle tried to ignore the boozy stench. Fastest way to their hearts was right through their bellies… and don't I know it.


The military compound was not only well guarded, Xena realized, it was well maintained, and orderly. She followed behind Sedrus as he lead her across the central open space, having reluctantly surrendered Iolaus to a neatly dressed groom who ran up and took the golden stallion away, leading him respectfully.

"Nice." She commented, taking in the crisply armored men practicing formations, and the archery drill going on across the way. The soldiers seemed disciplined, and their group leaders were yelling orders that Xena recognized from a time long past.

This, she realized uneasily, was truly an army's camp.

"Andreas gives orders to keep it that way." Sedrus answered succinctly. "You get one chance… then you're out."

"Out of the army?" Xena inquired mildly.

The tall guard gave her a sardonic look. "That too." He replied. "You may end up regretting trotting up to that gate, Paladar."

The warrior shrugged one shoulder. "Not much call for my kind of work out in the villages." She remarked. "I'd rather not do the traveling festival circuit taking in quarter dinars."

Sedrus grunted. "S'truth.. I was stuck apprenticed to a miller back two years, when Andreas passed through my hometown… just a petty warlord he was then, but looking for talent… I haven't regretted it." He paced on a few feet in silence. "Where you from?"

Xena had decided to remain as close to the truth as possible… in her experience, the more tangled the story, the harder it was to press home, and since Gabrielle was involved in all of this… the simpler the better. "Amphipolis."

"Mmph.. that's a backwater if I've ever seen one." He chuckled dryly. "No wonder you're out and about." He motioned for her to precede him into a small building. "Go ahead.. that's the adjutant's office. He asked to see you."

Xena ducked inside, seeing a spartan, but well appointed office with a neatly half armored man behind the desk. He was of middling height, and had salt and pepper hair, which extended through the full beard and moustache that covered half his face. As she entered, he looked up.

Thin lips pursed. "You are the horse trainer?"

Xena crossed the floor and stopped in front of him. "Yes."Her eyes met his, but her peripheral vision soaked in the details of the well-drawn maps and papers on the desk.

He stood. "You are experienced? With war trained animals, I mean, not with circus acts?"

One of Xena's dark eyebrows lifted. "I don't train circus horses."

"Very well. Come with me." The man turned and made his way briskly out the back door, into a fenced in area that spread out to the outer walls of the compound. The smell of animals was strong here, and Xena could hear the shifting motions of many horses around her. She ambled along behind the man, absorbing the watchful guards on the walls, and the starkly disciplined faces of the soldiers around her.

It was making her shoulderblades itch. Then she was distracted by a low, wild whinny, which was coming from a closed in stockyard just in front of them. As they walked forward, a dark head reared above the part ion and struck out, knocking chips the size of ale mugs out of the wall.

"That's a wild one." Xena commented, admiring the large, well shaped head briefly visible.

The man turned, and smiled thinly at her. "You want to train horses for us? There's your first." He gestured. "Ride him, you stay. Don't, we let him drag you around the outer courtyard until you're nothing but bones."He snapped his fingers at several guards, who approached swiftly. "Open the gate.She doesn't come out."

Xena felt her heart skip a beat, as she wondered what kind of lunatics they'd stumbled into. Then she eyed the spears pointed at her, and she approached the fence, giving the stocky man closest to the gate a nod. "Do like the man says." She told him, coolly. "I haven't got all day."

A murmur rose from the watchers at her words, but she ignored it, as the wood creaked open in front of her and she was given a shove inside.

It was close, and hot in the enclosure, with her at one end, and the huge, muscular black as pitch stallion at the other. He rolled his eyes whitely at her, and reared, snorting in fear and anger.

She heard a clatter around her and glanced up to see grinning faces watching her, and sighed. Next time, Xena… grab her, toss her over your shoulder, and run like Hades. She ducked as something whistled towards her, and reached out to grab it, finding a rope halter in her hand. She laid it over her shoulder and slowly approached the horse.

He didn't like it one bit. One moment he was standing there, watching her, then next he was hurtling towards her, teeth bared and hooves lifted, reaching to rake her body.Xena ducked under him, letting him charge past her, and turned, watching him as he reached the end of the pen and whirled, snorting.

"Hey boy." She let her voice reach out to him, keeping her tone low, and gentle.

An ear twitched, just slightly.

"Yeah, that's it. " Xena walked not towards him, but parallel to where he was, towards the shady side of the enclosure. There was blood on the wall there, almost fresh, and now that he was in the sun, she could see moisture on his coat that wasn't sweat.

Poor bastard. She gave the men watching a dour look. One reached down and smacked the horse on the rump with a twitch, causing him to scream in pain, and he bolted, thundering towards Xena with murderous intent. Xena waited until he was almost on her, then she threw herself to one side, crouching down to let his hooves pass over her, then shoving off against the ground, powering herself out of his way and into a neat, mid air tumble. She landed and dodged, then circled him again. "Easy boy."

He snorted, moving along the long wall of the rectangular enclosure and breathing hard, foam collecting under his jaw.The same soldier went for his twitch again, but Xena saw him this time, and jumped forward, diving under the horse as he started, then leaping up against the wall and catching the soldier's hand as she wrenched it back against the wall. He screamed, but released the twitch, which fell to the ground inside the paddock. Xena let him go as well, and dropped back to the ground, dusting her hands off. "Try that again and you'll be wearing it from the inside." She growled softly at him.

Now, it was quiet. That suited Xena, and apparently the horse as well, because he stood watching her in silence, his nostrils flaring out as he breathed. She approached him very slowly, murmuring gently under her breath. "Easy now… c'mon.. "

The liquid, intelligent brown eyes watched her warily, and the stallion shifted, all four hooves scattering little bits of churned up turf around him.

Xena was close enough now for the horse to smell her, and she kept up her low whispers, holding her hands out a little to either side of her body. He was huge, she realized, his back topping her head by at least an inch and his feet the size of platters. His legs were covered with afine, thick fringe of hair, matted with mud and gore now, but cleaned up and brushed out, he would be beautiful. His coat was a solid black, with blue highlights in the sun, and she could see cuts and sores in his skin now that she was much closer.

"You poor bastard… take it easy now." Xena murmured, holding a hand out, and letting the angry horse breathe in her scent. A step closer and her fingertips were brushing against the soft, velvety skin of his nose, and feeling the stiff prickles of hair.

Suddenly he screamed and reared over her head, his legs flailing, coming with in inches of taking her skull off. Xena stood still and didn't react, even when hoof brushed her shoulder, and the horse dropped to all fours and tossed his head at her, spraying her with a light mist of foam.

"Easy." The warrior murmured, sensing the fascinated silence of the watching men. She put a hand out again and touched the stallion's nose, then stroked his cheek gently, letting her natural talent and her strong personality edge out. The horse seemed mesmerized, in fact, and allowed her to stroke him all across his face, and the broad, flat cheekbone. She took a step closer, and felt his breath warm her chest, the sharp teeth inches from her jugular.

But her eyes were locked with his, and her voice was taming him, as long fingers gently combed over his mane, and circled the sores and scratches. "That's a good boy… you just take it nice an easy there… I'm not gonna hurtcha…." She pulled a briar from behind one tufted ear, and clucked. "Bet that hurt, huh?"

He nuzzled her, now seeming far more tired than threatening. She continued scratching him, and removing burrs, rubbing her hands all over his neck and back, and finding several bad sores. His skin twitched she neared them, and she was careful not to put any pressure against he sensitive and raw skin. "No wonder you're in such a bad mood." She shook her head. "I would be too."

He whickered softly, and she ran her hands down his legs, finding a matted mess in the soft fringe, and cut behind one heel. She straightened, and slowly lifted the halter up off her shoulder, letting him sniff it. "Now.. if you let me get this on you.. I can take you outta here, and get those cuts fixed up.. how about it?" She rubbed the rope gently over his skin, getting him used to the touch. He stood quietly , then leaned his head against her and sighed.

Well, Xena reflected, slipping the halter over the proud head. She'd always, always had a touch with horses. Maybe it was because they knew she had a soft spot for them, even in the worst of times. Even in battles where she'd cut off more heads than there were buzzard flying over her, she somehow managed to avoid the animals her enemies rode. She fastened the halter, suddenly aware of the stark silence around her.

With a faint, uneasy prickling she glanced up, to see an empty rim facing her, save onesolitary figure, backlit by the midday sun. He was seated on the edge of the wooden fence, leaning on one corner post and watching her. Xena couldnít make out his features, but she felt a gut deep feeling so alien, it startled her.

Fear.

The instinctual, unreasoning kind she'd only felt a few times in her life, and it make her nape hairs stand up, and set a knotted ball right in the center of her guts. She watched him warily as he slowly stood, swinging both legs over the wall and dropping down, moving with a powerful, edgy energy that slammed hard against her defensive reflexes.

This, was trouble. Big trouble. She felt her mouth go dry, as he came closer, clearing the sun's rays, and she could see his face. It was well proportioned, with a neatly trimmed beard and hair a fox red with scattered silver strands. His eyes were a deep, warm hazel, but looking into them, Xena was aware of a feeling of danger that chilled her to the core.

He took his time, looking her over. Then he strolled closer, glancing at the now restive stallion. "Well." His voice was deep, and musical. "It seems you have made a friend."

Xena reminded herself of who she was, and took hold of her composure. She relaxed a little, regarding him coolly. "It was that, or be dragged to death.. not much choice there."

His eyes, on a level with hers, flicked to her face and stayed there for a long, intense moment. Then he circled her. "My adjutant tells me your name is Paladar. Unusual."

Xena forced herself not to watch him, instead, she stroked the horse's ears, gentling his restiveness. "Wasn't my choice." She shrugged.

"No.. of course not… but you could choose not to keep it if it didn't suit you.. " Now he closed on Xena, and peered into her face. "And somehow.. it doesn't suit you." One hand lifted and a finger touched her still face. "Why is that?"

Xena slowly turned her head, and let her eyes meet his. "I don't know. Why is that?" She fought down the urge to either bolt, or release the pent up anxiety curling her muscles into knots. Her voice was low, and calm, and she lifted an eyebrow at him.

He smiled, then reached out and very gently fitted his fingers around her throat. As he did, she felt a wave of sickening compulsion come over her, passing through her mind as though mud were being poured around her. Her body panicked, and she shot a hand up, her fingers curling over his wrist and clamping down hard enough to make his head jerk.

"Shh… relax.. my horse trainer friend..this is not to harm you." He reassured her. "Everyone must meet my requirements…. It's just to make you tell the truth.. that's all.. then… well… "

Alarm bells were hammering the inside her skull, and Xena knew she was on the edge of a possibly fatal reaction. Her muscles tensed, and her defenses came up, the fire in her guts stirring with an almost irresistible force.

Then she thought about Gabrielle, and Dori, and she put a lid on it, clamping her jaw down on the low, outraged growl that threatened to burst from her throat. She forced her hand to release instead, and lowered it.

"Good girl." The man stated, approvingly. "Now.. three simple questions. What is your name?"

It felt as though bees were on her tongue, words forcing themselves out without her permission, but Xena hadn't spent most of a lifetime in self-discipline for nothing. She let the feeling pass, and met his eyes. "Paladar."

His eyes searched her intently. "Imagine that…. all right, and where are you from?"

"Amphipolis." That required no dissembling.

"Ah… and why are you here, Paladar?" The man's voice was silky soft.

"To train horses." The warrior replied softly.

He held her gaze for a few seconds more, then removed his hand. "Well." A smile edged his thin lips. "Welcome to my army, Paladar….I think you're going to be very valuable to me." Now his hand raised, but at waist level. "My name is Andreas."

Xena took his hand and returned the strong grip with one of her own. "What was with the throat thing?" She asked.

"Ah.. " He adjusted his collar a little. "I have received a.. gift… which allows me to compel a person to tell the truth… it comes in very handy for detecting spies.. donít you agree?"

Xena nodded a little, then shifted her fingers on the stallion's reins. "I.. need to go take care of him. .he's pretty cut up." She backed a step, anxious to get out of the enclosure, and regroup.

Andreas followed her, though. "What you need… Paladar.. is to join me for dinner." His eyes wandered over her again. "I am fascinated by a woman who so beautiful.. and yet, so very strong."

"Sure." Xena murmured, knowing refusing was not an option, at this juncture. "I'd like that." She blinked suddenly, as his shirtfront parted, and she spotted a silver chain, whose interlinks woke sudden, horrifying memories. A red stone was set between claws at its center, and she fought down a rush of panic. "I'll.. um.. be there later."

He smiled. "You do that… I'll be looking forward to it. " He slipped out of the door before her, and settled his short cloak, striding across the grounds as men gave him nods of concession in a wave before him.

Xena let out her held breath.

The necklace.. just like the one Hercules had been trapped by.

No wonder her hair was standing on end.

Xena swallowed, and took hold of the stallion's halter, turning to lead him away, thinking furiously, coming up with two, starkly important realizations.

Everything had changed.

She needed to find Gabrielle.


Gabrielle kept her body still, as she underwent the silent examination. She was standing under the scrutiny of a very cold pair of gray eyes, in the stern face of the garrison's chatelaine, having been brought there when her helpful friend had wangled her past the guard station, and into the neat military grounds.

"You say you have experience?" The woman asked, in a sharp voice. "You're hardly more than a child."

"Actually.. I've just completed my twenty first year." The bard replied quietly. "And yes.. my family are innkeepers in the north."

The woman grasped her by the arm, and pulled her towards two shelves set into the wall of the spotless, busy kitchen. "What herb is that?"

Gabrielle told her, then told her the two cooking and two medicinal uses for it. She went on to name other members of it's family, and what foods it went best with, only winding down when the woman shook her. "Oh.. sorry.. I get carried away sometimes."

"Mmph… you've got a smart mouth on you. We don't need that here." The gray eyes studied her, then glanced away as a second woman came up, wiping her hands on a white, starched apron. "Astira… we have a new helper.. where do you need a hand?"

The newcomer studied Gabrielle coolly, pushing her auburn hair back behind an ear. "Better not send her upstairs… that's for sure." She and the older woman exchanged knowing looks. "Well, we could use some help in by the spit."

"Don't let her get singed.. she actually has some useful knowledge, unlike the rest of this lot." The chatelaine stated. "I have some ideas for her."

Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip, ruefully reflecting on just how much she hated being talked about in third person. You're just here to get information, Gabrielle… be good.. remember you promised Xena to.. "

The bard almost stopped breathing, as the kitchen's clamor faded out, and a thick wave of fear nearly took her legs out from under her. She sucked in a breath in reflex and took hold of the table she was standing next to, her mind a fraction away from utter panic.

What.. in the whole wide world, could scare her soulmate like that?She saw the other woman motioning her to follow, and she did dumbly, not hearing a word of what she said, merely following until the growing heat distracted her from the ache in her guts and she looked up to see the huge fireplace approaching.

The waves of fear were subsiding… and Gabrielle was able to pry half an ear away from her own heartbeat to listen to what Astira was saying. "Um..sure.. okay." She stumbled over the rough hearthstones to where a pot was crouching, three long handled brushes extending from it. She lifted one and absently painted the slowly turning roast with it, her mind outwardly focused, anxiously wondering what her partner had gotten herself into.

She glanced around, seeing the two sets of frosty eyes on her, and debated, her breaths coming short as her body wound it self up, desperately wanting nothing less than to bolt out of the tense room, and find it's other half. But the fear was ebbing, and she hesitated…feeling her own racing pulse start to slow.

Okay. She swallowed, and got control of herself. She's all right.. you can't help her by busting out of here like a nutcase. Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly, then exhaled. Just wait for her to get things sorted out.. She turned her attention reluctantly to her task, and her nose wrinkled.

What in the blazes… Gabrielle sniffed the brush she was using, the acrid scent making her head jerk back in startlement. She glanced sideways at the young girl next to her, who was concentrating on dousing the roast with the stuff. "Hey.."

Pale green eyes, shades lighter than her own gave her a frightened look. "Hush!"

The bard looked over her shoulder, to see the two supervisors attending to some other task, then looked back. "Why?"

The girl looked towards the woman also then sidled a little closer. "We're not to talk.. you're new.. be quiet, or they'll toss you in the cells."

Gabrielle sniffed at her brush again. "What is this stuff? It smells awful." She lowered her voice to a bare whisper.

"It's for the troops… I.. donít know what it is.. but they make us put it on everything." The girl answered softly. "Once it cooks a lot.. it doesnít smell so bad."

"Oh." Gabrielle dabbed at the roast hesitantly. "Okay… maybe it's vitamins or something."

The girl put more of the stuff on. "You're not from around here, are you?"

The bard shook her head. "No.. I was just passing through.. one of the soldiers brought me in here." She looked around. "I donít' think I'm going to stay long."

The girl gazed at her, blinking. "You're never leaving.. they won't let you. Not once you're in here. My friend Sallas tried.. they took her skin off, and left her hanging in the courtyard for three days."

"Wh…what?" Gabrielle felt her pulse quicken, as the horror of the thought struck her. "But you're not slaves.. how can they… "

"Shhh… " The girl begged. "Please.. they don't care…and I don't want to be skinned." She edged away from Gabrielle and concentrated on her work, ignoring the bard's presence.

What have we gotten ourselves into? Gabrielle looked around uneasily. More than we thought, that's for sure. She wiped her brow, as the heat from the fireplace baked through her,and turned her attention to trying to figure out what she was going to do to get out.


Xena got the stallion settled, the barn staff watching her in uneasy silence, making feeble attempts to attend to their tasks while she moved the wild horse into the largest stall, and got him tied off. He was very tired, and didn't give her much trouble, even when she collected a cloth and some cleaner from a wooden shelf nearby and cleaned out his sores.

That was all right. It gave her time to calm down, and figure out what she was going to do next. From the corner of her eye she saw Iolaus, his golden head over his stall divider watching her with pricked ears, though the rest of the barn's denizens had their backs turned, and were facing the outer wall with disinterested stances.

First things first. Find Gabrielle. Her general sense of the bard, strengthened by their connection told her she wasn't far, and Xena had to reluctantly admit it was possible her clever soulmate had wormed herself into the kitchen staff without much trouble. They'd need help, surely, with all these mouths to feed, and Gabrielle did have an undeniable talent for cooking.

And for getting into trouble, of course, but Xena was determined to get to the bard before dinner, and get them both out of the complex, storyteller or no storyteller. It was noble to want to help the kid out, but one slip.. one of these fighters recognizing her, and it could mean their deaths.

She wasn't ready for that. She had a lot of things yet that she wanted to do with her soulmate, and a daughter she was determined she was going to watch grow up back home.

Xena let her hands gently order the stallion's tangled mane and tail, then she gave him a pat and put the brushes together. As she turned, she realized her way was being blocked and she stopped, with an internal sigh. What is it with me and barns and thugs this week?

A very tall, very muscular man stood in her way, regarding her intently. "You the new trainer, eh?"

Xena peered up at him. "Looks like it."

The man absorbed this, then glanced at the black horse. "Stallion's kilt the last three what tried to put a halter on im.. guess you must be all right." He stepped back out of her way and blinked, his rugged, but interesting face tensing into a pensive half smile. "I'm Gaese."

Xena took his hand, feeling the calluses as she clasped it. "Paladar."

He nodded once. "Yellow pony yours?"

Xena lifted a brow. "Hardly a pony… but yes."She dusted her hands off. "You a trainer?"

"Naw." Gaese shook his head. "Groom… we got twenty men here, and five hundred horses. You gots your work cut out for ye."

"Ah." Xena chewed over this. "I'm the only trainer then, huh?"

"Aye." Gaese nodded. "Last one's hanging over the pike rack.. didn't school Andreas' horse to his liking."

Great. "Which one's his?" Xena asked, glancing around the huge barn. Her eyes fell on ta creamy, pure white horse in a large corner stall, and she blinked. "Let me guess… that one?" She pointed.

"Aryep." Gaese agreed. "Nasty cross grained beast he is… but prettier than a picture…good luck to you wi him."

A she watched, the white horse bit at his stall door in irritation, and nickered softly, tossing his head. To her right, the dark stallion answered, snorting in weary challenge.

Xena sighed, and shook her head. What have we gotten ourselves into? She looked up as the barn door opened, and a uniformed guard entered, ignoring the stable hands and heading directly for the warrior.

"Yes?" Xena asked, as he came even with her, a bundle in his arms.

"Andreas has commanded me to give you this." He handed over the bundle. "It is a uniform. You will wear it tonight." The blond haired man stated.

"What if it doesn't fit?" The warrior asked, arching a brow.

"Cut off bodyparts until it does." The soldier responded, giving her a nod and turning around to leave. Then he turned back. "You will present yourself to the guard at the chapel door at sundown. You will be taken up to Andreas' quarters then. Do you understand?'

"Yeah." The warrior hefted the packet. "I sure do."

A brisk nod, then the soldier left.

Xena stared after him, then she walked over to where Iolaus was waiting, and dropped the bundle at the horses' feet. "First thing's first.. I need some herbs… which way is the kitchen?"

Gaese shifted his feet. "We're not allowed up there." He cleared his throat. "You'll be asking for trouble."

Xena took a breath. "Wouldn't be the first time." She ducked out the door, and followed her heart.


Gabrielle had finished her basting task, and had been put to work assembling dinner for what she assumed was the higher officers. These were individual platters of meats and vegetables, and she was able to arrange and spice them by instinct, using combinations familiar to her after years of feeding her partner.

She felt eyes on her back, and she straightened a little, as the chatelaine's chill voice floated over her shoulder.

"Well, herb girl.. it seems you do have a talent for this…will wonders never cease." The woman picked up a piece of vegetable and tasted it, then gave Gabrielle an approving nod.

"Thanks." The bard replied quietly. "My name is Gabrielle, by the way." She finished the plate with a sprig of parsley and pulled the next one towards her.

"Gabrielle. That's an unusual name" The woman commented. "Where are you from?"

The bard debated swiftly, then half turned her head. "Potadeia." She paused. "It's a really, really small village to the south…more sheep than people." Her hands selected a mixture of spices, rubbing the peppercorns between her fingers to crack them as she combined the fragrant kernels.

"Really… isn't that coincidence… I had an uncle that came from there." The woman commented casually. "He was a baker."

Gabrielle sensed she was being tested. "That would be Erebesus? He made the best honey cakes.. I used to save up the quarter dinars I got for collecting berries and buy one on market days."

Finally, she got a smile. "That's him."She studied Gabrielle's profile intently. "What brings you here, Gabrielle from Potadeia?"

"Well.." The bard sighed. "I was just passing through…. I really didn't intend to end up in here… I was going to Athens." She gave the woman an innocent look. "I guess I shouldn't have talked to the soldier, huh?"

The woman smiled tightly. "Keep yourself in line, my young friend, and you may end up in Athens after all." She remarked enigmatically, then looked up as the door opened, and a hush fell on the busy kitchen. "Hold." She raised her voice imperiously. "You don't belong here."

Gabrielle spent a moment absorbing the familiar warmth before she turned her head to see her soulmate framed in the doorway, filling it with a presence that left everyone else around her in pale weakness. Their eyes met briefly, and the twitch of Xena's lips was almost like a caress, bringing a faint, almost smile to her own face.

"I need some herbs." The warrior spoke quietly, but her voice carried, low and potent across the room. "They said this was where they were."

"Well, they were wrong." The chatelaine had straightened in reflex, sensing the challenge from the newcomer. "Now get out."

Xena's blue eyes went to the piles of herbs, then she looked at the older woman, and one perfect brow lifted in question. "I think those look like the ones I need."

"Astira, call the guard." The chatelaine snapped. "I don't know who you are, but you'll be in the catacombs shortly."

"Hold your tongue, Besthia." A cool, slick voice interrupted. Eyes turned to see the slender, wiry form of the adjutant enter through the back door. "Our leader has taken delightful bit of sauce into his service…in fact, he's asked to have her sup with him this evening, so you'd better be minding your manners with her." The man smiled. "Odd at it may seem."

"Jeren…" The woman protested, then just gave her head a shake. "Tis his will.. very well, here, herb girl.. give her what she needs." Besthia gestured to Gabrielle. "Be quick about it."

Sometimes, Gabrielle reflected, as she crossed the floor on shaking legs towards the safest port her life had ever known. Sometimes, the gods do watch out for us. She met Xena halfway, and they walked together towards the herb table, in the curious silence that surrounded them. The warrior's body language was very tense, and Gabrielle didn't need speech to understand they were in a lot of trouble. She picked up a small basket as they reached their destination, and cleared her throat gently. "What is it you need?"

Hidden from the room's view, a gentle sparkle entered the warrior's eyes, as their edges crinkled slightly in answer. "I'll take the herbs for now." Xena answered in a bare whisper. She named four herbs in a louder voice, and exchanged a few meaningless remarks with the bard until the hum of sound around them rose, as everyone else went back to work. "We need to get out of here." She uttered softly, with a quick glance around.

"No kidding." The bard murmured. "Here.. and do you need this one for cleansing?"

"Yeah.. give me some of that." Xena answered. "This Andreas…he's big trouble, Gabrielle.. he's got one of the necklaces on.. like the one Hercules got caught by."

Mist green eyes darted to ice blue in startlement. "No!.. Well.. that explains the utter creepiness around here, partner.. this place is crawling with bad news." She portioned out several bags of herbs. "They're putting something in the food… I don't know what it is.. it doesn't smell familiar."

"Mm.." Xena sniffed the air surreptitiously. "Belladonna? I can't tell…thanks for letting me know, though."She took the bags. "And a pound of that." She pointed.

"Are you going to have dinner with him." The bard mouthed. "Xena… please be careful…these people are giving me the creeps big time."

"I will… and I'm sorry, Gabrielle.. we're getting out of here tonight. I'm walking a tightrope… with all these fighters around, someone's bound to recognize me, and I donít' want to end up being drawn and quartered."

The bard exhaled, but nodded. She was all for the greater good, but not when it so directly threatened her beloved soulmate. "I'm sorry I got us into this.'

A hand gently closed over hers, and squeezed. "We needed to know, Gabrielle.. this is much worse… a lot more dangerous than I thought." Xena picked up the bundles and reviewed the table one last time. "Just stay close to the door."

The bard nodded faintly. "You think all he wants from you is dinner?"

A moment of pensive silence. "No."The warrior hefted the bags in her hands and sighed. "Sometimes I wish I looked like Salmoneus."

Gabrielle felt a lump form in her guts. "He really rattled you."

The dark head nodded. "Yeah… I'm going to try and figure out a way to get us out of here before then… I'll do what I have to do, but… "

"I love you." Gabrielle mouthed silently. "I need you…please be safe."

Xena's face tensed, and her lashes fluttered, then she nodded. "You too." She straightened, and took a step back. "Well, that's all I need… thanks."†† Her eyes met her soulmates for one last, long exchange, then she turned and strode out, closing the door behind her.

Gabrielle took a moment to compose herself, then she turned and brushed hr hands off on her skirt, to find Besthia right behind her, the chatelaine's eyes cool, and thoughtful. Had she heard? Gabrielle returned her look with bland innocence, cocking her head in question. "What's next?"

The older woman hesitated, as though speculating, then she pointed towards a spit with a pig twirling, it's body firmly twined. "Attend to that….and be careful. It's for the master's table." She smiled thinly. "He's been known to behead people who misuse their spices."

Oh. Great. Gabrielle trudged over to the table, where two other cooks were working, both older. One was a short, heavyset man with a neatly trimmed beard, the other was a slim, tiny woman with elfin features and a cap of dark hair. The woman glanced up and gave her a grim smile as she approached. "Hi."

The man looked up from his slicing task and nodded, then went back to his work. The woman merely clucked her tongue.

Gabrielle sighed, and picked up a knife.


Xena found herself escorted as she left the busy kitchen, and started back across towards the barn. The adjutant matched strides with her, remaining silent for a long moment before speaking.

"So…you've wormed your way in, have you?"

Xena debated ignoring him, then sighed. "You asked me to do something, I did it. You have a problem with that?"

"I have a problem with talented and beautiful horse trainers springing up out of nowhere… who find themselves a place inside this army like this." He snapped his fingers. "Let's just say I'm a suspicious sort of fellow, hmm?"

Xena stopped and faced him. "Look.. I passed your general's test… I don't think I need to explain myself to every pissant major domo who trips around here." She put one hand on her hip and tucked her packages under her arm.

His face changed, becoming a mask. "He tested you?"

"That's right." Xena affirmed. "So back off."

He ducked his head stiffly. "Very well." Then he turned on his heel and left, striding through the dusty courtyard without a backward glance.

Xena watched him go, then shook her head in bewilderment. She started walking across the yard again, but found her attention drawn to the drilling soldiers, a group of which were going through sword routines just in front of where she was.

Paired off, the men were attacking each other with blunted practice swords, displaying a robust knowledge of their craft, and performing some respectable moves with skill and strength. Xena watched their footwork, impressed despite herself, and studied the sword master who was teaching them with interest.

Tall, taller than she was, and well built, with the smooth, rippling musculature of a professional soldier. His moves were smooth, and very skilled as he demonstrated, and she felt a pang of jealous regret as he performed a reverse move she'd been having a world of trouble with two nights previous.

Abruptly, her neck hairs prickled, and she forced herself not to turn around as she felt a presence at her back, and her defenses snapped up edgily.

"What do you think?" Andreas' silky voice inquired. "Of my warriors?" He circled Xena and rested his forearms against the low wall she'd stopped behind.

Xena watched the drills a moment more. "They look pretty good to me… but I'm really not one to judge."She reluctantly turned her head to look at him, seeing his hazel eyes watching her intently.

"Ah.. come now, Paladar… someone who has lived with armies.. surely you know a good swordsman when you see one." He smiled at her, his beard moving across his face as the muscles stretched under it. "Don't disappoint me by saying you keep your head strictly in the stable."

Dangerous. Smart, crafty, and dangerous. Xena made a small nod of concession. "Your swords master is very good."

That got a soft chuckle. "That's better."He turned an eye towards the group. "Do you partake, perhaps?" He reached for her free hand and turned it upmost, drawing a finger over the calluses on her palm, causing a shiver to run down her spine.

Xena was glad she hadn't had time to rebuild the most distinctive of them. "A little bit… enough to know now to cut my own arm off." She allowed. "You never know when it comes in handy."

"Hm…. " He eyed her speculatively. "Brack… come here, and bring two of those practice swords." His voice lifted, and directed itself to the swordsmaster, who jerked in response, not realizing he was being watched.He picked up two of the requested items and trotted over quickly, ducking his head in obedience to Andreas before handing him the swords hilt first.

"M'lord… as you wish… do you find fault with the quality?" His voice was anxious, and Xena found that curiously disappointing in such a large, powerful looking man.

"No no…my faithful hound… I simply wish to have a friendly bout with our new master..or should I say, mistress of horses here." Andreas tilted his hand, and offered Xena one of the swords. "Paladar.. will you indulge me?"

Xena realized she'd been put in a very small corner. Reluctantly, she put her herbs down, and let her fingers close over the hilt, trying to figure out what he was looking for… was it competence, or the lack of it?

Could she short-circuit her reflexes enough to convince him of the latter? Or were her skills even now far too ingrained in her subconscious or her to pull that off? She stepped back uncertainly as he came at her, and then it was a moot point.

Reflexes honed over a lifetime of being a warrior responded to the attack without thought, outside her conscious control as she parried his attack and reversed it back onto him, adjusting to the unfamiliar weight of the practice sword with ease borne of long years spent working with all kinds of weapons.

"A bit, Paladar?" Andreas laughed softly. "You are too modest." He came at her again, his own skills more than adequate, and she found herself increasing her response, her body rising to the challenge as the fire erupted inside her guts. She dodged his next swing and reversed her body, then switched hands and took his sword out of his grip with a short, digging stroke that ducked under his defenses.

The metal rang dully on the ground, in a thundering silence.

With an agile kick, Andreas booted it back up to his hand, and twirled it, then stalked her, his eyes brilliant with intrigue. He came in harder this time, his blows short and savage, and she felt her body click into synch, slipping past him and evading his charge as she ducked under his return swing, and caught it on her sword, her arms holding easily.

She shoved back, and whirled, accepting his thrust against her blade, and twisting it, causing the strike to fly off at an angle and giving her an opening. She feinted right, then powered left, bringing her hands together on her sword hilt and hitting his weapon full force, sending it flying out of his hands to bound across the earth with a dull rattle.

He stared at her, momentarily nonplussed.

I think I just did something very, very stupid. Xena silently cursed herself. Her eyes flicked to the two main entrances to the encampment, and she started figuring angles. She watched Andreas' face as he studied her, a slow, cruel smile crossing it that made her defenses stand up and scream, and put an trembling edge to her muscles as her body hovered over an deadly explosion.

But he merely chuckled. "A woman of many skills indeed." He commented mildly. " Wouldn't you say, Brack?"

The swordsmaster let out what was apparently a held breath. "Aye, M'lord."

"Put her in drill rotation." Andreas ordered quietly, then gave Xena a smile. "I use all of my resources, Paladar… waste is a terrible thing. Until this evening?" He chuckled, then padded away, his muscular frame moving with a solid, lilting step. Abruptly he stopped, then turned. "I'm so looking forward to it."

Then he was gone, disappearing into the sun's glare as he headed towards the adjutant's office.

Xena let out a breath, then turned and offered the swordsmaster her practice weapon. "Here."

He took it, studying her intently. "We have drill in the morning, just after breakfast. Donít be late, unless you like running."

Surprisingly, Xena felt herself settle down, as her native feistiness reared its head. Just who in Hades did these wet behind the ears bits of centaur fodder think they were, anyway? "I love running." She responded dryly. "And I'm not a morning person." Then she picked up her herbs and stalked off towards the stable, thinking hard.

Okay. She'd just had her first swordfight in over a year, short though it was.

Against a very dangerous, very crafty opponent, who frankly scared the boots off her.

She'd won.

Rather easily, in fact, and that meant… maybe what had been missing all along during her sparring sessions was the sheer challenge of competition. The fire inside that put a fierce edge on her reflexes, and almost.. almost had forced a low laugh from her lips as she fought.

Duh. Xena actually slapped herself in the head, as she entered the barn. How could she have forgotten that? Her body was still tingling with it.

Had he sensed that? Had she given herself away? Who else had seen?She was so busy ordering her thoughts she didn't see the hands waiting to grab her until too late.

The warrior was thrown against the wall, the hard wood rattling under her weight, as bodies pressed against her, and a sharp pricking tickled her skin from the pitchfork leaning right against her jugular. She stared, shocked, into Gaese' determined eyes and went quite, quite still.

"We know who you are." The stable hand growled.

"Do you?" Xena breathed, feeling the forks points pierce her skin.

"Aye… and we're going to spit ye like a lamb before we let ye join him." Gaese vowed.

Continued in Part 4


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