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Chapter 7- 12

by Dr.Bob


Xena, Gabrielle, and any other characters not of my creation are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.

This story focuses on two women who love each other a great deal but are afraid to admit those feelings to the other. A consequence of this is a lot of pent up sexual frustration. There are some explicit scenes showing how they try to deal with this frustration. If this type of story is illegal where you live or you are under the age of consent, you really shouldn't read it. This story also contains scenes of strong violence and some adult language. If you feel any of these things would bother you, read no further.

[Author's note: I would, at this time, like to make a short blanket statement. In no way, shape, or form, do I now or have I ever felt that a woman NEEDS any type of phallic object for her own gratification. Okay. That's it. Call it......damage control.]

Chapter 7:

Gabrielle awoke the next morning, surprised to see Xena still asleep in the other bed. Quietly, she got up and folded the sheets on her own bed, noting pleasantly that there were no stains present. She looked over at the older woman. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Xena looking that peaceful. She tip­toed out of the bedroom, carefully shutting the door behind her.

As she made her way to the kitchen, she noticed that the door opposite from it was open. As she drew closer, she could hear the sound of gentle singing. Judging by the deep baritone voice, it had to be Wylan. She poked her head in and saw Wylan sitting in a rocker, holding Trianna in his arms. The girl was half­asleep.

She looked around at the contents of the room. In the center was a waist high table covered with a large white sheet. There was a small cot against the far wall. Over the cot, there were several bundles of leaves and flowers hanging from pegs on the wall. A large oak cabinet against the adjacent wall held all manner of labeled pots, jars, and vials. A tall bookshelf stood in one corner, full of books and scrolls from floor to ceiling. Wylan sat in front of a desk under a curtained window. He was heating a small pot over the flame of an oil lamp.

When he noticed Gabrielle, he smiled, waved her closer and whispered, "Good morning, how did you sleep?"

"Like a baby. Would it be okay if I fix breakfast? I want to surprise Xena."

Wylan replied, "Sure. Look in the larder. There's a box with some cinnamon muffins in it and a jar of honey on the top shelf. You can warm the muffins on the stove."

Gabrielle's mouth was already watering. "Do you want me to fix some for you and the children?"

"No thank you. I need to keep an eye on this," he said, nodding towards the pot. "I'll fix our breakfast when the kids are ready to wake up. You know the old saying 'let sleeping demons lie'."

Gabrielle smirked at him and then made her way to the kitchen. Shortly after, she returned to the kid's room with a large tray holding a plate of the steaming breads, a small cup of honey, and two mugs of cold water. She noticed Xena was still not awake. She came over and gently placed the tray on the table between the two beds. She then sat on the edge of her own bed, staring at her friend. She thought about what Xena had told her the night before. She wished she could tell Xena how she really did feel. How her love for the woman had grown beyond simple friendship or feelings of family. She thought of maybe discussing it with Wylan. She knew, regardless of how she felt, Xena meant the world to her and she couldn't risk losing her.

She looked over and noticed Xena take a deep breath and open her eyes, fully awake. She showed none of the sluggishness most people experienced for a few seconds after waking. She rolled on her side, looked over at Gabrielle and smiled softly. "Good morning. What smells so good?"

"Breakfast in bed." She lay out a napkin in front of Xena and then handed her a muffin after tracing the top with a spoonful of the honey.

"Don't get me wrong. I appreciate this, but I thought you said you'd get me back if you ever woke up before I did." Xena bit into the warm bread and savored the sweet aroma and taste.

Gabrielle looked across at her with a wicked grin and replied, "Yeah, well you really don't know what I put in those muffins, do you?"

Xena stopped chewing and looked up with suspicion, and mild alarm, as she noticed Gabrielle hadn't taken a bite yet. She quickly reached for the large earthenware mug of water.

When Gabrielle noticed her friend had taken her seriously, she stood and put a hand on Xena's arm and said reassuringly, "Whoa Xena, I was kidding. They're just Wylan's cinnamon muffins. I would never really do something like that to you," she leaned closer and gave Xena a gentle kiss on her cheek. She then sat back down on her own bed and took a bite of one of the sweet breads.

Xena smiled apologetically, "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I know you wouldn't. Thanks again for the breakfast." They sat and ate quietly, enjoying the meal.

Wylan spent the day showing them around the village. Gabrielle helped around the house and watched the children while Wylan and Xena discussed their plans concerning the bandits with some of the other village leaders. That night, they all ate together in one of the warehouses. Several large tables had been brought in and the building now more resembled a banquet hall.

After dinner, at Caspius and Trianna's insistence, Gabrielle gathered the other children around the fire which had been built near the front of the building and began telling them stories. Xena excused herself from the table and made her way to the doorway of the warehouse, where she leaned against one of the huge open doors and watched her friend weave her spell on the children. She noted amusedly that each one sat quietly, enthralled by Gabrielle's words and gestures. She then looked back to Gabrielle. "The woman certainly has a gift," she thought to herself not for the first time. She wondered, sadly, if Gabrielle wouldn't be better off at a bard's academy instead of risking her life with her almost every day,

Her thoughts were interrupted when Wylan came near. He handed her a cup of wine, saying, "She really is something, isn't she?"

Xena sipped at the cool liquid and replied, "That she is. I was just wondering if she wouldn't be better off someplace else, away from me and out of harm's way."

"I can tell you exactly what she'd say if you'd ask her. Is there any other reason why you'd wonder that?"

Xena didn't say anything as she continued to stare at Gabrielle. After a moment, she handed Wylan the still full cup. "I'm gonna take a look around the edge of the village. I'll be back later," she walked off towards the northern end of town.

Wylan noticed Gabrielle's look of concern as she watched Xena walk into the darkness. He had watched the two of them since that morning. He noticed the way they looked at one another. It was obvious that each cared a great deal about the other, but there was also a hint of sadness in their feelings; like Xena's mood a moment before. He thought he was beginning to understand what was going on, but he didn't feel confident enough to bring up the subject with either of them. He returned to the table with the others.

Later that night, Xena returned to Wylan's home after brushing down Argo and feeding her an apple. She went in and locked the front door behind her. She was surprised to find Gabrielle still awake. The woman was sitting in her bed holding one of Trianna's dolls.

She asked softly, "Xena, where were you? I've been worried about you."

"I had to patrol the perimeter. You know about the bandits. I told Wylan where I was going," Xena quickly changed into the robe she'd worn the night before.

Gabrielle noticed that while Xena was changing, she didn't get excited like the previous night. She was more concerned with the way her friend had been acting. This made her realize, even more, that what she felt for Xena went beyond simple physical attraction. She replied softly, "I know you told Wylan, but you could have told me."

"Sorry," the older woman replied as she went behind the partition. After she'd bathed herself, she came back around and saw that Gabrielle still hadn't moved since she'd returned. She suddenly felt guilty, realizing that she'd actually hurt the woman's feelings.

She made her way over to Gabrielle's bed and sat facing her. She said genuinely, "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I didn't mean to worry you." She gently laid her hand on her friend's arm.

Gabrielle looked up at the woman. "What's bothering you Xena? I saw how you looked when you left the warehouse. I asked Wylan and he just shrugged and said I'd have to ask you. You looked the same way when you came in here. Talk to me, let me help."

Xena stared down at the doll for a few moments before replying, "Gabrielle, I've been wondering if maybe you'd be better off some place else. Instead of always being in danger around me."

Gabrielle didn't want to believe what she was hearing. "Is that what this is all about?" she asked loudly. "You want to get rid of me?!? Didn't you mean any of the things you told me last night!?" She stood and threw the doll against the wall. "If you want me to leave, just say it!" She stood facing away from Xena with her arms crossed.

Xena was shocked at the anger and pain in Gabrielle's voice. She went over to where the woman was standing. "Gabrielle, I didn't mean..."

When she didn't turn her, Xena gently spun her around, facing her. "Gabrielle, look at me."

Gabrielle reluctantly looked up at her, tears running down her face. Xena could still see the anger there despite the tears.

"Gabrielle, I didn't say I wanted you to leave. I just get worried that something will happen to you one day and it'll be because you were with me. I don't know what I'd do."

Gabrielle asked with no sign of anger, "You don't want me to go?"

Xena hugged her tightly and said, "No I don't want you to go. I meant what I said last night. I don't want you to leave me."

Gabrielle rested her head against Xena's shoulder, now crying once more. "I don't want to leave you either Xena. I love you." As soon as the words left her mouth she wished she could take them back. This wasn't the way she wanted to tell her. Not to accidentally blurt it out in a fit of emotion.

Xena just said softly, "I know, I love you too. I'm sorry I upset you so much."

There was a soft knock at the door. Xena went over while Gabrielle sat back on her bed, wiping the tears from her face. She realized that Xena had heard the words but not the meaning behind them. It made her relieved and sad at the same time.

Xena opened the door a crack to see Wylan standing in the hall, looking concerned. "Is everything okay?" he asked. He could see that Xena appeared on the verge of tears. Something he had NEVER thought he'd see.

"We're fine Wylan. I'm sorry we woke you up," she replied, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Good night then." He turned and went back to his room as she shut the door.

She wiped her eyes one more time before turning around. She went back and sat on her own bed facing Gabrielle. The woman continued to stare down at the floor at nothing in particular.

Finally, Gabrielle spoke, "Xena, I want you to promise me that if something is bothering you, we'll talk about it. I don't want us holding anything back from each other." She suddenly realized how hypocritical she was being by not telling Xena how she felt about her.

Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand reassuringly, "I promise. From now on, we'll be open about everything. I don't want us to argue anymore." She felt the same as Gabrielle, though she was still afraid to tell the woman how she felt.

She leaned closer and kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. "Good night," she blew out the lamp and lay down in the bed, facing the wall. Gabrielle lay down in her bed facing the other direction.

Both continued to lie there, wide awake, wondering about how they were going to deal with the feelings each thought they had to keep from the other.

Chapter 8:

The next morning, Xena awoke early and changed back into her armor. She looked over at Gabrielle, still asleep on her stomach. As she was about to leave, she sighed and walked over to stand next to the woman's bed. She leaned closer and brushed the hair off of Gabrielle's face, causing the woman to wiggle her nose slightly. She realized again how cute the bard was. She was about to wake her up when she stopped and looked around the room. She walked over to a large chest against the wall and began looking around inside. She pulled out a rumpled piece of parchment and a small red piece of chalk. As legibly as she could, she wrote Gabrielle a note explaining where she was going and that she wouldn't be long. She left it on the table next to the bed. She leaned over, gently kissed her on the forehead, and then quietly left the room.

She entered the kitchen and found Wylan sitting at the table, reading a book. He said softly, "Hey, good morning. You want some tea or something?"

Xena smiled and shook her head, "I want to ride and look at those hills. Maybe I'll spot something."

Wylan closed the book, "You want some company?"

Xena was about to say no, but instead replied, "Sure. That would be nice."

"Alright, I'll meet you in the barn," Wylan got up and made his way to his room. Xena filled her waterskin and then walked outside to the barn.

As she saddled Argo, Wylan entered. She noticed he had a long, wide­bladed dagger strapped to his right thigh and a bow and quiver across his back. "You expecting trouble?" she asked.

Wylan saddled his own horse. "Nope. Just in case I see any game out there."

"What about Caspius and Trianna?"

"They'll be asleep for another couple of hours and they know where the food is. They'll be fine."

The two rode north on the path in the direction of the hills. They soon crossed the main road and stopped at the wide field which led into the foothills. Wylan turned to Xena and asked, "You and Gabrielle had an argument last night or something?"

Xena replied without looking at him, "No, it was nothing. I'm sorry again we woke you up."

"Look Xena, if you wanna talk about it...."

Xena cut him off. "I think I see something in that clearing over there," she spurred Argo towards the spot near the foot of a large hill.

Wylan stared after her. "I guess that means no," he said to himself as he turned his horse to follow her. He reached her shortly and found her kneeling over the remains of a small campfire. He could see threadlike wisps of smoke rising from the ashes.

"The ashes are still warm," she commented, looking around the area. "I guess at least two or three people, maybe more."

Wylan dismounted and began walking around a nearby copse of trees until he found what he was looking for. "Fresh horse droppings over here. I'd say at least three animals. No sign of wagon or cart tracks."

Xena came over. "You think they were bandits, maybe a scouting party sent to observe the village?"

Wylan shrugged, "Could've been anybody, hard to say. We'll tell the others to be alert just in case. Do you wanna head back?"

Xena shook her head, "I wanna look around some more." She got back on Argo and looked at Wylan, "You can head back if you're nervous."

Wylan just shrugged his shoulders. "Hey, suits me. I still haven't gotten my twelve­point stag yet."

They both headed into the hills.

Gabrielle awoke to find two grotesque faces out of her worst nightmares staring down at her. She screamed and pushed herself backwards against the headboard. Trianna took off her mask and moved towards her. "Gabrielle, it's just us." Caspius kept his mask on, looking back and forth between Gabrielle and his sister.

Feeling extremely foolish, Gabrielle shot forward and grabbed them both tickling them mercilessly. "Oh you thought that was funny, huh? How do you like that?"

Both children were giggling hysterically. Gabrielle stopped when their faces began turning red. "Okay you two, I think you've learned your lesson." She quickly glanced around the room and then asked them, "Do you know where Xena is?"

Caspius jumped off the bed and handed her the paper from off the table. "Father isn't here either. We found this, but we couldn't read all of it."

Gabrielle read the note aloud and then turned to the children, "How about we fix some food for when they get back?"

Both kids nodded happily.

"Okay, go change clothes and I'll meet you in the kitchen."

Xena and Wylan returned an hour later. Gabrielle and the children met them as they were coming out of the barn. Wylan handed Caspius the unstrung bow and Trianna the quiver.

Gabrielle noticed the sack Wylan was carrying. She could see the blood staining the bottom. "What's that?" she asked hesitantly.

Before Wylan could reply, Xena said, "Gabrielle, that is a twelve­point stag."

She looked confusedly at Wylan who scowled at Xena and replied, "Do shut up, would you?"

He led them into the kitchen where he began cleaning the hare he'd killed earlier.

Gabrielle asked Xena as the woman washed her hands, "Did you find anything?"

"Not really. Wylan was right though. Those hills are like a minotaur's maze." She sat and ate a bite of the bacon Gabrielle had cooked earlier.

After he finished with the hare, Wylan washed up and sat with them at the table. He helped himself to some of the bacon and milk bread. Several minutes later, there was an urgent rapping at the door. Wylan got up to answer it and Xena followed him as far as the hallway.

Wylan opened the door and greeted the excited looking man, "Termanus, what's wrong?"

Xena remembered meeting the man briefly the day before. He'd seemed nice enough, but something was obviously bothering him now.

The man stuttered slightly, too excited to speak clearly, "Wylan, you've got to come quickly. Esmerelda's giving birth and something's wrong."

Wylan ran into his study and grabbed a large bag. He quickly looked over the shelves of the cabinet and threw in a few jars and a bundle of leaves off the wall.

Xena asked him as he was leaving, "You need some help?"

He nodded to her and they both followed Termanus across the village. Xena was puzzled when they reached the man's house but continued past it towards the barn. They came upon a crowd of people gathered around a stall. As they made their way through, Xena saw there was a woman kneeling next to a horse on its side. She turned to Wylan, "You mean Esmerelda's a horse?"

Wylan nodded without looking at her. "Xena, I want you to hold her down by the neck. I need to see what's wrong with the colt."

Xena could hear the wheezing of the animal as she draped herself

lightly across the horse's neck while rubbing its mane. Wylan lay down sideways behind the animal and slowly inserted one arm up to the elbow. Then, he did the same with the other. The horse jerked slightly and Xena pressed its head back down while speaking soothingly to it.

"Shit! The colt's almost sideways. I think it's pressing against her lungs. I'm gonna have to straighten it out by hand. Termanus, get behind Xena and help hold Esmerelda down. She isn't gonna like this."

The man complied and Wylan pushed his arms up as far as he could while doing his best to keep his face out of the horse's rear. The animal snorted loudly. "I think I got it, he's straight now. Hold on," he pulled backwards and Xena could make out the front hooves of the colt.

The horse snorted loudly again and the newborn shot out onto Wylan. Everyone cheered as the small animal rolled over and managed to take a few wobbly steps before crouching down next to its mother. Wylan stood and motioned for them to let the horse up. The mare rose and lowered her muzzle to the colt. Wylan bent close to the horse and placed his ear next to its side. After a moment, he stood up and turned to Termanus. "I think she's okay. I want you to keep an eye on her for the next few hours. Let me know if she starts acting funny."

Several people pat him on the back as he left. Xena followed him

out. She turned to him as they left the crowd behind. "That was pretty amazing."

Wylan shrugged while looking down at himself. He was covered in afterbirth. "No big deal. Hey Xena, how about a hug?"

She took a few steps back and raised a fist at him, "Don't even try it."

He handed her his bag. "Do me a favor and bring this back to the house. I suddenly feel in the mood for a swim." He turned and headed for the lake.

Xena returned to the house and filled in Gabrielle and the children on what happened. Wylan returned a short while later, soaking wet. The kids brought him a towel and a set of clothes which he took out to the barn to change.

The excitement eventually died down. Peace and quiet returned to the village, until later that night when the bandits attacked.

Chapter 9:

The near­full moon shone brightly off the placid surface of the lake. A gentle breeze stirred the lilting branches of the willow tree near the water's shore. Under which, a young couple enjoyed a secluded moment.

"My mother would skin me alive if she caught me out here with you," the girl exclaimed quietly.

The young man looked down at the girl, playing with a curl of her light brown hair. "I'm sure she'd do worse to me. You're worth the risk though. Besides, we're far enough away. No one will see us."

"I'm glad you didn't have sentry duty tonight."

"Me too. But from what I understand, Wylan's friend, Xena, is gonna help us with the bandits. Maybe we can get rid of them once and for all." He looked off in the direction of Wylan's home. "Boy, I sure wouldn't mine seeing her in a fight."

The girl slapped him playfully on the arm, "Hey, you think she's pretty, don't you?!?"

"Xena? Nahhhhh. I think she's ugly." He made a slight grimace. "But, you know? Her little friend's kinda cute."

"Oh really?!? Well let's see if I can take your mind off of her." She placed her hand behind his head and lowered his mouth to hers. She lightly traced her tongue across his lips and then pulled back. "You were saying?"

He kissed her again and slowly slid his hand under her clothes, gently cupping one of her small breasts. She moaned and began unlacing her shirt.

A small splash echoed across the shore followed by the sound of a heron flapping off hurriedly in the distance, causing the man to look up. "Did you hear that?"

The girl pulled at his chin with her fingers. "Relax Hadrius, it's just a fish or something." Another soft splash followed by another. "Hadrius, what..."

"Shhhh," the man covered the woman's mouth as he scanned the surface of the lake. Everything seemed calm. He could see the patches of lilies floating across the water, silhouetted against the light from the moon and village torches. He knew something was wrong, but he couldn't determine exactly what. Then realization struck him. The lilies were moving towards the village. At night, the current should be pushing them in the other direction, towards the mouth of the river. He could then make out several figures as they began to emerge from the water's surface. He could also see the glint of steel in their hands.

He turned to the girl and said urgently, "Vereena, I want you to hide behind the tree and not come out till I come get you. Do you understand?"

The girl nodded, wide­eyed.

Hadrius grabbed his short sword and started for the village. He could now make out at least a dozen figures at the water's edge. They began moving slowly towards the houses. Hadrius reached under his shirt and grabbed the reed whistle suspended from a chord around his neck. "I'm glad I left this on," he thought to himself. He put it to his lips and blew as hard as he could, sending a series of shrill whistles through the night air. He continued blowing the whistle as he came closer to the village, noticing that a few of the figures were now running towards him. "Oh shit!" He drew his sword and set himself for the approaching figures. As he blew on the whistle, an odd thought passed through his head, "I hope I don't hyperventilate and blackout before they reach me." He continued blowing on the whistle as he raised his sword.

Wylan sat down with the others at the kitchen table. "I tell you what. If you kids eat all your vegetables, I'll go show you the colt."

Caspius and Trianna exchanged excited glances and began shoveling the beans into their mouths.

Wylan scolded them, suddenly concerned they would choke. "Hey, hey, hey! Slow down. He's not going anywhere."

"So, how did you get to be an animal doctor too?" Gabrielle asked as she took another serving of chicken.

Wylan shrugged. "One day, one of my patients brought me his goat that he'd accidentally shot with his bow. I mended its leg and there you have it. Animals and people have a lot in common as far as anatomy. I just find people, in general, to be a lot dumber."

"Now that's kind of..." Gabrielle stopped in mid­sentence as she heard a high pitched whistle coming from outside. "What's that?"

Wylan and Xena were already up and moving towards the front door. Wylan hollered without turning around, "Kids, you know what to do!"

Gabrielle watched as Caspius and his sister ran into Wylan's room and shut the door. She saw Xena strapping on her sword and chakram. Wylan crouched in front of a long chest near the door and pulled out the largest mace she had ever seen. It was made entirely of iron and was easily two and a half feet long. A large studded head sat on one end while the other had a tight leather grip ending in a strap which Wylan placed around his right wrist.

Xena looked at him with a wicked grin. "You still got that thing, huh?"

Wylan returned the grin as he opened the door. "I couldn't get rid of old `Painless', now could I?"

Gabrielle grabbed her staff from behind the door and followed the two outside.

"The whistles came from the lake!! They must've swam across." Wylan turned to Gabrielle before continuing, "Gabrielle, stay in front of this door. Protect my children for me," He then grabbed the large torches which stood on each side of his walkway and threw them into the birdbath, extinguishing them.

Xena gently placed her palm against Gabrielle's cheek. "Be careful, okay?"

Gabrielle touched Xena's hand and nodded. Then the swordswoman took off after Wylan in the direction of the fighting.

She soon caught up to the man as someone called his name from the north side of the village. They both turned to see Termanus coming towards them, holding a long curved dagger. "Wylan! They're coming from the south. I'll call everyone to come towards the lake" He turned and started to head back towards the northern end of the village.

Xena was about to say something when Wylan beat her to it. "No, Termanus!! Tell the guards to keep watch as they are. We'll handle this end!"

Termanus seemed confused, but obeyed anyway.

Wylan turned to Xena who nodded approvingly. They both turned towards the fighting. They could see about a dozen villagers standing against a score or so of bandits. Still more of the brigands could be seen exiting the water. Wylan and Xena rushed forward to meet several of the bandits who were flanking the villagers and making their way towards the market area.

Wylan turned his attention to the closest man who was running directly at him with a sword held overhead in both hands. As the man started to bring his sword down, Wylan brought his foot up and connected with the bandit's face. The man's momentum caused him to somersault backwards, dropping his sword and landing face first in the dirt. He was unconscious before he hit the ground. Wylan brought up the mace and blocked the sword of another of the bandits. He noticed this one had a scar running from the bridge of his nose down to the right side of his jaw. Wylan quickly brought his left leg behind the man and grabbed him by the throat with his left hand. In one motion, he shoved the bandit, up, backwards, and then down, slamming him to the ground, hard. As Wylan straightened, he bolted backwards to avoid the horizontal sweep of another sword aimed at his gut. He brought the large head of the mace down onto the wielder's elbow, and was immediately rewarded with the sound of crunching bone and the bandit's scream of agony. As the man bent over to pick up his weapon with his good arm, Wylan grabbed the back of the man's head and brought his knee up to connect with his face. The bandit flew back a few feet. Wylan looked down to see the bandit with the scar pull a dagger from his belt. He quickly brought the mace around in an extended vertical sweep and connected with the side of scarface's head, causing the bandit's neck to break and his head to rest at an impossible angle. He heard Xena's familiar battle cry and spared a glance over in her direction.

Xena deflected an overhead swing from one of the bandits and then fluidly landed a crescent kick to the side of his head, spinning him like a child's top before he finally dropped. Another large man lunged at her midsection with his sword. Xena side­stepped the blade and brought the hilt of her own sword down on the man's temple, dropping him immediately. She took a second to look over towards Wylan. She watched him duck under a sword and then bring Painless up into the bandit's chest. She could hear the crunch of his sternum as it caved in. She realized that Wylan hadn't lost any of his skill or speed over the years, regardless of his size. She looked up to see a sneering bandit with a bright red tattoo over half his face running towards her with a large axe. She crouched down low with her legs poised below her, waiting for the man to get a little closer. As soon as he was in position, she launched herself up and forward. As she extended her right leg straight, she felt a hard pull near her crotch followed by an intense stinging pain. She followed through with the kick and her foot connected squarely with the man's nose. She felt it break as he screamed and fell over backwards. She looked down at the man as blood spilled out from under his cupped hands. She gave him a boot to the head, knocking him unconscious. She gingerly took a few steps, walking off the pain between her legs. She then heard another series of whistles coming from the northern end of the village. She and Wylan looked at each other as he came closer.

"I knew they'd attack on both sides!!" he screamed. "Xena, can you hold this end?" She nodded and then he continued, "I'll take the north end and..." he stopped and grabbed the top of Xena's head with his left hand, pushing down. He brought the mace across in a forehand swing with his right, knocking the bandit behind Xena sideways.

Xena grabbed his outstretched hand and he pulled her back up. "Thanks."

Wylan nodded and took off for the other end of the village.

Chapter 10:

Gabrielle could hear the fighting, even though she couldn't see it. She then heard another set of the shrill alarm whistles coming from the northern section of the village. Soon, she saw several villagers and bandits fighting their way through the center of the market area. It seemed as if the villagers were outnumbered. She took a few steps forward, and then remembered Wylan's request. She couldn't leave his house unguarded. Then she saw a large figure running from the southern end of town towards the fighting. She immediately realized it was Wylan. She looked around but didn't see Xena anywhere. She let out a sigh of relief when she heard her friend's familiar battle cry echo through the night.

She returned her gaze to the market area where several of the bandits were now running straight for Wylan. She watched as he never broke his stride. He met the first and swung his mace backhanded. He connected with the man's head, sending a jet of blood upwards in an arc. Gabrielle winced at the sight. The next closest bandit tried to cut Wylan's legs out from under him. Nimbly, for someone of his bulk, Wylan jumped over the sword and continued straight for the next two dark­clad figures. As he reached them, he spun in place and brought the large iron mace around in a two­handed sweep. He connected with the first bandit's head and the second's wrist. The first man dropped without a sound while the other screamed as he watched his sword go flying off into the bushes. He looked up as Wylan brought his fist down into his face. He also went down without another sound. After quickly scanning ahead of him, Wylan turned to face the man who had tried to make him a few feet shorter. He advanced on the bandit with a feral grin. The man held his sword in both hands vertically in front of him, expecting Wylan to swing sideways at his head, Instead, Wylan lunged forward with the mace outstretched as if it were a rapier. The mace connected with the sword and both pushed backwards into the man's face, causing him to step backwards. While not having much force, it was enough to momentarily disorient him. Wylan advanced and brought the mace up in both hands. The man shook his head and looked up. He raised his sword horizontally to block the descending weapon. Wylan grinned wickedly as he brought the iron mace down with all his might, snapping the blade of the sword and connecting with the top of the man's skull. Wylan watched as dark blood shot out from the man's nose and mouth; his head partially receding into his chest like a giant tortoise. The still­kneeling corpse slowly fell over onto its back. Wylan took a second to catch his breath as he scanned the village.

Gabrielle stood there with her eyes bulging and mouth wide open. She found it hard to believe that this was the same man whom she'd seen gently singing to his daughter the previous morning. She had wondered earlier why a man his size wouldn't use a sword. She had assumed he preferred the mace because it was more humane. "Boy, was I wrong," she thought. She watched as he made his way to the other end of the square where the villagers were still fighting some of the other bandits.

She gasped as she saw three dark figures come out of the shadows a short distance away and make their way to the house directly across the road from her. Gabrielle watched as one of them kicked in the door. She could hear a woman's scream come from inside. Without hesitation, she took a step forward and yelled, "Hey, you lookin' for something!?!"

The three ugly figures turned towards her and leered greedily. Somewhere in the back of her mind she thought, "Was this really such a good idea?"

One of the bandits yelled, "First serve, first come!!" and all three ran straight for her, sensing an easy target. Gabrielle swallowed and turned sideways. Without being obvious, she braced the butt­end of her staff against the door jamb. She watched as the fastest of the three outdistanced the other two. She stood unmoving, holding the staff near its top end. As he was almost on top of her, she crouched, slid her hands down the staff and brought the end up to connect with his jaw. The door frame shook slightly as the man went stiff and landed flat on his back, unconscious.

After seeing what had happened to their comrade, the other two slowed and redrew their swords as they reevaluated their quarry.

Gabrielle looked down at the prone bandit and then at the remaining two. "Oh well. I doubt that'll work again," she thought as she slowly advanced towards the two, wanting to give herself swinging room. She watched as the pair spread out, obviously hoping to flank her on each a side. She decided to do the last thing they'd expect, attack. She feinted at the one on the right, and then using her body weight as leverage, brought the end of the staff back down at the bandit on the left, hoping she'd judged the distance right. The staff connected with the bandit's skull, making a dull thud sound. She smiled as she watched him drop. She spun to regain her balance as she felt a stinging pain in her upper right arm. She turned to see the remaining bandit standing closer than she expected him to be. Even though she saw it, the fresh blood on his sword didn't register in her mind. She jammed the butt­end of the staff onto the base of his shin. As he bent over to grab his foot, she kicked him in the face as hard as she could. He fell over backwards near the birdbath. As he moaned and started to get up, Gabrielle took a step closer and brought the staff down on his head, knocking him cold. She stood over him and muttered, "Sonofabitch," kicking him lightly. She felt a little light­headed. "Probably too much exertion," she thought. She stood back in front of the door. She suddenly noticed that she couldn't hear fighting anymore as she looked up and saw Xena running from the direction of the lake.

As the woman came closer, she saw the three figures lying on the ground and Gabrielle standing by the door where'd they left her. "Hey, how'd I do?" the younger woman asked her.

Xena smiled as she examined the one right in front of Gabrielle. "You did real good. Have you..." Her eyes went wide as she looked up closely at her friend for the first time. "By the Gods!! Gabrielle, your arm!!"

The girl looked down to her arm as the swordswoman came by her side. She could see it was covered with something that looked dark black in the moonlight. "How'd I get tar on my arm?" she thought to herself. Xena was running her hands over her arm which did feel a little numb, now that she thought about it.

Gabrielle looked up to see Wylan running over with a torch in one hand and the mace in the other. As the torchlight drew closer, Gabrielle saw the black on her arm change to bright red as she realized she was bleeding badly. "Hey, how'd that happ....," her voice trailed off as she passed out. Xena caught her and picked her up.

"Oh shit! Get her inside!" Wylan dropped the mace and held the door open. Xena carried the girl in and went to his office. Wylan used the torch to light two large oil lamps and then dropped it into a bucket of water on the floor. Xena started to place her on the table when Wylan stopped her. "No, sit her in that chair with her arm flat across the table. Hold the wound tight."

Xena did as she was told and then looked up towards Wylan, who was pulling stuff off of the shelves, "Wylan, we have to stop the bleeding and then..."

Wylan put a handful of things on the table and interrupted her, "Xena, I think I know what I'm doing."

Gabrielle started to come around, "Hey, what's going on?"

Wylan handed Xena a cup of thick brown liquid. "Here, get her to drink this. It'll help with the pain. I'll put something in the wound to help clot the blood."

Xena took the cup and held it up to Gabrielle's lips, coaxing her to take a few sips at a time. "I don't think she's in much pain."

"No, I think she's in shock," Wylan replied as he wiped off the cut. "Gabrielle, this is gonna hurt a little."

Xena knelt next to Gabrielle, placing one hand on her shoulder and holding her hand with the other.

Wylan took a small clean cloth, dipped it into a jar of clear liquid, and then used it to wipe off the gash. As he did so, the wound fizzled a bit. Gabrielle just continued to stare at the wall without moving. Wylan and Xena exchanged glances and then shrugged.

Gabrielle suddenly twitched and shouted "Owww! Owww! Owww! That hurts!!"

Xena leaned closer and spoke soothingly in her ear while gently squeezing her hand, "It's okay Gabrielle, I'm here. Relax." The woman responded and slumped back into the chair,

Wylan finished wiping off the wound and looked at it closely, "It's not as bad as I thought. I'll still need to sew it though."

Gabrielle watched as he pulled out a spool of fine thread and a small semicircular needle, "Oh shit. That's gonna hurt." she said groggily.

Wylan looked at her, "I think the sedative's taking effect." He looked back down at the wound. "I'll keep the stitches small and I'll give you a salve you can apply to help minimize the scarring."

Gabrielle looked at him and asked, "I'm gonna have a scar?"

He immediately said reassuringly, "Don't worry. It won't..."

Gabrielle turned back to Xena and smiled. "You hear that? I'm gonna have my own scar. How about that?"

Xena shook her head slightly and smiled back down at her friend. "Hey. I'm glad you're happy, but let's not make a habit of this, okay?" She leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

Gabrielle looked at her with a funny expression. "Xena, when did you get wings?"

Xena looked at her and then to Wylan. "What in Hades' name did you give her?"

Wylan continued stitching the wound. "Same thing I give horses when I operate on them. Just not as much."

Xena looked at him apprehensively

Gabrielle spoke up, "My father used to say, `You can lead a horse to water, and if he don't drink, you drown the miserable beast'," and then burst out laughing.

Xena turned back to Wylan, "How long does this stuff last?"

"She'll be asleep in no time. Don't worry," Wylan replied. There was a knock at the door. "Go see who that is."

Gabrielle replied, "Okay," and started to rise.

Xena quickly placed a hand on her shoulder. "Not you. You sit still." She returned shortly with Termanus and Wylan's mace. She leaned it against the wall by the door.

Wylan glanced at Termanus and then back to his work. "What's going on?"

"The only serious injury we got is Hadrius. We found him down by the water's edge, unconscious. He's got a bad bruise on the side of his head, but he seems to be breathing fine. We think he was the first one to see the bandits. They had two dead ones near him."

"What about the rest of the bandits?" Wylan made the last stitch and tied off the ends.

"We stuck the bodies in a pile by the lake and we got the living ones under guard in one of the warehouses. There are eight still breathing. Two look like they could go any minute. Only three are conscious."

Wylan stood and looked at Xena. "You wanna put her to bed?"

Xena nodded and helped walk Gabrielle to their room. Wylan shut the door after her and then turned to his room. He opened the door and said, "Ya'll can come out now." Caspius and Trianna poked their heads out from under the bed. "You think you two can wash yourselves and change for bed?" They both crawled out from under the bed and nodded at him. "Okay, I'll be back in a while to tuck you in."

Xena sat Gabrielle down near the basin and helped her off with her bloody clothes. She placed the woman's hair in a pony tail and let it trail down her back. While keeping one arm around her waist to keep her steady, she soaked the washrag in the basin and then brought it up to wash the woman's face and neck. She watched as the water trailed down between Gabrielle's breast and then disappeared under her crotch, wetting the blonde hairs between her legs. Xena suddenly felt guilty; as if she were taking advantage of her friend. She'd had fantasies of bathing Gabrielle before, but not like this. She washed the rest of her off, being careful around the dressing over the cut. After Xena was sure she'd washed off all the blood, she dried Gabrielle and put her robe on. She brought her around and placed her gently in her bed, tucking the sheets in over her chest.

Gabrielle smiled up at her and said quietly, "Thank you."

Xena smiled down tenderly and said, "You're welcome." She leaned closer and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Get some sleep, okay?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Okay."

Xena walked out and quietly shut the door behind her. She walked down the hall to where Wylan was talking with a short, older woman with long grayish­blonde hair. He turned to Xena. "This is Myra from next door. She'll stay and watch over Gabrielle and the kids."

The woman smiled up at Xena and took her hand gently. "You know, your young friend fought off those men when they kicked in my door. She probably saved my life. I don't know how I can ever repay her."

Xena smiled back and asked, "Can you cook?"

The woman straightened herself and nodded, "Of course I can."

"Then I'm sure the two of you will be able to work something out." Xena turned to Wylan, "You ready?"

Wylan nodded and opened the door. He turned back to the other woman as he held it open for Xena, "Thanks again, Myra." He and Xena then made their way towards the warehouses.

Chapter 11:

As they were walking towards the large storehouse, Termanus joined them. "Two more of the bandits died. We put 'em down by the lake with the others."

Wylan asked, "Is everything prepared?" He looped the strap of the mace around his wrist.

Termanus nodded, "Yeah, just like you said."

They reached the warehouse and entered one of the smaller side doors. Xena saw there were several of the villagers standing around one end of the building. Torches were hung in sconces about the room. As they came closer, she saw three of the bandits tied to chairs side by side. She saw another three tied face down on the floor near the wall, apparently unconscious.

Xena studied the three seated men. She recognized the one on the right as the man she'd seen laid out in front of Wylan's house. He had a large bruise on the left side of his jaw. The one in the middle was shaking and wide­eyed. The third was one of the men she'd fought down by the lake.

Wylan came around and faced the prisoners. One of the bandits against the wall moaned and Termanus went to pull him up. Wylan stopped him, "Leave him, he's good where he's at." He put one foot up on an extra chair and let the mace swing back and forth like a pendulum. "Okay, so who's gonna tell me where your camp is?"

The bandit with the bruised jaw shouted at him, "Fuck you!!! We ain't tellin' you shit!! We gonna fuckin' kill everyone in this fuckin' village!!

In two quick strides, Wylan closed the distance to the man and brought his fist up with an uppercut that connected with his jaw, sending bandit and chair sailing backwards several feet.

Xena looked down at the now unconscious man, sure that his jaw was broken. "Well, at least he didn't use the mace," she thought to herself. She turned back as she heard Wylan yell.

"I'M NOT FUCKIN' AROUND HERE!!!" She watched as he brought the heavy iron mace down onto the chair he'd been using as a foot rest. The chair shattered, sending pieces of wood flying everywhere.

The middle bandit suddenly lost control of his bladder and proceeded to make a large puddle under his own chair. Wylan quickly came over, careful where he was stepping, and screamed in the man's face, "Did I tell you you could piss?!"

A few of the villagers started to giggle but a quick glare from Wylan shut them up. He turned back to see that the man had passed out.

He stood up with a sigh of exasperation and looked down at the last man who did his best to look unafraid. "Take him into the storeroom."

Xena came over and cut his ropes. She grabbed him by the back of the neck and pushed him through a nearby door into a small windowless room which held several barrels. She pushed him against the wall and told him to put his hands behind his back. She tied his hands together with a piece of leather cord and then pushed him onto the floor.

As she left, Wylan came in and crouched in front of the bandit. "I have something to check on, but when I come back, the three of us are gonna have a pleasant conversation."

The man looked up confusedly, "The three of us?"

Wylan smiled viciously down at him. "Yeah. You, me, and Painless," he said, waving the mace in front of the man's face. The bandit gulped audibly as Wylan left and shut the door behind him.

Wylan joined the others who all stared at him with a mixture of expressions. He looked around and then down at the last seated man, the urine still dripping slowly to the ground. "Somebody do something about the 'wet bandit' before he stinks up the place, huh?"

He and Xena walked out and met Termanus, who handed Xena a bundle of dark cloth. She tied a piece of the cloth around the hilt of her sword.

Wylan looked up into the sky. "Good, the sky's pretty cloudy. You sure this is gonna work?" He looked back down at Xena.

"Yeah, he should be able to untie that cord."

Termanus spoke up, "And he should have no trouble finding the boards we loosened in the back wall."

Wylan took Xena's hand. "Xena, I want you to be careful, alright? And promise me you're not gonna try and take all the bandits on by yourself."

Xena smiled up at him, "Don't worry, I'll be fine." She turned and started to walk away, but spun back around when Wylan didn't let go of her hand. She looked back at him.

"Xena, promise me," he looked at her with the same stare she'd seen him use on Caspius and Trianna.

"All right, I promise I'll come back for you and I won't go after all the bandits on my own. You happy now?"

He smiled down at her and replied sarcastically, "Ecstatic."

She turned and then disappeared behind the wall of the warehouse.

He turned to Termanus. "Tell everyone who'll be coming to meet in the master stables. I'm going check on Hadrius and then my kids. I'll meet you there in a couple of hours. Remember to keep everyone away from the storeroom and the back of the warehouse."

Termanus walked back into the building and Wylan made his way towards the southern end of the village.

Wylan returned home to find Myra mopping the floor in his office. She'd already cleaned the floor in the hallway. "Myra, you didn't have to do that." He leaned the mace against the wall.

The woman smiled as she finished ringing out the mop over the small bucket of water. "Wylan, the poor girl spilled her blood for me, the least I can do is clean it up."

"Here, let me get that." He bent over and carried the bucket of water outside to dump it in the bushes. He left it upside down near the front door. He went back inside and then to his room. Opening the door quietly, he saw that the children were both asleep; Trianna with her feet in her brother's face as usual. He turned and carefully opened the door to the children's room. Gabrielle was asleep with a pleasant smile on her face. He walked over to her side and gently lifted the sleeve of her robe to make sure the bandages were still in place. He left quietly and returned to the kitchen.

He sat at the table and Myra handed him a cup of tea. "Wylan, how is Hadrius doing?"

"Thanks. He woke up a little while ago with a severe headache. I think he'll be fine, providing Celleana doesn't throttle him. It seems that he and Vereena were alone near the lake earlier and...

Myra whistled low and rolled her eyes. "Well, good thing he was there. He spotted those bandits sure enough. So, what happens now?"

"We wait," he shrugged and took a sip of his tea.

Spensus managed to stand himself up by leaning against one of the barrels. He could make out the interior of the room by the light which filtered in from under the door. There were about a dozen large barrels and a small pile of fenceposts in one corner. He could see exposed rafters running in various directions under the roof. There were no windows to be seen. He knew he had to get out of there somehow. He didn't want to be around when the big guy came back with that mace. "First things first," he thought. "Have to get untied." He stooped over and tried stepping backwards through his bound hands. He had one foot through and in the air when he lost his balance and fell flat on his face. "Oww, fuck!!" he cursed quietly. As he struggled to get back up, he felt the cords slacken. He wiggled his hands and then pulled them apart easily. He chuckled to himself. "Dumb bitch, can't even tie a simple knot." He still had to find a way out however. He suddenly had an idea. He decided to stack the barrels on top of each other so he could reach the rafters and climb out through the roof. He went up to one and tried futilely to pick it up. "Fuck!!!" He tapped the side and realized it was full of liquid. He felt the top and found it was nailed shut. He tried again from several different angles to raise the barrel. Finally, panting heavily, he leaned against the wall to catch his breath. The board suddenly gave way and he fell backwards, landing outside onto the moist grass. He looked around and grinned, "This must be my lucky night." He took off as fast as he could for the tree line. When he reached the bushes, he turned to see if anyone had spotted him. He then set off north in the direction of the hills. A second figure broke from the shadows and followed the bandit into the forest.

"About damn time!" Xena thought to herself as she nimbly trotted after the man. She had no trouble keeping up with him. He seemed confident that no one had seen him escape. She stopped as she watched him stumble and fall for the third time. She shook her head. "I hope he doesn't break his neck before we reach their camp." Soon they reached the main road which ran past the trail to the village. Xena slowed down, realizing she'd have to be more careful because of the lack of cover. They made their way through a narrow pass which led into the hills.

Wylan looked up as Gabrielle slowly walked into the kitchen. She had Trianna's blanket wrapped around her shoulders. He got up and helped her to a chair. "What are you doing up? You should still be asleep." He could see she was still drowsy. "How're you feelin'?"

"I'm fine. My head hurts a little."

"You want some tea?"

Gabrielle shook her head.

"I'll be right back," Wylan went into his office and returned shortly. He poured her a cup of water and handed her a small green lump. "Here, swallow this. It'll help with the headache."

Gabrielle looked down skeptically at the soft, mushy object and then up at Wylan. "What is it?"

Wylan sat next to her and replied, "You don't wanna know; just swallow it. Let me look at your arm."

Gabrielle swallowed the bitter tasting 'thing' as Wylan rolled up her sleeve and gently began unwinding the bandage. "Does it hurt?"

"No," she replied, "it just feels sort of numb. It tingles once and awhile, like when your foot falls asleep or something."

Wylan studied the cut and then began to redress it. "That's the medicine I placed in the wound to lessen the bleeding. The bandage is still good. I'll put on a fresh one in the morning."

Gabrielle looked around and asked, "Where's Xena?"

Wylan sat back in his chair. "She's following one of the bandits to their camp."

"Why didn't she just use her...." Gabrielle pointed her fingers and imitated Xena's acupressure technique.

"You mean that 'blood­to­the­brain' thing? Because even if one of them told us how to get there, we'd never find it in them hills, and we couldn't risk one of them leading us there in the dark. They could walk us right into a trap."

Gabrielle stood with her cup and walked over to the window, looking outside towards the north. "I sure hope she doesn't do anything foolish."

"Don't worry, I made her promise me she wouldn't take 'em all on single­handed," he noticed how Gabrielle continued to stare out the window. "You really care about her, don't you?"

Gabrielle replied softly, "More than she'll ever know."

They heard the front door open and close, and Myra soon joined them in the kitchen. When she saw Gabrielle by the window, she walked over to her while fussing Wylan, "What's the matter with you? She should be in bed. And you call yourself a doctor."

Gabrielle smiled politely, but still looked confused, "Who are you?"

The woman put Gabrielle's cup on the table and began leading her towards the hallway. "My name's Myra. We'll talk more tomorrow, but you need your rest now."

"I'm not sleepy, really. I'm fine." When she saw her protests were having no effect on the woman, she looked to Wylan for help.

Wylan just shrugged. "Sorry Gabrielle. There's no use in arguing with her. I've seen her talk the feathers off a chicken once." He could still hear Gabrielle complaining as Myra led her back to her bedroom. He finished the last of his tea and then washed out his cup. He went to his room and kissed Trianna and Caspius each on the forehead. He then walked across the hall and gently tapped on the door before opening it. He looked in and saw that Gabrielle had already fallen back to sleep, and Myra was sitting in a chair by the bedside. He smiled to the woman and whispered, "I'm leaving. I hope we'll be back before dawn."

"Be careful Wylan. I want all of you to come back in one piece, okay?"

He nodded and shut the door quietly. He went to his office and picked up his mace, dagger, and backpack. He blew out the lantern on the desk and then went outside. He walked across the market square to the large horse stables where a couple dozen men were gathered. He noticed several of them seated at a table in the corner, playing cards. He placed his things on a nearby bench and then pulled up a chair to the table. "Deal me in fellas."

One of them asked, "How's Hadrius?"

Wylan picked up the thin wooden placards he'd been given. "He'll be okay. That is, until Vereena's mother gets her hands on him. He might end up wishing the bandits HAD finished him off."

They all started laughing. Termanus threw in one of his cards and asked, "How's Gabrielle doing?"

"She's fine. Myra's sitting with her now."

One of the men from the back asked, "Wylan, why aren't we taking the horses?"

Wylan threw in another of his cards. "Because we couldn't take them into the hills at night. Half of them would come up lame before we got anywhere near the bandit's camp." He shuffled through his remaining cards and threw one down that matched the one on top of the pile.

One of the other men at the table threw down a card. "Well, why don't we wait till daylight?"

"Because we're counting on the element of surprise." He threw down his last card and yelled, "Zeus!" The others dropped their remaining cards on the table and moaned.

Wylan gathered up the placards and began shuffling them. "Aww, stop your bitchin'. My deal. Axes are wild." He began dealing the cards around the table.

Chapter 12:


"What?" When Termanus didn't answer, Wylan looked up at the man across the table. Termanus was looking past him. Wylan turned and saw Xena running towards them from the northern end of the village. Wylan stood and grabbed a waterskin from off one of the chairs. He walked over to the entrance of the stables as Xena reached the building.

He handed her the skin and she nodded thanks. She took a few seconds to catch her breath and then took a long drink. The others crowded closer. Wylan waited patiently for her to finish.

Xena gave him back the skin. "It's about two hours from here and I figure we got five till dawn."

Wylan turned to the others. "Strap `em up!" Everyone gathered up their weapons and supplies. He turned back to Xena and asked, "How many?"

She looked up at him without any sign of emotion. "Forty or fifty."

Termanus came closer. "Excuse me? How many? Wylan, why don't we take more men? Look, I'm no coward, but wouldn't it make more sense to even up the odds."

Wylan put his hand on the man's shoulder and said reassuringly, "No one here questions your courage, my friend." Wylan turned to the men as they gathered closer. "Look. Above everything else, we're counting on surprise. The more people we bring, the better chance they have of hearing or spotting us. We're gonna surprise these guys in their sleep and be back here for breakfast." He turned back to Xena. "Anything else?"

She looked at the other men. "There isn't much light left out there, so watch your step. Muffle anything that'll make a sound when you move. When we reach the hills, line up two by two and keep your eye on the person in front of you."

As they were heading down the road, Xena turned to Wylan. "How's Gabrielle?"

He looked down at her as he strapped his dagger to his thigh. "She woke up for a little while and asked about you. She was really worried." He lowered his voice so that only she would hear. "If and when we finish this business, you and I are gonna have a serious talk."

She handed the mace back to him and nodded. Her face, once again, devoid of any expression.

They continued walking along the road without making a sound. When they reached the first of the hills, they passed around pieces of kohl and camouflaged their faces and arms. Those that had bows strung them. They went over the hand signals once more and then proceeded into the twisting ravines and rises with Xena and Wylan in the lead.

"You know, if Phylus sees we lit a fire, he'll beat the shit out of us." The short man used his foot to kick a stray piece of wood back into the small fire.

"Awww, fuck him!!" the man sitting next to him threw the cleaned chicken bone back over his shoulder.

The third man passed him a jug of ale. "Lower your voice, Trajan."

The three of them sat on a large log facing the fire. The man in the middle took the jug and swallowed a mouthful of the flat liquid. "No Mascius, I'm serious!! Fuck him!! He was supposed to be this great leader who was gonna train us to be an army. Look at us, we can't even beat a bunch of stupid villagers. `We will attack them on both sides,' he says. `We will crush them like vermin,' he says. What a fuckin' idiot!"

The shorter man took the jug. "C'mon, it wasn't that bad a plan."

"Wasn't that bad a plan?!? Kolahn, need I remind you that six men drowned before we even reached the village because they were too fuckin' stupid to realize they couldn't swim with mail on?!"

The shorter man just shrugged as he took another swig from the jug.

The man in the middle stood as he continued his tirade. "And to top off this wonderful evening, he sticks the three of us on sentry duty on the ass­end of nowhere. Like anyone's gonna find our camp!?" he started walking off towards the edge of the clearing.

Mascius looked in his direction. "Where you goin' Trajan?"

"See a man about a horse," he replied without turning.

The short bandit called after him, "Why, you feelin' lonely?" The two men on the log laughed hysterically.

Trajan mumbled a few curses as he made his way deeper into the bushes and loosened his trousers.

Kolahn stood, stretched, yawned loudly, and then crouched next to the fire. He stirred the long stick he was holding into the embers; mesmerized as he watched the orange colors flare and then fade. "I don't know. Maybe Trajan's right. But it's not like we've got anything else going. Geez, I still got a price on my head in Athens. This is as good a place to lay low as any. I guess I'll play it day by day and see what happens." He looked off towards the bushes. "Hey, you think Trajan got lost trying to find his dick?" When there was no reply from his friend,

he turned and saw that the log was vacant. He stood and walked over behind it. "Mascius? Where are..." He heard a footstep behind him. "Trajan, did you see where...," he stopped in mid­sentence as he turned and looked up at the tall, dark­haired woman in armor standing before him. Before he could say anything, something struck him in the back of the head. He saw a brief swirl of bright light and then everything went dark as he slumped to the ground.

Wylan resheathed his dagger and looked at one of his men, "Tie and gag him up with the other one."

Xena picked up the jug and let a few drops fall into the flames. Satisfied that the liquid wasn't flammable, she used the rest to douse the fire. She and Wylan looked up to see Termanus and several of the others enter the clearing. Termanus was cursing quietly as he shook his pants back and forth. Wylan took a few steps closer, "Termanus, you alright?"

"Yeah! That damn asshole pissed all over me!" he continued shaking off his stained clothing as everyone giggled.

"Well stupid, you should've let him finish," Wylan scolded him quietly.

They waited momentarily and let their eyes readjust to the surrounding darkness. Wylan gathered them all closer and spoke quietly,

"Xena says the camp is about a quarter of a mile away. When we get there, we'll surround it, and then try and take out as many we can while they sleep. Each of you can wrestle with your conscience as to how you're gonna do it. No one will judge you after this is over. Do what you feel you have to to get back to your families alive. Let's go." They reformed into a column and continued northward.

Beginnings Chapter 13-End

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