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Every Little Thing

by Jaime Boughen

**Warning-------This story contains scenes of implied consensual sex between two women.

If such scenes offend you, I won't apologise for the way I see Xena and Gabrielle. I recommend you read no further.

If you are under the age of consent in your state or country....Shoo! These stories will still be around when you come of age. You probably wouldn't understand half of what you're reading anyway.

If stories such as these are illegal in your country, then I seriously suggest you think about moving. Australia is lovely in the springtime.**

Xena sat watching the last of the stars fade from the sky. Dawn's light was just peeping over the horizon and tinging the countryside around her with the faintest touch of pink and gold. Down on the lake, mist eddied and swirled in the soft breezes of early morning. The same breeze gently lifted the dark flowing hair from her shoulders and laid it delicately back down again. A lovers' touch. Xena smiled to herself. She always did enjoy this time of the morning. Stirring the embers of the fire, she added several more branches and watched carefully until they were blazing cheerfully. Putting a pot of water over the fire to start boiling, she strapped her sword to her back and strode off into the forest to look for breakfast.

Gabrielle woke to smell of rabbit cooking over the fire. She lay quietly for a moment, taking in her surroundings, listening to the small sounds made by her travelling companion.....and lover. Gabrielle grinned to herself. It was all so new to her. After so many months, so many years of longing and desire, Xena had finally allowed herself to be loved and to give love in return. She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Come on, sleepy-head. I know you're awake." Xena's low voice said, tickling the back of her ear. She started to kiss Gabrielle's neck. Her hands slipped under the blankets to caressed the young Bard's breast.

Gabrielle shuddered in response. She sat up and hugged Xena in return.

"If I had known this was the way to wake you, I would have started months ago." The kisses became teasing, though the hands did not stop their slow caress of Gabrielle's body.

"If I had known you would wake me this way, I would have jumped you a lot sooner than I did!" The blonde haired woman chortled.

Xena laughed aloud. "So what took you so long anyway?"

"You." Gabrielle answered.

The tall warrior sobered immediately. "Was I really that...that....oh, I don't know?"

"Try, taciturn, reserved, walled-in, resolute, shall I go on? And yes, you were all of that and more." Gabrielle said seriously.

"Oh, come now, surely I wasn't that bad." Xena was a little taken back by the way her lover had seen her before.

"Well, maybe not quite as bad as all that but it did take an awfully long time for me to figure out you were feeling the same way as I was. You did an excellent job of hiding it, you know. Of course, once I had figured it out, well, I just had to find a way*loosen* you up." The younger woman grinned at the memory.

"The elderberry wine! You....sneak!!" Xena cried, surprised. She grabbed Gabrielle and started tickling her mercilessly. Something she knew the younger woman was helpless against.

"Oh stop, please." She begged. Gabrielle was giggling hard and unable to fight back. Besides Xena was wearing her armour making it was impossible to find a place to get her hands inside so she could return those maddening tickles. "Stop, stop. I'm sorry, really. I'm sorry. I won't do it again. Promise." Xena released her and she fell back into a giggling heap on the blanket. Gabrielle wasn't about to tell Xena she had another flask of elderberry wine in her bag.

"Come on, my little Bard. Breakfast is waiting and I want to get a move on this morning." Xena said down to the laughing heap at her feet.

Gabrielle looked back with a very different hunger in her eyes, one hand slowly starting to untie the laces on Xena's boot.

The day's journey began a lot later than Xena had planned.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said very quietly.

"Hmmmmm?" The Bard was off in her mind somewhere thinking about making a story of the elderberry wine incident. It would be a very private story with an audience of just one. Seeing the tense look to Xena's body as she sat astride Argo, she paid more attention to the forest around them. "Trouble?" she whispered.

The warrior nodded. "Into the trees, now. Don't argue. Whatever it is, it is headed right for us."

Gabrielle immediately ducked into the bushes by the side of the dirt road and hid behind the covering leaves. She still had a clear view of the road but should be safe from harm, unless someone fell right on top of her. The young woman could clearly hear the sound of hoofbeats thundering against the ground and the shouts and cries of several men. Xena had moved Argo to one side, hoping the men would simply ride on past. To be safe, she untied her chakram from her belt and settled her sword a little lower on her back.

Seven men suddenly topped the small rise and galloped past. The horses were clearly reaching the end of their strength, covered with foaming sweat and gasping for breath, the froth flying from their lathered mouths. The men atop them were covered in blood, their clothes hanging in strips from their bodies. Few seemed to have weapons of any kind. All were riding low over their mounts necks, though one man looked as though he has about to fall at any moment. The echoing noise of their passing had barely faded from Gabrielle's mind when a second, much larger group rode towards them.

At least three dozen men, all heavily armed and on fresher looking horses, came galloping towards them. Most continued to follow the first group but ten of the men, near the back of the pack, slowed and stopped, their horses snorting and pawing at the ground wanting to go on with the chase.

One man, the leader perhaps, looked Xena up and down, an almost predatory gleam in his eyes. "My, my. Don't you just look to be a fine piece of woman-flesh. Think I might take you for my Lord."

"You can certainly try." Xena drew her sword from the sheath on her back, a feral grin on her face. **"Ten armed and mounted men. This is NOT going to be an easy fight. I just have to stay out of the way of those pikes and we might make it."** She thought to herself.

Gabrielle, still hidden in the bushes, slid the bag from her shoulder and tightened her hold on the staff she carried. She knew she was good but was she good enough to take on ten men?

The men suddenly rushed at Xena, hoping to startle the horse into throwing her. They didn't know Argo was a trained war-horse and being rushed was something she took in her stride. Within moments, Xena was surrounded by a milling mob of mounted men, all intent on taking her down. The clang of sword against sword filled the air, Xena's war cry cutting through the noise. She found she had no room to toss her chakram, one man managing to knock it from her hand to the ground below. She swung her sword in wide sweeps desperately trying to give herself some room to manoeuvre. Standing on Argo's saddle, she executed a high forward somersault, over the top to the heads of the men surrounding her and landed on the ground behind them.

Three of the men, armed with pikes as well as having swords strapped to their sides, came at her from different directions. Xena's sword sliced through the point of one, just below the vicious hook but another man, somehow working his way behind her, managed to hook her shoulder and throw her to her back. She quickly scrambled to her feet, only to be hit again as a sword caught her upper arm. The cut wasn't too deep but it hurt badly and weakened her sword arm. One man, taking advantage of the moment, cut in hoping to bash her unconscious with the flat of his broadsword. Until his arm dropped and he toppled, unconscious from his horse. Gabrielle stood behind him, staff still in the air.

Two men came at the young woman. One armed with a pike and the other with a long sword. Gabrielle realised she was at a decided disadvantage standing on the ground as she was, with two mounted men coming after her. Swinging her staff in a deadly pattern around her body, she prepared to defend herself. In one quick movement, she swung the end of her staff along the side of her body and dislodged the foot of the swordsman from the stirrup of his saddle. As his leg moved up, she swung the staff down in the other direction and neatly broke his kneecap. Screaming in pain he fell from the horse. She turned to deal with the pikeman only to be struck by lightning on the back of her head and fall face first into a pit of darkness.

"What do you mean, you left her behind!!" An extremely angry voice roared over the top of Celano's head. "What possessed you to do such a ridiculous thing!!"

Celano, on his knees before his Lord, thought out his answer carefully. "She was dead, my Lord. I am absolutely sure of it."

"Did you at least *check* the body?" The voice still angry but starting to mellow.

"Ai, my Lord." Celano hadn't actually tested for a pulse or anything but she was bleeding so badly from the back of her head, he was certain that the little staff wielding bitch was dead, or near to it. Not that he was going to say that to his Lord. He valued his life far too much. As it was, five men were dead and three others badly wounded bringing down that warrior maniac of a woman. It was sheer luck that someone had gotten in a blow sufficient to knock her out. She had gone completely wild when the smaller woman had flown into the bushes and not come back out again.

"And what of the one you did bring in? That rather stunning woman." The now purring voice said.

"She is safely chained in a cell downstairs. I saw to it myself. She won't be going anywhere." Celano answered.

"Has she been seen by the healer yet?" The voice asked.

"Ai, my Lord. As soon as we had finished with the restraints. Leta was not pleased with the way we had chained the woman." Celano bowed his head before his Lord.

"I don't care what Leta thinks of our...accommodations. Just let me know when she wakes. I have some interesting questions to ask of our beautiful warrior woman." The voice stopped. Celano knew a dismissal when he heard one and quietly left.

"Yes, I have some very interesting questions to ask if you are who I think you are; Xena." The voice whispered to itself.

Gabrielle washed in and out on a tide of consciousness which finally left her high and dry on this side of being awake. "By all the gods, I swear I will never drink again." She groaned to herself. Reaching up to touch the back of her head, which seemed to be the place that hurt the most, she felt her fingers come away tacky. Gabrielle tried to open her eyes but found they were stuck together somehow. Feeling around her, she eventually found the waterbag she carried and had dropped just before the fight. Cupping one hand, she poured water into it and washed the stickiness, her own blood, from her face and eyes. When she could finally see again, she remembered what had happened. "Xena!" Crawling out of the bushes, she looked up and down the road. She could see five bodies lying in the dust, all dead, the flies already buzzing around the remains.

Nearby lay her own staff and a little further down the road she could see Xena's chakram and sword, abandoned in the dirt. There was no sign of Xena anywhere. Argo seemed to be gone as well. Gabrielle crawled over to her staff and used it to help her get to her feet. She stood swaying as a wave of dizziness washed over her. Walking back into the bushes in small, painful steps she picked up the waterbag and took a long drink to wash the taste of dirt and blood from her mouth. "I think I need to get myself seen to before I can do much else." The young woman said to herself. Looking carefully into the sky, she could see the sun was a bare candlemark from setting. The nearest village or town was almost half a days walk away, so she carefully turned and started to walk back to the lake they had left early that morning. She took a moment to pick up Xena's weapons, stopping a sob by force of will. Using the staff as a crutch, she hobbled slowly back down the road.

Two small, slitted windows high on the cell wall allowed a dim light to enter, showing a body hanging in chains attached to opposite walls. The pain of wrenching muscles in her shoulders finally woke Xena from unconsciousness. Barely suppressing a groan, Xena looked around the dark cell. She decided she didn't like what she saw. A floor covered in rotting, filth laden straw, more chains hanging from the ceiling and a small timber pallet up against the back wall. In one corner was small bucket, the contents of which did not smell particularly wholesome. She gave the chains, attached to metal cuffs around her wrists, a rattle to test their strength. "Hercules might have a small problem breaking out of these." She said to herself.

She noticed that someone, a healer perhaps, had tended to the hole on her shoulder where the pike had caught her. The ends of stitches tickled her forehead so she assumed a wound there had also been dealt with. **"Nice to know somebody cares."** She thought sarcastically. Looking down, she could see someone, perhaps the same healer, had removed her armour and leathers. She stood in her cotton shift though her boots and greaves where still in place. Straightening, she began to turn and twist her shoulders to try to ease some of the pain rapidly becoming unbearable. The agony merely increased until she forced herself to stand completely still, covered in sweat and barely breathing. Someone had heard her moving and there was a rattle of a key at the large wooden door.

"Awake at last, are we woman?" snarled the guard as he entered the cell. "Would you like me to draw you a hot bath and prepare scented oils for your massage?"

Xena stood silently, letting the guard's jibes pass her by.

"Oh dear. You are the quiet one. I think I might have something here to make you squeal." The guard began to unbutton the top of his trews and reaching inside, quickly stroked himself to erection.

Waiting for the guard to move closer, Xena wrapped her hands around the chains binding her wrists and tensed her arms. The guard stepped forward, his erection pointed directly at her body. As he came within arms reach, the tall warrior suddenly pulled herself up on the chains, lifting her knees to her chest and snapping both feet forward, hit the guard in the middle of the chest. She heard the sound of several ribs breaking as the man slammed into the wall across for her with a thud. He groaned as he slid down the wall but did not rise again. Xena thought he looked ridiculous with his rapidly deflating erection hanging loosely from his pants.

Slow clapping could be heard from the door. Xena turned quickly to see another man standing in the entranceway. It was one of the men she had fought on the road. "Nicely done, Warrior." Celano said with genuine respect in his voice. "You're just a bundle of surprises, aren't you." The man stepped into the room, staying well away from Xena's kicking feet. "Get this idiot out of here." He ordered to someone outside. Two well-muscled guards hurried into the room and dragged the now moaning man from the cell. "I came to see if you would like to be a bit more comfortable but it appears you are doing quite well without me." He turned his head again. "In here." He said. Three more men appeared and placed themselves around Xena. They were armed with heavy bows and wicked, hunting style arrows, all pointed directly at Xena. Celano slowly approached the warrior and undid the locks on the metal cuffs holding the chains to her wrists. She gratefully lowered her arms and began to rub some of the pain from her abused shoulders. "If you will follow me." He said.

Xena obediently followed Celano to a new, smaller cell. New cuffs were locked to her wrists but this time there was a short chain between them, holding her hands together in front of her. Celano reached down and quickly attached large metal cuffs to her ankles. The chain between them was just enough to allow her to stand without falling. Walking would be an ordeal taken in six inch steps. Another longer chain was locked to a ring cemented to the floor near the wooden pallet. It gave her about four feet of free room. Enough to lie on the pallet and not much else.

Gesturing to the chains, Xena said, "Is all this strictly necessary?"

"I'm afraid it is, Warrior. My Lord, Demitri is rather keen to keep you in one place so he can talk to you." Celano answered.

"Demitri?! Demitri, The War Lord of Death?" She asked, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice.

"Oh, I see you have heard of my Lord. Good. Then we won't have to enlighten you in the proper respect, now will we." The man made one last check of the locks and chains and stood back. "When my Lord finds a spare moment, he will come down to see you. Seems he has some questions to ask. But I have one which needs an answer now." Celano stood back a little and looked down on the tall woman. "Your name, Warrior!" He snapped.

Xena looked up, tempted to say nothing but she knew it would only bring her more trouble. "I will answer yours, if you answer one of mine." She said.

"If I can." The man answered, willing to indulge the dark haired beauty a little.

"What happened to the woman who fought with me? The one with the staff." The tall woman needed this answer more than any other.

"She's dead." Was the simple reply.

"My name is Xena." The warrior said in a flat, emotionless voice.

"Thank you for being so co-operative, Xena." Celano turned and left the cell. The bowmen followed and the door was locked behind them. Xena placed her head into her hands and wept.

A small fire burned near the lake where Xena and Gabrielle had camped the night before. The young woman had washed her wound carefully in the chill waters of the lake. Gently feeling her way around the gash at the back of her head, she decided it wasn't quite as bad as she first thought. It probably needed stitching but she wasn't in a position to put them in herself. She made do with tightly bound strips of material torn from the bottom of her own skirt.

She had caught a fish from the lake and filled out the rest of her evening meal with some olives and a small wheel of sharp cheese she carried in her bag. **"A biscuit would go nicely with this."** She thought but the rest of the food supplies had been in the saddle bag attached to Argo. Looking into the night sky, she wondered what had become of her lover and companion. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she tried to convince herself Xena was not dead. Surely, they would have left her body on the road if that was the case. Gabrielle gently cleaned the dirt and blood from Xena's sword. Something she had watched the tall warrior do every night for years. Something she now wanted to do so she could feel a little closer to her missing love. She carefully passed her thumb along the edge of the chakram. Still sharp but not as sharp as the pain she was feeling in her heart.

Gabrielle lay down next to the fire, her bedroll also still attached the back of Argo's saddle and tucked the sword as close to her body as she could. It was a way of remaining connected to the one true love her life. She found herself thinking back over the past few weeks.

**"She's watching me again."** Gabrielle thought as she looked at Xena through half closed eyes. Xena sat apparently cleaning her sword quite calmly, yet Gabrielle could see her breathing quicken as some thought crossed her mind. Not once did the tall warrior's eyes leave their position watching Gabrielle as she seemed to sleep. **"I didn't realise how much she looked at me until that tavern maid mentioned it. Is it possible she feels the same way I do? Does she get the same flutter in the stomach every time I smile? Does her breath catch in her throat when I touch her? By the gods, I love the way the firelight brings out the blue in her eyes."** Gabrielle turned her back to Xena and tried to deal with the flood of desire she felt coursing through her. The young Bard had taken to watching Xena watch her over the past several days and it had given her a great to think about, and maybe hope as well.

"Hurry up, Gabrielle. You're dawdling again." Xena said irritably as they left the little village where they had restocked their provisions.

"Sorry, Xena. I just wanted to pick up a flask of elderberry wine for tonight." Gabrielle puffed behind Argo.

The tall warrior looked back suspiciously. "You don't drink that stuff?" She questioned.

"Well, no. But you do and I thought you might like some with dinner." The Bard tried to look annoyed though a small smile crept over her face as soon as Xena's back was turned. **"Yes, you do and I know exactly the effect it has on you too."** She thought quietly. **"If this doesn't loosen you up, nothing will."**

Xena sat with her long legs stretched out in front of her. She was wearing a clean cotton shift, her hair down and flowing in the slight breeze. Gabrielle had somehow convinced her to not to put her leathers back on after they had been swimming in the small river beside the camp site. She wriggled back against the log she was leaning on to make herself more comfortable. Yes, she was feeling better for not climbing back into her leather clothing, not that she would openly admit it to Gabrielle. That woman had the disconcerting habit of being so right sometimes.

Dinner sat pleasantly in her stomach. The Bard had made quite an effort with the food tonight. Fresh fish, caught in the river, cooked in leaves by the ashes of the fire and flavoured with herbs she had picked. Bread, bought earlier that day in the village and a wonderful assortment of vegetables. More than they usually had to choose from but again, the village had quite a selection. There was even a sweet pasty to finish with. A surprise for Xena. She rarely indulged her sweet tooth knowing what it may do to her teeth. The last thing she wanted out here was a rotten tooth. She took another sip of the elderberry wine from the cup in her hand. **"Is this my fourth or fifth? Guess it doesn't matter, I suppose. I think we are safe here."** She thought.

Gabrielle came over quietly, flask in hand. "More wine, Xena?" She asked.

"No, no. I think I may have had enough for one night." The warrior replied.

"Just a little more. Can't hurt you know." Gabrielle said. The woman looked down at the dark haired warrior. **"Yep, you look just about right. Nice and loose....the way I need you."**

"Oh well, I guess a little more won't cause any problems." Xena held her cup up to Gabrielle, not really noticing when she filled it to the brim. She took a large swallow as the young woman put the flask away and returned with her brush. Xena felt nicely relaxed. She was far from drunk, just loose and enjoying a mild fuzziness from the alcohol.

Gabrielle sat down near Xena and began to carefully brush out the knots in her hair from swimming. She took her time, allowing the brush to flow gently through the strawberry blonde locks. Not quite looking at Xena, she could see the other woman was mesmerised by her actions. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the flush on Xena's face, spreading down her neck and across her chest. **"Come on, Xena. I know what I want and I can see you do too. Now *do* something about it."** She thought. In a way, she felt like a spider setting a trap for a particularly reluctant fly.

Xena sat watching the young woman brushing her hair. It fascinated her. The slow downward flow of the brush, the lifting of her hair as she flicked the ends, the play of her muscles with each movement. Muscles she could clearly see through the thin cotton shift Gabrielle was wearing tonight. She licked her lips finding her mouth suddenly dry. Taking a sip of wine, Xena tried to break her eyes away from the sight of her best friend brushing her hair. She flushed as she thought about taking the brush from Gabrielle hand and gently kissing the back of her neck. Of lifting her blonde hair, the red highlighted in the glow of the fire, and slowly caressing the soft skin under her ear with her tongue. Xena scrubbed her hands down the front of her shift. Suddenly they seemed to be sweating a great deal.

She watched utterly entranced by the rise and fall of Gabrielle breast as she moved the brush again. Her tanned, muscular legs tucked demurely to one side of her. The Bard tipped her head forward, her hair becoming a curtain around her face, her neck exposed. Xena moaned so quietly to herself that Gabrielle almost didn't hear. The young woman continued her slow brushing, knowing it was definitely having the desired effect on the tall warrior.

Xena's heart beat faster, thundering so loudly in her chest she was surprised that the other woman could not hear it. She could barely hear herself it was so deafening in her own ears. She was starting to sweat, trying to restrain her passions.

Finally, unable to stop herself, she reached forward and ran a slow, sensuous finger along the line of Gabrielle's neck and across her shoulder. She froze, terrified at what she had just done.

"It's alright, Xena, really. I want you to." The young woman said, the desire open in her voice for the first time. Gabrielle turned and took the finger, unmoving in the air, into her mouth and rolled her tongue over it still tasting the sweetness of the pastry Xena had eaten at dinner. This one simple action seemed to ignite a fire in the lowest depths of Xena's body.

Xena leaned towards Gabrielle, still struggling with herself. She loved this young woman so much yet she felt she couldn't ask her to be a part of a life that may end at the next swing of someone's sword. Holding the young Bard in her arms she looked down into her eyes. "I can't." She whispered. "You could be killed or I could be killed, by someone holding a grudge against me and by the gods there is enough of those around. How can I ask you to be a party to such a life of violence."

"Gabrielle looked back into those blue, blue eyes and said. "Xena, I made my choices when I first started following you. I knew then that one of us may be killed someday. I have already accepted that I may only have you for a very short time. But..." Gabrielle softly kissed the tall woman holding her so tenderly, "I would rather have a short time with you, knowing you love and care for me than to have never known your love at all."

"And my past? The evil I carry within me?" Xena asked, now afraid of what she might, potentially, do to this wonderful woman.

"Your past is past. You have changed, where it matters, in the heart and in your soul. Any evil you think you may have had within you at one time, was changed at the same moment you decided to make up for your old ways. Yes, you get angry sometimes. Yes, you brood too much but so do all of us. It's not like my temper is anything to boast about, you know." The Bard cupped Xena's cheek in her hand." Xena, whatever you were in the past, I accept. Whoever you are right now, I love and cherish. And whoever you may grow to be, I want to grow with you, for whatever time we may have together."

Xena slowly leaned down and started to kiss Gabrielle. "I love you, my little Bard and I truly don't know what I have done to deserve you." The tall warrior's hands swept up the Bards body removing her shift in the process.

Gabrielle bit down on a knuckle, trying to stop herself from crying aloud with the pain of separation. Yes, that night was the happiest of all her memories of Xena. They had made slow, gentle, passionate love until dawn. Xena had taken her virginity that night and though the momentary pain had been sharp it had also been very sweet. The tall warrior had cried quietly when she realised Gabrielle was giving her the greatest gift one woman could give another and had almost not completed the act. The Bard had insisted that she, Xena, was the one she had kept this gift for and no one else. Although tears still flowed, Xena had accepted that gift.

Celano looked through the small grilled window of the door into the cell. The warrior woman hadn't moved all day. Slow tears flowed down her face. She made no move to wipe them away. Xena had not even looked up when one of the guards brought a meal to her. Celano could see it still sitting on the stool by her pallet. Celano wondered what the other woman had really meant to her, beyond simply being a travelling companion. He was starting to suspect there was more going on than he had first thought.

Though he had served his Lord for many years, he was not truly an evil man. He had a wife and family of his own and often worried about their safety. He wondered if it was possible there was some kind of relationship between the two women. He had heard of such things before. Some of the writings from that woman, Sappho...that was her name, hinted at an embracing kind of woman-love. He didn't understand it himself but his wife enjoyed it so much when he found a new tale or lyric poem written by her. He smiled to himself. Far too often now, he found himself scouring the markets to find something written by this bard to surprise his wife. But since the Lord had ordered the destruction of all the books and scrolls, the guard commander found he had to search the markets of other villages and nearby towns. Celano turned and said to the guardsman on duty, "Get Leta down here. See if she can convince the warrior to eat something. Our Lord would be most upset if she was not completely healthy."

Celano took one last look into the cell and the warrior sitting, crying, in the semi-darkness. He wondered what the Lord had in mind for her. Right now though, he had other duties to attend to. As the night passed, he found himself unable to shake from his mind the image of the sad warrior in the cells below.

It was two candlemarks passed the nooning hour when Gabrielle finally reached the small town of Volos. Her head was aching badly, so her first stop was at the healers. The healer had wanted to keep Gabrielle there until her headache settled and she was sure there would be no further problems. It took some fast talking on Gabrielle's part to finally work her way out of the building. She promised not to tax herself and gratefully accepted the pouch of herbs the healer had given her.

Having gotten her head wound stitched and freshly bandaged, her next stop was the inn. If anyone had seen a group of heavily armed horsemen with a tall, beautiful woman in tow, that would be the place to find the information. She smiled sadly to herself. Xena had always said the place to find out anything was the village inns and it was to prove all too true. Readjusting the grip on her staff, she quietly entered the dim room.

No one noticed her as she sat in a darkened corner of the inn and simply allowed her ears to focus on the various conversations around the room. Farmers, a merchant or two, off-duty soldiers and a few other nondescript travellers partially filled the common room of the inn. One of the tavern maids asked for her order and shortly after, Gabrielle had a tankard of crisp apple cider before her. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary with this particular inn. It was like too many others she had seen but the sight of two groups of fast travelling men, one covered in blood should have raised at least one eyebrow in curiosity.

She had been listening for some time with no result and was starting to the think she may have to actually approach someone, with the risk of giving herself away in the process.

Gabrielle focused her ears on the soldiers sitting at a table two over from her. They hadn't even noticed her sit down, which is exactly what she wanted. They all appeared to be common soldiers, no officers sat among them, apparently enjoying the company of each other. Gabrielle listened carefully as she caught the middle of what sounded like an on-going argument.

"I'm telling ya! They have that Warrior Princess down in the cells right now!! The one they call, Xena." One soldier said, obviously trying to convince his friends. "She even managed to break Gregor's ribs while she still was chained to the walls."

His friends laughed at him, not believing.

One of the others slapped the first speaker on the back and said, "That is one woman who will never allow herself to be captured, no matter what Demitri thinks she's up to."

"Okay, this is how I *know* she is down there. I was at that healers, Leta, when they brought Gregor up from the cells and he had two big footprints right in the middle of his chest where she had kicked him." The first man said, emphasising his argument with a pointed finger against the tabletop.

"Arrrr, that coulda been anyone!" One of the others said from across the table. "You know he is always mucking about with the prisoners down there. Sooner or later someone was going to fight back. Sometimes I think he enjoys his job altogether too much, if you know what I mean."

"Not with his trews hanging open and him mumbling about that bitch of a female warrior kicking him clear across the room." Soldier one said smugly. "Serves him right for trying to put the horse between the shafts anyway!"

"So how do you know the bitch's name?" The youngest asked, trying to sound as tough as the men around him.

"Heard it from one of the cell guards at the kitchen last night when he was made to get a meal for her. He didn't like playing maid to anyone, not even someone like Xena." The man said. He wouldn't have minded getting his hands on the woman himself but after seeing the mess she had made of Gregor, he was glad he hadn't 'found' a reason to visit the cells last night. 'Sides, Celano was sticking pretty close to those cells, making sure no one got near the snooty cow anyway.

As their conversation moved to more bawdy subjects, Gabrielle turned her attention inward. The relief was almost overwhelming and she wiped her eyes before someone noticed the tears. Her Warrior Princess was still alive and in the cells belonging to the men's lord. **"Demitri, now where have I heard that name before?"** She thought. The Bard bit back on the surprised noise she was about to make. **"Of course, I remember.....the Warlord of Death! Something about the collection of heads he keeps at the gate, I think."**

Gabrielle rose to leave. The garrison town would only be a few candlemarks away if the soldiers here were being permitted leave to come to the inn and she wanted to make a quick start. The sooner she got there, the sooner she could figure a way to get Xena away from this warlord.

"Hold on. What have we here?" A deep male voice said.

Gabrielle looked up and could see the epaulet markings of an officer, probably the superior of the men she had been listening to. **"Now why do these idiots always have to get in my way just when I need to get moving."** She thought sarcastically to herself.

The officer's hand reached forward slowly and tapped the pommel of Xena's sword, showing over her shoulder from the improvised harness Gabrielle had made to carry it. "Lovely thing like you shouldn't be carrying a man's weapon unless she knows how to use it." He grinned at her in what he hoped was a winning way. All the Bard could see was yet another lecher looking to have some her expense. "Now I am sure I can arrange some lessons for you, if you want. Some nice, **private** lessons, if you get my meaning."

Gabrielle sighed to herself. Normally she would have tried to talk her way out of situations like this but right now she didn't have time or the energy to even bother. "I suggest you take your hands off me and leave me to my business." She said dangerously. The young woman took a step back away from the officer.

"Come, come. Every woman has her price. Just name it. I am happy to pay....or not to pay, if that is what you desire." The officer replied, dropping his voice with the last statement.

**"Watch the chest. They will signal their intentions from the chest first."** The advice Xena had given her so many times ran though Gabrielle mind. Then she saw it. A quick inhale and a tensing of muscles as the officer prepared to raise his arms and grab her. She took a further half step back with her right foot and braced herself as she swung the staff up and smacked the end of it straight into the man's nose. His head snapped back, the sound of the bone breaking underneath clear to the whole room. He tottered backwards, surprised and temporarily blinded by tears but before he had a chance to do anything more, Gabrielle had dashed out of the inn and was running as fast as she could to get away. She ducked between two buildings and ran along the back of them, headed in the direction she had first come. She ran down the alley between two more buildings until she reached the edge of the town and spotting the open door of some kind of stable, she quickly trotted inside. She risked one short look outside to see if she was being followed and then closed the door. "Looks like I get to sit tight until tonight before I can move on. Blast that man!! Just when I found where Xena was too!" She whispered aloud. "Well, at least he might think again before he tries to grab another woman." Gabrielle smiled wickedly at the thought of him trying to explain his broken nose to his commander.

Walking to the back stalls, she piled up some fresh hay and decided to get some rest before she started moving. All the running had made her head ache again and she was sure this was not what the healer had in mind when she made her promise not to tax herself. Pulling Xena's sword from the improvised harness on her back, Gabrielle tucked her body around it and was soon asleep.

Leta grumbled her way down the stairs to the cells below the stronghold. They were slippery with water, and less desirable liquids, making negotiating them difficult. "Hrumph! You'd think the great and precious lord would see about putting a few extra torches down here sometimes." She mumbled to herself. "Not that he would ever come down here himself. Oh no. Leaves that for the likes of us to do for him."

The healer had no fear of the warlord whatsoever. Aside from truly being quite fearless, one gets that way dealing with injured soldiers every day, she also had her own private secret. Leta was Demitri's sister. Only a sense of family loyalty....and having no other place to go, kept her in his service. He had made it quite clear to her the first day she arrived back from her training that no one was to know of the relationship between them and she was more than happy with that. If the others thought she lived a charmed life, after all the arguments she'd had with the warlord, then let them think it. She knew one day her luck would run out but it didn't look like happening anytime soon.

Leta had come by her training late in life having spent years as the town's herb woman and midwife. Her brother had been the one to suggest she go to Athens for proper training and she had accepted. The years away had been lonely, she never could find the time to return to visit but it had been so rewarding that in the end she didn't mind, much. She still couldn't get over the change in her brother when she finally returned though. She shook her head at the memory. A warlord of all things. It was still surprising to think about, even now. Most people had forgotten the relationship between them and saw them only as the healer and the warlord.

Stepping off the bottom of the stairs and entering the main chamber, she spotted Celano standing by the door of the warrior's cell. Lately, that was were he was always to be found, often with a perplexed look on his face.

"Good morning, Healer." Celano greeted her.

"And to you, Commander." She replied. The greetings were formal but that was all. Celano and Leta had become close friends over the years, brought together by the care for the men.

Celano indicated they should move away from the cell door. "She's still not eating, Leta. And I don't think she slept last night either. Can you try again to reach her, please." The words said one thing but Leta could hear the sadness in his voice. It was enough to make her own heart ache.

"I can try, Celano but I doubt she is even hearing me right now. It's as though she has locked herself away from everything and everyone." The healer said. "Did you manage to find anything more on her."

"Surprisingly enough, yes. I had a chat with some of the men last night and to a man, every single one of them had heard one tale or another about her. If only half of it is true then she is an amazing woman." The respect in his voice was clear. "Most of the tales were originated from a bard called Gabrielle of Poteidaia. I think that was the woman Icus hit during the fight on the road."

Leta gave him a long-suffering look. "Typical man! Belt their brains in first and ask questions later."

Celano laughed. It was an old argument. "I sent some men back there yesterday afternoon to see if they could find the body. They returned well after dusk....without it."

"Without a body!! But you said the woman was dead!!" Leta gasped.

"So I thought too. Seems I was wrong. Something I don't intend telling the Lord though." Celano said, a little ashamed he had made such a simple mistake.

"Good. He'd have your head on a pike by the front gate in a minute!" The healer spat. "If there was no sign of a body, does that mean the woman may still be alive?"

"It's possible but so is the possibility of some farmer simply finding it and burying it somewhere." He said.

"Well maybe, if she is alive, telling our warrior in there might be enough to get her to eat and sleep again. It's worth a try, at least." Leta said, already thinking of how to word it just in case it wasn't true.

"I'd gladly accept your help, Leta. Nothing I seem to do gets through to her. In a way, I feel so sorry for her. If she is this sunk in despair then the love she had for that woman must have really been something to see." Celano wondered what it would be like to be that in love again. He adored his wife but there were days...well there were just days.

Leta looked up at him. "I'll do my best, Commander. After all, the lord has demanded it of us." The healer laughed, not the least bit concerned with the shocked look on his face at such insolence towards the warlord.

"Now shoo! And let me get on with my job." The healer said.

Leta watched Celano leave and walk up the stairs to the stronghold. **"My but he has mellowed over the years."** She thought. **"Won't be too much longer and he will start thinking of retiring. To be honest, *I* should be thinking of it too."** Serving under her brother had really opened her eyes over the years and she still didn't agree with, or understand, his desire to build an army and then to never use it. **"He used to be satisfied with just being the leader of the town. A good leader back then too, if I recall. I wonder what happened to change him so. Something while I was away training, I suppose. Oh well, I have a warrior to keep alive."**

The healer moved silently over to the door. Peering inside, the wave of sadness she could feel was almost a dark mist covering everything in the room, especially the warrior, still sitting in exactly the same place she had left her the night before. **"Perhaps I can tempt her with something a little better than the slops they call food around here."** The healer bustled off to prepare something with her own hands. Leta had taken quite a liking to the tall woman and she had known who she was long before Celano had found out from his men. Her knowledge of the other woman, possibly, being alive was something she wanted to keep to herself, for the moment at least.

It had taken a little longer to reach the garrison town than Gabrielle had first thought. Everytime a group of soldiers came down the road, she had stepped into the trees to hide. The last thing she wanted to do was meet up with the officer whose nose she had broken at the inn. All of her senses were hyper-aware of any noise on the road and she laughed at herself on occasion as an ordinary wagon would trundle passed heading for the town. Knowing Xena was alive had lifted her spirits but she was still it figure a way to have her released from the prison. **"I might have a better idea of what to do once I actually get there and see what I am up against."** She thought.

Finally reaching her destination, she crouched in the bushes nearby and carefully watched the gate for a while. The soldiers and residents of the town were quickly passed through but several of the travellers were told to move on to the next town along the way. Gabrielle couldn't see any reason for the guards to do this, other than pure spite or perhaps, they were simply bored. Not wanting to be turned away herself, she had to find another way inside the gate. She knew the gates would be closed and locked for the night soon and she had to find a way inside before that happened.

It seems the gods must have heard her because coming up the road rolled a large wagon, filled to almost over-flowing with hay. It stopped at the end of the line, the wagoner patient. Gabrielle quickly scurried out of her hiding place and burrowed deep inside the pile of hay. She felt the wagon start moving again and the calls from the guards as the wagon, and herself, passed safely through the gates. Waiting for a few minutes, until she was sure they were out of the direct line of sight of the guards, she hopped out of the wagon and was quickly on her way. The wagoner none the wiser for his impromptu passenger.

"What in Hades are you doing here?" Demitri snarled at Leta as she entered the room.

"Can't a sister come and chat with her brother?" She asked.

"I told you never to mention that in my hearing...or anyone else's either!!" He snapped back at her.

"Yes, my Lord." She said, not the least bit sorry.

"So, tell me. How is our little warrior?" Demitri asked, stroking his chin.

Leta looked at him carefully. "She may live. There is no infection and she hasn't developed a fever. Though that is a miracle in itself, the way your soldiers keep their weapons."

"Enough!! I merely wanted to know if she will live." The warlord growled at the healer. He stopped for a moment and looked at the woman. "And what do you mean 'may live'?"

"She appears to have lost her will to even exist on this plane and hasn't eaten or slept these two days past." Leta answered.

The warlord jumped to his feet and began to pace the room nervously. He seemed very agitated about something. Something to do with that warrior, she was sure.

**"Maybe this is the time to find out what the warrior means to him."** Leta thought. "If I may be so bold, my Lord." She asked. "She is just another prisoner. Why is it so important she survive?"

Demitri spun around and faced the woman. For the first time, Leta could see in his eyes what truly drove him. The warlord opened his mouth and began to giggle hysterically. He threw his head back.

"THAT *BITCH*," He screamed "KILLED MY BELOVED!!" He stood in place, tears rolling down his face, laughing maniacally. It was the most chilling sound Leta had ever heard. Fists clutched at his sides, face purpling, the cords standing out clearly against his neck. He hissed. "Her demon *army* raided the village two days ride from here. Helena had gone there to buy cloth for our wedding when that bitch's army of bastards swept through. Her *men* toyed with my beloved for five days before torturing her to death. Rutting with her like they were animals. The warrior bitch had to know what was happening. Now it is my turn to revenge her death. And I will. Oh yes, I will. Now it is my turn...." His voice rambling off as he started to talk to himself. He sank into a heap on the ground, still mumbling.

Leta quietly climbed back to her feet and walked as silently as she could out of the room. The warlord never noticed she was gone, still locked in his mutterings of revenge. At least her questions had been answered at last. Her brother's grief had pushed him over the edge into madness. **"It must have happened while I was away doing my training as a healer."** She thought. Leta could still remember Helena, a softly beautiful woman with gentle hands. Demitri was quite taken with her at the time, she remembered but Leta didn't know it had gone as far as marriage. When she had returned, there was no sign of Helena but that was true of a lot of people from the town. Demitri had emptied the place of anyone who didn't agree with his plans to build an army and turn the town into a garrison.

The healer finally found herself back at her own rooms with no real idea how she had walked there. Her mind was now filled with more questions than before. New questions...All involving the beautiful warrior locked up in the cells of the stronghold.

**"I remember the stories of the Warrior Princess. But every tale I have heard from the bards down at Volos has spoken of a different kind of woman. Someone trying to make some kind of restitution for her past."** Leta thought as she sat down on her pallet. **"From what I have seen in the cell downstairs, I think the Xena we have here is not the same one who *may* have known about Helena's death. It may be the same body, yes, but there has been some deep change in her soul. The woman Demitri is talking about would have torn that cell apart in a matter of moments, instead of sitting there like someone who has lost their one true love."**

The healer sat for most of the night, staring out the window, thinking about the stories she had heard of the Warrior Princess and the woman chained in the cells. Eventually, she decided she must try to find that bard, the one who may still be alive. Her own sense told her that if the woman *was* alive, she would probably make her way to the garrison to try and released Xena from captivity. Now, how to find her?

Xena had finally allowed herself to lie down. Her mind was still blank, her heart frozen. She didn't feel anything, not even the ache of losing her lover. Red-rimmed eyes stared up at the stone ceiling above her head. For a moment, she thought she could feel Gabrielle close by somewhere, almost. **"No. It is just an empty echo."** She said to herself and from an endless well of tears she began to cry again.

"Celano, come to the tavern with me tonight?" Leta asked the old commander the next morning.

He looked at her, surprised. Leta never went to the tavern. "By the gods, why go there? It is full of soldiers. A woman isn't safe there."

"An old hag like me shouldn't have too much to worry about, I think but I would like you there...Just in case." Was her answer. In the early hours of the morning, Leta had decided the bard she was seeking, if she still lived, would probably turn up in the tavern, sooner or later. Everyone has to earn a living, after all.

The old commander gave Leta a very measuring look." Okay." He was suspicious. "I know you are up to something, Healer. Whatever you do, don't let the Lord find out about it. But I'll take you, only because I know if I don't, you'll go anyway!"

"Thanks, Celano. Bring your dinars, we'll be there a while." The healer quickly stood on tip toe and kissed him on the cheek before hurrying back to her patients.

Celano stood with his hand over his cheek where she had kissed him. In all the years they had known each other, never once had she done that. He shook his head. She was definitely up to something but what...He had no idea.

Gabrielle carefully counted the dinars from her pouch again. There were no more than when she had counted them before...Or before that either. A meal and a bath were about all she could afford right now and both sounded like good ideas. What she really needed though, was a place to stay for a few days to scout out the town and maybe find a way to release Xena from the stronghold's prison.

She looked down at herself. Her clothes were reasonably clean, if she picked all the hay off them, but she was starting to smell like she had slept in a stable for the past few nights...Which is exactly what she had been doing. Finding a place to hide, and sleep in the garrison had been a lot harder than she had first thought. Travelling on the open road was beginning to look like quite a good prospect. **"I promise, I'll never complain to Xena again about camping out in the open!"** She thought quietly. **"At least out there, we never have any problems finding a place to camp!! I am really starting to hate cities!"**

Gabrielle had already looked around enough to see there was only the one tavern in the whole town. It struck her as quite odd, actually. In a town this size, there should have been three or four inns and taverns to cater to the travellers passing through. The other thing she noticed as strange was the lack of street bards here in the market square. Every other village and town they had ever travelled through had a least one bard plying his, or her, trade in the square to earn a few extra dinars. Why were there none here? She took a closer look at the people around her. Everyone seemed a little too intent on getting along with their business. Few people appeared to have the time to simply stop and chat, to pass the time in that most ancient of pursuits, gossip. **"What is it with this place?"** She thought. Wandering around the stalls she noticed something else, though there was plenty of food stuffs to choose from, and she had already bought a few things herself, but there didn't appear to be any of the pretty things she would have normally expected to find. No silks, no carvings, no painted objects, nothing. What did these people do in their evening hours? The most disconcerting lack of all, especially to the bard in her soul, was the complete absence of books or scrolls! That was the strangest discovery of all.

After wandering the market for a candlemark, she decided that the only way she was going to get a roof over her head for a few days, at least, was to go to the tavern and hope they needed a bard. Judging from the non-existence of story-tellers in the square, this town was badly in need of *someone* to tell the old, and not so old tales. Gabrielle carefully picked all the hay from her clothing and took a few moments to wash her face and hands in one of the many horse troughs before taking herself off to the tavern. There was little she could do about the smell of horses she carried on her. Hopefully, once she had explained her situation, the tavern owner would be forgiving.

"Ai, we do need a bard here right now." The owner of the tavern told her. He looked like the typical bar-keep, like most Gabrielle had seen. Very big, well-muscled, maybe a bit paunchy around the middle from drinking one too many with his customers. In fact, he was the biggest inn-keeper the Bard had ever seen.

Gabrielle took a closer look at the man. He seemed almost...well, embarrassed he didn't have a bard on premises. His eyes kept flicking about the room, as though he was expecting trouble at any moment. The young Bard casually glanced about her. She could see why the owner appeared a little nervous. Even at this early hour, still candlemarks until nooning, the place was reasonably full. Ordinarily this would have pleased anyone who ran a tavern, until she noticed the customers themselves. Nothing but soldiers. There was no sign of the townspeople anywhere. It was another little oddity for Gabrielle to put away in her memory.

"What kind of tales do you tell? Not those great long epics, I hope? My customers wouldn't sit still long for one of those." The man asked, still glancing around the room. Gabrielle was starting to find it a bit annoying.

"Anything you want. I know many different ones." She said. "I could tell you one now, if you like. That way you know what I can do." The blonde woman explained.

"Okay, tell me a story, Bard." For the first time the tavern owner actually looked at her.

The young Bard began to tell a tale of one of Xena's many adventures. The man listened carefully, quite caught up in the story...until Gabrielle mentioned Xena by name for the first time. He paled and quickly held up his hand, stopping her.

"You can't tell those tales here." He said, pointing to the ground.

"What??!! Why not??" She asked, very confused. The tales she told of Xena were usually the most popular.

"The Lord has decreed it. Not tales, stories or poems about the Warrior Princess are to be told in this town." The man gulped back his fear. Once more his eyes were looking around the room but this time he was hoping no one had heard the young woman start her story or mention Xena's name.

Gabrielle dropped her voice to a whisper. "Is that why you have no bards here, or in the square either."

"Ai. As soon as someone starts to speak of the woman, the guards hear of it and take them away. We usually find their heads on a pike by the front gate within a few days. Now, no bard with any sense will come here." The tavern owner looked Gabrielle up and down carefully. "I'm surprised that a little slip like you is here. What brings you to such a god forsaken place."

Gabrielle raised her chin. "I have business in this town. Now, are you willing to take me on...If I tell no stories know who?"

"It must be damned important business then." The man thought for a moment. Having a bard, any bard telling tales here might stop some of the fights among the soldiers. They were bored and restless, wine and port only going so far to keep them entertained. He took a good long look at the young woman sitting beside him. She carried herself well and looked like she knew how to use that staff. He nodded to himself. "Ai, I'll take you on but none of those stories now, you hear. You get bed and a nooning meal as well as any dinars you earn from the customers."

"Bed, nooning AND evening meals." Gabrielle said. She knew she had to haggle, it was part of any bard's job. "I also *don't* **entertain**, if you get my meaning." Her face was stubborn.

The owner looked down at her with a little more respect in his eyes. He spat in his palm and held out his hand for her to shake. "Okay, bed, nooning and evening meals and no entertaining the soldiers, beyond telling them some good tales. But you will earn your keep here with this crowd. I'd keep that staff close, girl. You may need it."

Gabrielle nodded. She was used to working rough crowds by now. Not that she was concerned. She knew she could so engross them with her stories that none would think about anything else, so long as she remained on-stage. She spat and then shook the man's hand heartily. "The name's"

The man had heard the slip but let it pass. Many women bards did not want their families tracking them down and right now he didn't care. He just wanted a bard. "They call me, Tobias."

Demitri peeked at the tall warrior as she lay stretched out on the rough wooden pallet. He could barely contain himself. From the moment he had known for true who she was, he had been sneaking down to the cells at odd hours to look and gloat over his captive. Finally, he had the bitch in his hands. He had been thinking hard on what to do with her from the first moment Celano had told him her name. He stifled a giggle. Not that the warrior seemed to notice him standing there. She lay with her back to the door, seemingly asleep. He thought about what to do with her. Simply throwing her to his men would not be punishment enough for what she did, or allowed to happen to his beloved wife-to-be. No, she had to feel the same terror and pain as his Helena. The same humiliation. He stood carefully stroking the faded ribbon he held between his fingers. The last reminder he had of the woman who was to marry him. He had to get that Leta down here again and see if she could convince the tall woman to eat. Demitri wanted her fit and healthy so the pain would last longer.

He looked at the various whips and instruments of torture hooked along the walls of the main chamber. Then he saw it, the perfect one. He hurried over to it and rubbed his fingers down the wide leather strap. **"This will hurt but it won't rip her skin any. Leave some wonderfully painful bruises too."** He thought. It was a strap about 4 feet long and three inches wide. The handle was made of solid bone wrapped in rawhide. He fingered it, letting the leather slide across his palm. He could already see in his minds eye exactly what he wanted. A low platform in the square with the large wooden X frame on top. The warrior spread-eagle, her back bare and waiting for the fall of the strap. The fear in her eyes as he sat in front of her, watching every strike. He started to giggle again, not trying to stop himself. "Yes, this is perfect," He said aloud. He gave the leather one last caress before turning away. It was going to take a couple of days to organise, he wanted the entire town there to witness the tall woman's humiliation. His giggles became a mad laugh. The Warrior Princess was about to surrender to him. To *him*!! Kissing the faded ribbon one last time, he scurried away to his rooms to put his plans into action.

Gabrielle stood near the kitchen door waiting for Tobias to let her know it was time to start. She peeped around the corner of the door. The tavern was filled with soldiers drinking and yelling. Sprinkled about the room were several women, of various ages, plying their 'trade', She looked up at the stage. It had to be the smallest she had ever seen, barely large enough to hold the high stool in the middle. It was little more than a few planks nailed between two supporting pillars. There was a bit of old and faded bunting nailed across the top of the pillars, creating the 'stage' effect. Tobias had quietly placed her staff against the back of one of the uprights, out of sight of the rest of the room. She was grateful for that much at least. If she sat up straight, the shadows cast by the bunting would hide most of her face from the audience below. A little something else she felt grateful for. There was less chance of being recognised if the officer with the broken nose should decide to visit the tavern. She saw Tobias's signal from the bar. Time for her to ply *her* trade.

It took a moment for the room to notice her sitting on the high stool but once she had the attention of the majority of the room she launched into an old tale full of war and painful death. She had judged the room correctly and soon every ear was turned to her and no one spoke. For the next three candlemarks, the room remained largely silent as she told tale after tale, even telling one or two of the funnier poems she knew. As she wove the magic of her words, she watched the room carefully for any sign of trouble around her. She did notice, off to one side partly hidden in the shadows, an older man with the shoulder markings of a guard commander and an old woman. Neither spoke but they looked back intently. Gabrielle found it more unnerving than the rest of the room combined.

Finally pleading a dry throat, Gabrielle ended her session to the thunderous applause of the soldiers. Tobias gave her the thumbs up from the bar and then returned to his work. The Bard stepped from the platform, a pile of dinars the grateful soldiers had thrown on the stage in one hand. Without even counting them, she could feel that this was one of the best nights she had ever had. But it had been a long time between bards in this tavern. Taking a plate of stew from the cook and grabbing a mug of ale on her way passed the bar, the tired Bard happily returned to her room upstairs.

She placed the food and drink on the table by her pallet. She noticed one of Tobias's boys had hung two buckets of water over the fire so she could bathe. Gabrielle sat, just letting her tired body relax. The tavern owner had been right, it was a rough crowd but she had not lost her skills and knew they would enjoy the more grisly tales she told, the ones filled with death, destruction and war. There had been a few hecklers among the crowd but their own companions had dealt with them without her having to say a thing. *They* wanted to hear her speak. At the moment though, all she wanted was to eat, bathe and then sleep until she was completely slept out. This was the first proper bed she had been near in days. She hadn't minded sleeping in stables, the piles of hay really were quite comfortable, but she always had one ear open for trouble. She tried not to think of the pleasant nights she had spent with Xena but tired and unable to stop her thinking, she was soon in tears.

A soft knocking at the door quickly put paid to any thoughts she may have had about a long drawn-out cry. Wiping the tears from her face and swallowing the last of her sobs, she opened the door to find the old woman from the common room standing there. Behind her, carefully watching up and down the hallway was the man with the commander's markings on his shoulders.

"My name is Leta and I must speak with you." The old woman whispered.

Something in the tone of the woman's words or the way she held her body made Gabrielle think she could be trusted, a little. Opening the door wider, both people quickly stepped through, the man closing the door and leaning his back firmly against it.

Looking over her shoulder the healer said. "Stop that, Celano. You're scaring the poor mite."

The man, Celano, looked a little shame-faced and stopped leaning against the door. He walked to the window and sat on the ledge. The healer turned Gabrielle around so she stood next to the door. The Bard relaxed.

"Please child, may I examine the back of your head?" The woman asked softly.

Confused, Gabrielle turned her back and felt gentle fingers carefully inspect the wound she carried there. The fingers did not hurt her and Gabrielle relaxed a bit more. Perhaps Tobias had sent this healer up to check on her.

"I think she may be the one, Celano." Leta said to the man sitting at the window.

"I may be the one what?" The Bard asked. She didn't like the sound of this but she was standing next to the door and could easily escape if things became a little tricky.

"Tell me, child. Were you on the road to Volos a few days ago. Travelling with a tall warrior woman?" The woman's eyes bored into Gabrielle.

"Well....Yes, I was. There was a fight and I was hurt." She said, reaching up to the wound on her head. Gabrielle sensed if she tried to lie to this strange healer, somehow the woman would know.

"And when you woke, the tall warrior was gone?" The healer pressed.

"Y..Yes." Was all the young woman could get out before the tears began to fall again. She felt tender arms encircle her and she allowed herself to collapse into the comfort they offered. For the first time since she woke by the side of the road, she permitted herself to feel the worry and pain of missing Xena. Over her head, Leta passed a look to Celano. He nodded silently but otherwise did not move.

After a short time, Leta hushed the crying woman. "Quiet now, child. I think there may be a way for you to see your...friend?" She questioned.

"L..l..lover, actually." The blonde woman blushed.

"I thought as much." The healer nodded to herself. "Anyway, there may be a way for you to see her, if you are willing to face the danger of you both being caught."

Gabrielle pulled herself from the healer's arms and stood straighter. "Anything. I'd do whatever it takes." She looked down at the ground. "I'd rather die with Xena than to live without her."

Celano looked at the young woman from his quiet corner of the room. Yes, she was as courageous as the warrior locked in Demitri's prison. He had been hesitant to go through with Leta's plan but such courage should not go unrewarded. As a guard commander, he had served his Lord faithfully all these years but he had listened to the stories his men had told of a tall warrior woman doing so much good. Celano was not simply going to stand by and allow his Lord to do whatever his mad mind was thinking about. Celano knew his Lord and Master was completely insane but he served him anyway. But something had changed within Celano during the past few days and he honestly felt he could no longer serve the man...nor his insanity. He stood and walked towards the door.

"I'll go and get things ready at the stronghold." He said.

"Good." The old woman looked at Gabrielle. "Now child, here is what we are going to do."

The bored guard leaned against the doorway, cleaning his fingernails with a small knife. He would have much rather been with his companions tonight. There was talk of a new bard performing at the tavern. He sighed. Bards had stopped coming to the town not long after Demitri 'removed' everyone who opposed him and his sudden desire to build an army. Unfortunately for him, he was not out making war for the men. Instead, it was as though he was waiting for something, or someone to come to him. The guard didn't really care. The money was regular and he made his fun among the townsfolk. But a bit of excitement now and then would be nice. He picked up the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. He stood straighter and gripped his pike. Recently the Lord had taken it into his head to visit the cells at night, though never this late.

Two figures appeared around the corner. "Halt! Identify yourself." He shouted.

"For the love of the gods, man! It's Leta. How many times do I have to come down those stairs and go through this nonsense!" The healer grumbled at him.

The guard smiled lope-sidedly, scratching his head. "I'm sorry, Healer but you know I have to do it every time."

The healer's voice softened. "Yes, I know you do. I just get a little sick of being yelled at, is all."

The guard smiled. He liked the old woman, found her to be feisty and a lot of fun when she wasn't dealing with her patients. In some ways she reminded him of his mother. Part of him wished he could go and visit but it was hard enough getting leave to the next town let alone to visit relatives. "Who is this with you, Healer?" He asked quietly.

"A priestess-healer I asked to look at my case in the cells. Nothing I seem to do is working and I fear she may have a sickness of the soul. The Lord is most insistent about her being fit and well again" She explained carefully.

**"There, that should stop this idiot of a guard from wanting to actually look at her face."** Leta thought.

Gabrielle stood quietly, carefully hooded against the light. The cowling had been pulled forward to hide her face and the cape hung in elegant folds around her body. She had tipped her head forward a little, not enough to be obvious but more than enough to hide her identity from a casual observer. She bit down on her bottom lip to try and stop the trembling but Leta could feel it under her supporting hand. She squeezed Gabrielle's arm in reassurance.

"Well, I guess it is alright." The guard said.

"Thank you. We do need to hurry though. The ritual must be performed in the dark of the moon." The old healer said to him.

The guard stepped back from the doorway, allowing the two women to pass unhindered. "Careful on the way down, Healer. The torches have all but burned out by now."

Leta nodded to him and walked slowly down the stairs and out of the view of the guard. She stopped at the bottom and checked the main chamber. Completely empty. The guard who would normally be on duty had been conveniently sent somewhere else....Thanks to Celano. She reached into her pocket and withdrew the key to the door of Xena's cell. Another little gift from the guard commander.

"Quickly now, child. We only have a candlemark or so before the guard is changed." Leta was already leading Gabrielle to Xena's cell. She unlocked the door and gently guided the Bard through the door, closing it behind her. Gabrielle heard her whisper. "I'll stand outside and let you know if anyone comes. If they do, put that cape back on and mumble like you are holding a ritual."

Gabrielle stood blinking to adjust her eyes to the darkness of the small cell. The subtle odors of Xena's skin and breath told her she was in the cell but all she could make out was a dim shape on the pallet at the back.

"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered.

The shape moved. The sounds of chains rubbing together almost masked the gasp of shock coming from the tall warrior.

"No. It can't be. I was told you were dead." Xena murmured.

The Bard smiled to herself. "Talked my way out of Hades, didn't I."

The dark haired beauty stood and tried to walk over to Gabrielle, the sudden pull of the leg chains stopping her. She held out her arms, it was all the invitation the young woman needed. The short series of links between the metal cuffs on her wrists stopped Xena from immediately wrapping her arms around Gabrielle, so the woman ducked under her open arms and popped up surrounded by them.

"Mmmmmmm, this is where I belong." She said, snuggling close.

Xena dropped her head to Gabrielle's shoulder and began to cry. This time tears of pure joy. "They told me you were dead." Was all she could say, over and over again. She held the Bard tightly as if to let her go would mean losing her all over once more.

Gabrielle held Xena as tightly and allowed her own tears of joy to flow.

Outside, Leta watched from the grilled window. She knew she was seeing something very special indeed. The dark mist which had surrounded the warrior for days had disappeared, replaced by an almost unearthly glow. These were two lovers truly blessed by Aphrodite. They stood together drawing comfort and strength from the other. Though no words were spoken, she realised each was speaking directly to the other's heart and soul. Whatever it took, including defying her own brother, she would see to it that this pair would be together and free, even if it ultimately meant her own life would be forfeit. She moved away from the door to give the lovers some much needed privacy. Leta felt as though she had been blessed with a gift she was yet to earn. To look upon such love was truly the greatest honor the old woman had ever experienced.

Gabrielle hands moved over the warrior's body. "Xena, you've lost weight. Aren't they feeding you here?" She asked, concerned.

"Food's okay, I just haven't been eating it, is all." Xena answered, rubbing her hands up and down the Bards back. It was about all she could do with the cuffs still on her wrists.

The young woman knew why Xena hadn't been eating, so didn't bother to ask the question. Instead she asked another. "Have you had any sleep?"

"Some, not a lot. I'll sleep better knowing you're alive though. How long can you stay?" The warrior moved Gabrielle until she was sitting in her lap.

"Not long, maybe a candlemark, perhaps. We have to leave before the guard changes." Gabrielle explained.

"How did you find me? The last I saw, you'd been hit over the head with a pike and were flying into the bushes." Xena asked.

"By remembering all the things you taught me, like listening for information in the inns. Though I will admit, the information that got me in here actually came looking for me." The young Bard said.

The warrior laughed. The first happy sound she had made in days. "You mean the healer?"

"Yes. She also had the help of the commander of the guard. A man called Celano." Gabrielle was carefully feeling her way around Xena's body looking for injuries.

"I remember him. Did you know he has spent nearly every spare minute outside that door watching me. Never once has he come in here asking questions. I did wonder." Xena said quietly.

Finding nothing she was not already aware of, Gabrielle paid attention to the conversation again. "Leta says that something has changed him in the past few days, though she didn't explain it to me."

"That'd be a healer for you. Never explains anything, just expects you to figure it out for yourself." Xena breathed deeply to soak up as much of Gabrielle scent as possible. "So, my little Bard, have you and that healer figured a way to get me out of here. Maybe brought my weapons along." Xena began to feel her way around Gabrielle body. She wasn't really looking for her weapons, though it wouldn't have surprised her in the least if the young woman had smuggled them in somehow.

The Bard put her fingers to Xena's lips. "Shhh. We don't have much time. And no, we haven't found a way to get you out of here yet nor get your weapons in but we'll think of something. Leta can smuggle me in again tomorrow night at moon dark but after that, well, we just have to wait and see. You, in the mean time have to continue to act like you are soul-sick so we can justify my coming down here."

"It's too much of a risk." Xena said.

Gabrielle's face set into stubborn lines. "Just you try and stop me, Warrior-mine."

"I should know better by now. Never argue with a bard, you just can't win!" The tall warrior giggled into Gabrielle's hair. Without realising what was happening, she suddenly felt the Bard's lips upon hers and she was effectively silenced for the time being.

Xena lay back on the wooden pallet staring at the stone ceiling she knew all too well. Tucked under her shift, between her breasts and against her heart was Gabrielle kerchief. It smelled sweetly of the scent the Bard liked to use and of the Bard herself. She reached down and touched it again. She could see the sense in Leta not simply opening the cell and her escaping. There were too many bored guards between the cells and the outside. They may have been bored but most were far from stupid. No, there had to be another way out.

Leta herself, had reassured Xena to Gabrielle safety at the tavern. Celano had seen to that. Threatening the soldiers with the bards complete removal from the tavern and the town was enough to give her some breathing room. The men were desperate for entertainment and if that meant leaving one woman alone, then most were happy to go along with it. There were plenty of other women willing to share their time, and dinars. Celano had also spoken with the owner, Tobias and made it very clear that Gabrielle was special. The tavern owner had more or less figured this out for himself. It was not every day he saw a woman bard travelling alone through the country-side. She also had the gift of telling a truly compelling story. Tobias was willing to do whatever it took to keep the Bard there for as long as possible. Although when Celano had approached him, he assumed his new bard was actually Celano's lover and not Xena's. The guard commander had let the impression ride for the moment. The tall warrior smiled to herself. **"Must do something about that just as soon as I can."** She thought.

A part of her still couldn't quite believe her little Bard had returned. But she had held the other woman in her arms, breathed her scent, felt her lips against her skin. No, Gabrielle had most definitely been there. The despair Xena had felt before was receding like a particularly bad nightmare. She had honestly thought she would go mad when she saw the pikeman hit Gabrielle over the head. And when she didn't come back out of the bushes, swinging that staff of hers...Well, Xena lost what little sense she felt she had left at that point. Her grief and anger had made her careless which was how someone managed to get passed her guard and knock her out. She gave the chains on her wrists a rattle. It still felt a little odd waiting for Gabrielle to come to her aid. Usually it was the other way around. After all, she was the trained warrior, not Gabrielle.

Xena felt her eyes closing in the first real sleep she had allowed of herself in days. This time, though she was still isolated in her cell, she no longer felt the tearing loneliness of a shattered heart. Out there in the town, close by was the woman she would give her life to, if asked. Gabrielle was safe and had at least one good friend in the healer. Xena was not so sure about Celano. She yawned. Pretending to be soul-sick was going to be easy, she had days of sleep to catch up on. Xena closed her eyes knowing she was no longer alone.

Gabrielle and Leta sat on the Bard's bed trying to figure a way of releasing Xena without bringing the entire army down on them. Already half a dozen plans had been tossed aside as completely unworkable. A coded knock suddenly sounded through the room. Gabrielle looked up, startled.

"That'll be Celano." Leta said, getting up to open the door for him.

The guard commander strode in holding a sheet of parchment, a grim look on his face. "Looks like our crazy Lord has decided what he wants to do with Xena." He said. He handed over the parchment to Leta.

The healer quickly read through the announcement. "Could be worse, you know. He could have ordered her execution outright. The usual head on the pike routine etc. I am getting a bit tired of that. He is so predictable."

Gabrielle did not like the talk of executions or heads on pikes. She took the parchment from Leta's hand. Reading though it, her face fell. "A public whipping? What does he hope to achieve by that? Xena has taken far worse in the past, you know."

Celano looked at the girl kindly. "Her humiliation, probably. Though something tells me she might not survive this particular whipping. He's planning on using the broad strap and five whippers, one after the other."

"The broad strap?" Gabrielle questioned.

"A little nasty about four feet long and three inches wide. It doesn't tear up the skin too badly, merely turns everything under it into a kind of mush. Not pleasant. I saw it used on one of the townsfolk not long after I returned from my training. I won't ever forget the screams. The poor man was dead within fifty lashes. If Demitri is planning on using five men as whippers that means he is handing out two hundred and fifty lashes with that horror." Leta explained. Her skin began to crawl at the thought of what the strap could do.

"It just goes to show he truly is mad. The way he was talking this morning, he fully expects her to live so he can torture her further." Celano said. In all his years of service for the warlord, he had never once ordered a discipline whipping using the broad strap. Personally, Celano was hard pressed to think of a crime severe enough to warrant its use at all. Then again, he had some trouble ordering any kind of a beating on his men. There were other ways of maintaining discipline.

Gabrielle stood up. "Well, he isn't going to get a chance to use it on Xena either!" She reached under the cover of her pallet and drew out Xena's sword and chakram. They were both spotless and razor sharp. Gabrielle had spent hours after her return from the prison the night before, cleaning and sharpening them.

Celano looked at Gabrielle with real respect. Now here was a truly courageous woman, if only he had more like her in his army. Demitri might not have been able to take over quite as easily as he had. "I have an idea. It's a bit iffy and really depends on timing but I think it might work." He said.

"Aren't all the best ideas iffy." Leta laughed and prepared herself to listen.

Demitri was almost beside himself with glee. Tomorrow that warrior bitch was going to feel the bite of the strap on her back. A fit beginning for what she had done to his Helena. He was already thinking of what to do next. Something even more humiliating. Perhaps a naked drag around the square behind horses. He giggled to himself, stroking Helena's faded hair ribbon through his fingers.

Not once in the years since his lover's death had he ever stopped to think that maybe, just maybe Xena knew nothing about what her men got up to after the sacking of that village. He wouldn't permit himself to admit that he might be wrong about her. It was one of the reasons he would not allow the telling of her most recent tales in the town. He didn't want anyone knowing of the good she was doing for the rest of the countryside. After putting several bards heads on pikes by the gate, no more chose to come. Which was just what he wanted. Let the people only remember the old tales, the ones written when she was still a warlord herself causing death and destruction wherever her army travelled.

He tried to tell himself the most recent stories (at least two years old now) were nothing but rubbish. Lies spread to cover her evil deeds. No one could change that much. He wanted to believe her army was still out there, somewhere. An army still raiding villages and killing wantonly. That is why he kept his own small army here in the town. So the men were restless and bored most of the time. It was better than going off to battle and having the warrior bitch's soldiers come roaring through his town. A town he swore he would protect. But now he had the so-called Warrior Princess in his own cells and she was going to pay for every moment of Helena's pain and terror. He curled up on his bed, ribbon clutched protectively in his hand and allowed himself to fall asleep to the delightful thoughts of what the morrow would bring.

Xena and Gabrielle lay together on the wooden pallet, the Bard happily trapped within the loving circle of her warriors still chained arms. Outside the door, Leta stood watch as she had done the night before. Once again she felt like an interloper on a unique moment as Xena had placed her arms around the young bard. That glow was there again and Leta saw anew, two people blessed by the goddess in their love. A love that strong could reach through the gate of Hades itself. If she only knew.

"Stop that for a minute will you." Gabrielle said. She didn't really want Xena to stop but she had to be sure she understood what they planned to do the next day. "Tell me what to look for, Xena." She asked.

The tall woman stopped nuzzling the Bard's neck and repeated what she had been told. "You will be in the second row from the platform, wearing a bright yellow head-kerchief. I am to look for you there. Celano will take care of the chains....Though how, is still a bit of mystery to me." She answered, quickly picking up where she had left off on Gabrielle neck.

The blonde woman thought for a moment. "You know, he didn't tell us that bit either. I wonder why?"

"I'm still suspicious of that one. He has served this madman for years. No one can change that much in a few days." Xena said.

"No one, eh?" Gabrielle gave her lover a long look until she starting blushing.

"Okay, maybe he has changed that much. But I am still suspicious. This whole plan depends on timing, and other people. I never have like depending on others to look after me. I've always done it myself." Xena explained. She was feeling decidedly uncomfortable having to rely on anyone. Not a position she often found herself in but there she was, having to do it. No one said she had to like it though.

"Well, just this once my big, tough, terribly independent warrior is going to have to go along with someone else's ideas for a change. If you're really good, I might even have a reward for you." Gabrielle said and then proceeded to show the other woman a taste of what to expect when she was free of the prison cell.

Once Gabrielle had left her gasping for breath, she would have gladly gone along with anything.

Demitri sat in an ornate throne in front of the low platform in the middle of the square. He didn't want to miss a single moment of the warrior's humiliation. He had been out fussing with the restraints at first light, unable to sleep. Stroking the ribbon in his hand, he thought about the brief stop he had made to the cells below the stronghold. Xena lay quietly asleep as though she had known nothing but easy sleep her entire life. He had been tempted to wake her and gloat over her punishment but stopped himself. She didn't know what was coming and it would be all the more terrifying once she did.

In the prison itself, Celano was yelling at one of the guards. "For love of the gods, man! He wants her to WALK to the square and she can't do that with a bare six inches of chain between her ankles. Put something a bit longer there."

"But the Lord said....." The guard mumbled.

"I don't care what the Lord said. *I* say attach a longer chain so she can walk properly!!" Celano was starting to turn red in the face.

"Yes, Sir." The guard whined. As far as he was concerned, the Lord was out there and Celano was here, and in his face. He knew who he was going to obey at that moment.

The old commander stood over the guard as he attached a longer chain to the cuffs at Xena's ankles. It would give her about two feet of room to walk, still shorter than her usual long stride but enough that she wasn't tripping every other step. She should be able to walk, slowly, to the square without needing the rough support of any guard...Which was exactly how Celano planned it.

As soon as the guard finished, he left the room. There was no way he wanted to be in the line of sight of the angry man any longer. The commander was usually so even-tempered that this change was remarkable but he was known for not using whipping as a method of keeping the men in line. He disliked it a great deal and had made that plain on many an occasion.

"Let me check your wrist cuffs, Warrior." Celano said gruffly. He checked the cuffs and then stood back. "This way, Warrior. Time to take a nice walk in the fresh air."

Xena crossed her hands over the wrist restraints and slowly followed the guard commander out of the cell. She walked up the stairs very carefully, taking them one at a time so she would not trip. All along the way to the outside of the stronghold stood soldiers and armed guards. Demitri was taking no chances of her escaping.

Finally reaching the outside, Xena stopped for a moment to breathe deeply the fresh breeze blowing around her and the soak up the warmth of the sun, the first she had seen in days. She might have enjoyed it longer if one of her escort hadn't poked her in the back with his sword. Giving him an icy look, she continued the walk to the square.

Gabrielle stood in the second row from the edge of the platform, her head covered on a bright yellow head-kerchief. She had Xena's sword held against the front of her body, hidden by a long coat that almost reached her knees. Tobias had lent it to her, without asking why she needed it. She had worked her way to her position more slowly than she had wanted, often using polite, and not so polite, elbows in people's sides and backs.

From her position, she could see the open walkway the guards had made for Xena to walk down. It was several feet wide and edged with soldiers from Demitri's army. Most still looked as bored as they always did. Public whippings were something they saw all the time, the townspeople too, and it not longer raised much emotion in anyone.

Suddenly Xena appeared at the start of the open walkway. All around her she could hear people gasp when they recognised her. No matter how Demitri had tried to keep the tales of her adventures from the people, they had somehow heard of who she was and the change in her ways. For a moment, Xena stood in the light of the noonday sun and she looked magnificent. Dark hair blowing in the breeze, eyes flashing all around her. She took a second to smile at one of the children near her. The child's mother flushed but did not try to remove her son from line of sight.

The tall warrior nodded at her escort and started walking down the path laid out for her. She appeared for all the world to be taking a simple stroll, not walking to her possible death. Her courage and strength radiated from her like the sun on a warm spring day.

Demitri sat on his throne scowling. This was not what he had planned. She was supposed to cringe in fear and terror. Instead she was like a queen out taking the air, her loyal escort by her side. As she drew closer, he could see someone had attached a longer chain to her ankles. He had ordered a short chain so she would be forced to shuffle to the platform. He looked at his lap for a moment, angry. This was not the humiliation he wanted for her. She was being feted like some dignitary. He thumped the arms of his throne. It just wasn't fair!

The tall warrior stopped at the bottom of the short stairway to the platform, looking around her. She appeared to be simply taking in a last view of the world before calmly meeting her doom. In reality she was trying to spot the yellow head-kerchief her lover was wearing. Satisfied at last that she could place Gabrielle no matter what direction she was turned she walked up the stairs. She didn't hesitate as she stepped over to the middle of the platform and very deliberately turned her back on the warlord sitting in the throne directly across from the large X frame. Demitri started smiling again. Soon enough she would be facing him and he could watch every expression of pain and horror on her face as the broad strap landed on her bare back.

The only other person on the platform was the man who was first rostered to whip her. Demitri did not want any unnecessary people around her to impend his view. The man, a black hood over his head, the hood of the executioner, kneeled down to unlock the chains from Xena's ankles so he could restrain her legs to the bottom arms of the X.

Gabrielle's hand slid under the long coat and grasped Xena's sword by the hilt. She waited for the moment.

The instant Xena felt the first leg restraint release she whipped the metal cuff from her right wrist, the cuff Celano had unlocked when he was supposedly checking them and kicked the man out of her way. "NOW GABRIELLE!!" She shouted.

Through the air in front of Xena flashed a bar of silver light as her sword was tossed, hilt first, into the air towards her. Catching it neatly, she stood for a moment holding the sword high over her head. All around her, townspeople gasped at the sight of her. She spun in place and slammed the sword through the center of the X, splitting it into two pieces that slowly toppled over to the ground. She took one long look at Demitri before jumping from the platform and disappearing through the crowd.

All around her the people where saying. "This way. Over there. Towards that building." They gently nudged her in the right direction, while getting in the way of the soldiers as much as possible. Xena reached the corner of a building when hands suddenly grabbed her from the street and dragged her into the alley between two buildings. A large hand clamped over her mouth from behind. She could feel an equally large body against her back, her arms pinned by a forearm across her stomach. "I'm a friend. Don't struggle. I was sent to help." A rough male voice said in her ear.

Xena nodded in compliance. The hand was removed and she turned to see the owner of the tavern where Gabrielle had been working for the past few days. "My name is Tobias. Quickly, follow me." He said. Turning away from her, he set a rapid pace through the back alleys and lesser known side streets of the town.

Gabrielle was astounded at the sight she had just witnessed. Xena had stood tall with her shining sword held high in her right hand flashing in the light, hair blowing in the wind, eyes the color of blue fire looking for all the world like the avenging Mother Goddess of legends. It was the most majestic sight she had ever seen. She knew it was an image she was going to carry in her mind for the rest of her life. Now she just had to get herself out of the square and safely back to the tavern.

"This way, Warrior." Tobias ordered. Xena followed him up the back stairs of the tavern until they reached a ladder leading into the attic of the building. "You'll be safe here for some time, if you need it. I have moved the Bard's things up here already. I was told you two would like to be together."

Xena gave the man a quick look but he was being quite serious and not making fun of either of them. Following the tavern owner, she stepped off the ladder into a low ceilinged room. From behind her spoke a voice she recognised.

"Well met, Warrior." It said to her.

Xena spun, sword at the ready. Only to see Celano sitting on one of the pallets on the floor. Leta sat next to him on another. There was one more, larger than the rest on the other side of the room. Xena's armour had found its way from the prison to the small attic room thanks to Leta and was piled up next to the pallet. A blanket had been hung down the middle of the room, pulled back now, to give some illusion of privacy. Xena had not even seen the guard commander slip away into the crowd at the square.

Tobias stepped closer and said to Xena. "Just as soon as the Bard gets back, I'll send her up here. I don't think it will be safe for her to be seen for a day or so. A strangers face and all." The tavern owner looked Xena up and down. "You look like you could do with some feeding up" He shot a look at Leta. "and a bath is definitely in order. I'll bring everything up shortly. In the mean time, you're safe here. No one remembers this place, except me and Celano over there." He winked at Xena as he turned away.

Tobias walked back down the ladder, closing the hatch over his head as he went. Xena felt tight muscles slowly relaxing. She honestly didn't know where she was going when she leapt from the platform and was still amazed at the townspeople. It was like the whole place was in on the plan, except her. She chuckled to herself. **"So this is what happens when I rely on other people."** She thought.

She barely had a chance to open her mouth when the hatch opened again. She swung in the direction of the sound, finding Celano had jumped to his feet as well, a sword in his hand. She chuckled again. This was going to be interesting. Gabrielle's head appeared over the lip of the hatch, a smudge of dirt on her cheek.

"XENA!!" She cried and ran into her lovers welcoming arms.

Demitri was absolutely furious. She had been right there under his nose and still managed to escape from him. He had watched in shocked disbelief as he heard her shout and a sword come flying through the air from nowhere. The look in her eyes as she stared into his soul for that long moment. It had chilled him. He could see why she had once been such a feared warlord.

He had stood in front of his throne and screamed conflicting orders, his voice high-pitched with grief and madness, almost incoherent with rage at her escape. The townspeople seemed to be intent on getting in the way of his soldiers as they streamed through every open passage out of the square. He had stormed around the low platform, kicking and lashing out at anyone who came close to him until he had finally collapsed near exhaustion. By then, the square of empty of all but a small handful of soldiers, left to take him back to his quarters. He had torn through his rooms afterwards, destroying everything he could lay his hands on. Around him lay the shattered remains of his furniture and clothing.

He now stood, naked in the window, screaming for someone to bring him Celano. Froth and blood, from biting his own lips, running down his face and dripping from his chin. Someone, a guard perhaps, had yelled through the closed door that Celano was nowhere to be found. The man had scuttled off in fear at the roar issuing from the other side of the heavy door. His mind was completely broken, yet some kind of strange loyalty from his army stopped them from revolting...for the moment.

The healers and advisers who could still be found, had talked among themselves and agreed the best thing to do was to lock the mad warlord in his rooms until he calmed enough to make some sense. Demitri may calm but he would never see sanity again.

In the little attic room above the tavern, things were far more peaceful. Tobias had dragged several buckets of hot water up to the room so Xena could bathe for the first time in days. Gabrielle herself carefully washing every inch of her lover's skin. The warrior had surrendered to her ministrations, knowing she was not getting a choice in the matter. It was wonderful in its own way, though she could have wished for some more privacy to take advantage of the situation. As it was, Leta and the guard commander were sitting on the other side of the blanket wall chatting quietly.

Once she felt clean again, really clean, she had wolfed into a meal fit for a prince. Leta had tended the scrapes on her wrists from wearing the metal cuffs, though her ankles were merely a little swollen from the restraints she had worn there. Leta had deliberately left Xena's boots and greaves in place when she first tended to the tall warrior to protect her skin. The old healer had known that sooner or later they were going to put her in some kind of leg restraint and the greaves would stop the cuffs from rubbing Xena's ankles red raw. Xena now lay, stretched out on the large pallet, the Bard clucking over her like a mother hen with a single chick. She was only willing to endure it for a while. She had too many questions she wanted answered at the moment.

Leta looked up from the tankard of ale she held in her hands. "Where's the wife?" She asked Celano.

"Sent her and the young pair off to her sisters just before dawn this morning. They should arrive in a few days. They'll be alright there. That sister of hers could be a real Amazon warrior, if she wanted. Even better with the sword than some of my own men." He answered. She hadn't really wanted to go but Celano knew she would not be safe for long in town once Demitri calmed enough to think straight.

Xena rose and walked over to the pallets Leta and Celano were sitting on. She sat down next to the old healer, Gabrielle curling up behind her with her arms around her chest. The Bard's head rested on Xena's shoulder.

"So tell me, Commander. Why the change of heart? You have served Demitri for quite a few years. I wouldn't have expected this kind of a reversal from someone who tried to take my head off a few days ago." The tall warrior asked.

The guard commander looked closely at the dark haired woman. He caught Leta watching him as well, from the corner of his eye. "I stopped being a commander the moment I stepped into the crowd and disappeared." He said, pointing to the now blank spaces on his shoulders where his rank marking once had been. "Maybe I'm getting old. It might be because I have children of my own and I didn't want to see either of them working for that madman's army, in any way." Celano thought for a moment of his teenage son and daughter headed to the safety of their aunts home. "Maybe I am sick of the fear and dread I see on the townspeople's faces every time I walk the markets. It might even be something I saw in you, Warrior."

Xena looked back at him. "In me? I lay around chained in a cell, staring at the ceiling. I certainly didn't *do* anything."

Leta touched Celano's arm and answered part of the question, without really answering it at all. "The esteemed former commander joined Demitri's army just after a village two days ride from here was raided. The army doing the raiding was yours." The healer stopped for a moment.

The tall warrior dropped her head and looked into her lap. Here was yet another life she had destroyed when she was a warlord. Would she ever be able to make up for all her cruelty?

"Now, now. Leta. It wasn't the only reason." Celano said. "I was a little bored with married life. I thought it might be a nice bit of excitement. Demitri managed to convince a lot of us that you and your army where headed in this direction. He made quite an impassioned speech in the square about how they had tortured his betrothed and that none where safe until you were dead. A lot of us believed him too."

Xena thought back to the days she had spent as a warlord. She couldn't remember raiding a village near here but there were so many villages, so many dead, she no longer remembered them all. Only in her nightmares did they show their faces, and wounds to her.

"But I tried not to kill women and children. At least whenever I could." She said, tears filling her eyes.

"Your men, Xena. Did you keep track of what they were doing all the time?" Celano asked softly.

"Well, no. So long as they were ready to fight, I never paid much attention to what they did after a battle. In the early years, I doubt I even thought about it. I was too busy...en...enjoying the feelings of rage and hate." Xena said in a very quiet voice. She began to cry silently, Gabrielle rocking her gently and hushing her fears.

Any hate or anger Celano may have had remaining in him towards the tall warrior, left completely at that moment. No, this was not the same woman who led an army across Greece, conquering and destroying everything in sight. The tales he had heard from his own men were true. All he had to do was look at the shining love between these two women and believe.

As Xena's tears slowly stopped, Celano picked up the thread of his story again. "Anyway, after Demitri had formed his army, we all thought we would go out to look for you. It was quite a shock to find ourselves trapped behind the walls of our own town. At first, it seemed okay. We were busy drilling together etc but a year or more, well...The men were getting restless. Then Demitri made us burn every book and scroll in the entire city." Gabrielle gasped in shock in the background. "And also made sure no more bards would come to the taverns here. Many of the other commanders followed Demitri's word like law but as the years passed, most have changed their minds and simply want to return to their families, either here or in the nearby villages."

Leta laughed quietly. "My brothers biggest failing is believing that you can keep a good story down. Just because the bards no longer came here, many of us go to other towns or villages to trade or buy and listen there. I must say, Gabrielle, you have written some wonderful tales of your adventures." The Bard blushed at the praise. "Why, it is almost an underground movement. People going outside the walls would return with new tales and not just about you, Xena and then would met with others in their homes to tell them. I honesty think we have several folk here who would give a trained bard a real run for their dinars!"

Gabrielle spoke, if only to draw attention away from the redness still covering her face. "So when did you know that Demitri was mad?"

Leta looked at Celano. He nodded and she answered for both. "Little things probably. I guess we have always known, really but didn't want to do anything. Things didn't get bad here all at once, you know. It was one thing there, another here. I suppose we just got used to it. Many can't remember what it was like before. I think what pushed everyone over the edge was seeing Xena today. Nearly all of the townspeople have heard the tales of the good you have been doing and to see you there, so calm, so brave....It made the stories come alive for them. The last thing they wanted to see was your death. I'd like to think that is why they helped you escape from the square today." Leta looked at both women wickedly. "Or it might be they want more tales and you can't have those if the heroine is dead."

Now Xena was blushing as hard as Gabrielle. She didn't like thinking of herself as any kind of a heroine. All she wanted to do was make good on some of the evil she had committed over the years.

Leta gently touched her leg. "I understand, child but you give so much hope to people. Don't take that away from them....Or yourself either."

Celano straightened up. "So the reason for this change of heart in me was actually something I saw in you, Warrior. I'd heard the old stories told of the Warrior Princess and the more recent ones too. But watching you in your cell, well, you were human. I could feel the strength of the despair and the sadness when you thought your lover was dead. It reached right through that door and crushed my heart. It's a powerful love you carry inside yourself and no one can be the sort of person Demitri wants us to think you are when you have a soul so large. What you and your Bard carry between you has the power to change people simply by being around it. It changed me and I thank you for that." Celano voice broke and he bowed his head to hide his own tears.

For a moment, everyone sat quietly thinking their own thoughts. It might have gone on longer if Tobias hadn't suddenly thrown the door hatch open. Celano and Xena were both on their feet in a second, swords at the ready. Gabrielle was only a moment behind them, her own staff in hand.

Leta laughed aloud. "Tobias, you are going to get yourself killed soon if you don't learn how to knock!"

Xena lay back on the pallet she shared with her lover, trying by sheer force of will to stop herself from pacing the room...again. Gabrielle was downstairs performing tonight. The men had been asking for her and Tobias had reassured everyone she would be quite safe. One look at the big tavern owner was enough to calm any fears Xena may have had. Leta and Celano were sitting on the other side of the room playing some kind of a dice game. From the sounds of it, the healer was winning too.

Crossing her hands behind her head, Xena looked at the low ceiling over her. She had found the past three days more tiresome than the time she had spent in the prison cell. There she felt completely alone. In the attic room, she was with others all of the time and it was hard on her. She wanted to spend some time alone with Gabrielle. She smiled to herself. The young Bard had promised her a reward and she wanted to collect.

The hatch in the floor suddenly opened, neither Xena nor Celano grabbing their weapons, which said something for the safety they all felt. Gabrielle head appeared along with a tray of food for their evening meal. The Bard was red-faced and giggling uncontrollably. Placing the tray on Celano's pallet, she came over to give Xena a hug, still wiping the tears of laughter from her cheeks.

"What's so funny, my little Bard?" Xena asked curiously. Anything to take her mind off being trapped in the small room.

"Oh, oh! Don't start me off again." Gabrielle stared at the floor for a moment trying to compose herself. "I just watched some of the soldiers dunking their guard captain in the horse trough outside!" She fell to the pallet laughing again. Finally gaining some measure of control over herself, she explained why everything was so funny. "The men have been asking if I knew any tales about you, Warrior-mine and when I looked over to Tobias to see if it would be okay to tell them, he nodded. Well, I had barely started when this guard captain appeared and told me I was going to end up with my head on a pike if I said another word about *that* woman." She paused, fighting to hold her face still long enough to tell them what had happened. "These men jumped up, tossed him to the ground and *sat* on top of him. Then they looked at me and told me to continue, if I pleased. Once I had finished, they grabbed the captain, telling him it was rude to interrupt a lady when she is telling a fine tale and proceeded to dunk him in the horse trough. He looked like a drowned cat by the time they were finished! All his finery hanging about him and his boots squelched!!" Gabrielle lost control again and lay back laughing so hard she ended up with the hiccups.

Leta had rolled back on her own pallet screeching with laughter along with Gabrielle. The two warriors looked at each other and then at the two women howling uncontrollably. Giving into the inevitable, they soon were laughing just as hard. It was into this scene of merriment that Tobias entered the room from the ladder below.

"Well, such sounds do I hear! If only my entire tavern was this jolly." He said, unable to keep his own lips from twitching. "I see the Bard has told you of the guard captain's impromptu bath."

Leta nodded, still trying to get her breath.

"And it was a fine thing to see too." Tobias continued. "Seems there has been a lot of that happening lately among the troops. But enough of that, do you want to hear the news."

Everyone quickly nodded. They were getting a little tired of hiding, Xena in particular.

"From what I have heard, Demitri has finally come out of his rooms. They say he is not a happy man right now." Tobias said. "The searches still go on but they are half-hearted at best. Soldiers from the army are starting to slip away in the night and return to their families. Sometimes they are dragged back but they disappear again at the first opportunity. It seems the men are tired of being soldiers and just want to be husbands and fathers again. Now that everyone has actually seen the Warrior Princess, they know she is not the demonspawn that Demitri told us she was." Tobias turned to Xena. "Warrior, could you return our town to us again. The townsfolk are asking. The soldiers too. We are tired of making ready for a war that does not exist."

Xena stood up. "Now might be a good time to have a word with this mad warlord of yours."

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her lover. "No, Xena. He is completely mad. He'll kill you on sight."

"Only if I give him a chance." She replied. Xena was already starting to strap her armour to her body. The way she felt now, she needed to get out of that small attic room before she took to the walls with her sword.

The young Bard sighed. **"She never starts things....Just finishes them and that will never change."** She began to help the tall warrior with the many buckles on her armour. "Please be careful." Gabrielle said. "Remember who loves you out here."

"How can I forget. I still have a reward to collect." Xena replied wickedly.

Within minutes she was ready to go. Sliding her sword into its sheath on her back, she stood tall until her head was almost touching the ceiling. Celano suddenly stepped in front of her.

"Do you know a way into the stronghold, Warrior?" He asked.

"There is always a way in." Xena said, just wanting to get going.

"My friend," Celano laid his hand on her arm. "the way the guards are feeling right now, they may well escort you to him themselves but why take a chance."

The dark haired woman nodded. It made sense.

"Leta knows several ways into the stronghold where you won't be detected." Celano told her.

Xena looked at the old healer, one eyebrow raised. "A woman of many skills, eh?"

Leta simply looked back at her. She already had her cloak in one hand.

"Come one then. You're not going to let me out of here without some help. And I have learned to accept that help when offered." Xena said.

"Will wonders never cease." She heard Gabrielle mumble behind her.

Xena crouched in the bushes near the kitchen entrance of the stronghold. Leta had gone on ahead to chat with the guard and get him away from the door. She was still amazed at the reaction from the townspeople. The women had openly walked through the darkened streets, the sounds of shutters squeaking most of the way as people silently watched their passing. She had expected someone to call the alarm yet all she could feel was the support of the people around her. It was an odd feeling for her, so used to the fear and dread of others. Perhaps her quest was having some benefits at last.

The bushes rustled ahead of her. She tensed. "Quickly now. The guard decided tonight would be a good night to have a nap in the stable." The old healer whispered to her.

Xena stood up, surprise clear on her face.

"I told him you were here. He is tired of making ready for war too." Leta explained.

The warrior shook her head. This was starting to be a queer night indeed.

They quickly entered the kitchen, lit by a small night light in the corner, and headed for what looked like a large cupboard towards the rear of the large room. Leta opened it and stepped inside. Xena just stood and looked into the darkness of the cupboard.

"In here, child. There is a passage that runs behind the walls." Leta's muffled voice echoed dully from within.

Xena edged into the darkness, so black she could not see the old healer until a hand touched her chest to stop her from knocking the woman over. The sharp spark from a firelighter blinded her for a moment as Leta lit a tiny torch. The healer then used the torch to light a small covered lantern, carefully snuffing the torch when it was burning brightly.

"What is this place?" Xena asked. She didn't like the closed, stuffy feeling of the walkway at all.

"Every stronghold has hidden passages behind in the walls. In the old days they were used to help the lord and his family escape when things went wrong, as they often did. Demitri and I played along most of them as children though I doubt he remembers they are here anymore. Now stay close, child. Though there is nothing on the floors or walls to catch and trip you. You are wearing enough armour to wake the dead in Hades should you fall." Leta said quickly.

Xena merely grunted in response. She thought she wore very little armour, considering.

The journey through the passageways only took a few minutes, though it felt like hours to Xena. The walls seemed too close and the ceiling too low for her own liking. Up stairs and along galleries they walked. Every so often there would be a beam of light cutting through the darkness showing where peepholes had been built so someone could look into a room without giving themselves away. A handy feature if you were an assassin. Not so handy if you were the one to be assassinated. Finally Leta stopped and pointed to a peephole.

Xena placed her eye against the hole and looked into the room. It was a mess. Food lay rotting on the floor, furniture broken and damaged, clothing torn to shreds and spread over everything. She caught a whiff of an odor that told her the occupant of the room had been using it as a privy as well. Moving her head slightly, she could see something that looked for all the world like a huge birds nest made of cloth and shattered bits of wood in the middle of the room. In the center of this sat Demitri, naked and rocking. He was crooning to a small piece of ribbon he held gently in one hand. She also saw he had a sword close to his hand. Even in his insanity, he was not taking any chances.

The warrior felt Leta's hands on her waist, carefully moving her to what appeared to be just another place on the wall. Something moved and part of the wall opened silently in front of her. **"Ingenious."** She thought. She stepped forward and could feel the brush of heavy cloth against her bare skin. Leta's hand moved passed her and she heard something snick in the darkness. A crack of light appeared showing where the door into the room was. Xena crouched and slowly drew her sword. It left the sheath with the barest whispers. She peered through the crack and could see Demitri still rocking and talking to the bit of faded cloth in his hands. Now was the time to end it. Placing her hand against the door, she opened it and entered the room.

The door made a quiet squeak. Not much of a sound but in the oppressive silence of the room, it may have well been a shriek. Demitri's head snapped up and he turned towards the sound. For the first time since that day in the square, Xena was able to look into his eyes. She saw nothing there which could be even vaguely construed as sense. He was beyond all rational though....And therefore completely unpredictable. Xena tightened her grip on her sword.

He gently lay the ribbon on the side of his 'nest' and picked up his own sword. The naked man very calmly stepped from the pile of cloth and timber, bringing the sword into a ready position. Xena didn't want to kill him but if it came to that, she would not hesitate.

His calm face looked at her and rapidly changed into a snarling mask of anger....and madness as he saw who stood in front of him. "I knew you would come. I just had to ask and I knew you would come. I asked. Yes, I did. I asked. And here you ARE." He growled at her. As he shouted the last word, he leapt forward hoping to surprise Xena with the sudden move.

He was strong. The madness already pushing him beyond the barriers of physical pain and endurance. Xena found herself slowly backing up as she blocked and parried his blows. She side-stepped and managed to score a hit, scraping her sword edge along his forearm. He didn't even seem to feel it.

Demitri jumped towards her, swinging his weapon low, hoping to cut into her unprotected thighs. Xena arched back on her toes. She quickly swung her own sword, just nicking him on the back of the hand. The madman stepped forward once more and she found herself again blocking and parrying his weapon.

She kept having to step back as the sheer animal strength of his blows beat at her. Any hopes she may have had about wearing him out to the point of carelessness where quickly quashed as he took slow step after slow step towards her.

For a moment, his guard dropped and she snapped a lightening fast kick to his chin. It connected but barely made him shake his head. He spat several teeth. She could see from the way he held his head that she had broken his jaw but he didn't notice it and continued to come forward. Xena could sense the wall coming up behind her back. Flexing her knees, she leapt over his head, a perfectly tucked somersault.

In a heartbeat, Demitri had spun as she sailed over the top of him and thrust forward on the instant she landed. She felt the blade slithering along the armour on her side. That was too close. She punched out with her other hand, hitting him cleanly in the nose. She felt the bones break under her knuckles. Blood starting to run down his face to splash over his naked chest. It made him stop for a moment. Xena stepped back, breathing hard, trying to see a way of disabling him completely. It appeared she was going to have to kill him eventually.

An insane roar came from Demitri's throat as he rushed at her again. With a wild swing, the point of his blade just scratched the end of her chin, drawing first blood from her. It would have taken her head off if she hadn't leaned it back quickly. Seeing the blood on her face seemed to enrage him further and he pressed his attack. Xena blocked and ducked the storm of strikes, backpedalling her way around the room.

For several minutes the rain of sword swings continued. Xena blocking as many as possible, though one did get through now and then. Both fighters were covered in blood and sweat, Xena tiring rapidly. She managed to snap off another kick to his head. It just grazed the side of his skull but as her foot came back to earth, it slipped on something on the floor. Slightly over-balanced, Demitri came at her, a thrust heading for her heart and she fell backwards. The mad warlord kicking the sword from her hand as she landed.

Xena looked up, the wind knocked from her lungs. Standing over her, his chest heaving for breath, Demitri held his weapon in both hands high above his head, intending to slam it into her chest. She watched, almost in slow motion, as a single drop of blood ran along the edge of the sword and landed in the middle of her forehead. His muscles tensed and his arms began to drop down in a killing thrust to her body.

It never arrived. The most surprised expression she had ever seen crossed his face. Demitri's eyes rolled back into his head and he toppled sideways to the ground, dead. Looking up she could see Leta standing there, a long dagger dripping with blood, the blood of her own brother, still in her hands. Her fingers opened crablike and she let it fall from her hand.

The old healer looked at Xena. "You said you would accept any help offered." Leta slowly sat on the ground and began to cry. The dark haired woman, aching and covered in blood, knelt beside her and wrapped her strong arms about the weeping old woman.

"Where are you headed for now. Warrior. You are welcome to stay here, you know." Celano said, his wife tucked under his arm.

"Some place quiet, I hope." Gabrielle murmured beside Xena.

"I don't know, Celano. Any place the wind leads me and where I may do some good." The tall woman said. She placed an affectionate hand on Argo's neck. They had found the war horse in one of the back stalls of the stable, the morning after Demitri had died. Their gear had been tossed into a corner to be taken to the trash pile. Xena smiled to herself. No one had been able to actually ride her horse and she was looking a little fat from lack of exercise. A couple of days on the road would soon fix that.

"How goes your new town council?" Gabrielle asked. She was itching to get away too. There was quite a bit of time to make up with Xena and she wanted to be completely alone.

"Lots of yelling and disagreements." Leta said. "But at least we are trying again. I don't think we will ever allow another repeat of the past several years. Our freedom means too much to us now." The old healer still looked sad but the twinkle had returned to her eyes again.

"I heard Tobias say he was going to start a competition to encourage the bards to return here as well." Gabrielle said excitedly. She looked up at Xena as she spoke.

"Yes, my little Bard, we can return. I would like to hear some of the people here give *you* a run for your dinars." The taller woman laughed.

Everyone chuckled at the look on Gabrielle face. Xena mounted up and held out her hand to help the young Bard mount behind her. She didn't like riding all that much but she wanted her arms around her lover far more. She climbed up without grumbling too much.

Leta moved next to Xena's knee and said quietly to her. "You give the people hope, child. Don't take that way from them." Xena blushed. "For if you do, I will send Tobias after you!" The old healer smiled wickedly and stood back.

Xena and Gabrielle took one last look at the town before leaving. All the townsfolk had turned out to see them off. They waved as they rode out of the gates and then headed back down the road towards Volos. Once out of sight, Xena turned in her saddle to speak to the Bard.

"The next time you want to fight a pikeman....Duck, will you." Xena laughed at the look on Gabrielle's face before turning to face the road again.

The young, blonde Bard simply smiled and hugged Xena close. She had plans for their very next stop. Something about a reward if she remembered correctly.

The End.

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