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For All Time

by Jamie Boughen

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

If such scenes offend you, I'm sorry but this is my story and this is the way I see Xena and Gabrielle. I suggest you read no further.

If you are under the age of consent in your 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 this are illegal in your country, then I seriously suggest you think about moving. Australia is lovely in the springtime.

One further warning------This story contains a certain level of violence. It was integral to the story and it did upset me to write it. Just so long as you know. It might upset you to read it.

The only thing to be seen was the blur of spinning wood as Gabrielle swung her staff in complicated patterns around her body. The end of the staff impacted something but she didn't stop to watch it fall as she moved towards her next opponent. A quick thrust forward and she felt the shuddering up her arms as that one fell also. She spun her body to the left at the same time as she swung her staff to the right and behind her. Gabrielle stopped when she heard the satisfying crunch of contact. Panting a little from her exertions, she looked around at the devastation she had made of her practice targets.

Without truly being aware of it, Gabrielle had gone from being merely adequate, just barely capable of defending herself, to now performing a deadly dance of destruction. Her staff had become an extension of herself and her own natural ability. She would be more than a match for most enemies. Gabrielle would go all out during her practise sessions but she still couldn't bring herself to take the life of another. One day she knew she might have to kill someone but for now she was happy simply being able to disable them.

Wiping the sweat dripping from her face, she walked back down to the campsite she and Xena had set up two days before. All she could think about was a cooling dip in the nearby river.

"You're really getting to be quite good with that thing." Xena commented from the other side of the fire. She dropped her head to concentrate on cleaning a particularly stubborn spot from her sword.

Gabrielle was grateful Xena didn't see a look of delight flash its way across her face. Xena's compliments were rare and all the more appreciated when they did appear. She knew sometimes she worked all the harder just to hear that note of pride in Xena's voice. Gabrielle caught herself as she leant her staff against a tree. "Why does Xena's approval mean more to me that even that own family?" She wondered quietly to herself. Shaking her head, she quickly snatched up a clean shift and walked down to the river for a cleansing swim. The sight of the water winking in the last of sunsets' light caught her eye and all other thoughts rapidly left her head. Hastily stripping out of her damp and sweaty clothing, she dove into the cool water, surfacing several feet from the bank. She rolled lazily onto her back and let the gentle current carry her for a few moments.

Musing to herself, she thought, "Everytime Xena frowns at me, I wonder if *this* is going to be the time she finally sends me away." Gabrielle shuddered at the very thought of leaving Xena for any reason. Hidden deep within the most secret place in her heart, was the fear that one day her Warrior Princess *would* send her back to the village, even after all this time together. A fear she had never once given voice to within Xena's hearing. She couldn't seem to help herself though and would take the fear out now and then to worry at it like a dog with a bone. "I just couldn't stand being away from her because....." Gabrielle could move her mind no further. She simply didn't have a 'because' to finish the thought. Tucking her fear back into that secret place, she rolled again and started the swim back to the bank.

Xena watched as Gabrielle walked to the river and dove in. Listening to the occasional splash as Gabrielle washed away the sweat and grime from her practise session, Xena turned her attention back to cleaning her armour. She tried to concentrate on what she was doing but she could still see in her minds eye the quick flash of Gabrielle's naked body just before she entered the water. "Yes, she has definitely gotten stronger since she started working out with that staff." Xena thought to herself. "She's got good lean muscle where she had so much baby fat before." Xena chose not to look any further into herself about why she was admiring Gabrielle's body. "One day she is going to make some man a fine wife." She almost didn't acknowledge the pain she felt at the thought of Gabrielle leaving her someday, it had become so familiar to her. Clenching her teeth, she willed the tears away. She began to furiously polish her already shining armour.

"We're moving on tomorrow, Gab." Xena said after dinner that night.

"Fine. Where we headed?" Gabrielle looked up from the saddlebag she had been re-packing. She had been starting to feel a little restless too and hoped they would soon be travelling again.

"The coast. There has been a little trouble down that way."

"Great!" Gabrielle thought sarcastically. "Anything from petty tyrants, fire breathing monsters the odd, rampaging army or who knows what else. Xena's idea of a 'little trouble' is the stuff of most people's nightmares!" She glanced over at her travelling companion. "Mind letting me know what kind of 'little troubles' they've been having?"

"Don't know. I just heard there was some trouble and I thought I might be able to help." Xena stood and stretched her long body in the firelight. "I'm off to check on Argo and see we have a quiet night." She turned and strode off into the darkness surrounding the small camp. The sounds of Xena talking softly to her horse drifted back to Gabrielle on the night air.

"Hi there, Argo old girl." Xena whispered quietly to her mare. "Feeling good?" Gently patting the horse, Xena looked around the clearing where they had made their camp for the past few days. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Argo softly lipped Xena's shoulder as her eyes carefully took in all the shadows and her hands stopped rubbing the horses muzzle. "What's up, girl? Want more attention?" She patted the warhorse's neck and carefully ran her knowing hands over the mare's legs. The rest over the past few days had done them all good and Argo looked ready to go again. "First village we stop at, I promise, new shoes for you." She stopped and thought for a moment. "Maybe something for our little Bard as well?" Argo seemed to nod in agreement, though to what Xena could only guess. The ex-warlord smiled to herself. She knew how Gabrielle loved to receive gifts, however small. Even something as simple as a smile seemed to make her so happy. "I'll try to remember to smile a bit more often for her." Xena said as she gave Argo one last rub and started back to the fire.

Gabrielle lay staring into the night sky wondering what had woken her. Glancing around, she didn't see any trouble. No one was attacking the camp. Everything seemed peaceful and quiet. Yet something had definitely woken her from a sound sleep. She heard it again. A barely stifled sob. She sat up and looked over to where Xena lay on her own bedroll. Her friend was lying with her back to the firepit and even though the softly glowing embers were barely enough to light her, Gabrielle could see her shoulders silently heaving. Climbing quickly to her feet, she moved over to Xena. She found her curled in a tight ball, the blanket clutched around her. Gabrielle looked at her, a sad, almost-smile on her face. Even in her sleep, Xena would not give herself permission to cry.

Gabrielle sat down very carefully next to her friend, knowing not to wake her suddenly and gently began to stroke her long dark hair. She softly hummed an old lullaby under her breath and let her simple presence alone calm Xena from whatever night horrors she was having. Slowly, a little at a time, Xena relaxed and finally slipped deeper into Morphoses arms. Gabrielle stayed where she was a while longer. Not because Xena needed her. Simply because she enjoyed looking at her open and gentle face.

"One day I'm going to tell you about this and you won't even get angry." Gabrielle said like a whisper on the wind. How many nights she had sat by Xena and calmed her back to sleep? She no longer remembered. It was as though it had always been. Gabrielle never once told Xena about it and never explained why she was so hard to wake some mornings. Xena simply accepted it as part of Gabrielle and left it at that. On her way back to her own bedroll, she stopped to put a few more branches onto the embers in the firepit. Satisfied the fire would burn until morning, she lay down again but it took her some time to finally doze off again. "One day." She whispered sleepily as she eventually slipped off to the dream plane herself.


"Not much further!" Xena yelled back over her shoulder towards the woman scrambling up behind her.

"Not much to the top, further or not much to the village, further?" Gabrielle called back. She stopped for a moment to suck air into her straining lungs before climbing the last few feet to the top of the trail.

"Both, actually." Was the dry reply from Xena.

The smaller woman finally crested the top of the trail and was immediately struck by the view. Below them was the village Xena wanted to stop at and beyond, an amazing expanse of ocean. The village nestled in the narrow corridor of land between the near-mountain they had just climbed and the cliffs. The mountain met with the cliff further to their left but opened out to wide fields along to the right. At the edge of the village, before the land started to spread, a palisade of carefully cut trees had been built to protect the occupants. The cliff edge itself was the most amazing feature and left the young Bard almost slack-jawed with wonder. It seemed to go on for miles and miles, as far as she could see.

"Thought you might appreciate the view." Xena said.

"It''s..." Was all the woman could mumble in reply.

"What?! My Bard speechless?! I must remember to show you more views in future." Xena said wickedly.

Gabrielle looked up and merely sniffed in response. "At least now I know why you insisted on coming up this endless mountain." She had thought Xena a little mad for wanting to come up the steep path but having seen the view, well, Xena did like to surprise her now and then. Dragging her eyes from the view of the cliffs, she looked down the mountain towards the village. "What's to stop raiders from coming up this way and attacking?"

"This whole side of the mountain is nothing but loose gravel and dirt. If you don't know *exactly* where the trail is underneath, it just slides away under you. Any raider is going to end up in a crumpled mess at the bottom with a few tons of gravel on top of them if they try it." Xena explained. She smiled down at Gabrielle. "Nice to see you thinking defensively."

"Well, you did say there had been trouble on the coast." Gabrielle said as she continued to look around feeling a flutter of joy after seeing the smile in Xena's face and hearing the approval in her voice.

"Not in this village. Which is one reason why I wanted to stop here first." Xena said as she looked for the tiny marker that showed the exact start of the downward trail. "Walk right behind Argo, Gabrielle. The last thing I want is to see you tumbling down to the bottom."

"It'd be quicker than climbing down, that's for sure." The younger woman grumbled quietly under her breath. Xena chose to be conveniently deaf at that moment.

The climb down really wasn't any worse than the scramble up but Gabrielle was very aware of the tons of loose rock around her and made very sure she was walking right behind Argo all the way to the bottom. With no small sigh of relief, they finally reached the end of the trail, entering the village itself and Gabrielle was able to look around again. She noticed many of the villagers watching them but she was used to that after travelling with Xena for so long. What she was really looking out for was any trouble. Something else that seemed to happened a lot.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said quietly.

"Yes." Gabrielle replied without taking her eyes off her surroundings.

"We're safe here. Only those people welcome in this village know the way down that gravel slide." Xena told the Bard. She felt a little guilty her friend had become as cautious about new situations as she was and it didn't make her happy to see the more defensive changes in Gabrielle. "One day," She promised herself, "we won't have to fight the evil in this land anymore. Or the darkness within me. You have my word of honor." The ex-warlord thought a little sadly.

"Look. There's the blacksmith. I promised Argo new shoes before we move any further down the coast." Xena said as she pointed out the smithy. "Could you find the inn and get us a room?"

"Your wish is my command, oh Mighty Warrior." Gabrielle grinned. Seeing the icy glare she was getting from Xena. She turned and scurried off to find the inn. Xena could still hear her giggling as she rounded the corner of the short street.

Xena smiled softly at the retreating back and whispered to herself. "There are days when I would cheerfully strangle you, Gabby but I wouldn't ever want to be without you. You're the best friend this worn-out old warlord has ever had." She could feel the tears trying to break through again and quickly turned to speak with the blacksmith about the shoes she needed for Argo.


The inn was like so many others Gabrielle had seen in her travels with Xena. Maybe a little cleaner perhaps but still with the usual human flotsam and jetsam all inns seem to accumulate. The main area had a cheery fireplace against one wall with tables around it and there were several long counters with benches spread through the rest of the room. Clean sawdust covered the floor. Two very small windows faced the front of the building leaving the room quite dark. Several candles burnt in sconces along the walls. Behind the bar, a small tired looking woman stood washing tankards in a large bowl. As she slowly dried each one, she stacked it with others on a shelf running behind her. A doorway next to the shelf showed a part of the kitchen area. This looked fairly clean too. Gabrielle carefully noted the people tucked away in the darker corners of the room. These were the ones she had to watch for. They almost always were. To the right of the bar itself was a set of stairs, probably leading up to the rooms.

Gabrielle walked over to the bar and spoke to the woman working there. "Is it possible to rent a room for the night?" She asked.

"Yes, yes. We be having rooms available." The woman said softly.

"I'd like one room for myself and my travelling companion, please." Gabrielle requested politely, leaving Xena's name out of it for the moment. She knew some people still didn't quite believe the change which had taken place within the Warrior Princess.

"Now you just be waiting right here, young lady while I go be getting the keys." The woman turned to leave. "Would you be wanting to bathe as well?"

"Oh yes, that would be wonderful, thank you." The young Bard said. Gabrielle knew a hot bath would be just the thing after days and days of washing herself in the cold water of various rivers and streams. "I might even get a little laundry done too." She thought.

The small woman walked out the doorway into the kitchen area and Gabrielle could hear the sound of voices flowing from the room. A young boy, no more than ten or twelve, shot out the door with buckets in hand to get their baths ready. She heard the sound of a well handle creaking as the boy drew the water.

Gabrielle turned to look at the rest of the room and almost mashed her nose into the chest of a man standing entirely too close to her back. After getting one whiff of the odour all but crawling off his unwashed body and badly stained clothes, her nose was rapidly wishing it *had* been mashed so she wouldn't have to smell him.

"Well, looky here, boys. What's a pretty thing like you be doing out all on your own? You really should have someone looking after you." Unwashed said with a leer. He tried to grab hold of Gabrielle's chin but she side-stepped him easily.

"Oh, come now. I be just trying to make with the nice. Pretty things shouldna be left alone, after all. Never know what might be happening to them." He said and smirked a very gap toothed grin. The smell of rotting teeth washed over Gabrielle and she nearly lost the little she had in her stomach.

Barely holding her complaining insides together she said, "I'm alright, really. My travelling companion will be along any moment and I won't be alone anymore."

Unwashed made a sudden lunge for Gabrielle's breast. She stepped back but the bar was right behind her. The man's large meaty hands smacked down on either side of her body and he was leaning forward fully intending to kiss her, his fleshy lips already puckering.

"Well, don't say I didn't warn you." Gabrielle said softly. She swung her staff over, caught it with her other hand and holding it level to the ground, slammed it down onto the forearms of Unwashed. The hit was hard enough to make him step back but certainly not enough the break anything.

Unwashed roared in pain and ripped his sword from its sheath. Gabrielle stood her ground, trying to keep the bar at her back. She had dropped slightly into a defensive crouch and was holding her staff ready. The now angry man was taking short steps from side to side trying to see an opening. It was obvious he had not fought against a staff before. He made a quick lunge forward. Gabrielle easily parried the blow and returned to her ready position. He tried an overarm hit. Once again, Gabrielle blocked the blow, swung one end of the staff down and made solid contact with the mans' large gut. The air whomped out of him. Unwashed stood up, breathing heavily and swung his sword again. He came in sideways and the Bard simply blocked the hit. The swing had thrown him slightly off-balance and Gabrielle used this to give him a very solid shove to the chest. He staggered back and tripped over one of the benches, landing in an inglorious heap on the ground.

"Get her, boys!!" He roared from his position on the floor.

"I wouldn't if I were you." A low female voice called from the front of the room.

Several heads spun around to the look at whoever was at the door. Xena could hear her name move up the room like a cold winter wind. Nobody moved. Xena walked impassively up to Gabrielle and stood beside her, neither standing in the way of the other just in case somebody decided they really wanted to die that day.

"You okay?" She asked.

"Never better, Xena" Gabrielle grinned back at her. She was barely breathing hard.

The tall warrior looked down at Unwashed still seated on the floor. "You bothering my friend here?" She asked, far too casually.

"Oh no, no. I be just leaving. See. I be going right now." He said, shaking his head as he rapidly crawled along the floor and out the door. Moments later, hoofbeats could be heard heading away from the inn.

Xena glanced over to the 'boys' to see they had very slowly and carefully replaced their weapons and returned to their seats. No one wanted the Warrior Princess after them.

The ice blue eyes swung around and came to rest on Gabrielle. She started to smile and said, "Leave you alone for five minutes and you start picking fights. What *am* I to do with you?" The glint of wicked laughter in Xena's eyes was enough to let Gabrielle know she hadn't done anything wrong.

Feeling a little cheeky and knowing she was pushing her luck, she answered, "Maybe you shouldn't let me out of your sight then."

"Oh, Gabrielle....." Xena said, exasperated. She rolled her eyes towards the ceiling and tried not to smile at her friend. She had been standing at the door from the moment Gabrielle had first hit the unwashed man. She really didn't see a need to step in unless her friend managed to get herself into more trouble than she could handle. Unlikely, as the young Bard really was as good with that staff as Xena had told her. Secretly, Xena felt very pleased at how well Gabrielle had handled herself. She hadn't gone looking for the fight but she was more than able to defend herself with that staff, even if the 'boys' had joined the fray. She just wished it was unnecessary.

Later that night, over bowls of a wonderfully rich fish stew and freshly baked bread, the tall warrior and the young Bard discussed what little information they had dug up about the troubles further down the coast. This little village was seen as the end of the line and news was slow to arrive.

Xena looked deeply into her tankard of port. "I hate slavers! I hate raiders! I hate bullies and tyrants and this bastard is all that and more!" She said savagely, almost biting each word off as she spoke it. "What he can't take, he simply destroys!" Looking up into the concerned eyes of her friend, she relaxed a little and tried to smile. Stopping herself for a moment, she thought, "I really shouldn't get so angry around Gab. It frightens her so much sometimes."

Gabrielle was anything but afraid. All she could see was Xena trying to take on the troubles of the whole world to atone for her own cruel past. "Will she ever forgive herself?" She wondered. "Xena's years as one of the most feared warlords Greece had ever seen weighs so heavily on her soul. What will it take for her to see she was simply lost and not the evil monster she thinks she is?" Gabrielle reached out her hand and gently touched the arm of the woman sitting across from her. She was surprised and privately delighted when Xena didn't immediately try to shrug it off as she had done so many times in the past.

"So, does this bastard have a name?" Gabrielle asked, injecting a small note of lightheartedness into her voice. "Or shall we continue to call him the bastard?"

Xena looked up suddenly from the hand still on her arm. "You amaze me sometimes, Gab. You know that." A slow, very genuine smile grew on her face.

The younger woman blushed and looked down at her empty plate. She felt callused yet gentle fingers under her chin forcing her to look up at her travelling companion.

"Never lose that sense of fun, will you?" Xena asked seriously.

Gabrielle nodded, unable to speak. The jolt of delicious electricity that had travelled from Xena's fingers down her body to explode somewhere in the bottom of her stomach had left her without enough breath to answer. She didn't understand how such a simple touch could effect her that way but it felt far too good to try to explain to herself. She let herself enjoy it.

Xena didn't seem to notice and continued talking. "The bastards' name is Tethion!" She ground her teeth together in anger. "He has a fairly vicious little army made up of the worst kind of filth on earth. Seems he has ideas about taking over this entire section of coastline and using the trade profits to push his campaign further inland."

"So where is he now?" Gabrielle asked a little fearfully.

Xena stopped to think for a moment about the travelling time and answered, "About four days ride from here but I could probably do it in two if I was on my own."

"Ooooh no! You are not leaving me behind again!" Gabrielle almost snarled at the tall woman. "You've said it yourself. I am quite capable of taking care of myself and I am not letting you ride off into who knows what kind of trouble without some kind of backup." The Bard barely stopped herself from thumping her fist on the tabletop. As it was, the raised voices had heads turning from all around the room.

Xena started to get angry at her friend's insistence on putting herself in danger all the time. Her eyes became chips of ice as she said, "Gabby, I am not asking you to stay here, I am telling you. This has to be done MY way. Do you understand!"

"NO! I do not understand. Explain it to me, oh Great Warrior Princess!" Gabrielle shouted back sarcastically. As soon as she had said the words, she knew she had gone too far. Not quite knowing what to expect, she sat waiting for the earth to fall in on her. She was still furiously angry. All the times she had been left, safe, in some village while Xena pounded the bad guys. All the times Xena had tried to protect her, even when it was obvious she didn't need the protection. All the times she had been treated as less than an equal. All the times......roared through her mind taking it with any chance of sensible thinking.

Xena just sat staring at her young friend. She simply didn't know what to say. All that anger? Where had she gotten it from? She cringed inside. Xena *knew* where her tender-hearted friend had picked it up. And she hated herself all the more for it. Her own anger at herself flared up. Standing up, she snarled back, "You're staying!" Turning on her heel, she was out of the room in a few long strides.

Gabrielle looked around the room. Every head was turned in her direction, completely engrossed in the drama before them. Stifling a sob behind teeth clenched so tightly her head began to ache, she stood up and head high, walked up the stairs to their room. Only when she was safely behind its closed and locked door did she break down completely and cry, "Oh gods. What have I done?"

Xena strode from the inn, eyes flashing blue fire. The few people left on the streets had very rapidly gotten out of her way. They recognised an elemental force when they saw one. She pounded up to the closed gate of the palisade and demanded it be opened for her. The guard didn't even stop to think as he fumbled to unlock the latching. His life was too precious for him to annoy the leather-clad bundle of explosive energy. Xena kicked the gate out of her way and set a heel thumping pace off into the fields. She kept walking into the darkness, her mind frozen, remembering the look of absolute anger and hurt on Gabrielle face. The only thought in her mind, repeated over and over again was, "By all the gods. What have I done?"

Candlemarks later, Xena found herself sitting on a large rock several feet back from the cliff edge. The thunderous sound of the surf crashing onto the cliffs below had calmed her. The village was miles behind her. Not even the torches on top of the palisade wall could be seen in the distance. Looking out to the dark horizon and watching the moon reflect off the waters below, she tried to think.

"I know I am right about leaving her here. Yes, she can defend herself against any bully boy she may come across in the inns and taverns but I'm not sure she would be safe against dozens of heavily armed soldiers." Xena's mind kept returning to the images of Gabrielle practising with her staff and just how truly deadly she had become with it. Her mind lingered on the images, no longer seeing the dance of whirling patterns the staff wove around the young woman's lithe body. Instead she was seeing the young woman herself. The subtle play of muscles under her skin. The graceful movements as she moved around her practise targets. The look of determination and the feral, almost-smile on her face. Xena grinned to herself. She knew where Gabrielle had learned that. It was the same look Xena had every time she went into battle. It always seemed to unnerve her opponents when they thought she was going to enjoy killing them. To be honest, she no longer enjoyed the killing but to protect herself, and more importantly, Gabrielle, she did what was necessary.

Xena's mind started to wander over other images of Gabrielle she had stored away in her memory. Though Gabrielle didn't know it, Xena rarely had her eyes off the young woman and would watch her surreptitiously whenever she thought Gabrielle wasn't noticing. She had been doing it for so long now, she no longer even thought about it consciously. Images of Gabrielle laughing at something she had said one night, the firelight highlighting the red in her strawberry blonde hair. Gabrielle standing hip deep in a river, wearing just her shift as she tried to catch fish the way Xena had shown her. The water plastering the thin material against her skin. A lean muscular leg as it kicked the blanket off at night. The sight of her strong, naked body as she dove into the water.

Xena smiled to herself. She wondered what it would be like to hold that same naked body against her own bare skin. Xena suddenly jerked her head up. Now where had that thought come from?? She had never slept with a woman before, had never even entertained the idea. Why was she suddenly thinking about it with Gabrielle? Xena knew she could hardly call herself 'virginal' anymore. She had often used her body as a weapon to gain her own ends in the past. But sleeping with women was something that had never crossed her mind before. And she did know for a fact that Gabrielle had never slept with anyone and was still a virgin. A few stolen kisses maybe but definitely a virgin. She tried to think about the last time she had slept with anyone. Longer than her memory would allow after some minutes of deep thought. She certainly couldn't remember the last time she had *enjoyed* sex with a man. Was that it? Was she simply frustrated?

"Come on, you big, dumb warrior. Get honest with yourself." Whispered a small, quiet voice from deep inside herself.

Xena could feel herself shying away from the emotions like a spooked horse. This was not something she expected from herself. She had worked too hard to suppress as much emotion as possible, even now as she tried to work her way towards her feelings of redemption. But thoughts of Gabrielle had given her heart and soul the chance they were looking for.

"What?! Xena, The Warrior Princess *afraid* of something!" The voice taunted gently.

"SHUT UP!! SHUT UP!!" Xena cried out, grabbing her head between her hands. She fought with herself, raged against the emotions fighting to be released. Slamming up her walls, bringing all her defences into play, she still knew the battle would be lost. She fought silently with herself, and that small, quiet voice regardless. She sat, every muscle tensed against the battle within. She didn't know how to fight this voice inside herself. She wasn't even sure if she really wanted to but she still battled. That was her way. Her own emotions did not fight fair, they had been denied for far too long. They battered her from within, demanding liberation. Demanding that she *feel* again, totally and completely.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, there was a small breach in her walls. Just enough to let her see something she didn't want to see, let alone acknowledge. She was not given a choice. This was her own heart and soul fighting back.

"I NEED HER!! OH GODS, HOW I NEED HER!!" Xena wailed into the night sky. It was the soul-wrenching cry of a shattered heart calling to its other half. She rolled from the rock and collapsed into a heap on the ground, fighting once more but this time to stop the sobs from getting passed her throat. "Damn you. Damn you. I hope you are satisfied!" She moaned quietly.

"For now." Was the answer she heard from that insistent voice inside.

Gabrielle snapped into sudden wakefulness. She looked around the darkened room, barely lit by one small candle. "Xena?" She whispered softly. Peering into the darkness, she could see that the warrior had not returned. Sliding from the pallet, she walked carefully over to the window and looked out. Everything seemed peaceful and quiet. The moon had already set but she could still see the stars being reflected in the waters below the village. The sea breeze, chilly off the cool water, gently shaped her cotton shift against her body. She wrapped her arms around her chest to warm herself. Feeling a sadness she could not explain and didn't have the energy to think about, she climbed back into the lonely bed. Within moments, she was asleep again.

Hours later a shadow silently drifted across the room to stand by the sleeping woman. A gentle hand reached out to cup her cheek. Gabrielle nuzzled into the hand for a moment, a soft smile creasing her face. The hand caressed her skin and Xena's voice whispered into the darkness. "I just need to know you are safe." The hand left. There was a rustle of parchment and the shadow was gone.

In the distance, the thunder of galloping hoofbeats echoed quietly in the night.


The raucous sound of sea birds calling, wafted in through the open window. Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly and looked over at the other side of the pallet. "Xena didn't return last night." She thought. Quickly sitting up she glanced over to the corner where their gear was stowed. She saw her own pack and bedroll as well as the saddle-bags but Xena's small saddle pack and blankets were gone. Gabrielle leapt out of bed. Quickly scrabbling through the gear, she confirmed that some of Xena's things were gone. Most likely taken by Xena herself. Tears sprang up in Gabrielle's eyes and her deepest fear suddenly slammed into her full force. "She's left me. Oh my god, she's left me." She whispered agonisingly. Gabrielle pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She sat moaning softly, rocking and crying for the better part of an candlemark before her mind started to think again.

"Was she really that angry with me last night?" She thought, still sitting on the floor. "Nooo, I don't think so. We've fought over my being left behind before. What happened this time?" Gabrielle wiped her nose on the back of her hand. Though she ran every memory she had of the past few days back over in her mind, she couldn't think of anything that really stood out enough which would cause Xena to suddenly leave like this. Gabrielle finally stood up. She was starting to feel chilled sitting on the floor for so long. Turning, she noticed the parchment on the table, carefully placed under the candlestick. Grabbing it, she quickly read the message.


Stay put. I need to know you are safe.

Be back as soon as I can.


Yes, that was her Xena, all right. The mistress of understatement. Then Gabrielle noticed at the very bottom of the paper, almost like an afterthought, written in tiny letters, Your Best Friend. Gabrielle's heart beat faster. Xena had sometimes called her that but it just felt so different seeing it written in Xena's neat hand. She clutched the parchment to her heart and then sat down to read it again.

"You know," She said aloud to herself trying to make sense of things, "there is really something different about all this. For one, Xena almost never leaves me notes. She simply goes. Yes, a written note is strange enough in itself. The 'stay put' I'm used to. I'm getting a little tired of 'staying put', that's for sure." Gabrielle read the note one more time and the part that had nudged her sub-conscious attention jumped out in bold relief. I need to know you are safe. Gabrielle tapped the parchment against her lips. "She needs to know I am safe? She NEEDS to know......" The young woman sat stunned for a moment. Not once in all the time they had travelled together had Xena ever said she needed Gabrielle, for anything. And here it was written by her own hand. "What happened last night that you suddenly need to know I am safe??"

Gabrielle sat pondering for a few minutes more and finally reached a decision of her own. "Well, my friend. *I* need to know you are safe too and I can only do that by being with you." The young Bard quickly dressed, parked up her gear and ran down the stairs. The bar-keep was up and washing down the tables and benches. She asked to leave the saddle-bags and everything she couldn't carry at the inn, promising to return as soon as possible. Minutes later she was heading out the palisade gate and into the fields, following the track to the next village.


Though she kept a sharp eye on the horizon all day, Gabrielle never once saw Xena on the track. She knew she was following her because she could see Argo's hoofprints on the ground. He wasn't galloping along but neither was he walking at the pace she was used to. She had picked up her own pace as soon as she realised that Xena and Argo had such a headstart on her. She had only stopped a couple of times during the day but after a few minutes, her own anxiety to catch up forced her back out onto the track again. Not stopping at sunset, she continued on into the night, letting the pale light of the moon guide her feet. Once the moon had set, she decided to camp for the night. Finding a small spring, little more than a soak really, in a tiny clearing, she made a small fire and lay down exhausted. The sound of crashing surf in the distance soothed her but for some reason she couldn't fall asleep. Giving up the effort, she wrapped her blankets around her and sat staring into the blaze.

"What happened to you, Xena? One minute you're so angry with me that I thought you were going to break something into little tiny pieces; namely me. And the next you need me. I don't understand." Gabrielle said to herself. "I don't understand myself any better right now either. Why do I need to follow you? Why do I need to be with you so much. Why does your approval mean everything to me? Why does your smallest smile light up my day? And why does the lightest touch from you just take my breath away? Why do I feel that I would die for you?" The young Bard sat thinking deeply, trying to make some kind of sense of all her questions. Her own inexperience hampering her in many ways. The hours seemed to creep passed but the young woman was no closer to any kind of an answer.

Like a shooting star across the heavens, an idea struck Gabrielle out of the blue. It left her open-mouthed with surprise. "Is it possible I am in love with you, Xena?"

Quite some miles ahead, Xena sat before a small fire of her own, in an equally tiny clearing with a small spring. Sleep had deserted the woman for the night and she sat tentatively trying to sort out the feelings in her own heart. She was not having a great deal of success. Too many years of hiding from herself was making it very difficult for her. She had spent most of the day trying to come to terms with the idea of needing anyone. As the old Warrior Princess, she would have scoffed at the thought and simply wiped it from her memory. But she wasn't that person anymore. This Xena, the Xena trying to find her way back to the light, had let a bright, young, overly talkative woman join her as a travelling companion, protected her, called her friend, even liked her. Yet actually needing someone.....needing Gabrielle. That was a new idea. Almost too new for her to understand. By the time the first pearly light of dawn was showing on the horizon, Xena was no closer to understanding. "Come on, Argo. Time to get going again." She said to the war-horse. Mounting up and heading back out to the track, Xena's night of contemplation had worn the barriers between herself and her feelings very thin indeed. If only she realised it.

Mid-morning found Gabrielle scanning the ground for Argo's tracks. She had lost sight of them and was hoping she was still going the right way. Xena was the far better tracker but Gabrielle wasn't completely hopeless. Xena had been spending months teaching her and Gabrielle pleased herself in being able to remember almost everything she had learned. Giving up on trying to find Argo's hoofprints, she remembered something else Xena had once said to her. "Remember to use *all* your senses. There is more than one way to find someone." Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply. Delighted with herself, her nostrils tickled with a hint of wood smoke nearby. Continuing to follow her nose, she found the small site Xena had used the night before. Holding her hand over the remains of the fire, she could just feel the last of the heat from the flames. "Hmmmm, still four or five candlemarks ahead of me." She mumbled to herself. But she knew she was closing the gap. Gabrielle had left her own campsite before dawn was even on the horizon. Moving around the camp in an enlarging spiral, she eventually found Argo's tracks again and set off after Xena once more.

In reality, Xena was little more than two candlemarks ahead of the Bard. Two nights without sleep had finally caught up with her and in the drowsy, mid-morning heat she decided to step off the track and get some rest before spying out Tethion's war camp. She knew she was getting close. The track was badly cut up with the prints of dozens of horses and wagons. There was not a lot she could have done in daylight anyway and it was probably better for her to rest now. She didn't know when she would get the chance again. Half a mile into the close forest, Xena found a little clearing at the bottom of a hollow. No one would find her there unless they stepped right on top of her. She had closed her eyes thinking about Gabrielle.

Gabrielle tramped along the track forcing herself to keep to the pace she had set. She was tired and the heat rising from the track was making her attention wander. Stopping for a moment, she threw herself into the shade of a small bush and took a long satisfying drink from her waterbag. Sitting up again, she looked down the track, its surface dancing in the sunlight. It was starting to make a wide turn to the right cutting off any view of what lay ahead. "I'll have to be a bit more careful now. Can't have anyone simply sneaking up on me." Gabrielle grinned wickedly to herself. "Be just my luck to have Xena jump out of the bushes at me and try to send me back to the village." She climbed wearily to her feet and began walking along the track once more.

Almost half a mile directly behind where Gabrielle had been sitting, Xena slept fitfully in her little clearing, fighting to hold back the tears which wanted to flow. There was no comfort in her dreams this time, no gentle hand softly stroking her hair, no quietly humming voice to chase away her demons. Argo raised her head for a moment and snorted. The smell was familiar and she returned to the sweet grass she had been eating.

Gabrielle was staring to feel a little anxious. There were too many other hoofprints on the track and she couldn't sort out which ones belonged to Argo. She was still reasonably sure Xena was ahead of her somewhere but she no longer had the comfort of Argo's prints to show her the way. As the track turned inland, the forest had started springing up on the other side. Gabrielle could still just hear the sea as it crashed against the cliffs but the ocean was now at her back somewhere. Only the faintest hint of salt could be detected on the breeze, mostly made up of odors from the forest itself. Within a mile the forest was as thick on the left as had been on her right all this way. The Bard was starting to feel just the tiniest bit afraid. She was grateful there was still at least half a days ride until she reached the point where Xena had said Tethion's camp might be. Rounding a sharp bend in the track, she suddenly stumbled right into the midst of a dozen rough looking men. Some where atop horses, others standing on the ground but all were seriously armed.

"Damn! This really isn't going to be my day, is it?" She muttered to herself. Crouching slightly into a ready position, she swung her staff in front of her and prepared to defend herself.

Dusk was just starting to settle over the forest when Xena reached the same sharp bend in the track. She had already ducked two previous patrols simply by stepping into the forest until they had ridden past. Neither group had made any effort to hide themselves or the noise they were making. Snatches of conversation she heard as they rode passed let her know who they were looking for. Xena or the Bard that travelled with her. She noted there was never fewer than ten men in each patrol and they were always mounted. Patrols this far out were strange and Xena wondered if the camp had been moved up the track towards the village she had left behind over a day and a half ago. She would have happily taken them on but she didn't want to alert Tethion to her presence quite yet. Rounding the bend carefully, it was a perfect place for an ambush, her eye fell upon a familiar shape lying on the ground to one side of the track. Fear closing around her heart, she dismounted to pick it up.

It was Gabrielle's staff. Xena would have recognised it anywhere. And it had blood all over it.

Concentrating to clear her mind and push her emotions back behind the barriers, she carefully walked about the area and tried to understand what had happened. There seemed to be a lot of blood splattered about and Xena wasn't sure if it was Gabrielle's or her opponents. Judging from the footprints, there had been at least seven men standing but the prints of twelve horses. Xena assumed there was twelve men altogether. In the soft dirt at the edge of the track, she came across a familiar shape marked out in the dust. One she had seen a hundred times before in every open camp they had ever made. Gabrielle. There was a large pool of drying blood at the head but no sign of any other injury. Someone had roughly dragged her body over to one of the horses and Xena assumed she had been tossed over the saddle like a bag of grain. There were other body shapes in the dust. Her friend had made quite an accounting of herself before someone had taken her down. Xena felt a stillness settle over her. The calm before the bloodlust of battle. This was the feeling she had lived for during her days as a warlord. The feeling of darkest rage barely held in check, taking but a spark to ignite the fires of her anger and her hatred. With a voice completely devoid of emotion, Xena spoke quietly into the darkness of the surrounding forest. "Harm a single hair on her head, Tethion and you will regret forever the day you were ever born."

Tucking Gabrielle's staff along the side of her saddle, Xena re-mounted and began to move towards Tethion's war camp.


Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to scream at somebody, anybody, to stop beating those accursed drums. She forced her eyes open only to realise the drums she was hearing were actually beating inside her own head. She tried to roll onto her back, quickly finding someone had tied her arms behind her in a very uncomfortable position. Then she remembered. The sharp bend in the track, too many men, fighting, as fast as she disabled one another took his place. Her last clear memory was of a sword coming towards her head and she being in the wrong position to duck. She had honestly thought she was going to die but it seems whoever used that sword had hit with the flat of the blade, intending to disable her and not simply kill outright. "Considering how I feel though, I wish I was dead. Surely, it can't hurt as much as this?" She thought. As the noise inside her head settled a bit, she started to look at her surroundings.

She was inside some kind of metal cage, bars at least an inch thick. Looking up she quickly realised that she would just barely have room to sit, if she hunched over. Not exactly the most comfortable of positions, especially for any length of time. She hardly had room to lie down. Her feet were pushed up against one corner of the cage, her knees bent sharply towards her body, and her head was jammed into the opposite corner. No, there was no comfort to be found that way either. Moving her head trying to look further, she felt the wound on her head re-open and the blood start to flow freely again. This did not feel good. "How much blood have I already lost?" She wondered almost idly. Gabrielle closed her eyes. "It feels so good to sleep. I wonder what Xena is doing?" And she faded into semi-consciousness.

Xena was still working her way towards the encampment. Guards were been rimmed around the perimeter practically within arm's distance of each other. She had already circled the camp twice and hadn't yet found a way passed those guards. These men were alert too. "Maybe later in the night they might start to doze a bit." She thought. From high in a tree, Xena could just make out the shape of Gabrielle locked up in some sort of a too-small metal cage. She watched closely but Gabrielle hadn't moved and Xena was starting to worry her friend might have actually been killed in the attack. "But why keep the body then?" She wondered to herself.

She climbed down from the tree not shaking so much as a twig. Using every woodcraft skill she possessed, she crept as close to the camp as she dared. Hidden in a small patch of leafy bush, she sat listening in to the snatches of conversation that drifted on the quiet night air towards her. Suddenly her ears pricked up. She recognised that voice. Carefully moving a couple of leaves from her line of sight, she could see a man standing near the fire talking loudly. Xena bit down on her bottom lip and forced herself to remain still. The man was the unwashed ruffian from the inn back in the village.

The other man was speaking too quietly for Xena to hear what he was saying but she got the general gist of the conversation from the loud braying of Unwashed. The quiet man leaned over and said something.

"Idiot!" Unwashed spat. "Even a body be enough to drag that bitch out of hiding. But she be breathing sweet right now. Tethion wants to be the one to say he finally killed that troublesome cow. Her and that pretty Bard of hers. Tain't natural like, what they be doing together."

Xena felt a part of herself relax. Gabrielle was still alive. But for how long? Tethion she would deal with later. Right now she had to find a way to rescue her friend.

"No, no. Tethion wants to ask the little wildcat some questions first. Then we be having our fun with her." Unwashed grabbed at his crotch graphically. "But he won't be back time tomorrow morn at the earliest." He looked over to the cage hidden by the shadows and leered. "We can still be having some fun though even if the sort of fun I be wanting has to wait. It'll be all the sweeter, after all."

The quiet man looked up expectantly.

"It'll have to wait til later though. To many people be around at the moment." Unwashed smirked to himself. "Yes, it be a lot of fun indeed to teach that pretty a lesson. Meet me aback the kitchen tent just afore moonset. Everything be quiet then."

The sounds of an approaching guard forced Xena to move back or be found. "I should have killed you when I had the chance, fat boy." She thought darkly. "In fact, I'll make sure of it this time." Circling back around the camp, she walked quietly to the little corpse of trees where she had tethered Argo and decided to wait until moonset before making any kind of a move. Like Unwashed had said, everything be quiet then.

Gabrielle woke spluttering and gasping for breath as water cascaded down on her from above. It was absolutely icy and certainly brought her back to consciousness in a hurry. Another bucketload poured down on her but the best she could do was turn her head so her mouth and nose were pointed towards the ground. It stopped her from breathing in the worst of the water but not all of it. Still coughing and trying to get her breath, rough hands reached in and dragged her from the cage. She felt herself leave several layers of skin from her legs on the lip of the door. The head wound was bleeding again and she could feel the warm blood running down the back of her neck and soaking into what was left of her shirt. Hands supported her on both sides as her knees barely held her upright. Swaying and shivering, she tried to focus on the shape moving in front of her.

"Hi there, me little pretty thing." Said a far too familiar voice. "Time to be learning your lessons"

An uncaring hand grabbed her by the chin and someone brutally kissed her, forcing his tongue deep into her mouth. If she'd had anything in her stomach at all, she'd have thrown up. She knew who this was. The man in the inn she had beaten off with her staff.

"It be a right pity I can do no more but the boss wants to talk to you first and he be having the nuts of any man who tries you out before he does." The man's voice whispered cruelly in her ear. "I be betting you be a real spitfire when bedded. Oh yes. I be certainly seeing what that warrior bitch be seeing in you." A hand pawed harshly along her partly exposed breast squeezing the nipple painfully as it passed. "But there be other things a little pretty like you can be learning about proper respect to men."

Gabrielle never saw it coming and didn't have a chance to roll with the punch. An iron fist slammed into her face. Her knees gave from under her and she teetered on the edge of consciousness. Another bucket of icy water landed in her face.

"Oh no, pretty one. Not so quickly now. You have a *lot* to learn and I be not letting you slide away from your lessons." The man's voice snarled at her.

A star filled blackness hovered in front of Gabrielle's eyes. All she could hear was the meaty smack of fist against flesh, her flesh, as the unwashed man beat her about the face, over and over again. The pain burned through her shutting almost everything else out. After a few moments, she didn't even hear her own quiet moans anymore. "Xena!" She cried out in her mind before she lost touch with herself completely. "Do you hear me? By all the gods, can you hear me? I love you! I just wish I could say it to your face." Gabrielle's mind escaped beyond to a dark place where she hoped she wouldn't feel the pain, even though she still moaned softly after every strike of the unwashed man's fist.

Xena had spent the candlemarks waiting for moonset, terrified Unwashed would decide to take his 'fun' a little sooner than he had said. As she circled the camp to try to find a weak spot in the perimeter nearest the cage, she heard the sounds that told her he had. The darkness screamed up within her. All she had to do was reach out and take its power. She stood shaking. She wanted nothing more than to give into the seductive strength it offered her. The rage boiled in her mind whispering its love secrets to her. She felt herself slipping....slipping....slipping into its blood-red embrace. Like a long, lost lover returned, whose body you know all too well. "It would be so easy." She thought. "I am so tired of fighting myself, fighting the darkness within me"

Then like a bell tolling through the fog, she heard Gabrielle earnest young voice. "If anything ever happens to me, promise me you won't become a monster again." Xena heard her own voice replying. "I promise." And she had meant it.

Hands fisting until her nails cut deeply into her palms, Xena whispered almost soundlessly into the darkness around her and to the darkness within her. "I made a promise and I always keep my word. Especially to Gabrielle." As though saying her friends name aloud was some kind of touch stone, the darkness dissipated, the rage calmed and settled, her head cleared again. Feeling a peace she never knew she had within her, Xena stood up quietly. "Hold on, Gabby. I'm coming." She murmured.

Wriggling forward on her belly, she looked to see where the perimeter guards were standing. For once her luck was holding. Four of the men, who should have been standing next to each other, had instead grouped together and were concentrated on the dice they were throwing. The gap was almost twenty feet wide. More than enough for Xena to slip through. But could she get back. "I'll deal with that when the time comes." She thought.

Slithering though the gap, using every leaf of cover there was, she found herself on the other side of the perimeter line and in the camp itself. Up ahead she could hear the sound of someone being beaten. Xena knew that someone was Gabrielle.

She popped her head above the level of the grasses she lay in and quickly took stock of what was happening. "Only three of them. Good. I just might be able to get in and out without raising the whole camp." Not that it really mattered to her. She was willing to take on every single man there if that is what it would take to get Gabrielle back again. But she would rather do it quietly and avoid the chance of Gabrielle being hurt any further. Moving quickly, she crawled around the cage in a wide circle, ending in the deep shadows beside a tent. Gabrielle's head was hanging down below the level of the shoulders of the two men holding her up. Unwashed had to raise it every time he hit her. "Better and better." She thought. Unlacing her chakram from her belt and removing her knife, she suddenly stood up. Her movement was never noticed by the three men standing near the cage. With an almost casual flick of her hand, she tossed the chakram at the necks of the two men holding Gabrielle. Unwashed barely had a second to register the chakram slicing through the throats of his two companions. He turned towards the direction it had come and spotted the shadow of Xena standing, waiting for him to recognise her. He sucked in a lungful of air, either out of surprise or to call an alarm. Xena didn't care. Her knife buried itself deeply into his throat. He fell. His life-blood already draining away. She quickly walked over to the body, still vaguely scrabbling to remove the knife. "You were bothering my friend." Was all she said as the light faded from the man's eyes.

Xena grabbed her chakram from the corner bar of the cage and wiped her knife on the stained shirt of Unwashed. Quickly pushing one of the men from on top of Gabrielle's body, she eased her up onto her shoulder and as silently as she has crept in, she crept back out again through the twenty foot wide gap the inattentive guards had left her.

Barely out of earshot of the camp, Xena carefully placed Gabrielle's unconscious body on the ground. Balancing the woman against her shoulder, she used her knife to cut the thongs holding her arms behind her back. She picked up the Bard once more, in her arms this time, and walked off through the forest as silent as a shadow.

Xena knew she had to find a safe place for them to hide until she had tended to Gabrielle's injuries. Going back to the village really wasn't an option. It was simply too far for Gabrielle to travel in her current condition. The tall warrior looked down at the young woman she cradled gently in her arms. There wasn't enough light under the canopy of the forest to see very much at all but Xena could feel, and smell the blood covering her young friend. She hoped desperately it was not all Gabrielle's. Finally reaching Argo, Xena untied her reins from the branches and carefully slid the Bards still unconscious body onto the mares back. Quickly mounting behind the woman, Xena clucked her tongue at the warhorse. "Come on, girl. We have to find a place to hide that is far away from here." The mare stepped off, hardly jostling her passengers at all.


Just as dawn broke over the forest, Xena finally found a place she thought would be safe. It was deep in the forest and candlemarks from the nearest path. A small cave, just big enough for all of them with the entrance hidden by deep scrubby bushes. Xena dismounted wearily. It had been a long night of riding. She worried almost the entire journey because Gabrielle showed no signs of waking. Other than a few soft moans, she had made no sound all night. She pulled the woman from the mares back and gently carried her into the cave. Popping back out again, she unsaddled the mare. Looking around, she felt it was safe enough to let the horse graze nearby for a time.

Placing the saddle on the ground inside the cave, she first threw the horse blanket over it and then laid another blanket on top. With surprising tenderness, she placed Gabrielle on the blankets, propping her up against the saddle and covered her with the other half of her bedroll. For the first time she was able to get a good look at the damage done to the young Bard's face during the beating. She felt no anger over what she saw, only an incredible sadness that her friend should have taken such a beating. "If only I had let you come with me then none of this would have happened. You were right. You'd've been safer with me." Cautiously feeling her fingers over the battered flesh, she tried to assess if anything was broken. Amazingly, nothing was but it was going to be weeks before the bruising faded and the swelling went down. She examined the wound on her scalp and hoped she could sew it back together. It was very deep and Xena could just make out the bone at the bottom under all the clotted blood. "Nothing to do but get to it, I suppose." Xena said to herself. In a way, she was half hoping to hear some kind of reply from Gabrielle.

It seemed to take forever as Xena had sown up the scalp wound and delicately bathed away all the blood. Gabrielle's shirt had not even been worth bothering to save and Xena had simply cut it away from her friend's body. She washed the blood from her legs and rubbed a soothing ointment onto all the scrapes she could find. Finally finished, Xena covered her now naked friend with a blanket and sat back on her heels. "I guess the rest is up to you now, my friend." The dark haired woman slowly caressed the side of Gabrielle face.

By nightfall, there was still no sign of Gabrielle returning to consciousness and Xena was starting to worry. She had eaten a light meal, hardly aware of what she was putting in her mouth and had spent the rest of the evening sitting beside Gabrielle holding her hand. Finally thinking she had better get some rest herself, she removed her armour, leathers, greaves and boots before climbing into the bedroll beside the still unconscious woman. As she drew the cotton shift over her head, she told herself she was stripping to bare skin so she wouldn't irritate any of the many scrapes on Gabrielle' body. At least that is what she *tried* to tell herself and she almost half believed it. Xena had to stop herself from groaning aloud as she tucked her body against Gabrielle's. Kissing the top of the young woman's head, Xena slipped off into an exhausted and dreamless sleep.

The pale light of dawn and the sound of Argo moving a little on the other side of the cave, woke Xena the next morning. She looked down to see she had probably not moved all night and still had Gabrielle tucked up against herself. Then she noticed Gabrielle's eyes were open. But there was something odd about them. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle? You awake?" She asked softly. Xena turned the blond head towards her and looked deep into those staring eyes. Gabrielle continued to stare and didn't seem to notice Xena's presence at all.

Xena sat up a little startled. She had heard of an affliction like this, where the person lived and breathed but it was as if their soul had already gone to the Elysian Fields. She had never seen it before herself but she did know something of what to do. As she stood and stretched her tight muscles, she tried to remember everything she had ever been told about this half-dead, half-alive condition. Xena tossed her shift over her head and sat by the embers building the fire back up. She knew she had to care for the body in case Gabrielle should find her way back from Elysian Fields. "If she wants to come back, that is" She corrected herself.

The reaction to the situation finally set in and Xena found herself shaking violently. "I haven't even had a chance to tell her I need her." She said through chattering teeth. Even now, 'need' was all she was willing, or able to admit, to herself or anyone else if they had been there. "This is *not* helping Gabrielle." She chided herself strongly and locked down on her fears and worries. There was too many things she had to do. Looking over to her friend, lying there, staring into the nothingness, she said, "Hurry back, my little Bard. I miss you so much."

The days that followed blurred into a haze in Xena's mind. She found herself caring tenderly for Gabrielle as though she was a child of her own womb. If anyone had told Xena, even a few weeks before, she would be carefully massaging away someone's tight muscles or cleaning up after a person's wastes, she would have laughed out loud and declared them mad beyond all recall. But that was exactly what she was doing and not for a single second begrudging any of it. This was *her* Gabrielle she was caring for.

She found Gabrielle could swallow but not chew, so she spent candlemarks cutting up freshly caught meat and picked vegetables to cook down to a fine broth. Spoon feeding was slow but Xena was patient and gentle, making sure Gabrielle didn't choke on a single swallow. She packed soft, dry moss around her so she would not mess herself and bathed her twice a day with warm water. Gabrielle now lay on a large bed of tender branches and sweet smelling grasses to get her off the ground and make her more comfortable. Xena remembered to turn her often and would massage away any red spots so there would be no chance of sores developing. Every day she would slowly stretch out Gabrielle limbs making sure she would not stiffen, even working down to her fingers and toes. Each night Xena stripped naked and held the younger woman close as she slept, no longer trying to convince herself she was doing it just for Gabrielle's benefit.

If these changes were not startling enough to anyone who might have been looking in, it was other, more subtle change in Xena which was the most amazing. Xena started to talk. Really talk. At first, she was simply throwing the odd comment Gabrielle way because she missed the sound of another's voice. But it wasn't long before she was chattering as much as the young woman once did. At night she would sit beside Gabrielle's bed, holding her hand talking away like some wined-filled bard. Xena didn't think Gabrielle could hear her but she kept going anyway. Slowly, sometimes painfully, the walls Xena had built around her heart began to crumble. She spoke of her time as a warlord and of the anger and rage inside her. She told tales from the earliest days in her home village, before it had been attacked. She chatted about the places she had been and the people she had seen. And Xena spoke, haltingly at times, of what the friendship and companionship between them meant to her. The more she talked, the easier it became and the more open she started to be. But the deepest part of her heart was yet to be revealed.

There was still one thing Xena was yet permit herself. She was yet to allow herself the luxury of tears and the healing they could bring.

On those days when her mood blackened and she could feel the darkness calling to her, Xena would take herself out to a small clearing and practise with her sword and chakram until she was exhausted and dripping with sweat but able to smile again. She didn't realise she had already fought the first and hardest battle within herself the day she stood outside Tethion's camp and heard the call from the darkness and rage. She had finally found the right path to the light and could just see a glimmer of it in the distance. There would be other battles to come but she had found the touch stone of her own inner peace. That touch stone was called Gabrielle. Xena was stumbling her way back to being a 'normal' human being again and even though Gabrielle was not there to talk to and help her along, as the Bard had been doing for years, Gabrielle was alive, and still talking, in Xena's heart and mind. The path was going to be a long and hard journey but the ex-warlord had taken the first tiny steps willingly, and with a pure heart.

Xena sat on a small stone ledge just outside the cave they were living in. It had been almost a moon since that dark ride which brought them here. Gabrielle was still no better, though she was no worse. She had lost a little weight, not a lot but enough that Xena could notice it as she held her close each night. Xena sighed deeply. She no longer cared about Tethion and his small army. All she cared about was getting her Gabrielle back again.


Off in the villages along the coast, there had been slow changes sweeping through house after house, person after person. Rumours of Xena's presence somewhere in the area had given the villagers under Tethion's heel hope. They had all heard the stories and legends, many written and spread by Gabrielle herself in every village and hamlet where she could find an audience. The stories gave the villagers courage and showed them the way. First alone and then in small groups, they began to fight back. These were the fishermen, farmers and foresters of the area and they knew the land well. Far better than Tethion's band of cut-throats. Whenever, wherever there was an opportunity, they picked off the soldiers one or a few at a time. One night, almost a moon after Gabrielle had left the village at the end of the coast, a large group of these land-folk attacked the war camp itself. They were armed with the weapons they knew the best. Nets, hoes, scythes and axes. What they lacked in expertise, they made up for in sheer, raw courage. The gods were with them that night, for they won. Tethion barely escaped with his life, losing the howling mob at his heels in the darkness of the forest. After burying the dead and attending to the hurts of their wounded, the men and women returned to their homes to celebrate their victory and sing the songs of Xena, The Warrior Princess. Though she had not been with them in body, her courage was their example and it had inspired them.


Xena watched the last of the sunlight leave the forest around her and the first stars started to twinkle in the sky above. Argo was slowly moving in the general direction of the cave in readiness for the night ahead. The tall, dark haired warrior was not really thinking about anything. She was just letting the peace of the forest surround her and fill her. Soon she would go back inside and prepare a meal for both of them before retiring for the night. The passing days meant little to her now. She felt as though she was simply marching in place until something happened. What that something was she couldn't even guess. She smiled sadly at herself. She had finally found some measure of peace in her soul but the price seemed too high somehow.

A deep melancholy settled over the woman and the forest turned from dark blue to purple to the black of true night. The sounds of the evening filled her ears, so used to them that she no longer heard. Wait. There was a sound she didn't recognise. A breathy whisper of wind, almost. Xena turned her head from side to side trying to isolate the noise. Argo didn't seem to be agitated in any way and she was the best watch dog around. Then she heard the sound again......

"Xena?" A bare, cracking whisper from a long unheard voice.

Scrambling, stumbling and falling, Xena somehow managed to get back inside the cave and fell beside the bed of branches. Gabrielle's tired eyes looked back at her. Her Gabrielle had returned at last.

A small smile ghosted across Gabrielle's lips and she said softly, "Xena?"

Her name, said so delicately and with such love, it was the final stroke against the fragile barriers of her soul and Xena lay her head against Gabrielle's chest and burst into tears.

Gabrielle didn't try to understand. Here was her usually taciturn warrior princess, crying against her breast as easily as a small child. The Bard didn't even stop to think. She simply reached out and began to stroke the weeping woman's dark locks and started humming an old lullaby under her breath. As she had done on so many nights when the Xena was fighting her own inner demons, the soft touch and gentle humming gradually calmed the woman she held in her arms. The storm of tears and sobs finally abated and the glow of a rising sun began to light up the warrior's face from within. Her eyes were still closed as though she was trying to memorise the feeling of Gabrielle's heartbeat under her ear and the slow rise and fall of her breathing chest. Gabrielle's hands still stroked her hair but she had stopped humming and was simply waiting for Xena to look up again.

Xena finally sat up, not quite looking at Gabrielle but neither did she remove her hands for Gabrielle's arms. The Bard waited. Somehow she knew that whatever was coming had to be the warriors own battle and it was not something she could help her with.....this time.

Still looking down into her lap, Xena said, "Gabrielle? I have something I want to say and I to understand...if you never want to speak to me again." The final part spoken in a rush. She tried to take her hands from Gabrielle's arms but the young Bard was stronger than she looked as grabbed hold of one, refusing to let it go.

Gabrielle smiled secretly to herself. Never had Xena looked more vulnerable. She lay listening quietly while Xena tried to find the right words to express herself. The young woman did not, could not, help her. This was one battle Xena had to face....and win, alone. She could see the flight of emotions in Xena's expression but she held herself still, waiting.

Shaking herself, she appeared to come to a decision. "" Xena looked up into the gently unquestioning eyes of the young Bard and felt her own fill once again. The tall woman's deepest secret came rushing to the light, Xena accepting what she could no longer deny, even to herself. "I love you, Gabrielle. I have loved you from the very moment I first saved you from those slavers." Xena gulped back a sob. "I don't know why I didn't tell you before. I don't know why I didn't tell myself. But I have said it now. I love you so much. I don't want to lose you. You are the half of my soul I have always searched for, if I had only known I was looking all this time." And once again, Xena collapsed into tears on Gabrielle's chest.

Gabrielle let the woman cry, knowing she needed the healing of tears as much as she needed to speak her heart. She held Xena close and waited until this storm passed the way of the last.

Though it took longer, the tears finally slowed and stopped. "Xena, look at me. Please. I want you to see my eyes so you know I am telling you the truth." Gabrielle said, tugging a little at Xena to get her to sit closer. Xena looked up, afraid of what her friend was going to say. Gabrielle thought for a moment to find just the right words. "You love me." She said simply. This was not a question but a statement. Xena nodded, too terrified to speak. "You have spoken your heart and now it is time for me to speak mine." Gabrielle said.

Xena tensed herself for what she was sure was going to be the killing blow. How could this innocent, young woman ever love someone with such cruel past, someone with so much darkness in their soul? How could she ask her Bard to even love another woman, an idea even she'd had trouble accepting in the beginning. "Whatever you say, please don't ask me to leave you." Ran the words though her mind like a mantra. "Please don't ask me to leave."

Gabrielle felt Xena tense up under her hands and realised Xena was waiting to be rejected with the same courage she used in battle. She quickly said, "Xena, I love you too. I am just trying to find the right words so you will believe me."

Xena brightened for a moment and then the pain showed on her face again. "Gabrielle, I'm a woman. How can you love another woman?"

A huge smile lit the younger woman face, understanding the problem immediately. "I'm a Bard, remember. I've read everything I can find written by Sappho. Woman-love really isn't a strange idea to me, you know." Gabrielle blushed furiously. "I may not know what they actually *do* but I know I can love a woman and more importantly, I can love you. And I do. You're the strength in my soul, the courage in my heart, the center of my dreams and the woman I adore." Still blushing like the shy young maiden she was, she looked up and said in a low, husky voice, "Instead of just sitting there like some big, dumb warrior....Come over here and kiss me."

Xena leaned forward slowly, not quite believing her Bard really knew what she was asking, not sure if this beautiful, courageous, *amazing* young woman truly loved her, the Warrior Princess. She wanted to give Gabrielle the opportunity to stop her, if this was not what she honestly wanted. The moment her lips grazed Gabrielle's, she knew this was what *both* of them wanted. It was the lightest of touches, a bare thistledown brushing against her skin and she felt as though lightning had struck her body. Shaking, she could feel Gabrielle tugging at her to lie down on the bed next to her.

Pulling back, she looked down on this wonderful woman she could now admit she loved and said. "Gab, you've been so sick for almost a moon. Don't you think we should wait until you are stronger?" Xena didn't really want to wait, she could feel the fires of ignited passion burning their way up and down her body but she didn't want to hurt her beloved anymore than she had already been.

"Wait?! I've waited long enough. I'm a little weak, yes but I am certainly not paralysed." And to prove it, Gabrielle sensually ran her fingers along the side of Xena's face and down her neck. She stopped there, completely unsure of what to do next.

Xena arched her head back, exposing her throat. Shuddering, she gently pulled Gabrielle's hand away. "Give me a minute and I'll be right back." She quickly rose. Checking Argo had plenty of water for the night, she moved the broth she had been cooking away for the flames and threw a few more branches into the fire. "Just let me take care of this." She said as she lifted the blanket and carefully removed the moss she had kept packed around her lover-to-be. Gabrielle blushed a little. "Shhh. You needed it." Xena whispered when she saw the redness on Gabrielle face. Only then did Xena finally strip her own shift from her body and lay down next to Gabrielle.


Both women moaned when bare flesh knowingly touched bare flesh for the first time.

They turned into each others arms and let their lips softly touch again. Gabrielle's mind blanked for a moment. She had kissed a few boys in the village and spent a night with that priest sharing a passionate embrace but nothing prepared her for the overflow of sensation one gentle kiss could give. She reached forward wanting more. Xena's tongue brushed Gabrielle's lips and she opened her mouth a little permitting entry. Gabrielle was surprised at*undemanding* this gently searching tongue was compared to the kisses she had endured from the village boys. She let her own tongue slip forward and into Xena's mouth. Still hesitant of doing the wrong thing, she slowly explored the soft delights of Xena's mouth and lips.

Xena lay and simply let Gabrielle learn at her own pace. Her tentative kisses and gentle hands where lighting a fire in Xena no man had ever done before. But then she had never truly loved a man the way she loved this beautiful women either. The exchange of kisses back and forth went on and on in a marvellously sensuous haze but both women were starting to feel the burn for something more.

Gabrielle looked into those amazing blue eyes and admitted, a little ashamed, "I...I don't know what to do."

The dark hair woman answered, "I don't either. I've never made love with a woman before. But I have an idea or two. May I?"

The Bard giggled at the thought of her fearsome Warrior Princess actually asking permission before making love to her. "Anything for you, Warrior-mine."

Once again, Xena kissed Gabrielle, slowly letting her lips inch their way down to her throat. She took a moment to gently kiss the pulse under her ear before taking the lobe between her teeth and biting down delicately. Gabrielle jumped, gasping at the sensations it sent down her body. Xena's tongue swirled around and in the Bard's ear before softly breathing on the wet skin.

Xena grinned at the young woman's reaction. "Oooh Xena." Gabrielle breathed, "I didn't know it could feel like that."

"Surprised?" The Warrior asked, whispering the word into her lover's ear.

"Uh huh." Looking over into Xena's wonderfully blue eyes. "Surprise me some more." Gabrielle said wickedly.

As Xena's tongue resumed its delicate exploration of the folds of Gabrielle's ear, her fingers slowly circled their way up the woman's arm and across her shoulder. Taking a moment to caress her neck, they began the leisurely trip down the Bard's breast.

Gabrielle lay back, astounded. Every movement, each new touch poured fire though her nerve endings. Nothing she had ever experienced compared to the flood of sensations crashing over her body. All she could hear was the sound of her own heart thundering in her ears washing away every thought before it. Gabrielle's soul felt as though it was going to explode with love and desire for the woman next to her.

Xena's mouth and lips licked and sucked its way down the Bard's body finally resting level with her breasts, leaving a trail of faint red marks. Tenderly kissing each part of Gabrielle soft breast, she lavished loving attention to every inch of skin. One hand stroked the other breast, as though promising it too would receive the same attention if it was patient. The other hand swept back and forth along Gabrielle's side, sending sensations screaming throughout Gabrielle's body, until her world narrowed to those expressive hands and the questing, remarkable mouth on her breasts.

Gabrielle had honestly thought love was something that could only be expressed with words. Yet here in the glow of warm firelight, the smell of sweet grasses and the scent of Xena's rising excitement filling her nostrils, wrapped in the strong tender arms of her warrior princess, she was learning that love could be expressed in many ways. One hand held Xena's shoulder as though she was trying to maintain contact with reality, the other thrust deep into her lovers hair feeling the tall woman's head move from side to side, breast to breast. Mere words could never describe this bottomless ocean of feeling. If this is what is was like to drown in sensation then she would have walked willingly into the sea.

From somewhere further down her body there blazed an even greater fire, a warm, almost hot wetness between her legs she had never experienced before. Gabrielle felt a craving build in her. A craving for something she did not yet understand. Pulling Xena from the loving cradle of her breasts, she looked deep into her blue fire eyes. Beyond words, beyond thought, she tried to express this need, a need not to have the fire quenched but to have it ignited into full brilliance until her soul burned with the brightness of day.

And Xena understood.

Lifting her body, Xena shifted down between Gabrielle's legs, parting them gently with her hands. The Bard's hands clutched at the blankets beneath her body. She didn't know what to expect. She didn't know what she *should* expect. This craving....this need....this *fire* within consumed her and sought release. Her mind, ablaze with passion and desire could only wait until Xena possessed her and she surrendered.

Xena looked down on the patch of light blonde curls, damp with sweat and the excitement of Gabrielle's virginal passion. Barely able to restrain her own building desires, she dropped her head and breathed deeply. She could taste the honey-musk odor as it flowed over the back of her throat. Xena wanted to take her time, savor every moment, to show Gabrielle what was in her heart. To explain her love with hands and mouth, lips and tongue in a way her words could not.

Dropping down a little further, she supported the backs of Gabrielle's thighs with her strong, loving hands and dipped her tongue towards the center of the Bard's being. It was the lightest of touches, a mere beginning but Gabrielle's back arched until she was almost completely off the bed beneath. She dropped back down, her breathing ragged and gasping, waiting for Xena to claim her soul.

Gabrielle could feel the warrior between her legs, her hands supporting her thighs, her legs over those broad, powerful shoulders. She heard Xena breathe in. A pause and then she felt her lover's head move towards her. A white hot blast of the purest sensation tore through her entire body almost exploding behind her tightly closed eyes. A feeling so exquisite, so utterly overwhelming it cut the cry of pleasure before it could leave her throat. Her body arched, tighter than a bowstring. Her mind filled with wonder at the immensity of such a simple touch.

The warrior waited a moment, wanting to draw the pleasure out little longer. She could feel Gabrielle's legs and thighs tensing and relaxing on her hands and over her shoulders, heels digging into her back. She knew her Bard couldn't stand much more.

Dropping her head once more, she homed in on the sweetness of the young woman's being like a bee to the succulent nectar from the most beautiful spring flowers. Her tongue slipped between the folds seeking the place where the strongest passions lie, her nose filled with the scent that was uniquely Gabrielle. Soft, downy curls brushed her cheeks as she moved deeper towards the center. Gabrielle's hips began to rock in the ancient rhythms, older than time.

Letting Gabrielle set her own pace, Xena's tongue and lips gently nuzzled against her. With her chin, she could feel her lover's joy flowing against her skin. Gabrielle's ankles were locked around the back of Xena's neck, holding her in position. Xena gently moved her hand from the Bard's thigh and placed one callused finger against Gabrielle's opening.

She pushed gently until she could feel the barrier of Gabrielle's virginity. A single tear rolled down her cheek, ecstatic with wonder at the gift this marvellous woman was offering. Not wanting to cause any pain but knowing she must, just for the briefest of moments, she tore though the barrier. She knew in that split second, she would never again look at Gabrielle in same way as she had in the past. But after tonight, she doubted she would have anyway.

Gabrielle jerked up at the fleeting stab of pain but quickly found it wiped from her memory as she felt the pressure inside her building again. Lost to sensible thought, nearly insane with pleasure, feeling as though she was about to fall from the edge of a cliff, she felt Xena's strong finger slide completely into her. Once, twice, three times the finger gently slid back and forth. Xena's lips and tongue continued to delicately push her towards something.

For Gabrielle, time suddenly stopped, her breathing halted, her mind froze and everything she was, her heart, her soul, her body, herself.....shattered like fine crystal and spread itself across the heavens in a rainbow explosion of overwhelming sensations. Without hearing herself, without being aware of it, she called Xena's name aloud, over and over until she finally fell back against the blankets.

Xena lay with her cheek against the damp, sweet smelling curls as Gabrielle gradually came back to herself, feeling her lover's heartbeat slow and her breathing settle. Salty tears flowed down her face and joined with sweet dampness below. She licked her lips and could taste the honey-musk of Gabrielle against her tongue. She shifted and lay down again next to the woman she loved, holding her in her arms and looking down as Gabrielle relaxed in the warm glow of sensual satisfaction.

The Bard looked up and smiled her heart-stopping smile at her Warrior Princess. She reached up to kiss her, stopping suddenly. There was a new taste on Xena's lips. Was it herself? Xena watched as the young woman rolled the flavors and smells of herself around her mouth. Gabrielle decided she liked it and went back for more, and for more of those soft, delightful lips she loved so much. Xena growled deep in her throat, her own desires not completely satisfied. She felt the fires re-ignite within herself, a fire she had banked while gently nudging Gabrielle to the far brink of sensory understanding and beyond.

"You don't have to do this, Beloved." Xena said, her hips already starting to twitch in a rhythm of their own. "You're still a bit weak after being so sick." More than anything, she hoped Gabrielle would continue.

"Shhhh, Warrior-mine." Was all the answer she got from the woman next to her, gentle lips and hesitant fingers beginning a journey of their own.

Gabrielle shy kisses and tentative caresses burned though Xena in a way no hand, more experienced, had ever done before. The young Bard took her time, relishing each new taste, savoring each new texture of Xena's strong body. Every new scent, the feel of sweat-slicked skin, the sight of muscles contracting and relaxing under her hesitant touch, was explored and remembered as Gabrielle tried to soak up as much of Xena's essence as she could. Low mumbles of delight and wonder reached Xena's ears and further inflamed her passions. By the time Gabrielle had reached Xena's nest of dark, sweat-damp curls, the warrior was quivering, her inner thighs slick with anticipation.

The blonde haired woman gazed down and took a moment to breathe in the scent of her lover. It tantalised her, drew her forward, encouraging her to taste, to feel Xena's passion flow into her mouth. Somewhere within that slick red flower was a place where thought was banished, where a woman's soul could be possessed and for a moment, allow her to fly higher than the gods.

Gabrielle buried her face deep into the slick wetness, filling her senses with all that was Xena, wanting to lose herself in the tastes and smells completely. She could feel the warrior jump as her tongue and lips began a slow, lingering exploration of the silken folds and warm crevices. She looked up along Xena's body to see her, head thrown back in an almost hedonistic abandonment, completely surrendering herself to the Bard's unsure touch. Gabrielle's tongue dipped into Xena's opening, finding it to be sweeter than anything she could possibly remember and tasting so completely of the woman she loved.

She swept her mouth up, seeking that place she knew to be there. That place which Xena had nuzzled gently and pushed her beyond even herself. Gabrielle found the center of Xena's sensuous being and began to cautiously tickle it into throbbing sensitivity. She swirled her tongue around feeling the smallest changes in texture, revelling in the effect she could see it having on the warrior.

Xena held one hand on the back of Gabrielle's head hugging her close, the other clutched the young woman's shoulder tightly. There would be bruises there later, though the Bard never felt the pain at the time. She was lost to the outside world, lost to herself, beyond the reach of even the gods themselves, surrounded with the tastes, scents and movements of her most beloved Warrior Princess.

The tall, dark haired woman jerked up, her movements frozen, breath stopped in her throat. Gabrielle could feel a spasm against her lips. From somewhere deep inside Xena's soul roared a half-groan, half howl, loud, passionate, bouncing off the walls of the small cave, crying out her love for the Bard. It seemed to go on for forever until the last echoes dies away in Gabrielle's mind. Xena collapsed, limp, relaxed, spent.

Xena opened her eyes, feeling the young woman wrapping her arms around her body once more. Brushing a tendril of hair from Gabrielle's face, "For someone who didn't know what they were doing, you seemed to do just fine." She whispered, her voice soft with love.

"I had a good teacher." Gabrielle replied cheekily, caressing the side of Xena's face with weary fingers, her eyes already starting to drop into sleep.

Xena gently kissed the woman's soft, inviting lips once again, tasting the scent of her own pleasures on Gabrielle's mouth. She tucked the smaller woman close to her body and both soon drifted off into an exhausted slumber. The first grey light of dawn lit the entrance of the cave but neither woman was awake to notice.


Gabrielle was breathing hard, desperately trying to suck enough air into her lungs as she swung the staff in complicate movements about her body. There were no enemies, no targets, just herself and the patterns of the staff. Still weak, her grip skidded along the wood and the staff flew back across her body, hitting her hard on the shoulder before bouncing to the ground. Xena's arms were wrapped around her in an instant.

"I'm alright, Xena, honest." The Bard said as she enjoyed the feeling of the warriors strong arms about her. Trying to ignore the rising feeling of lust, she looked up into the woman's worried face. Only permitting herself to kiss her lightly on the chin, Gabrielle gently pushed herself out of the enclosing circle. "I'm fine. Really. My hand just slipped, that all." She wiped the sweat from her face. "How am I ever going to get well again if I don't practise?" The young woman was starting to get a little exasperated with herself and her weakness. Now she knew how her lover felt every time she was hurt in a battle.

"You've only been out of bed a few days, Gabby." Xena tried not to look so worried but failed completely.

"Once you let us *both* out of bed, you mean." A wicked light glinted in Gabrielle's eyes.

The tall warrior blushed a little thinking of the days spent in bed together, exploring their bodies and the delights they could bring the other. "Don't change the subject, woman." Xena mock-growled at the young Bard. "It's true, you really have only been up a few days and I think you might be expecting too much of yourself. You were...gone....were away for nearly a moon."

"All the more reason I need to practise now. I promise, I won't wear myself out too much. Have to save something for later." Gabrielle gave Xena a wicked smile and then picked up her staff once more.

The warrior stepped back to give Gabrielle room to practise. She was still blushing at the look in the younger woman eyes. Yes, it was certainly taking some getting used to, this new, sensuous, definitely sexual Gabrielle. Not that Xena disapproved or anything. She was simply getting used to the idea and it was taking a little time. "Was I this bad when I first discovered sex?" She wondered. "Have to admit, *I* can't seem to get enough of her sweetness either, so I can't really say anything about her, now can I?" She stepped back a little more and tried to look at Gabrielle's practise session through critical eyes. "Well, yes, she does seem to be getting stronger but I wouldn't put her up against any local bully boy just yet."

The staff spun in a final series of fast twirls and circles, the wood becoming a blur around the young woman, before coming to rest at Gabrielle's side again. The woman bent over, gasping to pull enough air into her labouring lungs. She was still far from happy with her performance but felt she had pushed her body as far as it was going to go in one day.

She heard her lover step up beside her. "Here. Let me take that." Xena said reaching out the take the staff.

Gabrielle looked up, not exactly angry, more annoyed. "This has to stop *now* before it goes too far." She thought. Almost from the moment she had gotten off the bed of branches and grasses she had lain in for a moon, Xena had been treating her like she was the most fragile of crystal, something that would break at the slightest touch. "Come on, Warrior-mine. Let's sit in the shade for a minute. There's something we really need to talk about."

Sitting next to each other under the shade of the trees, Gabrielle tried to find the right words to describe how she was feeling, without upsetting her sometimes temperamental warrior lover. "Xena, I guess what I am trying to get you to understand is I am not made of something fragile. I won't break, you know."

Xena looked up sharply. "Am I being a bit over-protective?"

Giggling silently to herself. "Yes, she is still the mistress of the understated comment. How is it that some things about her will never change?" Gabrielle carefully wiped the grin from her face before continuing. "Yes, Warrior-mine, you *are* being over-protective. You weren't this bad before I....well, just before. What's up? Afraid I am going to leave or something."

Blushing, Xena looked into her lap, at the trees around them, anywhere but actually at Gabrielle. Tears filled her eyes as she spoke. "Beloved...I *am* afraid of losing you." It was about the most honest statement Xena had ever made, except when she had first told Gabrielle she was in love with her.

"Well, I'm not leaving, believe me when I say that. And you aren't going to lose me to some raider or thug. Though that might happen if you don't let me get strong again." It was a slightly underhanded blow Gabrielle admitted to herself but Xena did need to hear it. "You're not going to always be there to protect me, you know. Leaving me in villages and taverns isn't the answer either. I'll just follow you like I did this time."

Xena thought back to the early morning they had arrived here and how she *had* thought then Gabrielle would have been safer with her, instead of trying to follow her to Tethion's war camp alone. More than anything she wanted to keep this marvellous woman safe from harm but for some reason Gabrielle insisted on jumping into danger as quickly as she did herself. What was she to do?

Watching the play of emotions, open on Xena's face for the first time in many years, Gabrielle could easily follow the warrior's thoughts. Waiting a moment more, she gave her an answer she hoped Xena could live with because Gabrielle would accept nothing less for herself. "You're just going to have to accept me as your partner, your equal and not some *wife*..." Gabrielle almost spat the word out, "you can keep safe in a backwoods village somewhere."

Gently drawing her strong arms around the woman she loved more than life itself, Xena looked into the young Bard's eyes. "I'll try."

A lingering kiss met her lips. "That is all I can ask of you." Gabrielle murmured.

The days passed quickly at the little cave. Gabrielle slowly growing stronger, practising with her staff until she all but dropped or taking long walks and runs with Xena though the surrounding forest. When they were not exercising their bodies, they lay together under the trees, talking and exploring each others minds and emotions. Gabrielle was almost constantly being surprised at how little resistance there was in her Warrior Princess when it came to expressing how she felt. Sometimes she stumbled and tried to withdraw back into herself but Gabrielle came after her every time, a bloodhound on the scent, never letting her get away. She was a little worried that a future enemy might see this a weakness of some kind and use it against her. But that was a problem yet to be faced and Gabrielle had enough to think about. At night they made love, (as if they didn't do that often enough during the day) and slept curled tightly around each other, Xena's personal demons seemingly held at bay by young woman's closeness.

The one being plagued by nightmares in the darkest hours of the evening was Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle, wake up! Wake up!" Xena's voice cut through the darkness in the young woman dreams. Tender, familiar arms enveloped her, holding her close. "It's alright, you're safe here. Nothing can hurt you now" Gabrielle woke, tears streaming down her face and collapsed sobbing against Xena's breast. Xena held the weeping woman tightly and let her cry out her fear and terror. When finally she quieted, the warrior asked, "Can you tell me what this dream is you keep having?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "I...I don't know. As soon as I wake, it disappears from my mind. All I can remember is being so afraid and alone."

Xena soothed her lover with gentle kisses and loving caresses. Often they made love again after Gabrielle woke from these dreams as though it would somehow shake the terror from her mind and heart. The dark haired woman looked down on her now peacefully sleeping partner and sighed. She knew what the problem was. She had seen it too many times among her own soldiers when she was leading them as their warlord. She simply had never cared back then, so long as they had continued to fight. Xena cared now. Cared more deeply than she ever had about anything. Gabrielle had to return to face her greatest fear, Tethion's war camp.

"She feels as though she has failed herself in some way during that brutal beating she took." Xena thought as morning started to dawn outside and she could hear the forest birds waking to the new day. "It's guilt, not fear that is disturbing your sleep, my little Bard."


"Think it might be about time to move on? Maybe pick up the rest of the gear from that inn, perhaps?" Xena asked one morning several days later.

The young Bard grinned. Xena usually never asked her what she wanted but it was just another example of the change in their relationship. "This might take some getting used to." She thought. Brushing the crumbs from breakfast off her hands, she looked around the peaceful forest that had been their temporary home for the past two moons. "Hmmmm, yes. I think it might be time. I'm almost completely recovered now. Sparring with you has really helped me in the last couple of days." Gabrielle grinned over at her lover.

Xena knew exactly how recovered Gabrielle was. It was one of the reasons she had suggested they spar together. Sword against staff. She had found herself sitting on her behind on one or two occasions, the Bard's laughter pealing over her head, before she started to take Gabrielle skill with her staff seriously. The past moon's concentrated practise had sharpened and honed the woman's ability until she was even better than she had been before. Yes, it was time.


"Where are we?" Gabrielle asked. She didn't recognise the area at all, though Xena had told her they were headed back to the village at the end of the cliffs.

Xena didn't answer for a moment. She was listening for the sounds of an army and wondering why she didn't hear anything except the usual noises of the forest. This path was almost the same one she had followed two moons before, the night she had rescued Gabrielle from Tethion's camp. "About a candlemark from Tethion's war camp, Beloved." Xena finally answered.

Gabrielle paled. "We're not going there, are we?" The fear on her face was obvious. The last thing she wanted was to go anywhere near that camp.

Knowing what she needed to do, Xena quickly gathered Gabrielle in her arms and looked deeply into her eyes. "This is the place of your nightmares and if you ever want them to stop, you have to face them here." Pointing a little ahead where she knew the camp lay. She could see the tears in her lovers' eyes and felt like a flea, forcing the courageous woman to go through with this but it was the only way.

Nodding her head, Gabrielle understood. "No one said I had to like it though!"

Taking Gabrielle's hand, they began to creep towards the war camp. Xena kept listening for sounds coming from ahead but there was nothing to hear, except the noises of the forest she had been hearing for moons. It was like the camp didn't exist anymore.

Topping a final small rise and peering through the foliage, they looked down. The camp was gone. More accurately, the people were gone or dead and the camp had been torn to shreds. They could see the remains of tents and clothing, torn and scattered on the ground, wagons tipped on their sides, wheels ripped off, shafts broken, deep brown stains spotted on the bare ground where many bodies had lain and possibly died. To one side was a large churned up pile of dirt just starting to regrow its grass covering. As they walked down to the camp site, they could see discarded weapons and armour covered in a layer of thick rust, already slowly being reclaimed by the forest around them. Broken boxes and torn open chests lay here and there, the contents long ago taken by some unknown hand.

Xena gave the pile of earth a poke with her foot. "Mass grave." She said.

Gabrielle's face was still pale, shoulders hunched in on themselves, knees trembling. Yes, this was the place she had been when she ran from herself and took refuge in that dark cave in her mind. A dark cave where she tried to escape the pain and the fear and feeling of being completely alone, without Xena. Even though she had run there to escape, she had taken all that with her and more.

This was the place where she had failed herself.

The warrior stood by watching. There was little she could do. Gabrielle had to find her own courage and inner strength again, by herself. If she truly desired to be Xena's equal, her partner in this quest, she had to find it within her own heart to stand beside her again, willingly. Xena could not give it to her, no matter how she may have wanted to. Tears filled her eyes as she watched her most cherished friend, the half of her soul she had always searched for, struggle to find herself again. The past moon may have healed her body and returned her strength but to heal the open wound in her heart and her mind, she needed to be here and find the power within for herself. Xena walked over to one of the open chests under the shade of the trees and quietly sat down on it. She didn't know how long it was going to take but she was willing to wait forever, if that was to be the case.

Time passed slowly at the camp site. Xena, her mind turned inward, her heart breaking as she watched her lover fight with her own personal demon. Gabrielle standing in the center of the devastation, trembling and struggling, trying to bring peace to her mind.

Off in the bushes, almost in the exact spot Xena herself had originally broken though to rescue Gabrielle, a pair of blood-shot eyes also watched. Sunken deeply into an unshaven face, traces of blood still smeared here and there, a pair of eyes with nothing to lose watched with great interest. Tethion. He had lost the mob in the darkness of the forest that night and had stayed hidden for the past moon. There was nowhere he could go, no other place to hide. There was no longer an army to back him up. The few men who had escaped the scythes and axes of the village attackers had scatter at the first light of dawn. "Cowards!" He thought. Tethion was going to have his revenge on Xena. He was going to *kill* the silly little bard that travelled with her.

Even though it had taken Xena and Gabrielle far too long to admit to the love they shared, others had already seen it for themselves. Tethion was one of those people and he didn't have anything to lose anymore. The legends and stories were up and down the coast of the care and concern Xena showed the young Bard. Even if Xena did kill him, he would go to Hades with the sure knowledge he had taken the single most important thing away from the warrior bitch. Reaching for his sword, he moved slowly around his former war camp. Out of the direct line of sight of the warrior sitting on the broken chest, he stood and began to move towards Gabrielle. He could see all she had to defend herself with was a six foot long stick. This was going to be too easy. She was defenceless.

The Bard had her mind turned inward fighting with the fear and guilt she felt for having failed herself in this place. One hand gripped her staff so tightly, the knuckles were showing white through her tanned skin. Something, a sound, a movement, an impending sense of trouble reached through the fog of her mind and she turned to see Tethion lunging towards her. His sword pointed directly for her heart. Instinct and training took over.

She spun on the ball of one foot, side-stepping the charging former warlord. She raised her staff and faced her attacker. Her defence was sloppy, her hands too loose on her weapon. This was not Xena she was sparring with, it was not some static practise target, it was a real man, a man with nothing to lose...a man out to kill her.

Xena stood in the background, her own sword drawn. She did not step in. She had to give Gabrielle a chance to find her own strength again. Her warrior blood was screaming to join the fray, her heart hammering in her chest with fear for her lover. But still she stood. She would only enter the battle if Tethion somehow managed to harm Gabrielle.

Hatred and rage rose up in Gabrielle. This was the place she had failed herself and she was not going to fail a second time. Her defence tightened, her hands now gripped the staff firmly. Her eyes focused on Tethion and she allowed the darkness to flood over her. It filled her with its power and she embraced it. He became the target. She laughed, an evil, terrifying laugh. One which stopped Tethion in his tracks for a moment.

The Warrior Princess could see the look in Gabrielle's eyes, could see the darkness consume her soul, knew the blood-lust call of battle her lover was hearing. She squeezed her eyes shut and thought, "I love you, my little Bard. Now only you can win the battle for your soul." The sound of metal meeting wood brought her eyes open again. She prayed, "Do anything, Gabrielle, but don't kill him. Just don't kill him." She knew to kill Tethion would take Gabrielle down the same path that Xena had fought so hard to get off. The path of darkness, murder and self-destruction.

The battle engaged. Tethion may have had the sharper weapon but Gabrielle had the advantage of reach and she took every scrap of it she could. Spin, turn, parry and thrust. Every time Tethion's sword came towards the young woman the staff was there to block. The deadly dance of sword and staff spun around the clearing for long minutes. Tethion was panting hard, Gabrielle sweating freely but nowhere near as out of breath as her opponent. The tip of the sword scraped along Gabrielle's upper arm, drawing blood. Xena gasped in the background but held herself still. The Bard looked down at the free flowing blood, just starting to drip from the point of her elbow. "That is the only mistake you will get to make!" She snarled viciously at Tethion.

She renewed her attack, by sheer weight of blows, forcing Tethion back step by step. He stumbled, barely able to stop the staff from hitting him. Gabrielle stepped in and using the end of the staff, hooked it up and snapped the sword out of his hand. Still using the momentum, she spun in place and punched the staff back behind her, deep into his stomach. His knees buckled and he hit the ground. He lay on the earth, face up, the Bard standing over him with her staff high in the air. She wanted to slam the end straight into his throat, breaking his neck. It would kill him.

Xena looked on. "This is the moment I lose her." She couldn't even bring herself to try to stop her once gentle lover. A cold hand squeezed her heart painfully.

Gabrielle's face, a mask of rage and pain...the hatred burning from her eyes like fire, stood over her downed opponent. She was rigid. Then the staff swung down.......

To connected solidly with Tethion's temple and knock him unconscious.


In a little clearing, halfway back the village at the end of the cliffs, a cheery fire burned sending a plume of smoke into the night sky. Two naked women, one dark, one blonde lay stretched out on a bedroll enjoying the warm relaxation after love-making. Gabrielle was stretched over the tall warrior, her legs wrapped around her. Xena lay, making idle circles along the young Bard's back and enjoying the texture of her skin against her fingertips.

"Where do you want to go after we pick up the gear from the inn, Beloved?" Xena asked softly.

Gabrielle looked into her lover's eyes. "Hmmmm, I wouldn't mind heading back to the Poteidaia and showing you off." She smiled down at Xena. Yes, some people were going to be quite surprised but she guessed her mother already knew. Mothers can be like that.

"Your family has met me before, Gabby? Why show me off now?" Xena took a moment to nuzzle Gabrielle's ear.

"They met Xena, the reformed Warrior Princess before." The Bard laughed. "This time they are meeting Xena, the love of my life. I think they might like you better this way." Gabrielle knew they would, she'd make sure of it.

"Tell me," The tall warrior hugged Gabrielle closer to her body. "Why didn't you kill Tethion? I mean, I could see the look in your eyes. You really *hated* him."

"Yes, I did hate him, Xena and everything he stood for. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have had to go through....well, you know." The younger woman looked away into the darkness around the little campsite.

Xena gently turn the Bard's head back towards her and looked deeply into her eyes. "You didn't answer my question. Why didn't you kill him?"

Gabrielle thought back to that moment as she stood over Tethion with her staff high in the air. She had honestly wanted him to die, at her own hand but something had stopped her. For a moment she didn't speak. "Remember when I was....I was...away? I was in this dark place and I couldn't find the way out. I could still feel the pain and the fear. It was as though I had taken it there with me." She sighed and tried to think of a way to explain those dark days to Xena. "After a while, I heard something. Something I wanted to get closer to. Your voice. At first I couldn't make out the words, just the sound but I followed it back and as I got near, I could hear the words. You were talking to me!"

Xena blushed. "I missed you. I didn't think you could hear me when I was talking, though."

"I heard you." The Bard said simply. "And I listened too. You could be a bard yourself one day. You tell nice stories, you know."

"Hrump! Nonsense." Xena grumped back at the young woman in her arms. "One bard is bad enough but two!! Spare me!!"

Gabrielle organised her thoughts again and continued. "I listened hardest when you where talking about your days as a warlord. You were so angry and full of hate back then, yet underneath it all I could hear you were so lost too."

Xena blushed again and her eyes filled with tears, one slowly rolling down her cheek. The Bard gently kissed it away. "I guess I was lost. But it was so much easier to hate than to try and find my way back." She gave herself a little shake. "Nice try, Beloved but we are not talking about my past. We're talking about why you didn't kill Tethion. I need to understand that."

The blonde haired woman looked down at the one person who meant more to her than life itself. "I guess you do need to understand." She lay her head on Xena's chest. "I didn't want to have to go through the same kind of hatred and rage, I didn't want to be that lost to myself. I...I don't think I would be strong enough to turn away like you did. I'm not that brave." She sighed deeply, biting her lip to hold back a sob.

The Warrior Princess, the ex-warlord understood. "Gabby, you are far braver than I. You found the courage to turn from that path before you even stepped on it. That took more courage than anything I even felt in battle."

"You think so?" Gabrielle asked.

"I know so." Xena replied. "Now instead of lying there like a little dumb Bard, come here and kiss me." She laughed, making a joke of Gabrielle favourite line about her.

Gabrielle hands began to move boldly up Xena's body as the fires ignited within them again.

And here, gentle reader, we shall leave our Warrior Princess and her Bard lover as the sounds of the sea crashing against the shore fills our ears and the scent of night flowers waft about us.........

Til next time..........

The End.

Thank you to everyone who suffered though the gestation and birth of this story. There are more to come so maybe you should run and hide now.

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