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Justice in Walsas

by Enginerd

Chapter 1 - A promise is a promise

Tripping in the poorly lit corridor, Gabrielle reached out for something to stable herself. A small stone statue contacted her fingers. Unfortunately, she had just found one of the many secrets in the labyrinth which she activated tripping forward. The floor disappeared into a cavernous pit. Her fingers slipped off the statue, allowing her to plummet helplessly into the darkness. "Gabrielle" Xena called to her friend as she entered the Tavern. Gabrielle jumped, knocking her plate of food into her goblet of water. Xena apologized for startling her friend and gently scolded her as she sat down. "you really should be more alert in a place like this." Gabrielle grunted what was interpreted as agreement as she started cleaning up the mess she made.

Something had been on Gabrielle's mind for a few days now and Xena thought a good meal at a Tavern might lift her spirits. After Gabrielle was finished dabbing up the water from her skirt, Xena noticed the bags under Gabrielle's eyes when she lifted her head. The reason for Gabrielle's lack of attention was pure exhaustion. "You weren't asleep were you?" Xena asked incredulously. Gabrielle still tired, sighed. "How could anybody sleep in a place like this?!?" Gabrielle responded. Xena reached out to check her friend's forehead for a temperature but Gabrielle pushed her hand away. "I'm not sick" Gabrielle protested. "You look horrible" Xena spoke plainly. "Thanks. That makes me feel so much better."

Gabrielle's sarcasm was a small relief to her concerned friend. It was a sign Gabrielle was not that sick. Xena eyed the tired bard but before she could question her friend, Gabrielle commented. "We should really get going if we intend on delivering that wedding gift on time." Gabrielle was right. Their travel pace was slower than usual and they had no time to waste. Xena nodded getting up. If Gabrielle wanted to talk about it she would, Xena concluded, deciding not to press. Gabrielle then touched on a point of contention between the two. "And besides, you promised you would deliver it - and you can't break a promise" Gabrielle grinned to herself. "As I recall Gabrielle, you were the one who promised ...." Xena responded.

That evening, Gabrielle jolts out of a sound sleep with a gasp. Hearing Gabrielle, Xena instinctively reaches for her sword but quickly realizes it was only a nightmare. Xena sits up and looks at her friend who volunteers no information. What ever she was dreaming, it seemed to be upsetting her more every night. Xena finally broke the silence. "Do you want to talk about it?". Gabrielle took a calming breath. She thought a moment, then looked over to Xena. "Just a dream. Must have been something I ate. Or maybe this..." Gabrielle pulls a rock from her bedding and tosses it over her shoulder. "Dream? Sounded like a nightmare" Xena responded. Gabrielle shrugged it off. "Just a dream." Gabrielle repeated unconvincingly and laid back down on the bedding, staring into the starry sky. Xena decided not to press the issue but her curiosity grew. Why was Gabrielle not willing to discuss what was bothering her?

The dreams were vivid, so incredibly vivid, Gabrielle thought to herself. The detail and intricacy of her dreams would have been better appreciated if not for being so disturbing and the fact she was loosing precious sleep over them. Gabrielle's thoughts briefly took her back to Potedia and that crazy old lady, Sybil. Sybil lived alone just outside of Potedia and used to warn people of the horrible things she saw in her dreams. She scared and alienated people because of her overly passionate, and always inaccurate, warnings. "That's all Xena needs", Gabrielle thought. "A companion who not only has to be frequently bailed out of danger but who is also losing her mind."

This evening, the dream that abruptly woke her revealed that the cavernous pit was only a small surprise in a danger-laden maze she had to navigate through. The dimly lit maze was covered with elaborate murals on each stone wall which at first and second glance seemed to be exactly the same. However, upon further critical inspection, Gabrielle had noticed there was a small differences pointing the way. The texture of the dream mural was so real to her as her hand brushed its surface, tripping another surprise in the labyrinth. The walls came closer and closer. Frantically trying to stop them from getting closer to her, she realized she didn't have the strength. Closer and closer the walls came, pressing against her with increasing pain. The vivid sound of her ribs cracking awoke her.

"Falling to death, being impaled, drowning, or being squished to death, friendly places I visit", Gabrielle thought, taking another deep breath to calm herself down. However, something in this evening's dream disturbed her more than risk to her own life. The dream evoked a familiar emotion of grief, of having failed and losing someone close. Remembering her own experience of grief, she looked over to her friend and discovered Xena had been watching her. No words were exchanged. However, Gabrielle revealed a small smile of appreciation and reassurance before she turned her head back and closed her eyes in an attempt to allow one of them to sleep that night. Gabrielle knew there was little chance for a good night's sleep for herself. The former Queen of Walsas sat alone, in shock, in a prison cell of the castle that used to be hers. So much happened so swiftly. The full impact and pain of the days events still did not hit her. Her attempts at getting help to save her beloved were unsuccessful. The overthrown King, the love of her life, had just been brutally executed in front of her. Grickas, the cause of all her pain, now stood before her cell. "Well my Queen, you've witnessed your King loose his kingdom and his head - but frankly I expected more of a fight from him" Grickas was feeling pleased with his successes and enjoyed tormenting Sara about her inner most doubts. "The Great Warrior Enerall." He spoke with great bravado then laughed. "Perhaps, if you hadn't softened him up over the years he would be alive today. He never really was much of a king anyway. A fitting end for a weak ruler."

Grickas smiled, playfully twirling the keys to the cell. Sara's eyes were full of hate. She wondered if she had weakened him over the years. Perhaps he would be alive today if it weren't for her, she thought, briefly falling into Grickas' web. However, her feelings of guilt were overcome by her great grief. She would find a way to make him pay for his crimes. "It is not over" Sara pulled herself together and spoke with a controlled calm which disturbed Grickas for a moment. The small victory gave her a small smile. Angered at her reaction and realizing he had nothing to fear from the beaten Queen, he forced a laugh. "Well it will be, my Queen, when you die. Since you have given me much more trouble than your husband, I will ensure you die a slower, more painful death than Enerall. The fun will be to figure out how" Grickas smiled placing the keys on the wall and left the dungeon.

After Grickas was gone, an elderly woman emerged from the darkness. Her face was worn with many years of a hard life. "Cumae, thank the Gods" Sara spoke with hope still in her heart. Her hope was to exact revenge on Grickas. "Oh my Queen, I have failed you. I didn't get you that help. I could not save King Enerall ..." Cumae's eye were full of tears. "Our time for morning must be delayed." Sara summoned her strength for the two of them. "We must continue to summon help to defeat Grickas. The battle is not over yet." Cumae admired her Queen's conviction but had great doubts her dream visions would be understood. "How do you know they will come? Dreams by their very nature are not clear messages."

Sara was surprised that this normally confident woman would have such doubts about her remarkable ability. This wasn't the first time Sara was surprised a strong person she thought she knew very well exhibited unusual self-doubt. Enerall acted similarly before he was overthrown. "I have faith in you - and them." Sara confidence was infectious. She held Cumae's hand through the bars which served to reinforce that confidence. Sara closed her eyes praying to the gods for help as Cumae spoke her chants softly.

In the morning, Xena was surprised Gabrielle was up so quickly and ready to go. Xena eyed her. "How do you feel?" Her friend looked more exhausted. "Just peachy and you?" Gabrielle blurted and started down the road. Xena mounted Argo and reached down a hand for Gabrielle "ride with me". Gabrielle refused. "No thanks" She waived her off. Xena wouldn't take no for an answer, keeping her arm out. Gabrielle sighed. "I guess I have slowed us down a bit haven't I?" Gabrielle took her arm and sat behind Xena. "I would hate to think I prevented you from keeping your promise." Gabrielle smiled recalling how she volunteered Xena and herself to deliver that wedding present before Xena could protest. It was the right thing to do, even if Xena didn't see it that way. "Your promise." Xena countered. "A promise is a promise." Gabrielle responded. Xena sighed but was pleased Gabrielle was getting a rest from walking.

Chapter 2 - The Mystery of Dreams

The gate of Argo and Gabrielle's exhaustion lulled her to sleep as Xena had hoped. Xena held Gabrielle's arm securely against her waist to ensure the sleeping bard wouldn't fall. The promise to deliver the wedding present was less amusing now. Xena wanted to stop and give Gabrielle a break from traveling while figuring out what was bothering Gabrielle. However, the bard made yet another promise having been swept up in the romance of romance. Now Xena was stuck with a promise to fulfill and was acutely aware how important promises were to Gabrielle. Worrying her almost as much as Gabrielle's lack of sleep was the little matter of Gabrielle not telling her anything.

Gabrielle tensed up as she experienced another vivid vision in her dream. Xena debated whether to wake Gabrielle or to let the dream take its course. While Xena was still deciding, Gabrielle once again jolted out of a dream into consciousness. This cycle was becoming too familiar Xena thought. "Well?" Xena asked after a moment of silence, tired of waiting for Gabrielle to volunteer information. Gabrielle returned her cheek to Xena's warm back as if seeking strength from her friend. "Another dream." Gabrielle said softly, taking a deep breath. Wide awake now, she sat up straight and rubbed her eyes. Enough was enough, Xena thought.

Xena stopped Argo. "We are going to discussing this - Now." Xena finally insisted, her patience at an end. Gabrielle dismounted, not thrilled with the prospect of sounding like a fool or like that crazy woman Sybil. Xena's gaze down at her companion was diverted to the nearby bushes. Five soldiers came out brandishing swords and big grins. Xena let out an annoyed grunt. However Gabrielle, for the first time, found an attack against them a welcome diversion. She quickly assembled her staff but Xena had already dismounted Argo with a flip that mesmerized the attackers, giving Xena her usual fighting edge. Xena easily disarmed and knocked out two guards. She was not taking her usual pleasure in defeating boorish ruffians. They had interrupted her talk with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle enjoyed watching Xena's fighting skills. However, she could enjoy the show for only a moment as she had two men to deal with herself. In the beginning of their travels, attackers would typically dismiss Gabrielle as simply hostage material and focus their attack on Xena. However, this was becoming a thing of the past and Gabrielle wasn't so sure she was entirely happy about that. In the process of knocking one attacker, Gabrielle's grip loosened and her staff was whipped from her hands. She mentally scolded herself for being so careless, even if though exhaustion was the cause.

The eye's of the remaining attacker twinkled with vicious glee as he raised his sword over his soon to be dead victim. Fighting the urge to look over to Xena, Gabrielle kept her eyes on the attacker with the intent of avoiding his blow. Seeing Gabrielle in a bad situation, Xena finished her third attacker and pulled out her Chakrum. The familiar noise of the Chakrum made Gabrielle smile which confused the attacker. He understood the reason for his victim's smile after he looked up to his empty hands in disbelief. Gabrielle had retrieved her staff and didn't look very friendly. Her attacker ran to the forest followed by the defeated and groggy group.

Gabrielle plopped down on a near-by bolder to rest. "Well that was fun. We should be going, times-a-wasting" A still tired Gabrielle started to get up. "Not so fast." Xena walked over to her while returning her sword to its sheath. Gabrielle stood up "The present, remember?" Xena pushes her back down. "Why are you being so evasive? TALK to me Gabrielle" Xena demanded.

Gabrielle was surprised at Xena's level of annoyance with her. After thinking a moment she realizes she had been so preoccupied with her sleeping problem she had not noticed how worried Xena was getting. An explanation was due. "OK, OK" Gabrielle concedes pausing a bit then the bard in her comes out. "Only because you requested so nicely...Pull up a rock" Gabrielle offers. Xena, a little embarrassed with her outburst, sits down on the boulder and intently listens to Gabrielle's dreams which she describes in amazing detail. "The textures, the sights and sounds" Gabrielle summed the experience up. "It is as if I really experienced each and everyone of them. I never had such vivid dreams before. The only really disturbing parts are the endings - my ending."

Xena thought a moment. "It sounds like someone wanted you to explore the labyrinth without really getting killed. Do you know where the labyrinth is?" Gabrielle tried to answer. "In some castle or maybe a cave...." Xena sighed. "I'm glad you could narrow it down." Gabrielle was a bit annoyed at Xena's sarcasm. "I'm sorry I was a little DISTRACTED trying to survive, which I may add, I failed at MISERABLY." Gabrielle shuttered at the various endings of her life. Gabrielle's situation was making her a bit testy. Xena, continued her questioning, although careful to avoid sarcasm. "Did you sense why you were there?" Gabrielle shook her head no. Her annoyance turned to sorrow. "I was supposed to be - to help. But I never did, I never got through the labyrinth ....." No matter how much Xena wanted to, this mystery couldn't be solved by her. Xena concluded they needed help.

"I know a woman, Cumae of Walsas, who may be able to help you understand your dreams, we can make it there in a day easily." Xena spoke, consumed with concern for her friend and momentarily forgetting about the present. "This is your way at getting back at me for promising something without consulting you - isn't it! OK, I admit I got carried away, I should have asked you but XENA, a promise is a promise" Xena had different opinions than Gabrielle had on promises, considering they had varying degrees of importance. However, to Gabrielle, they all were important. "Gabrielle" Xena offered her a compromise. "I will take you to Cumae then ride on, really fast, and deliver the present - on time. OK?" Gabrielle disagreed with that plan and countered. "There is no time for a side trip Xena."

They stared at each other in determined silence. Xena had never encountered such a strong willed opponent as Gabrielle. She both admired that trait and was annoyed by it - especially now. "The answer is simple Xena." Gabrielle offered. "You deliver the present while I go find this Cumae of Walsas. You can get there much faster alone and meet up with me in Walsas in no time." Gabrielle seemed please with her solution. "No!" Xena strongly objected. "Xena." Gabrielle spoke forcefully, cutting off any more objections from her friend. They stared at each other once again in determined silence. "By the Gods, she is so stubborn!" Xena thought to herself. If it were only a battle of physical strength, Xena reflected, slowly accepting the fact she wasn't going to win this battle of wills. "I don't suppose I could say ...or do anything to change your mind." Xena knew the answer, which was confirmed by Gabrielle's expression. Xena sighed "I didn't think so".

After mounting Argo, Xena was still uneasy about Gabrielle's solution. Gabrielle knew her friend wasn't pleased but was glad the promise would be kept. "I won't take long. Don't get into....trouble..." Xena sighed recognizing Gabrielle would always find trouble. Gabrielle tried to reassure her friend. "Don't worry...I'll see you in Walsas" Xena departed on Argo with a great urgency.

Grickas sat on the thrown in Enerall's royal robe and ordered his lieutenant to continue his search for loyalists to the old regime. "That wonderful haze of doubt and fear will be wearing off in a few days. The remaining loyalists will start getting organized again. I don't need any more resistance from these people. Go find them and kill them." The lieutenant nodded to his king. The captain of the guard was confused. "Why can't we continue to drug them? We've put many barrels of the that water in the town and it works quickly enough. You seem to have plenty of this stuff in storage" Grickas was annoyed at the suggestion. "I don't want to waste any more of my supply on these stupid people, they've been conquered and all we need to do is clean up a few loose ends. We should be focusing on using the drug for the future. You never know when you'll need to prey on the doubts of your enemy." He laughed with amusement, then his annoyance with his captain returned. "The supply is not unlimited you idiot" He snapped, stroking his precious pendant.

After going many miles, Gabrielle stopped to rest. She could finally see Walsas. It boasted of a beautiful country side and impressive castle. The sight of the castle was familiar as were the sights of this land as she approached, yet she never traveled to Walsas before. Once in the town, she realized how famished she was. She sought out a tavern for some food and information about Cumae. Gabrielle hoped Xena was right about Cumae being able to shed some light on those dreams. The service was quick. A waiter came by immediately after Gabrielle sat down. "How may I help you?" He asked. "Some water and cheese please." Business was slow after the overthrow, not much interest in dining out on the town. Gabrielle was one of two customers. As a result the waiter came back very quickly with the water and cheese. She gratefully guzzled the water noting it had a slight sweet taste to it. "I'm new in town and am looking for a woman named Cumae. Do you know where I could find her?" She asked with a friendly smile.

Discussion of Cumae made the waiter extremely nervous. But the young woman's smile and features reminded him of someone he trusted and respected. He spoke cautiously. "Cumae is considered an outlaw by the new regime miss. You best not discuss her name in public." Gabrielle looked around uneasily, concerned she may not get her answers and get herself in trouble for mentioning Cumae's name. "Why do you seek her Miss?" For some reason, which Gabrielle didn't understand but was thankful for, the waiter warmed to her and was going to help. "A friend told me she could help me understand the dreams I have had." Gabrielle hoped he didn't think that sounded too odd and suspicious. "Have you been summoned here?" The waiter asked with hope, surprising Gabrielle. Before Gabrielle could answer, soldier's came in for a drink. "Go to the inn and tell them 'Farr the barkeep' sent you and then ask for Cumae. Go now" The waiter quickly tended to soldiers who just entered and were thankfully more interested in wine than seeking out a few loyalists.

This kingdom was in trouble, but so were so many others she thought. Why would she be "summoned" to this one. She also thought about that word "summoned", it wasn't really accurate. Her dreams didn't come out and tell her "Come to Walsas NOW and save someone" she thought. Spotting the inn, her progress was hindered when she heard a familiar and loud voice in an alley. "Get your hands off me!" Gabrielle thought her lack of sleep must be finally getting to her. She thought she heard her sister Lyla's voice - but that was crazy. "Great, I'm hearing things" She spoke out loud. "And I'm talking to myself! Ugh....." Gabrielle shook her head.

The familiar voice yelled again. "I mean it!" Gabrielle realized it was real and ran towards the voice to find her sister Lyla at the center of attention in a band of four soldiers. "I suggest you do as she says" Gabrielle spoke low and deliberate, holding her staff at the ready. Lyla smile with relief as the soldiers smiled with amusement. "Another pretty girl to add to the fun" one spoke as he advanced. The soldiers quickly reconsidered their first impression of Gabrielle when she, in a graceful yet effective motion, swiped the feet from underneath the first soldier making the mistake of coming too close. He landed hard on his back, knocking the wind from him. Her next blow was as swift and to his head, rendering him unconscious. The remaining soldiers exchanged surprised looks and took her more seriously now, drawing their swords. Her fatigue was overcome with adrenaline - she had to protect her sister.

Gabrielle questioned if she could keep Lyla safe while she fought. She appreciated Xena's fighting skills more, if that was possible. Gabrielle considered all the times Xena had to fight multiple attackers AND protect her without any assistance. Not an easy task to worry about two, Gabrielle was learning. Two soldiers came at Gabrielle while one stayed back observing. Gabrielle surprised even herself with the ease she clobbered them. Three soldiers unconscious and one to go. The last one grabbed Lyla and placed a knife to her throat. Gabrielle was stopped in her tracks.

Her mind raced with options. She found this situation very familiar, only with the knife at her throat and Xena with the task of saving her. "What a burden I must have been to her" Gabrielle thought to herself. The voice of the last soldier brought her back to the present situation. "We underestimated you Red. I'll give you that" Gabrielle thought hard on what to do remembering Lyla had learned a few things in Potedia from Meleager. "Now drop your staff" Gabrielle, focused now, looked into Lyla's confident eyes. Lyla understood and was ready. Gabrielle dropped the staff close to her feet. The soldier relaxed his arm from Lyla's throat, amused at his easy victory. With this opening, Lyla gave him a hammer fist to the groin. In a blink of the soldier's teary eye, Gabrielle retrieved her staff and finished the attack Lyla started.

"Good move. They shouldn't have underestimated you either." Gabrielle smiled. Lyla smiled back, happy for the acknowledgment. Gabrielle was going to ask her sister why she was there by Lyla spoke first. "Are you OK?" Lyla asked. Gabrielle nodded. "They were no match for the two of us" Gabrielle smiled. "No, I mean, isn't there other trouble?" Lyla tried to explain. "Other than my lack of sleep and vivid dreams..." Gabrielle responded but it dawned on her "You thought I was in trouble?" Lyla shrugged. "Yes. I've been dreaming too. Someone very close to me really needed help. Of course, I thought it was you here I am. There must be something to this dream stuff - here you are".

Gabrielle smiled that her sister would go to such lengths to help her. "I'm fine. I can't believe you would come all this way for me..." Gabrielle's smile faded as she realized how far Lyla was from home. "Wait a minute, you came all this way....alone?!" Gabrielle scolded her. "I don't see anyone with you Gabrielle!" Lyla snapped back defensively and looked around to emphasize Xena wasn't around. "You haven't traveled this far alone before. The roads are dangerous." Gabrielle remarked assuming her sisterly role as Lyla rolled her eyes. "I had to and I wasn't alone. Meleager came with me." That was good news to Gabrielle but she didn't see him anywhere. "Meleager?" She repeated his name but the stirring of one of the guards interrupted her train of thought. "We should leave." "Agreed". Her sister readily responded.

Chapter 3 - Finding Cumae

"Where are we going?" Lyla asked. "To hopefully find answers to our dreams." Gabrielle explained. "Good" Lyla responded. Finally arriving at in the Inn, Gabrielle asked for Cumae the way the waiter told her too. As they waited for the woman, Gabrielle blurted she was somewhat relieved Lyla shared the dream problem with her. "Thank the Gods I am not crazy...." Lyla chuckled at Gabrielle's remark, squeezing her sister's arm. "Perhaps that only means we are both crazy..." Despite, or perhaps because of, Lyla's sarcasm, Gabrielle was glad Lyla was there. "You didn't happen to discuss your dreams with anybody did you?" Gabrielle asked. "NO, are you crazy?" Lyla responded emphatically, then revealed a grin. Gabrielle and Lyla giggled.

Gabrielle asked her sister how she then got Meleager to bring her. Interrupting Lyla's answer, Cumae appeared, startling the two sisters. "It's about time you two came." Cumae was a direct woman. "You were expecting us?" Lyla asked, excited to be apart of an adventure. "I was the one who summoned you. Although, I was expecting more" Cumae eyed them and wondered whether Sara overestimated their help. "Hey!" Gabrielle and Lyla took offense in union. They were not timid, these two, Cumae thought. "She said you two would help gather the loyalists and help with the rescue." They look at each other as confused as ever.

"Exactly what" Gabrielle started with Lyla finishing "are you talking about." Cumae's stern face broke into a smile. A young boy came into the Inn to warn Cumae and the sisters. "Cumae, the soldiers are searching every building for them, they have been declared outlaws." Lyla looked at her sister grinning, enjoying this excitement. "I knew it was a matter of time for you Gabrielle, but I never thought I'd be one." Gabrielle eyed her sister, "What is that supposed to mean?"

"We outlaws prefer the term loyalist." Cumae noted. "Loyal to whom?" Gabrielle asked trying understanding why they were there. The look in Gabrielle's eye's was very familiar to the old woman. "King Enerall. Go now, you will get your answers when it is safe to talk. GO!" Cumae ordered. Gabrielle and Lyla left for cover in the forest. Cumae's explanations would have to wait. Attention to their safety was the first order of business.

"I still don't know why we couldn't have hidden in the Inn, with a bed." Lyla shut up after Gabrielle gave her a cold look. "Where did Meleager go?" Gabrielle asked, concerned there was still no sign of him. "After I mentioned this was the place I thought the trouble was, he was going to find out about this overthrow and to see if he could find you. He told me to stay put at our camp until he could determine what was going on." Lyla explained. "And of course you listened to and obeyed his words of warning...." Gabrielle responded, her thoughts drifted to Xena.

"How many times had Xena told me to stay back, only to have to be bailed out of a dangerous situation because I didn't listen" Gabrielle thought to herself. "What a heavy burden I must be for her" Gabrielle darkening thoughts were interrupted by Lyla's justification for not listening to Meleager. "He took a long time. I was worried!" Gabrielle nodded. "I know. I'm sure he is ok Lyla. He is Meleager the MIGHTY remember." Gabrielle tried to convince herself of that as well. Lyla tripped over a tree root and bumping into Gabrielle. "Sorry." "Gabrielle, who do you think this 'SHE' is Cumae kept referring to? And what does 'SHE' have to do with us?" Lyla asked very good questions. "I hope Cumae will tell us soon. This place looks good." Gabrielle made camp and wondered when she would ever get a good nights rest. "Don't worry Gabrielle. We will get through this." Lyla smiled at her sister. Gabrielle smiled back but she was weary and not as confident.

What ever happened to Meleager might happen to them. Gabrielle wasn't sure she could protect her sister. "It will certainly make for a good story." Lyla reminded her sister. "Hey! I thought I was the bard!" Gabrielle shot back. "Great, you get to travel, you get to be the Amazon Princess, you get to be the bard...there is not much left for me. Humph." Lyla joked. "Nonsense, you have many skills - you make great clay pots, and your nut bread is outstanding....." Gabrielle offered. "All true. I can't believe I wanted more...." Lyla smiled at her sister. They had succeeded in lifting each other's spirits.

Lyla slept as Gabrielle stayed up guarding the camp. Unlike Lyla, there was no way she could sleep now, so she didn't try. A noise in the woods alerted her someone was approaching. Gabrielle realized the night would not be uneventful as she had hoped. Standing with her staff in hand, she motioned the now wide awake Lyla to stay put. Proving she had to be related to Gabrielle, she ignored the warning and stood beside her sister. When the noise came closer Gabrielle instinctively pushed Lyla out of the way of an attack, landing her into the bushes. Within a now rapid heartbeat, Gabrielle thrust her staff into the darkness at the approaching body. It hit, thankfully, a friendly sword. "I'm glad to see you too...." Xena's voice, even if sarcastic, was a welcome sound. Gabrielle breathed a big sigh of relief. As Xena came from the darkness, they exchanged warm smiles.

Gabrielle's expression quickly changed when she realized she pushed her sister into the bushes for a false alarm. "Ugh oh." Gabrielle uttered and called out her sister's name and apologized. "Lyla?!" Xena questioned. Lyla came from the bushes with twigs and leaves in her hair and on her clothes. "If this is what I am missing by not getting out of Potedia more, I think can go without it." She brushed the dirt and leaves off with Gabrielle awkwardly helping. Lyla eyed Gabrielle. Gabrielle took the hint and stopped 'helping'. "Great. We have some help" Lyla's frustration faded when she saw Xena. "Help for what?" Xena asked. "We are still trying to piece that together" Gabrielle sighed as they walked to the camp.

At the camp, the Gabrielle handed a thirsty Xena her skin of water and discussed what happened so far. "Cumae she was the one who summoned us" Gabrielle relayed. Xena asked why. "Don't know." Gabrielle sighed with obvious frustration. "We didn't get a chance to 'visit' before the soldiers came looking for us." Xena, always amazed at the trouble Gabrielle could attract, shook her head. "You are in town for one day and you already have soldiers after you? I thought I told you not to get into trouble.... "

The sisters looked at each other with a playful glint in their eyes. "They don't like aggressive strangers..." Lyla explained looking back to Xena. "They thought we were loyalists..." Gabrielle corrected, trying to be more specific. "You beat them up." Lyla added to correct her. "I wouldn't of had to if you didn't attract their attention." Gabrielle added defensively. "I didn't attract their attention, I was just new in town and they questioned me, very rudely I must say" Lyla turned to Xena to explain. Xena sat back in amazement at the two debating over useless facts. "You wouldn't have attracted their attention if you stayed put -like Meleager had told you to..." Gabrielle looked over to Xena. "By the way, we don't know where he is..." Gabrielle explained then turned back to her sister who continued. "Which is why I went into town..." Lyla explained and added "and I was a stranger. THANK you." Lyla spoke with triumph. "You are strange all right." Gabrielle muttered. They looked at each other and smiled.

"Are either of you ever going to tell me something useful?" Xena finally asked, not sure of what just happened. She wondered, with some apprehension, whether they were always like this. Lyla yawns, her fatigue overcomes her. "Excuse me, I've got to get some sleep. Glad you're here Xena" Lyla smiles and drags herself over to her bedding and plops down. "Guess she's not use to all the excitement." Xena notes as she watches Lyla. "I'll be right back." Gabrielle got up. "Isn't she a little old to be tucked in?" Xena responded. Gabrielle looked down at her friend not sure if she was being serious or sarcastic. "You're never too old to be tucked in." Gabrielle spoke with a sly grin. Xena watched as the young woman joined her sister at the other side of the fire.

"I'm glad you are here and safe." Gabrielle told her sister. "So far so good, no thanks to you." Lyla playfully slapped Gabrielle's arm. "For that, no bed time story - get some rest." Not a bad idea Lyla thought. As they hugged good night, Xena watched. The sisters spoke again quietly then laughed. Xena guessed it had something to do with their 'discussion' about their adventures in town which amused at least two of the three in the camp. Xena tried not to stare but she found it hard not to watch the precious gift of affection as Gabrielle kissed her sister on the forehead.

What it would be like to be as open and free to express herself as those two did, Xena pondered. Out of necessity, she had perfected the skill of hiding her true emotions. Expressing them was only a liability to a Warrior. Over time, Xena successfully buried her feelings so deep she thought she could not resurrect them, even if she wanted to. Yet without warning, a young woman named Gabrielle had arrived in her life and managed to extract long dormant emotions. Even so, it would not be wise to completely forget that skill. Xena knew she still had many enemies and because Gabrielle traveled with her, Gabrielle was already a target. Xena's thoughts returned to her concern about Gabrielle's reluctance to tell her about the dreams. Perhaps Gabrielle was tired of this one-sided friendship, Xena guessed as her distorted perceptions grew.

"OK." Gabrielle came back and sat across from Xena. "Where was I?" She asked. "You weren't really anywhere ...." Xena answered and stared as she was still pondering what she did to prevent Gabrielle from confiding in her. Assuming that stare was one of impatience, Gabrielle felt an embellished story, however artfully told, wouldn't be appreciated at this moment. "Ah, well, ... OK ...the short and sweet version" Gabrielle took a breath ready to begin the explanation. "A first..." Xena interjected, her thoughts and wits back to the present situation. Gabrielle feigned annoyance and looked coolly at Xena. "I'll remember that..."

Gabrielle continued to explained what she knew. "Anyway...King Enerall was overthrown and killed, there are still loyalists who the new King wants killed. Cumae summoned us for the mysterious "SHE", who thought Lyla and I could help round up the loyalists and save her. Before we could find out who "SHE" was, soldiers came. Cumae said she would explain tonight." Gabrielle, finished her quickly told story with a large gasp. "There, any questions?". Xena leaned back with amusement. "Gabrielle, 'short and sweet' really doesn't suit you...." The response made Gabrielle wonder what she meant by that. Didn't she think Gabrielle could get the points across without having to embellish or did Xena actually start to appreciate her skill at embellishment? Xena grinned, her response had the intended effect.

Xena kept waiting for Gabrielle to go to sleep but Gabrielle looked out to the forest waiting for Cumae. "You should go to sleep. I won't let you sleep through anything." Xena tried to convince her friend. "I can't sleep now, we're so close to getting some answers." Gabrielle was not going to agree so easily. Xena thought a change in subject would help lighten things up. "Hey, you didn't ask me whether I delivered the gift." Xena commented, holding back a grin. "I didn't have to" Gabrielle, too tired to banter, said honestly not realizing how deeply that simple comment touched Xena. Gabrielle's trust in her seemed absolute. Was it? Xena was still bothered by Gabrielle not willing to confide in her about the dreams. "You should really try to get some rest." Xena repeated. Gabrielle could see a change in Xena's mood, incorrectly attributing it to annoyance with her decision not to go to sleep. "All right. You won't even have to tuck me in........ this time" Gabrielle smiled, giving in without much fuss. Xena looked surprised, which pleased Gabrielle, as her comment had the intended effect.

Chapter 4 - Another Sister

Xena looked over at the Potedian sisters occasionally. They were resting well she noted with relief. The sunrise had struck Xena as particularly beautiful with it's vivid pastels. Xena finished off the skin of water when she heard the noise of somebody coming from the woods. In an instant, Gabrielle was standing ready with her staff, beside Xena. There was no need for a fight this time, Xena and Gabrielle realized. Both relaxed as Cumae emerged from the darkness. Gabrielle and the now awake Lyla exchanged hopeful looks.

"Xena? Ah things really are looking up." Cumae took Xena's arm in greeting. "I want some answers." Gabrielle interrupted the greeting rudely. Xena cleared her throat in an attempt to get Gabrielle to show some more respect for the old woman. Cumae just smiled. "You are direct, much like your sister Gabrielle." Gabrielle looked over to Lyla who also didn't understand how Cumae could make such comparisons. "Not that sister - your other sister, the one who needs your help - Sara."

It took a moment for the words to sink in but when they did, Gabrielle's anger at the woman grew rapidly. Xena noted a change in Gabrielle, who took a moment and gathered her strength to bury her anger. This change left Xena uneasy. Gabrielle's eyes turned very cold as she spoke. "Why are you saying this. Sara is dead." Cumae shook her head no. "She is alive, for now....Queen Sara is captive in her own castle awaiting her death." Gabrielle couldn't believe this woman, even if she was Xena's friend. Gabrielle displayed no hint of her thoughts which were racing through her mind. What exactly was she supposed to do with that information? Sara's alive. Sara's about to be killed.

Lyla waited for Gabrielle to make sense of the situation. Yet seeing the usually verbose bard numb and speechless, Lyla explained. "Our sister Sara died many years ago. This is not easy or welcome subject." Gabrielle's eyes turned to Xena's for help. Seeing the painful emotional upheaval that just occurred in Gabrielle, a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed Xena. A feeling which included panic at the distorted realization that Gabrielle has grown away from her. With her improved fighting skill, she didn't need Xena's protection anymore - and now, when she needed emotional support all Xena could offer was "Listen to what Cumae has to say".

They sat listening quietly to Cumae explain. Lyla seemed more receptive to Cumae's words than Gabrielle, who stared at the fire. "Your sister Sara is alive, but not for long. Grickas overthrew King Enerall and executed him. He plans on killing our Queen...your sister... at the end of the week." Cumea obviously cared for the Queen. "There is so much we don't understand." Lyla spoke truthfully. "How she survived ... We were told she was killed trying to escape after she was captured by slavers." Xena saw that Lyla's words bothered Gabrielle. Cumae knew the answers but wouldn't share them. "It is Sara's story to tell." Cumae spoke simply. Gabrielle stared at the fire. Xena recognized the look on Gabrielle's face. Surely Gabrielle couldn't have felt responsible for what had happened to her sister all those years ago. "Sara needs your help or she won't be able to tell you that story." Cumae added.

Lyla and Gabrielle looked at each other for what seemed a long time. Xena felt incredibly uncomfortable waiting but kept quiet. After all, there was nothing she could do now but wait. She wondered what was running through their minds. The sisters were not convinced the woman in trouble was their sister but a person was in trouble -and someone went to an awful lot of trouble for their help. Lyla's look evoked a nod from Gabrielle. "We've got a Queen to save." Lyla spoke for both of them. The absence of comment from Gabrielle was disturbing to Xena. It was clear Gabrielle didn't object, but Xena grew more concerned the longer Gabrielle kept quiet. Gabrielle looked to her worried friend. "Hey, it will give us something to do..." Gabrielle shrugged, letting Xena know she was going to handle this. Xena wasn't so sure.

They planned to rescue the Queen at dusk. The day would be a very long one for Gabrielle, Xena reflected. Cumae could do no more now. "Well, Xena" Cumae walks with to the edge of the clearing with her old friend. "We've certainly got our work cut out for us. Those two are already outlaws you know" Cumae chuckled. Xena looked back not surprised. She stops her friend. "Cumae, is it true. Sara is their sister?" Cumae looked a bit annoyed. "You know I would never say such things if they were not true." Xena immediately regretted asking. Cumae looked over at the two sisters. "They are not convinced, yet they will try to save the Queen. Sara will be pleased her sister's have turned out to be such fine women....that is if we are successful." Cumae added. It was unlike Cumae to express any pessimism Xena noted. "Be careful Cumae." Xena bid her friend goodnight.

Lyla was getting ready to sleep again, having an extraordinary ability to sleep through anything. She would have preferred a bed. Lyla watched as Gabrielle left to fill up the water skin. Gabrielle would have to sort things out herself, Lyla concluded. When Sara was first thought dead, Lyla had tried to tell Gabrielle there was nothing that could have been done, many times, too many to count. Gabrielle never accepted that, instead accepting some blame which infuriated Lyla. Eventually, Lyla and Gabrielle agreed never to discuss that topic with each other to avoid the arguments.

Gabrielle sat by the stream staring at the water. "Well, we've got a plan." Xena noted to her friend after following her to the stream. "Yes, we have a plan." Gabrielle agreed sitting next to her friend. "Are you OK?" Xena asked. "I'm scared we won't succeed." Gabrielle spoke honestly. "We've faced worse before, why the doubts now?" Xena tried to be light yet get at the root of Gabrielle's misgivings. "I've failed before trying to help Sara. I ran to get help. I wasn't fast enough." Gabrielle explained. She sighed. "and I never even checked out the messenger's story." Gabrielle added. Xena wanted to choose the right words to comfort her, just like Gabrielle had done for her so many times. "That was a long time ago Gabrielle. We both know it helps no one to live in the past." Xena spoke with great feeling.

Gabrielle understood and agreed with Xena's point but emotions disregarded common sense. "Why would she not try to contact us until now?" Gabrielle felt a new hurt. Her question was rhetorical but Xena answered. "Cumae says Sara is like you. If that is true, she must have had good reasons."

Chapter 5 - The rescue

As the three women started their trek to the Castle's outer wall, they ran into the soldiers who did not give up their search for the two girls. "Oh great." Gabrielle sighed to her sister, both recognized the soldiers. As a soldier lunged from the forest, Gabrielle instinctively wanting to protect Lyla, pushed her into the bushes - again. Xena somersaulted behind the attackers. The soldiers were no match for Xena's sword and Gabrielle's staff. "Friends of yours?" Xena asked after the brief attack was over. "We ran into them in town. I guess they were still upset." Gabrielle responded then realized she was in Lyla's dog house again. Lyla emerged from the bushes. Xena restrained a smile. "Ah, are you OK?" Gabrielle tried to help an annoyed Lyla, who pulled her arm our of Gabrielle's hand. "This is getting old." She answered coldly.

The three found themselves at a heavily fortified wall of the Castle. "Well?" Xena asked the young women. The sisters looked at each other a little confused. "I thought it was this wall. The dream was so vivid." Lyla spoke with Gabrielle nodding. Xena sighed as she started to believe they were relying too heavily on the dreams. "Wonderful" Xena uttered. "It's got to be this wall, I saw it too. We both can't be having the same dream and it not be true." Gabrielle spoke with conviction. Xena gave Gabrielle an impatient look which was interrupted as an odd noise came from the wall. Both, Xena and Gabrielle grabbed Lyla, pulling her with them into better cover. She was slower to realize they were going to encounter more trouble very shortly but caught on quick.

An entrance appeared when a secret stone door opened. The now validated Gabrielle and Lyla gave a look to Xena, who knew it was going to be a long night. A small band of guards came out for a night patrol and passed very closely to them. Xena watched Lyla noting she was alert and showed no fear. Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other both concerned about Lyla tagging along but Gabrielle knew Lyla wouldn't have it any other way. Lyla, surprising Xena, was first to head to the now visible entrance. Xena looked to Gabrielle who shrugged. "She's like me Xena" Gabrielle explained volumes, looking at her sister with respect. "That's what I am afraid of" Xena and Gabrielle quickly followed Lyla into the castle. Xena's sarcastic comment stuck in Gabrielle's mind as Xena's true feelings.

Lyla seemed to have no problems with direction in the dark corridors as she kept leading them. "Does any of this look familiar to you?" Xena asked Gabrielle but didn't get the conformation she was hoping for. "Hun?" Gabrielle's mind was still on Xena's last comment. "Good thing Lyla knows where SHE is..." Xena remarked. This comment was as stinging to Gabrielle's feelings as the last.

Lyla did an abrupt about face and came running back towards them. "They seem a little upset." Lyla spoke as she passed them and three soldiers followed. The soldiers expressions changed when they saw Xena's sword drawn. One ran to warn others. After knocking out one soldier, Xena glanced over to Gabrielle to confirm she had everything under control before she went after the potential messenger. Gabrielle easily handled the last threat to her sister. Gabrielle almost panicked noticing Xena had left. She wasn't aware of all the surprises in the Labyrinth. "We shouldn't waste any more time. Xena is buying us time" Lyla commented and went in a different direction than Xena did. Gabrielle didn't like leaving Xena alone in the Labyrinth, yet Xena was too fast for Gabrielle to warn her and was now out of sight.

Xena caught up to the guard and prevented his alerting the castle army. However, she quickly appreciated the value of the castle's defensive design. She found herself unsure of which direction to go. "Great".

Gabrielle and Lyla approached the dungeon cells cautiously but found that the guards were few and far between. Probably due to the confidence in the Castle's defensive design, Gabrielle thought. The sisters saw the outline of the woman they came to save. The prisoner wore a white dress which almost glowed as she walked closer to the torch light. Her long hair was a beautiful red which matched Gabrielle's. They turned to each other unsure of how to feel. Lyla saw a shiny object behind Gabrielle's head. "Look" Lyla saw a key on the wall. Lyla grinned "This is too easy." That is what precisely worried Gabrielle.

Sara looked over not able to focus on the two rescuers but knew who they were. Hearing the guard come, she not so subtly warned her two sisters. "Hour after hour you stop by but we never really do get to visit. Don't you have something you want to tell your Queen?". He grunted as he passed. She knew the guard was a dungeon guard for a reason "I bet no one ever said you talk too much." Unbeknownst to Sara, her usual humor was actually appreciated by the guard who didn't like the job he had to do. A job he would do never-the- less.

After he left, Lyla ran over with the key as Gabrielle stood guard a distance away. "Sara" Lyla gasped with mixed emotions of joy, fear and relief as she fumbled to get the cell door open and release her beloved sister. "Lyla, if you calm down you'll be more likely to get the door open." She place a calming hand on Lyla's shoulder and looked into her eyes. Sara always was able to keep her head in a crisis Gabrielle noted, considering it a useful trait, especially now. Unexpectedly, the guard came back. He saw Lyla with the key. Lyla laughed nervously "Just visiting, I'll be going now." Lyla stumbled back as the Guard grabbed a sword.

"Hey," Gabrielle got his attention "Did you know it is very rude to pull a weapon out on someone unarmed?" Gabrielle was ready with her staff. The guard shook his head, she was obviously a fool. "Gabrielle" Sara spoke with great concern. Lyla calmed her. "Don't worry, she's really good." Lyla focused on opening the door, confidently leaving Gabrielle the task to take care of the guard. "She saved Potedia from a warlord once." Lyla explained as she opened the door.

The two watched Gabrielle disarm the Guard and quickly knock him out. "How many more guards?" Gabrielle asked directly to Sara, the first words she spoke to her sister in many years. She was all business. Sara appreciated that in this situation. "This level is the least guarded - there are ten guards who patrol" Gabrielle counted "That makes five left" Sara was surprised. "we also have help..." Lyla explained. Gabrielle looked concerned, realizing that Xena was gone a long time. "Do you think she got lost?" Lyla asked.

Xena was getting really annoyed. It seemed as if the paths changed. She ran into four more guards. Xena looked around the area and noticed a stone statue Gabrielle had mentioned in her dreams. A sly grin crossed her face as she rested on the statue, calmly waiting for the men to get closer. She pushes the statue away from her and the floor opens up. The four men fall to the bottom of the pit with thuds and groans. "Thanks for dropping in...but I really have to go." She then looks around wishing she knew where.

Xena hears a familiar voice. "There you are." Gabrielle calls out, a sight for sore eyes. As she walked towards Xena, Gabrielle jumps. "What is it?" Xena looks around. "A rat! Ugh!!!" Gabrielle responded with great disgust. Xena sighed. "I just don't like rats - OK?" Gabrielle spoke defensively. "Did you find your sister?" Xena asked. "They are outside the walls waiting for us." Gabrielle relayed no emotion or information - unlike what Xena had come to expect from Gabrielle.

Xena was glad to get outside of the Castle. "What now?" Lyla asked Sara. Xena couldn't help but notice how much Sara and Gabrielle looked alike. Sara was about 10 years older but with strikingly similar hair and facial features. Her eyes revealed weariness and experience that Xena hoped Gabrielle would never share. Even so, Sara was quiet beautiful. "I'm going to get my kingdom back and punish Grickas." She spoke with utter confidence. "But first sanctuary and something to eat. I'm starving. The dungeon food was really bad." Sara relayed causing Lyla to smile. There was no question these three were sisters, Xena thought.

"You're placing a lot of faith in the strength of the loyalists, how can you be so confident there are enough and that they are willing to fight again?" Gabrielle asked not amused. "Gabrielle, I am confident in the people's will to survive and their heart." Lyla could see her sisters look at each other without speaking. The silence was too much for her. "Food sounds good." Lyla spoke up to Xena's relief as well. "And food you shall have..." Sara turned and put her arm on Lyla's shoulder as she had done so many times in the past.

Gabrielle had a bad feeling as she watched them walk ahead. "Are you OK?" Xena asked. "She will try to get her kingdom back and Lyla will be by her side." Gabrielle said matter-of-factly. "You said she was like you. In fact, they both seem to be as stubborn as you." Xena relayed. Gabrielle nodded with a slight smile but thought to herself how often Xena had tried to protect her from situations like this. The thoughts of her being a burden on Xena resurfaced stronger than before. "Didn't your sister mention food?" Xena eyed her. "I think she did." Gabrielle's spirits were somewhat lifted. Xena felt satisfied with the evenings successes. Gabrielle's thoughts strayed back to her concern about her being a burden. They were very strong in her. Gabrielle knew she had to do something to be less of a burden on Xena.

"Lyla, what do you know about this woman Xena?" Sara asked her sister as they traveled ahead. "She is Gabrielle's best friend." Lyla said simply. "I think I've figured that out Lyla. I can see they are ...close. What do you know about her? What I have heard, well troubles me." Sara revealed honestly. "She was a ruthless warrior once, but she's changed for the better. She would have to be to be Gabrielle's best friend." Lyla reminded her. Sara nodded relieved and reflected on the parallels to her own life. "Gabrielle has changed too." Sara commented smiling. "She swings a pretty mean staff doesn't she?" Sara added. Lyla laughed and agreed.

"We are here" Sara said with cautious enthusiasm. Unaware the rescue would be successful so soon, Cumae came to the door to tell the visitors the Inn was closed. "Go on now we don't stay open late anymore. Good Gods, your majesty is it you?" She squinted her eyes. "Yes Cumae, thanks to my sisters and Xena." Gabrielle and Xena caught up to them. "I am afraid I need your help again my friend." Sara stated concerned about everyone's safety. "Ma'am what ever you need is yours. Come you'll be safe here." Sara held back Lyla when she started to enter. "Cumae, you have risked your life for me before - and you are doing so again now. If caught, you will die." Sara was painting a bleak picture. "We are dying now ma'am, only very slowly. Now are you going to stand out here and make it happen quicker!" The woman motioned them in. "No ma'am" Sara answered and they entered.

Xena found a legitimate excuse to leave Gabrielle's side to give her a chance to talk with her sister. "I'm going to make sure this place is secure." Xena mentioned to Gabrielle and her sisters. "I'll go with..." Gabrielle was interrupted by Xena for a change. "That's OK, I think I can handle it." Xena looked at Gabrielle then Sara who appreciated what the Warrior friend was doing. Gabrielle sighed, dejected at yet another sign of Xena considering her not helpful, a burden. Xena left with Cumae following.

In front of the Inn, Xena and Cumae looked around. "It won't be long before this place is covered with soldiers looking for Sara." Xena mentioned to her friend. "We have a place underneath the Inn that will hide all of you. I will start the round up of the loyalists now." Cumae started to leave when Xena held her arm. "Cumae, do you know what you and these loyalists are getting into?" Cumae turned. "Oh yes Xena, I know exactly what we are getting into." Xena released her arm and watched her dart across the street to the tavern. Xena explored the Inn's unremarkable exterior.

"You are angry" Sara stated to Gabrielle after a long silence. "We lost so much time." Gabrielle spoke cautiously. "I have imagined this day when we would be together again. I didn't think it would ever happen. So much time has passed. I don't know where to start." Sara sighed with pain. "Well about the beginning?" Gabrielle offered coldly, torn inside with annoyance being the only reaction she would let out. Lyla sat silently listening to Gabrielle ask the questions. "The beginning" Sara sighed heavily, ready to explain the unpleasant past. "As you know, I was captured by the Ouzas and sold into slavery." She paused unable to meet her sister's eyes. "I had six owners in a short period of time. They found me ...difficult. I ended up very far away from home and found unsuitable for hard labor when the last owner got me pregnant. " Sara spoke matter-of-factly.

"He wanted me to kill the baby because he had no use for one. I refused and he took it upon himself to kill his own child. But before the owner could kill Beula himself, we were rescued by a Warrior. Despite his harsh reputation, Enerall showed us great compassion. He was feared by so many, but I found his heart." Lyla looked over at Gabrielle who was entranced by this long overdue tale. "He accepted Beula and me into his life. I fell in love with him despite his warring ways." Gabrielle and Lyla wondered what happened to their niece but allowed Sara to continue. "Eventually, Beula and I were able to change his ways. He became a good leader and eventually king of this land." Lyla looked over at Gabrielle again, this time commenting. "That seems to be a trend in this family." Gabrielle dismissed the comment. "What happened to Beula?" Gabrielle finally asked.

Sara's eyes moistened, revealing the sad answer. "She died two years ago...playing by the river." Sara couldn't continue as the memories of the recent and distant past overwhelmed her. The sisters held hands tightly. "What ever you need, we will do." Gabrielle spoke for Lyla who nodded. "I am so sorry Sara, I had no right to treat you so harshly." Gabrielle added with an aching heart for her sister. Sara looked up at her sisters gaining strength. "We must live for now and the future." Sara assured Gabrielle of no ill feelings. With one problem resolved, Gabrielle thought about the next. "We will need to assess our strength against the enemy's and then come up with a full proof plan." Gabrielle spoke confidently. "Obviously" Lyla commented rolling her eyes. Sara was happy to see her sisters were as close as they were in childhood.

A loud thumping at the door made the sisters jump. "Castle guards probably looking for me." Sara said to her sisters. "Time to hide." Sara added directing them to the hiding place. Sara opened the entrance to a well supplied hideout - a welcome sight to Lyla and Gabrielle. "Remind me to thank Cumae. Although, I would have liked to have a bed the other night..." Lyla noted to Gabrielle. "Outlaws can't be choosers" Gabrielle remarked, gently pushing her sister to move her more quickly. "I'm going, I'm going." Xena came in from the back. "Very nice." She commented, also impressed with the setup. The noise was Cumae who came in through the front door. "A bit jumpy are we? They will be here soon though - go on in there's food and water inside." Cumae helped close the door behind them.

Sara and Lyla sat down away from the door while Xena and Gabrielle were poised near the entrance just in case. "Is everything OK?" Xena asked nonchalantly as she picked up a water flask and took a drink. This water was sweet like the water at the camp, Xena noted as she sipped it. "Except for the current situation. Not too bad..." Gabrielle smiles warmly. Xena is pleased and hands her friend the water flask. "Thanks" Gabrielle was thirsty and took a drink. Sara watched the two together, remembering how Enerall would also know what she needed without a word spoken between them. Even after Lyla's assurances that Xena was "good" now, that seemly simple gesture convinced her. As Gabrielle went over to the basket of food by Lyla, Xena noticed Sara looking straight at her.

Xena returned the stare and wanted to develop their strategy. "We need to discuss a few things." Sara, not intimidated by Xena, nodded. "Agreed." Sara glanced towards Gabrielle then back to a now uneasy Xena. "but the first thing we should discuss is our plan" Sara added. Xena also glanced over at Gabrielle who came over when she heard the word "strategy". Sara held back a smile at how the fierce Xena could be made so uncomfortable. "Have I missed anything?" Gabrielle asked. "No Gabrielle, we have just started..." Xena responded.

Chapter 6 - The Offensive

The access to the castle was not as easy the second time around. Finding the Queen missing had put the castle on full alert. The town and the castle walls were teeming with many more guards. "Looks like we are going to have to find another way in." Xena noted. Gabrielle's mind raced through her dream clues for an answer. "Cave..." Gabrielle uttered. "What?" Xena asked, not sure if she hear her friend right. "I remember a cave with a pond..." Gabrielle looked right through Xena as she recalled the vision of a cave. "You never mentioned a cave dream...." Xena thought she had told her everything. What else was Gabrielle withholding from her, she wondered. Gabrielle got up and looked around. "That way. Come on."

"Gabrielle" Xena spoke after having followed her unusually quiet friend for a mile. Gabrielle turned, annoyed. "You don't think I know what I'm doing do you?" Xena was surprised at her friend's tone. "I never said - I just thought it would nice if you let me in on what you were doing." Xena snapped back. Why would she expect Gabrielle to confide in her now, Xena thought. "I am LOOKING for the way into the Castle." Gabrielle responded with a grating tone. "By going far AWAY from the Castle?" Xena shot back with a good observation for someone who had not received clues through her dreams. "Yes! If you want to go back that's fine with me...." Gabrielle was getting tired of Xena's apparent criticism of her abilities even though she knew she was a burden. She started back on her quest for an entrance. Xena was shocked at Gabrielle's comment. "Oh no, I'm too interested in your Cave." Xena responded with sarcasm.

"There it is." Gabrielle found the entrance to the cave. It was as she remembered. A murky, natural looking pool drew Gabrielle towards it. "Nice cave. Now what?" Xena asked with sarcasm as she looking around. Gabrielle took a breath and jumped into the pool and felt around for the passage. "What are you doing?" Gabrielle was now waist deep in the murky water. "There is a passage from this pool to the Castle. Here." After locating that passage, Gabrielle tied her hair back. "You can't be serious. The castle is very far away. You have to breath Gabrielle." Xena walked over to the side of the pool.

At first Gabrielle was upset by her comments, taking them as lack of confidence in her. Looking at Xena's worried face, Gabrielle's feelings made no sense to her. Trying to allay Xena's concerns Gabrielle explained. "There are spots of air along the way...and the passage is not underwater the entire way" Xena eyed her thinking that this sounded like something the designers of the Castle would create. "OK, let's go." Gabrielle stopped her. "No. I should go first to make sure the way is clear. There are a few....obstacles that I remember from my dreams. Oh yea." Gabrielle gets out of the pool and goes to get her bag. She pulls out a dagger. "Don't want to forget this. A little big to pick a lock for my tastes but it'll work." Gabrielle puts the bag with the dagger over her head and shoulder. "Wait a minute, what lock?" Xena keeps her from entering the pool.

"About half-way there is a locked gate. Not a problem with the right tools..." Gabrielle patted her bag. Xena sees once again there is no way to change Gabrielle's mind. The only thing she could think to do, she does with reluctance. "Wait." Xena orders her. Gabrielle turns, starting to get angry with Xena's interference until she sees what her friend does. Xena removes her breast dagger and holds it out. "Is this a better size?" Her emotions a jumble, Gabrielle just nods. As Gabrielle reaches for it, Xena takes her hand and squeezes it. "Promise me you will be careful." Xena's request was not fulfilled. "If I was going to be really careful, I wouldn't be doing this." Gabrielle joked. Xena wasn't letting her go without promising. "Promising won't take the risk away Xena. But I will be careful." Gabrielle responded. She had to prove to Xena she could do this and carry her own weight. It also had to be done for Sara and the people of Walsas. Even with Xena's skill, Gabrielle had insight Xena didn't have. Gabrielle knew she the right person to go.

As Gabrielle entered the pool the second time, she spoke to Xena with an aura of maturity and confidence that was both attractive and disturbing. Where would she fit in Gabrielle's life once this was all over, Xena pondered. Xena's doubt that there was any place for her weighed heavy as she watched Gabrielle. "You should wait about twenty minutes before following." Back in town, Lyla and Sara finished speaking to another small group of loyalists. "There are so many loyalists." Lyla smiled. "They are friends." Sara corrected. The group started to express concern about taking on the soldiers in the Castle as did every other group. However, this group had the most vocal opposition. "We will just get killed." The blacksmith blurted. "I can not guarantee your safety or anyone's safety. You must believe in the cause and go with your heart." Sara spoke looking directly into the Blacksmith's eyes. This quieted the blacksmith but not the group. Some friends, Lyla thought.

"We are not warriors" The baker spoke. "Yea" Others spoke up as the crowd was not convinced their efforts would be successful. "Neither am I" Lyla spoke in a firm yet soft voice which got everyone's attention. The crowd had an interest in what this young girl by their Queen's side had to say. "and I don't live here. Yet, I am willing to fight for what is right. Grickas is not the ruler who will support or protect you - he will exploit you until he can exploit you no more. Then he will kill you - remember what happened to your king. You may die trying to get the kingdom back. But as Cumae said, you are already dying - just slowly." The group was impressed with this young woman but not as impressed as Sara.

Xena swam for a long time wondering if there really were places to breath along the long underwater passage. She came across the first stop surprised at how difficult the swimming was and wondered how Gabrielle was faring. She continued her underwater trek and finally reached the halfway point - the gate. The door was wide open, evidence of Gabrielle's lock picking skill. It appeared Gabrielle was doing very well indeed. Swimming through to the next air pocket, Xena came upon the end of the watery passage and into a dead end. She swam back to the previous breathing spot. "Gabrielle, you didn't mention a dead end" Xena muttered contemplating her options.

Gabrielle was thrown into a cell with a thud. "Hey!" She yelled back at them, still soaking from the watery passage. "Gabrielle?" A familiar voice came from the other side of the cage. "Meleager?" Gabrielle turned and saw her friend emerge from the darkness. "In the flesh..." She gave him a big hug. "I was worried about you when Lyla..." He stopped her in mid sentence. "Is she OK? And you? You are OK?" Gabrielle smiled. "Yes we are both fine. Lyla is with Sara. And I am ..a prisoner." Gabrielle looked around realizing this may not be a good definition of fine. Meleager smirked. "Rather informal with the Queen's name aren't we?" Gabrielle smiled. "She's why we were brought here, she's my sister." Meleager blinked his eyes. "Hun? You mean Lyla thought ....but ...your sister Sara?" Meleager didn't hide his confusion. "Yes. It will make a good story - for another time. We have to get out of here." Gabrielle didn't want Xena to have to bail her out yet again. She wouldn't have to with Meleager's help, Gabrielle thought. Meleager eyed her dripping clothes. "I won't have to wait to find out why you are all wet, will I?"

Grickas was dining on a wild boar with four slave women tending to he every need. His overthrow of Enerall was sweeter than expected. His lieutenant interrupted his evening of pleasure with disturbing news. "Sir we caught a young woman coming out of the water in the southern corridor." He looked him in the eye with interest. "What? Was she alone?" He asked feeling a rebellion coming. "Yes, but we've posted guards and will send someone to secure the gate." Grickas, momentarily relieved, stood up and paced.

"Who is this girl?" He asked. "We...didn't ask" The lieutenant admitted with embarrassment, averting the angry glare of the new king. "What? Someone, a woman, is found getting past our defenses and you didn't bother to ask her name when you catch her?" Grickas was truly amazed at the stupidity. "I guess we should have..." The lieutenant scratched his head. Grickas smiled and patted the lieutenant on the back as he leaned towards the man in confidence. "Yes I think that would have been appropriate." He said with great restraint. "So, I guess I should go get that information from her?" The lieutenant asked. "Oh, no, no don't bother yourself." Grickas patted him on his back in a friendly gesture just before he thrust a dagger into the lieutenant's abdomen. "I'll get someone else do it." Grickas says matter-of-factly as the body falls on the floor. "Oh, corporal"

"It will never work." Meleager spoke. "Quiet." Gabrielle instructed wondering why Xena was taking so long. "I'm cold." Meleager whined. "Me too. Shhh." She responded. "I hear him coming." Gabrielle announced. The guard came to the cell with some food for them. He looked in the cell to find the warriors clothes on the ground and Meleager under the covers apparently in the throws of passion. The guard smirked and placed the food in the cell, noticing a dinar just out of reach of the cell bars. The guard saw no threat from a couple going at it, so he opened the cell door to retrieve the gold. Gabrielle jumped down from a dark corner and knocked the guard out cold with the cell door. "See." Gabrielle looked over at an impressed, but chilly Meleager.

Xena finally came upon the cell and her friend after the excitement was over. "What took you so long?" Gabrielle smiled having everything in hand. Xena looks over to Meleager putting on his clothes. "Do you mind?" He barked. "I shouldn't ask should I?" Xena looks back at her friend. "Well, we've solved the Meleager Mystery." Gabrielle takes the keys off the guard. "You didn't tell me about the dead end..." Xena mentioned, a bit annoyed. "What dead end?" Gabrielle asked, genuinely surprised. "Never mind..." Xena remarked noticing Meleager coming forward, now dressed. "Don't tell me we could have just waited for Xena to come." He eyed Gabrielle who grinned and changed the subject. "We've got work to do." Gabrielle led the way towards the armory. "That wasn't funny" Meleager remarked. "Does she do this to you?" He asked Xena. "Do - what - exactly?" Xena glanced over to where Meleager had dressed.

"Sound the alarm, the prisoners have escaped." The corporal had ordered, finding a guard unconscious in the prison cell. Upon further inspection of the area there was no sign of the woman he was to interrogate. "So much for my promotion." The corporal gulped, thinking of his fate. A dull gong rang through the kingdom which signaled to the loyalists to rush the castle. "May the gods be with us." The blacksmith spoke to Lyla. "They are." She spoke confidently. Sara prayed her sister was right -there was no turning back now. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other in the armory, hearing a premature gong. "They must have noticed you've escaped." Xena concluded. Xena started for the door with Meleager but Gabrielle stayed behind. "Gabrielle!" Xena called out with impatience. "We are not done yet." Gabrielle said with panic, seeing about half of the weapons have not been destroyed. There remained too many spears and arrows, Gabrielle thought as she assessed the inventory with concern. "Gabrielle, we have to make sure the gate is open for the loyalist attack." Xena reminded her. Gabrielle thought a moment. "You two go on, I'll finish here." Xena grabbed her arm. "NO! The guards will be here any second." Gabrielle looked into her eyes with anger that Xena had never seen before. "Too late, they are already here." Meleager called out, tripping two guards and killing them instantly. Four more came quickly after them. "You've got to get the front gate open! I'll do my best to hold them off" Meleager yelled. Gabrielle reluctantly followed his instructions.

Gabrielle and Xena fought what seemed like an endless number of soldiers along the way to the front gate. Gabrielle was exhausted but continued on with Xena leading the way. "By the gods, doesn't she ever tire?" Gabrielle questioned but was thankful Xena was as strong as ever. Xena thrived on the challenge of the fight against overwhelming odds. Gabrielle just wanted to get to the front gate.

They were within sight of their objective. All they had to do was cross a large open courtyard, deal with a dozen soldiers, move the large dead bolt and open the gate. However, the close proximity of the gate gave Gabrielle her second wind. She skillfully blocked and parried three soldier's sword blows with renewed vigor.

With a big grin, Xena somersaulted over the amazed guards. After Gabrielle and Xena took care of most of the guards, Xena attempted to slide the door's incredibly heavy and complex looking gate bolt. It was more difficult to free than she expected. Gabrielle, finishing up with two soldiers came over to lend a hand. "On the count of three." Xena instructs her. "Wait." Gabrielle calls out, spying something - a small metal nail. She pulls it out and the large complex gate bolt falls apart. "Hmmmm". Xena stares at the bolt pieces on the ground. "I'm sure you loosened it up." Gabrielle offers.

Xena's attention was diverted to the two arrows that were coming directly at them. Xena caught one that was aimed for Gabrielle's heart and let the other fly past her head. Gabrielle didn't even know they were coming. "Gods, she must get tired of having to protect me all the time." Gabrielle thought to herself. "I've got a couple of archers to take care of..." Xena left in pursuit of the roof top danger as more soldiers appeared from the castle interior.

Gabrielle opened the gate. The Loyalists' charge in allowed her a small moment of relief during this conflict. That relief was replaced with a new anxiety as she saw her older sister Sara ride in with a dozen horsemen and her younger sister Lyla rush in on foot with the rest of the Loyalists. Her sisters were now in the midst of the battle and danger.

Grickas spied the events unfolding from his castle window. The number of loyalists surprised him. He saw a young, familiar looking woman with red hair fighting well. Yet she was not Sara. "It looks like Sara has friends AND family I will need to deal with." He rubbed his chin grinning at the prospect. "But at another time. This battle is theirs ...." He turned to his advisor. "Quickly, distribute the rest of the drugged water. We will have our final victory soon." Grickas stroked his pendant, containing a small vile of concentrated forgus, the last of his supply. He might have to actually work to conquer his enemies once the forgus was gone, he mused. He decided to worry about that when the time came.

The fighting seemed to go on for an eternity as Gabrielle watched her sisters out the corner of her eye. When Meleager appeared, Gabrielle's hope grew that this signaled that the fighting would soon be over. The soldiers realized they were defeated and started to flee. "We should stop them!" Meleager spoke, meeting up with Gabrielle and her sisters. There were no more soldiers standing on the field of fierce fighting. "No, we have fought enough today." Sara spoke on horseback. The loyalists cheered their Queen. "Secure the castle." She announced to the group. As she dismounted her horse, Lyla asked with enthusiasm. "Have we won?" Gabrielle felt uneasy still not seeing Xena. "Victory is ours." Sara spoke with a smile. "What about Grickas?" Lyla asked realizing the unfinished business. "There will be justice Lyla, but not today." Sara spoke placing a hand on her shoulder.

Two archers on the castle's tower quickly fired their first and second round of arrows towards the unsuspecting party. "Gabrielle! Archers!" Xena could only yell a warning. She was delayed, busy fighting with three guards as she ascended to neutralize the archers. With a sweep of her staff, Gabrielle stopped only two of the arrows, preventing Lyla from getting hit. However, two arrows hit their targets. Meleager and Sara fell to the ground. Xena had arrived at the two archer's location stopping anymore rounds by delivering swift justice with her sharp sword. Lyla was in shock as Gabrielle looked over the wounds of Sara and Meleager. "Xena!" Gabrielle called for her friend with a chilling urgency.

Chapter 7 - The aftermath

The injured were taken within the Castle. Lyla assured Xena and Gabrielle space as she directed the concerned loyalists away from the newly designated hospital area. Xena looked over the injuries. "Meleager needs attention first." Xena looked Gabrielle in the eye wondering if she would argue. Xena wasn't sure of what to expect from Gabrielle's these days -remembering her odd responses in the cave and armory. "What can I do?" Gabrielle asked which reassured Xena there wouldn't be a conflict over this at least. "A hot sword to cauterize the wound." Gabrielle nodded and retrieved what Xena needed.

Meleager gritted his teeth and tried not to yell out as Xena pushed the head of the arrow through. He moaned then passed out from the pain. Xena was glad because the cauterization would hurt more - in addition to smelling really disgusting. Without words, Gabrielle understood Xena and held down Meleager just in case he awoke. Unflinchingly, Xena, with more experience with this treatment than she cared to recall, placed the hot sword against Meleager's wound. The stench caused Gabrielle to cough. "Are you OK?" Xena asked. Gabrielle had heard that question so many times from Xena. Am I OK? Gabrielle asked herself. Having been captured and causing the alarm to sound prematurely, having been too slow to catch the arrows that hit her sister and good friend, Gabrielle would have to say no. "What's wrong?" Xena asked seeing an odd look on Gabrielle's face. Now was not the time to breakdown and add more proof that she was truly a burden, Gabrielle decided.

"Are you guys going to treat Sara?" Lyla asked impatiently seeing them stare at each other and apparently finished with Meleager. Sara was in pain but good spirits. Xena and Gabrielle moved to Sara's cot. "Any time" Sara looked Xena in the eye. The arrow was already through her shoulder. Xena snapped off its head and removed the arrow shaft. "So far so good." Sara breathed heavy. Xena looked at her and explained what she was going to do next. "I can block the pain for the cauterization but it must be temporary. You will then have great pain until I can get you herbs." Sara nodded.

Xena pressed the appropriate nerve points causing numbness in Sara's body. "I can't move." Sara voiced a small amount of concern. "That's expected." Xena remarked. "Oh. " Sara looked at Gabrielle who nodded in confirmation. The wound was quickly sealed with no pain. Gabrielle took the sword from Xena. From Xena's expression, Sara realized she was sorry to have to return the feeling and pain. "I know, this will hurt me more than it will hurt you. I'm ready - I think." She spoke with a dignity and humor that gained Xena's respect. Tears filled Sara's eyes as she silently endured the pain until she passed out.

"Thank you." Gabrielle spoke to Xena as if she was a stranger. Gabrielle turned and walked out of the room. Xena called out her name but Lyla stopped her from following. "Xena, Gabrielle needs to be alone." Xena's eyes disclosed annoyance with Lyla's interference. "She feels this is her fault..." Lyla looks to the unconscious patients Meleager and Sara "....for not stopping all the arrows." Xena responded, questioning Lyla's advice. "And you think we should leave her alone thinking that?" Lyla nodded, remembering it was easier to talk some sense into a calmer Gabrielle vice one still emotionally distraught. "She's not in a listening mood right now." Xena thought a moment, her emotions a jumble. She had wanted to help Gabrielle through this but Lyla must know better. She was her sister after all. Xena's thought's creep back to where she would fit in Gabrielle's life and the answer kept coming back - nowhere.

Later, after seeing that her patients were resting well, Xena went for a walk in the castle in hopes of distracting her from her thoughts of Gabrielle. She made her way down to the soldier's post at the entrance to the labyrinth. A rat crossed her path and made her smile recalling Gabrielle's reaction to those creatures. This detour, while interesting, was not going to distract her enough to push out thoughts of Gabrielle. She decided to return to the makeshift hospital but not before getting a drink of water from a water barrel. The excitement of the day worked up her thirst. She noted that the guards must have been thirsty as well, spotting the half dozen or so empty barrels. After getting her fill, she turned to find Gabrielle coming from the labyrinth. Xena thought of Lyla's advice and decided it best to take it. After all, what could she do for Gabrielle. "Not so bad when you know its secrets." Gabrielle pointed to behind her having gotten through the death traps alive. Xena quickly mentioned she had to go back to tend to the patients. Gabrielle knew that was an excuse to get away from her. "Oh." Gabrielle spoke hiding a deep hurt. She must have no respect for me, Gabrielle thought. It doesn't matter how many labyrinths I get through, Gabrielle thought, the bottom line was that she was a burden that Xena was tired of bearing.

That evening, while tending to others, Xena watched Gabrielle with Sara and Meleager. Gabrielle had picked up so many skills in their time together, including medical skills. This made Xena both proud and sad - the result of this was the disintegration of their friendship. Meleager awoke from his herb aided sleep. "Gods I hate archers." He grumbled evoking a smile from Gabrielle. "I know what you mean." Sara spoke as well, now up.

"This may not be the time for this but....I am in need for a Captain of the Guard and I understand from a VERY good source that you would be perfect." Sara smiled. Meleager looked over to Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow. "Great idea - but don't look at me" Gabrielle denied any involvement. Sara laughed then coughed. "It was my other spy, ah, sister. And Gabrielle, I have the perfect job for you..." Sara's eyes twinkled. "Minister of Cultural Development." Gabrielle smiled recalling the origin of that job many years ago in Potedia. "Yes! I accept!" Gabrielle jumped at the offer, laughing. Xena couldn't believe her ears. Gabrielle had decided to stay. She was staying. She was not going to be by her side. A dejected Xena left.

Chapter 8 - She's Gone?

Xena, as usual, prepared her pack for her morning departure. There wasn't much to pack and Xena had packed for travel thousands of times. She could easily do that chore in the morning but Xena needed something to do. Purposeful and loud footsteps coming towards her room drew Xena's attention away from her packing. Part of her hoped it was Gabrielle, to tell her she changed her mind about staying. Yet another part of her hoped it wasn't, because Xena was convinced Gabrielle was staying.

Exhaling, Xena prepared to face Gabrielle. "All right, what's the idea of planning to travel tomorrow and not telling me? Thanks to Lyla, I found out. You don't really give me a lot of time to prepare" Gabrielle barged in the room without knocking. "You knew this time was coming." Xena said solemnly. "Yes, but you know I hate good byes. You must be really anxious to get back on the road." Gabrielle remarked trying to understand her friend's sudden desire to leave. The comment surprised Xena. Gabrielle can't possibly think this is easy for her. "You didn't even mention leaving tomorrow until, come to think of it - you haven't even told me yet!" Gabrielle was annoyed again. Xena raised her eyebrow. "And when were you going to tell me of your new position?" Xena was hurt that Gabrielle didn't discuss that with her.

"What?" Gabrielle remembered the "position" but did not understand what that had to do with anything. "My position?" Gabrielle asked, confused. Xena didn't want to fight. Not on the last night. "Look, I want you to know I understand why you took the position and I fully support your decision." Xena was trying to be big about this. "Thanks" Gabrielle said flatly, still confused. "Thanks?" Xena repeated. "Thanks?" She repeated again, not believing how cold Gabrielle was. "What do you want me to say?". Gabrielle shrugged. Xena stood there amazed. As she did when she was a warlord, Xena buried her emotions deep and quietly looked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle was not in the mood for guessing games with Xena. She was tired and would talk to her in the morning. "Good night...." Gabrielle sighed and rolled her eyes as she left.

In the morning, Gabrielle rose later than she expected. Her late night goodbyes and the plush castle bedding made it impossible to get up. "Boy, if Xena was in a bad mood last night, she'll really be annoyed that I'm so late." Gabrielle reflected with mild panic as she rushed ungracefully around the room getting dressed and gathering her things. She almost tripped as she sprinted to the garden. Lyla waited for her in the garden. The look on her face made Gabrielle apologize. "OK, OK, I know I'm late. I couldn't ..." Gabrielle didn't see Xena. "Where's Xena? She's really mad isn't she?" Lyla smirked. "I'll say. Xena left Gabrielle. The stablemen said she took Argo at dawn." The words were heard but Gabrielle looked around still. "She's gone?" Gabrielle repeated, her fears realized. Lyla nodded. "Why would she leave without you?" Lyla asked. Gabrielle wasn't going to discuss it.

The next day, Gabrielle went to say her second goodbye to Sara who was regaining her strength quickly. Lyla gave them some time alone. "Oh Gabrielle. You don't need to go." Sara said brushing her sisters hair from her face in a familiar, motherly way. "I do." Gabrielle looked at her sister with great love. Sara nodded. Gabrielle would somehow prove to Xena she could do better and would not be a burden. Maybe there was hope. Gabrielle started to tear up but stopped. Sara accepted her decision. "I am anxious to hear what you find out there on the great ..dangerous road my Minister of Cultural Development. You wouldn't want one of my guards to..." Sara added quickly. "...of course not...Sorry." Gabrielle responded with a restrained hug due to Sara's injuries "Don't ever apologize for caring." Gabrielle added.

"I hope you can reconcile your differences with your friend." Sara changed the subject. Although only having observed the two In a short time, Sara knew they were too close to give up on their friendship so easily. There was a reason for Xena's departure but Sara knew it wasn't her place to pursue the details. Gabrielle picks up her staff. "I'm not so sure it will happen." Gabrielle looked very depressed. "They say time heals all wounds Gabrielle." Sara touches her sad sister's cheek. After hugging her sisters goodbye, Gabrielle started off into the world alone, unsure of where she was going.

There was a time when she would never have actually gone out on her own, despite her youthful fantasies of being a Minister of Cultural Development. She had told her family that she would one day be the Minister of Cultural Development for a powerful and just ruler, sent on a mission to learn about other cultures and bring back enlightenment to her kingdom. Now, while preferring to be along side of Xena, she could go it alone if she had to, she was pretty sure. At least she wasn't being a burden to anyone, Gabrielle reflected. The roads were dangerous though, and she had lost her share of fights only to have Xena come to her rescue. Pushing the insidious doubts from her mind, Gabrielle looked down the fork in the road. Right would take her to Athens, Left to her sister Amazons. "Hmm" Gabrielle pondered the significance of being given that choice just when she was contemplating the need for more education in fighting and self defense.

Chapter 9 - More Sisters

"It's Gabrielle!" one Amazon lookout called out enthusiastically as their princess was spotted arriving. Queen Malosa came from her tent with a big smile. The smile faded as she observed she was alone. "Where is Xena?" Malosa asked. "I wish I knew." Gabrielle responded shaking her head. Malosa sensing trouble, immediately offered help. "We will help you find her" Malosa started to gather up a scouting party. "Wait." Gabrielle stopped the Queen. "Xena left to be on her own." Gabrielle offered no other information. Malosa eyed her deciding it was best to discuss this delicate matter in private.

"I have a request Queen Malosa, I wish to train." Malosa smiled broadly. "Be careful of what you wish for around here PRINCESS Gabrielle, you'll get it." Malosa enjoyed toying with Gabrielle. "I need to be trained..." Gabrielle's tone now sounded more like a plea which caught Malosa off guard. Gabrielle's request was rooted in her problems with Xena, Malosa guessed, nodding to Gabrielle. "We will have a feast tonight to celebrate your return to us." The Amazons cheered. "But first" Malosa was quick to follow up. "to help you work up your appetite, you will start your training - immediately." Gabrielle got what she wished for.

Malosa entrusted Gabrielle with her two finest teachers, Trayla and Sustra. Trayla had helped Gabrielle with the staff before. After starting with the staff to see how much Gabrielle retained from her previous training, Trayla's backside was introduced to the hard ground with a thump. Sustra's laughing didn't help Trayla's bruised ego. As Trayla brushed herself off, Gabrielle saw the irritation build up and performed some innate casualty control. "If it were not for your training in the basics, I could have never improved. I still have so much more to learn from you." Gabrielle's words were sincere and respectful. Trayla nodded taking some solace in Gabrielle's words and skill. "I think you have less to learn about the staff than you say." Gabrielle shook her head no but Trayla continued. "There are other skills you need to learn, isn't that right Sustra?"

It was Sustra's turn. "Sword? Crossbow? Wrestling?" Gabrielle thought a moment. "I would like to know how to defend myself if I loose my staff in a fight. Not that that has or would ever happen." Gabrielle's humor was welcome to Sustra who liked to laugh. Trayla was much more serious. "Very wise my princess. Sustra is the best in-close fighter." Trayla spoke fact. Gabrielle could believe it, looking at the woman's tall and muscular body. Immediately, Gabrielle found Sustra excellent at explaining the principles behind the techniques in addition to telling good battle stories where each technique was useful. This helped Gabrielle learn more than Sustra realized.

"OK, you've learned enough to throw me - do it." Sustra challenged. "How can I throw someone as large...ah.. muscular as you? I'm too small, I just want to learn how to get out of a bind." Gabrielle's comments made Sustra disappointed. "Haven't you been ...whoa!" Sustra was caught off guard by her student but quickly countered. "Ack!" Gabrielle was caught in a choke hold. "Good attempt with your diversion, what next?" Sustra coached her captive. Gabrielle's response was muffled by Sustra's strong arm around her neck. "What?" Sustra asked then relaxed the grip somewhat to hear her response. "Offer money?" Gabrielle spurted.

On Trayla's normally stoic face, a slight smile appeared. "Think!" Sustra ordered. Gabrielle applied her fingers to the pressure points of Sustra's hand and pulled it away from her neck. The next move was more of a roll vice a throw but the result was that Gabrielle successfully got Sustra on her back with a thud. Trayla was grinning wider now. "You still need to work on speed." A dusty Sustra spoke from the ground.

The next hours were the most fatiguing few hours Gabrielle could recall in her life. Malosa came to the practice field to see about Gabrielle's progress. Trayla and Gabrielle were back with the staff to teach her about fighting on unstable surfaces. This time however, Trayla did not underestimate her opponent. "My Queen." Sustra came over as the two continued. "How goes the training." Malosa saw a more confident Gabrielle than the last time she trained with the Amazons. "Better than I had hoped. She is a quick study and has grown much stronger since her last visit" Malosa was pleased. "Good."

A worried look in Sustra's face caused Malosa to ask what was the matter. "Gabrielle would do just as well with a sword yet she has no interest in it." Sustra informed her Queen. Malosa explained, "Gabrielle considers the sword a symbol of death." Sustra shrugged. "So?" Malosa looked over to Gabrielle with an understanding. "She hasn't killed anyone and has vowed never to do so. I respect that vow and so should you. Do not push the sword. If she wants to learn those skills, she will ask." The usually stern queen then quipped. "Our princess is not shy you know."

The feast was one of their best. This time, Gabrielle was able to sit out the dancing as rank has its privileges. After telling the story of finding her long lost sister to the appreciative group, she sat next to Malosa at the royal table and ate like two Amazons. "I see your story telling skills and appetite are in good shape. How is your training going?" Malosa asked, sitting comfortably in the Queen's spot at the royal table. "Sustra and Trayla are teaching me so much, but I am afraid I am not quick enough." Gabrielle sighed then yawned and quickly apologized. Malosa nodded. "Speed will come with practice. You know that from your staff work, which I am very pleased with." Gabrielle shrugged. "I have improved, but I have lost so many fights and had to be saved by Xena..." The mention of her name saddens Gabrielle. "Probably due to a lack confidence Gabrielle - not skill." Malosa remarked sipping her wine.

Considering they have sufficient privacy, Malosa asks what happened. "You said Xena left you at your sister's castle?" Gabrielle nodded, not ready to admit why Xena left. Gabrielle's perception was still affected by the drug. Interpreting the silence incorrectly, Malosa offered solace. "There must be a reason Gabrielle. Xena cares deeply for you. When you do see her, remember that. Go get some rest now. Tomorrow will come early and Sustra and Trayla will not handle you so gingerly as they did today" Malosa noted as Sustra and Trayla looked at each other with wide grins. "And I'm supposed to have a good night's sleep now?" Gabrielle remarked to an amused Malosa.

Gabrielle had no trouble sleeping and the morning did come early. Sustra and Trayla came in her tent. With a soft, melodic voice, Sustra called for Gabrielle. "Princess, wake up." Gabrielle stirred very little. Then, Sustra's tone and volume changed. "It is time for TRAINING" Sustra boomed. Trayla turned over the bed of the disoriented bard. "I am so glad you two enjoy your jobs." Gabrielle looks up from the ground. For the next few days, Gabrielle was put through many tests and drills and sported many bruises. The most annoying training was in the beginning of the day. which came earlier and earlier each morning to keep Gabrielle off balance, which worked well.

Gabrielle found herself in the forest alone. Trayla and Sustra were hiding. The hair on the back of Gabrielle's neck rose. They were close. While never having so many bruises in her life, Gabrielle never felt so clear minded and alive. A noise in the bushes made Gabrielle smile with recognition. The sound was a stone, a diversion. Gabrielle turned towards where she anticipated the attacker to be. Unfortunately, she was wrong. Sustra leaped out of the trees and tackled Gabrielle. "Ooofph" The wind was knocked out of her. "Remember UP Gabrielle." She picked up the crumpled bard. "UP" Gabrielle repeated still gasping for air with great effort. She silently scolded herself for missing that attack position. Xena commonly used the trees. The two walked a while with no sign of Trayla. While crossing a stream on a felled tree, Gabrielle had the feeling an attack was pending. Gabrielle uttered "Down.." As Trayla came out of the water and grabbed for Gabrielle's leg. Gabrielle avoided the grab with a flip, but landed in the water with a stupendous splash. The Amazon trainers look at each other. "Better." They spoke in unison.

"I'll miss this" Trayla said quietly to her partner in chaos prior to the morning exercise. Sustra and Trayla stealthily entered the tent from underneath. Trayla and Sustra looked at each other amused with the fact Gabrielle didn't stir yet. They stood up ready to attack. Trayla gave a war scream and jabbed the blob in the bed which evoked no movement. Sustra uttered an "ugh oh". The tent collapsed on the two attackers. Laughter erupted in the Amazon camp as the two teachers scrambled to get out from the tent. They quickly joined in the laughter, realizing their Princess had learned very well.

At a private dinner, Queen Malosa had relayed her experience with Grickas to an attentive Gabrielle. "He was a weak man. Not a true warrior." Malosa despised him and was happy he met his end. "Why not a true warrior, he was very successful in battle wasn't he?" Gabrielle asked. Malosa shook her head no. "He wasn't. Only his tricks and drugs made him win. As I said, not a true warrior." Gabrielle was still confused.

"Drugs? What kind of drugs?" Gabrielle asked. Malosa spoke with incredible disgust. "Forgus, a drug whose effects can be insidious. It amplifies a persons fears and doubts. If taken in its purest form, the transformation is permanent but too quick and obvious to ensure a victorious takeover. However, Grickas dilutes this drug and slowly conquers his unsuspecting enemy. Victims never find out that the reason for their defeat was themselves." Malosa sighs. "Themselves?" Gabrielle questions.

"Yes. Normally rational people struggling with those doubts and fears act irrationally. Yet they don't even realize how irrational they have become. The affected are unable to adequately defend themselves from the likes of Grickas. A small band of Grickas' men could overtake a seemingly unconquerable army - with the help of forgus. It sounds like that was the cause of King Enerall's defeat." Gabrielle then asked a question that spoke volumes to Malosa. "Does this Forgus happen to taste sweet?"

With this information, It was time for Gabrielle to leave her Amazon sisters and go back to Walsas. So many good-byes in such a short time was draining on Gabrielle. She was so close to her family and had so many good friends, it was always hard to leave. Malosa expressed concern for Gabrielle's intended trip. "If Grickas is still loose, he will try to regroup to conquer Walsas. If you want my help, Gabrielle, just say the word." The significance of Malosa's offer was not lost on Gabrielle.

"Your training is not done yet Gabrielle." Malosa remarked with authority. "Training never really stops, does it?" Gabrielle asks . "If it does, your dead." Malosa answered. "We still have a few things to teach you." Malosa added, her stare relayed no emotion. Gabrielle rubbed her bruised arm. "I think my training is best done in short sprits - so I can recover. Besides, I am looking forward to a good night's sleep." Gabrielle's joke about the morning exercises concerned Malosa, who's expression turned grave. "Gabrielle, sleep will be a necessity not a luxury. You must always sleep lightly, and at the ready. Attackers will not be as kind as Trayla and Sustra." Gabrielle nodded, a little disturbed, yet understood Malosa's warning. "Don't worry, you have learned much." Malosa added. Gabrielle wondered how true that was. "Remember, you most powerful weapon is your mind and... of course your gift of Gab, Gabrielle" Malosa smiled. "Thanks..." Gabrielle blurted with mock annoyance. Yet, Gabrielle agreed.

Gabrielle started down the path, once again - alone. C

hapter 10 - The return

Approaching Walsas, Gabrielle felt it wise to not use the main road - just in case. "I'm probably being paranoid", she thought to herself. "Paranoid is good..." she concluded, finding the kingdom reoccupied by Grickas' soldiers. Her mind raced with thoughts of what fate befell her sisters. "Focus and calm down." She told herself. She needed to find out what was going on. The tavern was closest.

The soldiers paid no attention to the cloaked woman who limped into the Tavern. Farr the barkeep was hopeful for a paying customer finally. "May I.." His eyes widened as he recognized the face of the woman under the hood. He nervously backed away into the storeroom. Gabrielle followed. "You shouldn't be here!" He whispered loudly. The incredible difference in the man before her now and the same man days ago confirmed her suspicions that Grickas once again drugged the people of Walsas with Forgus. "They will kill me for talking to you!" He looked around nervously. "You must go now." He shook. "I will go...just tell me...are Sara and Lyla OK?" She braced herself for the worse. "I don't know, I don't know" He backed up, knocking over a jug of wine which crashed on the floor.

"Hey!" A soldier enters the store room to see what caused the commotion. Seeing the wine spilled on the floor, he sneers. "Be more careful of this stuff." Farr's nervousness made the filthy soldier feel dominant. He walked around inspecting the area to increase the barkeep's panic and his enjoyment. It worked. Farr cringed at every corner and space the soldier would inspect. "You've got thirsty soldiers out there to serve. Go on!" Farr left the storeroom wondering what happened to the young woman.

Gathering information was not easy task, Gabrielle thought as she approached the Inn. There were guards close to the front door so she tried the back door. She could have tried to pick the lock to the back door but saw that there was a window open on the second floor. The path of least resistance worked for her.

"I gave you all the money I have" Cumae spoke to a young soldier she could have physically taken on in her younger days. Cumae's eyes glanced over to the stairs where she saw Gabrielle poking her head out from the stairwell. Gabrielle motioned to Cumae she was going to the hidden basement. Their silent communication went unnoticed by the greedy boy.

Making her way to the room, Gabrielle thought of her experiences with the Amazons. All things being equal, Gabrielle preferred infiltrating the kingdom to head-on confrontations. While she recognized the value of being proficient with fighting skills, she considered it took more skill to avoid conflict and obtain her objective. It was also more satisfying to win a mental contest than a physical one.

Gabrielle easily entered the sanctuary of the hidden room, undetected by soldiers. A single candle burned with insufficient light for Gabrielle's adjusting eyes to see anything. However, she felt a quiet presence in the room. The presence was a familiar one. "Xena" She called out softly, 99% sure her feelings were correct. "Good eyes." Xena commented without correction from Gabrielle. "I'm glad you're here. I was afraid I'd have to save the kingdom alone." Gabrielle remarked with a smile that eased Xena's apprehension about facing Gabrielle. "I'm thinking clearer now." Xena stared at her awkwardly, wanting to say more. "But the kingdom isn't. Grickas is at it again. Did you know Grickas always uses Forgas on his enemies?" Gabrielle relayed. "Not until the drug wore off." Xena answered with regret.

"Xena, there was no way you could have known you...we... were affected." Gabrielle casually commented as she lit more candles. "There, much better." The room was much brighter to Gabrielle's satisfaction. "What happened to you ?" Xena asked with concern. With the added light, Xena now saw the large number bruises Gabrielle sported. "A few ...educational experiences" Gabrielle rubbed a bruised elbow. "Gabrielle..." Xena started to say something when Cumae, finally finished with the young soldier, came in the room. She was also affected by the water but not as afraid as Farr about helping them. "They are still alive." Cumae spoke immediately to Gabrielle upon entering the room.

Gabrielle's armor of good humor revealed a sizable dent as she closed her eyes and thanked the gods upon that news. This experience was draining on Gabrielle, Xena observed, now grateful for Cumae's interruption. There was only so much Gabrielle should have to deal with at one time. Collecting herself, Gabrielle quickly recovered her good humor "But?" Gabrielle asked. "There's always a but." She added looking at Xena. "Grickas plans another execution for Sara when she recovers enough from her wounds." Cumae informed. "How considerate." Xena remarked.

Cumae left to tend to the Inn not wanting to be found missing from the front desk too long. "It's always something isn't it?" Gabrielle sighed, sitting down at the table. Reaching for a water skin, she stopped herself before drinking. "I brought that, it's OK." Xena remarked. Gabrielle looked at her. "Good, don't want to go through THAT again." She took a sip. The comment made Xena wonder what she went through, what doubts and fears had plagued her. Xena stared at Gabrielle, wanting to apologize for leaving, wanting to say how much she missed her. Yet she didn't.

Noting Xena was trying to tell her something then stopped when Cumae entered the room, Gabrielle thought of a way to help. "Did you know that the Yersians were a people that had very few wars or even disputes?" Gabrielle's comment surprised Xena, who wondered where Gabrielle was going to go with this. "No." Xena answered cautiously sitting across from Gabrielle at the table and taking a sip of water herself. "If two families ...or people...had a problem that seemed insurmountable they would gather the troubled parties in a sacred room, the Great Room of Truths." Gabrielle nibbled on some bread. "Oh?" Xena responded wondering how much of this story Gabrielle was making up.

"Yes. In this Great Room, the troubled people were sworn to abide by the Rules of Questions. Once agreed to, each party was allowed to ask one question of each other. The person asking the question was not allowed to speak until the person answering was finished. The person answering was required to be direct and truthful, even if the truth was painful. After the first questions were asked, they went home to think about what they heard and consider their next questions. The next day they would gather in the same place and ask a second set of questions. Then after that, a third set of questions, asked on the third day, would be asked. By the end of the third day the problem was solved."

"How did they know if the answers given were the truth?" Xena asked a practical question. "They knew." Gabrielle answered looking her in the eye. Xena could believe that Gabrielle would be able to. Cumae returned, having put in her appearance at the front desk. Annoyed and disappointed by Cumae's poor timing, Gabrielle muttered under her breath. "If it isn't Cumae, the interrupter." The comment was heard by Xena who refrained from grinning. She owed Cumae another one.

Chapter 11 - Another rescue

"So much for being considerate" Gabrielle remarked. Grickas was too impatient for Sara's full recovery so he decided to push up the execution to the next day. Xena lead the way to the Castle. "They probably have the entrances we used before guarded." Gabrielle remarked trying to figure out what her friend had in mind as they walked through the trees. "Well, I agree your underwater passage is out." Xena remarked coming to a boulder. "Good. I've had enough swimming." Gabrielle sat on the boulder, rechecking her bag to make sure everything was there. "And the side entrance?" Gabrielle asked. "Out." Xena remarked. "ok" Gabrielle accepted that. Xena kept standing in front of her as if she was waiting for something. "I give up...How will we get in? What entrance will we use?" Xena smiled getting what she wanted out of Gabrielle. "You're sitting on it."

Gabrielle got up looking at the boulder and pointed at it. "This?" Xena nodded then leaned over and started to move the boulder. To Gabrielle's amazement, Xena exposed a passage with a staircase. "How did you know about this?" Gabrielle peered down the entrance. "I stumbled across it when I had to find another way into the castle. That was after I ran into that dead end you never told me about." Xena explained passing by Gabrielle to descended the steps. "What dead end?" Gabrielle followed, remembering Xena mentioned that before but not remembering the dead end. "Never mind." Xena answered.

They came upon the soldier's dining hall which they had to cross to get to access to the holding cell. The dining hall was bustling with feeding soldiers. "It would be probably be impolite to disturb their dinner." Xena remarked as they retreated unnoticed to the next room. They needed to remain undetected for the plan to succeed.

Gabrielle observed a much more relaxed Xena before her than when they met at the Inn. The room they were now in was a sitting room with beautiful woven tapestries hanging from the walls. Gabrielle took a moment to admire them. "Look at the detail." She remarked with amazement. The noise of soldiers moving towards their position caused Xena and Gabrielle to look to each other. After scanning the room for hiding options, Xena found Gabrielle had already found a place to hide as she was gone.

Xena found the ledge outside the window the closest place to hide, although she would have preferred the rafters. A soldier came in, having a little too much to drink, Xena observed. He stumbled around and was getting close to the tapestry where Gabrielle was last seen standing. Xena's heart jumped when she thought Gabrielle's hiding place would be exposed. Her hand clenched her Chakrum as he stumbled into that tapestry. However, Gabrielle was not there as Xena expected. Xena eased her grip on her Chakrum as she smiled to herself. Her eyes found where the nervous bard was hiding, in the rafters. Other soldiers came in and found their comrade in bad shape. "Come on. You don't want King Grickas to find you like this." One soldier spoke. The title of King made Gabrielle angry. Sara had stated that justice would be served another day. Today was that day, Gabrielle thought.

After the soldiers left, Gabrielle lowered herself from the rafters on to a table as Xena emerged from the window. "I'm glad you didn't choose the tapestry." Xena remarked quietly. "Me too. Whoa." Gabrielle looses her balance and kicks one large candle holder off the table while heading for a noisy fall. Xena catches the candle in one hand and grabs Gabrielle's arm with the other, steadying her. A relieved Gabrielle makes it down to the floor. Xena stares at the candle then Gabrielle. "I know, improve." Gabrielle jokes. "I didn't say anything." Xena remarked. "Maybe not, but you wanted to." Gabrielle countered. "So you've learned to read minds?" Xena put the candle down. "You'd be surprised." Gabrielle looked at her. "Really? What am I thinking now." Xena asked with a sly grin. "That we shouldn't waste any more time in getting to the holding cell." Gabrielle headed towards the soldiers dining room. The smile on Xena's face faded after that correct answer. "Xena" Gabrielle quietly called back to her realizing she wasn't moving. "Nah..." Xena thought to herself.

They arrived at the holding cell which boasted better accommodations than the dungeon cells. Grickas wanted to ensure his injured prisoner didn't rob him of the execution he looked forward to by dying on her own. As they expected, Sara was alone. Gabrielle hoped they were right about Lyla and Meleager being held in the main dungeon. Xena distracted a guard further and further away from the cell with a string of noises, allowing Gabrielle to approach her sister. "Sara" Gabrielle spoke waking her sister. "Gabrielle!" She was shocked and concerned. "Grickas has won." Sara's head fell in defeat. Gabrielle knew it had to be the Forgus talking. "Not yet Sara. Justice will be served." Sara embraced her sister with a need to believe that. "Where are Lyla and Meleager?" Gabrielle asked. "They are below in the dungeon." Gabrielle nodded. "Are you strong enough to leave?" Sara nodded.

Taking Sara down to the dungeon, Sara protested the plan. "Xena, I can't leave her there." She started. "It's Gabrielle's choice." Xena coolly responded. Sara made many similar comments of concern along the way which Xena chose to ignore. Xena tried not to get too irritated as she knew the forgus was making Sara more fearful. They made it to the soldier's post at the entrance of the Labyrinth which they had to go through. Sara kept pushing Xena about Gabrielle. "She could be killed. Why didn't you try to talk her out of this? Don't you care?" Surprising Sara with her speed, Xena put her hand on the Queen's mouth and shoved her into the shadows. "Stay quiet or you will be killed." Xena spoke deliberately. Sara wasn't sure if Xena meant by the soldiers or her own hands. The soldiers didn't know what hit them as Xena jumped from the darkness and attacked with her sword swiftly and accurately. She killed all four of them, regretting the necessity. If they woke at an inopportune time, they would foil the rescue and further endanger Gabrielle's life. She was grateful though that Gabrielle did not have to witness her killing again. Gabrielle knew there were times when it could be justified, Xena thought to herself as she pulled the bodies out of view. However, Xena knew it still disturbed Gabrielle even if she never spoke of it. Finished covering up signs of the attack, Xena looked up at Sara who was silently staring at her. There was a familiar look of sadness in Xena's eyes which Sara remembered seeing in Enerall when he killed in front of her.

Gabrielle laid on the cot with her face to the wall. She wore a white dress like Sara's to complete the deception. The guard came by to confirm his red headed prisoner was where she should be. Satisfied, he left to patrol the area. This was the difficult part, Gabrielle thought as she waited. Her nervous energy was used for pacing around the cell . She wondered how far along Xena was in the rescue of Sara, Lyla and Meleager. She then reconsidered that her task of waiting was much easier than Xena's task of rescuing two injured and one green young Potedian all probably heavily affected by forgus.

Hearing more footsteps, she jumped onto the cot and faced the wall. Why was he back so soon, Gabrielle wondered. The steps were of a different man. "My Queen Sara. It is almost time. You will soon meet the same fate as your husband Enerall." Gabrielle moved slightly. "Ah, you are still fighting fate." Grickas observed. The noise of a key entering the cell door lock made Gabrielle's heart race. He would find out soon. Now she had to deal with an opponent without her staff. He entered and Gabrielle spoke softly. "Why?"

Grickas laughed. "Why not?" He sat down on the cot next to her touching the familiar red hair. Her urge to punch him was overcome by a calm. Not yet, she thought. Gabrielle could hear and feel he only had on a dagger. Appropriate for a man who was not a true warrior. "I guess I could blame it on a difficult childhood but I actually enjoyed my childhood." He mused. "Why..." He repeated. "Because I can." He answered truthfully. "What?" He gasped, realizing the red hair belonged to someone other than Sara. Gabrielle turned pushing him onto the ground and bolted for the cell door. He grabbed her foot causing her to fall. She kicked free of his grip and the two were quickly on their feet facing each other in the small cell.

"I should know your name at least, before I kill you" He asked pulling his dagger out. "Does that mean you won't kill me if I don't tell you?" Gabrielle remarked making Grickas smile. "No, it's just more ... polite." He lunged towards her unsuccessfully. "You have to be her sister, but I didn't know she had any." Grickas was still more amused than worried, believing the forgus would prevent Sara from getting far. Gabrielle was grateful for that advantage. "Gee, how'd you figure that out?" Gabrielle commented as she looked for an opportunity to escape the small confines of the cell. He lunges again getting close enough to lightly cut her arm but allowing her to hit the him solidly in the face, breaking his nose. "Ahhh" He held his face and fell to his knees. Gabrielle once again tried to escape but Grickas would not allow that as he overcame his pain and tackled her into the bars.

Somehow she broke herself free from this man and escaped the cell. Scanning her surroundings in the empty dining hall, she found the guard running towards her with his sword drawn. Hard to keep a fight quiet, she realized. One in front and one closing in at her back, Gabrielle assessed her situation. She spied a staff on the other side of the room. The only obstacle was the bigger, meaner looking guard. She dove on top of the long table towards her objective, missing a deadly blow by the guard. She jumped with more energy than she realized, unable to stop herself from sliding completely across the table and onto the floor with a thud. She quickly recovered, adjusting her dress that was ill-suited for fighting and grabbed the staff.

With the familiar feel of the staff in her hand, Gabrielle breathed deeply feeling more comfortable. That was until three more soldiers rushed in to inform Grickas of their news. "The prisoners have escaped from the dungeon. And we are missing many soldiers." One blurted to Grickas, who blew his usual cool. "NO! NO! NO!" He screamed, realizing all his mistakes. Gabrielle was relieved at the soldier's news. All she had to worry about was herself. As the soldiers that surrounded her closed in, she thought that was still enough to worry about. She successfully prevented them from getting too close with swift and accurate staff work. However, she knew she would tire soon which would be the end. "Some warrior you are Grickas." Gabrielle taunted him.

He looked at her still upset with himself. "Using drugs to conquer your enemy. When you can't rely on the drugs, you loose to a mere woman in hand to hand combat." The soldiers slowed their attacks listening to this woman's accusations. Grickas pushes a soldier aside, grabbing his sword. Gabrielle smiles. "And by the way, my name is Gabrielle, the woman who defeated you." The soldiers freeze as they watch Grickas lung towards the woman. Gabrielle easily avoids his angry and sloppy moves. Yep, she was more comfortable with the staff than hand-to-hand. She hits him in the chest with great force causing him to land on his back. The vile on his neck breaks open. He gasps pulling his pendant off him throwing it to the floor. The vapors of the pure forgus were strong.

Gabrielle steps back realizing what had happened. She watches with the soldiers as Grickas huddles over shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. "Here is your GREAT warrior Grickas." She speaks to the soldiers, tired of fighting. "Leave now and never bother this kingdom again." She looked each of them in the eyes. The soldiers debated what to do. Xena entered the room not quiet sure of what to do seeing the standoff before her. Gabrielle looked at her motioning her to not attack, and looked back at the soldiers. "It's your choice."

They quickly leave the two woman and their leader huddled on the floor. Xena looks over at Grickas. "Careful Xena, he splashed pure forgus on himself." Gabrielle looked down at the sorry sight. "I wonder if this will be permanent." She added with some feeling of remorse. Xena put a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I don't know." Xena saw Gabrielle was disturbed by the outcome of her fight. "It's not like you killed him Gabrielle." Gabrielle nodded. "I know. But I wonder if this isn't worse."

Gabrielle stared down at Grickas not sure what to feel. Xena, greatly disturbed by Gabrielle's comment, reached out her hand, gently turned Gabrielle's head away from Grickas. Looking directly in her friend's sad eyes, Xena spoke from the heart. "If there is any blame Gabrielle, it lies with Grickas. He didn't just kill people - he abused people with that drug. Now he is suffering for that abuse. I hope you can see that." Xena waited for a response. Gabrielle nodded and embraced her friend tightly. "Thank you" She spoke softly.

"There you are!" Cumae came in. Gabrielle stepped back and looked over to the woman than back at Xena. "Cumae..of course." Gabrielle spoke under her breath.

Chapter 12 - A promise is a promise is a promise

After the celebration dinner, Gabrielle sat in the garden alone with some sadness that she would be leaving soon. "I thought you would be asleep by now." Xena sat next to her enjoying the peaceful evening air. There were so many sides to her friend, Gabrielle noted now seeing the relaxed and happy Xena. Gabrielle was pleased Xena really enjoyed herself the past couple of days around her family and even during the celebration this evening. "What?" Xena asked uncomfortably noticing Gabrielle's stare. "Just counting the minutes before Cumae shows up..." Gabrielle said with a slight grin. "She just left...I think." Xena responded quickly looking around, making Gabrielle laugh. Xena never tired of hearing Gabrielle laugh.

Gabrielle looked up at the night sky and sighed. "So where are we going next?" Xena thought a moment. "We could visit the Amazons." She suggested. Gabrielle cringed. "Perhaps after I fully recover from my last visit." Xena was surprised, but that did explain all her bruises. "So that is where you went after I ...left" Xena still regretted her actions even though Gabrielle knew they were forgus induced. "Yes. I was convinced, or rather the forgus convinced me, that you left because you were tire of me being such a burden. I thought if I trained and learned more I would prove ....well, you get the picture." Gabrielle shrugged. "You did that for me?" Xena asked, once again deeply touched by this bard's actions. "Nope" Gabrielle's answer surprised her. "I did it for entirely selfish reasons." Gabrielle responded. "I wasn't going to give up our friendship without a fight. It means too much to me." Knowing how uncomfortable Xena gets when they discuss their feelings, Gabrielle tried to lighten things up. "Although, had I known what Trayla and Sustra would put me through...I might have reconsidered." Gabrielle smiled at the memories of the experience.

Gabrielle's confession bothered Xena. "I'm kidding" Gabrielle responded seeing her change in moods, then realized it was not the sarcasm. "I didn't fight, I just left." Xena said hollowly, looking at the ground. Gabrielle realized how much guilt Xena still carried around. "Why did you?" Gabrielle asked softly. Xena glanced uncomfortably at her friend then back down to the ground. When Gabrielle thought Xena was having too much difficulty to respond, she let her off the hook. "You don't have to say anything Xena. I know we both weren't acting like ourselves." Gabrielle patted her hand. "It's getting late...We should both get some sleep." Gabrielle starts getting up but Xena, not yet done, gently grabs and pulls on her arm, sitting her back down. "Or we could talk." Gabrielle responded.

Xena finally reveals her doubts and fears. "You have become a skilled fighter have two sisters that are very close to you." Gabrielle listened quietly. Xena still stared at the ground "When you didn't confide in me about your dreams I kept wondering why." Gabrielle sucessfully fought the urge to interrupt, knowing this wasn't easy for Xena. "Then you agreed to take that position from your sister - I thought you were staying without discussing it with me. All those things - with the forgus - added up. I thought there was no room in your life for me." Xena finally looked up at Gabrielle who smiled warmly, happy to finally hear Xena confide her in her.

"You are not my friend because you can protect me Xena." Gabrielle smiled looking into her eyes. "And you are not my best friend because I NEED anymore sisters." Gabrielle responded with a grin. "I know" Xena softly laughed. Gabrielle took a breath, ready to admit something. Xena noted, with some apprehension, the subtle shift in Gabrielle's mood. "I guess I owe you an apology for not telling you about those dreams sooner." Gabrielle felt a little embarrassed. "There was this woman in Potedia, who said she had vivid dreams of prophecy all the time. None of her warnings came true. She was "crazy Sybil". She drove away her family and all her friends." Gabrielle laughed nervously. "You can always talk to me Gabrielle" Xena responded with great feeling. Gabrielle nodded, thanking the gods for having such a good friend. "And you can start by telling me about this job of Minister of Cultural Development.." Xena still had a few questions for the bard.

After finishing with her explanation of the Minister of Cultural Development, Gabrielle yawned. The excitement and emotion of the evening was catching up to her. "It really is getting late. We both should get some sleep." She repeated her good-night to Xena. As she starts to get up, Xena, with a playful grin this time, pulls on her arm sitting her back down. "Or we could ... keep talking." Xena remarked this time. Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. "Malosa said be careful of what you wish for."

The next morning came too early for Gabrielle, but she was determined not to be late for the planned early morning departure. To her surprise, she was in the garden before Xena. She didn't realize how early it was until Cumae came by before she opened the Inn. "Gabrielle, I just wanted to wish you good traveling before you and Xena go. Where is she?" Cumae looked around. "She's probably taking advantage of the last few minutes in a comfortable bed before we head out. She kept us up pretty late last night talking" Gabrielle remarked yawning. Cumae eyed her. "Right - talking." Cumae remarked as reached in her bag. "There IS something I wanted to ask of you and Xena." Cumae smiled.

Gabrielle had already brought Argo from the stables and packed her up with everything. She continued to wait for Xena when Lyla, Sara and Meleager emerged from the castle. "By the Gods it is early, why does anyone start traveling at this time of day?" Lyla rubbed her eyes and yawned. "Lyla, I've explained that to you already." Meleager remarked. "I know but..." Lyla's reply was interrupted by Gabrielle's hug. "Thank you Lyla." Gabrielle's eyes watered up. "Hey, stop that. It's contagious." Lyla wiped Gabrielle eye then her own.

Gabrielle hugged Meleager next, who felt a little embarrassed at the affection in public. "We always seem to have an interesting time together" Meleager joked. "I'm glad you will be here for my sister - Meleager the Mighty." She looked at him with affection and respect. That meant the world to him.

Xena finally emerged from the castle unapologetic for being late. She wasn't much for long good-byes. She did look particularly well rested, Gabrielle noted. "I owe you all so much." Sara spoke to the group. "It's a shame I can't convince you two to stay here with us." Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other. "There are places to go and people to help." Gabrielle responded for the both of them. Xena nodded. "I somehow expected that answer." Sara looked at the two. "Take care of her." Sara yelled to them as they started their journey. "I will." They both responded. Gabrielle and Xena, with Argo in tow, walked through the front gate of the Castle that had seen so much fighting days before. Gabrielle appreciated the calm and prayed it would last.

"Gabrielle." Xena stops Argo. "Yes?" Gabrielle responded, still walking and looking around the beautiful landscape, enjoying the sun and air. "What's this?" Xena asks, looking in Argo's saddle bag. Gabrielle stops and returns to Xena's side seeing what she is talking about. "A package." Gabrielle answers innocently. "A package?" Xena repeated. "Just something I promised Cumae we would ...deliver ..." Gabrielle realized she did it again. "Gabrielle" Xena spoke sternly. "It's a BIRTHDAY present Xena"

Xena starts walking with Argo silently. Gabrielle, attempted to justify the reasons for her promise. It was the right thing to do even if Xena didn't agree yet, Gabrielle thought. "It's for her nephew and after all that she's done for us, I thought it was a...." Gabrielle explanation was interrupted. "Stop." Xena spoke in a commanding tone. "It's ok" Xena added, her tone softer. "It's ok?" Gabrielle repeated. "Yes." Xena answered. "Yes?" Gabrielle repeated. "Gabrielle - don't push it." Xena replied sternly. Gabrielle looked at her and stayed quiet. After a few minutes, Xena broke the silence. "So where is this nephew we need to deliver this GIFT to..." Xena asked a very good question. Gabrielle gulped wondering just how understanding Xena would be. "GABRIELLE..."


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