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In a Man's World

by Enginerd

Chapter 1 - Practice Makes Perfect

Xena double checked her saddle bags. She confirmed she had everything packed, including the birthday present Gabrielle promised they would deliver to Cumae's nephew. She shook her head with a smile, having lost count of how many times Gabrielle promised they would deliver something for someone. Satisfied with everything and ready to leave, Xena called out to her friend. "Come on Gabrielle, we are wasting daylight." There was no response.

The only sounds she heard were birds chirping and leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. "Gabrielle" Xena uttered with annoyance. Gabrielle was practicing her stealth in the forest - AGAIN. Each time she did so, Xena would find her and be on the receiving end of a barrage of questions. "How did you track me? How did you know? What noise did you hear first?", would be among the first questions. Gabrielle's tenacity could be irritating at times. Yet, that tenacity was what helped her to learn so quickly, Xena acknowledged.

Peering down on Xena, Gabrielle remembered, with a smile, the lessons she learned from her Amazon teachers Trayla and Sustra. "Up" was one that they stressed so she think of an attack in three dimensions not two. Gabrielle found herself pleased for this was the closest she got to Xena without Xena knowing. Or was it? Gabrielle wondered if Xena knew but didn't let her know she knew. Xena could be hard to read at times, Gabrielle knew well.

Before Gabrielle could make another move to see if she could surprise Xena, a man traveling with a crumpled map walked towards Xena. His smile was friendly which added a great deal to his already handsome face, Gabrielle noted. "Hello." He said brightly, glad to finally see someone on the road and one so beautiful. Xena looked at him and nodded. "I am trying to find my way to Marapolis but I am afraid I am not very good at reading maps. Could you help me?" He asked. Xena relaxed, noting he was not wearing any weapons and he had a gentle disposition. "Sure. Marapolis is actually due West of here. Just follow the sun set and you should get there in about two days." Xena smiled warmly and placed her hand on his shoulder as she pointed West.

Gabrielle's eyebrow raised. "Awfully friendly to a guy she's just met", Gabrielle noted. She noticed how he looked at her as well. "Gods, what flagrant flirting!" Gabrielle silently sighed as she witnessed the conversation below. "What ever happened to the good old, 'don't waste my time' Xena?" Gabrielle wondered. After hearing the man a few minutes, Gabrielle found his complements really did not do Xena justice. In fact, the man was not very articulate or observant Gabrielle concluded. He didn't even mention her beautiful smile. "Gods he has to be blind to miss that one." Gabrielle thought, shaking her head. "Hey...why is she smiling so much?" Gabrielle asked herself.

Stretching further out on the limb for a better look, Gabrielle continued to watch and critique this man's performance. "Sure, go for the easy eyes complement. That's it? You completely missed the boat buddy, you can't just SAY they are beautiful, you should tell her WHY they are so beautiful." She rolled her eyes, thinking of all the things she could say to Xena that would put his lame comments to shame. Of course, she was in no position to say such things to Xena, Gabrielle sighed.

After listening a while to the man's unimpressive performance, Gabrielle wondered if he was ever going to leave so she could get out of the tree. She couldn't very well jump down now and reveal she had been eves-dropping. Reaching up to a nearby branch to steady herself, she quietly shifted her position so her leg wouldn't fall asleep. Unfortunately, Gabrielle just learned the importance of recognizing the healthy branches from the dead ones. A lesson she apparently missed during her last visit at the Amazon camp. The limb gave way and Gabrielle's eyes widened, knowing she was coming down hard. "Watch out!" Gabrielle warned Xena who already heard the cracking of the limb.

Xena pulled the man out of the way and watched helplessly as the bard flapped her arms unable to avoid her fall. Gabrielle hit the ground with a thud. "Gabrielle!" Xena rushed over to her friend. "Ow Ow ..." The bard repeated as she moved. "Gods, is she all right?" The man asked looking over Xena's shoulder. Gabrielle pushed Xena's hands away from her, not giving Xena the opportunity to pinpoint the pain. "Gabrielle...let me.." Xena asked with great concern in her eyes. "I'm ... Ow Ow ... OK......Ugh." Gabrielle moans as she gets up and limps around. "Fine, see?" She informs Xena and dusts herself off, exhaling loudly.

"Hi, I'm Gabrielle. Sorry to drop in on you like this." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly at the man who, still stunned by the event, smiles awkwardly. "Well, I've got to get going." The man announces to Xena who doesn't appear to hear him. "Hope you're OK." He tells Gabrielle, who shrugs and waives indicating there's no problem. "Thanks for your help Xena." He speaks to the Warrior Princess who grunts something, continuing to eye her friend for signs of serious injury.

After the man departs, Gabrielle walks around a bit with a slight limp, to convince Xena she was not hurt too badly. "Your in pain, I'll make you some tea..." Xena offered knowing Gabrielle had to hurt bad. "That's OK...I'm fine. Really. You were right, we are wasting daylight..." Gabrielle remarked, attempting to sound enthusiastic about walking. Xena noted Gabrielle using her staff a little more that usual when she started down the road. Xena sighed, relieved Gabrielle didn't hurt herself worse. As she followed the bard, a small grin crossed her face.

In the Great Hall of the Sunmoon brothers, Sunal , the founder of the Sunmoon, looked upon his grandson Leo with great pride. Leo was to go through the Ceremony of Peace and become a full Sunmoon Monk. Sunal wished Leo's father could be there to witness this great event. However, Sunal's son was murdered when Leo and Boean were young. That fact made this ceremony even more precious to Sunal. Leo had gotten past the hate and anger to embrace the pacifist beliefs of the Sunmoon.

After the Ceremony started, two Sunmoon brothers burst in, carrying a bloodied man into the Great Hall. "My gods! It's Boean! Get the healers!" Leo shouted, helping him onto the alter. The Sunmoon monks looked on in horror. "Who did this to you my son?" Sunal asked taking his hand. Boean tried to focus on Sunal. "Grandfather, I only tried to spread the word of Peace and Harmony...They thought me weak when I didn't fight. I promised you I wouldn't..." Boean uttered with a cough. "Who?!" Sunal demanded. "The Amazons." Sunal looked at Leo fearing rumors about the growing animosity towards the Sunmoon were not exaggerated.

Every time Xena would offer to stop or get Gabrielle something for the pain, she refused. All day, Xena could tell Gabrielle was silently and unnecessarily suffering while they walked. As a result, Xena grew increasingly annoyed at the bard's pride. Foolish pride was something she hoped Gabrielle would not learn from her.

That evening, Gabrielle sat down carefully on her bed roll to minimize her pain. Without telling Gabrielle what she was doing, Xena had made an herbal remedy for her bard despite earlier refusals. "Xena, I don't need..." Gabrielle started to object again but Xena interrupted. "Humor me..." Xena looked at her with a blank look and handed her a cup. Gabrielle sighed, she could use something for the pain she concluded, sipping the tea. Her face cringed at the horrible taste as she swallowed. "This tastes.." Xena revealed a slight grin. "If I didn't know better, I'd think ...hmmm. You know, this actually doesn't taste THAT bad..." Gabrielle eagerly gulped the entire contents of the cup. A confused Xena eyed her. The drink wasn't supposed to taste good.

Gabrielle started to giggle and appeared light headed. "Not bad at all. More...please" Gabrielle held out the cup, eyeing what was left of the tea. Xena was disturbed by Gabrielle's reaction, it wasn't right. Doubts filled Xena's mind. Surely I didn't pick the wrong herb, she thought to herself, growing concerned. Xena grabbed Gabrielle's cup and poured herself the rest of the tea, tasting it. Immediately, she spit out the foul tasting contents "ugh.." Xena blurted. Gabrielle stared at her with a victory grin and responded, "I'm humored, what about you?"

Xena stared with amazement at her cunning friend, then her eyes narrowed. "Sometimes I underestimate how devious your mind really is Gabrielle." Xena remarked. Gabrielle wasn't going to let Xena get away with any practical joke without an appropriate response. "I'm sure you mean DEVIOUS in the best possible sense. Good night Xena." Gabrielle laid back with a slight smile, pulling up the covers. She muffled a groan as she shifted to a more comfortable position. Xena felt guilty about the practical joke.

"The herb tea really should help." Xena offered softly. "...I'm sorry about the taste." Gabrielle looked over to her friend and softly laughed. "I wouldn't have needed the tea if I didn't fall and I KNOW I should have taken you up on your first offer." Gabrielle propped herself on her elbow, her face cringing from the pain but quickly replaced by a grin.

"Anyway, I really should have known from the odor that you added Urut to the tea. Of course, you know how much Urut looks like Henbane." Gabrielle knowingly raised an eyebrow. Xena shook her head, realizing with appreciation how much her friend had learned about herbs. "I HAVE underestimated you." Xena smiled. "That makes a few lessons learned today." Gabrielle responded with a satisfied smile. "Of course the BIGGEST one is that no matter how hard I flap my arms. I can't fly." Xena laughed with her intrepid friend.

It took several days for Gabrielle to walk without a limp after she came crashing down from the tree. Once she felt better, she decided to practice her stealth again. "Gabrielle" Xena called out as she had done many times in the past, ready to start their travels only to be waiting for Gabrielle. No response. Xena had expected Gabrielle to start her practicing again, but hoped she would at least wait until the present was delivered. Xena hated having an outstanding promise to fulfill. The quicker she accomplished the delivery the better, she thought.

Xena was pretty sure the bard would not try to fly again so soon. But then again, Gabrielle was not one to let one setback stop her. Remembering the uncomfortable feelings of fear as she watched Gabrielle fall out of the tree and hit the ground so hard, Xena spoke loudly and deliberately. "Gabrielle, I'm NOT in the mood for this." Xena warned her friend. "FINE" Gabrielle said with annoyance from behind a startled Xena. Gabrielle looked down at the point of Xena's sword, which was draw instinctively. "I guess you really AREN'T in the mood for this." Gabrielle eyed her friend, unaware of her monumental success. "Gabrielle." Xena said evenly with the sword still pointed at Gabrielle's throat. "What if you get SO good, I don't know it's you?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow. Gabrielle looked down at the sword tip. "I see your point."

Chapter 2 - Your Kind

Once again they were on their way to fulfill one of Gabrielle's promises. Xena's desire to quickly deliver the birthday present to Alletus, though there was plenty of time, was not lost on Gabrielle. For some reason, lost on Xena, Gabrielle found amusement in deliberately stalling their progress. Gabrielle wanted to see how long Xena would tolerate the delay before saying something. They came across another quaint town, Zemal, when Gabrielle deviously grinned. "Oh look, shops!" She blurted and quickly headed towards the stores. Looking back, Gabrielle found Xena's blue eyes glaring, clearly conveying Xena's frustration that they were unnecessarily stopping again. Gabrielle's grin grew bigger. Xena looked at her horse. "Maybe I did mix up the herbs." Argo snorted as they walked to the troth.

Sunal looked over at his grandson Boean, who just woke from a restful sleep. "How are you feeling my son?" Boean sat up, still weak from the beating, yet recovering. "Physically, stronger Grandfather. Mentally? I see our brethren, our beliefs threatened, yet my hands are tied. How do you think I feel?" His head sinks. "The test of our beliefs is not an easy one. We can not allow external forces to corrupt our beliefs of peace and unity. Even if it means we will be hurt.... " Sunal takes his grandson's hand but Boean pulls it from him.

"We must be able to at least DEFEND ourselves from attack Grandfather. Those Amazons that beat me...they would have killed me if it weren't for Portus coming by with townspeople who were not AFRAID to fight them." Sunal sighed at the word 'afraid'. Boean realized his mistake, but continued. "I AM angered Grandfather, because we should not let those external forces, those UNNATURALS who disagree with our beliefs control us and try to hurt us anymore. They shouldn't think we are easy targets - but we are. We cannot even defend ourselves."

Boean could see Sunal was thinking about his words. "Those Unnaturals, as you call them, have not done the Sunmoon any permanent harm. I believe that we should forgive those transgressions against us and move on Boean." Boean was livid but contained his anger. "Perhaps you are right Grandfather. No permanent harm was done...." Sunal smiled warmly at his grandson.

Unknown to the two, from behind a large tapestry of a Sun, Moon and Man, Leo listened.

In the shop in Zemal, Gabrielle found many interesting curios on display as she walked from table to table. The sunlight from the large window in the front of the store beamed in, revealing dust on the artifacts. The arrangement of the shop reminded her of one of her favorite stores in Athens, but not the atmosphere. A young couple acted as if she was a leper and abruptly left. The remaining three patrons carefully kept their distance and continued to watch her. They had eyed her since she entered the store. Gabrielle felt uncomfortable with their cold stares and unsuccessfully tried to warm them with a smile. She could only conclude they were that way because she was new in town and they were not trusting of strangers.

She considered the purchase of a hair comb she was inspecting when the shop owner came out from behind the counter. "That's NOT for sale." He spoke gruffly and pulled the comb out of her hands. When he placed it back on the table, Gabrielle's confusion grew. "I didn't know, I thought....I'm sorry." Gabrielle apologized, finding his hostility very odd. Another young woman, in a pretty dress, picked up the same comb and handed it to the shopkeeper as she looked defiantly into Gabrielle's eyes. "That will be 2 Dinars." Gabrielle's mouth dropped hearing the shopkeeper make the sale. "Thank you." The young woman responded taking the prize comb with her out of the store.

"Why did you do that? I had money." Gabrielle uttered in shock. "We don't sell to YOUR kind here. You'd be best on your way." He dismissed her, which she would have none of. Her anger grew. "What do you mean MY kind?" Gabrielle blocked him from returning behind the counter. His eyes quickly glanced towards a tapestry on his wall, a sun and moon and a man standing between. "Unnaturally aggressive women." Gabrielle squeezed her staff uneasily as the man continued with unprovoked venom. "Women who would rather fight, travel on the road with each other." He explained as he glanced out the window spotting Xena coming towards the store. "than stay home with their families where they belong."

Gabrielle could not comprehend where this man's hatred for her came from. "Who are you to know what is right for me?" Gabrielle asked her heart torn between anger and hurt from a man she didn't know. "Go, harlot. Get yourself and your warrior WOMAN friend out of my town." Xena entered the store. "Are you finished in here yet?" She questioned Gabrielle with a grin that faded fast when she saw Gabrielle's face. "Is everything OK?" Xena demeanor quickly changed. She threw an icy stare at the storekeeper.

The man looked at Xena as he slowly pulled out a sword from below the counter and placed it on the counter. Unimpressed, Xena sighed. He turned to Gabrielle. "I've asked you, now I am telling you...leave. I don't want to fight, although I understand that is all your KIND understands..." Gabrielle was visibly upset and abruptly left, passing Xena without a word. It enraged Xena to think anyone would deliberately try to upset Gabrielle.

"That goes for you too." The man said harshly. Xena, took a deep breath and slowly approached the man. He didn't appreciate her height and intimidating bearing until he looked up into her cold eyes. It finally dawned on him that Xena was not one he would want to fight. "Be thankful I didn't hear everything you said to my friend." Her voice was as cold as her stare. "I am not as forgiving as she is." The man's eyes widened with fear which pleased Xena. However, she was still left unsatisfied that he didn't give her a reason to rough him up.

With Argo in tow, they left the town. Xena walked along side of Gabrielle with a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. Xena saw to it they took their time leaving, despite the hateful eyes following them. Gabrielle, walked silently, looking only at the ground before her, wanting to put the town and those people far behind them. Xena made eye contact with as many of the people as she could. For her, it was a small victory each time she make them look away with her glare. This experience was not unfamiliar to the former warlord. However, it pained Xena to see Gabrielle going through this. Gabrielle couldn't comprehend that blind, yet not uncommon, hate. It would be a lesson she would have to learn if she was going to travel with the Warrior Princess, Xena sadly concluded.

Xena didn't broach the incident at the store until they had made camp that evening. Gabrielle sat quietly, staring at the fire. "Gabrielle, you didn't do anything wrong." Xena broke the silence, wanting the smile to return to her friend's face. Gabrielle nodded, rubbing the beginnings of a tear away from her eye. "I know and that makes it more confusing." Gabrielle then spoke with such distress it surprised Xena. "To be hated on sight alone...they didn't even KNOW me..." Xena looked at her troubled friend. "Then they WOULD have a reason..."

Gabrielle looked up at her friend not sure if she heard correctly. They looked at each other for a silent moment. A moment that made Xena begin to wonder if she had just made a mistake with her friend. "Excuse me, I am trying to wallow in self-pity here. You are making that very difficult." Gabrielle found it hard, but responded with a straight face.

Xena cleared her throat. "Sorry. Go on, you were mentioning how to know you is to...go ahead...I won't interrupt." Xena wiped the grin from her face and feigned interested. "I SUPPOSE I should thank you for cheering me up...." Gabrielle remarked as she laid down on her bedding with a deliberate and grand gesture of turning her back to Xena. Xena laughed. "Good night Gabrielle." She said softly. "Good night Xena...Thanks."

Gabrielle replayed the scene in the shop over and over. "Your kind" she kept hearing him say. A woman in Amazon garb, carrying a staff and traveling with another woman. Why was that wrong? Gabrielle asked herself. She didn't realize how restless she had been until she heard her friend. "Do you want me to make you some tea to help you sleep?" Xena asked. Gabrielle turned and looked over at her and laughed. It wasn't wrong, Gabrielle answered her own question and closed her eyes.

In Corerik, the Great Hall was once again full with Sunmoon brethren for a ceremony. However, the occasion was not a happy one. It was a double funeral. Sunal stood before the group visibly disturbed. Leo and Boean stood in a place of honor behind their grandfather.

"Our brethren lost their lives having lived their beliefs which I ..." Sunal's voice caught as an overwhelming sense of guilt flooded his heart. "...established so many years ago. Times have changed since those founding years. My son died because of those changes and but I did not see. My grandson tried to warn me of these changes but I did not hear. It took the heinous murders of two of our brothers for me to understand these changes. I see now. I hear now." The words caused a murmur in the congregation.

"Our quest for peace and harmony must continue, yet our lives are at stake. We must not be targets for this senseless violence from the Unnaturals." Sunal declares, pulling out Amazon arrows which were found through the hearts of the two brethren. He raises them in the air. Slowly and deliberately, he shows them to the congregation.

Leo watches his grandfather torn by the events. "Boean will establish a group to protect the Sunmoon brethren and our ways. Peace and Harmony Boean. Peace and Harmony Brethren." Sunal chanted with the divided brethren. Their leader had just agreed to establishing an army, contradicting their core beliefs. Yet, the brethren trusted Sunal implicitly and would follow Sunal despite their misgivings. Both Leo and Boean knew that well. Boean spoke to his brother with enthusiasm. "Finally brother, we will have a chance of surviving." Boean put his arm on his brother's shoulder. "Wile and Ral were good men and good friends." Leo looked sadly over to their casks. "Yes they were. Examples to us all." Boean agreed.

Chapter 3 - Testing the Waters

As they approached another town, Gabrielle stiffened with memory of Zemal and the shopkeeper. "We really don't need any supplies Gabrielle. If you'd prefer...." Xena started to suggest they go around. "I thought you said I did nothing wrong?!" She interrupted with some annoyance. "I did, you didn't....fine, we'll go through." Xena sighed, frustrated that her efforts to help Gabrielle resulted in a adverse reaction from the bard. A common occurrence. "You are going to drive me crazy..." Xena quietly muttered under her breath. "What?" Gabrielle asked hearing something. "Never mind." Xena sighed. "Just stay close, OK?" Before Xena could get a response, Gabrielle was halfway to a store. "Gabrielle..." Xena called out with no response from the bard. "She is definitely going to drive me crazy." Argo snorted. "That's not funny." Xena responded.

Gabrielle entered the store and found a similar arrangement of curios that the store in Zemal had. So what? That doesn't mean anything, she told herself. She saw an elderly man and woman in the store. The man tended the counter and the woman straightened up and dusted. They both hummed the same pleasant tune and would occasionally glance up and smile at each other. The scene brought a smile to Gabrielle's previously worried face. Gabrielle correctly guessed they were married.

Gabrielle looked around the shop for a moment or two before she tried to buy something. Despite the seemingly nice owners, she had to see if she would be treated the same in this store. Gabrielle approached the counter. "I'd like to have this ...this..." Gabrielle looked at the small object. "What is this?" She asked, not knowing what it was, but liked it's shape and appearance. She handed the object over to the man who held it up and inspected it. "Hmm, it's a...huh....I really don't know, how embarrassing." The man looked over and called to his wife. "Mara, could you come here for a second dear?" Then turned to Gabrielle with a smile. "She'll know." He winked at her. His demeanor quickly put Gabrielle at ease.

The woman had a pleasant smile which Gabrielle responded to with one of her own. The two were still very much in love, Gabrielle concluded noting how they communicated with each other with their body language. "What is this dear?" Mara looked at the object and scratched her head. She looked back at her husband. "OK you win, what is it?" She asked him. "Honey, I don't know. That's why I asked you." He responded with a shrug. She looked at him then back at the item. "You know, I've seen that on the table for years...I never knew what it was...I assumed you did." The two looked at each other and laughed. "Well miss, I'm sorry. We really can't sell this to you." The man put the object on the counter in front of her still looking at it curiously. "Why not?" Gabrielle panicked. Had they fooled her with their easy manner? Were they really prejudice like that other shopkeeper?

"It wouldn't be right to sell you something we have no idea what it is. So here, take it as a gift." The man handed it to her. "What? I can't accept this...this...item. Let me give you something for it." Gabrielle was taken aback with their generosity and reached in her bag for some dinars. "Honey, we wouldn't know what to charge for it. Please, it would make us happy for you to have this" Mara smiled. "Thank you so much. I was beginning to think everyone was like the last store keeper I ran into in Zemal." Gabrielle revealed, then noticed the smiles disappeared as the couple gravely looked at each other.

Xena waited with Argo for Gabrielle to come out of the store. It seemed like a very long time and Xena was growing impatient. Many thoughts raced through her mind. "Why did I let her go in alone?" Xena questioned herself knowing full well if she went with her, Gabrielle would have thought she was being overprotective - again. And Gabrielle would have been annoyed with her - again. "If she needed me she would have called out, right? Right. Of course. That is, if she could call out" Xena unsuccessfully fought her unfounded, yet growing concern. "Gods, I sound like a worried...." She shook her head at the thought. Xena looked over at her horse. "Hey girl, do you need anything in the store?" Argo snorted.

As Xena started towards the store, she saw Gabrielle come out with a pleasant looking couple. "Goodbye Gabrielle, it was a pleasure meeting you. Stop by for a visit sometime!" Mara waived. Xena relaxed seeing Gabrielle had won over two more people with her charm. It was very easy to be susceptible to Gabrielle's charm, Xena knew from experience. Gabrielle's happiness was obvious as she walked over to her friend.

"Well, it looks like you've made new friends." Xena thankfully looked back to the two who brought back Gabrielle's happy disposition. "Yes and look what they gave me!" She held out the object. "They gave that to you?" Xena asked looking over the object. "Yes. Wasn't that incredibly nice of them?" Gabrielle started to put it away when Xena asked a question she somehow knew she would regret. "What is it?" Gabrielle looked at her with a grin, realizing she owed Mara one. "Come on Xena, don't you know?" Xena sighed.

As she packed the item, Gabrielle relayed what she just learned. "Xena, Mara mentioned that the storekeeper in Zemal is a follower of Sunmoon, so is most the town according to Mara. Have you ever heard of the Sunmoon?" Gabrielle asked as they left this much friendlier town. "Isn't that some sort of religious group?" Xena guessed from her vague recollection of the name. "It started out to be a group of pacifists who promoted Peace and Harmony and Family." Gabrielle relayed more details. "Hard to argue with that" Xena noted. Gabrielle nodded in agreement.

"Well, now there is a movement within the Sunmoon against those they believe are upsetting the 'natural order' ... they call them 'Unnaturals'..." Gabrielle spoke with some concern. "Unnaturals? Let me guess, Centaurs ....Amazons." Xena guessed correctly. Gabrielle nodded and continued to relay more of what Mara told her. "Only, this pacifist group seems to be actively recruiting young men into an army. Xena, if all the followers of Sunmoon are like the last town, they are not pacifists anymore."

"What is it?" Gabrielle noticed Xena's expression. "When I took my... side trip ...from Walsas, I remember seeing Sunmoon followers setting up a temple in a nearby town, Marapolis. I didn't think much of it until now." She shrugged. Gabrielle responded to that news with great concern. "They sound like they are already widespread and still growing. If they are actively recruiting for an army...Oh Gods. Think of the numbers, the threat to the Amazons, the Centaurs, my sisters!" Xena reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder. "Whoa, let's not panic before we know the facts OK?" Xena said with calm yet feeling the same concerns. "You're right - we need to know more." Gabrielle calmed down a bit.

When they reach a fork in the road, Xena mounted Argo. "Explain to me again, why you need to go alone." Gabrielle's arms were crossed, she was obviously not pleased. "It's not that I NEED to go alone Gabrielle" Xena looked at her friend. "You still have a gift to deliver to Alletus. You wouldn't want to break YOUR promise to Cumae would you?" Gabrielle somehow knew Xena would say that. Gabrielle also knew Xena didn't want her to go with her. It was probably one of the seedier places Xena used to hang around in her old days as a warlord, Gabrielle guessed. "Unhuh. And that's the only reason?" Gabrielle asked. Xena looked at her, knowing she knew it wasn't. "Isn't that good enough?" Xena asked.

"Sure. OK. Fine. I'll see you in a few days." Gabrielle sighed and started down the road. Xena rode around to face her friend. She looked down with concern in her eyes. "Gabrielle.." Gabrielle's annoyance faded when she heard Xena's soft voice. Gabrielle guessed she was going to say something like be careful or I won't be long. Instead, Xena barked an order. "DON'T get into any trouble." Xena rode off quickly, grinning. "She's gonna drive me crazy..." Gabrielle muttered, then looked back at the shrinking image of her friend, her best friend.

Immediately after entering the Tartarus-hole of a town, Dunkus, Xena entered a familiar alley at night. It was not her idea of a pleasant way to spend the evening, but it was necessary if she was going to meet up with Burell, a spy she used on many occasions in her warlord days. She sensed six people in the alley with her. As she expected, five large men came out from the darkness and surrounded her. "Good evening boys." Xena spoke with a purr. "I'm here to see Burell."

"What? You don't want to spend some time with us first?" One bold and incredibly stupid man stepped behind her. "How about a date?" He breathed down her neck as he placed his hand upon her thigh. Xena slowly slid her hand down on top of his. With a powerful, but slow squeeze, he crumpled down to his knees. "Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer hand holding before anything more serious...Don't you?" The man looked up, vigorously nodding in agreement as tears welled up in his eyes.

Two men charged at Xena. She jumps up and connects squarely with powerful kicks to their jaws. The force of the kicks send them flying backwards until they meet the hard, cold ground with thuds. The remaining two men pull out their swords. Xena shakes her head and sighs. "I'll give you boys some good advise. Don't EVER pull your sword out on a first date." She roundhouse kicks a sword from one man, knocking him easily out with one punch to the face. "You wouldn't want to be considered rude now, would you?." She notes, then quickly performs a magnificent somersault over the head of the remaining conscious man, landing behind him.

The last man is too scared to move, except for his shaking. "Tsk, Tsk, really should wash behind the ears. Women do notice these things and you DO want to make a good first impression don't you?" She asks him. Pulling on his ear, he follows without resistance. She then tosses him. He flies backwards into the darkness, on top of the sixth man. "OK, OK..." Burell pushes the last henchman off him and gets up.

"Just checking to see if you still mean business Xena." He came out brushing himself off. "You always had a special way of weeding out the bad ones." He looked over to his protection which now formed a pile on the ground. Noticing the grime on her fingers that gripped the last man's ear, she wiped them on Burell's shirt. "Glad I could help" Xena remarked dryly. "Xena. I've heard you've changed... but you look the same to me." He walked around her appreciating her form. She sighed but humored him. He was usually a good source of accurate information. "I am here to get some information on the Sunmoon." She faced him tired of his circling. "Ah, odd yet busy people. Love their tunics. I would look good in ...."

He threw out a morsel of information which got Xena's attention. "Busy?" She interrupted his statement about fashion. "Xena. What sort of businessman do you think I am? I need some ..." He rubbed his fingers together indicating dinars. "....encouragement." Xena grabbed his throat and pushed him against the wall. "Is this enough encouragement?" She smiled slightly. Burell rolled his eyes. "You had more money as a warlord didn't you?" He rubbed his throat after she let him down. "Your lucky, I have more patience now...but it's NOT unlimited. What do you know about the Sunmoon?"

Xena gets an earful. The situation is as bad as they feared. The Sunmoon were becoming more aggressive, buying arms and assembling an army. Small skirmishes were erupting more frequently between small groups of Sunmoon and anyone they considered "unnatural". Burell didn't know where there army planned to strike first. But by the aggressive and successful recruiting efforts, the army would be huge. Xena also considered that Burell could be exaggerating in hopes of getting in on an arms deal with her.

"They are very good at keeping their plans to themselves. They don't really talk to anyone except their own or those they hope to make their own. I'm afraid you won't have much luck, you would be considered an 'unnatural', although I think they are crazy." He looked her over appreciatively once again. "Its been a pleasure." He noted. Xena whistled to Argo, who came down the alley quickly. "Thanks for the chat Burell." She starts to mount Argo then pauses, looking at her saddle bag the back at her usually reliable source of information. Sighing, she pulls the mystery object out. "You wouldn't happen to know what this is?" Burell looked blankly at the object then grinned.

Chapter 4 - The Traveler

Walking along the road, Gabrielle, caught up in her thoughts of the store in Zemal, recognizes the Sun, Moon and Man symbol too late as a Sunmoon wagon approaches. The three young men on the wagon spotted her. Her heart raced as the wagon slowed down then stopped. "Need a ride...miss?" The wagon driver in a burgundy tunic asked. Gabrielle pushed down her fear and smiled. "No thank you, as you can see I am going the other way." She points to where they came from. She smiles and starts down the road. "Stop.....Please...Don't rush off so quickly." The driver's voice is anything but sincere.

Two Sunmoon jump off the wagon and block her from proceeding on the road. The driver jumps off the wagon and lands behind her. "We would be more than happy to help you along." The driver grips her forearm. She breaks his grip and pushes him back. "Get your hands off of me." She says coolly. His eyes narrow. "Gentlemen, I think we have an unnatural here. What a shame." The driver stares at her.

Gabrielle forces herself to focus on the men and not the hurtful words. When the two men behind her step closer, she quickly faces them. The driver wasn't finished with his insults. "I thought you might be one, from your garb and that staff, but since you can't stand the touch of a man..well...its clear you must prefer....." With that last insult, Gabrielle's temper could no longer be controlled. Thrusting her staff forcefully in the stomach of the talkative driver, he doubles over gasping for air.

She swung her staff around with a flourish, having learned from Xena that it helps unsettle opponents. The move caused them to hesitate before they lunged with their swords. As a result of this hesitation, she easily dodged their blows by jumping out of the way. Amazing herself with the success of the move, she almost delays too long with her next move. "Focus" She scolds herself. She followed with a solid hit to the man closest to her, knocking him to the ground. The second man looked at her, then his two friends crumpled on the ground. "You will pay for this harlot!" He ran down the road. Gabrielle decided running was not a bad idea.

Arriving at a small town, she leans against a building to catch her breath. Peering around the corner of the building, she spots two young Sunmoon men trying to recruit a group of townsmen. Gabrielle's fear grows, the Sunmoon seem to be everywhere. What an army they must be gathering, she worried. She ducked into a tavern to avoid the two Sunmoon. Looking around the smelly and dirty place, she shivered with disgust. At least the Sunmoon looked like they bathed, she thought, comparing bad to worse.

"Hey babe, can I buy you a drink?" A toothless man exhaled in her face. The alcohol was strong on his breath. "Back off" She blurted unable to hide her annoyance. She was in no mood to deal with this as well. The toothless man was going to say something else but was interrupted by a good looking young man. "Friend, why don't I buy YOU a drink." He put his arm on the toothless man who smiled a cavernous smile. With another drink in hand, the toothless man was content and left Gabrielle alone.

"I didn't need your help." Gabrielle snapped at this man after the toothless man left. "Whoa, I sense some hostility here. Bad day?" The man kept his humor. She did not. "What is that supposed to mean?". She asked with great annoyance. "Nothing, traveler. I know the road can be a rough place." He offered. She suspiciously eyed this strange man. There was something about him that was odd but she couldn't place her finger on it. "HOW do you know I am a traveler?" She questioned him. "Being a messenger, I do a fair bit of traveling myself and besides, I know someone as pretty as you wouldn't be living in this town." He smiled warmly at this woman.

"MEN!." She blurted with great exasperation. She vented her pent-up emotion and frustration from the past week on the unsuspecting man. "Either I am a harlot, an "object" for a man's amusement or an "unnatural". GODS, what is it with you?!". She continued her diatribe towards a silent and surprised man.

"If I were a man, no one would ever think twice about my skill with this staff - unnaturally aggressive? HA! Do you realize I wouldn't have to USE this staff if you guys didn't keep attacking me!". The man concluded she must have been talking figuratively, continuing to listen.

"If I were a man, I could enter a place like this and not get harassed by some filthy drunk or soldier... hey babe can I buy you a drink.." Gabrielle perfectly mimicked the tone of the toothless man. "Sheese. Whatever happened to manners? Or a good pick up line????"

"If I were a man, no one would ever think it odd that I choose to travel with my best friend instead of staying home - Iolus has NEVER had to deal with what I have to deal with." Gabrielle shakes her head.

"If I were a man, I would be able to tell ..." She stopped mid-sentence, surprising herself.

Having patiently waited for her to take a breath, the young man eyed her. "So you think it is so easy to be a man?" He asked. She rolled her eyes. " have it so easy it's ridiculous..." He smiled at the mortal's bold statement. "Well Gabrielle, perhaps you are right. But, I think you should see for yourself before you jump to that conclusion. THEN we will discuss how easy it is. You shall see."

In a blink of an eye, the man was gone. "Ugh oh" She experienced a familiar feeling that she had done something very stupid. First, the disappearing man knew her name and she knew she didn't tell him. Secondly, the man disappeared. They normally don't do that. She looked around the bar and no one seemed to notice the man had disappeared.

A slight panic washed over her as she considered his last words 'you shall see'. She looked down at herself and sighed with relief, then laughed at the silly thought she had. "Nothing different, of course not", she thought. But people just don't disappear. "Ugh oh", she started to think the worst. "Get a grip Gabrielle", she told herself. There was a logical explanation of course, she just didn't know it yet.

"I'd like some water please." She asked the bartender thinking that might help calm her nerves. He looked at her oddly, then around her. He shrugged as he got the water. "Water? Water?!?" A tired old warrior looked over with disgust. Gabrielle looked over at him. "Excuse me?" She asked not sure of his point. "What are you? A Sissy boy?" He looked the bard up and down, then pushed Gabrielle's shoulder. The words confused her "Sissy Boy?" She repeated looking at herself again. Why did he say that, she questioned silently with a confused look on her face.

The tired warrior grinned. "If you don't like me calling you that, Sissy Boy, do something about it." The confrontation gathered interest in the tavern as Gabrielle could feel an increasing number of eyes on them. She knew she could take on this old warrior but was not so sure about the entire tavern, should the patrons prove to be the tired warrior's friends. Better not take the chance, she concluded.

"Look...friend..., I don't want any trouble. You obviously are a strong, fierce warrior and I am just a simple bard who would not fair well in a fight with someone of your GREAT skill." Gabrielle spoke with forced reverence for a man she didn't respect. The words appeased the tired warrior. "You are a wise bard." He spoke evenly, his pride having been sufficiently bolstered. "I try." Gabrielle responded honestly. The tired warrior sat down to his drink. The tavern's interest diminished as there would be no fight between the two. Watching the tired warrior, Gabrielle wondered if that drink was all he had to look forward to in his old age.

Gabrielle started to leave when she turned and bumped into two Sunmoon recruiters. Her panic grew. "Bard, you handled yourself well." The young man smiled. "I am Leo. This is Portus. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to find someone who doesn't think violence is the way." His words were unexpected, yet spoken as if he believed them. They didn't react to her like the other Sunmoon she realized with curiosity. "Yes, as you pointed out Bard, some of us would not fair well in fights. I guess that fact helps us to recognize the error in living that way." Portus joked about their warrior shortcomings. The two men were very friendly Gabrielle noted, but their affiliation with Sunmoon made her scrutinize their every word.

She sat down at a table with them. Since they seemed willing to talk with her, she took the opportunity to gather information. "Something to drink?" The barmaid asked. "Water please" The two men asked. Gabrielle also nodded. After she left, the two men shook their heads with sadness. "It is a tragedy that a young woman would have to work in a place like this." Leo spoke sincerely. "A tragedy." Portus agreed. Gabrielle kept silent. "We belong to a group called the Sunmoon. We believe the road to true happiness is through peace and harmony. We believe in supporting the blessed gift of family. We are always looking for people to join our brethren who wish to support those precious things." Leo explained seeing a curious look from Gabrielle.

"Join your brethren? To do what?" She asked amazed at the genuinely friendly men and curious about the requirements of becoming a member of this "brethren". She considered she would not be qualified for obvious reasons. "Promote the family, peace and harmony. We help towns ravaged by war with supplies and manpower to rebuild. We also try to teach young men that a real man doesn't need to prove his worth on a battlefield - that a real man provides for his family. Too many are losing their way, Bard, why? Because they have lost touch with what is really important. We seek only to show people that the love they crave is not out in some mysterious place but in here." Leo points to his heart. "and with the family in peace." Gabrielle heard words that unnerved her. They were things she couldn't argue with.

"You seem like the type of young man who agrees with these beliefs. Perhaps you would be interested in attending one of our services." Portus remarked with a smile. Her smiled faded. "Young man?" She looked at him oddly, mentally repeating those two words. She wasn't sure she heard right. Her eyes darted between the faces of the Sunmoon recruiters, then over to the tired warrior.

"Oh Gods." She mentally uttered, inspecting herself. "Young man!? I don't see anything different! Is that what they see?" She silently questioned, confused that three people seemed to see her as a man, yet she didn't. Her mind raced as she nervously concluded the disappearing man had done something to her. She looked back into Leo's and Portus' curious faces. "Oh Gods."

Leo saw the bard reacting oddly. "Portus, we don't want to scare off our friend. I'm sorry." Portus didn't think he was too aggressive, but Leo did know people better. "We try not to use aggressive recruiting tactics and sometimes our enthusiasm for our beliefs make us forget some might not welcome us. I'm also sorry for being rude...What is your name by the way?" She looked up at them. "Gabr..." She stopped and coughed. She couldn't use her real name, how many men are named Gabrielle? Her mind raced. She couldn't think. Oh Gods. Her nerves got to her. "Gabriel?" Portus guessed. Gabrielle nodded quickly. That sounded as good as any other name, she thought. "Good, good to know you Gabriel."

Leo could see Gabriel was still agitated and thought it best not to push yet. "We must be going Gabriel. If you should decide to attend one of our services, tell them Leo sent you and they will respect your desire to just listen. No strings." He smiled warmly. Gabrielle forced a smile and nodded.

Shortly after the Sunmoon departed, Gabrielle left the tavern. "I must be just really be tired and misunderstood them. Of course. Ha. I can't believe I could have believed such a ridiculous thought!" Gabrielle unsuccessfully attempted to rationalize what was going on. She needed an answer. Exiting the tavern, she immediately stopped a passerby. "Excuse me." The man looked at her curiously. "This may sound odd but, do you see me as a man or a woman?" She asked with utter seriousness. He glanced back at the tavern. "Gods, you'd better lay off the booze son. It's doing really bad things to your brain." He shook his head. "Son?" She repeated back to him with a nervous crack in her voice. Annoyed with the interruption, the man walked away from her, still shaking his head.

After walking some distance outside the town. All Gabrielle could think was "Oh gods". Now what was she going to do? She stopped and looked up to the sky. "OK OK... you win. Who ever you are. I was wrong. Life isn't easier as a man! Of course not. What was I thinking! I WASN'T thinking...." Gabrielle blurted with no response. She turned and found the mysterious man standing before her. He wore a helmet with wings on it.

"Hermes" She uttered with a sinking feeling, recognizing the outfit. He smiled. "You don't think I'd let you get off so easily do you Gabrielle?" Hermes looked her over. "Not bad handy work, if I do say." Gabrielle looked down at herself. "But...I haven't changed." She still sees her old self. "I am still a young god you know. That's harder to pull off. But people's perception of you HAS changed, and that is all that is really needed." Hermes explained.

"I'm sorry." Gabrielle couldn't think of anything else to say. "Hmm. Perhaps you are. You have until the next full moon to contemplate your emphatic conclusions about men by living as one. Of course, you can't tell anyone of your "change", because you really wouldn't be experiencing life as a man now would you?." He shrugged. "Life perceived as a man", Gabrielle repeated that scary thought in her mind.

He smiled. "Don't worry Gabrielle, it won't be permanent if you show up at my temple in Athens by the next full moon." He looked at the person before him. Gabrielle thought a moment. "What if I can't make it to the temple?" He looked at her and raised an eyebrow. "Good point, the conditions should be spelled out more formally....don't want any loopholes..." Gabrielle wanted to kick herself having possibly lost any chance of getting out of this "test" with a loophole.

Hermes stands tall and declares formally. "Let it be known, that these are my conditions." He seemed content with the words but sought Gabrielle's opinion. "How did that sound?" Gabrielle couldn't believe he was asking. "Very...ah...god-like." Her comment pleased the God.

"If you fail to meet with me at my temple at the next full moon, I'll consider you still of the opinion that it's easier to be a man and you'll live the rest of your life as one." Hermes continued.

"If you tell anyone of this change, blada blada blada , same thing...." He seemed to be out of time. "Of course if you die ...ah, never mind, too gruesome a thought....anyway, gotta go, I've got some cattle that need my attention." With that last remark, Hermes giggled and left. "Wait, Please!" Gabrielle shouted. "Oh Gods, a month" She uttered, leaning weakly against the tree.

Chapter 5 - On the Road Again

Gabrielle considered her options as she walked along the road. Panic, panic or perhaps the ever popular panic, she thought. "Stop it!", Gabrielle scolded herself. Everything is under control. She could handle this little inconvenience for the next month, she tried to calm herself. Sure. No problem. "Oh Gods" She uttered as she thought of Xena. I can't tell her, Gabrielle remembered the conditions. She would have to avoid her, she concluded. But she'll be worried sick for a month, Gabrielle thought. She did not like the idea of putting her friend through that, but saw no other way. The moon was full reminding her of the other condition. In one month she had to be at Hermes' Temple in Athens. She sighed with some relief. At least she wouldn't have to worry too much about that, she thought, she had plenty of time.

Gabrielle woke in the morning, hoping the previous day was just a really bad dream. She looked herself over, still seeing her old self. That didn't mean anything, she thought, people's perceptions of her changed, not her body. After packing up her things, she started down the road again. She still had a present to deliver. She had made a promise to Cumae and she wasn't going to let a little thing like this "change" interfere with that. If she delivered it quickly, she could avoid Xena and make it to Athens in plenty of time. Yes. That was the plan. That was a very good plan. A woman's scream interrupted Gabrielle's very good plan.

"No!" A woman struggled in the arms of two slavers. There were about ten men total, Gabrielle counted as she ran into the midst of them. Stupid! She scolded herself for reacting and not thinking. "So much for the element of surprise", Gabrielle thought. There were too many to fight, she assessed the situation. They looked at Gabrielle and laughed. "Move along boy. This doesn't concern you." Gods, I'm not a BOY, they should at least see a MAN, Gabrielle thought with annoyance. The woman's look of fear and hope helped Gabrielle focus on the situation and not her personal predicament. "Sure thing. I don't want any trouble and it looks like you definitely have it with her. Good luck guys, hope you don't catch it" Gabrielle remarked eyeing the woman with concern as she walked passed.

"Catch it? What are you talking about?" One guy holding the hostage asked as he released her. "Oh, Gods, you don't even know? That red discoloration around her wrists..." He looked down at the woman's wrists. Yes, they were red, but he though that was a result of his tight grip. "And those watery eyes" He looked in her eyes. "Look, they ARE watery." He pointed, amazed that he assumed they were merely tears of fear. The woman caught on to what was going on and coughed. "Oh great, she is at her most contagious stage. LISTEN to that coughing." Gabrielle backed off a few steps. The woman coughed again in the direction of the remaining man who restrained her, causing him to let go. "WHAT does she have?" The leader of the slavers came over seeing the fear in his men's eyes.

"Placebocondria of course" Gabrielle spoke gravely. "Everyone knows...Oh really don't know. Well, I wouldn't worry too much though. It's not fatal or anything." The woman coughs again causing Gabrielle to step another step back. "Why are you concerned about catching it then, boy." The leader looked at Gabrielle suspiciously. "Well, its just that it DOES affect a man's ...well you know." The men eyed each other with growing concern. "What! What does it affect!?" The leader asked with great agitation. "Well let's say that I would like to have a love life and children someday ..." Gabrielle saw the color fade from the men's faces. "Don't worry I've been told that men affected with Placebocondria have been able to lead productive lives...."

Gabrielle and the woman watch the men ride off in a hurry. "Placebocondria???" The woman looked over to Gabrielle with a huge smile. Gabrielle shrugged. "My name is Esther. And to whom do I owe my life?" She looked down to Gabrielle. She was about as tall as Xena which didn't go unnoticed by Gabrielle. If she were a normal man she would be taller, she pondered, thinking what it would be like to stand face to face with.. Ugh oh. "Not that I'm complaining Hermes, my height is just fine" she quickly added in her thoughts, just in case HE could hear them. She didn't need to be a man AND a giant.

"It's not a tough question." Esther remarked. "Yourself." Gabrielle's answer confused her. "Your coughing was very convincing." Gabrielle smiled, feeling awkward. "You are different than any man I've ever met - humble. What is your name?" She rephrased her question. "Gabriel" Gabrielle decided to stick with the one she got in the tavern. "Gabriel, thank you. I am happy you came by when you did." Esther smiled warmly.

"It is very nice of you make sure I get home." Esther noted as they traveled on the road together. "Between the slavers and the Sunmoon...well, I'm just glad I don't have to travel alone." Esther squeezed Gabrielle's arm and kept it there. Gabrielle looked down at Esther's hand which she removed after seeing Gabrielle's discomfort. "Not a problem" Gabrielle responded. "besides you don't live that far away from where I was headed. So Esther, what do you know about the Sunmoon?"

Esther's home town of Corerik was a Sunmoon town and she had some disturbing stories about them. The stories and personal experiences with the Sunmoon didn't make any sense to Gabrielle. The three men on the wagon that attacked her acted completely different than the two men in the tavern. Of course she was a 'man' in the tavern. But somehow, she still sensed that wasn't the only reason for the different experiences. Esther mentioned the leader of the Sunmoon, Sunal, was a decent man. Her father and his son were good friends growing up. Yet her father wasn't one to join a group like that and recently became concerned about Sunal allowing a defensive army.

They made camp and it was obvious to Gabrielle that Esther was not comfortable or used to sleeping out in the open. Esther tried to help, but kept getting in the way. "Here's some more wood." She tripped over Gabrielle causing her to extinguish the fire she just started. "Sorry." Her voice was weak. The days events and her inadequacy around Gabriel got to her. "Hey, it's OK." Gabrielle could see her on the verge of tears. "You should have seen me when I first started traveling. It only took, oh, a couple hundred of times until I got the hang of it." Gabrielle smiled warmly. Esther laughed wiping the tears away from her eyes. "So there is hope" She remarked with a smile. "Always" Gabrielle responded with conviction to encourage Esther, and also herself.

The next day they arrived in Apolis. Asking for directions at the blacksmith's, Gabrielle found that Cumae's nephew Alletus lived on a farm just outside of Apolis. "If you would like, you can rest here in town while I go to the farm. I'll be back in a few hours." Gabrielle offered Esther a break. "That's OK Gabe, I don't really want to be alone, if you don't mind." She said honestly gently holding Gabrielle's arm. "I understand." Gabrielle smiled about her new nickname then realized Esther was once again holding her arm. Esther removed her hand feeling a bit self-conscious. She's just glad I saved her, Gabrielle concluded.

"That was so sweet of you to promise to deliver that gift for your cousin...." Esther spoke with growing admiration for Gabriel. Gabrielle had to tell Esther something about herself that made sense yet didn't reveal too much. The less she said about herself in this "condition" the better she concluded. "Yea, well..She made a promise and a promise is a promise." She said shrugging. "There it is...what a beautiful garden!" Gabrielle noted with enthusiasm upon the discovery. Esther looked at her hero with amazement at his genuine delight. "What?" Gabrielle asked. "Nothing. It is a beautiful garden." She agreed.

They were welcomed at Alletus' house and fed well. Alletus didn't fail to notice Esther's beauty as he frequently glanced appreciatively her way during their meal. Gabrielle smiled at his not too subtle attention to Esther and thought it was not undeserved. Esther was a very pretty woman, Gabrielle noted. She had light brown hair, pretty green eyes and a beautiful smile. Then Gabrielle realized with great discomfort that Esther's smile was directed her way. She caught Gabrielle looking at her and was pleased. Alletus sighed.

Esther looked down at Gabrielle's plate. "My hero has worked up an appetite." Esther remarked to Gabrielle who compared plates. "YOUR appetite seems to be pretty healthy." Gabrielle noticed her plate of seconds was empty as well. Esther grinned, staring directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "It is." Gabrielle coughed on a piece of bread. Oh Gods. It would almost be funny if it wasn't so ...Oh Gods, Gabrielle's thoughts repeated. Just get her home and you can be on the road again, ALONE, on to Athens. That is the plan, a very good plan.

"Tell me more about Cumae." Alletus asked, causing Gabrielle to ask the Gods to bless him, his family, his livestock, his harvests, his house, his barn, his tools and anything else of his she couldn't think of at that moment. Though the change of subject was a relief, she knew still had to be careful of what she disclosed about herself. "Well my cousin and I had only a brief visit before I came here. But she can relay a lot of information in a short period of time. We are both bards you know...." Gabrielle explained. "Good thing then." Alletus smiled thankfully. "Well now, let me tell you the news from Walsas!" Gabrielle carefully spoke of Cumae and her help to Gabrielle's family.

Esther hugged Alletus goodbye thanking him for his hospitality. "My pleasure ma'am. Any friends of my Aunt are friends of mine." He said sheepishly, enjoying the hug. Esther laughed. "Of course neither of use have actually met the woman. Although from what Gabe has said, I think I would have liked Cumae." Gabrielle smiled, she would have. "Well we've got to get you home Esther, your family is already worried." Gabrielle remarked wanting to get her home as quick as possible. "Yes, your right." Esther nodded as her smile faded. "I appreciate you brining me my birthday present Gabriel." Alletus patted Gabrielle's back in a brotherly way. "My pleasure Alletus." Gabrielle smiled. One delivery down, one to go, she thought as she looked at Esther. THEN, she would be headed to Athens. ALONE.

A few hours after Gabrielle and Esther left, an intimidating woman on horseback arrived at Alletus' farm. "I don't want any trouble." He eyed her as he stopped plowing his field. Xena eyed him. "Alletus?" She asked. He nodded curiously. "My friend and I were supposed to deliver something to you for Cumae. Did...." Her question was interrupted with an enthusiastic farmer. "Gabriel was already here to deliver my birthday present." He smiled, stepping towards her, wiping his dirty hands on his tunic. Xena heard what he said and assumed he just mispronounced her friend's name. "Come inside, please." He offered warmly.

They sat at his kitchen table as Argo grazed and rested up from a hard ride. Xena learned she assumed incorrectly. "Gabriel? Are you are sure young woman by the name Gabrielle didn't come with them?" She had her usual uneasy feeling. "No Xena. Just the two. Esther and Gabriel. Gabriel said he had promised to deliver the gift for his cousin Gabrielle." Alletus relayed what he knew. "Where did Gabrielle go?" She asked. Alletus shrugged. "I wish I could tell you." He responded. Xena was anxious to TALK to this cousin Gabriel. As Xena walked over to Argo she looked back to Cumae's nephew. "Thank you Alletus, and happy birthday." She smiled politely. She paused looking at her saddlebag. Why not, she asked herself, pulling out Gabrielle's mystery object. "You wouldn't happen to know what this is?" Alletus shrugged then guessed.

Entering Corerik, Esther's mood becomes more bubbly. The town looks friendly enough, Gabrielle notices but spots a few Sunmoon brethren strolling around the town. "Come, Gabriel." She takes Gabrielle's hand and pulls her towards the Inn, smiling warmly at her. "Ah, Esther, I don't think...." Gabrielle freezes as they approach the Inn assuming less than innocent intentions. Esther is confused at first but sees Gabrielle look at the Inn. "Oh, OH!..." She laughs a big belly laugh. "No...its not" She can hardly finish her sentence as she laughed so hard. "My father ....he owns the Inn. You thought? We just met! Your cute but...Oh.." She continues her laughing as they approach the Inn. Gabrielle sighs with relief then ponders the word 'cute', wondering just what Esther sees. "Esther!" Her father comes to the door hearing his daughter he thought he had lost. They hug making Gabrielle very happy.

"Father...I want you to meet the man who saved me! This is Gabriel." She pulled him to Gabrielle. The father looked over this small young man. Gabrielle noticed how these two people towered over her. "I employed a band of large warriors to save my daughter and yet YOU were able to rescue her...alone yet. There must be more to you than meets the eye Gabe." The man put his hand out which Gabrielle took and shook. "I'd like to think so..." Gabrielle responded.

"Oh, wait until I tell you HOW. It is SUCH a good story...but then Gabe is really the bard...You will have to tell it to my family." Gabrielle looked uneasy. "I really should be going. I've got a long trip to Athens..." She saw Esther's buoyant mood was quickly deflated by the comment. "Nonsense Gabriel, I must at least give my daughter's hero a good meal and a good night's sleep before you go off again." Esther's face beamed appreciatively at her father, who was not going to let Gabriel go so quickly. "A good meal would be appreciated, if you don't mind..." Gabrielle cleared her throat and responded, thinking of how she was going to politely try to get out of a night there.

As they entered the Inn, Gabrielle looked back noticing a group of Sunmoon and they were no recruiters. They were well armed, unlike the recruiters Leo and Portus. The concern about the Sunmoon's intentions and the threat to the Amazons and her sisters grew. The father noted Gabrielle's interest in the Sunmoon. "You look as worried as I am. They have been increasing their numbers at a great rate. They are preparing for something. Come, you and I should talk."

Chapter 6 - Day of Reckoning

Xena rode towards Corerik with a bad feeling. Gabrielle never mentioned a cousin Gabriel. Yet why would someone not her relative or friend deliver a birthday present for her?. Alletus also mentioned something about Gabrielle heading towards Athens. What could possibly cause her to go to Athens without waiting for her. So many questions. "Cousin Gabriel has a lot of explaining to do." She told Argo.

Over a plentiful dinner, which Esther proudly prepared and served to her guest, Gabrielle learned that Corerik was not just another Sunmoon town. It had become one of the main Sunmoon outposts. Their Grand Hall, where Sunal the founder resided, was located in Corerik. Esther's little brother Harral burped. "I'm bored" He blurted than burped again as he left. "Excuse me?" She called to him. "Sure." He laughed as he ran outside, causing Gabrielle to smile and Esther to be close to mortified. Esther's father shook his head.

"This meal was outstanding. Thank you Esther." Gabrielle appreciation of the meal erased the embarrassment about her brother's bad manners. She beamed as she cleaned up the dishes that Gabrielle was going to help her with. "No, how sweet. But that's MY job Gabe. Sit and talk with father." There was no doubt Esther was in command of the kitchen.

"OK, thanks" Gabrielle shrugged and smiled, not used to being waited on like this. Esther's father smiled. He sipped his ale then continued relaying what he knew about the Sunmoon. Since they moved in, the people of Corerik became divided in their feelings. Some happily followed the Sunmoon way because it was not different from the way they lived. The Sunmoon also recently offered them increased protection. Yet others, preferring to live the way they wanted, not the way the Sunmoon wanted, found life was made very hard for them.

"You mean the woman who owned the general store actually was forced to sell to a man?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. Esther's father nodded. "She was harming no one and she was credit to the community. Yet the Sunmoon do not believe women should be business owners. So they made her sell. She had no means of support here and moved to Athens, hoping she would be able to start a business there." The father shook his head. "That is ridiculous! I bet they don't like women being rulers of kingdoms either." Gabrielle blurted with anger, considering her sister Sara. The father shook his head no.

As Gabrielle heard more stories about the Sunmoon, she realized it was getting late. She had no intention of staying the evening. Although she knew it would hurt Esther's feelings to not accept the hospitality, it was best for everyone if she left. The more she stayed around Esther, the more Esther seemed to become attached to her. That was something Gabrielle didn't want to deal with. Gabrielle also concluded Xena would eventually catch up to her. She had already left a trail at Alletus's. She would be better off alone on the road, even with the Sunmoon roaming about. "You are more than welcome to stay with us for a few days, Gabe." The father offered, after Esther whispered something in his ear. "Oh no. I appreciate the offer." Gabrielle had collected her belongings and staff. "In fact, I can't stay this evening. I really have to be on my way."

As she left, she wondered where Xena was. It wasn't fair to put Xena through a month of wondering, but If anyone could see through her stories.... Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted by a painful grip on Gabrielle's arm and her body being slammed against a wall. "What are you doing with Gabrielle's staff?" Xena barked looking directly into the eyes of a young man. Gabrielle had never been on the receiving end of Xena's rage like this and was too shocked to immediately answer. Xena didn't intend on roughing up Gabrielle's supposed cousin but when she saw Gabrielle's staff in his hands, it happened.

Xena was too preoccupied with the young man and Gabrielle's staff to avoid the attack from behind. Xena fell to the ground after being hit from behind by two Sunmoon soldiers who had spotted her entered town. "Are you OK brother?" One soldier asked with genuine concern. Gabrielle was still in shock, but now because she just witnessed the Warrior Princess err and get knocked out by men she could have easily taken on in her sleep. They started to lift up Xena to take her away. "No. This has been a terrible misunderstanding." Gabrielle, shaking off that shock, looked up at the soldiers. "She's with me. We are new in town and don't understand all your rules. We have no intention of causing any more trouble. Please accept my apologies for all of this." Gabrielle hoped that would work.

The soldiers looked over Gabrielle then at the unconscious Xena on the floor. "You have your hands full with this one don't you." They grinned at each other. "That's an understatement" Gabrielle tried to joke with the men. "But I assure you we will not cause another stir like this...again my apologies." Gabrielle added. The soldiers seemed satisfied to take Gabrielle's word for it. "She looks like the type you shouldn't be bothering with brother. You should get her more suitable clothes." One soldier noted. They muttered and laughed as they left. "Hey, have you been to the tavern yet?" The one Sunmoon asked the other. "There is this barmaid you've GOT to see." The men's jokes were very Un-Sunmoon-like, more contradictions, Gabrielle noted.

In the morning, Xena woke in a comfortable bed. She recalled being knocked out after confronting the young man with Gabrielle's staff. Her hand reached up to the back of her head, which still ached from the blows. She grunted with annoyance with her stupidity of letting anger cloud her judgement. "You know better than that", she silently scolded herself.

Her eyebrow raised when she noticed she no longer had her armor on. However, she concluded that if she were in danger, she wouldn't wake up in such a nice room, free to leave. The door opened, without a knock, and Esther entered the room. Her mood was as cold as the breeze she brought in. "Gabriel thinks you should wear something less... conspicuous. The Sunmoon don't react well to warrior women." She laid down a dress at the foot of the bed. "It should fit. Bath water is ready for you. You smell of the road." Esther spoke in a monotone, not looking at her until she left. The glare she gave Xena was familiar, one of distrust. Xena sat up scanning the room. Her weapons were also missing.

Chapter 7 - An Explanation

Gabrielle sat down with Esther's father at the table. "I appreciate what you are doing for us." Gabrielle said for the fourth time. "I'll admit you have an odd way about you son, but I do owe you a great debt for saving my daughter." He laughed. Esther came down the stair and glanced over at Gabrielle and her father with an annoyed glare as she entered the kitchen to make breakfast. "She doesn't understand you son." He laughed adding. "And she certainly doesn't like your woman friend." Glad YOU find this amusing, Gabrielle thought.

Xena came down the stairs finally, wearing Esther's dress. She looked beautiful and more like what the Sunmoon expected women to look like, Gabrielle thought. Of course, Xena could wear a potato sack and look great, Gabrielle mused. Xena came directly towards them. She spotted her weapons in the corner with no one trying to keep them from her. The father quickly got up, not wanting to get in the middle of this. "I think my daughter needs my help in the kitchen." He excused himself, politely and awkwardly smiled at Xena before he left.

Gabrielle watched him leave with envy. She would also prefer to do work in the kitchen rather than face Xena, who stood there, glaring down at her. Returning the cool glare, Gabrielle broke the silence with a comment not expected by the Warrior Princess. "I can't believe you, of all people, were caught off guard. Especially by two green Sunmoon!" The annoyance from this person seemed genuine, Xena noted, considering he was taking a risk speaking to her like that. Xena's eyes narrowed at the young man who quickly followed the admonishment with questions on how she was feeling. The concern from this person also seemed genuine.

Xena sat down ignoring the young man's apparent concern. "WHY" Xena barked with great annoyance, but stopped herself struggling to get her temper under control. "Why do you have Gabrielle's staff?" Xena finally asked in a more civil tone. Gabrielle sighed and got up to retrieve the staff from the wall. Xena tensed up, not sure of what this young man intended to do with the staff. He would be a fool to take her on, but considering his remark to her about being caught off guard, she didn't rule out his foolishness. Gabrielle looked down at Xena and folded it up. "Gabrielle... left it behind... and I thought she would want it back." Gabrielle found it really awkward discussing herself in the third person in casual conversation. "I can see you have a great attachment to it so, if you prefer, YOU can make sure she gets it." Gabrielle placed it on the table before Xena.

"She wouldn't just forget her staff." Xena stated not taking her gaze off of the young man, looking for any signs of dishonesty. "I wouldn't think she would deliberately leave it behind." Gabrielle countered and shrugged. 'Why didn't I think about the staff?' Gabrielle silently scolded herself. "Well, I'm just glad I noticed it after she left." Gabrielle quickly added, pleased with her recovery on the staff issue. The words 'after she left' bothered Xena, which did not go unnoticed by her friend.

Torn with the desire to keep quiet and not let anything slip and give Xena some words of comfort, Gabrielle offered more information. "She was headed to Athens and then remembered she had to make good on a promise you made about delivering a present." Gabrielle noted a small hint of relief from her friend.

If Gabrielle was is real trouble, she wouldn't have time to worry about the present and someone intending to do her harm would not be delivering a present for her, Xena finally accepted this conclusion. Still, there were still many questions to be answered by this young man.

"You delivered a present FROM somebody you don't know TO somebody you don't know? Isn't that a little unusual?" Xena asked. "Have you tried to say no to Gabrielle?" Gabrielle eyed her friend. Xena didn't intend to but she revealed a small smile. "Why is she going to Athens?" Xena asked, her cold demeanor was thawing but very slowly. Gabrielle was very uncomfortable with that question which Xena noticed.

Gabrielle looked up as if trying to remember. However, she was actually trying to construct a safe story. She again scolded herself for not spending more time thinking about a good story. She WAS a bard after all. No use wasting energy on what she should have or could have done, she concluded. "She mentioned she was looking...or...investigating something. She didn't say much about her trip." Gabrielle couldn't tell if Xena was buying this or not. "Of course, I was more interested in news of the family. I guess I really didn't give her a chance to tell me about her trip. I'm sorry I don't have more information for you." Gabrielle sighed, that last statement was the truth. Xena heard all the words of this young man. They all sounded right but there was still something odd. Something wrong.

"She told you of family news?" Xena asked, probing for more information. Gabrielle felt more relaxed as she could handle that question. "Yes! Lilla and Sara and the siege at Walsas! And we all thought Sara was dead!" Gabrielle was able to convey true enthusiasm. Xena's cold demeanor warmed up a bit more. Gabrielle smiled, believing she had gotten through the worst of the storm. However, Xena still felt suspicious of Gabriel. Gabrielle was not one to keep quiet about anything, especially her family.

Esther's breakfast was delicious but strained. With occasional questions about Gabriel's visit with Gabrielle, Xena kept eyeing the young man. This annoyed Esther, who kept looking at Xena. Esther's father smiled, laughing to himself. The problems of the young, he mused. There WAS more than meets the eye about this Gabe, he thought.

Esther's younger brother, Harral, feasted oblivious to the undercurrents at the table. "Boy Esther, we'll all get really fat if you keep making meals this big." He asked. Esther sank in her chair and Xena held back a grin. For some reason, Xena was glad Harral was there to annoy his sister. Although, her own presence seemed to annoy Esther quite a bit as well, Xena noted. Gabrielle felt bad for Esther but elected to remain as quiet as possible.

The strained meal was quickly interrupted by the two Sunmoon guards who attacked Xena the night before. Esther's father excused himself from the table to meet the guards. They asked for his guest, as he expected. "Gabriel, these men would like a word with you." He called back to the table. Gabrielle glanced over to Xena before getting up to meet the guards. "Hello again." Gabrielle smiled determined to convince them she had no problems. The guards looked over Xena's way. Gabrielle also looked over to Xena not sure what she would do if Xena wanted to "engage" them. Xena simply smiled and waved back at them. Gabrielle sighed with relief that Xena was going to play the part and let her handle this. "Well I guess everything is OK here. We just wanted to make sure."

The other Sunmoon spotted the corner where Xena's weapons were. "Quite an arsenal. Are you sure you want these lying around with the young one here?" He looked at Harral who was still eating. Xena's attention was drawn to the Sunmoon's hand gripping the hilt of his sword. "You have a good point. I will take care of them. The young should not be exposed to such things." Gabrielle spoke guessing he would not let the point about the weapons drop.

"Before you go" Gabrielle quickly continued, though they had not started to leave yet. "I was wondering when your next ceremony was. I was told that those interested in seeing the Sunmoon services for themselves could come by as a guest. I don't know if you know Leo or Portus..." Gabrielle dropped the names of the only two Sunmoon she formally met. "Brother Leo? Sure. He is the Grandson of the founder. He is coming into town in a day or two for our next ceremony. I am sure he would want to invite you himself. Gabriel is it?" The Sunmoon seemed more pleasant. "That's the name I was given." Gabrielle responded.

After they left, Esther's father was annoyed. "What are you doing? I thought you were concerned about them! Here you are going to join their ranks?" Xena was quickly beside Gabrielle, watching the Sunmoon leave. "Inside information. That will be very helpful if we plan on stopping them." Xena responded looking at the young man. He saved Esther and seemed to be willing to go against the Sunmoon. Xena's suspicions of him diminished - slightly. This cousin of Gabrielle's was doing what Gabrielle would do if she could. There was STILL something wrong, Xena thought.

"It sounds too dangerous. What if they find out you are there to spy." Esther interjected. "I'm sure his silver tongue will keep him out of trouble." Esther's father responded, pleased the young man was not really interested in becoming a Sunmoon brother. "Or perhaps get him into more trouble...." Xena added. Gabrielle wondered if Xena meant with the Sunmoon, Esther or Xena herself.

"I'm going for a walk, going to eat all day or come with me?" Gabrielle announced. She was tired and needed a break from questions. Harral nearly tripped getting out of his chair to join the young bard. "I thought we could talk about table manners and such..." Gabrielle looked at Esther's father for permission. "Good luck."

Chapter 8 - The Barmaid

Gabrielle had left the Inn to escape its confining walls and brought Harral with her. Having to watch every word around Xena and Esther was proving a tiring task even for the skilled bard. Gabrielle could feel Xena's constant eye on her. It was very different from her usually friendly eye. It was an eye of scrutiny, which closely observed everything Gabrielle did. Xena knew something was wrong and would find out eventually, Gabrielle concluded. If she could make it through the next couple of days and get to the temple in Athens, then she would be free from this problem. She thought about the time it would take her to get all the way to Athens and the time needed to get more useful information about the Sunmoon. "I WILL get there." She kept telling herself, very aware time was running out.

Spotting a woman struggling to unload a large box from a supply wagon Gabrielle rushed over just in time to prevent it from falling. Harral followed curiously, anxious to meet the type of woman his father cautioned him to stay away from. His father told him that just because a woman may appear beautiful, that didn't mean she was a good catch. Harral thought if attributes, as his sister called them, were a measure of beauty, this woman was gorgeous.

"Let me help you with that." Gabrielle and the surprised woman took the large box inside the Tavern and laid it down. The woman brushed the hair out of her face, eyeing Gabrielle. She was exhausted and still had much work to do before the Tavern opened. The bar tender stuck his head out of the door then went back into the tavern. "Why doesn't he help you?" Gabrielle asked loud enough for the Bar Tender to hear. The woman looked over her shoulder at him. "Bad Back...or so he says." The auburn haired woman responded. Gabrielle shook her head.

"Look, I'm really busy and I don't have time for whatever you are looking...for..." She was suspicious of Gabrielle's intentions until Gabrielle went to the wagon and handed her a box and grabbed another herself. "You're helping?" Her mouth drops. Gabrielle smiles at the reaction. "I guess your not use to getting help." Gabrielle responded as she placed a box on the bar. "Most of the men I know run when it comes to hard work." She responded looking over at the bar tender. "Then you don't know the right men." Gabrielle responded also looking over at the bar tender, who ignores the two. The woman grins. It's been a while since a man treated her this nicely, she thought.

Harral sees them come outside to the wagon again and jumps to help. The woman, a little crestfallen, manages a warm smile at the boy. "I see your son is also good mannered." Gabrielle eyes Harral, catching him peering mischievously into a box of treats. "Harral is just a...CURIOUS friend." Harral catches the glare and wisely decides against sampling.

At the Inn, Xena was bored. She did not like waiting in a strange Inn under these strange circumstances. Gabriel seemed to want to avoid her questions about Gabrielle. Xena wondered when she was going to discuss with him their strategy in questioning the Sunmoon. He couldn't avoid her forever, she thought. She could wait. Although, she would have preferred to wait alone, outside of town. However, under the current circumstances with the Sunmoon, it was prudent to wait in the Inn. So she sat, with a view of the front door and Esther's occasional cold stares. The sitting did not last long. Xena retrieved her sword from the corner and started sharpening it.

With each stroke of the sharpening stone against Xena's blade, Esther's irritation grew. Finally, unable to take the noise any longer, Esther marched over to Xena and stood in front of her. "Would you PLEASE stop doing that." Esther said deliberately punctuating each word after 'please'. Xena looked up and raised an eyebrow. Taking a long breath and slowly exhaling, she finally stood up and looked Esther in the eye. Xena looked down to her blade then coldly back to Esther who realized there was still a warrior in that dress. "All right." Xena said slowly. "Thank you" Esther spoke weakly.

Placing her sword in its sheath, Xena returned it to the corner of the room. She looked over to the fire place mantle where Gabrielle's staff rested and sighed. After a moment she picked up the staff, almost caressing it. Why didn't you leave me a message at least, she thought to herself. "She's lucky to have a friend who cares so much." Esther couldn't help but see the concern on Xena's face.

Xena didn't like showing weakness to anyone, even Gabrielle. Avoiding a discussion she didn't want to have with this woman, she placed the staff back down on the mantle and retrieved something from her saddle bag. "Esther, you wouldn't happen to know what this is?" She pulled out Gabrielle's mystery object. Esther looked at it curiously. "Ah...No...Maybe Father knows..." Esther smiled and shrugged. Worth a shot, Xena thought.

"So, you're NOT married?" The barmaid asked with a bright tone. She, not so discretely, takes stock of the young man before her. Gabrielle found it amazing the two women she recently met were so preoccupied with her marital status. "I'm not married" She responded wondering she had ever made any man feel this uncomfortable by asking him about his marital status.

Gabrielle was determined not to let herself feel awkward. Trying to turn the tables on her, she looked the pretty woman in the eye. "But don't you think we should know each other's names before we talk about marriage?" The comment worked, Gabrielle thought, seeing the woman a little embarrassed. "I'm Rachel, the head barmaid at this fine establishment. Not too many men take the time or care to learn my name." She said honestly holding her hand out.

Gabrielle felt bad for this woman as she shook her hand. "Like I said, you don't know the right men. I'm" Gabrielle corrected herself, annoyed she was not able to get use to the name. "I'm pleased to meet you Rachel." She said with genuine pleasure that Rachel could sense. The bar tender yelled out for Rachel to hurry up with the unloading and help clean up inside. Rachel nodded and ending their discussion. "Gabriel, thanks for the help. I hope you'll let me repay you sometime." She looks at Gabrielle suggestively.

"Why does she keep doing that? And what exactly does she see?" Gabrielle wondered, having quickly lost her feeling of comfort and control of the conversation. Hermes, you are NOT funny, she thought to herself, having no other explanation for the woman's overtly forward behavior. "Ah, that's not necessary. Ah, Bye." Gabrielle responded nervously.

Her embarrassment grew as she noticed Harral staring rudely at this woman's attributes. Rachel laughed, used to the attention. Though, she was surprised that Gabriel wasn't openly interested like the young boy. "Harral! You and I are going to have another little talk about manners..." Gabrielle snapped at him then turned red faced to Rachel. "we've go to get back...ah, See you later." Gabrielle smiled weakly as they started to leave. "I certainly hope so....Gabriel." She purred and waived with her finger tips.

As they left, Gabrielle felt great relief THAT was over. This predatory nature of the women she had recently met was disconcerting. Gabrielle made the mistake of looking back at Rachel who continued to watch her leave. To avoid being rude, Gabrielle smiled and weakly waived. Rachel grinned seeing the effect she finally had on this young man and blew a kiss. Unfortunately for Gabrielle, her attention was not on the ground before her. A conspicuous stone placed in the middle of Gabrielle's path caused her to trip. The embarrassment did not end, as Gabrielle, fell will the least grace imaginable, directly into a mud puddle.

Outside the Great Hall, Boean was greeted by two armed Sunmoon. "Brother Boean, we've got good news for you." Boean smiled. "Brother Lerus's men are ready?" He asked. They frowned. "Why not?" Boean snapped. "Some weapons are still needed and they were waiting for your speech that you promised." One man spoke up. "Oh, right." Boean remembered the promise. "After they get the weapons and I talk to the men, then how long until they get to their positions?" He asked. "About 1 day on foot." Boean nodded. "So what's your good news?" He asked. "Leo is coming!" They were always happy to see brother Leo. Boean sighed. "Wonderful" He said forcing enthusiasm. This could complicate his plans, he sighed.

Harral and Gabrielle returned to the Inn. "Gabriel fell in the mud!" Harral ran in ahead to gleefully announce to everyone. Harral was going to offer more information but stopped seeing Gabriel's cold stare. "I think I hear father calling" Harral ran out of the room. Esther came out of the kitchen with a grin and a plate of hot nutbread. "Nutbread!" Gabrielle reached out for a piece. "Not until you clean up." She slapped Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle frowned.

"Nothing a little soap and elbow grease can't handle. Go upstairs and wash up. I'll be up to get your laundry shortly." Esther was definitely in her element. Gabrielle silently stood there looking perplexed. "You need clean clothes." Esther guessed correctly. With great efficiency and speed, Esther retrieved a tunic. "This should do nicely." She held it up to Gabrielle. "I guess.." Gabrielle responded, looking down at it. Esther motioned for Gabrielle to get going. Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I think you should listen to her." Xena responded, thinking that this obsession with nutbread must be a family thing.

With the promise of warm nutbread downstairs, Gabrielle washed up very quickly and changed into the tunic. Esther knocked and entered the room without waiting for Gabrielle to invite her in. Gabrielle wondered if she could get a lock on that door. "The tunic looks good on you." She commented as she tightened the sash on Gabrielle. "I knew it would." She smiled. Gabrielle stepped back keeping a more comfortable distance between the two. "Do you really think it's a good idea to join the Sunmoon?" Esther spoke what was on her mind. "It sounds dangerous." She grabbed the muddy clothes. "The Sunmoon are becoming dangerous Esther. It is something I need to do." Gabrielle walked out of the room with Esther following. "Why?" Esther asked as they descended the steps. Xena could hear their conversation now and quietly listened.

"If these men take up arms against the Amazons. There is a good chance there numbers will be so great that they will be successful in destroying them" Gabrielle spoke with passion. "Why do you care so much about a group of women like that?" Esther really didn't understand. "Esther, I do. Isn't that enough?" Gabrielle snapped at her. Esther realized she had stepped over the line questioning the bard's reason for caring about someone. "I'm sorry Gabriel. Don't be mad."

Gabrielle sighed stopping on the steps to explain. "This hatred the Sunmoon have for the Amazons, it's like a disease Esther. If they are successful against the Amazons, who will be their next target? Centaurs? Then, if they succeed in destroying the Centaurs, who's next? Everyone they consider different? Women rulers? Well, I don't feel too comfortable with an army that would destroy someone because they don't measure up to THEIR definition of normal."

Harral stood at the bottom of the steps. "Why don't you just get your own army and crush them?" Gabrielle looked down at the young boy waiving a branch around like a sword. She closed her eyes in frustration 'Doesn't anyone understand?' She thought. "Because there may be a better way." Xena answered, picking the branch out of the boy's hands but gently brushing his hair with her other hand. "We at least have to try, to see if there IS one." Xena looked at Gabriel with respect. He had been able to move her with his words. She thought only Gabrielle had that ability. "Xena understands", Gabrielle thought, looking down to her friend who had no idea how much her words helped the bard. "NOW can I have that nutbread?" Gabrielle asked Esther with a smile.

Chapter 9 - Revelations

Leo finally came to town and was overjoyed to find Gabriel there and interested in becoming a Sunmoon. As expected, Gabriel was invited to a dinner by Leo and Portus. The tavern was selected by Leo, considering the Great Hall's dining facilities would be a bit overwhelming. He didn't want to scare off someone like Gabriel. Leo suspected Gabriel might be someone the Sunmoon need now, someone who would strengthen the brethren's beliefs of the core values.

When Leo, Portus and Gabrielle entered the tavern, Gabrielle noticed that Xena, Esther and Esther's father were there as planned. Even though Esther's father knew and respected the man Sunal, he never supported the Sunmoon, especially after they started to recruit for an army. As a result, the Sunmoon had kept their eye on him as a potential trouble maker. Xena thought it would help his standing in the Sunmoon community if he was seen out and being sociable with the Sunmoon. Gabrielle also knew Xena wanted to keep and eye on Gabriel without drawing too much attention by coming alone to a Tavern.

"Looks like you've got two women interested in you Brother Gabriel." Portus spoke softly, nudging Gabrielle in the stomach, as they sat down at their table. "There eyes give them away." Leon also noticed. "You must tell us your secrets. Two BEAUTIFUL women." Portus grinned looking back at Leon. "That's two too many." Gabrielle blurted without thinking. "You have a sweetheart back home too? You know Brother Gabriel, you must be careful not to hurt a young woman while...exploring ...your options." Leon seemed concerned. "It's not THAT trust me." Gabrielle half laughed.

Now Portus seemed concerned. "Gabriel...your not more fond of ..." Gabrielle felt like she couldn't win. "What EXACTLY are you implying!" She quickly responded louder than intended, causing the a number of eyes to look their way. Portus laughed nervously, seeing both Leo and Gabriel were annoyed at his comment. "Sorry Brother Gabriel...obviously you are not one of those Unnaturals." Gabrielle shook her head, hiding her relief Portus backed off. If she ever considered herself an "unnatural" - now would certainly be the time.

Xena glanced around the room seeing no armed Sunmoon, enabling her to relax somewhat. She glanced over at Gabriel's table and found to her chagrin that the noise in the Tavern made it impossible to hear their conversation. So, with that minor setback, she focused on finding more about Gabriel. Despite getting to know and even respect Gabriel through his actions, something still seemed odd to Xena. He was very quiet about himself considering he was supposed to be a bard and moreover, a relative of Gabrielle's.

"So, how did you and Gabriel meet?" Xena asked nonchalantly to compare her version with the story Alletus told her. "He saved me from slavers." She said coolly, still not completely trusting this woman who attacked Gabriel. Her father looked at her with a questioning eye. "You were bursting to tell me all the details the other day. Why don't you tell her the story? It is quite amusing actually." Her father added with a grin, annoying his daughter. "Do tell" Xena said forcing a smile. "Well" Esther acquiesced and started the story with how she was captured. "...then this handsome young man comes from the forest after hearing my scream." Both Esther and Xena look over at Gabriel.

"Handsome" Xena thought, assessing that for herself and not disagreeing. "He seemed surprised to see so many slavers, there were at least 10. I could tell he wanted to help and I was afraid he would get himself killed trying, but THEN he spoke." Esther laughed. "He told them he didn't want any trouble and that he saw they had enough with me. He then said I hope you don't catch it." Esther's father also started to laugh at the story. "Gabriel had drawn them into believing that I had this horrible disease that affected men's ...ability in the bedroom....and they believed him! I've never seen so many men flee so quickly!" Tears were coming down Esther's father's eyes. "Thank the Gods they were stupid." He added wiping his eyes. "Oh tell her what he called it.." He squeezed his daughter's hand. "Placebocondria...." They both laughed loudly.

Xena was not laughing, she found it mildly amusing the first time she heard it. Her eyes darted over to Gabriel's table and found Gabriel looking their way due to the laughter. Gabriel met her gaze with a familiar look which disturbed Xena. Esther noticed two looking at each other. "I guess you had to be there..." Esther responded coldly, causing Xena to break her gaze with Gabriel. Having no idea what the stare contest was about, Gabrielle wished she could read what was on Xena's mind. "Ugh oh." Gabrielle thought, fearing action from Hermes "I didn't mean that Hermes. No need to teach me that's a bad idea..." She added in case if he was aware of her thoughts. Things were complicated enough already.

Gabrielle tried to now dwell on her Godly worries as they discussed the Sunmoon beliefs. The conversation helped. While discussing the virtues of resolving conflict with reason vice aggression, Gabrielle found herself liking Leo and many of his beliefs despite the present situation. He seemed a good man and she was not surprised that Leo was the grandson of the founder. What did surprise her was that the very aggressive Boean was his brother.

"That's another reason why we believe in the family so much." Leo continued his impassioned discussion of the fundamental Sunmoon beliefs. "The stronger the family, the stronger its influence on the moral upbringing of the children. How many of the crooks and murderers have come from weak or no families at all?" Leo asked. "I've known a few murderers who have had a strong family" Gabrielle responded thinking of a few. Even Xena could be included in that category. Her family did not stop her from becoming a warlord. Leo looked a little annoyed at the comment. They were interrupted by Rachel, who brought them their food and drinks.

"There you go." She said brightly smiling at Gabriel who smiled back warmly. Leo and Portus looked at their plates which had significantly smaller portions than what was on Gabriel's plate. "How does he do it?" Portus asks with disbelief and envy. "What?" Gabrielle asked at first oblivious, but then caught on to the differing portions. "OH.." Gabrielle looked up then averted her eyes down to avoid staring directly at her deliberately placed attributes.

Rachel placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gabriel, If YOU need ANYTHING honey, just let me know." She thought the young man's continuing shyness was sweet. "Water would be nice, Rachel." Gabrielle asked. Rachel squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder and leaned to speak into her ear. "Needless to say, I am disappointed, but I'll get you that water. Perhaps you can think of something else you might want, later." Gabrielle knew Rachel wasn't talking nutbread. Hermes this is NOT funny, she thought to herself.

"Look at that!" Esther commented with great annoyance from the next table. "God's doesn't she have any respect for herself!?!" Xena had watched a couple of armed men enter who didn't seem to be looking for anyone in particular. "What?" Xena looked over at Esther and her father. "Esther is jealous of that waitress." Her father spoke with a mouthful. "Father! I..." She was flustered. "I guess I'm in trouble now..." He laughed softly. "She is some waitress though. I wouldn't mind the attention she's showering on Gabriel.." He eyed her appreciatively. Xena rolled her eyes.

After the waitress left them, Gabrielle continued their discussion. "Leo, I agree with the value of the family but that is not THE answer. I also don't think that the Sunmoon should try to force people to conform to their vision of what the right way to live is." Leo then shook his head. "That is not what we do Gabriel, we're pacifists. We don't FORCE anyone to do anything. That is not our way..." Leo countered but was interrupted. "Oh Really? Why then is this Pacifist group assembling an army? Why does that Sunmoon carry a sword?" Gabrielle asked not so subtly pointing to the Sunmoon who just entered.

Leo shifted in his seat, apparently uncomfortable with the subject. Portus responded with conviction. "Brother Gabriel, we still believe in resolving conflicts without resorting to aggression or violence. But what you see is a sad realization that for us to survive, we need to be able to defend ourselves against those who hate us and do harm to us." He looked Gabrielle in the eye. He believed what he was saying. "The Unnaturals?" Gabrielle asked. "Exactly." Portus though he had convinced Gabriel.

"So you've been attacked by these Unnaturals?" Gabrielle asked cautiously. "Oh yes, just ask Leo! Recently, his poor brother Boean was beaten within a breath of his life by a group of Amazons!" The story definitely got her attention. "Amazons? Why would they attack a pacifist?" Gabrielle elected to subtly continue her interrogation instead of showing her unnaturally aggressive nature and wacking him with the closest piece of furniture. This took more effort than trying to convince Xena she was cousin Gabriel.

"The territory Boean was passing through was not Amazon, but they still claimed it as theirs." Portus explained. "Where was that?" Gabrielle asked. Portus eyed her. "The Rickas pass." He responded. Gabrielle knew that was definitely in Amazon territory. "Well I'll guess we ought not to go through there then." She looked at him. "NO, we should not have our actions dictated to us by a group that disagrees in our beliefs." Portus responded righteously. "I couldn't agree with you more Portus." Gabrielle blurted, making Portus pleased. How many of these Sunmoon are this blind to the truth, she wondered.

"Amazons. Truly unbelievable. So have there been other attacks?" Gabrielle asked sipping her water, noticing Leo wasn't touching his food. "Sadly yes. They have been occurring more frequently. Two gentle brothers, and Leo's very close friends, were brutally murdered by Amazons." Gabrielle almost dropped her cup. If the Sunmoon actually believe this, the Amazons were in incredible danger. "There must be a peaceful way to coexist. Isn't there anyway to open a dialogue with them, reason with them?." Gabrielle asked peaking Leo's interest. "I have asked my grandfather to do that. However, Boean has convinced him that wouldn't work. I must respect my grandfather's and Boean' positions."

"I hope this talk of aggression doesn't scare you off Gabriel." Leo said honestly. "We need people like you in the brethren." He smiled warmly. Gabrielle agreed for different reasons, believing the only way she could get information on their plans was on the inside. "I must admit, I do not agree violence is the answer to violence. But I do think someone should be able to defend themselves." She looks over to the Sunmoon with the swords. The answer seemed to satisfy both Sunmoon dining companions. "If you still want someone like me, I would be honored to become a Sunmoon." Leo and Portus made an enthusiastic announcement.

The Sunmoon in the tavern were quick to come over and congratulate Gabriel. One of the few armed Sunmoon came over and eyed the new addition to the brethren. "What are you good at boy?" He asked, grasping the hilt of his sword and gulped down a large goblet of ale. Xena tensed up watching the armed man with Gabriel and two others entering the tavern. "Brother Lerus, he is a bard." Leo stood up next to Gabrielle placing his hand on her shoulder. "Really? Perhaps you can protect us all by putting the Unnaturals to sleep with one of your stories." Xena noted only the armed Sunmoon laughed at Brother Lerus' joke. "A story." A few Sunmoon in the back called out. "Tell a story." A few other Sunmoon called out. Leo thought that was an excellent idea.

"Yes brother Gabriel, tell us a story!" Leo smiled. Gabrielle looked over at Xena who sat quietly, watching. "All right." Gabrielle cleared out a corner of the tavern for herself. "A story it is. I just hope I don't forget and tell you one of my DAAANGEROUS stories and put YOU ALL to sleep." The unarmed Sunmoon laughed. "We'll take our chances" Leo called out. Gabrielle nodded. "You heard him! You have been warned!" Gabrielle announced grandly. "Oh, and if you don't like it, it was written by my friend Aesop. All complaints should be forwarded to him." Gabrielle quickly added. The room laughed, including some of the armed Sunmoon. The young bard had the room's undivided attention, except for Xena, who watched as another armed Sunmoon, Boean, quietly entered the Tavern.

The bard began. "A dispute once arose between the wind and the sun over which was the stronger of the two." When the story started, Xena's attention was finally draw to the bard. "There seemed to be no way of settling the issue. But suddenly, they saw a traveler coming down the road. 'This is our chance,' said the sun, 'to prove who is right, whichever of us can make that man take off his coat shall be the stronger. And just to show you how sure I am, I'll let you have the first chance."

Noting every gesture, every change in intonation, every subtle nuance, Xena's gaze was transfixed on the bard. She didn't realize how much she missed Gabrielle until... Xena's pulse raced. Esther sighed at Xena's undivided attention to her hero.

"So the sun hid behind a cloud, and the wind blew an icy blast. But the harder he blew, the more closely did the traveler wrap his coat around him." Gabrielle looked over to Rachel then to Boean by the door. Though Xena's mind could not explain her absurd realization, her pounding heart knew it was true.

"At last, the wind had to give up in disgust. Then the sun came out from behind the cloud and began to gently shine down upon the traveler with his power. The traveler felt the sun's genial warmth, and as he grew warmer and warmer, he began to loosen his coat." Gabrielle glanced over to Leo. "Finally the traveler took his coat off altogether, and sat down in the shade of a tree to fan himself. With that, through persuasion, NOT force, the sun had proven he was stronger." With the end of Gabrielle's story, the room exploded with enthusiastic clapping and cheering for the bard. All participated in the active appreciation except for Leo, Boean and Xena, each preoccupied with their own discoveries.

Leo found an ally. Boean found another obstacle. Xena found Gabrielle.

Chapter 10 - An Ally and Obstacle

After the crowds in the tavern started to thin out, Esther's father gently tapped Xena's arm as he got up. "We should leave." Xena had been very quiet as she stared at Gabriel. "You go on. I'll stay here awhile." Xena responded weakly, waiving him off, intending to get Gabrielle alone to talk. "Xena. As you have reminded me a few times now, we are in Sunmoon territory. You shouldn't stay here alone, even if you can take on everyone here." He laughed. "Come on. Gabriel will fill us in later. He should be safe enough. They all seem quite taken with him. Just like a few women I know." Esther's father couldn't help but poke fun at his daughter.

Esther looked at him and decided she would not be talking to her father for the next week. She also wondered if he remember how to cook dinner for himself. Xena reluctantly got up and followed Esther's father out the tavern. When she kept looking back at Gabrielle, Esther's father wondered what was bothering her. "Are you OK?" He asked. Xena nodded yes.

"Gabe! What a story!" Leo raved. "Thanks." Gabrielle responded. While Portus was off talking to Boean, Leo took the opportunity to confide in someone he trusted. "I get worried sometimes that our core beliefs will be lost while we try to survive, yet when you told that story..." Leo almost shed a tear. "I have hope we will not be lost. Perhaps a bard will lead us back to the path we were intended to be on." Leo sipped his third mug of wine. Gabrielle was taken aback by this admission. "Brother Leo, and I do mean brother..." Boean laughed at his own joke. "Introduce me to your new friend and our new brother."

Gabrielle remembered this man from her previous encounter with the three on the wagon. She wondered with a grin if the bruise she gave him to his stomach with her staff was gone yet. Boean had an easy and confident air about him. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Boean excused himself. "I hope you find the Peace and Harmony you seek brother Gabe." Gabrielle nodded. "Peace and Harmony to you ...Boean." Leo saw Gabrielle's eyes follow his brother.

"You don't trust him." Leo said bluntly surprising Gabrielle. "Ah, Leo. I don't really know him." She awkwardly responded. "It's OK Gabe. I don't trust him either. I know that is a sin. But by the Gods, he is up to no good. I just haven't been able to prove anything. He has our grandfather wrapped around his little finger." Leo sipped his wine. "Leo, you should mind your words in public. Perhaps we could find someplace more private to talk." Gabrielle offered. Leo nodded, feeling foolish and a little drunk.

Gabrielle returned Leo to his room in the Sunmoon brethren barracks behind the Great Hall. She had to occasionally shush him along the way when he got too loud with his accusations. "Leo. You have to be more careful." She scolded him and helped in his bed. Attempting to lean on his side to talk to his new ally, he rolled off his bed onto the floor with a thud. Gabrielle heard a muffled "ouch" from the still body. "LEO!" Gabrielle lifted him up off the floor and back onto the bed. She wedged a pillow against his side figuring it ought to prevent a repeat of that fall.

"My best friends were killed by Boean's men." He blurted. "Grandfather accepted his word on that. He saw two stupid arrows and concluded the Amazons killed them. Why would THEY do that?" He blurted waiving his arms up in the air trying to emphasize his question. Gabrielle wasn't sure of which question he was asking. "The Amazons wouldn't Leo. You have my word on that." The comment caused him look at her oddly. He shook it off. "I know YOU think that, I know I think that, but unfortunately, Sunal believes Boean. And if Sunal is behind Boean, ALL Sunmoon are behind Boean."

Behind the Tavern, Portus and Boean discuss their plans. "Leo knows something is going on." Portus relayed to Boean who nodded. "Leo is too weak to do anything. But that Gabriel, he did seem a bit preachy with that story. The bard might actually be more trouble. I wonder if Gabriel is willing to fight for those beliefs...just keep an eye on him." Boean added. Portus nodded and listened to the rest of Boean' instructions. "Look, we need to get the scouting party on Amazon territory soon. The army will be here shortly and I don't want them hovering around this town too long. I don't want the Amazons to get wind of our plans too soon. They are still formidable opponents, even when out numbered 30 to 1. I don't want to thin out the army too much after all the effort to establish them. What's wrong now ?" Boean sighed at Portus concerned look.

"Our scouts, Boean. Do they all have to die? Most of them don't know it will be their last mission." Boean put his hand on his spy's shoulder. "Portus. The way to convince the army to fight is to give them a reason. Brother Lerus will willingly sacrifice himself and his platoon for the cause. Their death by Amazon arrows will provide that reason. Once the army sees the bodies, we will have a true holy war which will unite our brethren in strength. We will no longer need to fear for our survival. Remember, united in strength. We will honor those who have strengthened us with their blood. I promise you that Portus." Boean patted his spy on the back. "United in strength." Portus repeated to convince himself he was doing the right thing.

After the two men left, the barmaid Rachel started breathing again. She had taken the garbage out back and found herself listening in on a conversation. At first she had no idea the seriousness of their plans but quickly figured it out. She thought her Gabriel would be interested in what she had just heard. She also wouldn't mind too much if he also happened to be very grateful.

"The pacifiisssttss need to learn how to fight Gabe. There is no other way. I need to stop Boean and the only way is to beat him up....senseless. You know how to fight don't you? Bards have to deal with hecklers all the time don't they?" Leo spoke, still feeling the effects from the wine. "Leo, trust me when I tell you, doing battle with hecklers is a just a wee bit different than doing battle with an army. There has to be another way. We'll find it." Gabrielle spoke to her drunk friend who frowned. "Leo, we'll find another way. Now sleep this off. We'll need to talk later."

Gabrielle pulled the covers up on Leo already thinking of a plan. "Your a good man Gabriel." Leo spoke before he passed out. Gabrielle looked back at him from the doorway. The words hit her hard. Her time was indeed out. There was no way now to get to Athens and protect the Amazons. "So are you Leo."

As she left the grounds of the Great Hall and proceeded back to the Inn, she was yanked into a dark alley. "Hey!" She couldn't see the mugger but recognized her attributes. "Honey, there are really strange things going on in this town." Rachel relayed. "You're telling me." Gabrielle sighed then listened to her spy.

Rachel relayed Boean' plans to an amazed Gabrielle. "Oh Gods." Gabrielle uttered, seeing the whole situation crashing down quickly. Rachel saw the worry on Gabriel's face and put her arm around his shoulders to comfort him. "Is there anything you need? Anything I can do." She asked. "I need a better plan." Gabrielle uttered quietly, trying to think as all the information collided in her head.

"I know its hard to think when you're tense. I know a way to help you release that tension." Rachel pulled Gabriel closer. Gabrielle was going to say no thank you, but then she had a plan. Looking into Rachel's eyes Gabrielle responded. "Actually I do need your help." The words made Rachel smile until she found out what Gabrielle wanted. What the bard asked was not what she had in mind. However, Rachel agreed to the request. Gabriel had been a true friend and she didn't mind getting away from Corerik for a while.

Chapter 11 - The Truth

Gabrielle climbed the stairs quietly to her room. Gods, what a mess, she thought recounting all that she learned this evening. A short moment after entering her room, there was a rapping on Gabrielle's door which disrupted her mild panic attack. Gabrielle went down the list of possible visitors.

It could be Esther, who was fond of Gabrielle's Gabriel, in a not-as-a-friend sort of way, and found another excuse to drop in on Gabriel in his bedroom. It could be Leo, formerly known as a pacifist, who's beliefs were being shattered and was interested in beating up his brother after, of course, being trained in the fine art of handling hecklers. It could also be Rachel, who was not shy and was perhaps there to persuade Gabriel that a verbal thank you for helping him was not enough. Or, it was Xena who had been suspicious of her "Cousin" story since she heard it.

"Oh Gods, if everyone would just..." Gabrielle stopped herself from finishing the thought, considering Hermes' possible actions. Gabrielle smiled weakly when she remembered Melosa told her " careful of what you wish for..." Of course, Gabrielle, nor Melosa, had any idea THIS could happen. Certainly Terrais never did when she passed on her Right of Caste to her. She wondered how Malosa would react.

The rapping was louder the second time. "Come in." Gabrielle called out, resigned to the fact the person knocking actually wanted to come in. The door opened. Gabrielle didn't turn to see who it was, still staring out the window. "Yes?" Gabrielle exhaled softly, continuing to look out the window with the hope of discouraging the person from visiting. She didn't know if she could handle company right now. Besides the initial sound of the door opening, the absence of sound and the quiet presence was unmistakable to Gabrielle, it had to be Xena.

"You shouldn't keep your back to the door. Especially with your talent at aggravating the men with the swords. You would have been an easy target." Xena spoke sternly. Gabrielle didn't turn to meet her gaze. Instead she continued to look out over the garden. "If I had to worry about being attacked by everyone I aggravated, I would be paranoid all the time..." She responded, bringing for the first time in many days a relaxed smile to Xena's face.

With a softer tone, Xena reasserted the need for caution. "You really should watch out for Boean and his armed men...He likely sees you and Leo as obstacles. Especially after your story." Gabrielle finally turned to face her friend. "Yes, you are right. I won't be so careless in the there something ELSE you wanted besides my increased attention to my surroundings?" Gabrielle snapped back unintentionally but quickly apologized. "I'm sorry. I've had a bad couple of days and it's catching up to me..."

Xena's eyes searched floor as if she would find the appropriate words laying there. Gabrielle waited curiously for Xena speak. When Xena's eyes lifted to meet hers, it was obvious to Gabrielle Xena knew who she was. Aesop's fable about the Sun and Wind did her in, she concluded with a heavy sigh. Only if she could tell Xena everything.

Xena knew there was a God's hand in this and a reason for Gabrielle's silence. "Your story was... good as Gabrielle's" Xena spoke cautiously. Gabrielle looked oddly at her friend wondering why she was comparing stories. Then it struck Gabrielle like a ton of stones. Xena had just opened a door she could walk through. Xena knew she had reached her friend from the light in the bards eyes and wide grin. "I would say the story was exactly the same." Gabrielle looked down at herself then back at Xena. "But I guess you don't see it that way." She quickly added.

Gabrielle paced a moment thinking then stopped. "Unfortunately, I am forbidden by the strict rules of ah...barddom... to discuss differences in stories. A bard can't even discuss the details of the original stories being written." Xena's questioning look prompted Gabrielle to continue. "Although, once an original story is finished, I...a good bard following those rules can discuss it. So please, no questions about the stories, I can't answer" Xena, not thrilled with the conditions, nodded in agreement. She trusted her friend would tell her when she could.

So many questions and too few answers. At least she found Gabrielle, Xena thought thankfully. She stared at the form of young man standing before her and sighed. Then surprising Gabrielle, a slight smile crossed Xena's face. "I thought I asked you not to get into trouble." Xena revealed the reason for her grin. Gabrielle laughed softly then answered. "You didn't ask, you ORDERED me. You know I don't do orders." Gabrielle responded sarcastically, yet her heart soared knowing she did not have to go through this alone. Xena circled Gabrielle, looking her over. "Don't you think you went a little overboard to prove that point?" She asked, gently lifting Gabrielle's "manly" arm by the wrist and inspected it curiously. "Hey!" Gabrielle yanked her arm from Xena's grip. "Would you mind. I'm not merchandise you know."

Xena playfully ran her finger down Gabrielle's stomach, causing Gabrielle to slap Xena's hand. "Stop that" Gabrielle protested with growing irritation at Xena's discomforting attention. "You said no questions, but you never said I couldn't get answers on my own." Xena responded with a raised eyebrow and once again ran her fingers down Gabrielle's stomach. Gabrielle pushed her hand away and backed up a step. "Trust me, you would be sorely disappointed." Gabrielle blurted, feeling more uneasy than she ever had with Xena.

Xena stepped closer with a bigger grin. "I'll be the judge of that..." Gabrielle backed up a few more steps, stumbling into a chair. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Gabrielle tried to calm her nerves. The look in Gabrielle's face and her trembling made Xena immediately stop as guilt and sorrow flooded her heart. "Oh Gab..." The emotional apology was abruptly stopped out of fear of doing something else wrong. Xena didn't know if she could even mention Gabrielle's name.

The noise of Gabrielle stumbling got the attention of Esther, who rushed in the room. "Gabriel? Are you..." She saw Xena then looked over at Gabrielle. Xena could see Esther's embarrassment thinking she had interrupted something. "I heard a noise. I thought...I'm sorry." She looked away upset. "Good night." She blurted and left the room before Gabrielle could say anything. Xena had noticed Esther's interest in "Gabriel" previously and wondered why "Gabriel" maintained his polite distance from this very attractive woman. Xena had learned the answer this evening.

Xena looked at her friend, now slumped in that chair with her head in her hands. "I can't win." She mumbled. "I had no idea how...complicated...things have gotten" Xena's heart ached knowing she had added to her friend's stress. She resisted her urge to step forward and embrace her friend. The last thing Xena wanted was to further upset Gabrielle. "Complicated... that's one way of putting it..." Gabrielle mumbled. "I was thoughtless. I'm so sorry...Gah ...Gabriel." She found it hard to say that name. Gabrielle looked up, finding comfort in those blue eyes. "I know." Gabrielle said softly, having already forgiven her friend.

"Well" Gabrielle got up, shaking off the stressful events of the evening. "I'll have to put off wallowing in self-pity for now." Gabrielle paced the room. "But one day, I will wallow ...and I will wallow in a grand way." Gabrielle turned and grinned at her friend, making them both feel a little better. Xena wondered with admiration and amazement where Gabrielle got her seemingly limitless strength. "No doubt a very grand way." Xena responded.

Gabrielle relayed some news to her friend. "We've got a bigger problem with the Sunmoon. Rachel overheard..." Xena's eyebrow raised. "Don't start..." Gabrielle eyed her. "I didn't say anything." Xena shrugged.

Gabrielle relayed Boean's insidious plan. "He doesn't sound like a man who can be reasoned with." Xena sighed, concluding that the solution would be bloody and in Amazon territory. She didn't see any other "better way" with a man like Boean. At least war was something she understood and had a good chance of stopping these Sunmoon with. Her mind easily shifted into the familiar war mode. She knew they needed to gather more information on size and strength of the Sunmoon army. "We can probably reach the army by morning." Xena noted. "Once we get the information on their strength, we will go warn Malosa and help her prepare." Gabrielle did not like Xena's idea. "Xena, I think we can still avoid a war."

Xena looked at her friend wondering how she could possibly think that considering all that was going on. "How confident are you? There are many lives at stake." Xena challenged her.

"I may not be as experienced in War as you Xena" Gabrielle responded, obviously annoyed with her friends last comment. "but I think I know enough to know we don't want it. We shouldn't rule out a peaceful solution just yet." Xena looked at her friend, full of conviction. "You don't happen to have a plan do you?" Xena asked. Gabrielle smiled. "Why did I ask?" Xena muttered.

Xena, feeling comfort in her leathers and armor but little else, crept quietly into the barn with Gabrielle. Argo whinnied a quiet hello having missed riding for a many days. "Hello girl." Xena warmly greeted her with a scratch on the neck. Turning back to her friend, Xena was not finished arguing about the plan.

"You don't know Sunal, or how he will react to your news about Boean." Xena grew more agitated the more she thought about Gabrielle's plans. "Xena, there are still a large faction of those Sunmoon who don't want to fight. They are only following because of lies or fear. You saw them in the tavern. There was a definite division. Maybe we can use that to our advantage. Leo and I might be able to sway them back to practicing their pacifist beliefs." Only one of them was confident with the plan.

"Mights...Maybes? Do you know how weak that plan is?" Xena struggled to keep her voice quiet. Gabrielle sighed. "I'm not changing my mind." Gabrielle said simply. "If WE go now, we can eliminate their element of surprise. Perhaps we can also stop Brother Lerus from killing his own men and avoid this conflict altogether." Xena attempted to convince her friend. Gabrielle reflected on that thought a moment. "If the scouting party is stopped, that WOULD help avoid a conflict with the army.." Gabrielle noted. Xena smiled believing she had just won a rare victory, persuading her friend to listen to her. It was even sweeter in that she also came up with a possible alternative to an all out war. "OK then, lets go." Xena started towards Argo with enthusiasm.

"No." Gabrielle said simply. "No? You just agreed we would go." Xena was clearly annoyed. "I didn't agree WE would go, you did. I just agree that stopping the scouting party is a good idea.." Gabrielle responded. Xena saw her victory slipping away and was not pleased. "Xena, you wouldn't have us risk lives with my Mights and Maybes, yet you would have us risk lives with your Perhapses? Seems to me, neither of us have full-proof plans. Our chances for success will be better if we don't place all our eggs in one basket." Gabrielle made a good point. Too good a point. Xena knew she was right but her heart still disagreed with Gabrielle's plan.

"I don't want to leave you again." She uttered honestly, feeling some guilt for having gone to see her contact, Burell, alone. Smiling, Gabrielle squeezed her friend's arm. "What ELSE do you think could ... never mind, don't answer that" Gabrielle responded with a gentle laugh. Focusing on the current Sunmoon situation helped Gabrielle avoid an emotional collapse. There was just no time for it. "What happened to me was my fault Xena, as it usually is. And Xena, you can't protect me ALL the time." Gabrielle asserted to her friend.

"Gabr...ugh." Xena grunted with great annoyance. She still had trouble using the name Gabriel. She couldn't ask any questions and she just lost another argument with her stubborn friend. Xena sighed and placed her hand on her friend's shoulder. Looking into Gabrielle's eyes, Xena was going to say something but was interrupted.

"I know, I know....don't get into trouble." Gabrielle looked at her, surprised when Xena shook her head no. "I've tried to tell you that before, but you've proven that doesn't work" Xena responded glibly. "Don't do anything stupid?" Gabrielle blurted a second obvious caution. Once again, Xena shook her head no again. "No, but that is never bad advice." Gabrielle, out of obvious cautions, grinned and tried again. "Don't take any wooden dinars?".

That comment finally prompted Xena to cover her friend's mouth out of frustration. Gabrielle kept interrupting and wasn't being serious enough. "I want..." Xena started but sighed realizing she couldn't hold a serious conversation with her friend while her hand covering his...her mouth. "Will you be quiet for a minute?" She asked, uncovering Gabrielle's mouth and placing her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle quietly nodded yes, giving Xena a moment to look thoughtfully in her friend's eyes. The change of mood made Gabrielle uncomfortable.

No one could hide the friend she knew, Xena reflected with a slight smile. Neither Gabrielle's words nor deeds could be cloaked by this masculine facade. Although, it took a while for her mind to accept this absurdity, her heart knew almost immediately. The facial expressions, mannerisms, Gabrielle's personality...all here, wrapped up in this masculine package. "Whatever happens, I want you to come back to me." Xena spoke with great feeling and was referring to more than the problem with the Sunmoon. "That IS the plan." Gabrielle responded honestly, though she knew that might not be possible.

With an intimacy that surprised Gabrielle, Xena slowly traced the side of Gabrielle's cheek with her fingers. Xena hoped her touch would disturb this masculine vision, as easily as causing ripples on the glassy surface of a pond, and momentarily restore the familiar face she longed to see.

This had to be a result of Hermes' spell, Gabrielle thought with growing irritation. First Esther, then Rachel, now Xena, Gabrielle sighed. "There is no way I am going to let Xena be another victim of Hermes' spell" Gabrielle silently promised. Reaching up and gently squeezing her hand, Gabrielle interrupted the caress. "Be sure to say hello to Malosa for me." Gabrielle smiled, feeling uneasy.

Xena cleared her throat, embarrassed at her display of affection, a surprise to herself and obviously unwanted by her friend. "Sure. But I think she would prefer a visit from you ." Xena spoke evenly as she backed away, trying to push aside her feelings. As she walked towards Argo, she looked back with a half laugh. "You know, NOW would be a great time for that visit" Xena joked, seeking her usual protection from uncomfortable situations with Gabrielle with humor. "I wonder just how open-minded Malosa is. Do you think they would accept me as an Amazon Prince?" Gabrielle, also joked, welcoming the more comfortable banter.

Xena looked at her friend with concern that Gabrielle was talking about her future as a man. "OK, a bad joke." Xena nodded silently in agreement. However, Gabrielle had thought about that, and her Right of Caste.

Xena mounted Argo was quickly off to assess the enemy. Gabrielle left the stables with more work to do.

Chapter 12 - The Prelude

In the morning, Gabrielle entered the brethren quarters after having asked many Sunmoon where Leo's room was. "Leo" Gabrielle spoke to him quietly waking him up from a sound sleep. "Get up, we need to talk." She shakes him into the painful world of the conscious. "Oh GODs....ah... ah....shhhhh." He blurts out, feeling his head throb harder than he ever thought possible. "Do you have to breath so loud?" He asks rubbing his temples. Gabrielle rolls her eyes. "Somehow I knew you would need this." She pulls out some herbs for his hangover and makes a tea. As she hands the tea to Leo, she hears a breeze behind the tapestry in his room and a sly smile crosses her face.

Leo lies back waiting for the tea to work before he attempts to get up. "So when do we go tell Grandfather about Boean?" He asks continuing to rub his temples. "I've requested an audience with him during his evening meal, when he is done his duties for the day and able to see visitors. To ensure we get to see him, I told his assistant that we would like to discuss me becoming a monk. Once we're received, we'll then discuss Boean." Gabrielle's confidence was a surprise to Leo.

"How do you know he will accept our word that Boean is planning to attack the Amazons?" Leo asks a good question. "I have evidence he can't refute." Gabrielle grinned. Leo's eyes widened as he sat up quickly. "What!?....Oh Gods." The tea not having its full effect yet, Leo lays back down quickly. "What evidence?" He repeated from a more comfortable horizontal position. "Trust me." Gabrielle looked in his unsatisfied eyes. "Just trust me." She repeated.

Xena rode hard to reach the Amazon territory and deliver the news about the Sunmoon plans. She wanted to give Malosa every minute she could to prepare for the Sunmoon army. Xena didn't tell Gabrielle of her concern of how little time Malosa had to gather her forces. There was enough on Gabrielle's mind already. As Xena rode, despite the wind and the thundering of Argo's hooves, Xena could hear an Amazon signaling her arrival in the Amazon territory with loud bird calls. They were as cautious as ever, Xena noted.

Xena pulled on Argo's reigns, stopping at the edge of the Amazon camp. From there, she was witness to the busy sights and sounds of a people preparing for war. At once she was both grateful, for they were already preparing, and sad, for there was a need for such preparations. She stared solemnly at those busy sights for a moment before taking a deep breath and riding into camp.

Dismounting, Xena found someone already waiting for her. There was no time for pleasantries. Before Xena could speak, Tralya instructed her to follow her into the war tent. "Malosa is expecting you." Inside the tent, Malosa stood with three other senior Amazons and one centaur. The centaur pointed to a map on the table which, during happier times, was used for dining celebrations. "Our forces will be standing by here and here, well hidden. When you signal, we will be there." He promised. "Good, if the army comes, we will need that element of surprise. We have word it is large but I still don't know how large. The scouting report on their strength hasn't come in yet." Malosa looked at him then caught Xena out of the corner of her eye. "I stand corrected." Malosa did not miss a beat.

"I really hope this is all for the Sunmoon army and not another enemy." Xena responded wryly, disclosing her surprise at their stage in planning. Despite the gravity of the situation, everyone smiled, except Malosa. "Tell me Xena, is this Sunmoon army of thousands an exaggeration?" Malosa asked knowing if the answer was no, few of her Amazons would survive. Xena didn't need to answer. Her eyes disclosed that she couldn't answer favorably. "No Queen Malosa. It is not an exaggeration." The others in the room looked at each other, uncertain of the future. "They may be many, but they are not experienced." Malosa responded, successfully instilling some confidence in those taken aback by the discouraging news.

Xena appreciated Malosa's skill in handling her people. "The leader of the Sunmoon scouting party, Lerus, will be arriving on Amazon land in a day. Stopping him from murdering his men will undermine Boean's plan to provoke his own army into fighting." Xena provided more hope to Malosa's strategists. Malosa nodded. "With that and Gabrielle's efforts on her end, the battle just may be over before it has begun. But we still must plan for the worst." Malosa looked at her people and the Centaur soldier who nodded in understanding.

"How did Gabrielle get word to you?" Xena asked, appreciating her friend's move in getting the preliminary word to Malosa. "She had a barmaid, Rachel, deliver....a letter.... to me." Malosa responded. Knowing Rachel's type, Xena wondered just what exactly Gabrielle had to do to convince Rachel to risk her life and deliver the message. Malosa turned to the others. "Leave. I wish to talk with Xena. Alone." Malosa's tent quickly cleared.

The war tent was now empty, except for the Amazon Queen and the Warrior Princess. "The barmaid not only brought a letter." Malosa explained the reason for the private discussion as she opened finely crafted wooden box next to the table. "She also brought with her Gabrielle's staff." Malosa pulled out the folded up staff from the box and slammed it down on the map-covered table, the only evidence of her incredible anger. "Can YOU explain why she felt it necessary to give back her Right of Caste?"

Xena eye's widened and mouth dropped. She stood silently staring at her friend's staff. Having heard Malosa's words but with too many thoughts invading her mind, she didn't....couldn't, answer. "Perhaps you can get more of an answer out of her letter than I could." Malosa cold tone warmed slightly, seeing Xena was caught just as off-guard with Gabrielle's actions as she. Placing the letter next to the staff, Malosa sighed. "We WILL talk about this later." The queen left Xena to read her friend's letter.

Xena now alone, stared at her friend's staff and letter. Reaching to the middle of the table, she took the letter and opened it. She first looked at the end of the letter. Her fingers gently touched the parchment where "Gabrielle of Potedia" was scripted in her friend's beautiful handwriting. Taking a deep breath, Xena read Gabrielle's letter.

To Queen Malosa,

I write to you with great concern for my Amazon sisters. There is a movement by the Sunmoon, lead by Boean, Grandson of the Founder Sunal, to destroy the Amazons. With Amazon arrows and Boean's word, the Sunmoon believe the deaths of two Sunmoon were by Amazon hands.

Boean has convinced the Sunmoon pacifists an army is necessary for self defense. Boean plans to provoke this army into attacking the Amazons by murdering a small Sunmoon scouting platoon on Amazon land to flame their anger. From the massive recruiting efforts undergone by the Sunmoon, we estimate over 2500 soldiers. We hope to get a more information which Xena will deliver.

I will not be with Xena as there is a good chance the majority of the Sunmoon can be persuaded out of this foolishness. Loyalty to Boean is tenuous, based on his lies about the Amazons. If the Sunmoon learn the truth, I believe Boean will loose his influence with the army, and the threat will be eliminated. I am in a unique position to help a Sunmoon ally, Leo, brother of Boean, expose the truth. While I am unable, Xena can explain my unique position to you.

As you have taught me, I have contemplated the worst case. If I fail you and my Amazon sisters, the full army will be marching against you. You will need Xena's help to prepare and to fight. Xena will wish to return to Corerik to help me but there is no time. She will better help us both by staying at your side. Perhaps you will be able to convince her of this truth.

The worst case, will also mean my death. As an Amazon Princess, I know what is expected of me. However, in my current situation, I know not how to accomplish my duty without bring dishonor to the Amazons and the memory of Terrais. I also know by not passing on the Right of Caste upon my death, I will also bring dishonor to the Amazons and Terrais. There is only one way I can think of to protect Terrais' precious gift. I do not know if current Amazon law allows this, but as Queen, I hope you will see that I only wish to do the right thing and will allow it.

Therefore, I entrust to you, Malosa, Queen of the Amazons and Sister of Terrais, the Right of Caste, given to me by Terrais. I do this so that you may grant the Right of Caste to another who can carry out her duty with the honor that is required and justly, demanded. With a heavy heart, but immeasurable respect, I do this.


of Potedia

Chapter 13 - The Waiting

With many hours to wait before the audience with Sunal, Gabrielle returned to the Inn. Although exhausted from the running around, Gabrielle couldn't sleep if she tried. She found Esther quietly going about her chores. "Esther?" Gabrielle wanted to talk to her and her family before the evening's events took place. Esther ignored Gabrielle and entered the kitchen. Gabrielle followed her into the kitchen and watched her pull out a big knife and chop vegetables with great vigor. Careful to approach her, Gabrielle sighed. "Esther, why are you mad?"

Esther stopped her chopping and looked over at the young bard. "What makes you think I am mad?" She snaps back then returning to her chopping with more gusto. "Nothing" Gabrielle sighed. "...but from the way you are cutting those vegetables, they must have really done something to annoy you." Gabrielle joked.

Esther stopped chopping but kept the knife in her grip. "I am mad at you and I know I have no right." She revealed not looking at Gabrielle. "But I am still mad at you." She blurted. "Oh, as long as we've cleared the air." Gabrielle joked again. Esther chopped more then stopped to look at Gabriel. "First, she tried to strangle you, then I see you two becoming real friendly over this Sunmoon thing, then I find her in your room! I can't believe I've been making such a fool of myself over you." Esther grunted and started chopping again. Gabrielle took a risk and held her arm, preventing her from further mutilating the innocent vegetables. "Esther, Xena and I are good FRIENDS." Gabrielle responded, finding this whole conversation very odd and uncomfortable. But the way things have been going, this conversation was no different from others she had lately.

"Yea. Good friends. You know Gabriel, I thought WE could have been good friends." Esther waived the knife between the two of them. "I thought you were different from any man I've ever met. Gentle, thoughtful, loving. But I guess I should have strapped on some body armor and a broad sword to get your attention." Esther's remarks revealed great hurt. "Esther...I'm sorry, I never.." The bard was at a loss for words. How could she explain that she was placed under a spell by Hermes and that Esther was a victim of his warped sense of humor? "I'll be leaving this evening. I wanted to say good bye to you and your family." There was nothing she could say, so Gabrielle told her what she originally wanted to and left the kitchen.

Gabrielle walked to the Inn's garden with a heavy heart. This experience didn't just affect her but others she grew to care about. For Hermes to change her was one thing, she did after all treated Hermes poorly after he helped her, but for Hermes to make women fall for her was just cruel.

Riding in the Amazon territory, Xena and Malosa looked down onto Rickas Pass. They lead a band of Amazons to set up their surprises for their Sunmoon guests. "You're quiet." Xena mentioned, keeping her eyes on the road before them. "Sorry I'm not as amusing a companion as your friend." Malosa spoke coldly also looking straight ahead. That's an understatement, Xena thought. "She did what she thought was right." Xena reminded Malosa. "As will I." Malosa countered, drawing an uneasy look from Xena.

Returning her eyes to the road, Xena thought of her friend. How someone with such a good heart could find so much trouble was truly amazing to the Warrior Princess. They rode on a few minutes before Malosa interrupted the silence. "You are not going to remain to fight the army are you..." Malosa's comment was more of a statement than a question. "No." Xena admitted uncomfortably, knowing that wasn't what Gabrielle wanted. "Good." Malosa responded surprising Xena. "Make sure she doesn't get herself killed before I talk to her." Xena wasn't sure, but she thought she saw a slight grin on the Queen's face.

Harral was digging in the dirt with another child when he saw his friend. "Gabriel, want to play in the mud?" The boy giggled, recalling the other day. "You know Harral, I think we need to have that discussion on manners." Gabrielle grinned as she saw the boy's eyes roll. The playmate of Harral's looked at his friend. "My dad's calling me." He quickly departed. "Ohhh, can't this wait?" The boy whined, annoyed that his friend left. "I'm afraid not. I'll be gone tomorrow." Gabrielle explained. Harral was out of the dirt and by Gabrielle's side in a flash. "What? You're leaving? Why? Can't you stay a couple of days?" He asked his many questions quickly.

"I can't stay. I wanted to talk to you before I left." Gabrielle sat down on the bench, followed by Harral. "What about? Attributes?" Harral asked making Gabrielle smile that he remembered. Ever since his rudeness with Rachel, Gabrielle planned on discussing it with him. "Hey, I already know about the birds and the bees Gabriel." Harral bragged. "Good. But do you know about Love? Respect? The things that come before the birds and the bees?" Gabrielle asked. Harral frowned. "I guess I didn't show much respect to Rachel...but did she have attri.." Harral somehow got off track again. "Harral! You shouldn't be ogling women. That is disrespectful and down right rude." Gabrielle seriousness made Harral think about what she said.

"Even if they have big.." He asked. "YES" Gabrielle interrupted him. "Have you heard anything I've been telling you?" Gabrielle blurted. "Yes Gabriel." Harral nodded. Gabrielle wondered how much good this talk really did. "Run along Harral, I'd like to talk to Gabriel." Esther walked towards them. He gladly complied with his sister's request.

"I heard what you said." Esther sat down next to Gabrielle. "Thanks for taking the time with him." She spoke unable to look in Gabrielle's eyes. "I hope it helped. Harral is a good...well.. he has great potential." Gabrielle responded making Esther laugh. "I'm sorry Gabriel. You didn't deserve my tirade." Esther apologized. "It's OK Esther. I'm just sorry you have been hurt." She said honestly. "I can see why you love her." Esther finally looked in Gabrielle's eyes. Gabrielle looked down at the ground uncomfortably, than back at her with a grin.

"It's really not the body armor or broad sword you know." Gabrielle relayed to her. Esther nodded thoughtfully. "Its her Chakrum." Gabrielle added. Esther looked confused. "What?" She asked. "Never mind." Gabrielle responded with a gentle laugh. Esther shrugged. "Well, tonight we'll have a big feast for you. I hope you like LOTS of chopped vegetables." Gabrielle laughed hard, then realized she wouldn't be there. "I hate to ruin your plans but I won't be here for dinner." The news saddened Esther but she quickly countered, "We'll have dinner early then!"

The Sunmoon scouting party finally arrived at Rickas Pass. Lerus, told the platoon to spread out and keep their eyes open for the Amazons. He and his corporal eyed each other knowing what they were to do next. They each reached into their saddlebags for the Amazon arrows and loaded their cross bows. Lerus motioned his corporal to go right. Once their men were spread out, they were going to kill them off one by one.

As the corporal approached his first target, he raised his crossbow. As he aimed at his first unsuspecting Sunmoon target, he blinked and saw the upside-down face of a woman. Sustra, dangling from a tree, smiled at the confused and soon to be unconscious man. The noise of Sustra's punch alerted the Sunmoon who was to be the victim. Before he could pull his sword out, Trayla tapped him on his shoulder and put her finger to her lips to shush him. He stood there confused until Trayla punched his lights out.

Throughout the pass, the Amazons carefully collected the Sunmoon soldiers. Malosa's instructions were clear - not one Sunmoon could be seriously injured - despite the temptation.

Lerus pulled up his crossbow up to aim. He fired his arrow at his man with a grin which faded when he saw a metallic blur knock his arrow from its path. "Huh?" He blurted with confusion. The last thing he saw was another, larger and darker blur somersault over him. Malosa placed the unconscious man down on the ground, looking down on him with contempt. "Shooting someone in the back. Repulsive." The Queen muttered. Xena placed her Chakrum back in its thong as she approached Malosa's side. The two nodded to each other and sought out more Sunmoon to overpower.

The Queen received reports of success in capturing the Sunmoon from all her Amazons except Sustra and Trayla. "Take the prisoners to camp and clean up the area. I want no evidence they were here." She ordered. "I wonder what is taking Sustra and Trayla so long." She looked about. "I'll go get them." Xena offered and was off.

In the distance, Xena could see the two Amazons next to a horse looking down at the would-be Sunmoon murderer. "You weren't supposed to KILL him" Trayla scolded Sustra for not following orders. "I DIDN'T kill him. He just kinda fell off his horse funny." Sustra responded defensively as she tilted her head at the body on the ground. "How ELSE do you expect an unconscious person to fall off a horse?!" Trayla asked. Xena came over to the two having heard their conversation. "You killed him?" She questioned. "I DIDN'T kill him!" Sustra responded again. "Malosa will NOT be pleased." Trayla warned, shaking her head. Xena rolled her eyes then checked the man for vital signs. "He's alive." Xena sighed, then looked up at the two. "Told you I didn't kill him.." Sustra blurted and walked off.

With the Sunmoon platoon successfully detained, the Amazons regrouped for the next wave of Sunmoon. The wave that could be a tidal wave. In the war tent, Xena pulled Malosa aside to tell her she was going. "You know you'll be riding right into them." Malosa warned her. "If they are coming." Xena countered. Malosa grinned at the faith Xena had in Gabrielle, a faith the Amazon Queen could not afford to base her plans on. "Be safe Xena."

Chapter 14 - The Great Hall

Gabrielle and Leo entered the dining room to await Sunal's arrival. "Where is his assistant?" Leo asked nervously. "He's never away from his post or very far from Grandfather's side" Leo added. Gabrielle looked around the room suspiciously. "Don't worry Leo, I'm sure we'll see both of them soon." Gabrielle took particular note of where all the doors, windows and tapestries were. "Yea, I'm sure you're right." Leo agreed uneasily.

"You are both mistaken." Boean spoke as he emerged from the darkness. Leo almost passed out at the sight of his brother. "I understand you have something for me?" He asked Gabriel. "And what, or should I say who, has given you that impression?" Gabrielle asked. "Well, I have my sources." Boean smiled as Portus reveals himself, armed with two cross bows. "Aren't you risking everything by coming here with those things? Sunal will be here any moment" Gabrielle eyed him. He laughed and looked over to Portus who hands over a loaded crossbow to him.

"I'm insulted bard. Surely you don't think me that stupid." Boean checks the crossbow as he elaborates. "Sunal changed his plans to have dinner with an old friend he hasn't seen in a while. Oh, and he asked me to relay to you his apologies." Boean laughed at the irony. "So Gabriel, I think the risk is actually small. Sunal won't be here to witness this." Boean's words caused Leo to gasp "Witness what???". Gabrielle was still calm. "Boean, you really don't intend to shoot us like you shot Weil and Ral do you?" Gabrielle asked. Boean shrugged and nodded yes. "It served a purpose before and it will serve a purpose again." Boean noted.

Leo looked at his brother in horror at his admission. "My Gods brother, why did you have to kill Weil and Ral?" Boean looked sadly at his brother who he would also have to kill. "So Grandfather would finally wake up and see how ridiculous his pacifist beliefs are. Father died because he didn't fight, he followed Grandfather's way and LOOK where it got us. We grew up without a father! How can the Sunmoon continue to promote the family yet not the means to protect it?" Portus looked at him uneasily. Boean had his own crusade, Gabrielle noted.

Gabrielle looked around thinking now would be a good time for Sunal and Esther's father to come in and stop Boean. However, they were nowhere to be found as Boean lifted his crossbow and aimed at Gabrielle. "Uh, Boean. Can't we discuss this further?" She asked now getting worried. "I'm done talking." Boean spoke gruffly and quickly fired his crossbow. Gabrielle focused on the Amazon arrow as it left the crossbow and flew towards her. With no time to think, her right hand swept through the air and plucked the arrow from its intended course.

Esther's father gave up on trying to unlock the door behind the tapestry. With desperation, he took a deep breath and rammed into the door with his shoulder. Sunal and Esther's father finally entered the room. "Enough" Sunal called out a belated order.

Boean, Portus, Leo and Gabrielle all stared in amazement at the arrow in Gabrielle's hand. "My Gods Boean, how many people did you intend to murder?!" Boean eyed his grandfather who didn't see the amazing feat. "You have been a thorn in my side since my father died old man." The look of fear and shock on the old man's face didn't make Boean pause. "Portus, shoot the foolish old man!" Boean yelled as he flung his empty bow away and pulled out a dagger. Portus' mouth dropped at the insane words, unable to move. "Do it for the Sunmoon!" Boean barked, seeing Portus' hesitation.

"You Hydra!" Leo's anger swelled causing him to charge at his brother. Gabrielle turned, restraining Leo to keep him away from Boean's dagger. Seeing an opening, Boean lunged towards the two, thrusting his dagger blindly. The three tumbled to the floor. Esther's father came over and yanked the murderer off the young men. A solid right hook landed on Boean's jaw, followed by a few punches to the stomach. Esther's father easily overpowered Boean who dropped to the ground unconscious. Seeing the bloodied dagger, Esther's father knelt down by the two men still on the floor.

Leo held Gabriel's side. "It will be OK Gabriel." He offered words of encouragement, not sure which one of them needed them the most. "I'll get a healer." Esther's father quickly left to get help. Sunal looked down at the two in shock.

Xena rode towards Corerik with no signs of a Sunmoon army. That was good news for the Amazons. Xena hoped that meant the same for Gabrielle. After hours of riding, she finally arrived in town. There was no one on the street this early in the morning for her to question. She debated where to go first. Considering Gabrielle was going to go talk some sense into Sunal, she decided the Great Hall would the place she could get answers the quickest.

Xena dismounted Argo in front of the Great Hall, carefully looking about for armed Sunmoon. If there was still a threat, she expected to find that out quickly. There were no armed Sunmoon to be found. She cautiously entered the Great Hall. A service was in progress, the room full of Sunmoon brethren. Her hand instinctively reached for her Chakrum as she proceeded further inside undetected. The ceremony was somber as Sunal spoke at the alter. Listening to Sunal, Xena realized Sunal was sadly discussing the sins of his grandson to the brethren.

Sunal spoke without his usual vigor and enthusiasm, but it was obvious to Xena he spoke from his heart. "Boean lied to all of us and caused great pain and suffering to many. For that, I must take some blame. As his grandfather, I did not see what I did not want to see. If there is any good to come from this, it is another lesson of what we know to be true.....violence is not the answer to violence." Gabrielle had succeeded in making him see the truth, Xena concluded. "We can not allow one man's actions destroy our beliefs." Sunal stated. Smiling to herself, she could almost hear Gabrielle telling her "I told you so."

Pleased and proud of the results of her friend's efforts, she searched the room for her friend and Leo. She spotted Leo across the room. As she walked towards him, she caught his eye and smiled at him. His apprehensive look didn't register until she heard Sunal's voice from the alter. "...let us pray for Brother Gabriel who helped us through this dark time."

"Xena" Leo called as he went to her side. She grabbed his arm. "What happened" She spoke evenly, her eyes boring into his. "I'll take you to him." Leo answered, rubbing his arm where she had grabbed him. He quickly lead her out of the Great Hall. Xena said nothing as he told her of the showdown with Boean. Her gate was longer and quicker than Leo's, making it difficult for him to keep up. He could see the anger in her eyes after he admitted Gabriel was stabbed trying to protect him when he lunged towards his brother. He deserved more than that glare, he thought. With all her patience gone, Xena broke into a jog. She entered the Inn and immediately saw Esther who pointed upstairs. Within a few strides, Xena was up the stairs and at the entrance of Gabrielle's room.

Xena paused only a moment, seeing her friend unconscious on the bed with a man inspecting the wound. Without a word, she grabbed his shoulder and pulled him away from Gabrielle's side and out of her way in one swift motion. "What?!...Hey!" The man complained. About to continue in his protest, he received a cold glare. He also saw her skillfully inspect the wound and though better of interrupting the determined and strong woman.

Although relieved the wound was not too deep, Xena found the wound was poorly cleaned and the stitches were haphazard and horribly large. If she didn't do something soon, there was a good chance of infection, not to mention a nasty scar. "Did YOU do this!?" She angrily eyed him. "I...ah." His fear of this woman grew. "Get me hot water, a needle and thread....NOW." Xena barked. He stumbled back and was too slow. "Esther!" Xena called for and received more competent help.

A few hours later, Gabrielle woke, still groggy. Gabrielle called for her friend who was already at her side. "I'm here Gabrielle. You will be OK. Your wound wasn't that deep." Xena reported to her friend. "Did Leo stop the army?" She asked struggling to keep her eyes open and focus. Esther, doing chores, heard the bard wake and went to check on him but stopped at the door hearing Xena's answer. "Yes Gabrielle. You and Leo stopped the army." Xena answered and corrected her. "Lerus? Are the Amazons ok?" Gabrielle asked. "Lerus and his men are now guests at the Amazon camps. Although, I can't really say they are enjoying their accommodations." Xena grinned. "That's nice." Gabrielle responded before she drifted back into unconsciousness.

Xena sat quietly staring in amazement at the unfamiliar face of her friend. She wondered how her friend got herself in this predicament. She wondered how anyone could go through this and still commit themselves so selflessly to others. She also wondered how Gabrielle would deal with this if she was not changed back. "With me." Xena promised herself. If there was going to be an argument from Gabrielle on this, Xena was determined that would be the one argument she would win.

"Gabrielle?" Xena spoke softly. When the bard didn't stir, Xena traced her fingers upon her friend's still unfamiliar cheek. Recalling that Gabrielle had stopped her from that same caress when she was awake, Xena quickly retracted her hand. She felt no better than a common thief, stealing that touch. Xena sighed and looked down on the floor.

Hearing the movement of Esther approaching behind her, Xena scolder herself for not being careful about using Gabrielle's name. Xena turned to look her in the eye. Before she could say anything, Esther placed her hand on Xena's shoulder. "I am not going to believe, understand or like what your are about to tell me - am I?" Xena sighed, shaking her head no.

Gabrielle rested well through the night and awoke to the comforting aroma of breakfast cooking. "This all smells so good!" Gabrielle entered the kitchen surprising Esther and Xena, who intended to bring her some food to eat in bed. "Don't give me that look Xena, I'm eating at the table and that's final..." Gabrielle responded before Xena could say anything. "Is he.. she always like that?" Esther asked, surprising Gabrielle. Xena looked at Esther then Gabrielle, who looked a bit concerned. "I told her...that's not a problem is it?" Xena considered for the first time it might be. Gabrielle thought a moment and realized it really didn't matter since she wasn't able to get to Athens in time. "Nah."

Xena noticed Gabrielle's mood changed from the kitchen to the breakfast table, where the previously hungry bard was picking at her food. Esther was especially quiet as she kept looking at the young bard trying to envision him as a woman. "I thought we would go by the Amazon camp, on the way to Athens. Unless we don't have time." Xena eyed her friend. Gabrielle sighed. "We have time. All the time in the world." Gabrielle noted weakly. "Excuse me." Xena and Esther looked at each other knowing there was something very wrong.

"If you don't tell me what is wrong, I can't help Gabrielle." Xena stated as she joined Gabrielle in the garden. Gabrielle sat on the bench looking at the flowers that Esther had planted. "You really should start calling me Gabriel, Xena. People will think you are crazy if you keep calling me Gabrielle." Gabrielle had never looked so defeated as this bard did now, which greatly disturbed Xena.

"What are you talking about? " Xena sat down on the bench. With sadness in her eyes, Gabrielle quickly glanced over to her friend. "I was supposed to meet Hermes in his temple in Athens during the next full moon. There is no way to make it now." Gabrielle smiled weakly and forced a quip to cheer both of them up. "I hope your not too disappointed with this look. You know, I still have no idea what you see. " Xena bolted straight up. "WE are going to Athens." She said with such determination that it made Gabrielle laugh.

"So my appearance is that bad eh?" Gabrielle responded, looking down at herself. "Gabrielle..." Xena responded with frustration. "Xena, what do you think I will be able to do when I get there? Twist his arm until he cries uncle? I will just have to deal with this and accept this." Gabrielle got up intending to go back in the Inn. Xena grabbed her friend's arm to stop her. "What is this "I" stuff? We are in this together, don't you forget that." Xena felt angry her friend was giving up. She felt angry her friend was reluctant to turn to her for help. She felt angry she felt things Gabrielle didn't. She felt angry she felt so angry. When Xena turned, needing to go off and do something about her anger, Gabrielle spoke softly. "Forget?....that is the only thing that has kept me going."

Xena's anger drained away with the admission of her friend. Not sure she could control her emotions if she looked in her friend's eyes just then, she did not. Xena wanted to tell her not to loose hope, not to give up, not to let Hermes destroy those things in her that made her so special. However, all the Warrior Princess could manage was a question. "Will you go to Athens with me?" Xena asked with her eyes to the ground and back towards her friend. Gabrielle sighed, unaware of her friend's struggle. "All right Xena. We will go to Athens."

"Why Athens?" Esther finally got up enough nerve to join them in the garden after hearing the end of their discussion. "I am supposed to meet Hermes in his temple at the next full moon." Gabrielle responded. Xena eyed Esther who found it very awkward to discuss the young man before them as a "she".

Esther looked confused at Gabriel's answer. "Wouldn't it be easier to go to the temple in Zemal? It's much closer." Esther offered. Xena was about to curtly dismiss the idea until she saw her friend's face. Gabrielle recalled the conversation with Hermes more critically now.

Chapter 15 - Zemal

They stood outside the temple as Gabrielle looked up at the full moon. "Tell me again why we are here?" Gabrielle asked revealing her edginess recalling the results of her last encounter with the God. Xena put a reassuring hand on her friend's shoulder and smiled. "If you can use your words to stop an army from attacking, how hard can it be to convince Hermes to change you back?" Gabrielle looked up at her friend.

After another minute, Gabrielle stepped forward but put her hand out to stop Xena. "Xena, I think I need to do this alone." She said softly. Xena looked at her unapprovingly, ready to engage in yet another argument. "Besides, if things go really bad in there, can you promise you won't say anything that would cause him get mad at you?" Gabrielle's comment made Xena pause. She couldn't promise. "What if YOU were turned into a man? As if you aren't aggressive enough as it is..." Gabrielle added with a grin. "Gabrielle..." Xena responded not appreciating her humor at the moment. "Xena, if I need help, I'll me...I'll yell." She smiled.

Gabrielle entered Hermes' temple in Zemal alone. It was made of simple grey marble, lit only by the moonlight shining through the openings in the ceiling. Although plain, it was still aesthetically pleasing, she concluded. She looked around finding no person or God, in this place. Approaching the alter, she wondered how she would accomplish her first task. Getting Hermes to show up.

"Gabrielle?" Xena questioned her friend who returned quickly from the temple. "What's wrong?" Xena asked. She saw Gabrielle route through the saddle bags. "I hope you still have ....there it is!" Gabrielle pulls out the object and sees her friend's confusion. "I can't just go in there empty handed..that would be impolite wouldn't it?" Gabrielle grinned at her friend.

Entering the temple a second time, with a gift in hand, Gabrielle hoped that would be enough. Laying the object on the alter, she looked around. "Oh, Great Hermes, I offer you this..." Gabrielle looked down at the object, still not knowing what it was. "this gift."

She waited. No sign of him. Gabrielle tried again. "Oh great and WISE Hermes, I offer you this SMALL gift." Still no sign of the God. Gabrielle sighed, getting an audience with a God when you wanted one wasn't such an easy task. "Oh Great, Wise and POWERFUL Hermes, I offer you this most humble token to speak with the God known for his compassion and..." Gabrielle's reverent speech was interrupted. "I heard you the first time Gabrielle. " Hermes appeared behind her and approached the alter. He placed his bag and helmet on the alter as if he came home from work. "You do realize you are in the wrong temple don't you?" He eyed her. Gabrielle knew the real work was just beginning.

"No I'm not" She responded innocently. He looked at her amazed. He then smiled wondering what this bard was up to. "I told you Athens" He countered, distinctly recalling he said Athens. "At first, you did mention your temple in Athens..." She started. "Ah ha!" He blurted thinking she just admitted he was right. "...but when you formally declared your conditions..." She continued with increasing confidence. " never specifically mentioned Athens."

Hermes looked confused as he remembered his conditions, not believing he could have messed that up. "So I really didn't specify Athens?" He scratched his head, asking himself more than Gabrielle. Sensing victory, Gabrielle held back a grin and just shook her head no. "Hmm, alright Gabrielle, this temple is satisfactory...though the one in Athens IS much nicer...." He acknowledged, making Gabrielle breath a little easier for the moment.

"Unfortunately, you failed to meet the other condition of not discussing this change with anyone." Hermes spoke matter-of-factly. "I never told anyone of my change." Gabrielle countered carefully. He laughed at her statement. "Oh come on Gabrielle, Xena's been calling you Gabrielle, Malosa knows and now Esther knows." Hermes walked around her shaking his head.

"I never told anyone of my change. And that WAS the condition, wasn't it?" Gabrielle responded nervously. Hermes silently listened. "I met the condition...I never told anyone..." Gabrielle repeated hollowly, noting his expressionless face. Her heart sank. Having Xena know was what got her thought the experience with the Sunmoon, she realized. There was no way she was going to feel that was a mistake.

Whatever condition she was in, Xena would be there for her, Gabrielle reminded herself as her frustration and anger with Hermes grew. That was it! She had been through enough! She tried, like Xena wanted her to, but she wasn't going to allow herself to be manipulated any longer. "If you'll excuse me, I have a life to live..." Gabrielle abruptly turned around and started to leave.

Hermes was surprised by this bard's actions and appeared in front of her, blocking her exit. "So you don't want me to turn you back?" She eyed him and walked around, only to have him reappear in front of her again. "I guess you DO think men have it easier and want to remain as one" He asked with interest and some playfulness. This bard was certainly an unusual mortal.

"I would LOVE it if you changed me back to my old self but I am tired of this game. I am tired of having to deal with ALL of this. I am sorry I snapped at you before when you were trying to be kind to me. That was wrong - but I didn't deserve everything you put me through Hermes." Hermes found himself listening to the bard again. He definitely found this person bold, if not incredibly stupid to be so bold to a God.

Gabrielle didn't realize she was venting again. Had she, she would have stopped before she started. "In addition to making everyone see me as a man, did you have to make women to me? Gods!" She walked around him shaking her head. He laughed loudly holding his stomach. "You are cruel, you know that?" She responded to his laughter, turning to face him. "The least you could do is lift that part of the spell." Gabrielle blurted, obviously annoyed with the laughing God. After a few minutes, Hermes regained his composure and stood before the angry mortal with a smile. "Gabrielle, I only made everyone see you as a man. That's all. Nothing else." He lifted his hands up in the air shrugging.

Gabrielle looked at him disbelieving. Then she remembered the details of what happened every time she blamed him for an uncomfortable situation. Finally considering his words the truth, she turned beet red. "You didn't even know your kindness could and would be so easily interpreted as flirting? Gods help the person you actually set your sights on." He laughed loudly then added triumphantly, "I guess you have learned it isn't so easy to be a man." He grinned at the stunned and embarrassed bard. He hopped up on his alter staring at Gabrielle, waiting.

Gabrielle knew he wanted her to relay what she had learned. Perhaps the longer they spoke, the better her chances were of getting things returned to normal, she considered. Sighing, not thrilled at being his amusement, she sat on the steps to the alter.

"Yea." She exhaled the admission. "I was wrong about many things Hermes. Blaming my frustrations on being a woman in a man's world was...well easy...and wrong. " Gabrielle sat back against the alter. "So would you now agree men have it harder?" Hermes suggested playfully. Gabrielle sat straight up and looked back at him. "Absolutely not." She responded honestly and forcefully to his challenge. He laughed at her readiness to engage him in an argument. An interesting mortal indeed. "Good, I really hate it when mortals become yes men...or women..." He hopped off the table.

"So what WOULD you say then?" He stretched his godly legs walking around the temple. "Are you looking for something general or specific?" Gabrielle asked not knowing what to say. "Whatever...what have you learned?" He looked at her. "Not to mouth off to a God..." Gabrielle muttered. He shook his head with a smile. "Well that's a start..." He walked over to Gabrielle's offering which still rested on the alter. He inspected it curiously, waiting. Gabrielle shifted uneasily then answered.

"When I was viewed as a woman, I did things...made choices, that some people didn't consider right. Becoming proficient with a staff, leaving home and seeing the world, traveling with the Warrior Princess.... " Gabrielle smiled, valuing that above all, then continued. "When I was seen as a man...I still did things that some people didn't agree with...Preferring water over wine, being a pacifist, a bard, being associated with the Warrior Princess..." Gabrielle smiled. "I guess I really relearned what I already knew." She got up from the steps. "If I am happy with my choices, which I know in my heart are right for me, I shouldn't let people with their differing opinions bother me or affect my choices....It's not how others see me, that is important, but how I see myself."

Hermes nodded thoughtfully and spoke sadly. "Unfortunately, you will struggle your entire life with this." The words hit Gabrielle hard. He was not going to accept her argument that she didn't tell anyone of her condition, she panicked. "Hermes...please...I didn't TELL anyone." She spoke out of desperation. He disappeared, his final words rang hollowly throughout the dark temple. "Remember this lesson...Peace and Harmony Brother Gabriel."

"Hermes!" She yelled out loudly. Her voice carried outside the walls of the temple. Within a second, Xena was inside the temple. "Gabrielle!" She called with concern, then stopped dead in her tracks. "Gabrielle" She uttered softly. Gabrielle sighed at the stunned look on her friend's face. "I know..." Gabrielle's eyes fell to the floor as she responded with great depression. Xena looked at her friend oddly. "Know what?" Xena questioned with smile. Gabrielle began to hope but was cautious. "What do you see Xena?" She spoke slowly and deliberately, stepping closer to her friend.

Xena smiled broadly, seeing a face she had missed. Not getting an answer, Gabrielle repeated her question, "What do you see Xena? I need to hear the words." Gabrielle grabbed her friend's arms and looked her in the eyes. Words are indeed important to her friend, Xena scolded herself for not answering quickly. "I see...a young woman who's face I have missed." Xena said simply. At times, Xena wished she had Gabrielle's way with words. Now was one of those times. Gabrielle repeated the words "young woman" closing her eyes. When she opened them, she looked up at her friend with a relieved grin and hugged her with a laugh.

Xena returned the embrace, knowing it for what it was - a precious moment. To finally see the face of her friend after such a long time, to see her smile, hear her laugh and to hold her so close, these were all very precious things to the Warrior Princess.

"Thank you." Gabrielle told her friend as she stepped back. "For what?" Xena asked. "For not letting me give up." Gabrielle's voice cracked, betraying more emotion than she intended. The two looked at each other, each fighting back tears. "Your welcome." Xena responded bluntly, causing them to laugh. "Well I guess I won't have to worry about you changing careers and becoming a bard " Gabrielle responded sarcastically. Xena raised an eyebrow. "Please Xena, I know you have many skills but for both our sakes....keep your day job."

They walk outside the temple and Gabrielle looks up at the moon. "Boy am I glad all that is over with." Xena eyes her friend with a grin. "What about your staff?"


"Are you ever going to tell me?" Xena asked breaking the silence as they departed the Amazon camp. Gabrielle slowed her pace a little. "Tell you what?" She looked nervously into her friends unreadable face. After a moment of silence, Xena sighs and reaches in her saddle bags and pulls out the mystery object. "What IS this?" Xena remarked with annoyance she couldn't figure it out.

"How did you get that back? I thought Hermes accepted it." Gabrielle was immediately relieved then grinned widely, amazed and amused. "I found it the saddlebags while you were having your discussion with Malosa. I guess Hermes didn't know what it was either..." Xena responded, still bothered by not knowing what the object was.

"Huh! What do you THINK it is?" Gabrielle asked with a sly grin. "I don't know." Xena answered with frustration. "Alletus thought it might be a really bad sculpture of something." Xena offered, eyeing her friend to see if that was close. "You asked Alletus?" Gabrielle was more amused finding that Xena had enlisted the aid of someone else so she wouldn't have to ask her. Xena looked at her silently. "Did you ask anyone else?" Gabrielle questioned her.

There was no way to avoid this, Xena concluded. "Yes." Xena responded with some embarrassment. "Who?" Gabrielle found this very interesting. "Burell" Xena answered. Seeing Gabrielle not familiar with the name, Xena offered more information. "The man I went to see, before Hermes became annoyed with you. Amazing how much Hermes and I have in common." Xena added.

"What does Burell think it is?" Gabrielle asked, ignoring her friend's sarcasm. "Gabrielle." Xena was irritated. "Xena, I really would like to know what people's thoughts on this were. Please?" Gabrielle asked sincerely. Xena sighed. "All right." Xena's agreement brought a broad smile to Gabrielle's face. Xena laughed at how quickly Gabrielle was able to change her mood from being annoyed with her to happy to please her. "Burell said he would gladly tell me - for a price." Xena relayed eyeing her. "He had no clue either." She added.

"Anyone else?" Gabrielle asked. Xena nodded, this was more embarrassing by the moment. "Trayla and Sustra." Gabrielle looked over at her friend. "Let me guess...they didn't know either." Xena held the object up. "No, but Sustra kept coming up with interesting suggestions on how to kill people with it." Gabrielle looked at her friend but thought better of asking for some examples.

"Neither Esther nor her father knew. They wanted to know why I would be traveling around with something if I didn't know what it was." Xena laughed wondering the same thing. Gabrielle looked perplexed. "Do you LIKE it?" She asked a surprising question. Xena shrugged. "Gabrielle, I don't even know what it is." Xena didn't understand the distinction Gabrielle was making. Gabrielle didn't try to explain. She nodded and sighed. Xena thought her friend was saddened by the answer.

After walking a few minutes, Xena took the time and really looked at the mystery object in her hand. Xena found it really was pleasing to look at. "The wood is rich looking and the surface is very smooth." Xena described what she liked about it. "I like the way the dark and light woods wind together throughout the piece. It looks like someone put a lot of effort in making it this way...even though it would have been much easier if it was made from one piece of wood...." Xena relayed not understanding why her friend appeared so pleased with her comments.

Gabrielle looked at the object as well, but responded more philosophically. "A definition really isn't necessary to appreciate something, is it?" Gabrielle asked rhetorically, or at least Xena thought so. "I think people sometimes spend too much time trying to define things." Gabrielle added.

Xena thought a moment about what her friend just said. "There ARE benefits to knowing what something is." Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes then quickly down at the object again as if she was studying it. "Are you ever going to tell me?" Xena asked, then looked up from the object. "Well, uh....actually." Gabrielle rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "You don't know what it is do you?" Xena said flatly, the truth finally hitting her. "Well no. But we'll find out...together." Gabrielle said with resolve and proceeded down the path. "I can't believe you don't know." Xena responded.

Gabrielle stopped and looked back at Xena, who was still standing and staring in amazement. "Xena" Gabrielle called to her, not getting her to move. "You made me go through ALL that...and you don't know." Xena remarked. Gabrielle walked back and took Xena's hand in hers. Xena glanced down at their hands then back at Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow. "Come on Xena, we are wasting daylight." Gabrielle smiled and started down the road again, with Xena in hand.

The End

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