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Editor's Choice Award

Sacrifices for Love & Life

by Marie E. Costa

Here is another story. I hope you all enjoy it! The standard disclaimer. The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal. No copyright infringement is intended, and this all came from my brain, and is not taken from any literary source or any other source whatsoever. No one gets the blame for my stories except me.

Gabrielle slipped through the door of the room she shared with Xena and shut it behind her, quietly. Xena was beside the bed, neatly packing her supplies away in her saddlebags. While she did not look up from her packing, Gabrielle knew that Xena was well aware she'd come in.

Gabrielle bit her lip, unable to think of how to start, what to say - Xena continued to ignore her presence, perhaps hoping that Gabrielle would become discouraged and leave. The silence lengthened, as Gabrielle's palms grew sweaty and her throat tighter and tighter. Finally she blurted out the first words that came into her head. "You're not leaving me!"

"I am." Came the quiet reply.

"No." Gabrielle spoke with a quiet desperation. "If you do, I will follow." She stepped away from the door. "I did it when I didn't know you. Do you think I wouldn't do it now?" She shook her head. "I'll follow you no matter where you go, no matter how hard or fast you travel." She took another step. "I'll even get a horse, if I have to, but I won't be left behind."

Xena refused to turn and look at the Bard. "You have no idea of the danger. The danger not only from my enemies who have tried to kill you, because you are a friend of mine, but the danger from me, my way of life." She stuffed the last of her supplies into the bag. "My enemies have finally figured out that you are my weakness." She finished tying her bags closed. "Today to get at me they went after you. I can't afford that on my head."

"You!" Gabrielle sputtered angrily. "You! You can't afford it! MY friendship, that's what we are talking about! Right?!" She shook her head in shock, "Xena you can't afford not to have my friendship." Tears came to her eyes. "My friendship has saved your life more than once."

"And mine has almost cost you yours." Xena turned and glared at her friend. "It ends here tonight! I am ending our friendship now. This time don't follow me. I won't be there for you." She shouldered her bags, "Good-bye." and with one last look at Gabrielle she stepped past the young woman.

Gabrielle's arm shot out and stopped Xena. Xena stared at her then; her face a stony mask, and her eyes focused inward, as if she were trying not to see Gabrielle, but she remained still. Gabrielle spoke. "I refuse to throw away the past two years. They have meant too much to me - to you - and I won't give up on us, even if you have." She let the arm go and watched as Xena walked through the door without a backwards glance. Gabrielle let the tears fall while she packed her bags. Xena would move quickly.

Gabrielle flushed, and stood uncertainly at the side of the path, contemplating the thick, dead grass at her feet. I can't believe I lost her. she thought bleakly, shivering as a cold breeze cut through her thin clothing.

Of course she knows I'm following her, so I just have to figure out how she's hiding? Which method is she using? I know she's taught me all the ways she knows." A smile came over her face as an idea came to her. Sure enough, it wasn't long until she was back on the right path.

Gabrielle continued to travel at an accelerated pace, not stopping for a midday meal, and twilight found her rounding a bend just before a vast forest. She stopped and stared exasperated. "I don't have time to play with you boys." She declared to the waiting bandits, of which there were at least three in sight.

"Oh, listen to the pretty little girl." The one-eyed long-faced man said teasingly.

"I'm sooo scared." responded his blonde partner, stepping forward and raising his hand to touch Gabrielle's face. "You going to whack us with your stick." He laughed.

"Oh, no you don't." She snarled, taking a step back and raising the staff defensively.

"The little girl thinks she's a warrior." An ugly grin crossed the face of the third man.

Gabrielle decided the time for talk was past and attacked. She thrust straight out at the one in front of her knocking him back. Then she parried with the one-eyed man. Blocking his sword thrust and delivering a high forward strike, knocking the man down. A quick slash to his head and he was out. Without moving her feet, she turned to face the opponent on her right and regripped her staff, before taking a step forward in a feint and strike downward, twirling the staff as she stepped toward this enemy. Frightened by the unexpected actions of this woman the third man turned to flee.

Gabrielle waited staff at battle ready. "Good!" She declared to the unconscious men. "Stay down!" She headed down the path, angry at the men, angry at Xena, and angry at herself for letting Xena leave her alone.

The mist was pale, waist high, and damp. The dampness sent a chill through Xena's body. Argo plodded along slowly. Keeping to the path was an almost impossible task and Xena kept to it, mainly through shear stubbornness. Her irritation flared as Argo stepped into a hole and almost broke her leg. Xena's temper never a slow fuse to begin with had become barely controllable since she left Gabrielle behind. This trip had been nothing but problems since she'd set out, she certainly didn't need the added frustration of a lame horse. She muttered angrily as she rubbed her hand over Argo's' leg. Damn - there'd be no riding her for a while. "It's okay, girl." Xena patted Argo's neck. "It' not your fault." She looked around, "I guess I had better make camp and let you rest that leg of yours."

Gabrielle sat on a log brooding. She'd barely made it to the forest in the sudden fog, cursing the entire universe as she made an early camp, settling for bread and cheese for dinner. No way she could fish in this fog and without Xena around she would never eat rabbit or squirrel again. Earlier she'd taken her parchment paper out and attempted to write another tale, but all that she could think about was the battle that led to Xena leaving. Her mind turned back to that fateful day and the bar as it was before the battle. She picked up the parchment and started to write.

Gabrielle smiled at the warrior, "You can stay here and drink Xena." She laughed. "I'm just going to the market. I'll be fine. I don't need a protector every minute of the day."

Xena scowled. "With the propensity you have for finding trouble I'm not so sure of that."

Gabrielle patted her friend's shoulder. "I'll be back before you even notice I'm gone." She stood and headed for the door.

Xena called after her, "Be careful."

Gabrielle smiled and walked out the door, leaving Xena to shake her head, exasperated with her friend. Gabrielle hummed softly to herself as she headed for the market place. The world was good. Xena had agreed to go to Athens with her, the sun was shining, the villagers hadn't been frightened or upset when they had caught sight of the two of them.

"Hello little girl." A brute of a man stood in the roadway. A dirty grin on his face and a long dagger in his hand.

"Ahh!" Gabrielle leaned on her staff. "You had to do that didn't you?" She said in an aggravated tone. "Here I was just thanking the gods that be for a beautiful day and you have to show up and ruin it. That's not very polite!"

The man's smile turned darker. "I think you prayed to the wrong gods." He stepped closer, laughing when Gabrielle backed up a step and prepared to use her staff. "I don't think that's going to work, little girl."

Gabrielle snarled. "Stop calling me a little girl" She went into battle mode. "I don't like it." She said through clenched teeth.

"You have nothing to fear," Came a voice from behind her. "After tonight, no one will ever call you a little girl again."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "Great there's two of you."

Another voice called out from the side of the road. "Make that three of us and you all alone."

"Fine." She shrugged her shoulders. "Let's have at it." Gabrielle stepped forward, raising the staff in front of herself as she did and quickly drew it back to her right side. The man behind started forward and Gabrielle rotated the staff in a high arc as she pivoted in place and advanced two steps before delivering a downward strike to his right arm. Regripping the staff and drawing it back to her left side she raised her left hand and blocked to her right and drew the staff back and down and delivered a backward strike, this time to the stomach of the man who had been talking to her. Turning to face the third man she frowned, he was staring in abject fear, but not of her. He was looking over her left shoulder. Risking a trap she looked. "Xena!"

Xena looked at her young friend. The man took the opportunity to flee with his life intact. Xena watched him go frowning but made no move to stop him. A half smile on her face she looked back to Gabrielle. "You were wrong." She said simply.

Gabrielle nose wrinkled. "Wrong?"

"I missed you and you weren't back yet." She replied wryly.

Gabrielle grinned. "Well I guess you'll just have to come with me."

Xena's eyes danced happily. "I guess so." She wasn't about to remind Gabrielle of what had almost just happened, but neither would she let the bard out of her sight in this town again.

Xena sat in a corner of the tavern and watched her young friend telling a story. Gabrielle was forever seeing the good in people, never noticing the bad until it was too late. Still this town seemed quiet enough and Gabrielle was capable of fighting her way to freedom if she had to. So why did she have such an uneasy feeling about this. She looked around the small tavern, only a handful of men were in it and none seemed particularly rowdy. Sighing she reached for her mead, the attack this afternoon must have her on edge.

Gabrielle finished her story and stepped off the small stage as the crowd clapped.

A hand reached out of the crowd and grabbed the bard. "Got her." Came a voice and another replied. "Let's get out of here then."

"Xena!" Gabrielle called in panic, before a hand clamped her mouth shut.

"Gabrielle?!" Xena shouted questioningly, jumping up and looking toward the spot the bard had occupied a moment before. "Ayiyiyiiyiyiyiiyiyi!" Her battlecry caused the room to quake and men dived under tables to hide. She somersaulted across a row of tables to the door, barring the way.

The two men that held Gabrielle stopped, their faces paled. The same man that had run away earlier was the first to move. "Take one step toward us and the girl dies."

"Harm one hair on her head and you both die - painfully."

"It looks like we have a standoff." The same man spoke again. "If we let her go you'll kill us. If we kill her you'll kill us. It looks like the only way we get out alive is if we take your friend with us."

Xena pursed her lips, thinking furiously. "Go," She jerked her head. "But once you get through the door you let her go."

"Deal." The man grinned. Once outside he had every intention of letting the girl go. Of course she'd be dead by then. He stifled a giggle and started to edge past the warrior woman.

Xena waited until the man reached the doorway. Then moving faster than most people thought possible she kicked Gabrielle, knocking her back and out of harms reach. Xena then dodged to the side and grabbing the man's wrist yanked his arm behind his back, twisting until she heard a loud pop. The man began screaming in agony and his partner attempted to flee. Xena laughed low and harshly, "Oh, you aren't going anywhere." She stepped forward like a cat playing with it's prey. "I need to know why you two attacked the girl and you will tell me." She watched, as he glanced sideways at his friend, who lay now whimpering in pain. "Tell me what I need to know and you can pick up your trash and leave. Make me get the information I want and I'll leave you in worse condition than he's in."

The man was backed into a corner of the tavern, with nowhere to run and hide he knew this woman could and most likely would carry out the threat she'd just made. No amount of money was worth losing his life over. "Don't touch me and I'll tell you."

Xena stopped advancing. "Talk quick. Make sure it's the truth and you'll live. Tell me lies and you'll die." She smiled unpleasantly and flexed her hands.

"The Warlord Criaothus told us that if we killed the Bard he'd give us five hundred dinars." The man looked away from the anger that suffused the warrior's face.

"Why?" She said flatly. Anger clamped down. Her heart pounding in fear. She had always known this moment might come. Now she'd have to let Gabrielle go. This would take all of her skills to pull off.

The man was quivering with fear, that look in her eyes told him he was about to die. "He said that if we got rid of her, you'd no longer be a threat to his army."

"Really?" She arched an eyebrow. "What an interesting thought." She pretended to mull it over and glanced at the bard, who still lie where Xena had kicked her. "I guess he was mistaken." She laughed. "You can tell Criaothus that he was so very wrong." Gabrielle stirred waking up a little, hearing Xena's words, but not believing them. And Xena continued talking. "The girl amuses me nothing more. But if I can't sit and eat my dinner in peace and relax on a cold fall night because of a fools notion..." Xena let her voice trail off for a minute and glanced around the room. "...her usefulness may have ended." Her eyes stopped and she stared broodingly at Gabrielle. A noise from the corner reminded her of the man trapped there. "Go, pick up your trash and get out of my sight. If I ever see either of you again I will kill you."

She looked to the Tavern's owner, never once looking to see if Gabrielle was okay. "Wrap a travel pack for me. This town no longer seems friendly and I am going to move on."

The tavern owner nodded fearfully and rushed to do as she bid.

Gabrielle slowly sat up. "Xena?" She shook her head confusion on her face. "What are you doing? I don't understand."

Xena slowly turned to face Gabrielle. This was the hardest part of her plan. "I'm leaving." She said with no inflection. "You've been amusing, but I am tired of saving your butt every time I try to relax for an evening."

Gabrielle paled. " can't mean that?" She shook her head in disbelief.

"You heard me." Xena gave her a disgusting look. "It's not like this is the first time I told you, you didn't belong with me." She shook her head and turned away. "It's just, this is the last time. I'm leaving and you are not." She walked up the stairs, heading for the room she was supposed to be sharing with Gabrielle. She'd get her stuff and leave.

Gabrielle slowly stood up. Her legs were weak and she felt sick to her stomach. The innkeeper rushed over to help her. Her head ached and her stomach was sore.

"Here miss," He took her hand. "Come sit by the fire." He shooed a customer away and helped Gabrielle sit. "A young thing like you shouldn't be hanging around with that woman anyway. You're better off for her leaving. You can stay here." He handed her a wine glass. "Drink up, it'll help with the shock. You can work here as a Bard. You have quite the talent. Now you just rest here and you'll be okay." He moved off to finish packing the supplies Xena had requested. That warrior had no idea what she was losing by giving up this girls friendship. He'd treat the little one like his own daughter he would.

Gabrielle sat and sipped the wine. How could Xena have said those things. What had happened to change her friend so much. She looked around the room. She needed to know what had happened after she'd been knocked out. She turned to one of the villagers and began to question him. When she got everything she needed from him, she thanked him, downed her wine and headed after Xena.

Gabrielle stopped writing. Tears fell from her face and she whispered. "Xena, how could you leave me? Don't you know what you mean to me?" Anguish and grief filled her body. She pulled the blanket tight around her and cried until sleep took over.

Xena walked warily into the village, usually Gabrielle was with her, and helped put the frightened villagers at ease. From now on she'd have to find a way to do that on her own. She glanced around and realized something was wrong. Although the village was decorated for a festival there was no one in sight. Her eyes darkened as they fell upon the burned wreckage of a temple, and she tightened her lips against the gasp that threatened to escape. No wonder the festival wasn't in progress. She looked for more signs of destruction, but saw nothing. Good! That meant it was unlikely that it had been a Warlord or slavers. She looked for the local tavern. That's where she could get food, rest, and learn what happened here.

Xena paused in front of the tavern. Argo who had been trailing behind her, laid her head on Xena's shoulder. Absently Xena petted her. "It's okay, girl. I'm going to get you some oats and a good rub down. Tonight you'll be staying in a stable." She squared her shoulders and headed into the tavern. As she stepped through the door a silence descended over the room. She raised one eyebrow. Quite a few men and women inside. Her eyes narrowed at the wrongness she sensed and she sought out the taverns owner. Easily discernible by his apron.

"I need a room for the night and a stall for my horse. Maybe two nights. She's a little lame and needs to rest." Xena said as casually as she could manage.

The owner, a man named Stamos, wet his lips nervously, "Yes mistress. Right away." A female warrior on the heels of the temple's destruction was enough reason to fear. He called his son over. "Thaddeus can see to your horse. If you'll sit down I'll get you some food and have a room prepared for you."

Xena nodded, but didn't take her eyes off the group of villagers that stood silent, and fearful just beyond the Owner. Xena's brows drew together. She considered leaving, but dammit she was tired and had done nothing wrong. She'd never been to this village before. She forced herself to look away and moved to the back of the room, sitting deliberately with her back to the wall and facing the entire room. No one could move without her seeing it.

Shortly after Xena's meal arrived the villagers resumed their talking. It was clear to Xena that she had interrupted an argument and now it looked like she was being included in the argument. Furtive glances kept being sent her way. She ate slowly, wondering when they would approach her and what they would ask of her.

"Uhm, Warrior woman?" Stamos approached her with a mug and a man trailing behind him.

Xena lifted one brow questioningly.

He placed the mug before her and pointed t the man. "This is Demetrius our village Elder."

"Have a seat." Xena nodded to the man.

It was mid afternoon when Gabrielle reached the village. Any hopes she had entertained of catching up to Xena was long gone. The fog had seen to that. Xena had probably been able to get through the forest before it set in and Gabrielle had been stranded by it. She smiled at a villager walking by and asked for directions to the local tavern. Thanking the man Gabrielle turned to go. A gasp escaped her lips as she noted the ruined temple, turning back she started to ask the man what had happened but he was hurrying down a side street. "Oh well." She muttered and headed for the tavern.

"Hi!" She smiled brightly at the man that was tending bar. She looked around the room. "I need a room, a bath, and food." She stepped up to the bar. "I'm looking for a friend of mine. She's about this tall." Gabrielle raised her arm. "Dark, dark, hair and piercing blue eyes," she continued surprised that the man showed no spark of recognition in his eyes. "all dressed in leather, big sword on her back," she faltered as he continued to stare blankly at her and finished her description halfheartedly. "a round killing thing tied to her right side?" She glanced around the room, suddenly afraid. "You haven't seen her?"

"No." The man shook his head. "Can't say I have. A man would certainly remember someone like that."

He refused to meet Gabrielle's eyes. "Is there anything I can get you."

"Yes," she tried to smile, but a cold knot of fear was coming to roost in her stomach. "Everything I mentioned when I walked in." She turned away. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

She hurried outside. Xena had to have come thought this village, but why did the man deny it? Where was she? And what had happened to that temple? As she looked around the village, her eyes fell on the stable. Of course! If Xena was here...she hurried to the stable, a little frightened by what she might find. She waited inside the doorway for her eyes to adjust to the changed light and went white with fear as she saw Argo in the first stall. Gabrielle rushed over to Argo.

"Hi girl." She spoke softly. "You remember me don't you?" She rubbed her hand over Argo's head. "Where is she girl? What happened? I wish you could tell me." Anger welled up inside of her. That man knew what happened to Xena. If they had harmed her...Her face turned red with rage. She gripped her Amazon staff tighter, and headed for the tavern. Her anger growing hotter with each step. If they had killed Xena - they would rue the day! She'd make sure of that.

"Where is she?!" She demanded as she threw the door open. Staff gripped in battle ready. "Don't try to deny that she was here! You have her horse!" With each sentence she took a step closer to Stamos.

The man shook with fear. How could that warrior woman have thought they'd have no trouble delaying the girl. She seemed to have grown a foot in the few steps it took for her to reach his side. "I-I-I" he stuttered.

"Back off people!" She demanded. Without looking at the men that were behind her. Thanks to Xena's good training she had heard them trying to sneak up on her. "One more step and this one can kiss the world good-bye!" She held the Staff in front of his throat. "Now where is she?"

The door opened and another man stepped into the room. "Let him go." The man spoke quietly. "We do not hold your enemy."

"Enemy?" Gabrielle laughed hysterically. "Is that what you think? She's my best friend." She shook her head incredulous. "I will avenge her if I need to."

The man stepped closer. "Truly? She is not your enemy?" He looked deeply into the maddened green eyes. "Put your weapon down, child." He looked to his friends. "Go back to your tasks." He extended a hand to Gabrielle. "I am Demetrius, Elder of Arachea." He led Gabrielle to a table and turning to Stamos, "Please, bring her food and water."

Gabrielle sat down fear for Xena still evident on her face, but willing to listen to the tale the man had to tell.

Gabrielle walked quickly but silently through the woods. Xena was off rescuing a young initiate to the temple that had been destroyed by zealots from a neighboring village. The way Demetrius explained it, Xena had volunteered to go after the girl, if the villagers would keep Gabrielle from coming after her. They naturally thought the Bard was Xena's enemy and were determined to keep her from following. They needed to have the young priestess returned. The festival could not go on without her. Once she had understood the situation, Gabrielle had used her bardic talents to convince the villagers to give her directions to the village that had stolen the girl and provisions so she might go help Xena.

Gabrielle wasn't stupid, she knew how to look for the warrior woman. She caught sight of Xena hiding in the bushes and carefully made her way toward the warrior, deliberately making some noise as she got closer. Xena faded out of view.

"What are you doing here?" Xena asked in a flat whisper.

"Ahm, hi." Gabrielle replied nervously, in a low voice. "Making noise so you wouldn't kill me."

"Xena looked down at the bard, her face an icy mask. "I still might. I repeat, what are you doing here?"

"I came to rescue that poor girl." She answered honestly, still maintaining a low tone. "You didn't really think a bunch of villagers could hold me back, did you?"

Xena sighed. "No, I guess I didn't." She rubbed her hand over her face. Silently drinking in the sight of her dearest friend, but outwardly scowling. "Fine, you can sit in the bushes and watch the village. She turned and silently faded into the woods.

Gabrielle headed for the same spot Xena had been in when she'd spotted her. She settled in and watched, with fear in her heart, as Xena made her way into the village. She must know where they're hiding the girl, or she'd still be up here waiting. I wish she'd told me. Hmm, I guess I'm lucky she even spoke to me. How am I going to break through that barrier? Her mind continued to feed on her worries about Xena while she diligently watched the village. After what felt like hours, but was only minutes, she spotted Xena slipping from building to building. A smaller woman by her side. A hand went to her throat as she saw the girl fall, heard the cry that alerted the villagers and saw a dozen men came out of no where and attack.

Without a thought for her own safety Gabrielle was up and flying into the center of town. No way was she going to let Xena fall. With a loud yell she entered the fray. Knocking the man down that had an arrow aimed at Xena's back. And twirling around to fight once more at her friend's side, used her staff to strike a man in his groin. Grabbing the girl by the wrist and holding off a swordsman Xena yelled for Gabrielle to get out of the village. She pushed the girl at Gabrielle. The two smaller women turned to flee and Xena followed, knocking back opponents and moving almost backwards then sideways to escape injury.

Once far enough away from the village to stop, Xena glared at Gabrielle. "I thought I told you to stay put."

Gabrielle glanced away then back and held her head up defiantly, "You can't boss me." She said quietly. "I no longer have a friend that has that right." She glared angrily at Xena. "Remember?"

She turned to the frightened girl, unable to look at the hatred she saw on Xena's face. If she'd waited another moment she'd have seen the pain and confusion that rested there after her words had penetrated the wall of ice Xena had placed around her soul.

Xena stood frozen by Gabrielle's words. Self hatred deep in her heart for the pain she'd inflicted on the one person, since Lyceus, who had given her unconditional love. As she listened to Gabrielle's words repeat themselves in her head a sharp pain tore through her gut. She almost collapsed from it's intensity. She gathered her strength in and listened to the voice she loved bringing comfort to another lost soul.

"Hi." She spoke in a soft soothing voice. Intent on comforting the girl. "My name is Gabrielle. She's Xena." She pointed behind her back, without looking. She always knew where the warrior was standing.

"We came to bring you safely back to your home. The people of Arachea asked us to bring you home. You'll be okay now."

"Really?" the girl asked her voice trembling.

"Yes." Gabrielle grinned and ruffled the girls hair. "Now come with me and I'll tell you tales of adventures that will make you forget the ordeal you've been through." She pulled the girl to her feet and started out. Did you ever hear the tale of Hercules and IOLAUS and their battle with...

Xena brought up the rear. Shaking her head at the audacity of Gabrielle and wondering how she was going to get rid of the bard this time, and how she would manage to live without her. Maybe she could get into town, get Argo, and leave before Gabrielle even noticed she was missing. Argo should be better by now.

As the village came in sight Xena hung even further back. The two women were safe now. She slipped to the side and made for Argo. Working quickly she saddled the horse and headed for the door.

Gabrielle smiled as first one villager and then another greeted her companion with love and relief evident on each face. She turned to speak to Xena but found her missing. Before she could think or act she heard the invitation to the festival.

"Please say yes, Gabrielle." The young girl rescued pleaded. "I really want you to be present at my wedding to the god of fire."

Gabrielle's attention was finally caught. "What? What did you say?"

"At the height of the festival I am to be wedded to the god of fire." The young one gave a nervous smile. "It's a true honor to be chosen." She looked to the ground, "My family will be compensated for my loss, the village will prosper, and my fiancee will" her voice faltered, "find another to wed and his first born daughter will be named for me." Tears shone unshed in her eyes. "Please say you will be there."

Gabrielle stared in horror. We saved this girl so she could be killed! Panicked she looked for Xena. She saw her friend at the other end of the village leaving. Fearfully she ran after her yelling. "Xena! Xena don't go! I need you! Help!!"

Xena closed her eyes as she heard Gabrielle yelling her name. She needed to stay strong. She couldn't look at the Bard, if she did she knew she'd never leave.

Gabrielle ran on. "Argo!" She changed tactics and called to the horse. Maybe Argo would listen and know something was wrong. "Argo! Stop! Xena!" Tears streamed down Gabrielle's face. How could she save the girls life if Xena didn't turn around and help her. Gabrielle stumbled and fell to the ground.

The villagers looked on stunned by the strange behavior of the two women. Finally the Elder came to Gabrielle and helped her stand. "Come child." He spoke in soothing tones similar to the ones she herself had used to ease the girl's mind earlier in the day. "Whatever is troubling you and your friend the gods will take care of."

At the mention of the gods Gabrielle froze. How could she help the girl. She looked at the man holding her upright. "I'll stay for the festival." She looked a the villagers who stood back slightly afraid of this strange woman. She laughed to think of how she finally understood Xena's fears on entering a village. These people were convinced that she was crazy. "If you still want me to?" She questioned.

The girl ran forward. "I do!" She clasped Gabrielle's hand. "I really do!"

Xena galloped out of view and halted. Tears fall unheeded as she sat motionless in the saddle. Something had to have been wrong for Gabrielle to run after her that way. It couldn't have been just because she was leaving. Gabrielle would have made a gracious exit and followed if that's what she wanted. God this was hard. I have to check and make sure everything is okay.

She slipped from the saddle and led Argo off the road. "Stay here girl, I'll be back tonight." She headed back to the village, silently hoping to find all peaceful and leave with no one the wiser.

"Shh, be quiet."

Xena's ears pricked up. Someone else in the woods? She stopped to listen.

"But I'm afraid. What if those two female warriors are still in the village?" A young voice whined.

"We need to save Terisa." The second voice, a calmer soothing one replied.

"By dying!"

"Aeclid, friends, is our faith only worth fighting for if we can remain safe?" A deafening silence fell over the small glade.

Xena peeked through the bushes. A small group of men stood milling around nervously.

The man who appeared to be a priest spoke again. "Our sister village still practices the ways of blood sacrifice, should we allow your cousin's daughter to be killed because of their clinging to the old ways? Is not every life worth saving, even when the one thinks she is destined to die for the good of all."

Xena's eyes opened wide. Blood sacrifice! Is that why Gabrielle...She closed her eyes. It would explain the Bards behavior. And it was me that put the girl back in their hands. Why didn't I pay more attention.

Now I am going to have to put things right somehow. She stood and stepped out of the bushes.

"Argh!" The younger man back-pedaled so fast he fell.

"It's okay." Xena said hands held out palms open. "I'm not here to harm you." She looked to the priest. "You meant to protect the girl." It was a statement. "We were misinformed. I will retrieve her, but you will have to find a way to battle the old ways or they will never turn from them."

The priest looked calmly at the imposing warrior, reading her soul. A smile lit his face. "You are the Chosen One. The end of the Old ways are at hand." He knelt before Xena. "Praise to the Chosen One. She will defeat the blood ways and return unity to our villages."

Xena backed away. "Get up." She grimaced distastefully at the strange display. "I'm no one's Chosen." Her eyes swept through the small group. "I am the one who returned the girl to her family. I didn't know they were going to sacrifice her." She spoke through gritted teeth. "I will get her back."

The priest stayed calm. He looked knowingly at the warrior woman and a small glint entered his eyes. He started to recite the information Xena had not yet asked for. "Terisa will be led to the fire god tomorrow morn. She'll be tied to a post and left at his mouth. Common belief is that if the fire god accepts the sacrifice a tongue of fire will leap from his belly and engulf the girl. The village will then celebrate another fruitful year."

"Will someone stand and guard the girl?"

"No." The priest smiled. "Anyone too close when the flame comes up will be burned to ashes." He looked to his fellow believers. "The fire god is nothing more than old superstition. The flame is a natural occurrence. We no longer follow the fire god. He doesn't exist."

"Well, I was never much into gods myself." Xena said wryly. "Where will they take this girl?" She smiled her eyebrows rising. "I think I have a plan. I just need to get my friend."

Xena crept into the house. Gabrielle lay somewhere within and if she were to save the girl she'd need Gabrielle's help. She stood inside the common room and listened. She'd laid awake enough nights listening to Gabrielle sleeping that she could pick the girl out of a crowd if she had to. Ahh, to the left. She slid silently toward the sleeping girl and carefully bent over the form only to have the bard jump at her staff moving toward her neck. Quick as lightening Xena's hand stopped the staff, whispering, "Gabrielle."

"Xena?" Gabrielle hissed the words, shock, surprise, and joy quickly passing over her face in the dim light.

"Yes." Xena slowly let go of the staff. "We need to talk."

"Boy, do we ever." Gabrielle agreed enthusiastically.

Xena yanked her head toward the door. "Meet me outside." She faded into the dark.

"I hate when she does that." Gabrielle said to the empty room, before she dressed and headed silently out the door.

Xena waited by an old oak tree. Close enough to see anyone leaving the buildings and far enough t fade away if necessary. She smiled as she watched her friend come straight for her. Perhaps Gabrielle knew her too well. She steeled her heart against the love she felt for the Bard and forced her face into it's normal stoic look.

"Xena." Gabrielle smiled. "I knew you'd come back."

"Not now, Gabrielle." Xena spoke precisely, not wanting to waste time or words. "The girl is being sacrificed in the morning to the fire god - a volcano - and we have to stop it somehow."

Gabrielle stared in disbelief. "How'd you find out?"

"Never mind." Xena glared. "I have a plan."

"Good." Gabrielle folded her legs under her and sat with her back to the tree, content to be reunited with Xena. "So fill me in."

Xena could only pray that Gabrielle had been able to do as she bid. The young girl had smuggled out the supplies Xena needed, in the middle of the night. She watched from her perch in the oak tree as the procession began. As soon as the villagers were out of sight she'd sneak into Gabrielle's corner and get the package.

Gabrielle was grateful for the cloak that covered her entire body. This had to be one of the more hare brain schemes either of them had ever come up with. And frankly she was more than a little bit afraid.

She wrinkled her nose in distaste as she got her first whiff of the fire god. The ground began to hum beneath her feet. A hissing white noise permeated the air. Cautiously the travelers wound single file across the rough terrain. Around them were small craters, and they walked until they spotted a deep pit like a gaping wound in the mountains side, sounds of gurgling came from deep beneath them. Gabrielle shook slightly from her fear, but made no sound.

The village elder and the village priestess stood in front and carefully undressed the virgin sacrifice. Speaking the words from handed down through their ancestors, they began, the villagers began chanting words that Gabrielle could not recognize.

The young girl was bound, naked, hand and foot to the post. The villagers continued to chant as they turned to leave. Carefully following the exact same path back down the mountainside. No one noticed the small straggler that slipped away from the crowd and followed a hidden pathway.

Xena lay on the ground one arm wound around Argo's neck. Argo, lay as still as a statue, the two were hidden by the straggly bushes that grew close to the volcano. As soon as the villagers were out of sight Xena leaped to her feet, running toward the girl, if the priest was right she only had a couple of minutes. Argo faithfully followed his mistress. She slashed the ropes and grabbed the frightened girl. "Your god has decreed you live to end this madness." She said throwing the girl onto Argo and springing into the saddle, she gave the command for Argo to flee.

They took a different route - the same one Xena had used to arrive earlier than the rest at the volcano's mouth. Xena stopped and slid from the horse. "Gabrielle!" She called, looking around.

"Here." Came a voice form behind her.

She whirled around. "The girl passed out. Do something with her. We need to have her ready in fifteen minutes."

"No problem." Gabrielle dropped her robe.

Xena's mouth dropped open. Even though she had known about, indeed had helped make the disguise Gabrielle would be wearing, she was still shocked by the vision before her. "Excellent." She shook her head, as she made Gabrielle twirl around.

The outfit Gabrielle was wearing was made from red and purple robes, cut to resemble the wings of a bird. The back had a stripe of blue running straight down and flaring like tail feathers at the end. Her head piece was a golden helmet, complete with eagles eyes and sharp yellow beak painted on the top.

"A perfect phoenix!" Xena smiled. "If those three men hadn't been wearing the right colored robes we never would have had the time to create this." She silently added, Thank the gods that be that the helmet already existed. If this bit of trickery doesn't convince them nothing will. "Now hurry."

Xena slipped into a white robe that she'd hidden in Argo's saddle bag. Taking her place she knelt in front of Gabrielle the girl on a slab before her. She heard the girl moan and began her rehearsed speech.

"Oh great fire god I beseech thee as I do every year please accept this perfect sacrifice. Return her to her people to lead them in a new way of worship. Allow this one to be reborn as you yourself are reborn."

"Ackkkk." Opening her eyes and seeing the tall, imposing, white figure over her, Terisa screamed in fear and scooted to the edge of the slab, turned to get off, and saw a vision of the fire god. She fell to her knees and bowed her head to the ground in supplication.

"Rise Chosen One." Gabrielle spoke in a booming voice, raising her arms up as she did. "It is time for you to rejoin the living. I have listened to one who has gone before you." She pointed to the white clad Xena. "Accept the cloth of the Phoenix from my Attendant so all might know that you have risen from my ashes. I command you to return to your home and teach your people to follow my new ways. Look to your sister village, Echarea when you need guidance."


"Yes, god of fire and ash." Xena bowed her head reverently, biting the inside of her cheek to stop the smile that threatened to erupt.

"Bath this youth in my waters and return here where you will find robes made from the finest silk that shines like my own skin to cloth the Chosen One in. After she is dressed return her to my sacred mouth."

"Your every wish is my command." Xena rose and taking the young girl by the arm rushed to do the god's bidding.

Xena returned the girl to the sacrificial mouth of the fire god. And disappeared behind the straggly bushes just as the villagers returned from the trek. Once again, a small figure went unnoticed, this time sliding into place at the end of the line, as the villagers returned.

A gasp of shock went up as the villagers caught sight of the godlike vision of beauty that stood arms raised high over head in greeting.

Gabrielle stood uncertainly in the chill night air. Somehow she'd known Xena would stay hidden from the villagers. They had no idea that the warrior woman had returned and to help maintain the myth they'd just created Gabrielle had stayed t celebrate. Now she stood anxiously by the old oak tree and waited. "Xena?" She whispered in desperation. "Xena, please if you are out there..." Tearfully she pleaded and waited. She spread her arms wide and sighed heavily. "Looks like I lose." She swallowed a hard lump in her throat and slumping her shoulders turned to go.

Suddenly she was there. As if conjured by Gabrielle's tears. Xena stood directly in front of her. Now that there was no danger, Xena let her fears for Gabrielle's health turn to anger. For a long minute Xena stared at her, and Gabrielle sensed the anger, but held her ground. Slowly the anger faded. "You shouldn't have followed me." She said, choosing to forget the intricate part Gabrielle had played in rescuing the girl.

"I had to." She stared into the icy blue eyes without flinching.

"They could have killed you." Xena said, trying to hide the sudden lump in her throat.

"How would I have been any safer back at the inn?" Gabrielle countered. "I was attacked on my way here and not because I was your friend! They attacked me because I was alone." She balled her hands into fists. She continued to speak, playing on Xena's guilt. "Alone because you left me. Alone - if you had your way forever. And obviously a better target then if I traveled with you."

Xena stared unbelievingly. Gabrielle at risk with or without her? How could this be. I was so positive that she'd be safer without me and now this. "I - I didn't know. I thought you'd be safe without me." She turned blue painfilled eyes to Gabrielle. Eyes that were haunted by things Gabrielle could only guess at. "You never should have followed me in the beginning. I've brought you nothing but heartache. "

Gabrielle stared shocked by the comment. "You don't really mean that?" She licked dry lips and blinked at Xena. "I...I'm not sorry." She twisted her hands. "I'd do it all again. She lifted tear-filled eyes, brimming with love, "If I were to die today I would still choose to follow you."

Xena looked away, the image of Gabrielle laying dead too painful to contemplate. The joy and the pain Gabrielle's words brought, so intense she felt as though her heart would burst. "What is it you want?"

"Besides your friendship?" Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know. All I know, is that without you in my life, my life would be empty." She said truthfully.

Xena ran her hand through her hair. This was harder than she had anticipated. To leave Gabrielle behind meant to live in constant fear of her dying alone. To bring Gabrielle meant constantly trying to protect her from death and one day not succeeding. Which was worse? A wry smile crossed her face. Sending Gabrielle home to her family might work.

Gabrielle waited in fear of the continued silence. Her throat tightened again, and a cold lump formed in the pit of her stomach. She needed to know. This waiting was killing her. "Will you let me go with you?"

"I can't." Came the simple reply. "Go back to the safety of your family."

"No." Gabrielle turned away, unwilling to share the pain with Xena.

Xena turned to leave, looked back at the young bard. "Don't follow me."

Gabrielle refused to acknowledge the comment. She stood, head hung low, anger in her breast, clenching, and unclenching fingers as she waited for the warrior woman to leave. She would follow. She would always follow.

Xena sat by the lonely fire. Camp was certainly boring without Gabrielle. How could I ever have thought her a nuisance. Absentmindedly she snapped twigs, tossing them into the fire. She slowly lost herself in the flames...something she never would have done if she hadn't been so disturbed by Gabrielle's absence. Words came unbidden to her lips and they fell into the darkness that threatened to fill her very being with the coldness born of loss.

There was a time we shared

Our lives were intertwined

All our dreams and all our hope

like strands of a single rope.

My strength, your love

Your love, my courage

Your courage, my heart

Your heart, my soul.

The world moves forward

Though I beg it to stop.

Each life so unique

Yet, no one life, outweighs all life.

My future so unclear

My past, dark shadows on the wall

you came shining as an angel

burning away the hate.

Now I turn and find you gone.

New people that I meet

will never know your sweet smile.

Or, your tender touch that heals.

Who then to teach me?

How am I to learn?

The art of

Now that you have left me.

To be alone again...

The hate gone, but fear remains.

I dare not wait upon another love

My soul is mine alone.



I cry

I die...

Tears dropped from Gabrielle's eyes as she listened to her proud warrior friend. It mattered not that Xena had brought this on herself. All that mattered was that she make it right again. She stepped out of the woods. Her heart overflowing with the love she felt and somehow she found the right words. Her voice was full of the pain and betrayal she had felt at Xena's leaving.

...I die a thousand deaths,

but none as painful as the first.

I stand alone for all times


For my own good, or so I was told

A solitary life is not the one I chose.

To depend on self alone...not for me

Such a bleak existence you've forced on me

With no one to share my journey I wander aimlessly thing of the past.

A deep silence drifted over the tiny campsite. Even Argo remained silent. Gabrielle stood, head held high. She wouldn't ask. Not ever again, but she would accept an invitation.

Xena lifted her eyes from the fire to look at the bard. "Don't you ever give up?" Xena asked, amusement warring with exasperation.

"No." Gabrielle replied, "but I would have thought you already knew that."

"Right." Xena half smiled. "You really want to be with me?"

Gabrielle could only nod.

Xena's eyes got wet. She rose and crossed to her friend, and grasping Gabrielle by the shoulders, she looked into the sea-green eyes. " Okay, but, only because, I think you might be right. As far as my enemies are concerned, it no longer matters if you are with me or not."

Her words said one thing, but her eyes spoke volumes to Gabrielle. "I'm right here." Her own eyes wet with unshed tears. "I'm not going anywhere without you." She left her arms at her sides, not moving to embrace Xena and not pushing Xena's hands from her shoulders.

"I suppose all my enemies have already heard of our friendship besides..." She sighed, and looked away, dropping one hand from Gabrielle's shoulder. "Knowing you, you'd find trouble even if you settled in one village."

Gabrielle starts to smile, happy that Xena realizes they belong together, hears the last part of Xena's comments and protests, "Hey, watch it! I resemble that remark."

Xena turned back, a grin on her face. Gabrielle looked into the deep blue eyes and brought her hands to rest on Xena's arms. "Don't ever pull a stunt like this again - Promise."

"I promise." Xena smiled down at her friend, sealing the promise with a hug. She led Gabrielle to the fire and they sat down. Comfortable with the silence. Talk was for another night, tonight they would just savor each other, content with the knowledge that together they will go wherever the wind blows them.

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