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On Uncertain Ground

by Enginerd

This Xena: Warrior Princess story takes place after the events of "Justice In Walsas" and "In A Man's World". While not absolutely necessary, it is strongly encouraged that you read these stories first as some of the characters and events in them are referred to in this third story.

The story "The Stars In The Sky" is an old English tale found in William J. Bennett's "The Book of Virtues". The original author is unknown. With no disrespect intended to the unknown author, or those who adapted the story for Bennett's Book, the old English tale has been adapted to suit the needs of this new, American tale based on the Universal's Xena: Warrior Princess Television characters.


  1. While not sexually explicit, this story does contain mature themes and romantic situations involving two women.
  2. If you prefer short stories, sorry, this is anything but...(I've never mastered brevity...)
  3. If you manage to read it in one sitting, and you feel drowsy, please, wait to operate heavy equipment.

- Enginerd (Feb 1997)

Chapter 1 - The Mission

Meleager crept quietly through the bushes with Xena following closely behind. Hearing a noise ahead, he motioned her to stop. Silent communication was a necessary skill for warriors, and second nature to these two veterans. Waiting for the signal indicating it was safe to proceed, Xena had a chance to reflect on Meleager's mission, now their mission. With any luck, no one, especially Gabrielle, would ever find out about her involvement.

Xena recalled the number of times she had confidently come to the aid of someone in their time of need. However, this was a different time. A time she was not so sure she would be able to help....especially considering her recent track record. Yet, as she looked at the uneasy man in front of her, she sighed and silently reaffirmed her commitment to at least try and help her fellow warrior. That look of helplessness in Meleager the Mighty struck an all too familiar chord in her.

A soldier came through the garden, the cause of their delay in getting to the objective. It was a moonless night, enabling them to only see the silhouette of the soldier and what kind of weapons he carried. Neither of them could see his face. Not that it would make any difference.

Meleager nervously wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. "l would feel better if I had my sword." Meleager whispered to her as they watched the unsuspecting soldier pass.

"You shouldn't be needing it." Xena responded flatly as they cautiously stood up, looking for other guards. Meleager wasn't so sure. He felt incredible pressure about the task at hand. "I hate not having it in a face-to-face confrontation." He added as they continued towards the objective. "This is not exactly a face to face confrontation." She countered quietly.

It might have been a sign of her old sadistic tendencies reemerging or her desire to talk him out of this, or perhaps a bit of both, but whatever the reason, she took the opportunity to provide her strategic assessment of the upcoming encounter to the already nervous man. "Although, you WILL be more vulnerable being out in the open. And at a lower elevation, projectiles will be much more effective." Meleager stopped in his tracks. "I didn't count on projectiles."

"Look, this was YOUR idea." She said curtly, unable to contain her irritation with him any longer. Meleager knew he needed help and thought Xena would understand and moreover, have the necessary discretion. "I know and I am sorry to put you through this. But I can't do this alone." Why did he have to be so sincere in his apology, Xena thought and sighed heavily.

"I don't understand why you just don't knock on Sara's door and tell her how you feel." Xena blurted with exasperation, once again offering him an alternative to the planned romantic encounter - an alternative that wouldn't involve her.

"You're really not the romantic type are you?" Meleager asked, still not won over by that suggestion. "It has been a while..." Xena admitted.

"Sara deserves romance!" He spoke with conviction then muttered "Enerall was the romantic type I've heard." Xena sighed, now understanding him better than he realized. Meleager's real motivation for this romantic encounter was his attempt to compete with the memory of Sara's first, now dead, husband. "She would laugh at me if I showed up at her door and just blurted my feelings. I NEED to be romantic Xena." Meleager was emphatic.

"Meleager, you are being foolish. If you are honest with her, that is all that's needed. You shouldn't pretend to be something your not." Xena lectured. "Fine, don't help me!" He started to march towards his objective. However, his newly found resolve quickly abandoned him, causing him to freeze. He turned with a desperate look on his face, the one that caused her to agree help him in the first place. "Please... will you please help me?" He asked earnestly.

Truly amazing, she thought, how easily a confident warrior can become so uncertain when it comes to matters of the heart. "Please?" He repeated his plea for help. "YES." She responded curtly. She was annoyed with herself for being so soft. "I said I would, now let's get this over with..." Xena added, taking charge of the mission and leading the way. A relieved smile crossed Meleager's face as he followed.

Finally arriving at their destination, they looked up at the large balcony off a second-story bedroom. His target of affection was not yet there. There was still time to back out of this plan if he wanted, Xena considered. But no, he's convinced he needs to do this, she sighed. Seeing him hesitate, she shoves him into place, away from the cover of the bushes. "Ok, OK..." He responded as he tried to regain his composure. He stood tall, took a deep breath and tried not to think of projectiles.

Xena returned to the protection of the foliage with the hope this would soon be over.

"Can you hear me?" She asked quietly from behind a leafy branch, keeping an eye out for any other guards who could catch them. The last thing the Warrior Princess wanted was for Gabrielle to find out about this.

Meleager kept staring up at the balcony. Annoyed he didn't answer, she grabbed a rock and threw it at him. "Ouch!" Meleager yelped, looking back at her with irritation. "You didn't have to ...." Meleager started to complain when their attention was diverted to the balcony. "Oh Gods, there she is." Meleager said nervously. They observed the target of his affections emerge from the bedroom for a leisurely evening stroll. Her hair and gown flowed behind her as she walked to the edge of the balcony in a gentle wave of grace and beauty.

Even Xena was taken aback by this woman's regal beauty. She could understand why Meleager had trouble approaching the Queen. Sara definitely had an intimidating aura about her, especially tonight, Xena admitted. Poor Meleager, she thought. This, in addition to the competition for her affections with an unfailing opponent, a dead husband, made her consider he couldn't have picked a more daunting target. "What do I say?" Meleager whispered in a panic, interrupting her thoughts. "You don't even have an opening line?" Xena asked incredulously.

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Meleager responded, immediately realizing his tavern lines were not going to work well in this case. Not that they ever worked well, he frowned. Xena rolled her eyes, realizing how unprepared he really was. She should have known, she scolded herself. She assumed he just needed a little coaching and moral support - not a complete script! Ugh, Gabrielle is the one with the words, she thought to herself. Yet, she understood Meleager's reluctance in enlisting Gabrielle's help in this matter. It did, after all, involve Gabrielle's sister, Sara.

When he saw his vision of beauty turn to go back into the bedroom, he panicked and looked to Xena for help. "Tell her not to leave" Xena urged the obvious. "HEY! STOP!" Meleager called out, as if his target was running away from a crime.

Xena sighed and rubbed her eyes with her hand. Perhaps this was just a bad dream, Xena considered hopefully. When she opened her eyes again, she had to face the awful truth. It was going to be long and painful night.

"Uh, please don't leave." Meleager added softly. The startled target of affection came out to the edge of the balcony and looked down in the garden to see who just yelled at her. She stopped moving, he observed. Good! Moving targets are harder to hit, he thought to himself. Meleager smiled, considering so far so good.

He looked back at Xena for more help, which he desperately needed. Surprising herself, she recalled a line used on her once, a long time ago. "Tell her... 'it would be CRUEL ... not to SHARE... your BEAUTY... a few more MINUTES... with ME'... " Xena whispered loudly and distinctly to him so he couldn't mess this line up. "Hey that's GOOD!" Meleager responded a little too enthusiastically. "What?!?" His target asked with confusion. "Ah.... it is GOOD of you to stay." He quickly responded. Pleased with his recovery, he gave a thumbs-up sign to Xena, who quietly moaned.

Although he couldn't see it, his target smiled with amusement. "What else?" Meleager whispered to Xena. "Can't you think of SOMETHING you want to say to compliment her?" Xena snapped with great irritation, trying herself to think of something else. She already gave him one good line which he blew. Now he wanted another? Despite the many lines used on her in the past, and there were many, she had trouble remembering them. Perhaps it was because they were so insincere, uninspired or just a means to an end.

She scanned her memory harder, convinced she should be able to retrieve something useful. A memory finally arrived and with it, a smile. Too bad Sara's eyes are not the same color as mine, Xena considered. Now THOSE were memorable compliments, she thought, recalling the time when that flirtatious man happened to come by and ask her for directions to Marapolis. Xena never did let Gabrielle know she was aware the bard was hiding in that tree, listening in on their conversation. She also didn't tell her friend she deliberately encouraged the man to flirt, just to see what Gabrielle would do. Out of the many possibilities, Xena had to admit she did not expect Gabrielle to fall out of the tree.

Xena recalled how Gabrielle later surprised her again by explaining to her that the lost man did her an injustice by just saying "beautiful eyes". Xena had to take the bard's word for it because she really didn't remember what he said. Gabrielle then proceeded to give her a large number of much more eloquent alternatives to the same compliment 'you have beautiful eyes'. Xena sighed, reminding herself Gabrielle was only demonstrating her superior skills as a bard. Still, she remembered those compliments. She remembered all the compliments the bard used to give her, every so often.... before her friend was married.

"What about her hair? She's got beautiful hair" Meleager suggested, bringing Xena back to the present, unpleasant situation. "Don't tell me, tell HER." She prompted him, throwing her hands up in frustration towards the target. While not on par with Gabrielle's eloquence, it WAS at least a sincere compliment, she noted. Perhaps this encounter wasn't going to turn out so bad after all, she considered.

"You've got REALLY great hair!" He gushed bashfully. Xena stared at him, not knowing exactly what to think except that if she had her sword, she would have felt obligated to put her fellow warrior out of his misery.

"What?" The woman blurted with an amused smile. "Sara, I love you and want you to be my wife!" He announced with confidence. The heartfelt declaration surprised both Xena and his target of affection.

Xena was surprised because marriage was an incredible leap from the planned simple romantic encounter, if romantic encounters could ever be considered simple.

His target of affection was surprised Meleager the Mighty could have made such a huge mistake.

"Meleager!...You're at the WRONG BALCONY!" Gabrielle leaned over the railing and called out with exasperation. Meleager turned in panic to Xena, who was thinking of the many ways she could repay him for the pleasure of this evening. Not surprisingly, each would involve pain.

"Gabrielle, I'm glad you're still up." Sara, surprising her sister, entered her room with some urgency and met her on the balcony. She held up the message in her hand to show Gabrielle, who nonchalantly moved away from the balcony's edge. "I wanted to discuss..." She started to explain the reason for her unexpected and urgent evening visit but stopped, noticing someone down on the ground. "Meleager? Is that you?" She asked leaning over the balcony railing. She couldn't see his face but the man's silhouette looked very familiar. "Yes," He responded weakly, feeling a bit nauseous .

Intense pain, Xena reconsidered.

"What is he doing down there?" Sara asked her sister. "I found him out enjoying the evening air, like me." Gabrielle quickly responded. "It IS a beautiful night, don't you agree?" Gabrielle looked up at the sky and took a deep breath, then risked a quick glance at her sister to see how well the explanation was going over. "Very beautiful." Sara agreed flatly, still having trouble believing Meleager would have the same appreciation.

"I didn't know you liked evening walks Meleager." Sara asked, staring down at her normally gruff Captain of the Guard. "Well, uh, I do...your majesty... But I prefer to walk said you wanted to discuss something with your sister. I'll let you two..." He tried to leave but Sara stopped him. "No, I want you to hear this too Meleager." The Queen responded.

"Splendid." The bushes muttered.

"I'm probably over reacting, but you know Lila is late in returning" Sara sighed. That fact didn't concern Gabrielle, who considered Lila was still visiting with their Uncle Ustas. Not surprisingly, the man also had the family trait of talking a lot. "I just got word two girls were reported missing from Marapolis, which is on the way to Uncle Ustas'." Sara held up the message. " I said, I'm probably over reacting." Sara repeated, then forced a laugh. "She's just probably stuck listening to his stories of Mother and Father."

With that news, Gabrielle fully understood Sara's concern for Lila. "I think we should still check this out. Besides, Lila may need rescuing from Uncle Ustas." Gabrielle quipped to ease her sister's nerves, knowing her concern was of slavers. Sara was all too familiar about what they could do to a young girl.

"I'll go tell Xena what's going on." Gabrielle mentioned to her sister as she started to leave. "You don't have to go anywhere, she's right here." Meleager the Efficient announced, pointing to the bushes.

Slow... intense.... pain, Xena reconsidered.

Xena finally emerged, as if it was a normal occurrence to be found hiding in the bushes under someone's balcony. "We should discuss this inside." Xena spoke evenly, with a cold glance directed towards a nervous Meleager. "Xena? Why were you...." Sara asked.

"Actually..." Gabrielle jumped in with another explanation, her bardly skills coming in very handy this evening. "...they didn't want to unnecessarily worry you, but, Meleager was concerned the soldiers were getting lax so... he asked for Xena's help in testing them." Gabrielle shrugged. "Now THAT's the Meleager I know." Sara smiled. "Did they fair well in your tests Captain?" Sara called down.

Meleager stared up in amazement at Gabrielle's recovery of the situation. "Wow" He thought, reconsidering his reluctance in asking her for help. She was very good at this, he mused. Perhaps she would be able... "Ugh". Meleager blurted, his silent appreciation of the bard interrupted by Xena's sharp elbow. "YEEEEsss," He responded to the Queen's question, trying not to disclose his pain.

"Yes, better than I expected. You have nothing to worry about your majesty." He added after getting his wind back.

"We should really go inside, its getting very chilly out here." Gabrielle suggested to Sara, putting her arm around her sister as they returned inside.

Though she couldn't see it, Xena knew there had to be a grin on Gabrielle's face.

Meleager started to head inside but with one step, Xena blocked his path. Even though she wore her Warrior's Mask which successfully hid all traces of emotion, he correctly concluded she was not amused with this evening's events. "Amazing how many balconies this castle has..." Meleager relayed, unsuccessfully hiding his discomfort at the absence of her expression of what he knew to be her feelings - great annoyance with him.

"Good thing Gabrielle is really good at this..." Meleager nervously laughed. Without seeing any change in the Warrior's Mask, Meleager cleared his throat and carefully stepped around her.

Chapter 2 - The Warrior's Mask

Inside the castle, the sisters were not surprisingly in the kitchen. The kitchen seemed to be the one place in the home that their family would always congregate to discuss serious matters. Many a family problem had been solved in the comfort of the warm and cozy kitchen, Gabrielle remembered fondly. Although looking around this kitchen, she noted that it could hardly be considered cozy, being the nearly the size of their childhood home.

"Do you want something?" Sara asked Gabrielle while they waited for the two warriors. "No thanks." Gabrielle responded, watching her sister rummage around the pantry in a less than regal manner. "I guess it's time for a heart-to-heart talk with my cook." Sara muttered inspecting a piece of moldy cheese, shaking her head with disapproval. She tossed it over her shoulder and continued her search. Gabrielle knew that her sister Sara was disturbed about more than just the moldy food. "Now where did it go?" Sara asked herself, peering in and around a number of boxes.

"What are you looking for?" Meleager asked as the warriors entered the kitchen.

"I can't seem to find the nutbread!" Sara exclaimed with exasperation looking at the empty shelf on the pantry. "There was a whole..." Sara paused and shot a suspicious look over to Gabrielle, who looked incredibly guilty. Sara didn't have to search anymore, the nutbread was gone and she found the culprit.

Meleager looked over to Xena for an explanation. "A family thing." She responded simply. At least the embarrassment was being spread around tonight, Xena mused.

"Hand me the flour." Sara ordered Gabrielle, who immediately complied with an embarrassed smile. Even if the Queen had to bake it herself, Sara was going to have her nutbread.

"Don't just stand there you two, get the oven ready..." Sara now ordered the two warriors. "Won't it take a few ... hours..." Meleager started to questioned why she would want to start baking this time of night. However, he wisely stopped when he noticed glares of warning from the three women. "I'll go get the wood..." He offered, wisely retreating to do his chore.

Sara's worry and guilt grew as they discussed Lila's absence. "I should have never let her go." Sara relayed while kneading the dough. "Hand me the nuts..." She ordered to Gabrielle.

"LET her go?" Gabrielle responded with a laugh, as she spotted a jar likely to contain the delicious morsels. "Just because you are a Queen now doesn't mean you have any more control over her than when we were children." Gabrielle added while trying grab the jar off a high shelf, just out of reach.

"Hmmmm." Sara responded, acknowledging that truth. Both Lila and Gabrielle were definitely handfuls when they were children, she remembered. And they didn't seem to be any better as adults, she smiled to herself.

Meleager smiled as he watched Sara try to wipe some flower off her nose with her forearm while her hands were covered in gooey dough. She succeeded only in smearing the flour around. He never saw the Queen more beautiful.

"If Lila has it in her mind to go someplace," Gabrielle continued, feeling a hand on her shoulder stopping her from climbing on a chair. "she will go....Isn't that right Meleager?" Gabrielle asked as Xena handed her the jar and sighed. The bard smiled appreciatively at her tall friend who, as was usual lately, did not return the smile. The bard's smile faded when she sensed the warrior would rather be someplace else.

"Yep and force...I mean, encourage... people to help her too. If it wasn't for her stubbornness, I wouldn't be here today." He added, acutely aware of Lila's determination in getting to Walsas to help her sister. "Besides, she's with one of my best men. He won't let anything happen to her." Meleager spoke confidently.

Sara took comfort in that and exchanged warm smiles with Meleager. She became a little embarrassed by his gaze and looked down at her big bowl of dough, which she noted was still missing the key ingredient.

"Where are my nuts?" Sara glanced over to Gabrielle to see what was taking so long.

There were more than a dozen opened containers scattered on the table which failed to contain the key ingredient. Xena shook her head and sighed as she reached up and retrieved the last container in the pantry. She rolled her eyes when the hopeful bard quickly grabbed the container from her hands and opened it. "Yes!" The bard spurted with a big smile at the discovery of nuts. However, that smile was short lived as the bard also made the discovery of a fuzzy white mold. "Ugh..." Gabrielle looked over to her sister, who was patiently waiting, then back at the nuts.

"I would strongly advise against eating them." Xena warned her desperate friend. Despite the warning, Gabrielle looked like she was still considering it, causing Xena's eyebrows to furrow. "Couldn't we just scrape..." Gabrielle quietly questioned the Warrior Princess about a possible way to salvage the ingredient and her relationship with her older sister. Xena took back possession of the jar and shook her head no. Well, at least she had another sister, Gabrielle concluded with a sigh.

"You're out of nuts...." Gabrielle said bluntly, finally admitting the tragic news to her sister. Sara looked at her sister then stared at the lonely dough. "Nutbread with no nuts." Sara muttered with annoyance as she formed the loaves. "You'd think as Queen, I'd get to have some nutbread with nuts. But Noooo. Nutbread and nuts just seem to disappear around here..." She eyed her Gabrielle then continued to mutter.

Meleager scratched his head. "Maybe you could use some dried fruit." He offered, seeing the kitchen was stocked with plenty of other potential substitutes for nuts. "Then it wouldn't be NUTbread." Sara and Gabrielle countered in unison. Meleager glanced to Xena to see if he was the only one who didn't understand why a nutless nutbread was still better than a nutless nutbread with fruit. Xena knew better than to attempt to explain.

"I'm going to visit Uncle Ustas, maybe HE has some nuts." Sara announced with sarcasm. "You don't have to do that, I'll go..." Gabrielle remarked already having planned that trip when Sara first mentioned her concerns on the balcony. Meleager liked Gabrielle's suggestion. "You can come along if you want to ....." Sara placed the nutless loaves in the oven. "There!"

Meleager couldn't believe his ears. The Queen actually wanted to leave the protection of the castle, even though she was concerned about women getting abducted. A queen would fetch a pretty hefty ransom, especially one so beautiful, he considered. He could not allow this nonsense. He would not!

"Your MAJESTY" Meleager spoke with a commanding tone. "you are NOT going ANYWHERE until we figure .... out......WHAT?!?" He quickly blurted and quickly stopped, not understanding the stares coming from the three women. He, the Captain of the Queen's Guard, was trying to make a very important point about her safety. The Captain didn't have long to wait to learn his of his mistake with the Queen.

In a biting tone that would have put his drill sergeant to shame, Sara bore into him. "You, Captain, are in no position to tell ME what to do. I WILL go visit my Uncle when I so choose. Your job, CAPTAIN, is to ensure me sufficient protection....I WILL be going, and THAT is FINAL." After giving Meleager a royal dress down, Sara angrily stormed out of the kitchen.

Staring at the doorway where the storm just blew through, Meleager sighed, realizing he had much more success this evening in hitting a nerve, than a bulls-eye with this target of affection.

Gabrielle and Xena stared at poor Meleager. Gabrielle considered this setback a learning experience. "Well, that which does not kill us...." Gabrielle waxed philosophical. " called torture." Xena completed the bard's comment with a slightly different perspective.

Gabrielle looked up at her skeptical friend with an amused smile. "See you bright and early?" The bard asks. Xena nods yes and lets a smile crack through her warrior's mask, considering the 'early' part not very likely.

Perhaps the trip to Walsas had done them some good, Gabrielle mused, enjoying that increasingly rare gift from her friend. Out of an almost forgotten habit, Gabrielle gently squeezed her friend's forearm. Noting the subtle look of surprise in Xena's face at this once common gesture, Gabrielle retract her hand.

Perhaps not, Gabrielle reconsidered, forcing a smile to cloak her sadness. "It's getting late...." Gabrielle remarked as she looked in her friends eyes. There was something missing from the warrior's gaze. Something Gabrielle hadn't seen in a long time. Something she missed. With a polite nod from the Warrior, Gabrielle sighed and left the kitchen.

Considering she spent more than enough time with Meleager this evening, Xena started to leave. "What about the nutbread?" Meleager asked her. The question made Xena stop. With a slow turn of her head and familiar cold glare from the Warrior Princess, Meleager was able to figure out the answer on his own. "Ah... I'll take care of it..." Meleager responded, quickly moving to stand guard by the oven.

As Xena left the kitchen, she was once again grateful for her warrior's mask. In her warlord days, she had frequent need for it to protect her from her enemies. Little did she realize then, she would have more need for protection from bard than she ever did for an enemy.

Gabrielle returned to her chambers, her mind once again on Xena. Their trip to Walsas had not closed that distance between them as was hoped. A distance that was hard to define and feared to be growing.

She sighed as she walked out on the balcony and looked up to the star-filled sky. The stars, she mused, something wondrous to gaze at, yet too far away to touch.

Just after Perdicus' death, and for many months after, she could not look into a starry sky without triggering deep feelings of loss and shedding countless tears. But it had been many months since she had that response. She thought she had finally conquered those emotions.

Yet, this evening's starry sky proved her wrong, as a torrent of emotions returned to play havoc with her again. Deep pangs of loneliness surfaced and with them, tears. Why? She asked herself bitterly.

She had finished mourning her husband. She loved him and owed him so much, but she was ready to move on. She was determined to live her life to its fullest. He always wanted that for her. Even when they were children. Especially, when they were children.

Gabrielle's thoughts returned to the woman of few words. The woman who had helped her through the darkest time of her life with such great and gentle love. Gabrielle breathed deeply, missing those silent acts of love.

How, without a word spoken between them, Xena would quietly sit next to the bard and cradle her, gently rocking her until the tears stopped and sleep came.

How, without a word spoken between them, Xena's healing hand would squeeze the bard's shoulder when someone's words would inadvertently strike fresh wounds at the bard's mending heart.

How, without a word spoken between them, Xena knew when the bard needed to be alone and when she desperately needed the warrior at her side.

How is it then, Xena could not possibly know how much she is needed now, Gabrielle asked herself.

"Xena", she uttered her friend's name with a heavy heart. How could she live her life to its fullest with that horrible distance between them, Gabrielle questioned with growing anger. She had mourned the loss of her husband. Did she also have to mourn the loss of a deep and loving friendship?

Gabrielle felt like screaming out. "No," She stopped herself, knowing that if she dared to scream it, it's force would pierce the ears of everyone in the castle. And at this moment, she wasn't interested in trying to explain her rage and the woman of many words wasn't sure she could. Clenching the railing, she closed her eyes and ordered herself to stop crying. "No more tears." She told herself, taking a slow and steady breath. Her hand went to her cheek to wipe the final tears away. "Tomorrow is another day Gabrielle." She told herself and returned to her bed.

Despite having been captured by slavers who threatened to beat her, fed minimal food which left her stomach growling for more, and drug across the country side in the back of a most uncomfortable wagon which had imparted a few choice splinters in a few sensitive spots, Lila still found herself able to get a good night's sleep. She knew her sisters would get her. She was certain. She just had to keep her mouth shut and not aggravate the dumb guy with the whip.

Chapter 3 - A Stupid Name

In the stables, Sara mounted her brown steed with the skill of an experienced rider. "Will you be alright on Four Feet?" Sara noticed her sister's slight apprehension while mounting the gray horse. Gabrielle's eyes lit up and she chuckled when hearing the horse's name. "Four Feet? I can't believe you remembered..." Sara grinned, pleased with Gabrielle's response. "How could I forget. Are you sure you will be alright?"

Gabrielle knew if they were to make good travel time they would all need to ride. However, she had surprised her sister by asking to borrow a horse. She also surprised herself. The horse looked gentle enough though. Gabrielle surveyed the horse, the ground, then the horse again, before responding.

"That depends entirely on Four Feet, right girl?" Gabrielle smiled as she patted the horse's neck. Sara shook her head at her sister's inclusion of the horse in their conversation. However, from Gabrielle's experience with horses, she knew they were usually much smarter than people gave them credit for. Argo had reminded her of that plenty of times and Gabrielle certainly didn't want to say anything that would insult her mode of transportation.

Surprising Sara and putting Gabrielle more at ease, the horse gently neighed. "Thanks" Gabrielle responded, making her sister chuckle.

As they left the stables and rode towards the two warriors, Sara grinned when she spotted the Captain. "I knew Meleager would come himself." Sara quietly remarked, obviously pleased. Gabrielle was happy Sara had a soft spot for him. That might even help the poor man, she thought. However, if Sara was anything like she was back in Poteidaia, she would still make things difficult on the potential suitor, just to see how serious he really was.

Hearing two horses approach them, Xena turned, surprised to find Gabrielle on her own horse. She assumed the bard would ride with her. Seeing Gabrielle engaged in an enlivened discussion with her sister as they rode over, Xena indulged in a rare moment of self-pity. She doesn't even want to ride with me anymore, Xena sighed heavily. By the time Gabrielle and her horse reached the warriors, the hurt in Xena's eyes was already masked.

"Let's go." Meleager commanded his small band with annoyance in his tone. He was not thrilled with the loss of a few good morning hours of travel. He also didn't like the idea of the Queen coming along. As he headed out, he immediately noticed that Sara wasn't following. He looked down at the ground with a stare he wished to give the Queen. Then, with a long, slow exhale, he lifted his head and plastered on a fake smile. "Your Majesty, if you don't mind, I would like it very much if you would ride with me." He spoke with forced courtesy.

"Very well Captain." Sara responded with a regal air while turning her brown steed to come along side of Meleager. As she turned, she winked at her sister.

"What was that about?" Xena asked having witnessed the wink. Xena then nonchalantly assessed the grey mare of Gabrielle's. It looked gentle enough for the bard, Xena thought.

"A sign. Probably a good sign." Gabrielle responded cryptically. "Come on Four Feet." Gabrielle started to follow her sister. Xena rode along side of her. "Four Feet?" The warrior repeated the name with a raised eyebrow. That usually would have been enough to set Gabrielle off with a long winded explanation. However, Gabrielle just smiled and nodded. A Stupid name, Xena thought.

When the women were taken onboard the ship in the dark of night, no one saw them. After their gags and chains were removed, they all did a fair bit of yelling with hope that someone would hear them. No one heard them. Lila knew there was no use in the continued crying and yelling.

"You should conserve your energy for the rescue." Lila said confidently. One full figured woman called back "Who's going to rescue us little girl? No one can hear us and we are on a ship going to only Gods know where. Who is going to rescue us?" She cried. "My sisters will." Lila said confidently.

The women looked at her and started to cry and yell for help again. Lila then took a different tack with the five women. "Stop it you guys, you'll annoy the dumb guy with the whip. And we really don't want to annoy him." She argued. "She's right" The tall blond who was also captured in Marapolis, responded, thinking more clearly.

Unfortunately, the group didn't quiet down enough. The bolt to the cargo hold's hatch slid back with a thud. Someone descended the ladder - the dumb guy with the whip. "I've had enough noise from you slaves." He snarled raising his whip. "We're done, you won't hear anymore crying or screaming." Lila quickly offered, to hopefully diffuse the potentially painful situation. Though despite Lila's assurances, most of the woman started to cry with fear again. This seemed to please the man.

"Care to make a wager with ...the dumb guy and his whip?" He said as he cracked his whip and eyed Lila, who concluded he probably didn't appreciate that remark.

Gabrielle looked over to Xena who was upset about something. However, Xena didn't say anything and her eyes didn't reveal anything. No surprise there, Gabrielle noted with annoyance. Xena had used that Warrior's Mask of hers so often now, Gabrielle was afraid Xena would forget how to really smile or laugh. Tired of waiting for Xena to say something she would probably never say, Gabrielle thought she would subtly get some dialogue going.

"You're mad at me." Gabrielle stated directly, her eyes fixed on her friend. Ok, perhaps not so subtle, Gabrielle thought to herself. Xena looked at her, seeing a very serious face on the bard. "I'm not mad at you." Xena responded in an unconvincing monotone and looked ahead. "Uh hun." Gabrielle responded and looked forward. After a moment, she looked back at her friend.

"What are you mad at me about?" Gabrielle questioned. Xena sighed. She was not about to let her know she was annoyed with Gabrielle over the horse with that really stupid name.

Thinking it over, Xena could understand the practicality of Gabrielle having her own horse, if that's what she wanted. If she needed to rush off to battle, Xena could certainly go much quicker if Gabrielle was not riding with her. Yeah, very practical, the warrior thought.

"I said I'm not mad at you." Xena said bluntly, keeping her eyes forward. Gabrielle sighed. "Uh hun." Gabrielle responded and looked ahead. A few seconds passed before she looked back at her friend.

"Why are you mad at me?" Gabrielle asked, as if it was the first time that question crossed her mind, which drew a sharp look from the warrior. The biggest reaction the bard got so far from Xena. "Ok, Ok...You're not mad at me." Gabrielle quickly responded. Xena looked forward, hoping they would reach Marapolis soon. Perhaps she would suggest to Meleager to hurry up the pace a bit, she considered.

Four Foot looked over to Argo and whinnied softly. Argo looked over to Four Feet and snorted. Four Feet now understood. Too bad people are not as smart as horses, Four Feet considered.

A silly grin quickly crossed Gabrielle's face. "Well, whatever I did to make you mad at me, I'm REEEAAALLY sorry." Gabrielle apologized. "Gabrielle! I said..." Xena's irritated response was interrupted by a giggling from a very amused bard. The look of exasperation that finally cracked through the warrior's mask was a victory to the bard. Xena couldn't help but let a smile and chuckle also escape from behind the mask. What a precious prize, thought the bard.

They stopped riding forward when Xena noticed Gabrielle intently inspecting her smiling face. "What?" Xena questioned her friend. "I wouldn't worry too much Xena, I don't think that smile permanently damaged your Warrior's Mask...this time. Although, you probably should take it off every once in a while, just to be on the safe side." Gabrielle suggested to her friend. Xena was taken aback by the bard's observation. Was she aware EVERY time that mask was used?

"They've stopped." Meleager reported immediately to Sara. "Good." She said. "Good?" He repeated. "We won't make very good time if we keep stopping." He complained. "We don't have to wait for them, they'll catch up." She breathed in the air deeply, appreciating her open surroundings. She hadn't been on a long trip like this in a long time. Meleager grunted. Whatever his majesty wants, he muttered under his breath.

Gabrielle realized she treaded on uncertain ground when the smile faded from Xena's face. A ground that she seemed to be treading on a lot these days. "Actually, I think it would probably be safest to keep it off altogether." Gabrielle said matter-of-factly.

"I not sure if it could handle even one more of your powerful smiles." Gabrielle added, briefly looking away. The bard had a point she had a need to make and she was going to make it, her way. Her eyes once again met Xena's and she continued, this time, taking her bard's gloves off.

"Can it survive the power of a smile that brings more hope to a sad soul than a welcome spring sun after a cold, dark winter?" With the bard's impassioned words, all traces of that powerful smile faded from Xena's face.

"Can it survive the power of a smile that makes those... incredible... eyes of yours twinkle, like rare sapphires, that kings would gladly fight over... just for the chance that a gift of them to their beloved could bring even a fraction of the joy... that a gift of your smile brings to someone lucky enough to receive it?" Gabrielle pauses a moment, with absolutely no threat of interruption.

"On second thought Xena, I am sure." Gabrielle takes a deep breath. "Your warrior's mask couldn't survive."

"They have been acting strange haven't they." Meleager finally commented, looking back at the two women again. "You've noticed too?" Sara asked, surprised he was that sensitive to others. "You'd have to be blind not to." He shook his head. "Have you asked Xena about it?" Sara asked. "You're kidding right?" He looked at her amazed she would ask. She shrugged, thinking it was possible the topic might have happened to come up in casual warrior conversation.

"I like to think myself a great warrior, but I really don't want to have to prove myself against an annoyed Xena." He joked. She appreciated his self-depreciating humor. To her, it showed great self-confidence. "I'd really hate to have to search for another Captain of the Guard...especially since I have gotten so ...." She catches herself. "used to you." Meleager smiles.

"I don't suppose you've asked Gabrielle about ...." He points back over his shoulder to the two. "You're kidding right?" She responses with a grin and they have a good chuckle.

It only took one session with the dumb guy with the whip to reinforce Lila's advice to herself to keep her mouth shut. Her back now sported thirteen welts on it. Something else she now shared in common with the other five women besides lovely prison accommodations. All in all, she faired well considering what he could have done, she tried to cheer herself up.

Luckily for all the women in the cargo hold, the buyer was very particular about the physical condition of the slave girls he wanted to purchase and the dumb guy had his orders to go easy on them. It was also a good thing for everyone when she realized the dumb guy got distracted easily and couldn't count well. She shuttered thinking what thirty lashes, even the "easy" lashes, would have done instead of thirteen.

Lila occasionally had to remind herself that Gabrielle and Sara would be on their way to rescue her any day now. However, if they waited too long, they would have to find her in a far away land which would make it much more difficult for a rescue, Lila concluded. They would rescue her any day now. She was sure.

Xena couldn't smile now if her life depended on it. She wasn't even sure if she could breath. And unfortunately, Xena also was unable to respond to the bard who desperately wanted to hear something, anything, from the Warrior Princess' lips.

After a few painful moments of silence with that Warrior's Mask apparently in place, Gabrielle took a deep, and resigned breath. "Well, I guess it's your mask and you can do with it what you want. Come on Four Feet." Gabrielle called to the gentle horse and rode to catch up to her sister and Meleager. The bard started to believe she would have to start accepting this distance between them and accepting that damn mask.

The slow, gentle rocking of the ship had a calming effect on Lila's nerves and she found herself nodding off. She later woke in darkness to the voices she heard top-side.

"He's late again." The dumb guy with the whip reported with annoyance when someone came onboard. "And the books came up short again." He added snidely. "How much this time?" A woman groaned, surprising Lila. A woman slaver, Lila thought to herself with amazement.

"40 dinars. We did just as well when I did the books" The man remarked sarcastically. "Here" The woman responded, ignoring his comment. Lila heard the clanking of dinars.

"If he weren't my brother, I would kill him." She added after the repayment. "If he were MY brother, he'd be dead by now." The man responded. "You're devotion to family warms my heart." She replied sarcastically. "Careful Dyessa, having a heart in this business is not healthy for you." He advised. "Your concern for my health is touching. However, you need not worry Fagan. I will mind my heart as well as my brother." Dyessa replied. "I'm not worried." Fagan responded, grinning to himself.

Chapter 4 - The Precious Word

Xena continued to ride a distance behind the three, uncomfortably quiet riders. She was acutely aware she had not responded to Gabrielle very well. What else was new, she sighed heavily. Once again she did not know what to say to the bard. Her thoughts and emotions were at war. Despite all her warrior skills, she felt woefully unprepared for this war on uncertain ground.

Her thoughts told her there was nothing to say. The mask was there for a good reason.

Her emotions told her there was everything to say. How she missed cradling the bard in her arms at night.

Her thoughts told her the time for comforting the bard was over. That was all Gabrielle needed or wanted from her. The mask was there for a good reason.

Her emotions told her she was risking their friendship by shutting the bard out.

Her thoughts told her that she would lose their friendship if she didn't shut out the bard. Too much had happened since the days when the warrior could manage her emotions towards the bard. Too many times the warrior left her heart unguarded while comforting her friend. The mask was there for a good reason.

While Xena waited to see whether her thoughts or emotions would win, she did not want to take the chance of saying something that would make her lose everything. So her thoughts kept winning the battles of this war on uncertain ground and she kept her distance.....a safe, emotional distance.

Distracting everyone from their thoughts, a bone chilling scream of a young child pierced through the forest. Gabrielle turned back to find Xena had already made her way deep into the forest, towards the source of the scream. "Oh Gods" Sara uttered. "Stay here." Meleager ordered Gabrielle and Sara as he rode off.

"Does he actually think we will listen to him?" Sara questioned her sister, anxious to follow and help. "I don't think so, but he is supposed to be your Captain of the Guard.

If he fails to protect his Queen, he'll have a hard time getting another job." Gabrielle explained. "Well, perhaps we'll give him a moment before following, I would not want him to HAVE to look for another job." Sara smiled weakly. "OK. Times up. Come on Four Feet" Gabrielle encouraged her horse. "Stay close." Gabrielle advised her sister.

Meleager came to a clearing to find Xena fighting five men. She didn't even draw her sword, Meleager noticed. They foolishly tried to surround her thinking they could overpower her. Meleager watched her as she punched, kicked, somersaulted, punched, punched, tossed, kicked, paused...grinned...squeezed and twisted. "Good Gods" Meleager recoiled sympathetically. Observing her incredible and disturbing enthusiasm in fighting these five, Meleager was very glad he didn't ask her about Gabrielle.

Meleager's attention was diverted away from Xena and her punching bags to a wagon. Three children were tied up in the back and crying. Meleager's blood began to boil. "Innocent children..." He growled. Now he wanted some slavers to take his frustrations out on. He looked over to Xena. Her continued enthusiasm in fighting her five slavers made him suspect she would not be willing to share with him. He concluded he would have to find his own. Hearing noises just beyond the clearing, he had hope.

The scuffle he heard was between two slavers who ganged up on a man cowering on the ground. "You fool" They called out, as they kicked him. Meleager easily pulled the bullies off of the man and looked at them. "How good are you guys fighting someone who fights back?" Meleager didn't give them a chance to answer and easily overpowered them with solid punches to their faces.

Gabrielle and Sara came upon the clearing to find Xena pommeling five men. She didn't even have her sword drawn, Gabrielle noticed. Gabrielle also noted it looked like the men were trying to escape but Xena wouldn't let them. Sara and Gabrielle watched her as she punched, pulled, kicked, flipped, pulled, kicked, punched, kicked, paused...grinned...squeezed and twisted. "Ouch" Sara and Gabrielle both recoiled sympathetically. Noticing the incredible enthusiasm Xena fought the men with, Sara was very glad Meleager didn't ask Xena about Gabrielle.

Sara went over to the wagon to release the children while Gabrielle went in search of Meleager.

Meleager looked down at the man on the ground who finally stopped shaking. The man froze seeing the fierce warrior tower over him. "Don't be frightened, I'm not going to hurt you." Meleager reached his arm down to help the man up. The man paused a moment before accepting the help.

"Meleager!" Gabrielle called out, finding the second warrior. "I thought I told you two to stay put!" He barked. Gabrielle shrugged. "Would you believe I really wanted to stay put but Sara kept insisting we join the action?" Meleager thought a moment and eyed her. "No and Yes." He answered.

"Who's your friend?" Gabrielle asked smiling at the man and changing the subject. "I don't know yet." Meleager relayed some irritation. "I was just about to find out but...." He started to explain but Gabrielle interrupted. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle" She introduced herself with a bright smile that made the man smile back. "Good, I was worried there was a shortage of smiles around here, but I'm glad you've proven me wrong." She joked with him making his smile bigger.

The man no longer feared Meleager and took a deep breath. "Th...Th...Thank... Y..Y..You..." He stammered. Gabrielle's smile faded when she heard the stutter. When the man looked back to Gabrielle, her smile returned.

Meleager patted him on his back as they walked towards the clearing. "My pleasure friend. My pleasure." Meleager smiled at him. "Kenis!" A little girl called out with relief and rushed over to her friend. "We were so scared!" She admitted as he scooped her up in his arms. "M..M..Me....T..T..Too.." He responded with a big hug. Gabrielle looked over to her sister, who finished untying the last of the kids. "Who ARE you?" A young boy asked Meleager boldly.

Meleager silently eyed him. "He's Meleager the Mighty and that woman over there is Xena, the Warrior Princess." Gabrielle announced as Xena came over to them. The five men were finally unconscious and of no more use to the Warrior Princess.

The warrior's names apparently meant something to the young boy, for his eyes widened in awe at the two famous warriors. "Who are you?" Meleager asked with a bark. "Trollius...sir..." The young boy responded and shrunk down. Meleager nodded.

"Hi, I'm Grena and this is Vicus." The little girl smiled at him unfrightened and unaware of any warrior reputation. His gruff exterior melted slightly as she held her hand out and he awkwardly shook it. Sara grinned at her Captain, having never seen him so handsome.

Despite their desire to get to Marapolis, Gabrielle and Sara insisted on ensuring the children got back to their home. Xena and Meleager gladly rode in back, away from the noisy children.

"Do you think we will ever get to Marapolis?" Meleager sighed. "Right now Meleager, I'm not sure of anything." Xena responded, observing Gabrielle talking with Kenis. Meleager thought briefly of asking her what she meant by that but decided against it. He remembered vividly what happened to the five slavers and shifted sympathetically in his saddle.

Kenis was very pleased but surprised that Gabrielle asked to sit with him on his wagon. "Do you teach the children?" Gabrielle asked. Kenis laughed. "N...N ... No." He smiled and slowly continued. "I... .ju just out at th. the orph..phanage."

Gabrielle relayed an amused grin to her sister who rode along side. This was the first they learned they would be going to an orphanage. Both knew Meleager and Xena were already not thrilled with escorting three rambunctious kids to their homes.

" fi fix th.things." He continued slowly. Looking at the two very patient women with an appreciative smile. "L..Lot's ... an" He added, rewarded with laughter from the women. Not many people gave him the chance to talk to them, he reflected, grateful for the chance now.

"Stop it! Trollius is pulling my hair! Ow!" The little girl yelped. Kenis looked back at the children with a glare. Trollius attempted to look innocent but didn't succeed. The children continued their bickering despite Kenis' attention. "Hey, Stop That!" The other little boy yelled at Trollius. "Don't look at me, Grena did it." Trollius yelled back. "Did not you liar!" Grena responded. "Did too."

Xena and Meleager looked at each other and slowed down.

"Excuse me" Sara told Kenis and Gabrielle, all noticing the warriors' attempt at a subtle retreat. "You go get 'em Sara." Gabrielle encouraged her sister as she rode back towards the disappearing warriors.

"Come on you two, hurry your pace up a bit." Sara scolded them. Xena sighed and looked over to Meleager. "We should stay back here your majesty. Slavers could still be interested in the children." Meleager started his explanation. Xena considered that pretty good story and nodded in agreement.

"You see... your majesty." He continued, deliberately using royal references when he could, knowing she liked that. "Back here we can offer more protection." Meleager looked over to Xena who continued to punctuate his story at appropriate places with supportive nods. "More protection?" Sara asked, looking around the area.

"Yes. More protection." He responded with conviction, very pleased with himself. Perhaps some of Gabrielle's bardly skills were rubbing off on Meleager the Mighty, he mused. What a combination of skills that would be, he considered. No enemy would ever have a chance against someone with her gift of gab with his skill at fighting.

"More protection FOR the children or FROM the children?" Sara remarked bluntly, quickly interrupting his musings to bring him back to reality. He did not now, nor would he ever, have the gift of gab.

"I want you two to hurry up, or...or..." She scolded them, then thought a moment. Xena's eyebrow raised in interest in what kind of threat this woman could possibly use against the two warriors. "I'll send Gabrielle back here." Sara added with finality and galloped back to the wagon with a grin.

"Did you tell them about the orphanage?" Gabrielle asked her sister as she saw two warriors reluctantly riding towards them, closing the distance. "No. I was going to let you do that." Sara smiled at her sister. Gabrielle's face lit up. "You really DO love me!" She responded to her sister. "Remember, you owe me one." Sara leaned in her saddle towards her sister and quietly informed her. Gabrielle nodded, struggling to wipe the big grin off her face.

The warriors finally arrive along side of the wagon and Gabrielle provides them with a report on their estimated time of arrival. "Kenis tells us we'll reach the...the..." An unwanted grin creeps over the face of the bard, who struggles in a losing battle to stop it. The bard finally bursts out laughing with so much energy she falls off the wagon seat. "Ack..." She blurted amidst her laughter.

The bickering children are stunned into silence by this woman's outburst.

Gabrielle pulls herself from the ground still laughing. "Oh Gods" She exhales in a high pitch. "Sorry...I'm...better now..." She takes a few deep breaths and wipes the tears from her eyes.

Everyone stares at her.

"Ok..." She takes another deep breath. "We'll reach the...the..." Gabrielle continues in a now calm and steady voice until she bursts out laughing again, unable to say the precious word. "Gods" Gabrielle whimpers.

"She's crazy." Trollius blurts. He is the only one to voice the common opinion among the group.

"She's just trying to say 'orphanage', don't pick on her just cause she can't get her words out too good." Grena defends her as she always defended Kenis.

The warriors stare at each other, now understanding Gabrielle's outburst. Meleager silently signals to Xena she should go save herself and he will cover her retreat. "Thanks, but I wouldn't even do that to an enemy." Xena responds. Meleager nods, having done his duty to at least offer the option to his fellow warrior.

"She's crazy." Trollius repeats bluntly. "Is not." The kids return to their bickering in the back of the wagon. "Is too."

"Let's go." Gabrielle told Kenis calmly with a gentle squeeze to his forearm, her mood completely somber now.

"Alright then, to the orphanage." She announced loudly, trying to draw any attention away from her sister's change in mood that she could. Gabrielle looked up at her sister appreciatively. Sara smiled warmly. "To the orphanage." Gabrielle repeated softly with a small smile.

"What just happened?" Meleager quietly asked Xena who was intently watching the two sisters. "I don't know."

Chapter 5 - The Orphanage

An elderly woman rushed out to meet the wagon. "Kenis! What happened? What took you so long? Are the children alright? Are YOU ok? " She asked a quick barrage of questions, overwhelming the poor man. Kenis looked over Gabrielle for help, knowing it would take him forever to answer all the woman's questions. Gabrielle nodded and attempted to help him satisfy the woman's curiosity.

"They were attacked by slavers. It took some time to defeat the slavers. The children are...healthy....and ... I'm not sure the answer to the last question...." Gabrielle admitted. Kenis smiled. "I'm FFFine."

When the woman insisted the four stay for a meal, Meleager spoke up. "We really need to get to Marapolis." Meleager looked over to Xena who nodded.

"But we would really appreciate your hospitality." Sara interjected eyeing Meleager.

"However, we should be going." Meleager responded again with growing annoyance.

"But, we WILL be staying." Sara took the old woman's arm and walked inside. Meleager muttered something as he followed her majesty.

The adults sat together, down at the end of one of the two kitchen tables. Xena and Meleager sat quietly eating, eyeing the children every time one would venture behind them. Sara and Gabrielle, who sat across from the warriors, chatted with the elderly woman and Kenis. Xena noticed Sara did most of the talking.

"You must let us give you something for the food Willa." Sara insisted. "We gladly accept all donations." Willa chuckled.

"It can't be easy running a place like." Sara added. "It isn't easy but we have been fortunate to have Kenis. He has been a wonderful help volunteering his spare time and money." Willa happily complemented her friend. "He recently fixed the roof over the children's bedrooms." Kenis blushed at the attention.

"Now Vicus has no more excuses for a soggy bed!" Trollius imparted that shot before bolting from the table. "You're dead!" Vicus declares and rushes off after the spiteful boy. Xena and Meleager sigh and continue eating.

Gabrielle felt a tug on her clothing. She turned in her seat to find Grena behind her. "Oh, Hello." Gabrielle smiled at the young girl. "Excuse me. Uh, Gabrielle? Can I ask you a question?" She asked. "Sure Grena...what's on your mind?"

"Your horse." She answered and waited. "What about Four Feet?" Gabrielle asked her. Xena finally found something of interest being discussed.

"Why do you call him Four Feet?" Grena asked. Xena was pleased with the question. "Because that's what Sara named her." Gabrielle responded making the little girl thoughtful for a moment. "Oh. That makes sense." Grena nods and disappears. Sara frowned at her sister. "What?" Gabrielle responded defensively.

Sara was not surprised to feel a tug on her clothing and the curious little girl standing behind her. "Hello Grena." Sara looked down at the little girl with a smile. "Excuse me. Uh, Sara? Can I ask you a question?" Grena asked. "Yes Grena, you can ask me a question." Sara responded to the patient little girl with a chuckle. "Why did you name Gabrielle's horse Four FEET? He has hooves." Grena pointed out. "Thank You GRENA!", Xena almost blurted.

"Four Feet was the name of a horse in a story that is very special to our family." Sara explained. Xena remembered all the stories that Gabrielle told her and didn't recall any one of them having a horse named Four Feet in it.

"Why was it so special?" Grena asked. Xena once again silently thanked the little girl. Sara looked over to Gabrielle, who shifted uncomfortably, before answering. "Well Grena, it was the very first story Gabrielle told our family without forgetting any parts." Grena lit up. "Gabrielle's a bard?" She asked enthusiastically drawing the attention of a few other children.

"Oh Gabrielle, the children would love it if you told them a story." Willa encouraged the bard. "Yes, please" A number of children voiced their agreement. "Ok, but we do have to get going soon..." Gabrielle answered. It didn't take much arm twisting to get the bard to tell a story to a group of children.

"Tell us the story with Four Feet in it." Grena requested. Gabrielle looked up at her sister who looked apologetic. "I don't think that would be the best story..." Gabrielle tried to gently let the enthusiastic girl down.

"Why not?" Xena interjected, drawing a surprised look from Gabrielle. So the warrior speaks, Gabrielle thought.

"It is a rather long story..." Sara noted to help her sister out, drawing an annoyed look from Xena.

"I would like to hear that story." Xena stated, returning her gaze to the bard.

"Me too." Meleager added, supporting his fellow warrior, as she had done for him. Now the Queen shot an annoyed look to her Captain of the Guard... perhaps now a Lieutenant.

"Please?" Grena added, seeing the bard still deciding.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Ok, a story with Four Feet it will be." Gabrielle responded with a smile to Grena, delighting the girl.

The kitchen filled with excited murmurs from the children. "Alright children, the quicker you help me clean up the faster you'll hear that story." Willa announced getting more help from the children than she could ever remember. Eyeing Gabrielle, Willa wondered how she could get a bard to volunteer her time like Kenis did.

"I'll be back in a few minutes. I need a little quiet time to see if I can remember everything.... it has been a while." Gabrielle informed Willa who smiled and nodded.

Gabrielle found herself outside, next to Four Feet. "Do you know how much trouble you've caused?" Gabrielle looked at the horse who whinnied. "I'm sorry, I know it's not your fault." She apologized, scratching the horses neck.

"Gabrielle, I'm sorry." Sara came out to her sister. "Well, I guess I can't blame you either." Gabrielle sighed. Sara looked at Gabrielle and her horse she kept having conversations with. Perhaps Trollius was right, Sara considered.

"When you named her Four Feet, how could you have known I would be riding her when we rescued children, who would ask about her name, and cause me to get bullied into telling THAT story by Xena." Gabrielle half laughed.

"Gods Gabrielle, she didn't bully you. It's obvious you never told her and she was understandably curious. Speaking of curious, you two have been acting very odd since you arrived in Walsas. Is everything ok?" Sara finally asked.

Gabrielle looked over at her sister and sighed, shaking her head. "I'm not sure... after Perdicus' death...things have been...different. She has become very distant." Gabrielle relayed sadly.

Of course, Gabrielle didn't feel it was necessary to mention that for a time after his death, she never felt closer to the Warrior Princess. A closeness she had never felt with anyone before. She thought Xena felt the same closeness, that was, until that distance between them appeared. It was bad enough that closeness they shared during that time disappeared. But now, Xena seemed at times even more distant than when they first starting traveling together, Gabrielle sighed. She missed her friend, her best friend.

Sara shook her head. "Gods you are worse than Meleager." She relayed.

Four Feet neighed, drawing a surprised look from Sara.

"I have a feeling that's an insult and I should be mad, but it is rather hard when I don't know WHAT you are talking about." Gabrielle responded with increasing irritation and volume.

"Oh Gabrielle" Sara shook her head. "Things ARE different for you. Life, MARRIAGE, death happen and things change....." Sara could no longer hold her tongue. However, her new found voice was interrupted by a smaller, more excited voice.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Grena came rushing out. "Oh, sorry. Excuse Me." She corrects herself, not wanting to be rude. "Uh, Gabrielle? Are you ready to tell us that story yet?" She asked with a bright smile that was infectious.

"Everyone is gathered out back and waiting." Grena added with some panic considering the bard might have changed her mind, seeing no movement and the bard's gaze returning to her sister.

"Well now, I guess I'd better tell that story then." Gabrielle looked down warmly, finally responding to the happy girl. Grena eagerly took the bard and her sister's hands and led them to the audience.

Sara squeezed her sister's arm. "Go get 'em" Sara whispered before joining the adults.

Dyessa stormed into the Marapolis Tavern with an anger Fagan was surprised he didn't see sooner. She looked around for Fagan and saw his men were nursing their wounds from a recent brawl. Considering all their bruises, Dyessa considered they must have been incredibly out numbered in one Tartarus of a brawl.

Spotting Fagan at a table, she stomps over to confront him. "You shouldn't have damaged the merchandise. You know the buyer doesn't appreciate damaged goods!" She tried to keep her voice down. "Dyessa, they only received thirty very minor welts. They were making too much noise. They had to be disciplined." He explained. "And how many people are quiet during a whipping?" She asked, punching holes in his flimsy excuse.

"If you are so worried about the merchandise, you can take care of them from now on. It was supposed to be your brother's job this time anyway. Remember? He wanted the extra money and I am really sick of it...especially that little brunette." Fagan noted. "Alright, I will." She blurted, making her think of what could possibly be keeping her brother so long.

"Thank the GODS. Let me show you my appreciation by buying you a drink Dyessa, you look like you need one. I know I do." He said with a smile. "Ok Fagan, if you are the way, what happened to your men?" She asked, noting a couple of them walking funny. "Ouch" She recoiled sympathetically, seeing one man's pain when he tried to sit on a bar stool. She didn't want to know the details.

"They said they ran into some trouble trying to pick up some more merchandise....a whole group of angry men they said." He shrugged.

That concerned her. "Nobody tracked them back here did they?" Dyessa asked. "No. No. You are really paranoid about that Dyessa. I didn't think it was necessary to drag those two women all over creation to just to bring them back to Marapolis." He sighed sipping his drink.

"Would you watch your mouth! You were the idiot who decided to pick up two right here in our best port town!" She wacked him in the arm and wondered just how much the bartender, who was delivering some drinks to the next table, heard. "Sorry." He rubbed his arm. "I was just trying to make sure we were close to the numbers the buyer wanted. We are still short but thanks to my two, we are close. I'll be glad to get underway this evening."

"We are not going until your men go out again and pick up the rest of the merchandise." She responded, surprising him. "Give them a chance to recover then send them out again. I'd rather arrive late than short, Fagan."

She departed a concerned business partner. Now he might have to deal with explaining why his men attacked her brother.

Chapter 6 - The Stars In The Sky

Gabrielle took the time to survey her audience while she reviewed key points of the old story in her head one last time.

Grena had not surprisingly taken her spot in the front row. Next to her was Vicus and three other children. There were eight other children on the grass in a not so organized arrangement, despite Grena's insistence they form neat rows. In the back and away from the group was Trollius and his friend, trying to appear not as interested as the rest of the children.

Finally, Gabrielle was ready. "Well, due to the overwhelming requests for this story..." Gabrielle threw a quick look to Xena who looked back unapologetically. "I will tell you a story called.... The Stars In The Sky." The children clapped following Grena's lead. The clapping stopped and an excited hush fell on the children as the bard began to spin her tale.

"Once upon a time, there was a little girl who's dream was to touch the stars in the sky. On clear, moonless nights, she would lean out her bedroom window, gazing up at the thousand tiny lights scattered across the heavens, wondering what it would be like to hold one in her hand."

Gabrielle looked up at the blue sky and reached up towards a far away imaginary star, causing her young audience to look up with her. Xena smiled to herself, seeing how easily the bard drew the young audience into her story.

"One warm summer evening, a night when the stars shined more brightly than ever before, she decided she couldn't stand it any longer - she just had to touch a star, no matter what. So she slipped out the window and started off by herself to see if she could reach them."

"Excuse Me. Uh Gabrielle? Did she get in trouble?" Grena asked with genuine concern that the girl was going to get in trouble.

Two boys in the back laughed with great amusement, while the rest of the children loudly shushed the young girl.

Gabrielle glanced up to Xena who stood behind the group of children with a raised eyebrow, relaying more interest in how Gabrielle was going to answer that question than the young girl. Standing next to Xena, Meleager and Sara made some not very convincing attempts to muffle their giggles. Gabrielle's eyes quickly narrowed at the supposedly more mature audience, considering they were entirely too amused with this interruption.

Gabrielle's attention quickly returned to the Grena, who was now unexpectedly on the verge of tears for causing a disturbance and for potentially being considered impolite by the bard.

"I'm sorry..." Grena said weakly. Gabrielle smiled warmly at her. "You know that is a VERY good question..." Gabrielle admitted thoughtfully, surprising the young girl as well as the rest of the audience.

Gabrielle leaned towards her young audience as if she was going to tell a secret and reveal the answer to that question. "But, you'll have to wait and see..." Gabrielle responded with a smile and winked at Grena, who immediately smiled and forgot she was on the verge of tears.

"She IS good." Meleager remarked to Xena, neither of them taking their eyes off the bard.

"The best" Xena whispered back, touched again by Gabrielle's compassion for others. The bard had an uncanny ability to completely change someone's mood from sad to happy with a few thoughtful words and a smile. No Gabrielle, Xena thought, it is your smile that is truly powerful.

With the Warrior Princess' steady gaze fixed on her sister, Sara believed that whatever was going on between the two of them, it would be alright, eventually.

The bard continued with her story and the undivided attention of the audience.

"The young girl walked a far, far way, and then farther still, until she came to a mill wheel, creaking and grinding away. 'Good evening,' she said to the mill wheel. 'I would like to play with the stars in the sky. Have you seen any near here?"

Gabrielle glanced over the attentive audience and helplessly watched as the next interruption formed on the lips of Trollius, who was still sitting in the back with his friend.

"Hey, mill wheels can't talk!" He called out. The other children were annoyed and turned to face the young heckler in the back, loudly shushing him. The crowd of his peers turning against him didn't seem to bother him one bit. He just stared at Gabrielle, waiting for an explanation.

Xena eyed the boy and considered he had the boldness to become a warlord, if he could survive his childhood ....or today's story.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, knowing as a bard, there would be days like this and rude audience members like Trollius to deal with.

"Well, you do have a good point." Gabrielle responded diplomatically, making the young boy smile with victory and nudge his buddy next to him. "but...if you let me will find that the young girl in my story is in a special land...where mill wheels talk and other SPECIAL things happen...but if you don't want me to continue....." Gabrielle sighed sadly. The rest of the children reacted as Gabrielle had hoped.

"Oh Please! continue!" The first little interruption spoke up, now leading the children in their encouragement of the seemingly dejected bard. "Please!" They called out. The bard waited for a few seconds and a few more 'pleases' before she continued.

Gabrielle could see Xena shaking her head and laughing to herself. Xena appreciated the bard's skilled manipulation of the audience. Well, at least some good was coming from this ordeal, Gabrielle considered, pleased anytime she could bring a smile to the warrior's face. However, the ordeal was not over, she sighed and looked back at her audience.

"Ok, if you really want me too..." Gabrielle responded, with an innocent look that made Xena roll her eyes. "Now where was I?" Gabrielle quickly found her momentum and continued. "The little girl came upon a mill and asked if the old mill had seen any stars around to play with." Gabrielle recapped.

"Ah, yes" groaned the old mill wheel. 'Every night they shine in my face from the surface of this pond until I cannot sleep. Jump in and you will find them.' She jumped in and swam and swam. 'Excuse me,' she called to the old mill wheel, 'but I don't believe there are any stars here after all!"

Grena smiled at the politeness of the little girl to the mill wheel. One should always say excuse me, she thought.

At the encouragement of Trollius, his buddy called out. "That girl was REALLY stupid to jump in the pond!" This prompted the children into another loud and disruptive round of shushing.

Meleager was not amused at the continuing and unprovoked attacks on the bard and considered the young boys were sorely in need of some discipline. Sara looked at him with some concern as he squeezed the hit of his sword while eyeing the boys. Sara reached out and placed her hand on his. "I gather you've never had any kids." She spoke softly to him. "I wouldn't have any like that." He said softly but gruffly.

Gabrielle took another deep breath. "Some might say that, but I would say she was... naive..." She responded keeping her composure which was not the response the two boys were hoping for. Xena was truly impressed with the bard's patience, for she was just as, if not more, annoyed than Meleager.

"Yeah, she was just NAIVE." The children responded, jumping to the bard's defense, anxious for the story to be continued. "Please continue Gabrielle," they called out. With that plea, Gabrielle was even more determined to get through this torture...story.

As the children cheered the bard on to continue, Meleager and Xena looked at each other, and exchanged some subtle hand signals. Gabrielle curiously watched as the two nodded and moved to stand on either side of the young hecklers. Neither Meleager nor Xena looked down at the boys, their quiet towering was sufficient squelch future interruptions. Gabrielle grinned to herself as the boys shrunk in their seats, realizing they were surrounded by two fierce and unamused warriors.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "OK. Where were we?" She asked the children. Grena spoke up. "The girl jumped in the pond to find the stars but she didn't find them...." The other children agreed. Gabrielle smiled, pleased they were able to pay attention despite the interruptions. "Ah yes, and the young girl questioned the mill about where the stars were..." Gabrielle once again continued the story.

"Well they were certainly there before you jumped in and stirred the water up," the mill wheel called back. The little girl climbed out of the pond, dried herself off and set out again across the fields."

"With everyone she met, she would tell them, "I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. Have you seen any here?" Each time, she would follow their directions, and each time, she did not find what she was looking for."

"After a long while, she finally sat down to rest in a meadow. It was a FAIRY meadow, because before she knew it a hundred little fairies came scampering out to dance on the grass. 'Good evening, Little Folk,' said the girl. They cautiously greeted the little girl who looked very discouraged. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. If you don't help me, I'll never find any to play with.' The little girl sadly sighed."

"The Little Folk all whispered together. Finally one of them crept up and took her by the hand, and said: 'If you're really determined, you must go forward. Keep going forward, and mind you take the right road" Gabrielle paused, looking at the children intently, to stress that good advice. They all nodded. Gabrielle then looked at Grena with a smile and continued.

"Ask Four Feet to carry you to No Feet at All, who will carry you to the Stairs Without Steps, and if you climb that --"

"Then I'll be among the stars in the sky?' Cried the girl. The fairy grinned and then vanished. So the little girl traveled on until she spotted a horse, tied to a tree. 'Good evening,' she said. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky, and I've been told by the Little Folk to ask Four Feet to carry me to No Feet At All who will carry me to the Stairs Without Steps. Can you help me find Four Feet?"

"Four Feet? That's me!' the horse whinnied. They road and road until they found themselves at the edge of the sea. 'I've brought you to the end of the land and that's as much as Four Feet can do.' Four Feet told her. So the little girl slid down and walked along the sea, wondering what she would do next. Suddenly, the biggest fish she had ever seen came swimming up to her feet."

"Excuse me,' she said to the fish. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. Can you help me?"

"Get on my back and hold on tight.' No Feet At All offered the little girl. Kerplash! They went into the water and swam to where the water met the sky."

"Finally, in the distance, the little girl saw an incredible rainbow rising into the heavens. At last they came to the foot of it and she saw the rainbow was really a broad bright road, sloping up and away into the sky, and at the far, far end of it she could see wee shining things dancing about. No Feet At All stopped. 'I can go no further. Here are the Stairs Without Steps. Climb up, if you can, but hold on tight."

"The little girl climbed and climbed up the rainbow. It wasn't easy. Every time she took one step, she seemed to slide back two. And even though she climbed until the ground was far below, the stars in the sky looked farther away than ever. 'But I won't give up,' she told herself. 'I've come so far, I can't go back." Gabrielle repeated the girl's declaration. "I won't give up."

Meleager finally looked down at the boys. They were caught in the in the bard's tale. Looking up to his fellow warrior, he saw Xena listening intently. Xena wondered why she had never heard Gabrielle tell this story before, and why the bard tried to avoid telling this story today.

"Up and up she went. The air grew colder, but the sky turned brighter, and she could tell she was nearing the stars. 'I'm almost there!' She cried. Sure enough, she reached the very top of the rainbow. Everywhere she looked, the stars seemed to dance. 'I'm finally here,' she whispered to herself. She stood gazing and wondering at the heavens, never seeing anything so beautiful before. 'If I could touch just one star...' She said as she stood on her toes and stretched her arms as high as she could. She stretched further and further ---and suddenly she saw a bright flash, a shooting star zipped by and surprised her so much she lost her balance."

"Down she slid, down the rainbow. The further she slid the warmer it grew and the sleepier she felt. She gave a great yawn, and a small sigh, and before she knew it, she was fast asleep. When she woke up, she found herself in her very own bed. The sun was peeking through her window, and the morning birds sang in the bushes and trees. 'Did I really touch the stars?' she asked herself. 'Or was it only a dream?"

Gabrielle looked at the intense faces on her audience of children and grinned. "What do YOU thing it was?" She asked. A few children discussed it among themselves wanting to make sure they got the right answer. A young boy finally took a chance and answered. "It was a dream, no one can really reach the stars!" He blurted. Xena noticed Gabrielle's smile faded ever so slightly with that comment.

"The young girl she felt something in her hand." Gabrielle continued and looked down to her fist. "When she opened her fist, a tiny light flashed in her palm, and at once was gone" Gabrielle recoiled at the flash of imaginary light from her hand then Gabrielle looked at her audience. "The little girl smiled because she knew it was a speck of stardust."

"Remember, if you are willing to work hard and have the determination to persevere, you can make your dreams come true." Gabrielle advised them.

The bard smiled broadly for this test of her will to persevere was finally over.

Chapter 7 - Marapolis

Xena stared at Kenis, while he was placing his saddlebags on his horse. He was coming with them to Marapolis. "This gets more fun all the time doesn't it?" Meleager quipped and received a silent stare from Xena. Meleager wasn't as scared of those anymore considering he had received many in the past couple days and was still alive. However, he didn't want to press his luck and went to see if Sara was all set.

Gabrielle came towards Xena, giving her hope that the bard was still talking to her. That was until she realized Gabrielle was headed towards Four Feet, who was directly behind the Warrior Princess. Still a stupid name, Xena sighed looking at the horse.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Grena rushed up to the bard. "Sorry, Excuse me. Uh Gabrielle?" Grena tugged on her skirt even though she had the bard's full attention. "Yes Grena." Gabrielle softly laughed. "I wanted to tell you I'm sorry for interrupting your story...I'm really really sorry. I hope you're not mad at me. I don't want to be like Trollius." She blurted.

Gabrielle knelt down to look the young girl in the eye and smiled warmly. "Trust me Grena, you are nothing like Trollius." The bard couldn't help but brush the hair out of the little girl's face. "When Trollius interrupted, he wanted to get some attention for himself." Grena looked perplexed.

"He just got everyone mad. Why would anyone want to do that?" The child asked a good question.

Gabrielle shrugged. "I think people like that crave attention, Grena. Unfortunately, they don't see that by treating others with respect and kindness they can receive far more rewarding and fulfilling attention. So they keep doing bad things to attract whatever attention they can." Gabrielle still saw a puzzled look on Grena's face.

"But how do you stop them from doing bad things? I've tried to be nice to Trollius but he is SOOOO annoying. He makes me want to slap him!" She sighed with great exasperation. Xena could appreciate the little girls feelings towards the youth.

Gabrielle smiled at the little girl. "Slapping him isn't the answer Grena. That only gives him the attention he wants and he will continue to do bad things. And worse yet Grena, he will have succeeded in making you more like him." Grena frowned and nodded, knowing that was not what she wanted.

"What should I do then?" She asked the bard. Gabrielle sighed. "I wish I had an answer for you. What do you think the girl in the story would do?"

Grena smiled. "Well, she wouldn't slap him. She's polite you know." Grena responded knowingly. "You're a good girl Grena." Gabrielle brushed her cheek affectionately. "So you're not mad at me?" Grena asked.

"How can I be mad at you Grena?" The bard answered, making the little girl beam and lifting yet another spirit, Xena noted.

"Go on and say good bye to Kenis, he's waiting." Gabrielle stood up and watched the little girl skip off. Gabrielle turned and faced Xena.

Say something, Xena told herself.

Gabrielle sighed at the still silent warrior and started towards Four Feet. As she passed Xena, she heard her friend's voice. "Gabrielle." Xena said softly. Gabrielle slowly turned to face her friend.

The ship was still in port and the women were becoming much more edgy as the days wore on. Lila included. The brunette, who had been a rock throughout the whole incident, now had lost her appetite and ability to sleep so soundly, the tall blond noted. The blond didn't know that Lila's faith in her sisters was severely being tested.

Instead of the dumb guy with the whip coming to feed them, the mysterious woman descended the ladder to the cargo hold with a bag of food.

Dyessa knew the merchandise's eyes were staring at her but she had other things to worry about. Her brother was late again, they were short, and Fagan's men had not gotten back yet with the rest of the merchandise.

"Why haven't we left?" Lila stood up and ventured a question that everyone else was too afraid to ask. The woman was surprised the smallest woman of the group had the biggest nerve. This must be the annoying brunette Fagan was lamenting about, she mused. This was the little girl he couldn't handle, she smiled.

"We will be getting some more... cargo... soon. Why the question, are you anxious to meet your new owner, slave?" She snapped back with a growl, trying to scare her. "No, and for your information I am a prisoner with the name of LILA, not SLAVE." Lila looked at the taller and stronger woman defiantly.

"What's in a name?" She laughed at the slave, throwing a loaf of bread her way. "Perhaps nothing...Dyessa." Lila responded deliberately using her name. "Or should I say Traitor...but what's in a name...." Lila felt a crack across her jaw and fell back into the straw and unconsciousness. Dyessa quickly looked around the cargo hold for others willing to learn a similar lesson.

The tall blond woman captured in Marapolis with Lila, stood up and shook her head at Dyessa. "My, My, Dyessa, you act as if you care what Lila thinks of you." Dyessa's eyes widened with surprise that they would be so defiant. She raises her hand ready to strike the impetuous blond hoping she would cower. She didn't. "Oh, you didn't KNOW your merchandise had names? My name is Rayla, Traitor."

Dyessa imparts a blow to Rayla's face that knocks her down, but not out. Rayla doesn't seem shocked. "Why don't you hit us all, Traitor. Perhaps you will feel better about what you're doing to us." Rayla wipes the blood from her lips and moves towards the now conscious Lila to help her sit up.

Dyessa threw down the bag of food, stormed up the cargo hold ladder, and bolted down the hatch.

Lila sees Rayla's lip and realizes she inspired the woman to mouth off. "Rayla, you really should find someone else's lead to would be less painful for you."

Lila smiled, causing pain in her bruised cheek and a moan. Rayla smiled back which resulted in an "OW" and chuckles from the two women. After that incident, the women in the cargo hold learned each others' names and used them.

On their way to Marapolis, Gabrielle, Four Foot, and Kenis were in front, leading the way. "You're st..story wa was wo wonderful." Kenis noted to the distracted bard. "Thanks." She responded, just like she responded to Xena when she said she liked the story. "I wi wish I c..could ....t.t.tell ...a" He said slowly.

Even with his stuttering, Kenis was better able to communicate to the bard than the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle sighed. She knew Xena wanted to say something to her, other than she liked the story. Yet, once again, Xena retreated behind her mask. Gabrielle was getting incredibly tired of that mask.

"If you really want to tell a story Kenis, you can." She said confidently, returning her attentions to the gentle man. He laughed. "Rrright...v very... ff... funny." He responded with amusement. Gabrielle didn't know which annoyed her more, his laughing at her or his lack of confidence in himself. Either way, she had a point to make and she was going to make it...her way, of course.

"Kenis, let me tell you story. A story about little girl who had a problem and how her friend gave her the help to overcome that problem..." Gabrielle started.

Meleager felt he was in the middle of something but he didn't know what exactly. This something made him uncomfortable. Xena was riding alone, in back, again. Gabrielle was riding in front, chatting with Kenis. He could tell Xena wanted to ride with Gabrielle, but did they ride together? No. Why? Who knew. He could tell Gabrielle wanted to talk with Xena, but did they talk? No. Why? Who knew. This didn't make any sense to him. Feeling Xena's eyes fixed on his back made him even more uncomfortable. "I wish we were in back." Meleager relayed to Sara who shook her head.

Xena wasn't happy with all the distractions around the campfire. During dinner, Meleager kept trying to talk to her about warrior things, making it impossible to hear what Sara and Gabrielle were talking to Kenis about. Gabrielle didn't say one word to her and there were no stories that evening before they slept, that is, before everyone except Xena slept. While lying still, Xena listened to every noise...every... little... annoying...noise. Kenis even stuttered while he snored, Xena noted. She hoped the day would come soon when it would be just Gabrielle by her side at the campfire and she could get some sleep.

In the morning, they arrived in the port town of Marapolis. When they dismounted, Meleager announced the plan of attack for searching for Lila. "We will start in the tavern." Meleager announced. "I'll start in the general store." Sara countered, eyeing Meleager, interested in his reaction.

"You are NOT...." Meleager started to tell her she was not going anywhere alone, but recalled that ordering the Queen didn't go over so well the last time. He took a deep, calming breath then continued. "It is not safe for you to go anywhere alone." He curbed his response. "Ok then, come with me to the general store." Sara started towards the store with a smile, hearing a frustrated and muttering Meleager follow.

"I'll check out the tavern." Xena turned and proceeded towards the tavern before Gabrielle could respond. Gabrielle watched the proud Warrior Princess walk away from her. Perhaps things are forever changed, Gabrielle pondered Sara's words sadly.

Entering the Tavern, a hush fell over the patrons as they carefully watched for any signs that this intimidating woman was after them. After a few seconds of eyeing the room, Xena approached the bar and the normal chatter returned.

In the general store, the owner saw a woman and soldier come in. "May I help you folks?" He asked moving to his position behind the counter. "I hope you can." Sara smiled. "I am looking for my sister, a small brunette. About so tall..." Sara held her hand out indicating Lila's height. "She was supposed to have passed through Marapolis with a young soldier about a week ago. Perhaps you have seen her?" Sara asked with amazing warmth, Meleager noticed. Sure, be like that to total strangers, he sighed.

"So, has she run away and eloped with this guy or what?" The man laughed. Sara was not amused and her mood changed quickly. "As I have said, I am looking for her and I am concerned. Have you seen anyone that fits that description?" Sara eyed him and spoke slowly and deliberately. The man cleared his throat, feeling extremely uncomfortable.

Next time he needed someone to interrogate a prisoner, Meleager considered he should get Sara to do it. She would first lull him into a sense of security with her kindness then rip his heart out with her vicious .....

"Oh, well, I did see a soldier and a young woman in here about a week ago. I thought they were married because of the way he kept telling her they had to get moving and she said they would when she was done shopping...he looked pretty annoyed..." The man relayed.

Meleager could believe it. Meleager started to feel bad for giving one of his best soldiers such a difficult assignment of escorting one of the Poteidaian sisters. He would have to give him a reward or something for his troubles.

Sara was relieved by this news. "She's probably still visiting Uncle Ustas. We'll still need to rescue her" She said with a smile. "I can't wait." Meleager responded with feigned enthusiasm, then noticed she wasn't listening to him. She was distracted by something more interesting, the collection of broaches on sale. "Looks like you'll have to." The store keeper laughed.

Kenis looked around the town uneasily. "What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked her friend. "N..Nothing...I wa wanted th..thank I'll th..think...about...wa..what and Sara s..said." He smiled. "Good, Kenis." Gabrielle smiled. "But I hope you do more than think about what we said." She responded. He nodded, with a shy smile.

"Kenis!" A woman's voice called out with a mixture of concern and irritation. Gabrielle smiled as the woman came towards them. "Where have you been? You are lucky we delayed our departure or we would have left you here." She scolded him but restrained herself from yelling at him like she wanted to in front of this stranger. "D..Dyesssssa." He blurted nervously. "He was attacked by friends saved him." Gabrielle explained.

"What!?" Dyessa looked at him, then the young woman. He nodded, still very nervous. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle. We met during, well actually just after the attack." The bard introduced herself. The woman nodded, amazed at what she just learned.

Spotting a warrior woman walking their way, Dyessa decided it best to leave. "We should talk, brother. NOW." The woman commanded and abruptly left, not wanting to be introduced to the warrior woman. "Y..yes..D..Dyessssa." He called to his sister who quickly disappeared through a crowd.

Gabrielle did not like to make quick judgements of people but she would have to admit, so far, she didn't like this woman named Dyessa. "G..Good B..bye..." Kenis surprised her by hugging her. "Th..thank" He whispered in her ear and held on tightly.

"Are you going to be ok?" She asked as she pulled away, not so sure about his sister's odd reaction. "F..Fine..." He looked up and found Xena standing quietly behind the bard looking at them.

"B...bye ....Xe..Xena." He smiled at the stone faced warrior. "Kenis" She said cooly. Usually able to size people up quickly, Xena concluded her original assessment of him was still valid. She didn't like him.

Gabrielle waived good-bye to him as he left, then turned to face the warrior.

"Any information from the tavern?" Gabrielle asked. Xena shook her head no. The two stood silently waiting for Meleager and Sara. Gabrielle, tired of initiating a conversation that Xena would end up abruptly killing, didn't try. As a result they stood silently waiting.

Say something, Xena told herself.

Say what? Xena wondered, finding that starting a conversation was not as easy as responding to the bard's comments or questions. She could ask Gabrielle what that hug was all about, but that would just make Gabrielle more annoyed with her. The weather, Xena considered. She could discuss how nice the weather was. No, that's a stupid thing to just jump into. But the weather IS nice, Xena noted, as well as it being a safe topic. Alright then, Xena thought, coming to a big decision. She would discuss the weather.

She then noted the bard looking at her curiously. "What?" Xena asked. "Are you feeling ok?" The bard asked with some concern. "I'm fine. Why do you ask?" She asked.

"You just look......never mind." The bard saw her sister and Meleager coming their way. Thank the Gods, Xena and Gabrielle thought to themselves.

"Lila and her escort were seen here a week ago." Sara announced with relief. "However, rescuing her from Ustas may still pose a challenge." Sara added with a grin.

"Can we get moving...your almighty highness?" Meleager mentioned with a grating tone. Sara shot a warning glare at her Lieutenant of the Guard. Sergeant, if he keeps it up, she considered.

"Xena and I really need to talk, do you mind if we ride together on the way to Uncle's?" Gabrielle asked her sister as Xena looked at the bard with some concern. There was only so much the Warrior Princess wanted to say about the weather.

"Oh...not a problem." Sara smiled, happy her sister was still trying to set things right with her friend. Her smile disappeared when she looked at Meleager. "Come, Meleager." She commanded, leading the way to their horses. He followed and muttered something she suspected was not flattering.

As Sara and Meleager mounted their horses, he eyed her. "You don't expect me to talk to you do you?" He snapped. "Will you just shut up?" She snapped back at him.

After the two love birds ride out of earshot, Gabrielle turns to her uneasy friend. "I think riding in silence with each other will be better than riding with either of them right now." The bard explained with a quick smile and mounted her horse. "Come on Four Feet."

Chapter 8 - The List

As she stared at Meleager's and Sara's backs while they quietly rode to Ustas', Xena's curiosity grew about the heated exchange in Marapolis. "I wonder what happened between them..." Xena commented, surprising Gabrielle with her interest in the two's romantic progress. Although, Gabrielle mused, Xena did help, well, try to help Meleager with that romantic encounter at the balcony.

Thinking of her friend's comment, Gabrielle eyed the two in front of them as they rode. When Gabrielle didn't immediately respond, as she usually did, Xena felt uneasy, wondering if the bard was going to answer her at all.

"Sara was always especially difficult on men who showed interested in her." Gabrielle finally explained. "I'm surprised she ever got married." Gabrielle quipped. Xena shook her head sympathetically while looking at Meleager. "What?" Gabrielle asked.

"I knew Meleager was in over his head." Xena remarked. "Sara really DOES feel something for him Xena. I think he has a good chance of winning her over, that is, if he doesn't give up." Gabrielle responded with confidence.

"I think you are much more sure of his chances than he is Gabrielle." Xena remarked with a raised eyebrow towards her optimistic friend. This lack of confidence in the man was amazing to Gabrielle.

"Meleager the to do battle with, and single handedly kill, four hundred enemy soldiers..." Gabrielle started to recount his warrior deeds. "I heard it was four fifty..." Xena interjected, causing Gabrielle to eye the interrupter. Trying to ignore Xena's comment, Gabrielle continued.

"...afraid of ONE woman, Sara, who is anything but his enemy." She shook her head in amazement. "You think that's so odd?" Xena asked, a little more defensively than she expected to. Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess I just don't understand what he is so afraid of." Gabrielle relays and sees the Warrior roll her eyes. "Now what?" Gabrielle asks.

"You don't understand what he's afraid of? Do you want me to make you a list?" Xena responded with amazement at the normally perceptive bard. Gabrielle grinned.

"If you don't mind...." Gabrielle challenged her friend, who immediately regretted mentioning a list. "Please...this should be very educational." Gabrielle added to encourage the hesitating warrior.

Xena made a mental note to never, ever, offer to make a list for the bard. Noticing the bard waiting, she sighed and proceeded. "She's a Queen." Xena confidently announced her first, obvious reason that Gabrielle can't possibly argue with. "Royalty can be very intimidating." Xena explained.

"Not good enough." Gabrielle responded bluntly. "What do you mean that's not good enough?" Xena blurted with annoyance. "You're going to say that with whatever I say aren't you?" Xena quickly added. "Probably. But I mean it with that royalty excuse." Gabrielle responded honestly.

"Why...." Xena sighed with exasperation, awaiting a long rebuttal from the bard. She always seemed to have one. "First of all, Meleager is a respected and famous warrior. So her position shouldn't be such a big deal." Gabrielle remarked.

Xena sighed again as she waited for Gabrielle to provide a dozen more reasons to prove why the first item on the warrior's list was inadequate. However, Gabrielle didn't say anything else.

"Well, what's second?" Xena asked with a little impatience. "Second?" Gabrielle questioned her innocently.

"Yes. You said 'first of all', that usually means you have a second point unless... you don't have one." Xena responded with a grin slowing forming on her face as she began to believe the woman of many words erred and the woman of few words caught it.

"Second" Gabrielle, of course, responded. "He's royalty too. So, like I said, it shouldn't be such a big deal." Gabrielle relayed the incredible news, making Xena's mouth drop and Gabrielle slyly smile.

"He never said anything to me." Xena blurted with surprise, looking at Meleager than back suspiciously at the bard.

"Are you sure?" Gabrielle questioned with a furrowed brow. "Its not easy to keep something like THAT a secret..." Gabrielle added looking at her friend curiously. Xena just shook her head no.

"What is he?" Xena asked, still having trouble accepting this news.

"Meleager's a royal pain in the...." Gabrielle's response was quickly interrupted.

"Gabrielle!" Xena blurted with exasperation and shook her head. This made the bard laugh. Thinking about the bard's observations of Meleager's royalty, Xena had to agree. She looked at the bard and amazed at how easily she could talk circles around the warrior.

"Ok, what's your second reason for Meleager's fear?" Gabrielle asked Xena, who sighed heavily. The bard wasn't about to let her forget the list. There was still a possible diversion, the Warrior Princess considered.

"Gabrielle, did you notice the nice weather we're having?" Xena remarked looking at the sunny blue sky.

"Xena, a list has to have at least two on it." The persistent bard held up two fingers. "Who says?" Xena argued. "Some say three or ...." The bard added. "Come to think of it, two sounds about right...." Xena interrupted the bard, who didn't seem to have a problem with making things more difficult on the warrior.

The warrior breathed deeply and identified the second reason for Meleager's fear. "Rejection." Xena said simply. "Well that's always a risk. I'm sure Meleager has had his share of rejection and survived it in the past." Gabrielle smiled then continued. "It shouldn't prevent him from acting now." Gabrielle responded with a shrug.

"Except ..." Xena started to argue but stopped. "Except what?" Gabrielle asked. "Nothing." Xena responded. "Except WHAT Xena?" Gabrielle's voice raised slightly, clearly relaying her annoyance with Xena for retreating again from a conversation she didn't want to have.

Xena responded. "Except he's worried that he won't be good enough for her." Gabrielle sighed and nodded knowingly. "Everyone has those doubts." Xena shook her head, knowing she was not getting her point across well. Gabrielle looked curiously at her friend.

"Except Meleager feels he is in competition with Enerall and there is no way he can win her heart." Xena responded, and returned her emotionless gaze forward.

"What?!?" Gabrielle asks, shocked he could possibly think that. "He feels he's in a competition against Enerall?" Gabrielle repeats what she heard, completely amazed. Xena continues to ride silently, staring at Sara and Meleager.

"If her past is what's holding him back, then it is a loss...a tragic loss, for them both." The bard responded with great sadness. However, that sadness quickly transformed to anger.

Competition! The bard hated that word and idea. "GODS" Gabrielle spurted. "It's not like HE doesn't have a past...." With the mention of a past, Gabrielle identified yet another item on Xena's list, her personal list.

The four finally arrived in front of Ustas' house. As they dismounted, Gabrielle and Sara smiled in anticipation of a reunion with their Uncle and sister. "Sara! Gabrielle!" A happy voice boomed from the doorway. A large man came out of the house with an equally large smile. "Uncle Ustus!" The sisters run to hug the man who easily sweeps the two up in his muscular arms.

"He's huge." Meleager commented to Xena, noting his height, massive chest and strong arms. Arms that would wield a powerful sword, should the carpenter ever have a reason, Meleager considered. "I think it's the only women of this family you need to worry about Meleager." She relayed to him.

Meleager considered that was probably a good assessment and was about to respond but found Xena was no longer next to him. She was at the bard's side. He understood why, seeing the disturbed looks on the sister's faces.

"Lila never got here." Gabrielle relayed with a hollow voice. "We've got to get back to Marapolis!" Sara declared and almost ran over Meleager to get back on her horse. Gabrielle stopped her. "Wait!" She said forcefully, grabbing her arm. "Sara, we need to think through this before we go off and panic." Gabriele looked her sister in the eye. Sara nodded reluctantly.

Inside Ustas' home, the five sat at the kitchen table with Ustas seated at the head. "I have heard of the Ouzas in this area." The Uncle relayed sadly. Gabrielle could see her sister cringe at the mention of the Ouzas. "They have a camp North of here I am told." Ustas added. Meleager, familiar with the area, nodded. He looked over to Sara seeing his Queen barely away from tears. "We must go get Lila back from them." Sara blurted nervously, knowing that is what they should probably do but not wanting to face the slavers that took her so long ago.

Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I want to talk to you...alone." The bard 's tone and face was unreadable to the warrior. The bard looked over to her curious family and Meleager without so much as a smile. Silently Xena got up and followed the bard to the workshop where Gabrielle considered she would have some privacy with her friend.

"I would like to go with you to the camp." Gabrielle turned to face the Warrior Princess. The coolness of the bard's tone struck the warrior as odd, until she concluded it was the bard's way of handling her fear for her sister. However, the warrior was still puzzled why Gabrielle sounded so reasonable by asking to go instead of announcing she was going .

"You don't need to ask." Xena responded, returning the cool tone. "I'm not asking." Gabrielle corrected her. Xena rolled her eyes, so much for reasonable. "Gabrielle, we can save some time here." Xena looked at her friend. "I am not objecting. I'm not going to argue with you. I think you should go." Xena stated with finality. "Really?" Gabrielle responded with surprise. "YES." Xena sighed with exasperation. "Well, I'm staying here." Gabrielle informed her and shrugged.

"What?" Xena blurted in confusion. Xena shook her head in disbelief. "Let's see if I understand this, you get me to tell you I want you to come along and you are now arguing that you don't want to?" Xena asked.

"I'm not arguing." Gabrielle said honestly.

"You are deliberately trying to drive me crazy, aren't you?" Xena muttered to Gabrielle.

"Xena I need to stay with my sister, she needs me more than you do." Gabrielle responded, her words stinging the warrior.

"I don't know how she will react around the Ouzas or if the Ouzas are actually involved in Lila's disappearance. She had a really rough time with them and I don't want to put her through any more of it." Gabrielle explained, making Xena feel a bit guilty for her initial feelings of hurt.

"I understand..." Xena responded, knowing Gabrielle would want to protect her sister. "...most of it." Xena added. "Why the secrecy?"

The bard looked back at the house. "Well, you know how we Poteidaians are when we think someone gets too protective over us." Gabrielle looked at Xena accusingly. "I have a passing familiarity with that..." Xena responded.

"Sara will want to go if I go. If I don't go, she won't. But if I stay behind by choice, she'll think I am doing this to look out for her..." Gabrielle explained. "But you are." Xena responded.

"Right, but I don't want her to think that. Understand?" Gabrielle asked. "I think so. You don't want her mad at you for looking out for her, so you don't want her to know you are looking out for her, when you actually are looking out for her." Xena sighed. "Exactly." Gabrielle responded with a single confirmatory nod.

"And how are you going to pull that off, my talented bard?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow. Gabrielle smiled, pleased with the words 'my talented bard.'

In her cabin, Dyessa doesn't bother asking Kenis how he is or what happened with the slavers. She already had an idea and didn't want to have to deal with yet another problem. "What am I supposed to do with you?" She asked a familiar rhetorical question. A question Kenis had heard often growing up, first from his parents then, after they died, his sister.

"You are not pulling your weight around here! You are so lucky you are not just a crew member or I'd ...UGH!!!" She blurted and paced behind her nervous brother. "You have been so wrapped up in your visits to that that... place, you have been late for almost every trip Kenis! Most of the work is already done by the time you GRACE us with your presence!" Her angry tone continued to increase in volume.

"How many times have I told you that you can't let your charity work interfere with business!" She snapped, not giving him a chance to speak. Not that he could or would want to dare interrupt the familiar speech when she was this upset with him. "This business is our livelihood Kenis, DON'T you forget it!"

As Xena and Gabrielle walked back to the house, the warrior was not pleased. "I don't like it." Xena says bluntly. "Cheer up. At least you get to SAY you've finally won an argument with me." Gabrielle looked over to her friend. "It's not the same." Xena muttered. "No. But it's the closest you'll ever get." Gabrielle countered, waiting for a response from her friend with a sly grin. Xena turns her head and tries to stare down the bard. "That sounds like a challenge Gabrielle." Xena responded cooly.

"No, no Xena." Gabrielle responded, correcting her friend while patting her back. "Although I can understand how it can be confusing to you at times, THAT is what they call a 'fact'." Gabrielle responded with a grin, making Xena look up in the sky as if seeking some help. "Ow" The warrior responded, making the bard laugh.

Chapter 9 - On Certain Ground

Meleager crept quietly through the bushes with Xena following closely behind. Hearing a noise ahead, Meleager motions her to stop. A group of twenty men, heavily armed, were in the middle of eating dinner. Meleager looked at Xena. "Now this is more like it." He said with a relaxed smile. "I know what you mean." Xena agreed.

As they quietly approached the tents, Meleager noticed a man who looked very familiar coming out of one of them. "That son of Hera." Meleager spued with venom. "You know him?" Xena asked with surprise. "I hand picked Merrid to escort Lila." Meleager's cool tone fit his warrior reputation. "He will die today." Meleager added with a look to Xena that she had better not interfere. "We will need information first." Xena cautioned him, understanding him very well. He nodded.

Merrid went off into the woods to heed the call of nature. After nature was done calling, Meleager appeared. "Merrid, this can be hard or easy, your choice. " Meleager's tone did not relay his intense anger. However, Merrid knew what Meleager was capable of and turned to run only to bump into another warrior, who quickly cut off the blood to his brain.

"You have 30 seconds to tell us what happened to Lila." Xena informed him and looked in the man's defiant eyes. The soldier didn't expect her to kill him. There were all those stories about her turning good and fighting for the underdog. Stories that made Merrid believe she would even protect him from Meleager. Xena looked down at him and sighed, realizing this was not going to be an easy interrogation.

"You know, I've always wanted to try that." Meleager told her. "Really?" She asked, poking the soldier's arteries , allowing the man's blood to flow. Merrid gasped, taking in a deep breath.

"Sure. Is it hard?" Meleager asked curiously. "Not really, once you get the hang of it." She offered. "How long does that take?" Meleager questioned. "Depends. Some people get it on their first try. Others end up killing a lot of people practicing." She noted with a shrug. "You want to try it now?" She asked, gesturing with her fingers towards the man she kept pinned on the ground. Merrid nervously glanced between the two warriors. "Could you do it just one more time?" He asked. Xena nodded and complied with his request and stopping Merrid's blood flow.

"A threat....What was it you said that about a threat?" Meleager asked scratching his head. "30 seconds or they're dead." Xena responded to her student. "Are you sure? I thought I heard you said 13 seconds before." He questioned his teacher. "Hmmm." Xena responded, quickly allowing the blood to flow again. Merrid gasped, taking in a deep breath.

"Thirteen, Thirty...really hasn't made much of a difference for me until now. Most talk within three seconds, except for this one. He's just not going to talk." Xena relayed, keeping the confused man pinned on the ground.

Meleager nodded. "You know, I think that before I try it on someone who will talk, I'd like to know for sure. I'd hate to be in the middle of a confession and have him die on me." Meleager responded. "You've got a point. Do you want to count or shall I?" Xena asked. "Let me." Meleager eagerly responded. The soldier's eyes widened in disbelief. Xena once again applied her touch to the man's arteries and stopped the flow of blood.

" know Xena I really appreciate you teaching ..." Meleager paused, drawing a glare from the Xena. "Oh sorry....three...four...." Meleager started to count again. "eight!" Yelped the soldier.

Meleager looked at the soldier. "Don't interrupt!" Meleager responded to his former best soldier and continued counting. "....eight...nine...ten...eleven...twelve... thirteen...fourteen...huh..I could have sworn I heard you say thirteen." Meleager stopped his counting. "Thirty! I thought so." Xena responded with a pleased smile. Surely Xena wasn't going to let him die, Merrid thought.

"Shall we?" Xena got up and headed back towards the camp. Merrid saw the two leave him without returning his blood flow and panicked. "Wait! Wait! Don't leave me!" He cried. Within a second, Meleager yanks up the incapacitated body off the ground and stares angrily into his eyes. "What happened to Lila?" Meleager the Angry growled.

Before the slave ship cast off, a last minute addition to the human cargo was added with an unceremonious thud. After the hatch closed to the hold and the bolt slid with a thud securing it in place, Lila came over to the body as far as her newly acquired metallic jewelry, compliments of Dyessa, would allow.

"Gabrielle! My Gods! Are you ok?" She asked shaking her sister with only her foot, which was the only part of her body that could reach. "Ugh...Lila? Lila!" Gabrielle sat up rubbing the back of her head, having trouble adjusting her eyes to the darkness. The women, familiar with the exploits of Gabrielle and Xena from Lila, perked up with renewed hope for escape.

As she crawled over to her sister, still not use to the darkness, Gabrielle spoke in a familiar flurry of words and emotions. "Are you OK? We all came to Uncle Ustus' to find you! Meleager and Xena went to investigate the Ouzas camp North of here ... then I find out from Sara that Dyessa is an Ouzas!"

Correctly figuring Lila didn't understand the significance of that, she explained without missing a beat or taking a breath. "She's the sister of someone we saved from slavers on the way here, Kenis, which seems odd now doesn't it? Anyway..."

Lila stared numbly at her sister.

"Dyessa was involved with Sara's abduction years ago. I told Sara and Ustas I wanted see if I could talk with Kenis to see if he could help find you while they went to get Xena and Meleager...Of course Sara was not pleased with the plan but...well, I guess I can see why now..." Gabrielle shrugged looking around the cargo hold and continues.

"Anyway, I couldn't find Kenis and I guess I asked one too many questions of that dumb guy with the whip, I never even saw the guy who ..."

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!?" Lila calmly interrupted her sister. This flurry of words, a typical nervous response from the bard that had annoyed Lila in the past, was annoying her now.

"Huh?" Gabrielle stopped her story and looked at her sister.

"Is there a RESCUE plan in there anywhere?" Lila snapped, rattling her chains.

"Lila, everything will be fine. Trust me." Gabrielle responded with great conviction. "No plan huh?" Lila countered, resting back on the hull of the ship with a resigned thud. "Well that depends on how detailed a plan you are..." Gabrielle responded, causing the women in the cargo hold to moan, their hope at a rescue greatly diminished.

As the Sara and Ustas rode towards the warriors, an uneasy feeling overcame Xena, who knew something was wrong when she didn't see the bard. "Where's Gabrielle?" Were the first words spoken. "Marapolis. Kenis' sister is an Ouzas slaver. Gabrielle was going to try to talk to Kenis." Sara explained, worried but confident in her sister's abilities.

"We found out that Lila was taken onboard a ship, The Nopheet Atoll, in Marapolis." Meleager noted, unable to look in the Queen's eyes. "Oh Gods. I knew it was a bad idea" Sara uttered.

With the mooring lines cast off and anchors aweigh, the ship pulled away from the docks. Dyessa sighed with relief as she looked out over the bow towards watery horizon. There was a comfort she felt underway, a control over her life. Land always made her uncomfortable, all those people and hiding places. On the open seas at least, she could see what was coming.

Returning to her cabin, she looked at the books and shook her head. "D..Dyessa... w..why...d..did th..that?" Kenis finally got an audience with his sister. "Kenis, we are late and short on merchandise. You know our buyers are fickle. We can't afford anymore screw ups." She responded simply, unaffected by his agitation.

" a fr..friend...w..why..d..did..." He blurted. "Ugh!" He moaned, pained by his inability to quickly communicate.

Dyessa's eyes narrowed as she looked at him. "You have caused me nothing but trouble Kenis. Your 'volunteer' work has cost me plenty and with your girlfriend nosing around the docks and asking Fagan all those questions...Gods Kenis...I ought to have you keel hauled. You have endangered this crew and our livelihood. Now GO or I will get the rope myself." She growled.

The women sat quietly in the cargo hold, enthralled with the bard's tale. "So then, the Warrior Princess....." Gabrielle's story to the women in chains was interrupted by Lila's "SHHH" when the faint talking of two men topside carried below.

"Fagan, how will the other ship know which of us are on their side and which are not?" A worried sailor asked. "Red ribbons." Fagan responded. "When we meet with the other ship tomorrow we will have them on the right arm. They won't attack anyone with the ribbons. Carefully spread the word and the ribbons. Make sure they wear them." The men left.

The four rode hard to Marapolis. Xena rode directly to the docks almost running over a few pedestrians who happened to want to use the street at the same time Xena and Argo wanted to use it. A produce cart in the middle of the road didn't prove to be much of an obstacle for Xena or Sara, both easily jumping it with their able horses. However, Ustas and Meleager were impeded for a few moments while the cart was rolled out of the way by an angry grocer.

They reached the docks too late. Before their eyes, the crew raised the ship's main sail as they left the protection of the cove. Catching the strong sea wind, the main sail billowed and snapped taut, giving the vessel great speed while revealing a simple and large design of a fish. Sara watched numbly as the Nopheet Atoll slipped away.

Xena's attention was drawn to a noisy horse tied to a post, it was Four Feet. For a brief moment, Xena's eyes searched the waterfront in hopes of finding the bard. With another neigh from Four Feet, Xena knew her search was futile. She was not going see her friend at these docks. Taking a deep breath, Xena returned her eyes to the ship as it disappeared around the coastal cliffs.

Tears fell quietly from Sara's eyes. Gabrielle had wanted to protect her sister, Xena remembered. "Sara, they are headed up the coast and we know their destination. I WILL get them back." Xena promised her. "WE will get them back." Meleager added, unable to look in the Queen's eyes.

Chapter 10 - Escape From The Nopheet Atoll

Gabrielle and Lila looked at each other for a moment, realizing they were in the middle of a takeover. "We've got to get off this ship before company comes." Gabrielle commented. "You're not getting any arguments from me." Lila responded, concluding a takeover was usually bloody and the less blood she saw the better.

Rayla laughed at their incredibly calm discussion. "Supposing we actually get out of these chains and supposing we get past the guards without them noticing, how do you propose we get back to shore without a boat?" Lila looked at her sister. "You can swim can't you?" Gabrielle asked the woman with utter seriousness.

"You're crazy!" Rayla blurted. "And I thought I was the only one who noticed." Lila responded. Gabrielle eyed her sister then faced Rayla. "Rayla, we may not survive a takeover and if we do, the chances of our rescue are ... less optimistic. The ship has been following the coast line so we should be able to make it without too much trouble." Gabrielle explained. Seeing Lila nod in agreement, Rayla shakes her head, considering them both either incredibly brave or incredibly crazy.

With Uncle Ustas staying behind to gather help, Xena, Meleager and Sara rode hard up the coast to the next port town. Xena knew she might need help but she still would have preferred to do this alone.

With all of Sara's worries, she still noticed Meleager's odd behavior. She figured he was upset having lost one of his best men. When they stopped at a cliff to observe the sailing ship's progress up the coast, Sara asked him about it. "Meleager, what happened to your soldier?" She asked softly. "He's dead." Meleager responded bluntly, without looking in her eyes. She was about to ask another question but Xena interrupted. "We don't have time to chat, we will need to ride through the night as it is." Without another word, Xena was riding again with no intention of stopping until she reached the next port town.

The bolt to the cargo hold hatch slid back and the women watched as a man came down on the steps. "Kenis!" Gabrielle quietly called out to him. "G..Gabrielle, I'm s..sorry." He heard the women laughing at his apology to the prisoner. "Lot of good sorry does her now." One woman, Bera, snapped out.

"You can help us escape Kenis." Gabrielle gave him a way to make it up to her. "I..c..can't" Kenis said sadly. "Do you have a knife?" Gabrielle asked. Kenis eyed her and handed over his knife. The women murmered with amazement at how easily Gabrielle got a knife. "She talked a cyclops out of eating her once..." Lila explained. "Oh..." The women responded with understanding.

In the middle of unlocking her sister's shackles, Gabrielle was discussing the takeover plan with Kenis. "D..Dyessa...n.never...t.trusted...F..Fagan." Kenis blurted. "He h..had his" He added. "Does Dyessa know?" Gabrielle asked, amazed he was so calm about that.

"Y..yes..." Kenis looked down at his feet. "And she isn't going to do anything about the dumb guy..ah..Fagan?" Lila interjected. " d..don't" He said in defense of his sister who always replaced everything he borrowed from the Ouzas' coffers. "No I don't." Lila countered coldly.

"Fagan's ship is coming Kenis, and we are going to leave before it gets here. I hope you can swim. Kenis." Gabrielle looked up to him. "I'm n..not. ..l..leaving. ..D..Dyessa..." Kenis responded and fled up the ladder. "Kenis!" Gabrielle called to him. "Gabrielle, you can't change his mind for him." Lila looked at her. Gabrielle nodded.

"He won't interfere will he?" Rayla asked rubbing her freshly freed wrists. "No." Gabrielle answered, looking up the ladder fearing he was going to his death because of misplaced family loyalty. "No." Gabrielle repeated sadly as Lila put a comforting hand on her sister's shoulder.

"Why are you slowing down?" Meleager asked Xena, who pulled on Argo's reigns. "We are catching up to them." Xena noted with concern. "That's a good thing!" Sara responded, then asked "Isn't it??"

"They are in the middle of a slave run and Marrid said they were behind schedule. It seems odd they would be taking their time getting to port. With the wind they have, they should be out of sight by now." Xena noted with mixed feelings.

"Marrid? Didn't you said he was killed?" Sara looked to Meleager, confused. "We should get going." Meleager snapped, averting an answer to her question and look into her eyes, rode off towards the next port town.

Sara looked to Xena for an explanation. "What happened to Marrid?" Sara questioned slowly with a low, determined voice. "Marrid was an Ouzas. We interrogated him. He is dead." Xena reported coldly. "We should go." Xena added and rode off quickly. With that concise report, Sara understood Meleager.

Lila questioned her support for Gabrielle's brilliant plan when she was the first one to enter the cold water. She had to fight not to yell out as she eased down the line into the sea. "You ok?" Gabrielle whispered down to her sister. "It's very...Gabrielle?" Lila called up with concern when Gabrielle disappeared from view. A moment later, a sailor walked by making Lila worried she spoke too loudly. After he passed, unaware of the escape in progress, Gabrielle returned to check on her sister.

"Gabrielle?" Lila asked, holding on to the rope. "What?" Gabrielle leaned over the side. "It's cold." Lila noted, shivering. "You can see the shore from here. Let go and start swimming, it will warm you up. The others will be right behind you." Gabrielle told her, hoping she was right. Lila nodded and let go of the rope. The ship slowly pulled away and she started her long swim to the shore.

Slowly, between the sailor's periodic strolls past their escape route, each woman reached the side of the ship and descended the rope into the cold water and started to swim towards the shore. Finally Gabrielle escorted the last woman, Rayla, up the cargo hold ladder, through a passageway, across the deck and over the side. As Rayla descended the rope, she looked up finding Gabrielle gone. Rayla entered the cold water with a muffled gasp and started to swim. After a few minutes heading towards the shore, she looked back at the ship. A small spec on the horizon caught her eye, Fagan's ship.

Kenis nervously ate dinner as he listened to Fagan and Dyessa discuss the buyer's preferences for blonds. He was certain that if Dyessa found out how he gave Gabrielle a knife, unlatched the cargo hold hatch and allowed the women to escape, Dyessa would finally let Fagan kill him, if she didn't decide to do it herself.

"Yeah, I think he'll like that tall one we have." Fagan noted to Dyessa as she picked at her food. "Well, I'm not so sure he'll appreciate that brunette Lila. She may make him swear off our merchandise for good." Dyessa tried to joke. For the first time, she used the name of a slave she was about to sell.

Fagan didn't like using the merchandise names. "We could just cut our losses now if you are concerned." Fagan held up his knife, eyeing the piece of meat on it, then his business partner. Dyessa looked at the man, who had sent those men to beat her brother. She believed he would enjoy personally taking care of Lila. "I am sure we will get something for her...I'll bet you 10 dinars we'll get more than 20 for her." Dyessa lifted her drink to her lips. "You've got yourself a deal." Fagan laughed and ate the meat off the tip of his knife.

Kenis finished his meal and excused himself. "You hardly ate anything Kenis." Dyessa looked at his plate. "F..finished. ...j..job..and" Kenis eyed Fagan who was still eating. Dyessa noted her brother was acting odd.

Kenis looked around topside and sighed with relief. The sailors were all going about their business without any concern about the women. Kenis looked out to the horizon to see the sun was setting with a beautiful orange hue. The only thing distracting Kenis' appreciation of the sunset was the ship in the distance that was slowly heading their way. He wanted to give Gabrielle some time to escape before he mentioned to his sister anything about Fagan's ship.

Entering his sister's cabin to finish balancing the books, Kenis jumped when he felt a hand on his mouth and heard the door quickly shut behind him. When the hand was removed he turned to find the bard. "G..G.." He was interrupted. "Kenis, you are coming with me and I am not taking no for an answer." Gabrielle told him. "G..G..." Kenis tried to refuse. "No arguments." Gabrielle blurted and took his hand, pulling him to the door.

He wasn't sure what to think. He was amazed someone would go to such trouble for him. Even so, he still couldn't go with her. Gabrielle carefully opened the door and looked in the passageway. Seeing it was clear, she turned and motioned for Kenis to follow her. He started to shake his head no but he froze. The fear on Kenis' face made Gabrielle quickly turn back.


Lila finally made it to the rocky shore and waited for the women. With each one making it to the shore, she breathed a small sigh of relief. Although they were cold, they couldn't make a fire, the ship was too close to shore and the fire would attract unwanted attention. "Keep moving. Run around in circles if you have to." Lila got up herself. "We're tired Lila!" Bera snapped at the girl. "I am too but we've got to get warmed up. Now MOVE" Lila ordered the women who reluctantly moved round. She was aware the sun was setting and they would be even colder during the night. Lila looked out to the ship with growing concern, wondering when Gabrielle would get to shore.

Kenis stood in front of his sister on the forecastle. She was going to make an example of him in front of the crew. He had never seen such rage in his sister's eyes. "You bastard. I am tired of having to make excuses for you!" She pushed him back and punched him in the stomach. Her booming voice and actions surprised the crew, including Fagan. "W..Wh.." Kenis tried to respond.

"I should have known not to trust you. You have always been a burden to our family. Well, you are a burden I am not going to bear any more." She connected his jaw with a powerful right hook that knocked him out. "Gods Dyessa what are you doing?" Fagan rushed over to her as she lifted her brother up. "Back off Fagan. You were right. He's worthless." She throws him overboard, shocking the entire crew when they hear the splash of his unconscious body hitting the water.

"He can't swim Dyessa!" A sailor yelled out. "He doesn't have to." She called back cooly. Fagan smiled finally seeing Dyessa show some promise. Too bad he would have to kill her shortly. For the first time, Dyessa spotted an unknown ship on the horizon. Dyessa angrily snapped at her crew. "Why in Gods Names wasn't I informed about that ship!" Dyessa's rage was still fresh and her crew quickly manned their stations smartly.

The stars sparkled brightly, but Gabrielle wasn't interested in star gazing as she swam with an unconscious Kenis in tow. Lila was right, Gabrielle noted, the water is cold. Kenis finally started to come to, which made it more difficult for Gabrielle to swim as he thrashed around. "Kenis, just relax. Let me take care of the swimming." Gabrielle relayed to him, then coughed after unexpectedly receiving a mouth full of salt water while she tried to take a deep breath. This was more difficult than she expected.

Kenis started sobbing. "W..Why?" He asked, still shocked at his sister's words. "I d..didn't wa..want to l..leave her." Gabrielle was surprised at Dyessa's actions as well. However, unlike Kenis, Gabrielle was pleased with them. Just when she thought she would be too exhausted to continue, Gabrielle heard a welcome voice.

"Gabrielle!" Lila waded out to her waist to help her sister. Lila didn't have to ask what delayed her sister so long, for she helped the answer ashore. He sprawled out on the beach sobbing. "What's wrong with him?" She asked her shivering sister. "He didn't want to leave his sister but fortunately, she made him." Gabrielle quickly explained to a surprised Lila.

"Now what? Head up the beach?" Lila asked her sister. "We are too tired" Bera whined, getting supportive nods from the women. "We can't travel any more now." Rayla agreed. Lila looked at Gabrielle. "We should find shelter by the cliffs. If we are lucky, we might be able to make a fire." Gabrielle noted.

As they sought shelter for the evening, Gabrielle thought through their situation. A town or village was likely at the top of the cliffs, Gabrielle guessed. Fortunately, a path to reach the top of the cliffs was a just few miles away down the exposed beach according to Lila. Unfortunately, no one was in any condition to travel that distance at the safest time, in the darkness. If they traveled in the morning and a slave ship was still there, they would be seen. Gabrielle started to panic but stopped and forced herself to focus. "First things first, find shelter Gabrielle" she told herself.

Chapter 11 - Piece of Cake

The morning came and Gabrielle peered up from behind large rocks to see two ships moored together. She wondered what happened to Dyessa. Whatever happened, it was not likely to be good, she concluded sadly. She also wondered when a group would be hunting them down and how they would avoid capture. After brushing off her blanket of sand, which was not as nice as a fire but safer, she woke her sister. "We've got to get going."

The group looked to Gabrielle and Lila for an indication of what they would be doing next. Gabrielle glanced down the beach for a brief moment then stared up at the tall, rocky, tall, cliff wall, that was very very tall. "Ok people, to the cliff!" Lila announced, seeing her sister staring the direction she obviously wanted to go.

"Lila..." She tugged at her sister's arm with wide eyes and concern in her voice. "Huh?" Lila responded as the women and Kenis followed orders and headed towards the bottom of the cliff. "I don't know if we will be able to climb it." She said honestly, looking up to the top. "Should we go along the beach then?" Her sister eyed the long rocky beach. "If we do, they would see us right away. I'm not sure we would be able to out run them." Gabrielle responded. Lila sighed.

"What do you want to do then? We just can't sit here. They'll find us eventually." Lila looked back at the sea and the two ships. Gabrielle looked up at the cliff, then the beach, then the cliff again. Neither option guaranteed their safety. Gabrielle's indecisiveness annoyed Lila. "You have to make a decision Gabrielle!" Lila yelled at her. "Cliff." Gabrielle responded weakly.

At the foot of what seemed to be the steepest cliff they ever saw, the seven women and one man looked up in awe. l hate cliffs, Gabrielle concluded. At least there were some ridges along the way that would offer spots to rest during the climb, Gabrielle noted thankfully.

"How are we going to get over the ridge at the very top?" Lila asked her sister, who focused on the same shelf-like ridge. It jutted out over three feet and there didn't appear to be any way around on the sides. If it was closer to the ground, Gabrielle would have not been as concerned. The group looked at the sister's anxiously.

"We'll help boost over anyone who wants a boost." Gabrielle looked at her sister and shrugged. "Piece of cake." Gabrielle added with mock amusement at the thought they might actually have doubts. The women smiled weakly at each other, happy somebody was confident.

Lila could tell her sister wasn't sure, but they all needed to believe their success was a mere formality. "Gabrielle, would you please not mention food! I am really hungry." Lila snapped at her with a twinkle in her eye that Gabrielle immediately recognized.

"It was just a figure of speech Lila! Most educated people can tell the difference between actual discussions of food and figures of speech." Lila eyed her sister. "Hey, you're the one who couldn't hack BARD school." Lila countered.

As the two began to bicker, the five women looked at the sisters then up to the less annoying cliff. "Me first." Rayla told the others, who were sorry they didn't volunteer to go first.

"We should go one at a time." Gabrielle announced, to the disappointed group. "Rayla, you should warn us of any problems you have as you go." Lila added.

Rayla started up the side of the cliff. With each step, a few pebbles seemed to drop down to the women at the bottom. Gabrielle looked at Lila with some concern. "Good work Rayla!" Lila called out as Rayla continued to make progress up the rocky face. She made it to the first of several ledges to the relief of all.

"I'" Kenis announced looking at Gabrielle with a weak smile. She nodded, returning his smile. She hoped to eventually find time to talk with him about his sister and what she did for him.

With his climb, he jarred loose more pebbles from the wall. The wall seemed to slowly crumble as each person climbed the shear face. "Maybe we ought to go the beach route." Bera offered when she looked up at the cliff and watched the women climb.

"Lila, Gabrielle! The slavers, they are coming!" Rayla yelled down her observations of three small rowboats leaving the two moored ships. "This means we don't have a choice." Lila responded to Bera then looked up the cliff.

Gabrielle and Lila were the last to start climbing the cliff face. They were making good progress until Lila stopped. "Lila, what's wrong?" Gabrielle asked with concern. "I can't find a good grip." Lila called back to her sister. "Bera said there was a really good one by your right hand." Gabrielle called up, climbing closer. "You mean this?" Lila showed her sister a rock that use to be a good handgrip. "Oh." Gabrielle gulped as Lila tossed the former handgrip. It hit another rock and dislodged more material from the cliff face. Gabrielle wasn't sure they would be able to make it back down even if they wanted to.

"This cliff idea of yours is almost as good as your idea to nose around the docks." Lila informed her sister, who climbed up next to her. "You said make a decision." Gabrielle responded. "I made a decision."

The sisters finally caught up to the group just below the last and most precarious ridge. Everyone looked to Gabrielle for direction. "The first person over the top needs to get help. The slavers are looking for us." They looked to see the boats being pulled ashore. "I'll g..g..go."

Kenis was the first to be boosted over the ledge. "Ugh" Gabrielle and Lila grunted as they each grabbed a leg and lifted him up. He latched onto the rocky shelf and pulled himself over. Catching his breath, he inspected the remainder of the climb to the top. There was only about twenty more feet to climb. That climb looked easy compared to that ledge. "Piece of Cake," he thought to himself, using the bard's words.

He turned and carefully peeked over the ledge at the sisters. " ...g..good." He smiled at the bard. "Kenis, you need to go get help." Gabrielle called up to him. He nodded and disappeared from the edge of the ridge with a mission.

"Next." Lila called out looking at Rayla. "Bera looks like she's ready." Rayla commented, much less happy about this than the swim. "Oh I couldn't possibly, you first." Bera offered politely. "I'll go." Another woman, Rhee, tired of waiting, volunteered. Again, Gabrielle and Lila each grabbed a leg and boosted up the climber to the ledge.

The first woman had less upper body strength and struggled more than Kenis to get over the rocky shelf, but she made it. Catching her breath, Rhee looked out at the beach and panicked. "Lila, Gabrielle! They see us!" She called out after she laid down and poked her head over the ledge.

Lila and Gabrielle looked at each other. "We've still got a good lead, let's keep it." Gabrielle responded with confidence. "You heard the lady." Lila barked. "NEXT!"

Three women finally made it to the top of the cliff and peered down at the ledge. "That ledge is a killer." The first woman admitted, rubbing her sore arms. "Gabrielle and Lila must be really tired by now...." The second woman looked down. Feeling a strong presence behind them, they all turned and gasped.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Xena called down to an empty ledge. "They won't be able to hear you until they get over that's a killer. I don't know if I could have made it with out Gabrielle's and Lila's help." The first woman noted. Xena looked to Kenis who nodded.

Bera was next in line to climb out, up and over the rocky shelf. Gabrielle could see the fear in her eyes, a fear she shared. However, the situation did not allow her the opportunity to indulge in it.

"Ok, your turn." Gabrielle exhaled, her exhaustion catching up to her. She looked to the beach seeing the group of slavers.

"Gods, I'm scared." The fourth woman trembled. "That's a healthy response." Lila noted looking down herself. "Ok, now that we are all in agreement, can we please get on with this?" Gabrielle snapped with annoyance. "Gee, the cliff seems like a good idea Lila...yeah, why don't we climb the cliff ...'piece of cake' she says" Lila muttered loudly to no one in particular.

"I thought you said you didn't want to hear about food anymore" Gabrielle responded. "And I thought you knew what a figure of speech was..." Lila countered.

The woman looked at the two sisters who seemed to enjoy bickering. She looked up and considered she would rather climb than listen to any more of that. She quickly reached up for a rock and got a boost from Lila and Gabrielle, who looked at each other with sly grins.

Xena looked down to find the fourth woman's hand emerging from the underside of the ledge and feel around for a good handhold. Xena started to climb down but she caused a large number of rocks to come loose and fall. The cliff was too unstable. She was not pleased, not pleased at all.

The fourth woman, Bera, made it over the ledge with the help of the sisters. "How is everything?" The first woman asked her. "Would you believe, they are still at it." The fourth woman responded causing the first woman to roll her eyes.

Lila and Gabrielle were exhausted but had one more to boost. Lila looked at her sister with concern. Gabrielle also had the burden last evening of swimming Kenis to shore, Lila worried. Gabrielle smiled at her sister. "They are getting too close for us to take a break. I promise we will get a long rest after this." Gabrielle noted softly, both eyeing the group of slavers closing their distance to them. Lila nodded and understood they had to press on.

Xena returned to the cliff with a rope that was not long enough to reach the ledge but would help the climb to the top. Even with the rope, Bera was having difficulty climbing and caused more rocks to crumble under her feet. "Hold on" Xena called to the woman and pulled her up.

Rayla was last. "I don't know if I can do this." The woman's voice quivered. The sisters looked at each other with a sly grin.

Xena watched, wondering what was taking so long when she finally saw the fifth woman climb up around the edge with much greater speed than she had seen the other woman climb. Apparently a very athletic person, Xena concluded.

"Are you OK?" Xena asked the woman who looked a bit stunned. "I am now." She called up and climbed to the rope.

"Only Lila and Gabrielle left." Rayla reported to Xena as she helped Rayla up. Another hand emerged from under the ledge, Xena correctly guessed it was Lila's. She knew the bard would not come up before her sister. Xena slightly gasped when she saw Lila's hand slip. She realized that the bard had no one to help her get her sister, or herself, over the ledge.

With a subtle shift in the sea breeze, the women at top of the cliff could hear the sisters below the ledge.

"Ouch. Lila! Watch it." Gabrielle snapped as her sister slipped down a bit. "I am trying to watch it, but it is very hard when you can't SEE where you're GOING! So stop YELLING AT ME!" Lila yelled back loudly. "I AM NOT YELLING AT YOU!" Gabrielle yelled back, her sister's feet on the bard's back. "Than WHAT do you call THAT then?"

Xena looked at the Rayla. "They've been like that since the ship." She explained.

"Constructive CRITICISM." Gabrielle responded loudly. "Well, I think I could go with a little LESS constructive criticism and a bigger PUSH...Princess Gabrielle, Amazon...WHOA!" Lila found her torso on the ledge. "Watch were you put your hands!" Lila called back as she received some more help getting the rest of her body up.

"I don't have much have such a big..." Gabrielle responded, her sister's foot now on her head. "Like YOU can talk!" Lila shot back as she successfully traversed the ledge. "Hey!" Gabrielle responded.

Gabrielle, alone beneath the ledge, closed her eyes and tried to catch her breath before trying to climb. She knew one look down would undermine her last bit of confidence, so she kept her eyes shut. She was going to make this climb if it killed her, she told herself with a laugh. She had to. She had to make sure Lila and the others would be alright. If only Xena was here, Gabrielle sighed, needing to see her, to get strength from her. The bard took a deep breath before taking a huge leap.

Finally, Xena sees her friend's hand. Once again, Xena looked for away down as if she could have possibly overlooked a safe path the other four times she inspected the side of the cliff.

Gabrielle was dangling from the side of the ledge by two hands. "Great", Gabrielle thought, as she was unsuccessful in trying to reach a footing on the rocks for a boost. She was too tired to pull herself up. Even if she wasn't so exhausted, she wasn't sure she could pull herself up. As a gust from the sea blew, causing the bard to sway back and forth, Gabrielle got an idea.

Lila sat down to anchor herself and help her sister over the ledge. Her eyes widened when her sister's two hands became only one. "Gabrielle!" She called out just when she saw the bard's missing hand reappear, along with a forearm and an elbow. Lila reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's arm and pulled hard. "Oooph..." Gabrielle slammed into the side of the ledge, but made valuable progress. She had a shoulder over the side of the ledge.

Lila grabbed her sister's arm and was going to grab the back of her shirt, but there was no material where she wanted to grab. "Ugh.." Lila blurted and instead grabbed Gabrielle's belt, pulling her sister up with all her might. "OW OW OW." Gabrielle cried out as her bare stomach scraped along the rocks.

"That wouldn't happen if you wore normal clothes like everyone else." Lila scolded her sister, continuing to yank her up. Gabrielle muttered something as the rest of her exhausted and scraped body made it over the ledge. Breathing heavily, Gabrielle rested on her back a moment to try and stop the fatigue-induced shaking.

"Gabrielle! Lila!" Xena called down. "Xena!" Lila called happily, knowing those slavers following them didn't stand a chance now. Xena was used to her name being called by the bard, not the bard's sister.

Gabrielle looked up at the Warrior Princess, who stretched as far out from the edge of the cliff as she dared to see if bard, who was still lying on her back, was alright. Even with the concern in Xena's eyes, Gabrielle had never seen a more beautiful sight.

As Lila climbed, Gabrielle's attention was diverted to the short rope. "That is a pretty pathetic excuse for a rope Xena" Gabrielle called up as she stood. Gabrielle could see Xena's eyebrow raise. A grin crossed the bard's face causing the Warrior to return the favor.

The warrior's welcome smile touched something deep within her heart, as if gently nudging the bard's emotions awake from a restless sleep. The joy that quickly filled the bard's heart at this awakening drained away when the warrior's smile disappeared. Gabrielle feared the warrior wished those emotions would continue to slumber.

"The rocks are very unstable Gabrielle, I can't climb down without causing them to fall." Xena relayed.

Gabrielle nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. She's just worried about the climb, Gabrielle reminded herself. The bard found her feelings of relief were a bit premature as her sister dislodged more rocks. She almost forgot they were very high off the ground, climbing a cliff, and trying to escape from slavers. Not a very good time to be distracted with other thoughts, Gabrielle concluded.

"UGH! The rocks up here are worse than below that ledge." Lila sighs and informs her sister. "It's a shame this cliff didn't come with stairs." Lila added while pausing to catch her breath. Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at tired sister for a moment. "That is the STUPIDEST thing I have ever heard!" Gabrielle blurted. "Well apparently you haven't been paying attention to what you've been saying lately." Lila shot back, amusing the Warrior Princess.

"Ugh oh." They said in unison, hearing men underneath the ledge. "What?" Xena asked. "We've got company." Gabrielle responded looking up at her worried friend's face.

Lila continued her climb with new vigor, causing a few more stones to fall down at Gabrielle's feet. Gabrielle had a bad feeling. She looked back at the edge of the ledge and saw a hand reaching around. She quickly went over and stomped on it. "AH!" A man yelled, sliding back down to his friends.

Lila made it to the rope. Once she grabbed on to it, Xena yanked her up quickly. "Thanks!" Lila exhaled gratefully. She looked down for the first time and almost fell over. Xena grabbed her by the back of the shirt and pulled her away from the edge. "But Lila, you just got here." Xena dead panned. The warrior shocked Lila more than the height.

Gabrielle stopped another attempt at the slaver's climb over the ledge, with a carefully placed heal. She knew she would have to eventually stop what she was doing and climb.

"You coming or what?" Lila yelled down with great impatience. Gabrielle nodded and started up the rocky cliffs. When she reached for handholds, each one seemed to crumble at her touch. She climbed a few feet up and had to stop to get her breath. Her exhaustion was becoming a problem. Then, she made the mistake of looking down in a weak moment. The height bothered her more than the fact the first slaver's arm was now over the ledge's edge. "Ugh..." She groaned and rested her forehead on the rocky wall.

Seeing a lapse in Gabrielle's momentum, Xena and Lila looked down with worry. "You can do it Gabrielle!" Xena encouraged the bard. That was all Xena could think of while she eyed the unstable cliff once again for a safe path she might have missed. "Yeah." Gabrielle responded weakly and took another deep breath.

"Don't MAKE me come down there and get you!" Lila yelled down to her sister. Gabrielle looked up at her sister. "Awfully bold words for someone so far away!" Gabrielle yelled back. "Well do something about it!" Lila challenged. With new determination, Gabrielle started her ascent. Xena eyed Lila, who shrugged.

One slaver finally got over the ledge and reached down over the side. "Gabrielle hurry!" Xena called out to the bard, who knew better than to waist time looking down. The urgency in Xena's voice was clear. Gabrielle mustered up the last bit of strength to climb the rest of the distance to the rope. She looked up to see Xena's concerned eyes focused intently on her then become distracted with something below. The slaver had just loaded and pointed a crossbow at the bard's back.

Only a few inches away from the goal, the bard reached and stretched her arm as far as she could when suddenly...she saw a bright flash.

Chapter 12 - The Library

Gabrielle woke yawning as she lifted her still groggy head up. Stretching to relieve the slight ache in her back, she looked around the castle's library with a smile. Many scrolls desiring to be read, she mused. She shifted again and a jolt of pain shot up her neck. Serves you right for falling asleep in the library, she scolded herself, retrieving her hand from under a pile of scrolls to wipe the sleep out of her eyes.

All in all, she was recovering pretty quickly from her adventure with Lila, she thought, though she still felt exhausted. Luckily, now was a time to rest and enjoy herself. Surrounding her, if she had to count, were over two hundred scrolls, give or take a few hundred. Boy, I hope Sara doesn't see the mess I've made of her library, Gabrielle thinks to herself, as she looks around at all the wonderful scrolls piled up around her.

Perhaps Xena won't mind if we stay here a few more days so I can read and clean up this mess, Gabrielle mused. "Right", the bard laughs, knowing how stir crazy Xena gets when they are not moving. Well, might as well get as much reading in as possible before we leave, Gabrielle concludes.

She picks up a scroll and starts to read it but frowns. It is way too dark to do any serious reading, she yawns, feeling her exhaustion. If someone cared to ask, Gabrielle couldn't tell how long she had been reading. But she didn't really care, this library was a great retreat from it all. Someday, perhaps she would have a great library like this one, Gabrielle considers. One with more windows, of course.

Hunched over in a very uncomfortable position, she looked for a candle to move closer and for more light to read by. Seeing some light peaking through from behind a pile of scrolls, she shook her head. "This is ridiculous," she blurted. She wouldn't be surprised if Sara didn't want her back for a visit, considering the mess, and of course, the nutbread incident.

Attempting to improve her reading conditions, she pulled some scrolls out of the way of the light. The rearrangement of the scrolls caused a few at the top of the pile to fall on her head. "Ouch!" She blurted as pain shot through her neck and down her back. She sighed at her clumsiness and her slow recovery from her adventures. However, seeing so many unread scrolls, the ever diligent bard went back to reading. She had to read when she could, she concluded.

Stretching and taking a deep breath she found the library air very stale. Another reason, in addition to the darkness, to have more windows, Gabrielle noted. She would really have to discuss this with Sara. As Queen, she could certainly get more windows put in HER library. Of course, Sara did have trouble keeping her pantry stocked with nutbread and nuts, Gabrielle laughed to herself.

Gabrielle heard faint voices from behind the scrolls. Discovered, Gabrielle thought sadly. Well, if they really want me they can come get me, she thought. She ignored the voice and continued to read the scrolls. When she heard Xena call her name, she finally responded.

"I'm just reading" Gabrielle called back, hoping her friend would leave her to her reading a little longer. "Gabrielle? Do you realize you'll miss dinner?" Xena spoke with sarcasm. "Hmm?" Gabrielle responded, not taking her eyes off the scrolls.

"Gabrielle....FOOD?... Hello Gabrielle?? Talk to me Gabrielle." Xena poked her head from behind the scrolls. Gabrielle looked up with a laugh. "I'm sorry. I've just been wrapped up reading these scrolls..." She yawned, feeling dull aches. "Reading? Gabrielle you shouldn't fall a sleep in here." Xena responded with much more concern in her voice.

Gabrielle sighed at her over reaction. "I am just reading Xena." Gabrielle responded with some annoyance. Then she realized she shouldn't be too harsh on her friend. She was just being her usual overprotective self. "I won't fall asleep, I just want to finish one more scroll, I'll be done in a minute, you don't have to hang round here...." Xena reluctantly left.

"Gabrielle!" Lila stood in the doorway. Gabrielle sighed then looked up. "Lila!" Gabrielle greeted her intruding sister with feigned delight. "I can't believe you are going to miss dinner. Don't think I am going to bring it to you." Lila snapped. "I'm not asking you to!" Gabrielle responded to her sister.

"You shouldn't fall asleep in here, Gabrielle." Lila repeated Xena's concern. The bard did still feel the aches and pains and knew it wasn't helping her recovery to sleep crunched over but GODS! How annoying it was to be reminded of something you already know.

"I wasn't planning on it Lila...I just want to read ok? Is that too much to ask?" Gabrielle snapped back at her sister who left, bit frustrated. Gabrielle's annoyance was replaced quickly with guilt. "Lila, I'm sorry..." She yelled towards the direction of her sister who was already gone.

Feeling a sharp pain in her back, she reconsidered perhaps she was ready to take a break. After all, she had been through a lot the past couple of days and wasn't fully recovered yet. At least that was what the pain in her body was telling her, even if her mind was fine.

Once again, Xena came for the bard. "Gabrielle?" Xena asked with a soft tone as she placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Xena? Did you open a window or something?" Gabrielle was startled awake and noticed more light and air in the library.

"Or something...Come on." Xena took her bard's arm.

"You don't have to...." Gabrielle responded. "Yes I do, now come on." Xena said with a firm tone. Gabrielle smiled. Deep down, that overprotectiveness was something the bard appreciated. "Ok, I guess your right."

"Finally." Xena said with relief. Gabrielle laughed. "I'm not that bad am I?" She asked her warrior friend. "Whoa..." Gabrielle felt her leg give way. "Gabrielle, I've got you. Just hold on to me." Xena easily supported the bard's weight as they exited.

"I guess my leg is asleep from resting on it funny....I know, I know you told me not to ...hey, where are we going?" Gabrielle asked, rubbing her sore back with a free arm.

"Just stay with me Gabrielle." Xena was being mysterious. Gabrielle rather liked that. "OK." Gabrielle said brightly with a smile.

"Sara's castle really is huge" Gabrielle noted with amazement as they walked together, losing track of where they were. "Just stay with me." Xena smiled to her. "I don't think I could escape right now if I wanted to." Gabrielle joked about her sleepy leg. "Good." Xena answered.

Gabrielle didn't want to worry her friend but she actually felt light headed.

Xena opened a large decorative door. Gabrielle's mouth dropped at what she found. The room was better lit than the library, having more candles and at the center a feast to put the Amazons to shame. She didn't know this room existed in Sara's castle but wasn't surprised Xena found it. She felt so tired and hoped she could keep her eyes open to enjoy all of this.

Gabrielle smiled and turned to Xena. "For me?" She asked, touched with the effort by her friend.

Xena nodded, looking deeply in her eyes. "Oh...I don't know what to say." Gabrielle felt the intense gaze. "That's a first. Just say whatever is on your mind Gabrielle. Keep talking." Xena responded.

"Talk about firsts..." Gabrielle smiled at Xena's comment. Xena helped Gabrielle into the room.

She eyed all the delicious foods. However, oddly, she was not hungry. Xena leaned over her placing a hand on her shoulder and started pouring her a drink. Gabrielle swallowed hard, feeling Xena's closeness. It had been a very long time since Xena got so close to her that she could feel her body heat. That feeling was not unwelcome.

"Drink this, it will make you feel better." Xena responded to the bard's questioning look. Something was odd, Gabrielle thought.

"Thank you" Gabrielle responded and sipped the drink. When the bard started coughing, a look of concern crept over Xena's face. "You can't swallow it?" Xena asked. "No, No...I. Ah...Not stomach is a little upset too." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. Xena nodded and got up and got her water.

"I should have know...." Xena admonished herself. "Here, drink this." Xena smiled handing her a goblet of water. Gabrielle sipped the water which hit the spot. She hadn't realized how thirsty she was until she finished the entire goblet. "Thanks." She found Xena staring at her.

"Xena? Are you feeling alright?" Gabrielle asked reaching for her forehead. Xena didn't seem to be acting herself. With a little frustration, Xena gently grabbed Gabrielle's hand. "I'm fine Gabrielle. The question do you feel?" She responded, sitting closer to Gabrielle and gently squeezed the bard's shoulder, looking deeply into the bard's eyes.

"Would you believe... a bit confused?" Gabrielle admitted, nonchalantly moving back a bit from her friend. "I'm not surprised." Xena responded.

"This" Gabrielle gestured to the room. "All this attention....It's not my birthday." Gabrielle stated, trying to ignore the intense gaze. "No...its not your birthday." Xena responded with a slight grin.

"OK..." Gabrielle exhaled, thinking this guessing game could last a while the way things were going. If Xena wanted to be mysterious that was fine with her, Gabrielle mused, actually enjoying the warrior's attention.

The hours in the library reading were catching up to her. Her head ached, her neck ached, her back ached, even her legs ached now. Gabrielle tilted her head and rubbed her neck. Before she knew it, Xena was behind her giving her a neck message.

Her first thought, to tell her she didn't have to do that, was quickly replaced by her second thought, to let Xena continue that wonderful massaging. "Let me know if this hurts..." Xena informed her. Gabrielle almost had to laugh for Xena's touch was anything but painful.

Between the exhaustion, her light-headedness , the drink, and the soothing massage, Gabrielle couldn't keep her eyes open.

"I knew all that reading was going to do this to you..." Xena commented with a mellow voice. "Well, I'm glad you know how to cure my aches." Gabrielle responded with a sigh. With that cue, Xena proceeded to expand the area of massaging from the neck to include the shoulders. Gabrielle tensed up. "Have I lost my touch? You seem to be getting more tense the more I massage." Xena whispered softly in her ear. Her lips gently brushed over the bard's ear.

Xena's voice and touch had a disturbingly powerful effect on the bard. Not wanting to succumb to her instincts and do something she, they, would regret, Gabrielle turned and quickly got up from her chair. "Xena... would you please tell me what this is all about."

There was a lost look in Xena's face that made Gabrielle feel incredibly bad. Xena seemed embarrassed and hurt. "I've made a mistake Gabrielle." She stood up and started to leave. "Wait a minute." Gabrielle grabbed her friend's arm. "Sit!" She commanded, surprising Xena, and pointed to the chair. Xena took a deep breath and followed orders. "If I had known how well you take orders, I would have tried this ages ago." Gabrielle remarked with a grin.

"Now, what is this all about?" Gabrielle sat in a chair next to her and spoke softly. Xena sighed and looked down at her hands which Gabrielle saw were trembling. "I'm more comfortable with action not words. You should know that by now." She looked up at Gabrielle who was listening intensely to the woman of few words. "I made a mistake..." Xena added, starting to get up. "No...Xena...Please..." Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on her shoulder to keep her sitting.

"I was... surprised...that's all..." Gabrielle responded looked at her with sincere eyes. Her subsequent laugh and comment surprised Xena. "I have been dropping hints so long and never got a response....then all of a sudden..." Gabrielle added. Xena grinned at her admission then looked confused.

"But when you didn't respond to my signals...I thought you didn't... " Xena countered.

Gabrielle smiled broadly amazed, "You were dropping hints?" Xena's eyes rolled. "Big ones..." The warrior added.

"Like what?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "Gabrielle..." Xena uttered with some annoyance. "Tell me Xena, I want to know what I missed...just in case I need to know for future reference..." Gabrielle grinned.

"Alright." Xena responded as she eyed her. "You know when I ask you to ride Argo with me?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "No rarely ask me to ride Argo with you any more..." Gabrielle responded.

Xena sighed with some dejection. "That's because you started refusing my offers to ride. I thought you didn't want to ride with me...You made that very clear when you wanted to ride that horse with the dumb name."

Gabrielle's face went blank. "I started to refuse because it was...well... very distracting...." Gabrielle responded with amazement. Xena looked up at the ceiling. "That was the point..." She looked back at Gabrielle.

"Oh..." Gabrielle responded with her thoughts on the past rides with Xena. Xena's arm around her waist, pulling her close....her soft voice and warm breath in her ear.

"Oh..." Xena repeated knowingly with a grin, bringing her attention back to their conversation.

"What else?" Gabrielle asked, finding this very educational.

"Oh no...your turn." Xena responded and leaned back with her arms crossed, waiting.

Gabrielle was up to the challenge. " know when I would tell you stories of heroic love and romantic adventures?" Gabrielle raised her eyebrow. "Gabrielle, you don't tell them anymore..." Xena responded with a sigh.

Gabrielle got a bit annoyed. "That's because you would always interrupt them and ask me to tell them later because you were tired or something. I never have gotten through the story about Delatus.." Gabrielle recalled. "That's because your words....affected me...." Xena explained, clearing her throat.

"That was the point." Gabrielle noted with a grin. Xena shook her head in amazement. "Oh..."

"Your turn..." Gabrielle added, sitting back with her hands folded on her crossed legs, waiting.

Xena sighed. "You know when you would find there was only one room at an Inn?" Xena asked innocently. "For a while, that always seemed to be the case. I can't believe how lucky we were to always manage to get the last room." Gabrielle added.

"We weren't lucky." Xena admitted. "What?" Gabrielle blurted. "My mismanagement of our money was not really mismanagement...I kept buying out the rooms in the Inn so you would only find one." Xena admitted, adding "Until you took over that chore." Gabrielle was shocked.

"It's a good thing I did! Do you know how expensive that was!" She scolded Xena who shrunk in her chair.

"Well, I was happy that at least our sleeping arrangements at the Inns didn't change when you took over. Being broke wasn't as bad as you made it out to be." Xena smiled sheepishly. Gabrielle eyed her and grinned. "We weren't THAT broke..."

"Well, Gabrielle I guess we were both slow..." Xena chuckled, her smile dissolved into an intense and loving gaze. A gaze that was returned gladly.

"Perhaps we just weren't ready." Gabrielle spoke philosophically. "I" Xena added quickly with a sly smile.

"Yet we both missed obvious clues." Gabrielle pointed out to Xena, while reaching up and stroked her warrior's cheek. "Perhaps we weren't." Xena responded, reaching up and stopping the bard's gentle touch by grasping her hand. Xena broke her gaze from the bard and stared at the floor.

"The question is...are we ready... now?" Gabrielle asked with a hard swallow.

Xena looked up with hope, breathing deeply. Gabrielle thought Xena seemed afraid to answer.

"I thought you said you were more comfortable with action than you were with words....." Gabrielle eyed her. A grin crossed Xena's face making Gabrielle softly laugh. A laugh that was quickly interrupted when Xena reached up and traced the side of Gabrielle's face from her brow down her cheek. The gentle fingers found their way to the back of Gabrielle's neck. Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes for any doubts. There were none.

Xena slowly pulled Gabrielle towards her, until their lips were within an inch. Gabrielle felt Xena's warm and quickening breath against her face. Gabrielle wanted to remember every sensation surrounding this moment....the gentle touch of Xena's fingers on the back of her neck, the sound of Xena's voice calling her name.....

"Gabrielle?! Gabrielle!! Wake UP!" Xena called to her. Gabrielle woke in excruciating pain. She moaned as she tried to move. Her mind was swirling. Gabrielle moaned again. "Just stay awake Gabrielle." Xena pleaded. "Please... just stay awake!"

Chapter 13 - The Waiting

Following Xena's orders, Sara sat with Gabrielle, talking to her and nudging her to keep her sister awake as the bard drifted in and out of consciousness.

Ustas, Meleager and Kenis paced around Ustas' wood shop almost running into each other. "Lila said she seemed fine after that fall." Meleager blurted. "And Xena...s..said..s.she was ...t..talking ...un..t.til ..she p..passed out on t..tthe way..h.. here..." Kenis added. "Head injuries are unpredictable, it would be easier for Xena to fix a broken bone." Ustas worried.

"She's lucky. I am surprised she only got a few gashes and cracked ribs with that fall...sorry Ustas." Meleager apologized, seeing the Uncle cringe as he discussed the injuries of his niece.

Xena didn't want to leave the bard's side but knew Gabrielle would want her family to be cared for. Lila's disappearance worried her and Gabrielle would never forgive the Warrior Princess if she didn't look after the bard's family.

Dark storm clouds started to roll in the area and with them, strong, gusting winds. The warrior finally found Lila staring out over a pond at the ominous weather. As Xena approached, a flock of ducks took flight, making a startled Lila turn. "How is she?" Lila asked, concerned Xena came to talk to her.

"I don't know. I am not sure how bad her head injury is." Xena answered honestly. However, Xena did not consider it necessary to volunteer that the only two significant head injuries that she had experience with did not recover. One man died a short time after the injury, when he fell asleep and never woke. The other, who was kept awake for a few days survived, yet he was never quite right in the head afterwards.

"How are you?" Xena asked, standing next to her, staring out over the pond. "Xena, is it normal for someone to carry on a conversation like that?" Lila asked, ignoring the warrior's inconsequential question. "I mean, if I didn't see for myself she was buried under those rocks, I would have thought from what she said she was actually in a library." Lila relayed.

Xena sighed and nodded. Gabrielle's hallucinations troubled Xena as well. Xena looked over to the bard's sister seeing she needed hope as much as the warrior. "Well, the fact she fell that distance and still managed to argue with us every step of the way makes me think she'll be ok." Xena quipped, making Lila smile. She was strong, Xena thought, convinced Lila would be fine.

Entering Gabrielle's room, Xena looked down at her semi-conscious friend and sister, who was dutifully talking to and nudging the bard. With all her medical experiences, Xena was on uncertain ground with head injuries. Even the healer gave her conflicting advice on the treatment.

Gods, what if I am choosing a life of misery for her? Xena thought as she contemplated the two treatment choices and what she feared was their outcome.

I will always take care of you Gabrielle, she vowed. Permanent injury to her mind is not certain, Xena considered, trying to justify her selfish desire to keep the bard awake. But what if my decision means the woman of many words couldn't tell her stories? Xena's heart dropped at the thought.

Xena made a hard decision. "Sara, let Gabrielle sleep." Xena said softly, understanding the confusion in Sara's eyes. "You said she had to stay awake or she might never wake." Sara argued with growing panic. "I know. But she also needs to rest Sara." Xena responded, feeling uneasy with that decision.

"You have no idea how to help her do you!" Sara snapped. The truthful words cut at the warrior's heart. "No." Xena responded weakly, looking down at the incoherent bard. She wished she had the power to simply waive her hand and make Gabrielle better. But all she had was time, and only time would tell if Gabrielle was going to recover. Sara ignored the warrior and continued to talk to the bard. "I won't let you down Gabrielle. I won't give up." Sara spoke bitterly.

"Sara, come with me." Lila spoke softly, surprising the two women when she entered the room. "Lila, I can't. I must keep her awake!" Sara resisted as tears cascaded down her cheeks. "No Sara. Gabrielle must rest now. Come with me." Lila encouraged her sister and extended a hand. "No..." Sara insisted weakly, ignoring Lila's offered hand. "Sara, we have to let Gabrielle sleep." Lila gently repeated and finally withdrew Sara from Gabrielle's side. Xena knew how helpless Sara felt. As Lila guided Sara to the door, Xena looked at the youngest sister thankfully.

Xena sat on the edge of the bed, observing Gabrielle fade in and out of consciousness. Once Gabrielle closed her eyes for deep and uninterrupted sleep, she prayed the bard would wake from her dreams. There was nothing the mighty Warrior Princess could do now but wait. All her wounds were carefully cleaned and skillfully stitched. There was nothing more she could do except wait.

Xena's eyes moistened as she found her fear continuing to grow, harder to control. She angrily wiped her first tear off her cheek which dared to escape from her eye. She had to be strong for Gabrielle's family...for herself.

Taking a deep breath, she remembered all the effort she took to push the bard away because of fear. A fear she would loose the bard if she told her how she felt. Now, she faced a different fear. A fear she would lose the bard before telling her how she felt.

"Gabrielle..." She uttered softly, her voice cracking. The bard seemed to respond to her voice but Gabrielle's eyes seemed to drift to a distant place.

"I love you." Xena whispered as she leaned over, softly kissing the bard on the lips.

In the morning, Lila came in finding Xena sleeping in a chair next to Gabrielle. "Xena, wake up, eat some food and stretch your legs." Lila instructed firmly. Without thinking, Xena got up to comply. Before getting to the door, Xena stopped in her tracks and slowly turned towards the bold young woman. "Just do it." Lila ordered her as she took Xena's seat to watch over Gabrielle. Xena looked over to Gabrielle and nodded.

Xena didn't really know Ustas, but felt she needed to look in on Gabrielle's uncle. She entered his shop gazing at the many wood carvings which adorned the walls, displaying pride in his work. He had every right to be proud of his talent, Xena noted, especially admiring the carvings.

Engrossed in his work, Ustas appeared startled at the presence of someone in his shop. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you." Xena apologized and started to leave considering that he wouldn't like the distraction from his craft.

"Nonsense...stay...I enjoy the company." His invitation was sincere. "I rather miss having someone in my workshop while I work." His voice was soft and gentle, which did not match his huge frame. He continued to work the wood.

The piece he carved was a rich dark wood, a kind Xena had never seen before. She thought of asking what it was but as she watched his hypnotic carving, the question was forgotten. One misguided and overpowering stroke could ruin the piece, yet Ustas's large hands were deftly guiding the blade where he wanted. She wondered what the final design would look like.

Uncle Ustas looked up from his work piece and chuckled at the sight of the Warrior Princess. "What?" She asked, snapping out of her trance, not particularly receptive any laughter at her expense. He grinned and continued, now sanding the piece of wood.

"You reminded me of Gabrielle just then...." He explained as he blew some dust of the piece to uncover the work surface. The comment surprised her. She had been compared to many things in her time, most of which were not good, yet this was one comparison she had never expected to hear. "How so?" she asked nonchalantly, hiding her incredible curiosity.

He looked up, now seeing nothing in her that reminded him of Gabrielle. "The look in your eyes when you were watching me work. Gabrielle had that same look of fascination when she would come visit my shop when I lived in Poteidaia. She was oh, about five or six when she first found my shop." He laughed to himself at the memory.

Xena listened quietly, certain he would continue without prompting. That was one of the things she could count on with Gabrielle, and Ustas was the bard's uncle. "She would sit there for hours just listening to me ramble on and telling stories while watching me do my woodwork." He looked down at the piece he was sanding and felt its surface. Finding the piece not smooth enough, he continued to sand.

Xena found his description of her friend difficult to accept. "Hours?" She repeated, watching him sand. "Hours" Ustas confirmed. "Listening and watching?" Xena stated. Ustas smiled. "Oh yes." He answered, finishing a piece and removing it from the vice. "Are you sure it wasn't Sara who you were remembering?" Xena challenged his memory.

"Oh, it was Gabrielle alright...Sara didn't like to waste time, she had to be productive almost every waking hour. Like now, she is helping our neighbors plant their fields with Meleager...poor guy...oh..I almost forgot...Kenis left for that orphanage and asked that you stop by on the way back to Walsas." He added, interrupting his story. The news of Kenis didn't help improve Xena's opinion of him, especially when it interrupted learning about her friend.

"We'll see." Xena said cooly. "You were talking about Gabrielle sitting still ....for hours?" Xena tried to get him back on track. Ustas laughed, finally understanding the source of the warrior's curiosity.

"Gabrielle wasn't always such an avid talker, although, she has more than made up for those quiet years hasn't she?" He grinned as he retrieved another piece of wood which needed working.

As he positioned the piece in the vice he stopped talking, which made Xena a bit impatient. Her desire to show only mild interest at best was becoming more difficult as this man delayed explaining something apparently significant about her friend. Quiet years? Gabrielle? She silently wondered, hoping he would explain soon. Luckily he started talking before she had to reveal her impatience and interrogate him.

"In fact, we were pretty worried about her as a child. We could tell she was an intelligent girl by the things she did and the look in her eye...but if people don't take the time, they never get to know that. Gabrielle promised herself she would always take the time to get to know someone." He scratched his head deciding which carving blade would best work on this piece. Xena was very familiar with how Gabrielle went out of her way to get to know people and find good in them. Yet the Warrior Princess still didn't know what Ustas was talking about.

"She tried to play with the other kids but you know how they can be....very cruel to those who are different. " He relayed as he picked up a new blade to carve with. Xena had used the word 'different' as an amusing way to describe the bard in the past but this 'different' did not sound amusing. "Except Perdicus of course...he knew what it was like to be somewhat of an outcast...he wasn't very athletic as a child....kinda surprising he became a soldier."

Uncle Ustas looked up at Xena who was hanging on every word. "A good soldier. He helped us at Troy." Xena added. Ustas knew that was a great compliment from the Warrior Princess and nodded.

"More importantly for Gabrielle, he was always a good friend." Ustas remarked knowing that was more valuable to the bard than any warrior skill Perdicus could have developed. The two words, good friend, stuck in Xena's mind. She noted that during the short time she had known Ustas, he had not yet addressed Perdicus as Gabrielle's husband, only 'good friend'.

"He was the one who came up with the idea that Gabrielle should practice telling stories so she wouldn't have so much trouble getting her words out." Ustas revealed as he worked his wood. "At first, I thought it was a ploy by the boy to keep Gabrielle's company. But it wasn't....well, not completely" Ustas laughed.

Xena wasn't sure she heard right. "She stuttered?" She asked in disbelief, unable to imagine the woman of many words with trouble speaking. Ustas nodded and continued his story.

"She would only practice in front of Perdicus. I tried to listen once, but I was caught. Boy was she mad. I could hear great improvements in her every day when she spoke, and well, I was really curious about her story telling. But she was determined the family would hear only a perfect story..." Ustas recalled the bard's pride.

"And it was! Her first story she told the family was called 'The Stars in the Sky" He shook his head remembering the day with amazement. "That little girl tackled one of the longest story I have ever heard told. But my gods, when she was ready to tell it was as if she never had a speech problem. She was born to touch us with her stories, Xena." He looked at her to convince the warrior of something she already knew.

"She found her voice that day." He added. "Since then, we haven't been able to get her to stop talking. Perdicus created a monster didn't he?" Ustas joked, laughing loudly as he retrieved another wood piece to sand. He didn't see Xena smile and stopped his work.

"What's wrong Xena." Ustas asked softly. "She never told me any of this." Xena revealed, not sure how to feel. Ustas smiled warmly at the warrior.

"Xena, to Gabrielle, that problem and its pain is in the past and she moved on." He informed her. Xena looked to him. "She understands it is really hard to enjoy today, and the promise of tomorrow, if you're looking back at the problems of yesterday."

Xena had learned more than she ever expected to from Ustas. It was impossible to imagine Gabrielle without her stories, without her words. 'Perdicus.....' Her thoughts drifted to the bard's dead husband. She never could have imagined how much he had done for Gabrielle, how much his love helped her. She never could have imagined she would be so thankful to him for being a part of Gabrielle's life.

The warrior's attention was drawn to the new piece Ustas was working on. "Damn..." Ustas' touch with the wood was apparently not always perfect. "What's that?" Xena interested in the piece he was working on, already knowing the answer.

"Useless. And it was the really good wood." He answered shaking his head as he held the cracked object next to his face. "Damn it. Damn it. Damn it" He repeated, finally getting his point across, Xena smiled.

Chapter 14 - The Awakening

Amazing Sara, Meleager and Ustas, Lila had successfully pulled Xena away from the bard's side for the third time in as many days, this time by telling her Argo needed to stretch her legs. Lila had exercised Four Feet but was not about to go near Argo. "Go. We need a break from you anyway." Lila commented with sarcasm that Meleager would never dare use with the Warrior Princess.

Lila looked in on her sister who had not stirred, then went to the kitchen. She stopped from entering when she saw Meleager sitting at the table and chatting with Sara while she was preparing for dinner. "Finally" Lila thought to herself, smiling at the two. She decided to go back to her sister's room and leave the two alone. When she entered the room, someone was missing.

"Uh...Sara?" Lila poked her head in the kitchen. "Have you seen Gabrielle?" She asked, not wanting to panic. "Very funny." Sara shook her head, continuing to prepare diner. "I'm not trying to be." Lila responded with a grave look that made Sara drop a knife on the table and rush outside. The sisters frantically looked about, not sure what to do.

"I'll get our horses ready, she couldn't have gotten far without Four Feet." Meleager informed the sisters, seeing Four Feet in the barn.

Sara paced. "I can't believe you lost her." She blurted. "I didn't loose her. She got up and walked out of the house! This is a good sign Sara." Lila responded nervously. "Then why are you trembling?" Sara asked. "I'm cold." Lila responded with annoyance.

Trotting in from a soothing ride, Xena saw Meleager and the sisters outside, upset about something. Lila looked up to see Xena coming directly towards them. "What happened?" Xena asked. "We lost Gabrielle." Sara blurted, making Xena's heart drop until Lila explained. "I didn't see her leave her room." Lila was now getting upset.

"Did you check the workshop?" Xena calmly asked Lila, who shook her head no. "The workshop! Of course!" Sara responded brightly.

Arriving at the workshop, they found Gabrielle sitting on a stool watching her Uncle carve a piece as he told her about the Ouzas and what happened. They nervously stood in the doorway, listening in to find out whether or not Gabrielle was alright.

Hearing the part about the climb and fall, Gabrielle shifted her stiff and bruised body which supported that story, though she her memory didn't. "I really don't remember falling." She said simply. "That's probably a good thing. It was quite a cliff you tried to climb." He laughed. "I'm sure Lila won't let me forget the fact that she reached the top and I didn't." Gabrielle yawned and brought relieved smiles to everyone except Xena, who fought to keep her eyes dry.

"That's right Princess Gabrielle...Amazon Bard" Lila rushed over to her sister and gave her a careful hug. "I am glad to help you add to your list of accomplishments Lila, great pots, outstanding nutbread AND can climb a mountain better than me. Of course, you did need a boost." Gabrielle added softly. Lila rolled her eyes.

Sara came over as Gabrielle looked at Xena, who was still standing next to Meleager in the doorway. A simple shrug from the bard and a grin at the Warrior Princess was exactly what Xena needed. Sara gave her sister a hug. "You need to eat something." Sara held her arm to help her up. "Dinner time already?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.

At the dinner table, Gabrielle picked at her food. Everyone noticed but no one said anything about the bard's unusually light appetite. Perhaps her stomach was still upset, Xena guessed.

Lila took great pleasure in recounting how Gabrielle got everyone off the ship, including Kenis. Gabrielle lifted her head at the mention of his name, realizing for the first time he wasn't with them. "He went to the orphanage." Xena noted, making the bard smile.

"Good." Gabrielle responded softly.

Lila continued her story when they got to the part about the fall. "Xena threw her Chakrum and knocked the arrow away....then the cliff ...gave way... you fell." Lila's enthusiasm for the story waned, remembering the horrible sight.

"So...I wasn't in a library after all." Gabrielle commented, not really sure of what happened after the fall. Xena shook her head no and Lila laughed softly. "When we found you under that pile of rocks we didn't know what to think" Lila's smile faded slightly. "We called for you, but you didn't answer. That was, until you heard Xena mention food." Lila relayed with amusement. Gabrielle eyed her friend who smiled slightly.

"Then you kept arguing with us that you just wanted to read, you held up the rocks as if they were scrolls." Lila looked at her sister. "I really thought they were. It all seemed so real." Gabrielle said softly shrugging. "We kept yelling at you to not fall asleep." Lila relayed. "I know! That was SO annoying." Gabrielle remembered those words spoken.

"We could tell." Xena responded, bringing another smile to the bard's face. "After Xena dug you out of the pile of rocks, you finally agreed to come but your leg gave way." Lila recounted.

Gabrielle shook her head with amazement that she remembered all those events, yet so differently. Her warm smile faded when it dawned on her. She had discussed very intimate things with Xena. Her eyes widened. 'Gods,' Gabrielle started to panic and question her faulty memory. Had she discussed intimate things with Xena? Oh Gods. Gabrielle's mind raced to pick out any morsels of reality from her amazing dream ... What if that memory was like the library...Gods, I tried to kiss her...or did kiss her...what must she think of me? Did she even know? It all seemed so real, surely...Oh Gods, they are going to hear....

"Are you ok?" Xena asked, seeing Gabrielle turn pale as her breathing become rapid and shallow. Gabrielle gulped and quickly nodded yes. Unable to look in the warrior's blue eyes, she returned her gaze to her sister who continued the story.

"Then Xena took you to a healer hoping he would know something more about head injuries. I don't know what happened after that. Xena?" Lila shrugged and looked to Xena who got up to get Gabrielle some water. "Ah, that's ok...I got the picture. I was out of my mind..." Gabrielle interjected to avoid complete mortification.

"Actually you seemed very coherent when you were talking to me." Xena commented from behind the bard as she placed a hand on the bard's shoulder and attempted to refilled Gabrielle's cup with water.

The warrior's comment that she was apparently coherent was, in itself, enough to unnerve the bard. However, the familiar touch and closeness of the warrior which Gabrielle's faulty memory recalled as the first of many intimate touches, made Gabrielle jump and knock her empty gobbet over. "Ah...oh...sorry." Gabrielle laughed sheepishly as she turned her goblet upright and smiled weakly at her friend and quickly looked away from those incredible eyes.

Xena took a deep breath and removed her hand from Gabrielle's shoulder as she poured the drink.

"Tell us what happened at the healer Xena." Sara asked, now able to be amused by the odd adventure now that the bard had recovered. "Yeah." Lila agreed with the request. Xena sat down with a soft smile. "I don't have much to add." Xena responded. Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief. "Except." Xena grinned.

"Although we rode miles to the healer, Gabrielle kept thinking we were walking around Sara's castle." Xena responded. "Gods, what a castle that would be." Sara mentioned with a laugh. "We rode?" Gabrielle questioned, only remembering a long walk. Xena nodded and continued.

"Then we arrived at the healer's door. It was actually a very ornate door." Xena mentioned, looking at Ustas. "I remember the door." Gabrielle responded in a defeated sigh, feeling the impending humiliation closer.

"When I opened the door, the room was cluttered with the healer's herbs and candles. By the look on your face, you were very pleased with what you saw." Xena smiled warmly at the bard. Gabrielle smiled weakly.

Sara probed further. "What did she say?" Xena remembered every word the bard spoke during that scary time. "She asked if it was for her and she then was at a loss for words. But I wanted her to keep talking to help her stay awake. I knew a little about head injuries and thought it was important at the time to keep Gabrielle awake." Xena looked at her friend glad that situation was in the past.

"What did you see Gabrielle?" Lila asked curiously. "Food, lots of food." Gabrielle sighed with resignation. Everyone chuckled.

"Then what?" Lila asked finding all this head injury stuff fascinating. "We really don't need any more of this to get the picture...I was out of my mind..." Gabrielle tried once again, unsuccessfully to stop this questioning. This only made her sisters laugh. Having wondered what Gabrielle thought during that time, and also finding this amusing, the warrior continued.

"I gave Gabrielle something to drink that the healer gave me. She couldn't swallow it and her stomach was upset. Then she asked me if I was alright." Xena shook her head with amazement. The bard always worried about the warrior.

"Why?" Meleager asked. Gods, did he have to join in the interrogation as well? Gabrielle thought to herself.

"I thought she was acting oddly." Gabrielle responded with a shrug, considering it unnecessary to explain to them she thought the Warrior Princess was making unexpected and subtle romantic advances. "Oddly, how?" Lila asked, not allowing the bard an easy out. Xena was very interested in the answer.

"I don't know...I was hit in the head with rocks, remember?" Gabrielle snapped back at her sister who grinned.

"Well you did tell me you were confused. I kept checking to see if Gabrielle's pupils were the still the same size, they were. She then looked around the room and stated it wasn't her birthday." Xena relayed. Gabrielle sighed and stared at her food. She was going to try and ignore the fact she was going to be humiliated soon. However, when Gabrielle's family chuckled at her less humiliating delusions, the bard became annoyed.

"Was it?" Gabrielle asked staring at her food. "No." Xena responded with concern until Gabrielle blurted "THANK you." Xena didn't understand why Gabrielle so defensive.

"Well, what happened next?" Lila asked with a grin. "Sorry to disappoint you Lila, but Gabrielle blacked out." Xena responded with a shrug. "Blacked out?" Gabrielle responded with great relief. "I blacked out...." Gabrielle repeated with a little regret. Xena nodded. "You didn't say... anything... else to me?" The bard immediately regretted saying that.

Xena hesitated not knowing how to answer that question. While she did tell the bard she loved her and ...well...kissed her on the lips... that was well after the bard blacked out at the healer's. Technically, Xena concluded, Gabrielle was referring to what was said at the healers, so the answer was no. It had to be no. Xena was not about to discuss her feelings with the bard's family before discussing them with the bard. A discussion which seemed unlikely now, Xena sighed, hurt by Gabrielle's reaction to her touch.

"What do you remember Xena saying?" Sara asked the Gabrielle who looked over to Xena who stared blankly at Sara. Gabrielle stared at her food again and sighed.

If only the words she thought she heard were actually uttered by the warrior's lips instead of fabricated by the romantic bard's mind, Gabrielle wished.

"Well, it all seemed so vivid." Gabrielle started into a story, knowing she had to say something. Yet, her heart was not in story telling this evening. Her heart was busy aching, discovering that more than anything, she wanted her dreams to be true but finding they were merely dreams.

"I was very thirsty and Xena kept pouring me a LOT of water. But it was salt water...." Gabrielle noticed everyone's eyes fixed on her. Xena saw Gabrielle force a smile. As she continued her story, the bard's eyes began to water.

"I thought, 'my....what is Xena doing giving me salt water that tastes bad'. Well, I asked her and she said ..." Gabrielle took a deep breath to control her emotions. "She told me it was good for me... " Gabrielle paused and a tear fell from her cheek.

Witnessing the bard becoming emotionally unsettled while telling a story made everyone fear she had not fully recovered.

"Well...I'm sorry, I don't seem to remember anything else...." Gabrielle lost all of what little story telling steam she had. Her heart wasn't in it. Seeing the lost look in the bard's eyes made everyone more nervous. "I guess I have been too stubborn until now to admit how tired I am...excuse me." Gabrielle abruptly got up and in the process, tripped on the chair. Xena grabbed her arm and steadied her. "Gab.." The warrior was quickly interrupted by a "good night" from the bard, causing Xena to released her hold on the bard's arm. When Gabrielle retreated to her room, the lost look was now in Xena's eyes.

Staring at her bedroom ceiling, far from sleep, Gabrielle could not take her mind off of Xena. Why did it take so long to understand these feelings, she wondered. Oh Gods, Gabrielle thought in horror, the distance that was growing between them was Xena only trying to distance herself from a lovesick friend.

Gabrielle's hands covered her face as she thought of her impassioned speech about Xena's powerful smile. "Stupid, Stupid, Stupid!" Gabrielle blurted. Tears welled up in the bard's sad eyes. How many times have I done that to her? Gabrielle wondered, having no idea until now how frightening her frequent and heartfelt words were to the those words only served to drive Xena further away. Gods, now what was she going to do? How could she face Xena? How could she protect her friend from her heart?

Chapter 15 - On the Road Back

Meleager and Xena were already mounted and watching the sisters say their final good-byes to their uncle. "I guess you'll be glad to get back to your men." Xena stated happily as things were getting back to normal. Gabrielle had gotten stronger the past week and was anxious to travel. Xena was more than willing to comply with that wish.

Meleager looked at her. "I'm not going to stay in Walsas." Meleager mentioned briskly. "Why?" Xena asked with surprise. "Sara...the Queen needs somebody she can count on. I am not that man." Meleager noted. "Meleager..." Xena started to argue. "I've made up my mind." Meleager snapped, not caring that Xena was the only warrior who could best him.

The sisters hugged their Uncle who was just getting use to all the company. "You should visit more." He blurted and hugged them again. "We will." Sara spoke for the family. "You child, gave us quite a scare." He sounded like he was scolding her but his large hand caressed the side of her face. "Sorry." Gabrielle responded with a shrug. "I just seem to attract trouble." Gabrielle joked. Ustas looked over to Xena. "Not always." He kissed her on the forehead. "You and Xena are welcome in my home any time." Ustas smiled at the bard.

As they rode behind Meleager and Gabrielle's sisters, Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, happy they were moving again. Perhaps she could keep herself distracted with travel and perhaps a few good ambushes, Gabrielle hoped.

"Are you ok?" Xena asked, concerned it was too soon for the bard to ride by herself on that horse. Gabrielle smiled politely and looked at her friend. "Yes, fine thank you. I know it's kinda late to ask but do you mind if we stop in on Kenis?" She asked a question she didn't need to ask.

Xena eyed Gabrielle, not sure if she was truly being polite or setting up the Warrior Princess for another argument ambush. She actually hoped for the latter, because that would mean the old Gabrielle was back. Ever since Gabrielle's recovery, Xena noticed with some concern how oddly the bard was acting - she was being incredibly polite.

Her smiles toward the Warrior Princess were very polite. Her conversations with the Warrior Princess were very polite. With all that politeness, Xena didn't have to worry about wearing out her Warrior's Mask.

"What do you think is wrong with him?" Lila asked Sara as they watched Meleager ride alone in front. Sara eyed him. "I think he is still upset that his man turned out to be an Ouzas." She relayed. "That's...." Lila was going to relay how foolish that was but stopped, seeing Sara nod in agreement. "Ugh...Ride with him." Lila blurted to her sister.

"What? I can't just ride up there now...What would I say?" Sara asked her youngest sister. Lila sighed. "It doesn't matter...try the weather, any fool can talk about the weather for awhile." Lila blurted and rode back to talk to the Warrior Princess and her other sister.

"You don't look happy." Gabrielle noted to her sister. "They're fools." Lila said bluntly with great annoyance. "Did you just want to make that general statement or did you have some specifics to share?" Gabrielle questioned her. Lila sighed. "Meleager is still upset about Merrid, and Sara doesn't know what to say to him." Lila shook her head.

"Meleager told me he was not going to stay in Walsas." Xena relayed. Gabrielle looked at the Warrior Princess with annoyance she didn't volunteer this information sooner. "When did you learn this?" Gabrielle asked coldly. "Just before we left." Xena answered, not about to apologize for not immediately gossiping about something that wasn't her business. Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned her head forward.

"Just wonderful." Lila thought to herself as she rode off to ride alone.

After making camp, Lila and Gabrielle went for a walk with Sara, leaving the two warriors alone. After sitting and watching Xena sharpen her sword he ventured a question. "Is Gabrielle mad at you?" He asked, drawing a cold stare from an unamused Warrior Princess. "Yes." Xena informed him and returned to sharping her sword. "Oh."

"He's leaving?" Sara asked, looking back towards the camp with surprise and concern. Gabrielle stared out over the lake as Lila informed her oldest sister of the news. "He told Xena that he was not staying in Walsas." Lila added.

"I can't believe she didn't tell me until YOU brought it up." Gabrielle muttered. "Would you give her a break? You have been annoyed with her for a week for no apparent reason." Lila responded. "I have been VERY po..." Gabrielle started to correct Lila. "Don't even TRY to convince me you're not mad at something Gabrielle..." Lila interrupted. "But you can't possibly be mad at Xena for not running to you to tell you of Meleager's decision." Lila added.

"Sure she can. Those warrior types always stick together..." Sara muttered in defense of Gabrielle. "Yeah." Gabrielle added.

"Now wait a minute!" Lila's voice raised as did her frustration with her sisters. "This has absolutely nothing to do with them being warriors." Lila argued.

"It's their pride that makes them act that way you know. Too proud to admit they are human and can make normal human mistakes." Sara stated, ignoring Lila's defense of the warriors. "Meleager the MIGHTY...where is Meleager the Man?" She added.

"Gods Sara, he's a warrior! What kind of fear would Meleager 'the Man' strike in anyone." Lila responded.

"Pride." Gabrielle repeats as she shakes her head and also ignores Lila's comments. "You hit the nail on the head, Sara." Gabrielle agreed with Sara. "Too proud to talk to you, too proud to show you their emotions, too proud....." Gabrielle blurted as Sara nodded in agreement.

"Hold it, hold it, HOLD IT!" Lila yelled out angrily, interrupting Gabrielle's speech on pride. "Before you go off and order their execution, have either of you bothered to tell them how YOU feel?" Lila barked at them with great annoyance. Sara and Gabrielle looked at each other. Apparently not, Lila concluded and rolled her eyes.

"Either you two are the biggest hypocrites I know or you are so DAMN blind you can't even see what is going on right in front of your own DAMN noses. I don't know which is worse! But it is PA..THE...TIC! You two are acting like such IDIOTS!!"

Hearing a noise in the forest, Xena stopped sharpening her sword. With a shift in the evening breeze, she heard familiar voices indicating the sisters were returning from their walk. Xena returned to sharpening, but stopped again when she observed only Gabrielle and Sara entered the clearing.

"Where's Lila?" Meleager asked, standing up with some concern. "She's coming." Gabrielle answered quickly. "She was hot...and needed cooling off." Gabrielle explained while she retrieved a blanket and some clothing from Lila's saddlebag. " the lake." Sara added matter-of-factly as she sat down and pulled out some bread from her saddlebags.

A moment later, Lila stomped into the clearing, fully clothed and soaking wet. Without a word, the angry Lila tore the blanket and clothing from Gabrielle's hands, whirled around, intentionally causing her wet hair to snap at her sister, and stomped away from camp. "So what's for dinner?" Gabrielle asked brightly, wiping water drops from her face.

The tension between the sisters made the warriors so uncomfortable, they were actually happy to finally arrive at the orphanage early the next day. As they rode into the clearing, Meleager and Xena immediately noticed the poor condition of the barn, which was absent a roof and a few animals. However, the orphanage looked ok. When Trollius and Willa came out with huge smiles to greet them, Meleager relaxed as much he could around a bunch of children and angry Poteidaians.

"May I take care of your horses?" Trollius offered, shocking the adults. "He's up to something." Meleager the Suspicious relayed to Xena. Gabrielle smiled and handed him the reigns to Four Feet. "Thank you Trollius, that is very kind of you." She said with a warm smile. "Your welcome." The boy smiled and blushed as he took Four Feet to the troth.

"G..Gabrielle!" Kenis rushed out and hugged her. "You're ok?" He asked, looking over her bruised body. "I think so. It's just hard to convince everyone else of that." Gabrielle eyed Lila and Xena, who both sighed. "I knew you w..would be ok." Kenis smiled and hugged her again. While Xena looked at Kenis with new, less harsh eyes, she still would have preferred it if he limited his touching to a handshake. She waited for Gabrielle to mention his notable improvements in speaking but the bard didn't say anything.

Sadness filled Kenis' eyes as he looked to Lila. Seeing Kenis about to apologize, Lila smiled. "No hard feelings Kenis." Lila offered, making him nod and thankful to avoid the subject.

"How about s..some food? We've got p..plenty of food." Kenis offered leading the group inside. Grena pulled on Gabrielle's hand to keep her back from the group. "Uh, Gabrielle? Did you see Trollius?" She smiled at Gabrielle. "I was going to ask you about him." Gabrielle looked over to the boy who was busy doing chores. "What happened?"

"I kept being nice to him." Grena smiled. "It was sooo hard but I didn't give up." She said proudly. Gabrielle took her hand and squeezed it. "I am very glad you didn't. Trollius' manners have been impeccable." The bard smiled the young girl, taking great pride in the transformation. They looked over to Trollius who was still busy doing chores with Vicus. "Now didn't Kenis mention food?" Gabrielle asked.

At the table, Willa kept singing Kenis' praises. "He is here full time now, thank the Gods." She smiled, looking at Kenis. "Not the G..Gods, Gabrielle." He corrected her. Gabrielle shook her head no. "Thanks to Dyessa." She looked into his sad eyes. He nodded in agreement but still thought the bard saved him.

"Kenis" Xena spoke up, surprising Gabrielle who had noted how cold Xena had been to the man in the past. "You sound like you are stuttering less." Xena relayed her observation. Gabrielle realized this truth only after Xena mentioned it. "She's right!" Gabrielle responded with delight as a broad smile crossed her face. Kenis blushed. "I've b..been practicing." He revealed, looking at a very pleased Gabrielle. "Your practicing is paying off Kenis." Xena added sincerely. "I've got ...a ..long ...go yet." He sighed, his speech was still slow and broken but his desire to improve was strong. Xena nodded and smiled warmly. Another person helped by the bard, she mused.

With Willa and Meleager talking about the storm and Kenis and Sara in an enlivened discussion about the children, Xena's glanced over to the bard to find Gabrielle looking at her with an intense gaze.

A gaze that was not one of Gabrielle's polite glances with one of those annoying polite smiles, Xena considered thankfully. As the bard maintained eye contact, Xena noticed the gaze take on a different look. A look which made Warrior Princess think the bard wouldn't jump if she touched her. Careful Xena, she warned herself, looking away. Don't read too much into a simple look, she sighed. When she dared to look back, her emotions were mixed finding the bard's eyes no longer on her.

"So what happened to the barn?" Meleager asked. "That horrible storm that blew through here, took the barn's roof with it." Willa relayed as she swept her arm through the air. "We lost s...some an..nimals too." Kenis relayed sadly. "No use crying over what happened. No one was hurt and we will rebuild. We've done that plenty of times before." Willa rolled up her sleeves and got the children to help her clear the table.

"Any chance of a STORY for the children before you go?" Willa said loudly to attract the attention of the children. She was very successful. "Story!" The children blurted out in excitement. "You don't play very fair Willa." Gabrielle observed with a grin.

"Life's too short to beat around the bush my dear." Willa responded with a wink, making Gabrielle pause and consider those words of wisdom. Lila deliberately coughed, successfully drawing an annoyed look from the bard.

"Do you want some water?" Meleager asked Lila. "No thanks, I've had plenty of water...." Lila responded.

Before spinning another tale for the children, Gabrielle leaned over and spoke quietly in Kenis' ear. "So Kenis, when do you think you'll be ready to tell a story?" He looked up at her. "I'm not s..sure I'll ever ready for th..these kids..." He responded honestly making her laugh. "You've got a point." She responded with a smile but was convinced the children would soon enjoy a story from this man.

Somehow, Meleager found himself rebuilding the barn roof. He would have rather listened to Gabrielle tell Aesop's story about the Rabbit and the Hare, wondering what the story could be spun about those two animals.

Hitting the hammer on his thumb again, he muttered at how the Queen kept volunteering his help to people. First it was Ustas' neighbors who had an obscenely large plot of land that had to be plowed and planted. He wasn't a farmer, damn it. Yet, he plowed and planted. Then it was Ustas' neighbors who amazingly, had to re-shoe all their six horses at the same time. He wasn't a black smith, damn it. Yet, he re-shoed. Now it was this barn he had to fix. He wasn't a carpenter, damn it. Yet here he was on this ladder fixing this roof. As he hammered his last nail into the roof shingle, he felt his ladder shake. He looked down to find the Queen climbing up the ladder with nails.

"How does she do that?" He questioned silently. She smiled warmly as she handed him another bag of nails. "You are doing such a good job on this roof, are you sure you haven't done this before?" Sara asked sincerely, making the warrior feel proud. "Never...never HAD to. Are you finished with the barn door?" He smiled, asking as he inspected the nails. "Yes, but the door was easy compared to this." She responded while admiring his handy work. When he looked down at the Queen...Sara, he looked at this woman with respect and admiration. Every time she had volunteered his help, she was there, working right along side of him.

"Well, just wait until you get back to the castle. There are a few challenging projects I have planned that I really need your help with." She smiled and climbed down the ladder. He was about to inform her that he wouldn't be around to help her but something stopped him. Perhaps he would just help her finish those projects first, then move on. It was the least he could do, especially since he felt he needed to make it up to the Queen for his failings as the Captain of the Guard.

As Sara returned to the ground, Lila pulled her aside. "Did he say anything?" Lila asked, wondering if her advice worked. "No" Sara grinned broadly. "Lila you were right. About this..." Sara pointed up the ladder. "...and the part about being a hypocrite." Sara admitted, feeling bad about the lake incident. Lila smiled with satisfaction, then frowned.

"What?" Sara asked with concern. "My work is not yet done...What about her?" Lila asked as they looked over to the front door of the orphanage where their sister was emerging with Xena, Willa and Kenis.

The two women looked over at Argo then back at each other with devious grins and spoke in unison. "Four Feet."

"Gabrielle? Could you come here a moment?" Sara called out to her sister in a melodic voice. "Please?" Lila added, causing a concerned look on the Gabrielle's face. She looked at Xena wondering if she also noticed them acting oddly. "Let me know if you need any help." Xena responded, making bard smile. "Thanks. I'll keep you in mind." Gabrielle responded and went to join her sisters.

"Good, I wanted to talk to you." Gabrielle relayed, as she arrived at her sisters' side. "Oh?" Sara responded, with surprise and some suspicion. "You know that Willa and Kenis lost their horses in the storm and I was thinking...." Gabrielle started to explain. Sara and Lila looked at each other in amazement. "Well...they need a horse and I thought you could let them take care of Four Feet for you." Gabrielle suggested. "Good idea." Sara responded with an affirmative nod, making the bard smile.

Although tired from fixing the barn, Meleager was happy they moving on and not staying any longer. Meleager and Xena were the first to mount, and the most ready to leave. "Ow...what in HADES..." Meleager yelped as he mounted. He quickly found the source of his pain when he pulled out a strategically placed spur from his saddle and heard giggling from the shadows. "Trollius..." Meleager uttered and squeezed his sword handle. "You should have checked your mount." Xena eyed him with no sympathy.

The warriors watched the sisters say good-bye to Willa and Kenis, and go to their horses. Turning towards the direction of Walsas, Xena eyed Meleager. "Are you still going to leave Walsas?" Xena asked. "Well...not right away. Sara mentioned she really needed my help with a few projects and well, it wouldn't be right to not help her before I go." He explained. "You're right." Xena responded with a nod, supporting his decision. Definitely in over his head, Xena mused.

Lila and Sara rode past the two warriors, grinning silently. "Well, it's about time." Meleager remarked as he started to follow them. Xena waited for Gabrielle. Not seeing her after a few moments, she turned to see what was keeping the bard. To her surprise, there was the familiar sight of the bard walking towards her.

Before Xena could ask where the horse with the stupid name was, Gabrielle explained. "Four Feet is needed here." Gabrielle looked back at the orphanage and returned a wave to group. "Oh." Xena responded numbly, not sure how to feel about that news. A moment passed when she realized the bard was waiting for something. "Oh!" Xena smiled, and as she had done so many times in the past, offered her arm to help the bard up behind her. However, her heart dropped when Gabrielle didn't take the offered arm.

"Do you mind if..." Gabrielle started to ask something when the warrior awkwardly retracted her arm and interrupted. "I understand, you want to walk..." Xena responded, not doing a very good job of covering up her disappointment. Gabrielle shook her head. "No..." Gabrielle responded with some annoyance. "I was going to ask you if you mind if I rode in front.....I can see better." Gabrielle informed the warrior.

"Oh..." Xena responded, not doing a very good job of covering up she was happy. Xena quickly dismounted, allowing Gabrielle to take her place forward in the saddle. When Xena sat behind the bard, she was very careful taking the reigns, trying to minimize their contact which was rather difficult riding together in the same saddle. Gabrielle sighed. "Xena." The bard spoke with annoyance. Xena tensed up. This was a bad idea, she thought, Gabrielle was uncomfortable with her touch.

"If I fall off, you will be in big trouble." She blurted as she took the warrior's arm and wrapped it around her waist. Gabrielle heard the warrior take a sharp breath and hoped that was a good sign. The sign was confirmed as good when the warrior pulled the bard as close as she could and kept her arm snugly around the bard's bare-skinned waist. Her choice of clothing not so foolish now, Gabrielle smiled, recalling her sister's words.

"How's that?" Xena breathed in the bard's ear. "Better, much...better." Gabrielle's voice cracked.

Chapter 16 - Fair is Fair

Not an hour since their return, Xena disappeared. Gabrielle wondered if that ride with the warrior was pushing things a little too fast, making Xena feel the need to escape. The ride was very... intense, the bard had to admit. The feel of Xena's warmth at her back, the warrior's soft voice and breath in her ear, sensations that made Gabrielle glad for the snug arm around her waist. Without it, she surely would have fallen off Argo. The Warrior Princess had to know how much her touch affected her and perhaps it scared her, the bard considered. The last thing she wanted to do was scare the Warrior Princess.

Entering the kitchen, one place she hadn't looked yet for Xena, Gabrielle felt an unexpected hand on her shoulder and jumped. "Ack!" Gabrielle blurted, then heard laughter from the Warrior Princess. "That's not funny!" Gabrielle responded with some annoyance.

"Another nutbread raid Gabrielle?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow, her hand lingering on the bard's shoulder. "Actually, I was looking for YOU." Gabrielle countered. "Unhun." Xena responded accusingly. "Fine...You really didn't need to hear that message from Cumae anyway." Gabrielle threatened. "She's back in Walsas too?" Xena asked with great interest. She had hoped to visit her friend before they left.

Gabrielle stood silently with her arms crossed and a thin smile on her face. Xena rolled her eyes. "Alright, alright...I'm sorry." Xena apologized and smiled seeing the bard's victory grin.

Sara and Lila came in the kitchen as Xena left. "Where's she going?" Lila asked. "To visit Cumae." Gabrielle relayed, her eyes fixed on the departing Warrior Princess. "Things are going well I can assume?" Sara asked as Lila headed for the shelf where the nutbread used to be. "So far." Gabrielle grinned and did not volunteer any more information.

"Hey, where's the nutbread?" Lila asked searching the containers. "We don't have any." Sara eyed Gabrielle, who sighed. "Then we'll make some!" Lila stated with enthusiasm, reaching for a container of nuts. "We don't have any nuts either...." Sara eyed Gabrielle again.

"Now wait a minute, I did not eat all your nuts!" Gabrielle protested the silent accusations. "We've got nuts...lots of nuts. See..." Lila showed her sisters. "Now how did they get there?" Sara rushed over to Lila's side to figure out the mystery. "Your cook obviously." Gabrielle responded with certainty.

"I fired him and his staff before we left for Marapolis. I doubt he would have replaced the nuts on his way out the door." Sara relayed. "You know, I think I saw Meleager come through here with a bag. Maybe he got you the nuts." Lila offered a possible explanation. Sara's face lit up. "After all we've been through, he remembered my nuts!" Sara gushed, making Lila wonder why Sara was acting like she was the sister with a head injury.

"Wasn't that thoughtful of him!" Sara pulled a container of nuts to her breast, hugging the jar. "Yeah, very thoughtful." Gabrielle responded, looking at Lila with the same concern about Sara. "I had no idea he could be so romantic..." Sara blurted.

"Meleager? Romantic?" Lila asked with a belly laugh, causing Sara to give Lila a warning glare. A glare similar to the one she received just before taking that unexpected swim in the lake. Lila promised herself she would never again be caught off-guard like that, eyeing her sisters for any signs of trouble.

"You'd be surprised Lila. Meleager tried to stage a romantic encounter with Sara on the balcony the night before we left for Marapolis. Unfortunately, he showed up at the wrong balcony - MINE." Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. Sara and Lila were dumbfounded, then very amused.

"He got the wrong balcony?" Lila laughed hard. "So THAT'S why he was there in the garden!" Sara started to laugh too, but stopped. "Wait a minute....that doesn't explain why Xena was in the bushes" Sara asked.

"Xena was involved?" Lila was shocked. "I am sure Meleager needed some moral support and Xena has a hard time saying no to people in need." Gabrielle relayed with a warm smile. "Well, I think he needed a better navigator." Lila responded, causing them to giggle.

"Gabrielle? Remember you agreed that you owed me one?" Sara asked with a familiar Poteidaian family twinkle in her eye. "Yeah?" Gabrielle responded with some concern. "Well I am calling that favor in." Sara informed her. "It's not going to be painful is it?" Gabrielle cringed. "Not for us." Sara smiled, intriguing Lila. "I do hope you'll let me help." Lila interjected. "You don't know what you're getting yourself into, there could be some risk." Sara put her hand on her youngest sister's shoulder. "I am willing to accept that responsibility." Lila said with a straight face. "OK then!"

The dinner was modest for a castle that size, but having fired her cooking staff and not having all day to prepare dinner, Sara made due with what she could. No one complained. It was a delicious and comfortable meal. Although, it was not entirely comfortable for Xena or Meleager, who had trouble paying attention to the conversation at the table because of the incredibly distracting Poteidaian sisters sitting across from them. In addition to working hard to deliver the feast, the two sisters somehow found the time to dress up in gorgeous gowns, the warriors noted.

Lila sat back quietly and watched with great amusement at how the sisters pretended not to notice the warriors gazes and how the warriors tried to pretend they were not gazing. Gods, they are in over their heads, Lila mused with a smile to herself. It was almost worth all that work in the kitchen while those two dressed up, just to see this amusing spectacle.

"I have gotten use to my family being here. I wish you didn't have to leave tomorrow." Sara, who had Meleager's eyes glued to her, looked over to Gabrielle hopefully. Xena also looked over to the bard, willing to stay a few more days if that's what Gabrielle wanted.

Mesmerized by that dark blue gown Gabrielle was wearing, and of course, by the beautiful bard wearing it, Xena considered she would probably agree to anything the bard asked. 'Who am I fooling', Xena thought to herself, 'there are no probably's about it.' However, Xena was very relieved when the bard insisted they had to be on their way. She missed their time alone, when the warrior had Gabrielle all to herself. She would have to ask Gabrielle to tell her that ... distracting ... story about the young lovers which the warrior never let her finish, Xena grinned to herself. She was ready to let the bard finish her story.

Sara nodded to her sister and got up from the table, smiling at the bard. "Well before you go Gabrielle, I wanted to show you something. Do you mind?" She held her hand out to encourage her sister from the table. "Hmmm...She's being very mysterious." Gabrielle relayed to Xena with a shrug and grin as she took Sara's hand. "We'll be back in a moment." Sara informed Lila and the disappointed warriors.

The warrior's silent appreciation of the women as they left was interrupted by their youngest sister, who until now kept quiet.

"So ... tell me Meleager...what is the actual number of men have you single handedly killed in that famous battle...what was the name of that battle.... Killamenlotta?" Lila asked him, placing her chin in her palm and resting her elbow on the table. Meleager rolled his eyes, missing her previous silence. The Mighty looked at Xena who smiled and sipped her wine, grateful the young woman was asking him and not her about her battles.

"37 men...." He admitted, surprising Xena who had heard it was in the hundreds. "and a really mean mule...I guess I had great advertisement." Meleager shrugged and explained.

Lila smiled, sat back with crossed arms, eyeing Xena who's old feelings of discomfort around Gabrielle's youngest sister resurfaced. After a moment, Lila spoke again. "So... are you able to throw your Chakrum and KILL..." The direction of Lila's question immediately concerned Xena, who though the bard's little sister was going to probe further into her bloody past or worse, try to argue that a person like her shouldn't be with a person as wonderful as Gabrielle.

"...and then, turn around throw the same weapon and just knock people out? It just seems like it should be either one... or the other...." Lila asked, with an innocent look. Xena looked at her and sighed with relief, wondering just when Gabrielle would get back.

"Excuse me" A royal messenger came in the dinning room. The warriors welcomed his interruption. "Sara and Gabrielle would like you all to join them on the south balcony for some dessert." Xena and Meleager smiled, pleased with the surprise and relieved they had a path of retreat from Lila's questioning.

"Why can't we just have dessert in here?" Lila asked. Meleager and Xena looked at each other as they started to get up. "They wanted to do something nice for us on our last night together." Xena responded to Lila. "What about the bugs? They could have just as easily been nice in here...I really don't like eating outside, especially after all our time traveling." Lila countered with a complaint, starting to annoy the two warriors who just shook their heads and left for the South balcony.

The South balcony had an impressive table set up on it with various desserts, Xena noted and smiled seeing nutbread prominently displayed in the center of the table. "Wow!" Meleager looked at the goodies with amazement. "I could get use to this!" He smiled as he poured two mugs of port wine and handed Xena one.

"I wonder what's keeping Gabrielle and Sara?" Xena asked, starting to notice they were taking a long time. "They'll be here." Lila responded melodically and smiled innocently as she leaned in the doorframe. Xena immediately suspected her of something, wondering what put that grin on Lila's face.

"Just the same, I'll go get them." Meleager put his drink down and started inside. "Tell him not to leave!" A not so discreet voice came from the ground below. A voice that belonged to Gabrielle. "HEY! STOP!" Sara yelled up to him in an annoyingly familiar manner. The two warriors looked at each other. When they walked to the edge of the balcony and peered over, they found Sara standing in the garden and Gabrielle crouched and not well hidden in the bushes.

"You warned me something like this would happen." Meleager rubbed his chin thoughtfully, still eyeing his opponent on the ground. "Yep." Xena responded. "I thought after all that we went through..." He added, looking innocently over at her. Xena shook her head and sighed at her naive fellow warrior. "But they seem so innocent, I had no idea ..." He responded. "That's what makes them so dangerous." She stated with authority.

They looked back at the doorway where a smiling Lila was still leaning. "We're trapped." Meleager responded as if Lila would actually be able stop the two warriors from leaving the balcony. However, he was slowly learning it is not wise to underestimate ANY Poteidaian. "And out numbered." Xena noted the obvious.

Xena resigned herself to the fact they were going to be the object of the sisters' amusement for the evening, and likely, many evenings to come. Deciding to at least make herself comfortable while she waited for the inevitable humiliation, she sat on the balcony banister and sipped her wine. Meleager preferred to stand and face whatever torture awaited them.

"Didn't you say that being down there was a disadvantage?" He looked over to Xena hopefully. "That was when we were down there." Xena explained, sipping her drink.

Meleager scratched his head. "and now that we are up here... the place of disadvantage is?" Meleager asked. "Up here." Xena responded. He nodded with resignation, accepting their inherent disadvantage. "This is going to be slow and painful....isn't it?" He asked. "I'm afraid so." Xena sighed.

"What!? What!? I can't hear you!" Sara yelled at her sister. After a rustling in the bushes, Gabrielle comes out conspicuously, in mock annoyance, holding a single leafy branch in front of her. Xena had to smile at the ridiculous sight. "Tell him ... 'it would be CRUEL ... to not SHARE .... his BEAUTY .... a few more MINUTES ....with ME'..." Gabrielle spoke as deliberately and slowly as Xena had the other night. Meleager snickered, seeing Xena's smile fade as she realized Gabrielle knew much more about that evening than she thought.

"It would be CRUEL to SHARE your BEAUTY with ME." Sara repeated most of the important words. "no..No...NO!" Gabrielle blurted with annoyance. "Oh." Sara responded.

"HEY YOU! Thanks for STAYING...its GOOD of you ." Sara added, wiping the grin off of Meleager's face when he realized his words, which until now, seemed fine to him, were being used against him. "Fair is fair." Xena responded to her comrade in abuse. Lila giggled in the background.

There was a moment of quiet from the ground below as Gabrielle and Sara spoke quietly to each other. This unusual quiet piqued the warriors' curiosity. The looked at each other then back down to the garden. With a clear voice from the ground, the mood of frivolity was turned into great seriousness.

"Tell him ....'I have had a great gift in my life... to have loved someone who loved me very deeply'..." Gabrielle told her sister. Sara looked up to Meleager who's eyes were fixed on her. "A great love." Sara stated, returning his gaze. Xena uncomfortably stared at her goblet of wine.

"Tell him...'There is no way to compete with that past love'..." Gabrielle added. "You can't compete with the past and you SHOULDN'T try." Sara repeated in her own words. Meleager breathed deeply, listening nervously.

"Tell him..." Gabrielle told her sister, then paused a moment. "I know there are people in your past that I can't compete with." Gabrielle lowered her branch to see Meleager focused on Sara and Xena still on her goblet. Gabrielle sighed. "We've ALL had pasts...." Sara added for emphasis.

"Tell him...'This is NOT a competition'..." Gabrielle spoke with some annoyance and continued.

"Tell him... 'Don't let the past interfere with our ability to love each other now and tomorrow." Gabrielle spoke with great feeling, then a grin crossed quickly crossed her face.

"So stop WALLOWING in the past and let's MOVE on!" Gabrielle barked. Sara looked at her and realized she couldn't paraphrase it any better. "YEAH!..What she said!" Queen Sara called up. Meleager beamed. Gabrielle saw Xena finally look up from her goblet and gaze at her with those incredible eyes.

"Tell him...'you have beautiful eyes'...." Gabrielle grinned at Xena, who couldn't help but smile with the memories of the past. But more importantly, Xena smiled with the promise of memories they would make in the future.

Sara laughed, considering Meleager's eyes were not what she considered "beautiful" but she shrugged and almost complied with her sister's request. "You've got eyes...If you would use them, you would see that I love you and you would SEE that it only makes sense to marry me!" Sara blurted with a grin. Gabrielle's mouth dropped. Marriage was a big leap from the romantic encounter and humiliation they planned.

Lila rushed over to the balcony with a big smile then patted a stunned Meleager on the back. "Welcome to the family." Meleager was still in shock. Xena stood up from the balcony railing and faced the still speechless Meleager. "Good'll need it." Xena looked at him with utter seriousness.


The next night, their first time in a long time they were alone under the stars together, Gabrielle returned to camp. She sat down on the edge of her bedroll and stared at the fire. She was more than a little annoyed. "Enjoy your walk?" Xena asked, nibbling on some nuts.

"It was delightful." Gabrielle responded sarcastically. Xena smiled to herself. "Aren't you going to tell a story?" Xena asked as Gabrielle continued to stare silently, now into the woods. Xena was ready to request that Romantic Epic she had yet to let the bard finish.

What went wrong? The bard asked herself. After all that happened, she had expected Xena to visit her in her room last night. But she didn't, the bard sighed. She didn't even say a single word to her about last night during their walk today, Gabrielle sighed. A walk! Gabrielle noted with annoyance. What went wrong?

"Not now...maybe later..." Gabrielle responded with a sigh and continued to stare blankly, now up at the stars.

First, the ride with Xena back to Walsas made her think, without a doubt, that Xena felt the same way. Of course, she was so busy being distracted by the warrior's proximity perhaps she wasn't paying enough attention to see if Xena really did feel the same way...ugh. Maybe that was it. NO! There was no doubt Xena enjoyed that ride together as much as she did, Gabrielle thought to herself, becoming more confused. What went wrong? The bard sighed.

"Are you sure?" Xena asked.

Then she wore that beautiful gown their last evening in Walsas to please the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle thought to herself. The intense gaze of desire in Xena's blue eyes made her think she was more than successful. The bard was certain she was not going to spend that evening alone. But she did. What went wrong? The bard sighed.

"I'm not in the mood right now..." Gabrielle responded.

Then the bard told her she loved her, well.... not directly. Perhaps it was too subtle, Gabrielle guessed. Gods, Xena is not stupid! She knew I was talking about her, Gabrielle thought with conviction. Ugh, Gabrielle silently moaned, realizing Xena also knew she was making fun of her attempts to help Meleager. That had to be it. Xena wanted to help him and I ended up hurting her feelings by making fun of her for it, Gabrielle sighed. Gods...Gabrielle quietly moaned and placed her hands over her face. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. Perhaps there was a way to still salvage everything, the bard considered, and began to hope. 'Come on bard, think of something!' She told herself. Like what? She asked herself, drawing a blank. Well, there was always the direct approach, she considered.

"Are you sure?" Xena asked again, nibbling on more nuts. This was not working out like she had planned, Xena thought to herself.

Gabrielle was supposed to tell a story. The Warrior Princess was going to ask to hear that Romantic Epic. The bard would begin to spin her tale. The Warrior Princess would sit back and enjoy the manipulation by the bard, encouraging the bard to romance her with her words where needed. The Warrior Princess was going to allow herself to feel all those emotions she had carefully avoided... masked...denied. She was going to get rid of her mask once and for all....It was going to be so wonderfully easy. This was not turning out like she had planned, Xena started to worry.

Xena noticed the bard staring at her. "Can I ask you a question?" Gabrielle asked the surprised warrior. "Sure...." Xena responded a little nervously, wondering what the question would be.

Then the warrior noticed Gabrielle stare at the bag of nuts in her hands. When the bard's eyes narrowed, Xena cleared her throat. "Oh...did you want some?" Xena responded holding out the nuts, knowing she was in trouble.

"You ate the nuts didn't you?" Gabrielle said cooly. "You ate ALL the nuts...didn't you?" Gabrielle repeated quickly to add "ALL" for emphasis. "I can't believe you let me go through every jar in that castle." She blurted. "I helped you...." Xena offered, not helping her case. "I can't believe you let me take the blame for the nuts!" Gabrielle didn't let Xena respond, not that the Warrior Princess had a defense for that...excuse, yes, defense, no.

"You are in SOOO much trouble my warrior princess, you have NO idea." Gabrielle responded shaking her head.

"At least I replaced what I took." Xena countered. Gabrielle was going to use the argument that she wouldn't have been able to make any nutbread, even if she had thought of it, because the Warrior Princess ate all the nuts, but she was distracted by Xena's admission.

"You did what!?" Gabrielle looked at her with astonishment. "I said... I replaced the nuts. Which is more than I can say for some..." Xena's annoyed response was interrupted by giggling.

"What!?" Xena questioned the bard.

"Boy if word of this gets around, no one will EVER ask for your help in the romance department again...when you help, there is no middle ground is there?" Gabrielle responded, obviously very amused.

"What are you talking about?" Xena asked with annoyance, considering she had already endured enough ribbing for her failed attempts at helping Meleager and was not in the mood for more.

"Sara's proposal to Meleager." Gabrielle took a couple breaths to control her laughter and wiped the tears from her eyes. "she was so touched by 'HIS' thoughtfulness in replacing the nuts, she ended up proposing to the guy... you got him ENGAGED Xena!" Gabrielle burst out laughing again.

An amused grin crossed the warrior's face. "Well Meleager DID ask for my help." Xena responded and shrugged, making Gabrielle laugh harder.

"Oh Gods." Gabrielle sighed as she fell back onto her bed roll, weak from laughing so hard. "Ow." Gabrielle responded to something very uncomfortable under her blanket which jabbed her.

"Gabrielle?" Xena questioned the bard with some concern. When the bard pulled out the cause of her yelp, Xena took a nervous breath. This was not turning out as planned, Xena thought.

"It's....a mask..." Gabrielle's voice faded as she stared at the wood mask in her nervous hand. "What... happened to it?" Gabrielle asked the warrior in a barely audible voice, noting the split in the wood.

A warrior must adapt and overcome, Xena considered. 'And I will', she promised herself. Looking in the bard's eyes and remembering the lesson in Ustas' shop, Xena drew strength to fight for today, and the promise of tomorrow with the bard.

"You tried to warn me not to wear it too much..." Xena responded as she moved closer to the target of her affection. She knelt down and stared at the mask a moment then into the bard's confused eyes.

Unhindered by the distraction of past doubts or hesitation from uncertainty, the Warrior Princess confidently entered the emotional battlefield, finally with a clear objective - to take complete and unquestionable possession of the bard's heart. Her own, so long ago and easily captured by the bard.

"One too many smiles I guess." Xena added, not hesitating to use the bard's own words as weapons against her. While she was painfully aware her ability in wielding those weapons paled in comparison to the bard, the warrior also understood the strategic value of surprise, which would cover her lack of skill with those still powerful weapons.

It was clear the warrior's strategy was working, for even her clumsy blows with the bard's weapons successfully weakened her target of affection's defenses. Tears welled up in the bard's eyes as she looked up into the warrior's unwavering gaze.

Unwise to solely rely on one type of weapon in a battle of this import, Xena reached out and gently caressed Gabrielle's cheek, causing the bard to tremble and take a sharp breath.

"It is actually your fault the mask is broken." Xena informed her as she moved closer, sitting next to her target. No longer encumbered with the distance between them, the Warrior Princess was better able to wield her weapon of touch with the meticulous precision needed.

As the warrior's fingers slowly traced a line from her brow to her chin, the woman of many words became a woman of no words....unable to wield even the smallest of her weapons, for the warrior had completely disarmed her. Overwhelmed by her emotions, Gabrielle closed her eyes, treasuring each word spoken and savoring each touch given as gifts she thought she might never receive.

"The way you make me feel Gabrielle....I can't help but smile." Xena continued to wield her weapon of touch with deft skill and confidence as she glided her fingers over the bard's sensitive skin to the nape of her neck. In a brief moment of fear that this was once again only a dream, the bard opened her eyes. As she focused on the Warrior Princess' face before her, feeling her touch, and hearing her words, the bard knew this was not a dream.

Still bound by honor, the warrior paused to find any indication that the bard needed a path for retreat from this final advance. She found none.

Xena slowly pulled Gabrielle towards her, until their lips were within an inch. Gabrielle's pulse raced as she felt Xena's warm breath against her cheek.

Only a single phrase away from complete victory in this war on uncertain ground, Xena parted her lips to finally finish this long emotional battle and claim her prize. However, the Warrior Princess stumbled in her advance, hesitating to wield the final three, most powerful weapons against the bard.

As if sensing the warrior's trouble on this emotional battlefield, the bard silently called in reinforcements which arrived in the form of loving strokes of the warrior's cheek. With the strength provided by those reinforcements, the warrior was able to continue her advance.

Without the vibrato usually accompanying the final blows of a monumental victory, but containing much more power than a catapult and delivered with more accuracy than an expert archer's arrow, the final three weapons were wielded with amazing tenderness. "I love you."

As their lips met, Gabrielle no longer wondered what it would be like to touch the stars.


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