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Disclaimers: MCA and Renaissance own all rights to Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Ephiny, Eponin and Solari. Any other characters and the story itself belong to me. I am not making a single penny from writing about them but I do live in constant hope. If you want to post this to your own web site somewhere, please do so but it would be really nice if you ask my permission about it first.

Warnings: There are scenes of consensual sex between two women depicted in this story. If this is against the law in your part of the world or if you are underage, please delete now. If you find such material offensive, this is how I see the characters so kindly supplied by Renaissance and I am not about to apologise for my own vision of them. There are also mentions of rape in this story. It doesn't happen but it was important to the story I was telling at the time. Just thought you might like some warning if such a subject might upset you.

Hanky Alert: Yea, you might need two or three of them. (Someone to cuddle afterwards might help too.)

A few brief words of thanks to the people who put these wonderful websites together never goes astray. Let's them know all their hard work is appreciated by those that actually hit the site.

And Many Thanks: To my devoted and much beloved beta readers, Danielle and Deb, for plowing through each days effort here and commenting on each section. Thanks also to my Editor From Heaven, for not only tightening up any loose bits she found but for also explaining, yet again, another rule of grammar I keep messing up. All three of you are worth your weight in chocolate!! A special hug and gentle kiss on the cheek to the Warrior-Singer for being so overcome with emotion after reading this story for the first time, she was almost unable to comment at all. Your faith in my ability will always be cherished here. J. January 98.

Choices In Life


Jamie Boughen

The Warrior-Bard



A young Amazon warrior dropped lightly from the trees overhead into a small, sun-dappled clearing in the center of an unnamed stretch of forest. The only sounds to be heard were the small birds calling to each other as they fluttered from twig to twig and the gentle sighing of the late afternoon breeze through the leaves. The warrior herself made no noise as she walked towards the center of the glade, the thick moss absorbing her passing footfall. Multi-toned greens and browns surrounded her on all sides, with little jagged patches of blue from the sky showing through the gaps in the leaves over her head.

She had searched for almost two full seasons to find this place, and she didn't want to disturb the sense of peace and tranquillity she found there. The little clearing had been hidden deep in the forest, far from the usual paths and tracks that other travellers might have taken. Dropping to one knee, she reached out and brushed her fingertips lightly over the piled stones of a single, large grave. The headstone was mostly rough-hewn, though someone had taken special care to smooth the one side where an inscription had been engraved by the hand of some master stone-smith. There was no name or date of passing carved into the stone, but she knew she had found the right place at last.

Lowering herself to sit cross-legged beside the grave, she placed one hand on the rocks as though making contact with the occupant. Letting the peace and silence of the glade gradually fill her, she wiped a tear from her cheek and began to speak quietly, knowing she would be heard.

The woman paused, not quite sure how to continue. In the quiet of the forest clearing, surrounded by all the small sounds of life, she found her mind drifting back over the cycles to the very beginning.

Chapter One

"Hera's tits!" Gabrielle cursed mildly. "You can't turn your back on anything around here."

"Now what's the problem?" Xena asked from her position near the saddlebags. Reaching for one of them, she put the herbed soap, in its special waterproof bag, into the side pocket.

"While we were bathing, something snatched our evemeal right off the spit," the bard explained.

Xena looked up, not quite believing the other woman. Glancing around the flat meadow where they were stopping for the night, there were no obvious signs of anything having been near the camp. Climbing to her feet, the warrior walked over to where Gabrielle stood, her hands still on her hips, looking irritated. Xena fought to keep the smile from her face. She knew how the bard loved to eat, and having their meal stolen was right up there with any number of dreadful crimes as far as the blonde was concerned. Xena wasn't too worried, though. Finding another pheasant would be a simple matter, after all. But the dark-haired woman hated a mystery as much as Gabrielle hated missing a meal.

Xena dropped down on one knee next to the still fuming bard looking over the small area of bare ground, perhaps two paces wide, she had cleared around the firepit before lighting the fire. There in the dirt, she could clearly see the boot-prints of both herself and Gabrielle, as familiar and known as her own face. But there was one set of prints that didn't belong among the clutter and scuffing caused by their own feet -- several barefoot prints of someone quite small, a tiny adult or, more likely, a child. They had crept nervously into the camp, crouched by the fire and then run back into the forest surrounding the meadow. From where the two women had been bathing, the tall reeds on the edge of the stream would have blocked their view of the camp itself, and the noisy water-fight they had engaged in probably covered any inadvertent sounds the little intruder might have made.

"It wasn't a something, Gabrielle, but a someone," Xena said, as she tried to guess the age of the youngster from the size of the blurred prints they had left behind. "Probably a child, from the looks of these footprints."

"A child? Out here?" Gabrielle said. "We're leagues from the nearest village, and we haven't even seen a farmhouse for the past several days. What would a child be doing in the middle of nowhere?" The bard's irritation had quickly changed to compassion at the thought of a child lost in the nearby forest.

"We can ask them later, when we find them," Xena replied, climbing to her feet again and dusting off her knee. Not bothering with her armour or greaves, she quickly strapped her sword around her waist and headed into the forest, following the slight traces made by the little one's passing.

Following the tracks carefully, they entered a thick and overgrown section of the forest. In the rapidly waning light, the going was difficult, Gabrielle occasionally stumbling on a concealed tree root or fallen branch. Xena's eyes constantly scanned the route they were pursuing, noting the minute signs of someone having been this way recently. Leaves bent back the wrong way, small, broken twigs, a random print barely showing on the scuffed leaf litter all served to lead the two women deeper into the forest. Stepping into a tiny clearing, little more than a break in the trees, both women spotted the torn apart remains of their meal.

"Well, they were here," Xena noted quietly, still looking through the gaps in the trees trying to find their tiny quarry. "Must have heard us coming."

The blonde leaned against the warm side of the warrior, her eyes flicking from the partially stripped carcass of the pheasant to the close woods surrounding them. "So, how do we find them now, Xena? If we keep tracking through the forest, they'll just move further into it, and the light is almost gone."

Xena thought for a moment, one arm draped loosely over Gabrielle's shoulders, the other hand rubbing her chin gently. "The smell of food tempted them out the first time; maybe it will again," she said.

The plan the tall woman had in mind was a simple one. On the journey back to the campsite, Xena had checked her other traps and found a small rabbit already caught in one of them. It was barely half-grown, not even a snack for either of the women but more than enough to tempt a hungry child. Gabrielle tried not to watch as Xena had quickly skinned and dressed the tiny body. Once the rabbit was spitted over the glowing coals of their fire, Xena headed back to the forest and hid herself in the branches of a tree right on the edge of the meadow. Gabrielle ducked into the tall reeds by the stream, peering through the gaps to watch their campsite.

Two candlemarks passed slowly, the moon rising over the top of the forest to bathe the meadow in its pale silvery light. Gabrielle was starting to think the child was not going to be tempted a second time when she spotted movement under the last of the trees near their clearing. Like some wild animal, the small child crept from the cover of the brambles, nervously edging its way towards the fire and the scent of the now over-cooked meat. Stopping frequently to sniff the air, the child gradually came closer to the camp. Gabrielle had to force herself to breathe as the child crouched just inside the circle of light created by the last of the fire's glow.

It was hard to guess the child's age, but the bard thought it might be nine or ten summers old. The child moved slightly in the fire's light, and Gabrielle was able to see it was a girl-child, wearing nothing more than a thick coating of grime, mud and dust, her matted, tangled hair some unknown color and filled with leaves and twigs from the forest where she obviously slept. Through the covering mud, she could just make out a long, shallow scar running almost the entire length of one thigh. It appeared long healed and didn't seem to hinder the child as she shuffled forward on her knees, reaching for the lightly blacken carcass of the rabbit on the spit.

Standing carefully and moving out of the reeds as silently as she could, the bard tried to approach the girl-child, now absorbed in stripping the meat from the rabbit as quickly as possible and stuffing it into her mouth. Gabrielle had only taken a couple of paces from the edge of the reed-bed when the child's acute hearing gave away her presence. Grabbing the still spitted rabbit from over the coals, the child bolted back across the field, heading into the safety of the forest once more. The bard was barely halfway across the meadow herself when she heard Xena's triumphant 'gotcha' floating back on the evening breeze. By the time she had gotten to the warrior's side, she was presented with the sight of a snarling, spitting bundle of terrified energy trying to escape from Xena's strong grip.

"Feisty one, isn't she," Xena said, pulling the child tight against her long body to try to protect herself from various extremities being flung viciously in all directions.

"Scared witless, more likely," Gabrielle replied. The bard reached up to the child's face to get her attention and perhaps to calm her down a little. The little head shot sideways and surprisingly strong white teeth snapped closed on the bard's fingers. Wrenching her hand away, Gabrielle quickly backed off, holding the bitten fingers gently in the palm of her other hand. "By the gods, the little vixen drew blood," she exclaimed, examining the deep, bleeding cuts the child's teeth had made across three fingers.

"Maybe she just wanted to see what a bard tasted like," Xena said, a wicked twinkle in her sky blue eyes.

Gabrielle couldn't stop the deep blush from creeping up her face until her ears were flaming. Managing to get herself under some control, though the redness was still blazingly apparent, the bard said, "Xena, stop that. Let's just get her back to camp."

"Good idea. I can take a look at those fingers of yours once we have this little one settled down a bit," the warrior replied. Lifting the still struggling but tiring child into her arms, Xena and Gabrielle moved back towards the campsite and the possibility of some answers.

"Do you really think it was necessary to tie her up?" Gabrielle asked as Xena carefully cleansed the cuts on her fingers.

"Would you rather one of us have to hold her all the time?" the warrior replied. "Every time I put her down, she tried to take off into the forest again."

Gabrielle gave into the logic of the situation, but nothing said she had to like it. Glancing over, she could see the child watching them suspiciously as she wriggled against the rawhide bindings Xena had used to tie her to a large log next to the fire. Simply tying her wrists together had not worked because as soon as they had taken their eyes from the child, she had start gnawing at the rawhide. It would not have taken her long to chew her way though them, so Xena had resorted to binding each wrist to the log and then tying her ankles to stop her from kicking them as either woman passed by. You know, under all that grime, she might be quite a pretty child, the bard thought to herself. This close, Gabrielle could see the blazing jade green of the girl's eyes, flecked with gold, and the bard guessed she had reddish hair under all that dirt.

"Okay, all done. They shouldn't even leave a mark once they're healed," Xena said, as she finished cleaning the bard's bitten fingers. "At least we know she has healthy teeth," the warrior deadpanned.

"Funny, Xena. Very funny," Gabrielle replied sarcastically, gently moving her fingers to see how much they hurt. Hardly at all, she decided, even though the bites had been fairly deep.

As Xena put away the small herbal kit she used to treat their cuts and scrapes, Gabrielle approached the girl-child still regarding them distrustfully from behind hooded eyes. "Hi. Can you tell us your name?" she asked gently.

The child simply stared back, her lips compressed firmly together.

"I'm sorry we had to tie you up like this," the bard continued. "I know you're frightened, and the forest probably does seem safer to you, but I promise, neither one of us wants to hurt you." Gabrielle watched for any reaction from the child. There was nothing but suspicion and mistrust blazing back from those jade green eyes. "It would be easier if I knew what to call you. I'm Gabrielle," she explained pointing to herself. "And that is Xena," she said, nodding her head towards the tall warrior sitting on their bedroll nearby. At the mention of Xena's name, the girl glanced briefly at the other woman and something flashed across the child's expression. It was too quick for the bard to put a name to it, but she felt that the child somehow knew who the dark-haired woman was.

Picking up a spare blanket, the bard carefully draped it around the girl's still bound body, tucking it gently over her shoulders to keep the early morning dew from chilling her. She reached out her hand, meaning to ruffle the child's hair. Remembering her bitten fingers, she decided against it. Patting her leg instead, Gabrielle said, in the same quiet voice she had been using all night, "We can talk some more in the morning. Maybe you'll even tell me your name then, eh."

Crossing over to the warrior, who was now stretched out comfortably on the bedroll they shared, Gabrielle looked back at the girl as she fought against the need for sleep, her head dipping and then snapping upright again. Even terrified and bound, the bard felt she would be asleep before too much longer.

"Come to bed, Gabrielle. There isn't much more we can do for her tonight," Xena said quietly, patting the bedroll beside her.

Dropping gracelessly, the bard sighed deeply. "I know, Xena, but I thought I might be able to at least find out her name." She snuggled up against the warrior's side, head nestled into the hollow of the other woman's shoulder. Gabrielle relaxed as she felt Xena's arm along her back, one hand lightly brushing the exposed skin. Stifling a mighty yawn, she said, "I wonder who she is and how she got here?"

Softly kissing the bard's creased forehead, Xena replied, "I don't know, but we had better get some rest because something tells me tomorrow is going to be a long day."

Within a candlemark, the two travellers and the unnamed girl-child were sound asleep, but two sets of ears twitched and sharpened as they listened to the occasional sounds coming from the night quiet forest and the gentle snores issuing from Gabrielle's mouth.

Chapter Two

The bard woke the next morning to a chorus of bird-song as they greeted the start of a new day. She was more used to waking early now than she had been in the beginning, but she was also much more used to the fast pace Xena kept to and had developed strong, muscular legs from all the leagues they had travelled over the cycles. Without even moving, the bard knew Xena was long gone, probably waking before dawn as she usually did. It was a rare morning indeed when Gabrielle managed to wake before the warrior, and that only happened when Xena had been injured in a battle of some kind.

Xena always made a point of covering the bard completely when she rose because she knew how Gabrielle hated to wake to cold, dew drenched cheeks. Pulling the blanket from her face, the bard quickly glanced around the campsite to locate the warrior. As usual, Xena was standing in the middle of the meadow drilling with her blade and loosening up her muscles made stiff from a night of sleeping on the hard ground. Gabrielle always found watching the drills fascinating because Xena appeared to almost dance her way through them. The graceful line of her body and the early morning sunlight flashing from her sword generally left the bard thinking the other woman was some gift from the gods, she looked so incredibly beautiful.

Gabrielle had been entranced watching the drills on many a morning, but today there was something else to take her attention. The girl-child they had found the night before had somehow twisted herself around so she could watch the warrior training. From where she lay, Gabrielle could just see the child's face, and the unguarded expression of longing was plainly evident.

As the bard rose from the bedroll, the child caught the movement from the corner of her eye. Gabrielle watched as a door appeared to close on the girl's face, wiping all expression from her eyes. But something still lingered in the way she kept glancing at Xena. Perhaps Xena can get her to talk, Gabrielle thought. There is just something about the way this little one keeps watching her that looks familiar. The bard put that thought away in her memory for the moment and started to attend to her usual morning routine.

By the time Gabrielle had set a pot of broth heating, washed the sleep from her face and gotten the bedrolls folded and strapped to the saddle-bags, Xena had finished training and was donning her armour and greaves in readiness for the day ahead. Although the warrior appeared concentrated on what she was doing, she was well aware of a pair of jade green eyes which were following her every move. After bouncing briefly on her toes to settle her armour comfortably, she approached the child to release her bindings.

Maintaining a firm but gentle grip on the child's arm, Xena led her over to the clump of bushes the two women had been using as a privy. The girl seemed to understand as she had seen first Xena, and later Gabrielle, go into the bushes and squat down. That little chore taken care of, the next thing on Xena's list of duties was to try to get the child a little cleaner. This was to turn into a battle unto itself.

Over the sound of the child's terrified howling, Gabrielle shouted, "I have never seen anyone so afraid of the water before." The two woman had thought to try to bathe the girl-child in the stream where they had cleaned themselves the evening before, but as soon as Xena had started moving in the direction of the water, the child had erupted into the same snarling bundle of ferocious energy the warrior had captured in the beginning. Even standing in the middle of the camp and sponging her down with water heated over the fire raised the most amazing screams and howls of pure fear from the girl.

"Maybe she fell in at some time and that's what's frightened her," Xena offered as the child tried to squirm out of her grip.

Gabrielle snorted as she grabbed one leg and tried to removed several layers of ground-in dirt and grime. "Even of warm water, standing here, paces away from the stream?" she asked.

Xena just shrugged her shoulders as she readjusted her grip again. The noise didn't abate until Gabrielle finished and finally emptied the bowl she had been using to rinse the filthy rag after each pass over the girl's mud-splattered body. The warrior wrapped her arms around the shaking child, making gentle shushing noises in her ear until she felt the girl slowly relaxing against her chest.

"I don't know what we are going to do about her hair, Xena. I doubt she will stand still long enough to let us even try to get it clean again," Gabrielle said as she came back into the camp.

Xena felt the girl push back against her chest as the bard reached out to touch her hair. Tightening her hold around the child a little, Xena replied, "I think we might have to simply cut it off. Looks too matted to get it clean anyway, even if she was willing to sit still for it."

"Okay. Just let me find the knife," Gabrielle said, as she started searching through their saddlebags looking for the small, sharp knife they used to trim their own hair.

Xena explained, as simply as possible, what they where going to do, hoping the child would somehow understand. As Gabrielle began to carefully cut the child's hair as close to the scalp as she could get the small blade, Xena felt two small hands clutching her thighs strongly. The girl was still shaking but seemed to be settling, so long as Xena held onto her. It took some time but eventually Gabrielle managed to get it off in one large, tangled mass.

"Ick," the bard said, screwing her face up in disgust. "How on earth she put up with that for so long is beyond me." Tossing the matted bundle to one side, the bard gently rubbed her hand over the remaining hair, trying to ignore the toss of the child's head as she attempted to throw the bard's hand off. "You know, Xena, I think she is a redhead. This should grow out fairly quickly," she said, looking into the girl's eyes. "I've got an old skirt in one of the bags that I can probably get to fit her."

"If you can get her to wear it, you mean," Xena said. She was gradually loosening her grasp around the child to see if she was going to bolt for the forest again. The warrior didn't like the idea of having to keep her tied all the time, but until they could 'tame' her, it may well be their only choice. The child made no move to leave, even when Xena's arms were finally resting on her thighs as she squatted behind the child. Only when she started to stand up did the girl suddenly turn, wrapping her small arms about Xena's hips.

Gabrielle smiled at the perplexed look on Xena's face as she returned with the skirt neatly folded in one hand. "Looks like you have woven your magic over another one," she said.

Xena just grunted in response. It wasn't that she didn't like children, she just wasn't all that experienced with them, even though she did have a son of her own living with the centaurs. "Why can't they get attached to you for a change?" she asked, exasperated.

"Maybe I just don't look the motherly type," the bard giggled back.

Xena levelled one of her best I'll-get-you-for-that looks at the still chuckling woman as she approached, skirt in hand. Taking the leather from the bard, she tried to wrap it around the girl. The child wriggled and pushed the material away until Xena squatted down again to explain she had to wear it. The girl listened solemnly but would not let the warrior wrap the skirt around her small body. "I know you're not used to wearing clothes, but you have to put something on," Xena said reasonably.

The child shook her head and then hesitantly fingered one of the thick leather straps that made up the lower part of Xena's clothing.

Gabrielle stood back smiling even more broadly than before. "Yep. Definitely bewitched, that one. Looks like she wants a skirt something like yours."

"Then I'm glad this is an old skirt, Gabrielle," Xena replied as she drew her breast dagger from her bodice and began to slash through the leather. It took no time at all before Xena had a cut down version of a skirt that bore a vague resemblance to the one she wore. Holding it up for the child to see, she had no trouble getting her to put it on. "Care to sacrifice one of those dreadful tops of yours as well?" Xena asked, a lop-sided grin on her face.

"Ummm, somehow I don't think so," Gabrielle replied, looking at the remains of her skirt now gracing the excited girl's hips as she turned from side to side, feeling the leather straps brushing against her skin. "She's nowhere near her womanhood, so we might get away with leaving her bare-chested for the moment. The Amazon girls I've seen rarely wear a top of any kind until after their Pleasures of Womanhood ceremony anyway."

"Well, we've gotten her a little cleaner, dressed and she doesn't look like she is about to take off into the forest again. Now, what do we call her?" Xena asked. The warrior was looking down on the child, leaning against her knees, as she ran her hands over the cut down leather skirt. Beneath the soft childish giggles, Xena could hear strings of nonsense sounds being linked together like words. The tall woman spoke or had a passing acquaintance with several foreign and not so foreign languages. The words the child spoke were like nothing Xena had ever heard before, but occasionally a word which did make sense would come through.

Gabrielle crouched down in front of the child, a look of sadness crossing the bard's face as the girl pushed back against Xena's knees in fear. Pointing to herself, she said, "Gabrielle. My name is Gabrielle."

The girl simply stood, one arm wrapped tightly about the warrior's strong thigh, her face closed to all expression once more.

Determined not to give up, Gabrielle pointed at the dark-haired woman, saying, "Xena. And that is Xena."

Xena nodded as the child's eyes caught her's. "That's right. My name is Xena," she said, touching her breastplate with one finger. Pointing at the child, Xena asked, "And your name is?"

The child said something and it was only because Xena's hearing was hyper-acute that she heard it at all, being just the barest whisper of sound. Shayna.

"Shayna? Your name is Shayna?" The warrior asked gently.

The girl nodded in reply, a grin splitting her face as though she had accomplished something miraculous.

Looking at Gabrielle, still crouched in front of the child, Xena said, "Well, we have something to call her, at least."

"I just wish she wasn't so afraid of me," Gabrielle stated rather flatly. "I'm usually so good with kids." The bard's stomach chose that moment to announce its hunger, burbling loudly from the woman's mid-section.

"Keep making noises like that and she might take off for the forest again," Xena laughed. "And I wouldn't be too far behind her."

The bard just shot a look of pure disgust at the tall woman before turning back to the fire and their very late breakfast.

Chapter Three

The little group had gotten away from the campsite somewhat later than Xena had originally planned. For some reason, Shayna insisted on being as close to the warrior as possible and refused to stay with Gabrielle, rolling her eyes in fear every time Xena tried to get her to stay by the bard's side. Giving in to the inevitable, Xena had let the child trail along behind her as she caught and saddled Argo, attached their saddlebags and made sure the campsite was as clean as they had found it. It was not something every traveller did, but it was a point of pride for the warrior to always leave things the way she found them or better.

Shayna had been fascinated with Argo from the moment she first laid eyes on the mare. In return, the horse was just as taken with the little person with gentle, patting hands and soft, whispery voice, whuffling in the girl's ear and lipping the closely chopped red hair. The child had walked all around the mare, even under her, running her hands over Argo's golden coat and along her muscular legs. Xena was just thankful the mare was trained to stand still when anyone was around her. Any other horse might have bucked or kicked, especially when the girl had stood at the back of the animal running her curious fingers through the mare's long flowing tail.

They were finally on the road again, and Xena was getting a chance to think. It was obvious from the sound of Gabrielle's footfall and the expression on her face, whenever the warrior glanced back, that she was not happy that the child was so afraid of her. And however much Shayna was frightened of the bard, she was equally taken with Xena herself. The warrior understood this even less. Gabrielle was so obviously gentle that children usually gravitated to her like bees to honey. Finding out she was a storyteller too more often than not cemented the relationship, a useful skill whenever they needed information. Children rarely missed anything and were more than happy to tell Gabrielle all about it once she had told them a story or two in exchange. Xena, on the other hand, with her often dark, foreboding expression, heavy leathers and weaponry, was more used to children being terrified of her. It was something she had simply come to accept since her change of heart.

Yet here was a little wild child, walking calmly beside Argo, one hand clutching Xena's ankle as her foot rested in the stirrup. The warrior shook her head, not quite believing the trust this girl was placing in her. Something caught her attention, pulling her from her mental ramblings. The small hand on her ankle suddenly disappeared and Xena saw a fleeting glimpse of Shayna's back as she ducked into the bushes beside the roadway. Focusing her hearing and breathing in deeply on the light morning breeze, she picked up the faint sound of creaking leather and the smell of long-unwashed bodies. Just what I need right now, she thought happily -- a nice little fight to get the juices flowing.

Shooting a quick glance over her shoulder towards Gabrielle, she saw the bard had picked up on the warrior's tension and the sight of Shayna disappearing into the undergrowth. Having travelled together for close to three cycles now, the blonde-haired woman knew what the signs meant and had swung her staff across her body in preparation for a fight.

Xena sat in her saddle, waiting for the trouble to come to her. She didn't have long to wait. Her ear caught the sound of the tightening bowstring long before the arrow was loosed in her direction. Letting her body react without thinking, she snatched the arrow from the air, a hand-span from her chest. Looking at it briefly, she tossed it to one side and jumped from the saddle. A second arrow came at her and once again she plucked it from its flight as easily as if she was catching a fly.

She heard the bowstring a third time and waited calmly for the arrow to follow. It came, but not at her. The arrow lanced towards the bard standing several paces behind the warrior. For a moment, she was terrified the arrow was going to make contact with Gabrielle's body but instead heard the sound of the iron arrowhead hitting wood. Looking back, she saw that the bard had quite deliberately caught the arrow in the center of her staff. Xena nodded at Gabrielle and the grim, determined expression on her face.

Obviously deciding the arrows were going to be of no use against the two women, the troublemakers erupted from their hiding places en masse and bore down on them in one solid wave. Xena whipped her sword from its back-sheath and pulled her chakram from its hook with her left hand. Most of the men came at her, thinking she was the more deadly of the fighters, and they were right, but several ran past her aiming to take Gabrielle down. Xena tried not to concern herself too much with the bard, letting her honed and trained body react to the danger bearing down on her like a runaway chariot. Whenever she could, she glanced back to check that the other woman was holding her own and was pleased to see she was. Gabrielle had become extremely skilled with her staff and had even learned some of the kicks and punches Xena used herself.

The battle raged for several bloody minutes, neither side quite gaining an upper hand, though men were dropping regularly from the end of Xena's sword or the side of Gabrielle's staff. The warrior's chakram flicked out and dropped a man in his tracks who was about to skewer Gabrielle through the spine from behind. The bard nodded a brief thanks at Xena before taking after her next opponent.

Xena had fallen into a steady rhythm of twist, parry, lunge and thrust watching the men fall around her. Perhaps a dozen of them lay dead or dying on the road but there still seemed to be more to take their place. Suddenly, out of nowhere came a third fighter to tip the odds in their favour. It was a little blur of enraged energy, slicing at the back of the men's knees and thighs with a long knife, effectively ham-stringing several of them. The child was lightning fast, her small body ducking through tiny gaps between the men, causing a couple of them to actually run their swords through their own allies in an effort to stop the little wildcat armed with the knife. It was almost comical to watch, and Xena couldn't help grinning through the fear she had for the girl accidentally getting hurt.

As fast as Shayna had woven her deadly way through the men surrounding Xena, she was off to complete her gruesome chore on the few fighters still trying to bring Gabrielle down. The warrior turned her full attention back to the half dozen or so men still standing in front of her.

By the time the last two had turned and bolted back into the forest, leaving their weapons behind in terror, Gabrielle and Shayna had finished off their own little group of troublemakers, though the bard did have to stop the child from trying to slit the throats of the downed men.

"You all right, Xena?" the bard asked as she approached.

The warrior quickly glanced over her body, and other than a fine sheen of sweat, there wasn't a mark on her. "I'm okay, though you seem to have taken a bit of a hit," Xena replied, noticing the bleeding cut on the bard's upper arm where a sword-point had sliced through the flesh. The bard had not felt it in the heat of battle and the rush of adrenalin. Reaching into the saddlebag, Xena quickly tied a scrap of rag around the wound to stop the bleeding. "I'll stitch that for you as soon as we are safely away from here."

Dropping to one knee, she carefully examined Shayna for any sign of a wound. Blood was congealing on her face and bare chest and still dripping from the end of the knife she held in one hand, but the child had come away from the fight with no injuries at all. Xena felt her shoulders relaxing once she knew for sure the girl had not been hurt. Holding out her hand, the warrior said, "Can I have the knife now, Shayna?"

The child shook her head and quickly slid the blade into the waistband of her skirt, keeping one hand over the handle so Xena couldn't take it from her.

The warrior looked a little cross and placed her own hand over the child's. "Shayna, it isn't safe for you to have such a large knife. Please give to me."

Gabrielle stifled a giggle behind one hand when the girl shook her head more emphatically to show she had no intention of handing over the weapon. "I'd say let her keep it, Xena. The people on the pointy end of it are in more danger than she is, if her display earlier is anything to go on."

Xena grunted but didn't break eye contact with the child in front of her. "She's a kid, Gabrielle, and kids don't have knives," she stated flatly, matching her will to that of the girl.

"Kids don't live wild in the forest either, but Shayna has and managed to survive quite nicely," Gabrielle answered seriously.

"Whose side you on, anyway?" Xena asked grumpily. She couldn't believe she was losing a battle of wills with a ten-cycle-old child. "Oh, keep the knife then, if you must," she said a little testily, as she rose to her feet and remounted Argo. As soon as she was settled in the saddle, she felt a hesitant hand inching around her ankle again, as though the girl was afraid Xena was angry with her. Looking down at the child, Xena smiled, "It's all right, Shayna. I'm just not comfortable with you having an edged weapon, that's all. But it looks like I'm not getting a choice, considering who your champion is."

Trying not to hear the muffled giggles of her travelling companion, Xena clucked her tongue at Argo and they moved away from the scene of the battle and on down the road.

Chapter Four

"Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, owwwch" Gabrielle muttered through clenched teeth.

"Apollo's boots, Gabrielle. I've hardly touched you yet," Xena said. "It's just a little pain. You've had worse, you know."

The bard glared at the warrior seated next to her. "Lots or little, it's still pain. And I'm getting my ouches in now, while I still can," she replied.

Xena just shook her head and continued cleaning and stitching the wound Gabrielle had gotten in the fight earlier in the day. She was very aware of a pair of curious eyes watching her every move from over her shoulder. Cutting the end from the last stitch, the warrior was surprised when a small, gentle finger moved past her head and softly stroked the now closed wound.

"Ouchie," a whispery voice said.

Xena's head snapped around to see the look of concern on Shayna's face. "Yes, that's right. Gabrielle has an ouchie," she said.

"Aabriel a ouchie," the girl repeated softly.

"Hmmmm, maybe you can talk but you've just forgotten how after not being exposed to words for who knows how long," the warrior observed, almost to herself.

"And she has found the perfect teacher in Xena, Silent Princess," the bard remarked, grinning. It was an old joke between them about the way Xena was more prone to silences than to the nearly endless conversation Gabrielle had sprouted during their early days on the road. Over the cycles they had travelled together they had managed to find a happy medium between the two, though every once in a while, Gabrielle still thought Xena spoke too little and Xena felt Gabrielle chattered too much.

"Well, I will admit, the thought of two chattering women is enough to give me chills up my spine," Xena replied as she put away her healing kit.

"Xeeena!" the bard said dangerously.

Leaning down to kiss the blonde woman on the top of her head, Xena replied, "You've grown up a lot, Gabrielle, and I really do like listening to you tell your tales when we are travelling. Helps the time pass more quickly."

Mollified for the time being, Gabrielle watched as Shayna crept, a little at a time, towards her staff leaning on a tree on the other side of the campfire, and ran one hand over the hard wood of its shaft, delicately fingering the sleeve of white leather near one end. Looking at the bard from the corner of her eye, she picked it up and carried it over to Gabrielle. As soon as the woman had taken it from the child's outstretched hands, she backed off quickly and hid herself shyly behind Xena.

"What was that all about?" the bard asked.

"Maybe she thinks you need to keep your 'weapon' near you all the time, the way I carry my sword," Xena offered, after thinking for a few moments.

"Maybe it is some kind of peace offering," the bard said hopefully, as Shayna peeped around the edge of Xena's leather skirt. Smiling at the young girl, Gabrielle hoped she was finally getting over whatever it was that made the blonde seem so frightening to her.

The child quickly ducked back behind the warrior's sheltering skirt before slowly peering out at the bard again.

"Well, let’s see if you two can make friends while I go and get something for all these appetites I suddenly find myself saddled with," Xena grinned, ignoring the glare the bard threw in her direction.

It was soon apparent to the tall warrior that leaving the child in camp while she went hunting was a lost cause. She couldn't get the child to stay with the bard, even though Gabrielle tried everything short of tying Shayna to the tree they were camped under. The girl clamped herself to Xena's thigh, tears filling her green eyes in the most woeful expression the warrior had ever seen. It would have taken a heart much harder than hers to keep saying 'no' to the child.

"Okay, okay. You can come with me, but only if you stay quiet," Xena said, and watched the child dancing ahead of her and into the surrounding forest. Shrugging her shoulders at Gabrielle with a what-was-I-to-do look on her face, the warrior followed the girl into the woods.

Gabrielle briefly watched Xena's rapidly retreating back as she headed into the forest before turning and starting to pull their cooking pots out of the saddlebags.

Chapter Five

Xena looked at the last handful of sweet berries rolling around in the bottom of her bowl before quietly tipping them into the small container the child was eating from. Seeing the gentle expression on Gabrielle's face, she smiled back. "She seems to like them," the warrior commented, trying not to sound too defensive as she spoke.

"It's all right, Xena. She was pretty hungry, after all. This is probably the first decent meal she has had in ages," Gabrielle replied.

The bard had made a hearty stew with some of the meat from a small deer Xena had caught in the forest, adding turnips, onion and carrots to it as well. Serving up a bowlful to the child, she tried not to look as the youngster had almost dived into the hot food with both hands. Shayna had quickly stopped, though, when she noticed Xena tidily spearing bits of meat and vegetables from the bowl with the point of her knife and using a piece of flatbread to spoon the thick juices into her mouth. Copying the warrior, the child had pulled her purloined knife from the waist of her skirt and carefully stabbed at the stew. Xena's almost unconscious nod of approval just about guaranteed Shayna would probably continue to eat from the point of a knife from that moment on.

"Just how many helpings did she end up having?" Xena asked.

"Four full bowls of the stew and two of the berries, though where she put it all is something of a mystery," Gabrielle replied, shaking her head in disbelief at the child's appetite. "Shayna?" the bard said.

The child looked up blandly at Gabrielle, smearing the last of the berry juices across her already very grubby face with the back of her hand.

"Thank you for finding the berries. They were very nice," Gabrielle said quietly.

A tiny smile crept slowly across the girl's face before she hid herself behind Xena's broad shoulder.

A soft light had filled Xena's blue eyes as she looked down on the child, Shayna's cheek resting comfortably against her back. "S'pose we had better see about getting her cleaned up again. She still has a lot of that blood on her from this morning, though you would hardly notice for all the berry juices dabbed over her right now," the warrior said.

"You up to another screaming fit when she sees the water?" the bard asked seriously, gathering their bathing supplies from the saddlebags.

"Maybe all the sudden strangeness last night and this morning was too much for her and that was why she didn't want to go into the water. She does seem more settled with everything now. We might have a better chance of getting her properly clean this time," Xena replied, glancing down at the girl as she tried to hide a yawn behind her hand.

Xena's hopes were soon to be dashed, however. Shayna was quite happy to follow the warrior to the water's edge, but as soon as Xena started to strip her leathers and boots off, the girl's eyes filled with tears. When she began to take the cut down skirt from the child's waist, Shayna whimpered in fear, grabbing tightly to the warrior's leg and trying to pull the tall woman away from the stream's bank. "It's all right, Shayna," Xena said, gently peeling the girl's hands from her thigh and slowly walking backwards until she stood calf-deep in the water. "See, there's nothing to be afraid of here."

The girl keep shaking her head, her arms outstretched as though, through sheer force of will, she could drag Xena from the stream.

Xena took several more steps backwards, her eyes never leaving those of the obviously terrified girl. Sinking into the cool water, she sighed with pleasure at the feeling of its gentle brush against her skin. Sitting neck deep in the stream, she opened her mouth to continue trying to encourage the child to overcome her fear and take the first step into the water. Xena barely had a chance to say a single syllable before Shayna reacted to the sight of her bobbing gently in the evening dark waters.

"NO, MAMA!! DON'T LEAVE ME ALONE AGAIN!!" the child suddenly shouted, collapsing onto the ground in a sobbing heap.

That had the warrior out of the water in a flash. Gathering the youngster in her dripping arms, she quickly comforted the child. "It's fine, Shayna. I'm right here. Nothing's wrong," she said over and over to the girl in her embrace. "I don't know what happened, Gabrielle," the visibly upset Xena said to the bard as she squatted down beside the tall woman and the distraught child.

"I don't know either, Xena, but I'm willing to hazard a guess that her mama may have drowned," Gabrielle offered, as much to comfort her lover as to try to explain the girl's reaction. "So, what do we do now?" she asked as the child's sobs finally hiccupped into silence.

"I'm not sure, but we can't have her going to pieces like this every time I try to bathe," Xena said.

"Find yourself a new partner, then, if you intend to give up washing," the bard answered cheekily.

Smiling for a moment to acknowledge Gabrielle's attempt to lighten the mood, Xena thought seriously for several heartbeats before replying. "However much I may hate to do this, I think I am just going to have to force the issue."

"How?" Gabrielle asked, though she already knew in the pit of her stomach what the warrior had in mind.

"By doing this," Xena stated unemotionally. Picking up the child in her strong arms, she quickly walked into the water until both she and the child stood shoulder deep in its coolness. The girl reacted exactly as Xena thought she would. Shayna screamed for all she was worth, struggling against the tall woman's grasp to get back out of the water. Xena simply tightened her grip, refusing to move. She could feel the youngster's heels thumping painfully against her thighs, but she never wavered and kept a soft stream of gentle words and 'it's okays' flowing in the frightened child's ear. After what seemed like an age, though it really wasn't more than half a candlemark, Shayna stopped fighting, floating limply in the water surrounded by Xena's arms.

Gabrielle sat on the bank of the stream, watching silently as the girl fought against Xena's superior strength. Once the child had quietened, she entered the water, slowly approaching the pair from behind. Drawing alongside, she saw Shayna's eyes fluttering into sleep as sheer physical exhaustion claimed her young body. "If you hold her, Xena, I'll see what I can do about getting some of this grime off her," the bard said.

The warrior simply nodded, readjusting the child's position until she was gently cradled in the tall woman's muscular arms. Xena gazed down on the child she held, wondering exactly who she was and who her mother could have been. I can't remember when I last saw a child so strong and so determined, unless I think of myself, she thought as she watched the bard carefully washing the girl. She'll make a great warrior one day, she mused, then mentally shook her head. Don't go there, oh great Warrior Princess. Not everyone wants to be a warrior, and this little scrap of childhood deserves to make up her own mind. Xena forced herself to stop thinking and instead concentrated on cradling the child securely so the bard could clean as much of the filth off her as possible. Looking down at the child once more, a single thought rose unbidden from the depths of her heart. If I ever have a daughter, I want her to be just like you.

Shayna barely stirred as Gabrielle efficiently scrubbed cycles of dirt from the child's skin. The youngster had so worn herself out struggling against Xena she hardly had enough strength left in her arms to push the bard away. She made a token effort, even though it was obvious she was rapidly sliding into the grip of Morpheus.

Glancing up momentarily, Gabrielle noticed the tiny smile ghosting its way across the warrior's face and the expression of gentle love glowing in those impossibly blue eyes. Looks like someone has grabbed your heart, my big, tough warrior, she thought, chuckling to herself, barely keeping the smile from her own face, a smile she was sure the other woman would spot in a heartbeat. "Might as well wash you while I'm standing here," the bard commented, already running the soapy sponge over Xena's broad shoulders and down her back.

Xena nodded, her eyes never leaving the sleeping face of the child for a moment.

Chapter Six

Xena briefly glanced over to the small lump under the blanket near her where Shayna was curled up in restless sleep. Gabrielle was stretched out along her side, head pillowed against her upper arm. Xena had been listening to the bard as she told a newly created story about the battle they had been in earlier that day. The warrior grinned as Gabrielle wound up the tale. Never does take her long to put our adventures into words, she thought, though I wish she wouldn't make me look so good in them. Anyone would think I can't be hurt, and that might be dangerous for us later down the track.

"Xena? Those men we fought today? There seemed to be an awful lot of them," Gabrielle said. "I mean, we're leagues from anything, so where did they all come from?"

The warrior pulled herself from her mental wanderings to address the question. "Either they were a large raiding party, which I doubt. Nothing around here to raid," she explained, feeling the other woman nodding in agreement. "Or there is an army around here somewhere."

"What do you think we should do?" the bard asked, already knowing the answer.

"I think we should go back and see what we can find out. We may be days from any villages here, but sooner or later an army is going to reach them, if that's what's out there," the warrior replied.

"What about Shayna?" the bard asked quietly.

Xena looked over to the child again, a shadow flashing across her face. "She won't stay with you, so that leaves out any ideas I might have about leaving you both here," she said.

Gabrielle tossed a light backhanded slap against the warrior's stomach. "Even if she would stay, I'd be going with you. I am not letting my best friend and partner go wandering off into who knows what kind of trouble without me," the blonde replied with some heat.

Xena laughed lightly before gently kissing the top of the bard's head. "I guess she comes with us then," she said. "And I hope I can keep us all out of trouble," the warrior mumbled almost silently under her breath.

The bard turned to snuggle against the other woman's side, draping one arm over her chest just under the swell of her breasts, one knee nestled between the warrior's. Xena found herself smiling as the blonde settled herself to sleep. No matter how she tried to explain it to Gabrielle, the bard always insisted on pinning Xena to the bedroll each night. It made getting up in the morning a trifle difficult, as she had to wriggle her way from under the other woman's light weight, Xena forever blessing the fact the bard was a heavy morning sleeper. It also meant the occasional abrupt awakening for the younger woman as Xena leapt from the bedroll to deal with some intrusion into the camp at night, more often than not a raider or some other thug bent on shortening both their lives. The bard had adapted over time, though, and generally was able to wake herself with enough speed to be of some help and then complain about the bruises later.

Xena listened as Gabrielle's breathing quickly evened out and settled into a slow, deep rhythm, the muscles relaxing against her as Gabrielle slipped further into sleep. Xena had grown so familiar with the way Gabrielle slept that she could almost count the number of breaths it would take before the other woman would begin to gently snore in her own characteristic fashion. She watched the stars overhead as they wheeled across the heavens, wondering if she would sleep through the night herself or be awakened by some nightmare from her past. Having the bard tucked against her side as she journeyed through the realm of Morpheus had eased all but the very worst of her night horrors, but she still suffered from them, even now.

Xena was just sliding into sleep, the last muscle twitches briefly jerking a hand or a foot as she relaxed, allowing the tension in her body to unwind, when she felt the hesitant touch of a small finger brush her cheek. Not moving, the warrior opened her eyes to see Shayna kneeling next to her.

"What do you want, Shayna?" she asked quietly so she wouldn't wake the bard lying beside her, though the other woman was probably deep enough into sleep that it would have taken a chariot rumbling through the camp to rouse her.

"Shayna sleep Mama?" the child whispered, patting the bedroll next to the tall woman, making sure her meaning was understood.

The warrior indulged in a small, long-suffering sigh before answering. "Okay. You can sleep with us, but just for tonight," Xena warned, lifting one edge of the blanket so the girl could lie down next to her. "And I'm not your mama. My name is Xena," she said gently.

The girl happily tucked herself against the warrior's other side, tangling her smaller arms and legs around Xena as tightly as the bard did every night.

"By all the gods on Mount Olympus, some warrior I am. Always had a weakness for women and children," the tall woman muttered to herself as Shayna dozed off again. "Guess I'm not getting up early in the morning," she yawned, dropping into sleep before she had even closed her mouth.

Chapter Seven

Gabrielle watched Shayna's short legs as they half-trotted beside Xena, mounted on her horse. The child's hand was, as always, wrapped protectively around the other woman's ankle. She knew from her own moderate pace that the warrior had reined the mare to a slow-ish walk so the child would have less trouble keeping up with them. It was another small sign of Xena's caring. She had done much the same thing when the bard had first started travelling with her and it was obvious she couldn't keep up with the taller woman's usual break-neck pace across the countryside. Xena, you're just a big silent softie, she thought cheerfully to herself. Always looking out for others and never saying a thing about it.

The bard couldn't help the grin that broke out on her face as she remembered the sight she had awakened to that morning. The moment she had returned to awareness, she knew Xena was still stretched out on the bedroll beside her. For one lurching heartbeat, she had thought the warrior must have fallen ill during the night because she could think of no other reason Xena would still be in bed at that time of day, well after dawn. Gabrielle had popped her head from under the blankets to be greeted with the sight of Xena's blue eyes staring down lovingly at the tiny red-haired bundle curled tightly against her side, the child's arms and legs tangled about Xena's body in such a way as to make getting up impossible, at least not without waking the sleeping child beside her.

Gabrielle had also been pleased to see that the child didn't appear to be quite so afraid of her now. Shayna wasn't being too friendly yet, but she had willingly sat beside the bard for a short time while Xena had practised her morning sword drills. The expression on the warrior's face when the child had gotten up and tried to copy the graceful and deadly movements with the tall woman had been absolutely priceless. Gabrielle had kept her amusement to herself, knowing it would not only embarrass the warrior, it might also alienate the child as well. But the little scene had looked very cute, nevertheless.

Ahead of the bard, Xena felt the hand on her ankle tighten briefly and looked down at the child walking by her stirrup. All her senses had been alert, scanning the surrounding forest for trouble. If there had been one scouting party from some large army, then there was bound to be another. Shayna pointed along the road towards the spot where they had battled with the thugs the day before. Xena could just make out the bodies lying in the dust. Drawing closer, she saw those men who had only been wounded, or simply knocked into unconsciousness by Gabrielle's staff, were long gone, probably helped away by their own compatriots. The warrior was a little surprised Shayna showed no sign of revulsion at the sight of the fly-blown corpses or the pools of dark blood gathered on the roadway under them. It seemed to be quite the opposite, in fact, as the child flitted from one dead man to another, pulling weapons from belts or long stiffened fingers.

Once she had all the weapons she could find in one pile, she took the warrior's hand and led Xena over to them. "Shayna good?" she whispered up at the tall woman.

Xena nodded at the girl before starting to examine the bodies of the men on the road. Gabrielle crouched beside her as she searched one man for any sign of a standard or crest showing which army, and warlord, he worked for. "What was that all about?" the bard asked, glancing back to see the child still standing guard over the weapons, her own knife drawn and held ready. In one way, she looked for all the world like a miniature Xena, right down to the coldness in her eyes and the set expression on her small face. Where did one so young learn to be so disciplined? the bard wondered before turning her attention back to the dark-haired woman by her side.

The warrior's eyes never lifted from the man she was searching. "I'd say her mother must have taught it to her. Sensible move if you are all alone and have a child with you. Never know when someone newly dead might not be quite as dead as you think," Xena explained.

"How do you know her mother was alone?" the bard asked, curious as to how Xena had reached that particular conclusion.

"If they were with other people, do you think they would have simply abandoned Shayna in the forest if her mother had died?" Xena replied.

Looking back at the child once more, Gabrielle said, "Probably not. Whatever happened though, she is a real survivor, if nothing else."

Gabrielle dragged her eyes away from Shayna and watched Xena turning men over, checking under armour and tunics for crests or standards. "Any idea who they worked for?" she asked as the warrior came back towards her.

"None," the warrior replied. "There isn't a single thing on any of them that would tell us who's in charge."

"That makes it more difficult, doesn't it?" the bard commented.

"It won't make it any easier, that's for sure," Xena said. Knowing who the men followed would have given the tall woman some idea of how to deal with him when they eventually found the main body of the army. The warrior started circling around the battle site looking for the tracks of the men who had survived the fight the day before. She quickly found what she was searching for as the thugs had made no attempt to hide their passing. From the amount of blood splashed on the ground and over the brambles, some of the men had been very badly wounded indeed, and she would be most surprised if had they lived long enough to get back to the camp.

Taking Argo's reins in her left hand, Xena headed after the men, following the clear bloody trail they had left behind. Shayna tucked herself against the warrior's side, walking almost under the mare's head in the process. The tall woman tried not to notice how close the child was to her but was grateful for the small fact she had chosen not to walk on the side of her sword arm. Whoever had taught the child had obviously done a good job in that respect.

Chapter Eight

It hadn't taken as long to get to the main encampment as Xena had first anticipated. Aside from the blood stains marking the way, they had also found the bodies of three men simply left to rot in the forest where they had died. Gabrielle had shaken her head in disbelief when she realised no effort had been made to bury the dead men, not even a token covering of leaves. It probably wouldn't be long before the forest scavengers found the bodies and tore them to pieces, scattering their remains over a wide area. She felt little sympathy for the men themselves but she knew, somewhere, there had to be wives and children who would never know what had become of their husbands and fathers. That aspect of life always saddened her a little, but there was not a great deal she could do about it. Over the cycles she had learned to live with it most of the time.

Each time they had come across a dead man, Shayna had dashed ahead of them to do her weapon-stripping routine before letting Xena get close enough to examine the bodies. The warrior had tried not to be annoyed with that because it did appear to be an important part of the child's thinking, but it was slowing them down somewhat.

Eventually, however, they reached the camp and got their first good look at it from the cover of the trees on top of a small ridge. Xena's face hardened into stone as she realised exactly what kind of camp she was looking at. This was not some warlord's army or even several raiding parties joined together in some strange alliance. This was a slaver's camp, a well-run, though slightly disorganised-looking, slavers’ camp. And Xena hated slavers more than anything else she could bring to mind.

In the center of the camp was a single large tent with several wooden cages mounted on wagons behind it, though only one cage seemed to be occupied. Xena recognised the captives but chose to say nothing for the moment, knowing what Gabrielle's reaction would be. More, smaller tents ranged around the central point in widening rings, campfires set between every third or fourth tent. On the far side of the camp there appeared to be a mess tent and a covered wagon for the healers, judging from the bandaged men lying on rough stretchers in front of it. Xena also noticed several women wandering, without escort, from place to place. Probably camp followers, she thought to herself. Though she didn't approve of women having to sell themselves, everyone had to earn a living somehow and if that was all you had, she was in no position to condemn them.

Gabrielle's fingers suddenly clutched at the armoured woman's wrist, her other hand pointing towards something in the center of the encampment. "Look. Over there, Xena. They've got Amazons in that cage near the large tent," the bard gasped, amazed the slavers had managed to catch the forest women at all.

"I see them," the warrior answered simply.

"We've got to get them out," the bard said with some urgency. Gabrielle might not have spent a lot of time with the Amazon Nation, but her sense of responsibility to them, as their Queen, was very strong indeed. Even without a clear plan in mind, she was all ready to dash into the camp and just take the slavers on.

"Calm down, Gabrielle. We'll get them out, but first we need to think about what we are going to do. There are just too many of them for an all-out battle," Xena said reasonably. She smiled over at the flushed bard, courage and determination written in broad strokes across the blonde's face.

The other woman nodded in understanding and followed the taller warrior to the comparative safety at the bottom of the ridge where they couldn't be seen by the sentries surrounding the slavers’ campsite.

Xena led the little group deeper into the forest until she found a small clearing some distance from the encampment. Squatting in the center, Xena began to scratch the layout of the camp onto the ground with a stick. "I'd say there are more than four hundred men in that camp," she noted, "too many for us to take on in broad daylight." The warrior cast a meaningful glance at the child seated beside her, getting a nod of understanding from the bard. "Looks like a big operation, with all those cages and wagons we spotted at the back of the large tent. Probably been sending parties of men out into the surrounding countryside to capture people and only sending them on to the various slave markets when they had a sufficient number to make a decent profit."

"How many Amazons did you count in that cage?" Gabrielle asked.

"Fifteen, I think. There might be more in some of the tents around the camp, though," Xena replied unemotionally.

Gabrielle shuddered at the thought of any of her sister Amazons being in some slaver's tent and what would definitely be happening if that were the case. Pulling her thoughts back to the here and now, she said, "With only one cage full right now, it might be a while before they try moving any of them."

The warrior thought back to the days when she led her own army of men, remembering how some warlords treated the forest women, and the sort of prices the female warriors commanded at the slave markets. The rarity of their capture and the skills they possessed usually meant a lot of dinars would change hands on those occasions there was even one Amazon for sale. A whole wagon load would represent a small fortune to whomever had captured them. "No, something tells me they will be moving them out fairly soon," the dark-haired woman replied.

"What? Are they worth that much?" Gabrielle asked.

"That, and the fact we'll help the slavers see it would be a very good idea to get that wagon on the road. The sooner those Amazons are away from the camp, the better those thugs will like it," Xena answered, a truly evil smile crossing her face.

"How many are you planning to kill then, to get them to do that before they are ready?" the bard questioned seriously.

"None," the warrior replied, a nasty edge in her voice. "But by the time we are finished with their 'manly virtues' they are going to wish they had never seen an Amazon warrior, let alone captured a whole group of them."

Gabrielle simply shook her head, not understanding what the tall woman had in mind. Standing to follow Xena and Shayna deeper still into the forest, she had to trust that the warrior knew what she was doing.

Chapter Nine

Eponin stared through the bars surrounding her and her sister Amazons, trying to make sense of the guard patterns and how often the sentries were changed. Since their capture earlier in the day, nothing had happened to them beyond their minor wounds being seen to by one of the healers and a rather nasty chat she'd had with the leader of the slaver operation, a cruel looking man who called himself Viper. After her little 'discussion' with the man, she was now sporting a large bruise along the left hand side of her face which all but closed one eye. In a way, she considered herself lucky to have gotten off so lightly. Badly marked goods did not fetch a high price at the slave markets, even if those goods were of Amazon origin.

In the gathering darkness, the woman glanced back at her fellow captives, five warriors and the ten young craft-women they had been escorting back to the Amazon Nation from Athens. Not one of the young women was more than eighteen summers old, and all had just completed some very advanced training in their various specialities. It should have been a fairly easy job to do. Go to Athens, pick up the women, escort them safely home. Shouldn't have taken more than a moon, maybe five seven-days, there and back. Eponin found herself shaking her head for what seemed the hundredth time that day.

Solari spotted the shaking head and wriggled over to sit by the other woman's side. "I'm sorry, Eponin," she started.

"It's all right, Solari. We weren't to know it was a trap," Eponin cut in, gently squeezing the upset warrior's fingers. "I'm just happy no one took anymore hurts than a few bruises and scrapes."

"But if we had left when you wanted, we could have avoided this altogether," Solari mumbled.

"It was just one extra day, and we all wanted to buy something special for people back home," the other woman explained, thinking of Amaran and the tortoise-shell combs she had bought for her lover. "For all we know that trap had been waiting for days before we arrived, so it probably wouldn’t matter if we had left on the day we originally planned." Eponin had a brief mental flash of the ground falling away under them and the thumping jolt she had received when she, and everyone else, finally hit the bottom of a very wide and surprisingly deep pit trap. It had been well concealed on a wide track leading to a popular watering hole, its cover strong enough to allow some of the lighter forest creatures to scamper across it. The sight of the small tracks criss-crossing the layer of leaves had tricked them all into thinking the path was safe and solid underfoot. Walking together as one large, clumped group, chattering and catching up on the news and events, had not helped one bit either. Sooner or later, someone was going to fall into that pit trap. It was just unfortunate that it happened to be them.

The explanation didn't ease the warrior's guilt, but she stopped trying to take the blame for their entrapment, at least out loud anyway.

Eponin could see from the look on Solari's face she still thought it was somehow her own fault they had been captured in the pit trap. Deciding to give the woman something else to think about, she asked, "What do you make of the guard pattern?"

Solari took a moment to shake the depressing thoughts from her mind before answering. "Seems pretty regular so far, and I have been watching as closely as you," she said. "But this cage might make it a bit tough to break out of here."

Eponin nodded in agreement. She had spent some time wondering how they were going to get themselves out of the blasted cage. The guards and sentries would be a breeze after that. The warrior found herself looking over the wooden cage again. It had obviously been built especially for the purpose of holding reluctant slaves until they could be transported to the markets. Heavy ironwood made up the bars, and instead of simple rawhide thongs strapping them together, they had used strong iron bands fitted every hand span or so over the entire structure. The only real way in or out was through a small door on one end and even that had been built so a person had to crawl through it. No exactly designed for mass escapes, she thought to herself. Even the wagon supporting the cage had been made of ironwood, making escape through the wagon-bed impossible.

She watched the slow movement of men around the camp as the smells of evemeal began to fill the air. The guards she had been expecting to check on them had not shown their faces around the back of the tent for some time. Eponin assumed they must be getting their own meals and couldn't be bothered looking in on the captives when it was clear escaping from the cage was going to be highly unlikely.

The warrior heard the faintest whisper of noise coming from underneath the wagon. It sounded for all the world like armour scraping quietly over dry grass. Eponin shook her head, thinking the sound was probably just rats. She had seen one or two scurrying from tent to tent as the sun had set and the shadows between them had grown longer and deeper. The warrior found herself suddenly jumping when an unexpected hand pressed firmly against the back of her shoulder through the bars. Swinging around abruptly, she was struck completely speechless, seeing Xena's face grinning evilly at her from the other side of the bars, her sky blue eyes sparkling with wicked delight at having surprised the other woman.

It took her a moment to get her bearings again. The instant her heart crawled back down her throat and into her chest where it belonged, Eponin found the breath to speak. "Xena," she whispered in a rush. "What are you doing here? How did you find us? Where's Gabrielle?"

"Came to help. Didn't know you were here until I saw you. Up on the ridge watching," the tall woman answered succinctly. As she had been speaking, the warrior was carefully untying a medium-sized sack from her waist and just as cautiously pulling out handfuls of smaller bags. "Start handing these out to everyone," she said. "Don't crush them against yourselves, though. They've got Vespas inside."

"Vespas?" one of the young women asked, holding her small bag between two fingers, a little nervous of whatever was inside.

"Small hornets, native to this area. They've got a sting like fire," Xena explained. "Should be fairly quiet at the moment, though. Gabrielle and I smoked them from the nest and took those that had fallen to the ground in shock. So long as you don't crush the bag or shake it about too much, they shouldn't start buzzing and give you away."

"What are we supposed to do with them?" the young metal-smith questioned, tucking the bag into her empty belt pouch.

"Protect yourselves," Xena replied, making sure the last little bag she wanted was still inside the sack. "Let's just say Artemis helps those who help themselves. Explain it to them, Eponin." Waiting until the other woman nodded, Xena continued. "We're going to be close by, moving about the edge of the camp. Once they have you on the road, we'll have a better chance of getting you out of this thing," she said, tapping one of the bars. "When it happens, be ready to move fast."

Xena ducked down again and slid under the wagon, disappearing from Eponin's line of sight. Listening to the scrape of the warrior's armour, she was surprised to hear Xena moving towards the large tent and not out of the camp as she expected. Peering through the bars, she watched the tall woman roll under the edge of the tent, only to re-appear a few heartbeats later. With a nod of her head, Xena crawled off into the darkness and was soon lost from view.

Turning back to other women, she began to explain how they would use the Vespas to protect themselves, getting quite a deal of muffled laughter from the young women. Eponin smiled broadly. It felt good to have a few options again.

Chapter Ten

Xena eased her way passed the last sentry before leaving the camp, making sure he was still out cold. She had taken a few moments to prop him against a tree, arranging his limbs comfortably before crossing the sentry line. Anyone stumbling across him would think he had merely fallen asleep at his post, and aside from a dull headache, he might think the same thing too; she had been very careful about not being heard as she had approached from behind.

Quickly working her way back up the ridge, she was soon by the bard's side once more. Looking down at the slave wagons she could see the Amazons clustered together as Eponin explained how they could use the hornets Xena had given them as a way to protect themselves.

"Do you think the young ones will be able to pull it off?" Gabrielle asked, feeling a little apprehensive for the women below.

"If Eponin and Solari have any say in it, the men won't want to go near the crafters," Xena replied, pulling several pieces of deer jerky from Gabrielle's bag, handing some to the bard. "Mind you," she laughed softly, a wicked light glinting in her eyes. "By the time they are finished with them, those slavers won't be able to get the Amazons on the road fast enough."

The warrior's head did a half turn as the faint sound of softly moving feet brushing through the leaf litter reached her ears. Shayna silently eased in beside the tall woman, slipping her knife back into its place under the waistband of her skirt. "Nothing, Mama," she whispered, taking the piece of jerky Xena handed to her.

Xena glared at the smug expression on the bard's face before answering. "Good girl," she said. Shayna had been determined to follow the woman into the encampment until Gabrielle had explained, in a stroke of near genius, how they needed someone to guard their backs. The child had willingly moved further away from the slavers’ camp, hiding herself in a clump of dense bushes to watch for any sign of guards or sentries. Xena knew the sentries didn't patrol that far out, and with darkness falling, any scouting parties should have long returned to base. Grateful the bard had given her one less thing to worry about, Xena had headed for the slave wagon.

"Now what?" Gabrielle asked around a mouthful of chewy meat.

"Now we watch and wait. There isn't a lot we can do until they start moving the Amazons onto the road," the warrior replied, her eyes never leaving the set-up below them.

The two women and one girl-child made themselves as comfortable as they could on top of the ridge, Shayna curled up next to the warrior, her head on Xena's strong thigh. By the time the moon rose over the horizon, the youngster was asleep, twitching occasionally as she dreamed. Xena and Gabrielle watched the camp, making quiet comments to each other now and then, the warrior's hand gently stroking the soft shoulder of the child. It was almost an unconscious gesture, but the bard noticed, never saying a word about the obvious, growing feeling developing in Xena for the small child by her side.

Chapter Eleven

Viper strode into his tent, his strong, well-muscled body moving with all the deadly grace of the creature he styled himself after. Close to his heels followed his second, a man of dubious reputation, to say the least, but someone the slave leader trusted most of the time. Reaching the small travelling desk he used, Viper pulled a rough map from its case and unfurled it on the table. Tapping the general area they were in, he said, "We might have to think about moving on before the next full moon, Artalus. We've just about picked clean everything for several days’ walk around here."

"Aye, we might at that. Though those forest women were a real bonus. Think we might get any more?" Artalus asked as he eyed the map, wondering where they would be headed next.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll get some more of them," Viper replied. Moving his finger in a north-westerly direction, he finally stopped it over a large area of forest quite some days walk from their current position. It had been newly outlined in strong, black ink. "I had a little chat with the leader of that group we captured this morning, and using some very persuasive logic, she pointed out exactly where the rest of those women live."

Artalus chuckled evilly, knowing exactly what kind of logic Viper had used against the Amazon woman. He had used the same kind himself on many occasions in the past and would probably use it again sometime in the future. "Are you sure she was telling you the truth? You know how they try to keep their lands hidden from the rest of us enterprising types," the man queried.

"I'm sure. Told her in no uncertain terms if there were no Amazons to be found in that patch of woods, I was going to throw those pretty young things she was escorting to the rest of the men," Viper replied. He suddenly burst into loud, braying laughter. Bringing himself back under control, he continued, "Can't say I think a great deal of their much talked about Amazon courage, though. She actually started shaking with fear when I told her what the men would do to them. Couldn't get to the map fast enough to show me the way." Rolling the map again and sliding it into its case, Viper looked at Artalus waiting for his orders. "Might just do it anyway. Gotta get them all broken in just right before we sell them at the markets. From what I've heard, it just isn't natural what those women do together. Never know, they would probably get to like the feel of hard man-flesh screwing them, considering they've had to make do with each other for so long." Viper stared at the canvas over his head for a moment. "Then again, it wouldn't matter if they don't, just so long as we break their spirits enough to make them biddable to their new owners."

"I'll pass the word along for tonight then," Artalus said, turning from his leader, eager with the thought of all those fresh women to try out. Most of them would probably be virgins, too. He'd heard rumours the Amazons could do things to a man he would never forget.

"No. Wait," Viper suddenly cut in. "They're going to be with us for a while. I want them close by just in case that bitch lied to me about where the Amazon lands are." Tapping his chin with one finger, thinking deeply for a moment, he said, "Just bring their leader to me tonight. Fear and anticipation can do wonders for getting people into the right frame of mind. By the time she gets back to them and they see what a real man can do, they will be that much easier to handle."

"As you wish, Viper," Artalus replied, disappointed he wasn't going to get his own hands on some of that firm young Amazon flesh right away. Oh well, there will always be another night, he thought. Sooner or later, his leader would pass one of them along to him, once Viper had violated the first fruits of their virginity. Sometimes it was good being Viper's second in command.

Turning towards the door flap, he quickly made his way down the side of the tent towards the back and the wagons parked there. Artalus could see them in the thin moonlight, sitting clustered together against the night's chill. One or two of the younger ones looked about nervously, but the five warriors simply watched his approach coldly. He smiled cruelly to himself. Those expressions would soon change once Viper had finished repeatedly raping their leader. He never doubted for a heartbeat that was what it would be, too. As slaves, they might as well get used to that simple fact now.

Turning the chunky key in the rusting iron lock, he quickly had the small door open. Pointing his finger at Eponin, he snarled at her. "You. Get out here. Viper has decided you're to grace his bedroll tonight."

The warrior woman crawled through the cage door, her eyes never leaving those of the second. She was fully expecting some kind of physical admonishment, and she was not to be disappointed. One arm was suddenly grabbed, yanked backwards and pulled up her spine until she was sure her shoulder would be broken. Relaxing into the pain, she tried to keep it from showing on her face.

"And you had better be properly grateful for his time, or the next fuck you get will be me, and I won't be half as nice about it as Viper," Artalus growled in her ear, his free hand groping crudely at her breast. "Whatcha got to say for yourself, harlot?" he asked, pulling Eponin's arm up another fraction.

"Yes. I'll be properly grateful for the time he spends with me," Eponin said quietly, hiding the pain in her voice beneath her softly spoken words.

"Good. Now march," he said, dropping the woman's arm. He did notice how the Amazon hadn't immediately clutched at her abused shoulder or shown any other sign of the wrenching her muscles had just taken. Maybe these Amazons are tougher than we realised, he wondered for a moment. Couldn't be. They're just women, after all. Nothing tough about a bunch of women all playing at being warriors. Viper will soon sort this one out and the rest will just fall into line, he thought as he walked behind Eponin.

The young craft-women and older warriors watched as Eponin disappeared around the corner of the tent. The metal-smith turned to Solari, "Do you think she will be all right?"

"She'll be fine," Solari replied, a grin already forming on her lips. "I'd be more worried about Viper surviving the experience, if I were him."

Chapter Twelve

Eponin walked ahead of Artalus, her mind racing. Gotta make this look convincing, she thought. The slave leader had bought her shaking-in-fear performance without question earlier in the day. He simply thought of her as another terrified woman and not the warrior she knew herself to be. Sometimes you really can make prejudice work for you, one of the lessons she had learned from watching Xena. She merely had to keep it up for a while longer and somehow protect the rest of the Amazons. Looks like I have something of the bard in me after all. Gabrielle would be proud, Eponin thought as she grinned secretly to herself.

She hesitated for a moment as they reached the front of the tent, appearing to be fearful of whatever may be about to take place inside the canvas structure. Artalus didn't lose the opportunity to prod the Amazon in the back, forcing her to step through the door flap. He wouldn't have minded watching Viper break this woman's spirit, but his leader rarely allowed that to happen. He liked to keep some secrets to himself. Not that she seemed to have a lot of courage to begin with. They had barely entered the tent and already he could see all the small signs of someone trying to control their fear and not doing a particularly good job of it.

"The Amazon slave you requested, Viper," Artalus said respectfully to the man's half-turned back.

"Fine. That will be all," the other man replied, flicking his fingers towards the door. He was well aware Artalus would take the guard post at the door just so he could hear everything going on inside the tent. Viper didn't mind but knew the day was coming when he would have to kill his second for simply knowing too much. It was one of the many ways he had of staying at the top of a very vicious command tree.

Viper took his time, fussing unnecessarily with some parchment on his travelling desk before slowly turning and appearing to notice the Amazon standing in the center of the tent. He could easily see the tension across her bunched shoulders and the way her hands were twitching against the leather of her short skirt. The darting manner of her eyes flicking all about the room, trying not to rest on him for more than a heartbeat, made it clear she was already very frightened. He felt the slow tightening deep in his groin. He was really going to enjoy this.

Circling behind Eponin, he noted her shallow breathing and the faint clenching and unclenching of her jaw. If this was the best the Amazons could offer by way of warriors, capturing the rest of them was going to be a walkover, he marvelled. Viper allowed one hand to gently stroke the woman's shoulder as he returned to face her, secretly delighted at the flinching response his touch received.

"I can make this easy for you or I can make it hard. The choice is entirely up to you," Viper whispered, moving his face towards the woman, brushing his unshaven cheek against hers until he could softly flick her earlobe with the tip of his tongue.

"Please," Eponin begged quietly. "Don't hurt me." If things hadn't been quite so serious, the warrior was sure she would have thrown up by now from the smell of this man's unwashed and very odorous body alone. As it was, she could almost taste the bile at the back of her throat. She swallowed several times, forcing her stomach back under control.

"Oh, I have no intention of hurting you," Viper said very, very gently, watching the tension in Eponin's shoulders relax just a fraction. "Unless you displease me in some way." The snarling tone he put into the words cranked the tension back up again and sent a small shudder through the woman's body. He stepped back several paces, the Amazon taking her first deep breath since entering the tent.

Eponin decided that now might be a good time to start another Amazon mystery. "Lord Slaver. Please. For your own safety, our patron goddess Artemis has sworn her protection to all her warriors. It is painful death to any man who dares to touch us," she explained, looking fearfully at the matting at her feet.

Lord Slaver, I like that. Might use it in future, Viper thought quietly to himself, as he let the woman's words sink in. He snorted, Artemis protecting a bunch of weak, terrified women! The gods barely shifted their lazy backsides from their domains, no matter what the prayer being offered. And the goddesses were even worse. No, there would be no intervention from the Mount in this case. He had heard all kinds of prayers and promises made to various gods over the cycles when he was molesting women, and not one had ever been answered. He very much doubted any god or goddess would start now.

"Something tells me she won't be interfering with a man at his job," Viper said nastily. Taking a moment to pull the short leather vest from his shoulders and tossing it to one side, he locked eyes with the petrified woman, snapping out a command. Might as well get the slave used to taking orders. More than anything, he was hoping she would show some kind of defiance, however small, just so he could have the pleasure of punishing her. "Remove my boots, slave."

Eponin slowly dropped to one knee and began to unlace his boots. She had to force her face to remain expressionless as the stench of his bare feet settled on the back of her tongue. Placing his boots beside her, she waited on her knees for his next command.

"Now, kiss the feet of your master, Amazon slave," Viper snarled.

As the warrior leaned forward to comply with the man's order, she closed her mind to the smell and instead concentrated on hiding what her right hand was doing.

A shiver of delight worked its way through Viper's body as he felt the soft kisses this so called warrior was placing over the tops of his feet and across the insteps. Already, he could feel himself growing hard under his trousers, their tight confines making him a little uncomfortable. "Enough," he whispered. "Get over by the pallet."

Rising from her knees, Eponin couldn't miss the obvious bulge in the man's leather pants. She kept the smile from her face at the thought of him not having that for much longer. She stood passively beside the rough bed, watching the bulge grow larger and more turgid as Viper came towards her, his eyes raking lewdly up and down her body. Still pretending at fear but allowing a small spark of something the man was sure to mistake for desire flicker over her face, Eponin slowly reached towards his trousers. "May I remove those for you, Master?" she asked, the last word almost catching in her throat.

Viper simply nodded. He might not have gotten the pleasure of breaking her spirit; it was obvious she had none to begin with, but he had heard the same stories as his second about the carnal delights an Amazon could bring a man. He stood quietly, holding himself in check, as the woman nestled against his side, her still covered breasts rubbing sensually over his bare ribs. Nimble fingers soon had the ties undone, and Eponin slowly slid his pants around his ankles. Viper stared down at his now free erection, bobbing briefly in the candlelight. The warrior seemed to almost ooze her way back up his body. He closed his eyes as Eponin's lips made contact with his own.

Eponin was concentrating fiercely to stop herself from pushing Viper's disgusting body away from her. She locked her mind on the last kiss she had shared with her lover back at the Amazon village, trying to pretend for the few moments she needed that it was Amaran she was kissing and not this slaver. She softly walked the fingers of her right hand down his abdomen, gently cupping his massive erection. Then she squeezed it, hard.

Viper had the briefest flash of pleasure as strong fingers grasped him firmly. Then something hit him full force in the crotch, tearing an agonising scream from his throat, pitched so high it was completely soundless. Thrusting the woman away violently, he clutched at his rapidly wilting man-hood, a raging fire burning its way from his groin to his brain. The last thing he saw before the overwhelming pain caused him to black out was Eponin seated on the ground, a tiny, savage smile on her face.

Eponin sat on the floor, watching with undisguised glee as Viper turned the most amazing shade of white, eyes overflowing with tears, completely slack-jawed with the shock of the Vespa sting. It was only after he had toppled to the ground unconscious that she carefully opened her hand to see the little hornet still trapped by its wings between her second and third fingers. She very cautiously returned it to the small bag in her belt pouch where she had withdrawn it while kissing Viper's noxious feet. Now to complete the mystery, she thought as she climbed back onto her feet.

Chapter Thirteen

Artalus stood at his post by the closed door flap, listening to the sounds coming from inside. He could feel his man-hood starting to rise and he hoped Viper would finish raping the Amazon quickly so he could go and find one of the camp women to fill his own need. He snorted briefly to himself. The slave leader never did anything like that quickly. He liked to take his time and violate them repeatedly just to reinforce the notion they were now truly slaves and had no more say in what happened to their bodies.

He heard Viper order the woman over to the bed and didn't think it would be long before the first pain-filled and terrified scream came rushing from the Amazon's mouth. He'd already listened to the woman begging not to be hurt. The second jealously knew the other man was very much over-endowed in that particular area. It always hurt them whether they were willing or not. The bulge in his trousers grew a little more at the thought of what Viper might be doing to the woman. Something heavy suddenly hit the ground inside the tent and Artalus assumed the slave leader had thrown the woman to the floor, impatient to get on with his pleasure.

He couldn't keep the shocked expression from his face as the woman appeared by his side, tears rolling freely down her cheeks. Muttering incoherently, she dragged at his arm to pull him into the tent with her. "All right. All right. I'm coming," he said as he followed the distraught Amazon inside.

Artalus's eyes bugged at what he saw in front of him. The woman had scurried around to the top of Viper's body, cradling his greasy head in her lap. The slaver lay on the floor next to his pallet, naked and covered in sweat, his face whiter than the first snows of winter. "What happened here?" he asked incredulously.

"I told him. I did warn him, truly I did," Eponin started saying, garbling the words a little in her distress.

"Warned him of what?" Artalus snapped, dropping to one knee beside the still unconscious man.

Eponin seemed to make some effort to get herself back under control to try to explain what had happened. "I warned him that Artemis protects all the Amazons and will kill anyone who tries to touch us. He didn't believe me and then this happened to him."

The second gulped, his own erection shrivelling back to nothing. At that instant, he was wishing there was some way of tucking his balls inside to stop Artemis from exacting the same punishment on him for his thoughts about young Amazon flesh. Pulling at Viper's hands crabbed together in his lap, he exposed the slaver's man-hood and the damage he thought the goddess had inflicted. It did not look good. The entire area was a fiery red, already swelling so badly it might be several days before the other man could possibly wear even the loosest of trousers. He was certain if his balls got any larger they would probably burst open.

Eponin, on the other hand, couldn't have been more delighted with the effect of the Vespa on Viper's only claim to fame. It must have stung him several times in quick succession for there to be so much swelling. She kept the smile from her face, though, and tried to look as pitiful as possible, but it was getting more and more difficult to stop herself from simply breaking down and laughing hysterically. "Maybe we had better put him to bed," the warrior managed to choke out, the strongly suppressed laughter bringing more tears to her eyes.

Artalus mistook the tears for concern over the health, and possible continued existence, of the slave leader. "Yea. That sounds like the right idea," he replied. Flicking the covers back, the two of them quickly lifted Viper onto the pallet. Eponin made a bit of a show tucking him in, smoothing the blankets around his shoulders. "That's enough," the second snarled. "Back to the wagon with you."

The warrior pretended reluctance at being dragged from Viper's side, though not enough that Artalus would change his mind and leave her to care for the man. As they walked back towards the wagons, he asked, "Why didn't Artemis just kill him outright?"

"Maybe because we hadn't gotten very far. I mean, all we had done was kiss a bit. If he had actually touched me, she might have just wiped him off the face of the earth completely with a lightning bolt or something," Eponin offered. Now let that grow in your superstitious little mind, she thought as the second unlocked the small door and pushed her back inside the cage. The warrior all but dove into Solari's open arms, burying her face between her breasts, her shoulders heaving in frightened tears, her cries well muffled by leather and flesh.

The other Amazons clustered around Eponin in support as the second shook his head before walking away. He couldn't wait to pass the word along about what had happened. One thing he knew for sure, though -- there was no way on this earth he was even going to look at those Amazons if this was the sort of protection they had over them.

The gathered women waited until the man was completely out of sight before trying to question Eponin. Solari hugged the obviously traumatised woman tightly, gently asking what had gone on in the tent. All the Amazons realised the Vespa plan might not work, and from the expression on Eponin's face as she came around the corner it was clear she had undergone a terrible ordeal in the short half-candlemark or so she had been away.

The warrior raised her face from the protection of Solari's breasts, the tear stains on her high cheeks reflecting the light of the overhead moon. She fell backwards, landing against the bars of the cage, her hand firmly over her mouth as she tried to muffle the sound of her laughter. But the sparkling eyes over her fingers told the other women everything they needed to know. The plan had been a complete success.

Chapter Fourteen

Xena, Gabrielle and Shayna sat quietly in a thick patch of thorny bushes, several hundred paces back from the nearest sentry post. A full candlemark before there was even a hint of colour on the horizon, they had made a wide circle of the encampment, settling into the dark shadows of the overgrown brambles. They still had a clear view of the slave wagons at the back of the main tent but the angle was much better for watching the comings and goings at the front. And there had been quite a lot of coming and going since one of the men had escorted Eponin back to her companions after her short visit to the slave leader.

Xena was guessing a bit, but she assumed the little hornets had done their part of the job and now the Amazons would be safe from molestation. She had watched with almost immoral pleasure as any man inadvertently nearing the wagon would suddenly shy away when he realised exactly where he was, as though some terrible evil was emanating from the women trapped inside. The occasional finger pointing in their general direction from various fires around the encampment also put a smile on her face. She didn't think it would take long before the entire camp had heard some version of what had befallen the slave leader. Whether it was the exact truth or not was another matter altogether.

Very shortly after Eponin had been secured inside the wagon again, the same man had scurried over to the healer's wagon, quite likely dragging one from his bed. There had been a brief but very animated discussion between the two men before the healer had hurried back to the main structure. Xena would have given anything to know what was actually said, but the hand gestures alone conveyed quite a bit of meaning to her. She had woken Gabrielle at that point so she could watch what was going on as well, adding her own impressions about what might be taking place in the camp below.

Now that the sun had fully risen, both women sat in the brambles watching various healers entering and leaving the main tent. It was fairly clear each new healer who appeared was slightly more senior than the one before. When a man with a back bowed with age entered, they both knew the most senior healer of all had been called in to tend to the sick man inside.

"It's probably driving them nuts trying to figure out what is wrong with him," Gabrielle commented in a whisper as one of the junior healers ran back to the senior man's tent, quickly returning with several small bags in one hand.

"Well, the swelling and redness would cover any sign of a sting, especially if there was more than one, possibly confusing them, but they're all operating under the premise that a goddess did the damage and not some little bug," Xena replied quietly. "So long as they continue to think it has been inflicted by a god, the Amazons will be safe. Let's just hope they don't wake up to what they are really dealing with."

Shayna cuddled up against the warrior's side, content to sit quietly with the two women once Xena had explained their need for silence. "Who has ouchie?" she asked in her usual breathless undertone. She had watched the two women smoking the hornets from their nest and knew the tall warrior had given some to the women in the cage. Neither of the adults had been sure, though, just how much Shayna had understood of the plan they'd worked out the day before.

"A bad man," Xena answered, distracted, her eyes focused on two healers entering the tent together.

The child simply nodded her head. She knew about bad men because a woman warrior in dark leather, carrying a bright, shining sword, had taught her about them when she was a very little girl. In the child's dim memories, she knew the leathered person was her mother but she could no longer remember the woman's face. Shayna was assuming now that the raven-haired woman, dressed in the heavy, dark leather and wearing the pretty, swirling armour must be her mother. The almost off-handed care Xena showed towards the youngster merely reinforced that impression. As far as Shayna was concerned, she must have been very naughty because her mother had slipped away under the water of a fast flowing stream one stormy night, leaving the child to fend for herself. Now that she had been so good, remembering all the lessons she had been taught, her mother had returned. If she kept being good, Mama wouldn't leave her alone in the forest again.

The bard leaned towards Xena to whisper another question into her ear. As much as she wanted her answer, the excuse to get close to the warrior also played its part. Gabrielle adored the scent of cinnamon and hyacinth overlaid by the strong smell of leather that was so much a part of the woman she loved. "Xena?" she said. "I can understand how using the Vespas would stop those men from touching the Amazons, but how is it going to convince them to start the wagons on the road?"

Xena remained silent for a few heartbeats, gathering her thoughts. "Slavers, thugs, raiders and warlords can be a very superstitious group sometimes. If this lot think a goddess is protecting the Amazons, they are going to want to get them as far away as possible, if only to save their own miserable hides," she explained to the bard at her side. "And I did add a little something to help nudge that impression along," Xena admitted somewhat ruefully, not letting the other woman catch the expression in her eyes.

"I thought I saw you roll under the edge of the tent. Exactly what did you do in there?" Gabrielle asked, not sure if she really wanted to hear the answer. Xena could be quite nasty about the way she did things sometimes, a fact the bard had gradually managed to come to terms with. She didn’t always agree with the way she acted, but she did accept it was part of who Xena was as a warrior and ex-warlord.

"I dropped a handful of Assassin's beetles into the slaver's pallet, between the blankets," Xena said, so quietly Gabrielle almost didn't hear it at all.

"Assassin beetles? What are they?" the bard queried. She had never heard of any beetle like that before.

"Not assassin, Gabrielle. Assassin's," the warrior corrected. "It's a mildly poisonous beetle assassins use now and then. One bite won't kill you, but the poison can quickly build up in your body if you get enough of them. It confuses the mind pretty badly, and the rash can just about drive someone mad the way it itches. Fever gets quite high as well. Assassins like using them because the bite can make their victim look as though they have some other kind of sickness altogether."

"It won't kill him, will it?" Gabrielle asked, surprised the warrior knew about the beetles at all. Then again, she seemed to know about a great many unexpected things.

"Not if they get him out of that pallet soon enough," Xena whispered back in reply.

"How soon is soon enough?"

Xena let herself look at the blonde-haired woman sitting beside her. "Three, maybe four days. Plenty of time for the rest of the camp to want those Amazons gone," she replied. What the warrior didn't explain was if he lasted four days, his mind would remain permanently confused. Xena had been careful about how many of the tiny beetles she had slipped between his covers, but everyone reacted a little differently. What would only cripple one man might actually kill another. But the gentle bard didn't need to know that much. It was sufficient that she alone knew.

Chapter Fifteen

Artalus sat at his leader's travelling desk, trying not to listen to the low moans of pain coming from the man on the pallet. For the moment they were alone, the old healer and his juniors returning to their wagon to attend the injuries and sickness's of their other patients. He tried not to look at Viper lying on the bed. The healers had been forced to tie his arms to the wooden sides of the cot to stop him from tearing at his own flesh when a strange rash had suddenly developed. It was soon clear that the rash must have been itching intensely because the slaver had managed to score deep, bloody scratches over several parts of his body trying to somehow relieve the itch. To Artalus' eyes, though, it appeared that the more the man scratched at himself, the worse the irritation became.

He certainly couldn't bring himself to even peep under the blankets at Viper's horribly swollen manhood. He had been forced to help hold the man down when the healer inserted a narrow, hollow reed so Viper could void his water. Otherwise, they all feared his bladder would burst from the pressure inside, the swelling of his member making it impossible for him to do it naturally. Every single man in the camp had heard the agonising screams of pain Viper had made when the old healer had forced the reed through the eye of his manhood. After that, there was no way Artalus could hide the fact something was very wrong with the slave leader. The camp was alive with rumours, and there was no way to stop them.

The guard on the door poked his head through the flap, pointedly not looking in the direction of Viper's pallet, and said quietly, "There are three of the Lieutenants here to see you, Artalus."

Sighing, because he knew what was coming, he replied, "Send them in." Hardening his expression, he tried to give the impression he saw Viper's unknown illness as nothing more than a passing concern.

The three men filed into the tent, the guard dropping the flap behind them to give, at least, the illusion of privacy. The slaver's second saw immediately these were the three in charge of the largest of the scouting parties. They were also the most ambitious. If there was even the faintest indication of a weakness at the top, these three in particular would always rush to try to fill the gap. The only reason one of them wasn't already in charge was because Viper had been just that much more ruthless in his climb to the leadership position. Artalus had never sought the leadership himself, being content to follow the path laid out by Viper. And as he had been following the other man for cycles, he continued to follow him now.

"What can I do for you?" Artalus asked almost pleasantly, appearing unconcerned about the sick man lying just a few paces behind him.

Before he got his answer, each of the Lieutenants took several heartbeats to have a long, long look at Viper tied to his pallet. In the time Artalus's mind had been turning over the problem, the delirious man had managed to kick the blankets from his body and now lay in full view of the three men. Viper was running with fevered sweat, the skin over his entire body blotched and reddened, several large patches weeping grotesquely from the rash. The deep scratches he had inflicted on himself stood out against his skin, making him appear as though he had been severely whipped. The thing that drew every eye, though, was Viper's distended and darkly bruised manhood, the narrow, flexible reed poking from the end and snaking it way over the side of the pallet to an open pot under the bed. Each of the men shuddered at the sight, one man's hand unconsciously moving to cover his own manhood.

"Is he going to be all right?" the tallest of the trio asked, his eyes never leaving Viper or his bloated member for a moment.

Artalus lied easily through his teeth. "Yea, the healers reckon he should be up and about in a seven-day or so. They don't think it's anything serious." There, think about that you bunch of vultures, he thought to himself. The last thing he wanted to endure was some kind of power struggle, when it wasn't even known if Viper was going to die or not. The second didn't want to put his loyalty behind some new leader if Viper somehow survived the illness. Sometimes it was a bad thing to be the slave leader's second. A very bad thing.

One of the other men, the one who had moved to protect his own balls, dragged his eyes away from the softly groaning leader to ask, "Is it true that Artemis did this to him because he wanted to, well, you know. With the Amazons." The man flicked his fingers vaguely in the direction of the wagons at the back of the tent and at the women contained in one of them.

Artalus surged to his feet in a rage, a vicious backhand throwing the man to the ground. Standing over him, the second snarled, "Where did you hear that piece of horse-shit?"

"It's all over the camp," whined the downed man in reply, gingerly wiping the blood trickling from the side of his mouth with edge of one hand. "One of the healers told me. Said you had told him that's what happened when the Amazon was in here."

Artalus stepped back to the desk, trying to control his anger at the healer for saying anything and his fear of what the rest of the men might ask of him if they thought Artemis really was on the move inside the camp. He wouldn't have minded getting those women onto the road and safely sold at the slave markets, but Viper had been clear about keeping them close by as insurance if there were no other Amazons to be found in the area marked on the map. Being a second was starting to look worse every heartbeat.

Forcing himself to settle behind the desk once more, Artalus decided to walk the thin line between prudent truth and god-fearing diplomacy. "It might have been Artemis," he said. "But can you see any goddess protecting those women just because they call themselves warriors?" He tried to put a mocking tone on the question, not sure if he had quite succeed.

The three men stood muttering together. None of them were particularly devoted to any god, but there were so many things about the Amazons they didn't know. Artemis may well have decided to protect them for reasons of her own. No one wanted to try and second-guess a goddess, especially one as clearly powerful as Artemis. The tall lieutenant finally spoke up. "Maybe it would be a good idea to get them women on the road, then. At least we might be safe from her disapproval."

"Forget it," the second snapped back. "Viper wants them here, and here they will stay." He thumped his fist on the table top in emphasis.

"But Artalus, look at him. That could be any one of us. You're not even safe. In fact, that goddess could be warming up her next surprise right now because you won't move those accursed women," one of the other men said, pointing nervously to the slaver thrashing feverishly on the pallet.

The second was well aware he might be next on Artemis's hit list, but he continued to stand by Viper's orders. If the man did recover, Artalus didn't want him thinking he had been betrayed by an ambitious second. Something like that would most definitely shorten his life-span.

The guard outside the door listened avidly as the argument raged back and forth for some time. He could hardly wait for his post to finish so he could add what he had overheard to the many rumours floating about the camp. He was not the only one with their ears straining to catch every word. Fifteen Amazons sat in complete silence waiting to see if the second would buckle under the pressure. Eponin had bet Solari fifty dinars they would be on the road by dawn the next morning. Judging from the increasing volume of the argument going on inside the tent, she was going to win that bet, hands down.

Chapter Sixteen

Eponin tried to ignore the feeling of road dust and grit working its irritating way under her clothing, but she was enjoying the smug expression on her face from having won her bet with Solari. She'd managed to pass a very pleasant first candlemark of their journey thinking of different ways of spending the money. Perhaps buying new tortoiseshell combs for Amaran to replace the ones taken from her when they had been captured. Only inlaid with something precious this time, maybe even a little silver or gold, if she could find any like that.

She glanced over towards Solari, the other woman carefully watching the forest around them as they passed. Shortly after they had rolled onto the main track to the slave markets, all the Amazons had heard the bird call coming from high in some trees. Xena knew they were on the road at last and was following, biding her time until she found a way of releasing them from the ironwood cage on top of the wagon.

"See anything, Solari?" she asked quietly, wiping a bead of sweat from the side of her face.

"Not a thing, but it wouldn't be like Xena to give herself away unless she had some plan up her bracer," the other woman replied in a cheery undertone. She was really looking forward to getting out of the close confines of the cage and back into the openness of the forest surrounding them. For the past few days, aside from blaming herself for their capture, she had felt very much like a trapped animal.

"Well, I hope it is soon. We're about as ready as we're going to be," Eponin commented. She looked over the way the women had arranged themselves on the bed of the wagon. Two warriors sat nearest the door. They were to help the young craft-women escaping through the small exit. The other three were sitting at the front, to act as a rearguard, if it became necessary. The crafters were seated on both sides of the cage between the two sets of warriors, ready to move as soon as Eponin, or Xena, gave the command. To the twenty or so guards spread around the moving wagon, it all appeared perfectly natural.

The candlemarks passed more slowly than the wagon was travelling, the summer sun moving higher into the sky, everyone growing a little tired and sleepy in the unremitting heat and humidity. Neither the men nor the wagon stopped for a nooning break, the women being fed and watered through the bars. Artalus's orders had been very clear and to the point. Take the Amazons, as swiftly as possible without killing the oxen, to the nearest slave market and then sell them for whatever price they could get. Several of the guards had heard a rumour Viper had taken another turn for the worse during the night, frightening the second into arranging for the Amazons’ sudden departure from the camp.

Not that any of them were going to breathe easy until the women were safely sold. Then Artemis's protective curse became the new owner's problem and not their own. Quite a few of the men were carrying amulets of various types tucked inside their trousers in the hope of warding the goddess's angry eye away from them and onto someone else.

The forest slowly thickened around them until the branches of the trees interlaced overhead, creating a shady avenue. The relief from the beating sun did little to sharpen the guard's watchfulness, however, the sticky humidity alone sending several into a kind of walking daze. Most of them had been on their feet since just before dawn without so much as a single rest stop, and this definitely contributed to their slackness.

Eponin felt a hard elbow gently jabbing into her ribs. Even she had lost the struggle to stay completely awake in the heat. The warrior glanced over at the crafter seated next to her, only to have her attention redirected towards Solari by a barely lifted finger. Raising an eyebrow in question, she waited as a guard drifted up to the cage to check on them after noticing the woman's abruptly lifted head, and then slowly moved back to his original position once more.

Solari turned her head slightly, looking back over the part of the road they had just travelled. "Just spotted the Queen almost completely hidden beside a tree, Eponin," she whispered. "Looks like Xena is about to make her move."

The woman nodded almost imperceptibly, wondering what the tall, dark-haired warrior was going to do. "Okay, everyone. This is it. Xena will probably make an appearance any moment," she murmured, her lips barely moving. No one actually moved but she could see the way all eyes were sweeping the surrounding woods, everyone's attention focused on the moment when the door would be forced open.

Two booted feet suddenly slammed onto the top of the cage. Eponin didn't even try to stop the chuckle that bubbled from her throat. Trust Xena to do things differently, she thought. The last thing she had expected was for the warrior to drop from the overhead branches right onto the top of the wagon, but Xena loved doing the unexpected.

The sensuous metal slither of a sword being drawn from its sheath sounded loudly in the startled silence of her landing. That utter stillness lasted only a heartbeat more before a wave of angry and confused noise rose up around the wagon. Xena quickly stepped to the back of the cage and spun the blade in her hand, connecting solidly with the rusting lock on the door. It gave way under the onslaught, wrenching one of the hinges from its housing as it snapped. Kicking at the wood, she knocked the door completely from the frame. "MOVE," she shouted at the women inside, already on their feet. The first warrior jumped from the cage, the next right on her heels. Satisfied the Amazons could look after themselves, Xena turned her cold gaze onto the men coming towards them.

A high, tight somersault had her on the ground and swinging her sword in its deadly, flashing arc, dispatching guards as fast her sword arm could move. Gabrielle came pelting into the fight from her hiding place a little way down the track, quickly downing two more of the guards before signalling to the Amazons to follow her into the forest.

Eponin found herself running beside the Amazon Queen when Gabrielle slid to a sudden halt. "What's up?" she asked. "If you're worried about Xena, she'll be fine."

"Hera's tits," the bard swore. "Where in Tartarus did Shayna get to? She was supposed to stay with me." Gabrielle was rapidly turning in all directions, obviously trying to spot someone.

"I didn't see anyone behind you," Eponin said, wondering who Shayna could possibly be and what her connection was to the bard and the warrior.

"Blast. I'll have to go back for her. Look, there is a clearing just ahead. Everyone should be meeting up there. You can't miss it; Argo is tied to one of the trees," Gabrielle explained quickly, already starting to move back in the direction they had come.

Eponin grabbed at the other woman. "I'm sure she can look after herself, Gabrielle. It's too dangerous for you to go back to the wagon," she said urgently.

"Oh, for the love of," the bard snapped, completely exasperated with Amazons and their constant need to protect her. "Shayna is a child."

That got nothing more than a dropped jaw response from the warrior.

"Now let me get¼" Gabrielle started to say.

"No need. She's with me," Xena said evenly, appearing through the trees holding the youngster by the hand. Both were spotted with blood, though the child had far more on her than the tall warrior striding by her side.

"Mother of Zeus. I think I am going to enjoy hearing you explain this one, Xena," Eponin said, grinning at the dark-haired woman. Not even Xena's low voiced growl wiped the smile from her face.

Chapter Seventeen

"And for some reason, she now thinks Xena is her mother?" Eponin said incredulously, watching the tall warrior standing, hip deep, in the shallows teaching the girl-child how to float.

The two women were seated on the warm rocks above a deep lake. The other Amazons were spread about the area, either washing days of grime from their own bodies or sitting around a campfire chatting together quietly. Now everyone was free, the Amazons would be moving onto the hunting grounds as soon as they could, but Eponin was hoping she could convince the two travellers to come with them and bring the child as well. There was also the small problem of the slavers to deal with. Regardless of whether Viper survived his encounter with the Assassin's beetles or not, she was sure that whoever took the leadership would head for the area of woods she had pointed out on the rough map.

"Yea, amazing, isn't it," Gabrielle replied, tugging the knots out of her freshly washed hair with a teasel. "I think Xena has given up trying to get Shayna to call her by name but she’s not really comfortable being called Mama yet, either. I try not to say anything, I know how you warrior types get sometimes." The smile on her face was cheeky but the light in Gabrielle's eyes as she watched the little scene below them was filled with nothing but gentle love for the blue-eyed woman.

Eponin lightly punched the blonde's arm, only then realising just how much more muscular the bard had become since the last time they had seen each other. "Her mother drowned? Shayna must be something pretty special, then, to have survived for so long alone in the forest. Any ideas how long she was on her own?" the Amazon asked.

"Well, we're guessing her mother drowned, Eponin. You should have seen how terrified she was of the water before Xena forced her into it," the bard replied.

"Doesn't seem to be too afraid now," Eponin commented, pointing at the child splashing about in the water with the tall warrior.

Gabrielle looked down at the pair playing in the lake, wrapping her arms around her knees. "Just so long as Xena stays with her. If it was me, or anyone else, she would be screaming her lungs out," the bard said a little sadly. "We really don't know how long she had been wandering the forest alone, but it must have been for some time. She appears to have lost a lot of her language skills, but those are slowly picking up again. Can't get her to talk about a whisper though," she observed.

The other woman turned slightly towards Gabrielle, resting one hand on the bard's shoulder. She looked down at the deep lake again just as Xena was playfully tossing the child into the air and watching her land back in the water with a giggling splash. "You know, this has brought out a whole new side in that old warlord I didn't know she had before. I don't think anyone in the village is ever going to believe Xena knows how to play."

Patting the hand on her shoulder briefly, accepting the comfort the Amazon was offering, Gabrielle said, "Oh, Xena knows how to play." She plays with me all the time, she continued the thought. "You just never see it because whenever we come to the village there is usually some kind of trouble going on."

"And Shayna never speaks above a whisper?" Eponin asked, just to be sure. A vague idea was starting to form at the back of her mind somewhere, but it wasn't ready to come forth into the light of day. The warrior wanted a little more information before she could make that happen.

"Well, other than that one time when she thought Xena was going to drown in a stream, we have never gotten her to speak any louder. Thank the gods Xena has such great hearing. I'm sure I'd miss half of what she is saying otherwise," the bard explained.

"You know, we teach our youngsters to move and speak very quietly. Not as softly as Shayna there, but they learn early to be as silent as possible when they are in the forest. Could there be a chance her mother was an Amazon?' Eponin asked.

"I have no idea, but someone must have trained her well, because she does all kinds of things I have never seen any other child do," Gabrielle said in a rush, wondering all over again about the youngster's mother.

The bard and the Amazon warrior sat on the rock until sunset, discussing all the things the child did and whether she might have learned them from an Amazon mother. They reached no real conclusion, but the idea Eponin had was starting to grow stronger in her mind.

That night around the campfire, long after the crafters, Gabrielle and Shayna had dozed into sleep, Eponin and Xena sat talking together. The other Amazon warriors were posted around the little campsite, acting as sentries. They all felt they were far enough away from the slavers to be safe, but one could never be too careful. Slavers were not the only danger to be found in the unforgiving forest.

Eponin pointed to the small pebble she was using to mark their position on a map she had scratched out on the ground in front of them. "This is about were we are now," she said. Indicating to a wood chip, "And this is where the hunting grounds are. Shouldn't take us more than a seven-day to get there from here."

"So long as you don't find another pit trap to fall into," Xena commented, a lop-sided grin twitching on her lips.

The Amazon lowered her brows at the woman sitting beside her. Xena, and probably half the other warriors in the village, were going to kid her about that for a long time to come. Oh well, might as well get used to it, she thought. Moving the stick she was using as a pointer, she brought it to rest over another pebble sitting next to a rough circle marked into the earth. "Don't give up your day job, Xena. You'll never make a comic bard," the warrior replied lightly. "Anyway, this is where I told that slaver the rest of the Nation lived," she continued.

"And what is this circle here supposed to represent?" Xena asked, dropping one finger into the centre of it.

A rich, wicked chuckle flowed from the Amazon, causing Xena to turn her head in surprise. "That, Xena, is a really large, very deep swamp. It's far too big to go around, unless you are willing to lose a couple of seven-days in the travel," Eponin explained.

A look of pleasure crossed the dark-haired woman's face. "Remind me never to ask for directions from you, okay," she said, already envisioning the trouble four hundred men and all their supplies would have trying to cross such unstable land. They'd be very lucky indeed if even half of them made it through to the other side alive.

"We can easily get from here to the village and then to the other side of the swamp long before that bunch of slavers could possibly get across it," Eponin said, the stick moving from place to place as she spoke. "I'd like to be able to take care of that little detail. After all, they do say don't leave trouble behind you. It always had a way of catching up in the end." The Amazon smiled over at the warrior beside her. "Care to join us?" she asked.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Eponin," Xena replied. The slavers had been too well organised for her liking, and knowing how she hated them, she knew she would have been going back anyway. At least this way, she could leave Shayna safely with the women at the village, if the child would stay, that is.

Later, as Xena stretched out on her bedroll, Gabrielle already tucking her still sleeping self around the tall woman's body, the warrior tried to think about what she was going to do about the youngster over the longer term. Her life on the road was just too dangerous and unstable to have a child tagging along all the time. But her secret heart was not ready to think about being separated from the child, even if it was for her own good, so she found herself dropping into the arms of Morpheus long before she had reached any kind of a decision.

Chapter Eighteen

"Whatcha thinking about, Xena?" the bard asked from her perch behind the warrior woman. However much the blonde hated to ride, when Xena had offered a lift, Gabrielle had grabbed at her hand eagerly. Ever since the child had arrived in their camp, they had not been able to spend as much time together as they usually did, and they certainly had not been able to make love. Gabrielle couldn't believe she was actually starting to feel a little jealous of the time Xena was spending with Shayna. So the chance to ride behind the other woman, her arms wrapped lovingly around her waist, was not something the bard was going to pass up.

"Nothing much," the warrior replied, her eyes carefully watching the path ahead and the sight of the youngster running her hands gently over Eponin's skirt, fascinated with the design and the feel of the soft buckskin.

"Don't give me that, Xena. You've barely grunted for the last two candlemarks," the bard said. Leaning sideways for a moment, Gabrielle saw the child was now examining Solaris's skirt, comparing the slightly different designs between the two. "It's something to do with Shayna, isn't it?" she questioned.

"Well, she does seem kind of taken with the rest of the Amazons. Why didn't she take to you so easily?" Xena wondered aloud, hoping to draw the bard away from the real reason she was so quiet.

Gabrielle glanced ahead again before answering. "Maybe because they look like real Amazons?" she offered.

"You look like one too," Xena snapped back hotly. A pained look crossed her face almost immediately after she had said the words. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn’t mean for that to sound the way it did."

"It's all right. I may dress something like an Amazon but even I know I don't look like one. Come on. You have to admit, no one ever believes I am an Amazon Queen unless I have a whole bunch of them around me at the time. Warriors just have a kind of feeling about them. Hard to make a second mistake once you have seen a true Amazon warrior," the bard said gently.

"I still don't understand how Shayna took so easily to them, when it is clear to me you are the gentlest person on two legs. Kids usually adore you," Xena said, sighing silently.

The bard had felt the rise and fall of the warrior's ribcage, even if she hadn't heard the sigh accompanying it. She reached up and softly kissed the back of Xena's neck. "Thank you," she said simply.

The tall warrior didn't reply but the shadow in her eyes lifted briefly. One of the things she had been worrying about were all the tiny signs of jealousy she had been noticing from the other woman. Xena knew she was neglecting Gabrielle a little, but the child seemed to need so much from her, and she just didn't know how to give to one without taking time from the other. The way her own mother had managed to make each of her children feel special without any of them feeling neglected was starting to look like quite an amazing feat indeed. Having to deal with the child's emotional needs was taking more out of her than she had first thought possible. Xena would much prefer to face a gang of thugs than to ever have to see tears in Shayna's eyes for any reason. If she wasn't careful with herself, Xena could see she would end up spoiling the child no end and that would not be a good thing for Shayna in the long run.

"Xena?" Gabrielle said from behind.


"That's not the reason you're so quiet, is it?" the bard asked.

Pulling herself away from her thoughts and concentrating on what the blonde was asking, she replied, "No. Not really."

"So, what are you thinking about, then? I can't remember the last time I saw you this distracted by anything," Gabrielle said.

Xena sighed again, loud enough this time for the bard to hear. "I'm just wondering what to do with Shayna. It's not like we can take her with us when we are on the road all the time. Someone is bound to try to use her to get to me," she said.

"You used to think that way about me, remember," Gabrielle replied.

"But you're an adult, capable of making your own decisions, and you have learned to fight pretty well. She is just a little girl," Xena said, exasperated.

"I know it was different with me but she does think you are her mother. She has already lost one. How do you think she is going to cope with losing a second?" Gabrielle asked, knowing she was pushing her luck with the quick-tempered warrior.

"I don't know, Gabrielle. We can't keep her with us and I am not sure I can to leave her behind somewhere. It was hard enough the first time," Xena answered honestly, all the pain that decision had caused coloring her voice.

For a moment, an image of Solon waving goodbye to them the last time they had been at the centaur's village, and the look of pain and intense sadness on Xena's face as they had ridden away, passed in front of the bard's eyes. Xena's son still didn't know who his mother really was, and Gabrielle wasn't sure if the secret should be kept from him anymore. It was just getting too obvious exactly who Solon's mother was as the lad grew older and much, much taller. But that was a problem for another day; right now she had to concentrate on what was best for Shayna, and for Xena.

"How about leaving her with Cyrene?" Gabrielle asked. "We could see her whenever we passed through Amphipolis, and she would be pretty safe there with your mother and Toris."

That actually got a laugh out of the warrior. "Mother barely coped with one untamed child. Something tells me she might not do too well with a second one running all over the village causing trouble," she said, remembering all the scrapes she had gotten herself into at that age. "What about your family?" she asked in return.

Gabrielle started giggling at the thought of her quiet and staid family trying to deal with Shayna and her wildness. "Okay. Looks like our families are out," she said, seeing what Xena had been getting at. "I guess the only other option we really have is the Amazons. Do you think they might take care of her for us?" she asked.

"You'd probably know better than I do when it comes to that. You are the Amazon Queen, after all," the warrior said. The thought of leaving Shayna anywhere, even somewhere like the Amazon Nation, was tearing at her heart as painfully as leaving her son with the centaurs had done all those cycles before. Why were things never easy when it came to children, she thought to herself. Especially my own. Although the warrior was yet to consciously accept the idea of being Shayna's mother, her heart had long embraced the child as its own.

"Well, if I asked, they probably would, but Xena, it has to be something we both want. I mean," Gabrielle hesitated for a heartbeat, "I'd like to think of Shayna as ours and not, and not," she hesitated again. "And not just yours," she said in a quiet rush.

The dark-haired warrior could feel the heat of the blush covering Gabrielle's face where her cheek rested against the bare skin of her shoulder. Xena felt the tears starting to fill her eyes and she closed them tightly for a moment, willing them away. Gently catching hold of the bard's hand, she brought it to her lips, softly kissing the back of it. "I don't know what I have done to deserve you, Gabrielle," she said. "But I can't think of a better person to help me mother Shayna," she continued, her voice was thick with nameless emotions.

"We can talk to Ephiny about it when we get to the village," Gabrielle said briefly, almost as overcome with emotion as the warrior in front of her. Thinking there was more than enough mushy stuff going on, the bard quipped, "Does this make me the father?"

"Gabrielle," Xena mock-snarled back at the other woman, feeling a little happier that the bard was willing to accept a child into their lives, even if they did have to leave Shayna with someone else to keep her safe.

Chapter Nineteen

Xena wiped the sweat running down her face. For some reason, she was enjoying her practise session just a little too much today. Then again, she always enjoyed working out with the Amazon warriors. They usually gave her much more of a challenge than some of her other opponents, the thugs and raiders she and Gabrielle came up against most of the time. And it was a real change to be in a safe place, even if it was only for a little while. Almost as good as a holiday, she thought, spotting Eponin arriving on the practise grounds.

Wandering over, wiping the scrap of rag she used as a towel over her face and arms, she said, "Where's Shayna? I thought she was with you today?"

"Pack's got her. Did you think that lot would leave any youngster roaming about the village on their own for very long?" Eponin replied, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Should be fine, though. She's a cycle or two older than some of them but I can't see that being a real problem to the rest of the children."

Xena couldn't help smiling in return. She had been a bit concerned the children of the village wouldn't accept a stranger in their midst, but if the child could make friends here, it would make leaving her to the care of the Amazons just that much easier, she hoped.

The first full day they had spent at the village, Xena had insisted on keeping Shayna close by her side, saying she was worried the child might take off into the forest again if something frightened her. Gabrielle had pointed out, with irritating logic, Shayna needed to get to know the people here if she was going to stay. Xena had somewhat reluctantly handed the child over to Eponin and Amaran the next day. Though the little bard had not said it aloud, she knew the real reason for the warrior's hesitation.

"I don't think it will be long before she makes an appearance on the practise grounds, anyway. Old Dartlus just about lit up when she saw all that raw talent working with you yesterday. She can't wait to get her hands on that youngster and start training her," Eponin said, leaning against the fence surrounding the main training area.

"I don't want her pushed into being a warrior, Eponin," Xena growled at the other woman.

"Xena," the woman said gently. "I don't think you're going to get a lot of choice in that. From the looks of it, Shayna has already made up her own mind. I think, trained like the other Amazon girls, she won't," Eponin hesitated for a moment. Not sure if she should be saying this to the tall warrior, she continued anyway. "I don't think she'll lose her way like ..." the woman stopped there, leaving the rest of the sentence hanging uncertainly in the air between them.

"Like I did," Xena finished for her, hanging her head a little shamefully. "It's all right. You can say something like that to me and not get kicked into the next moon. I just worry, that's all."

The silence thickened between the two women for several heartbeats, Xena struggling to cope with what it was like to really be a mother for the first time and Eponin simply offering quiet support. Having Solon had never prepared the dark-haired woman for any of this. She'd had nothing to do with her son's day-to-day care, having handed him over as a new-born babe, still in his swaddling clothes. She knew then it was the best thing she could have done for him, even though the pain of separation had almost driven her insane. Leaving Shayna with the Amazons was also the best thing for the girl, but the pain was far worse this time.

"How do you cope with Amaran's girl?" Xena asked, unshed tears making her voice sound a little strangled.

"One day at a time, Xena. Just one day at a time. I honestly never saw myself as a mother, heart, guard or womb, but loving Amaran meant accepting her daughter as well. I won't say it's perfect. We have some really bad days but, well, what I get back in return more than makes up for the effort I put into her," Eponin said.

"And if you had to leave her with someone else?" Xena asked, her voice so soft Eponin had to strain to catch all the words.

"It would be hard, but I would hope that I found someone to care for her as much as I do," the warrior said. Turning her eyes to look at the woman standing beside her, she queried, "You're not thinking about leaving her here with us, are you? Not that we wouldn't love it, but she really does need a mother. And whether you like it or not, she has decided you're to be her heart-mother."

"Gabrielle and I are still talking about it," Xena replied, not willing to let the other warrior any closer to her heart and the pain she was feeling.

"I thought you both were going to stay on and live in the village with us. You know you have a rank here, and Ephiny would happily step down as Regent to let Gabrielle take her rightful place as our Queen," Eponin said, surprised that Xena was even having to think about not staying. She had just assumed the two travellers would settle down in the village, raising Shayna between them. Eponin had already been thinking of ways to get Xena to accept an Amazon adoption so she really would have a role to play in the future of the Nation.

"Like I said, we're still talking about it," Xena almost snapped at the other woman before suddenly turning on her heel and almost running from the practise grounds.

Eponin watched the tall warrior disappear into the undergrowth at the back of the training ring, wondering how long it would be before she returned and how frantic Gabrielle might get if she wasn't back by morning.

Chapter Twenty

Xena thudded, uncaring, through the undergrowth, blinded by the tears she could not have stopped if she had tried. Several sentries spotted her as she hurried along the little paths and tracks of the forest, but seeing the look on her face and the tears flowing down her cheeks, they wisely chose to remain silent and hidden in the branches.

The distraught warrior finally came to rest in a mossy clearing next to a sparkling stream some distance from the training grounds and the bulk of the Amazon village. Her mind had mercifully blanked itself, allowing her the rare luxury of being able to weep without her warrior instincts standing guard over her safety. Somewhere inside, she knew she was safe here, so the warrior in her was content to stand aside and let the woman within express the pain and anguish she was feeling.

How long she sat, her head on her knees, crying in the sun-dappled clearing, she wasn't sure. She never heard the quiet approach of another person as they crept towards her. So far gone into her misery and depression, she didn't feel them sit down next to her. Xena only snapped back into awareness when a gentle hand began to softly brush over her long, dark hair, tender fingers covering her own. The crying woman didn't even have to raise her head to know Gabrielle had somehow found her and was offering what comfort she felt Xena would accept.

The taller woman turned slightly into the open arms of her lover and life-mate, even now barely able to bring herself to ask for the solace of another human being. The warrior may have come a long way in her path of redemption, but she still had some way to go yet. Gabrielle's arms tightened around her and gently urge her to lie back until Xena found herself curled against the little bard, her head cushioned by the other woman's breasts. There they lay for some time, one needing comfort, the other offering it from the heart. No words were needed as two joined souls found peace together in the afternoon sunlight.

The sun had dipped in its journey along the afternoon sky, neither woman feeling its usual breathless heat, cooled as they were by the breezes wafting gently off the little stream and the crisp dampness of the moss beneath them. Xena had calmed a candlemark earlier, but for a change she had not immediately rolled from the security of Gabrielle's arms as she had so many times before. She lay listening to the beat of her lover's heart and the soft, whispery nonsense sounds the bard was making over her head. Both served to soothe her further until she felt strong enough to open her eyes and gaze into the honest, caring face of the woman who was the other half of her soul. The better half, she often thought.

"How'd you find me? Eponin send you out after I left the training grounds in such a hurry?" she asked quietly, her voice still ragged from the candlemarks of crying she had done.

"Don't know about Eponin. Haven't seen her since this morning," Gabrielle replied, smiling a little. "I was just out for a walk and found you by accident. Maybe it was a good thing I did too," she offered.

"Pretty long walk," Xena commented, still tucked within the bard's encircling arms.

Gabrielle laughed lightly. "I'm used to spending most of my day walking. That's not going to change just because we're here, you know. If I don't burn off all that energy somehow I'd never get to sleep at night," she said.

Xena moved up Gabrielle's body slightly, supporting most of her weight on her elbows. Looking down into the beautiful blue-green eyes of her bard, she dropped her head and softly kissed the other woman. For such a gentle, undemanding kiss, it left both women breathless by the time Xena finally raised her head again.

"What was that for?" Gabrielle asked, her chest still heaving a little, her breasts teasing Xena's eyes with their movement.

"Do I need a reason?" the warrior quipped back.

"Not really."

"Good. Then let me do it again," Xena said, her lips moving delicately against the bard's mouth as she spoke.

Gabrielle had travelled with the other woman long enough to know she was far from ready to discuss whatever was troubling her so deeply. This physicality was just the warrior's way of distracting the bard from asking any further questions, a technique she had stumbled on not long after they became lovers and one Xena used mercilessly to her own advantage. She was not rough or overly demanding about it. Xena truly enjoyed making love with Gabrielle, and she was sure the bard felt the same. She simply did not want to talk about what was on her mind, and this was the best way of keeping the other woman distracted until Xena felt she was strong enough to expose the painful emotions.

Neither woman knew, or understood, an extreme of emotion could often bring about a level of arousal almost akin to battle-lust. Even if they had known, it was doubtful either would have cared at that particular moment in time.

Gabrielle's hands were already unclasping the buckles of Xena's armour, something she could easily do with her eyes shut, or in the pitch dark for that matter, because she had done it so often in the past. Xena raised one arm, letting the armour slide from her shoulders. The bard quickly had the other woman's gauntlets and upper arm protectors off and tossed them to one side. They had to break apart for a moment so Xena could strip off her greaves and boots, taking the time to help Gabrielle remove her own footwear, before falling back into each other's arms as though they had been separated for moons and not just a few heartbeats.

Xena rolled the bard onto her back, teasing Gabrielle by slowly undoing the laces of her top with her strong, white teeth. The other woman had her fingers tangled deeply in Xena's raven hair, trying to push her deeper into her tingling breasts. The warrior simply locked the muscles in her neck and continued to take her time.

Gabrielle moaned softly as she felt the material fall away, exposing her skin to the cool breezes from the water. When nothing more happened, she opened her eyes to see Xena gazing down at her breasts as though they were some precious jewels she was too awe-struck to actually touch. "Please, Xena. Touch me. Make love to me. It's been so long," the bard almost begged.

"All the more reason to take my time," she said wickedly. Looking up into the gentle eyes of the other woman, she continued. "I'm sorry I have been neglecting you lately. I'll try to make it up to you somehow."

"Just take me as your own again. Now. Please. I don't want to wait anymore," Gabrielle whispered, her hands tugging at Xena's head, guiding her towards her breasts, aching to feel the touch of the warrior's mouth and hands against her body.

Xena moved up at the last moment, her mouth connecting with the side of Gabrielle's neck, heading for her sensitive ears. The warrior took her time, slowly re-discovering all the whorls and hidden crevices to be found in such a tiny area. Gabrielle revelled in the feeling of Xena's leathers against her skin, quickly growing slick with the bard's sweat.

However much she enjoyed the feeling, she wanted to relish in Xena's soft skin even more. Nimble fingers soon had the laces undone at the back and her impatient hands tugged at the leather clothing. Xena's mouth and lips never lost contact with Gabrielle's skin for a moment, yet she managed to wriggle her way out of her leathers, taking her undergarments off in the process. Xena's own hands soon had the little bard out of her skirt and underclothing, the two naked bodies twining together sensuously as their joined lips spoke soundless words of love in a language made up completely of movement and taste.

Xena rolled slightly, bringing the bard with her until she could sweep one strong hand along the other woman's spine, finally coming to rest clasping one buttock. Tensing her arm, she brought Gabrielle even closer as she drank deeply of the sweet tastes found in the bard's hot mouth.

The blonde pushed at Xena's shoulders a little, making room for her to move down the warrior's face towards her breasts. Gently wrapping her lips around an erect nipple, she nipped lightly, causing Xena's head to fall back at the bolt of luscious energy it released along her body. "Oh gods, Gabrielle," the woman moaned. "Again. Do it again."

The bard didn't need a second invitation and was soon nibbling her way around the lushly curved globes of Xena's breasts, alternating the soft bites with long strokes of her tongue and shivery, wet kisses. Xena had given herself over to the powerful drive of her own passions, needing to feel, for a little while, that someone else was in control of what was happening to her. It was rare when Xena handed herself over so willing into the intimate care of another, even one she loved as deeply and completely as her bard, and Gabrielle was going to take full advantage of it.

Sensing in Xena the need to be passive for a time, Gabrielle became the aggressor, letting her hands roam freely over the muscular body of her lover, enjoying the feel of the hard, flat planes and sweeping, soft curves. She could feel the slow tension building in Xena's body, unsure how much longer the warrior would allow her to continue being the one controlling the situation. She was expecting at any moment to be flipped onto her back and for Xena to unleash her passions on the bard in such as way as to leave her almost mindless with pleasure.

Xena didn't want to be the one in control, to be in charge, to make decisions. She wanted someone else to wipe from her mind and heart all the pain she had been feeling from the moment she realised she would have to leave the young wild child to the safety of the Amazon nation. As she had once left her son to the care of the centaurs, as she had left him there for a second time. She wanted nothing more than to feel the physical drives of her body and to have those drives sated and satisfied. Already her mind was blank, overloaded by the sheer power of her need, but she could still feel the pain in her heart crying out its reluctance at leaving behind yet another she loved.

She felt two fingers abruptly enter her and she thrust her hips up sharply, driving them deeper. Letting the sensations wash over her, Xena wrapped her arms strongly about the bard above her and clung to the security of her presence, seeking, almost desperately, for the temporary oblivion of release. Her heels dug into the moss as her body arched against Gabrielle's fingers, the bard barely able to keep up with the warrior's forceful need. Deep, low grunts came from somewhere inside her chest in time with her moving hips, long fingers digging into the well-toned muscles of the other woman's back, leaving dark bruises in their wake.

Gabrielle was struggling to keep up with Xena's desires and need, sheer determination the only thing keeping her thrusts matched to the other woman's rapidly pistoning hips. Cycles of wielding her staff and practising with Xena had not prepared her muscles for the demands she was making on them now. She could feel her shoulder and arm starting to cramp painfully but she hung on grimly, the intense shuddering that signalled the warrior's release already shaking her larger frame violently. Xena's pace quickened even more, surprising the bard, the taller woman's body becoming almost rigid in its demands for release.

But the release would not come, Xena falling back exhausted and frustrated, her chest heaving in its attempt to replace the oxygen her lungs so frantically craved. She had stood on the edge of the cliff, even looked over into its welcoming blackness wishing she could just fall away from consciousness, if only for a few moments. But for some reason, it was not to be.

Still gasping, she clutched Gabrielle to her, saying urgently, "Please. Please. Make it happen. Let me forget for a little while."

The bard could hear the desperation in the other woman's voice and tried to soothe her gently. "Relax a bit, Xena. It'll come if you stop trying so hard." Gabrielle wiped at the warrior's sweat-soaked bangs, brushing the hair out of her eyes and off her face. She jumped, startled, when those blue eyes turned to ice and she felt the crushing grip of Xena's hand around her wrist. "Xena? Xena, you're hurting me," she said, the tears of pain filling her surprised eyes.

The grip immediately eased but Xena did not let go of the bard's wrist. "I just want to forget, Gabrielle. Please. Can't you see that?" she asked, softly.

The blonde heard the steely tones of the warlord emerging from beneath the evenly spoken words and gave in to the inevitable. It was not often that Xena got like this, but when she did, Gabrielle simply had to trust the warrior would not hurt her. In all the time they had been together, the warrior never had, but each time the bard journeyed with her lover into the depths of a warlord's need, she knew she was taking a dangerous chance.

"Lay down," Gabrielle said. "I know what to do." And she did. They had walked this path as a team several times before, when all Xena wanted was the empty limbo after orgasm. Later, they would talk about it, understand it, together, but for now the warlord had taken control and Gabrielle bowed before her.

Easing along Xena's long body until she nestled between her legs, a warlord's ice cold eyes watching her every move, Gabrielle dipped her head and buried her face deeply into the seat of the other woman's passions. One strong hand wrapped itself around the back of her head, partly supporting her and partly holding her in place. She could feel the heat of Xena's excitement rising against her lips and cheeks, the taste flowing richly across her tongue in waves. The warrior's center was so engorged with blood, Gabrielle was sure any touch at all would be almost painful. Another sign the warlord had taken over. Settling her lips around the distended organ, she washed her tongue over it carefully, trying not to hurt the woman she loved.

The brief, sharp jerk of Xena's hips and the quick sucking in of her breath told the blonde bard the warrior was very over-sensitive to being touched, but the warlord inside her was not going to let Xena stop. It was release or die trying. She kept up the slow, gentle movements of her tongue, easing the other woman towards orgasm with the least amount of discomfort as possible.

"Yes, Gabrielle. That's it. That's it. You know what I want, how I like it. Make me forget. Oh gods, yes. Yes. Take me there. Make me forget. Oh gods, Gabrielle. Gabrielle. Yes, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, her winter blue eyes never leaving the bard's for a moment.

Xena's hips were moving in a slow back and forth, letting Gabrielle take her to where she wanted to go so desperately. The warlord might have taken control of the situation, but the bard had control of her release. Once again, Xena's heels dug deeply into the moss below them, her eyelids slowly lowering as she drew closer to the edge. Gabrielle could feel the muscles of the warrior's legs starting to tense, the shuddering picking up until it was all she could do to hang on.

When the orgasm finally hit, Xena's body locked in place, a breathy, almost silent version of the bard's name being dragged from the warrior's throat. Then she fell back against the moss, gasping, for the moment having reached that point of forgetfulness she had so craved. Gabrielle crawled up next to Xena, gathering her limp body into her arms. There would be enough time to talk later. For the time being, the bard was content to leave Xena in her limbo for as long as she needed to be there.

Chapter Twenty-One

The two women lay together peacefully as the late afternoon heat finally settled around them like a heavy woollen blanket, the direction of the cooling breezes changing with the setting of the sun. Xena had dozed then slept deeply, worn from her extremes of emotion and physical activity. When she had eventually woke, the gentleness had returned, thawing the ice from her blue eyes. Gabrielle knew the warlord had been buried once more, at least until the warrior felt in need of her again. They had made careful love together for the rest of the afternoon, Gabrielle left wringing with sweat and pleasantly tired from their exertions. Xena had been solicitous of the bard's bruises, softly kissing each one and promising to massage some arnica ointment into them later when they returned to the village.

Gabrielle was stretched out on her side, head supported by one hand, the other tracing intricate patterns on the warrior's chest with the tip of a leaf. Through half-lidded eyes, Xena watched her, a sensuous smile still lingering on her face. "Tickles," she said when the bard started swirling the leaf tip around her nipples. Catching up the hand delicately torturing her, she briefly kissed the palm before lowering it to her stomach and away from her sensitive breasts.

"Feeling better now?" the bard asked, leaving her hand captured between Xena's strong fingers for the moment.

"Mmmmm, much," the warrior replied, pulling the other woman a little closer.

Gabrielle took the hint and snuggled up as closely as she could to the taller woman, draping one leg over Xena's muscular thighs, wrapping her arm across her stomach. She dropped her head and indulged herself kissing Xena's softly curved breast.

"Greedy," Xena snorted as the blonde lifted her head, trying not to let the sensation arouse her again and only partially succeeding.

"No. Hedonist," the bard answered with a laugh. "How can I help myself when they're so beautiful?"

That raised a subtle smile in the warrior eyes. "You're pretty spectacular too, you know," Xena observed, after sweeping her gaze along the bard's shorter body.

Gabrielle blushed before lowering her head and kissing the full lips of her lover. Time lost its meaning for both women, but having sated their desires for the moment, the kiss was meant more in affection than passionate need. Finally coming up for air, the bard's face sobered, she asked seriously, "You ready to tell me what brought you out here in the first place? I thought you had planned on spending the day on the training grounds?"

Xena sighed deeply. She really wasn't ready to discuss any of this with the bard, but the longer she put it off the harder it was going to be for both of them. "Eponin thought we were going to settle down in the village and raise Shayna," Xena said as though that explained everything.

"And you told her we weren't," Gabrielle stated.

Xena remained silent, her eyes flicking over the greenery surrounding them, avoiding the bard's eyes.

"If you didn't tell her that, what did you tell her then, Xena? We're staying?"

"I told her we were still talking about it," the other woman replied quietly, her eyes finally settling on the concerned features of her lover.

The bard brushed her fingers along the warrior's strong jawline, looking deeply into Xena's eyes, almost reading her soul. "We did talk about it. On the way here, remember. I thought we had agreed to leave Shayna to the care of the Amazons because our life on the road is far too dangerous for a child," Gabrielle said. "Something's changed for you, hasn't it? You can't leave her behind like you did with Solon?"

Closing her eyes so the blonde could not see the heart-ache eating at her, Xena nodded briefly. "But I can't stay here either. I still feel as though the darkness," she paused. "I don't think I have done enough yet to make up for my past."

"Taking Shayna with us isn't an option then, is it?" Gabrielle asked. She could see the quandary the warrior found herself in, but the choices were pitifully few. Stay in the village or leave the child behind. Either choice would affect all their lives and perhaps, the price on the other woman's soul would be too high, regardless of what she decided to do.

"Eponin said everyone just assumed we were going to stay. Even Ephiny would be willing to stand aside and let you take your place here as Queen. Is that what you want? To be Queen of the Amazon Nation? To be safe from all the dangers we face on the road? I could try settling down here, if that is what you wanted," Xena said.

To the blonde's bardic trained ear, she could hear the way Xena was hoping the other woman would make the decision for her, but if Gabrielle did choose for them both, the warrior would never be truly happy, wondering what might have been if she had made her own choices in life. No matter how much the bard ached for Xena, the warrior had to make this decision for herself. It would be the only way she could ever live with herself afterwards.

When it came to making decisive battle choices, Xena could not be out-matched, but when her heart became involved, she found those decisions so much harder to make. A battle in her heart was one of the very few fights the warrior even attempted to run from. Gabrielle was not going to let her run from this one. Eventually, the other woman would make the decision she could live with, but right now they didn't have the luxury of time on their sides. It had to be made tonight.

"Xena, I can't make this choice for you. Only you know what path you want to follow, what is best for you in the long run. If you decide you want to stay here, then I am happy to do that. If you decide to leave, then you know I will be happy doing that too. Wherever you are is all right with me, but you need to be happy as well," Gabrielle explained, seeing the anger rise in Xena eyes as her face hardened.

"You follow me all over the countryside," the warrior snarled with some heat, pushing away from the blonde's embrace. "Why can't I follow you for a change?"

"Because you have never been a follower to anyone," the bard said evenly, her heart beating a little in fear, not for herself but for what Xena may do. The last thing the dark-haired woman needed right now was another blind dash through the forest. She had to face her decision sooner rather than later, for the sake of all of them. "I choose to stay with you when we travel. That is my choice, one I made quite freely. I didn't know what I was getting myself into at the time, but I have stayed because I love you so much," Gabrielle said, edging a little closer to the warrior, kneeling a short distance away. Reaching her side, the blonde carefully placed one arm around Xena's tension bunched shoulders, surprised she was not shrugged off immediately. "Xena. This isn't about you and I, is it? This about Shayna and what is best for her," the bard said.

Xena slumped against Gabrielle, appearing defeated by her own emotions. Resting her head on the shorter woman's shoulder for a moment, she answered, "Yes. It's about Shayna. I have to leave her here. It is the best thing for her, but why does it have to hurt so much?" A single tear slowly crawled down the warrior's cheek.

Gently pulling Xena into a loving embrace, the bard answered, "Because part of you really would like to lay down the sword and be the mother to Shayna you never could be for Solon."

For the second time that day, a distraught Xena turned into the comforting arms of Gabrielle, crying her bitter tears of pain and anguish. For the second time that day, Gabrielle helped the warrior share the heavy burden of her heart and soul.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Side by side, the two travellers walked back along a moonlit path heading for the village and the comfort of their shared bed. At several points, sentries softly called, revealing their presence and acknowledging the two women as they passed. Xena gave quiet owl hoots in return, letting them know they had been heard and their vigilance noted, the warrior's distinctive stride clear to them, even in the waning light of the old moon.

Gabrielle giggled as another sentry alerted them to her post. "If I was out here on my own, guaranteed one of them would be down here in a heartbeat to escort me back to the palace. Sure makes taking lonely moonlight walks kinda hard."

Xena just smiled down at the shorter woman by her side, her eyes never leaving the path or the surrounding undergrowth. Though it would be nearly impossible for any raider or thug to penetrate this far into the hunting grounds, there were always other dangers to be aware of, such as panthers and wolves. The Amazons rarely made any effort of remove these creatures from their lands, simply seeing them as part of the natural cycle of life in the forest. Only when one attacked did the warriors and sentries hunt them down. Having tasted human blood, they became too much of a menace to leave roaming the woods. It was an uneasy alliance between human and animal but one that had worked for them since the dawn of Amazon history.

Finally reaching the palace and making their way inside, Gabrielle said quietly, "I'll see about getting us something to eat. I'll bet anything you skipped breakfast this morning."

The two women stopped by the guard at the door of their rooms, the bard asking for something simple to be brought over. She had missed nooning while out for her walk and they had still been by the stream when evemeal was served up for everyone else. It wasn't too late in the night, so the cooks might still be in the mess hall, preparing the breads for the next day.

Xena opened the door carefully, not wanting to wake Shayna, though the child's hearing was almost as acute as her own. She found the room in darkness but, knowing the layout, quickly reached the table and lit a small candle so Gabrielle could see her way. She turned, looking into the adjoining bedchamber, expecting to see the tiny lump under the covers the child usually made when she fell asleep before the adults came to bed. The large pallet was as flat and unwrinkled as it had been when the bard had made it that morning. Crossing the room rapidly, she almost bumped into the blonde as she entered.

Putting her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders to steady her, Xena snapped at the door guard, "Where's Shayna?"

"I¼I don't know," the guard stuttered under the intensity of the warrior's gaze. "Hang on. She was with the children's pack today, wasn't she. Probably be with Lias then," the woman stated confidently.

"Amaran and Eponin's daughter?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena nodded, already starting to move down the corridor heading for the hut shared by the two women, the bard right at her heels, wondering if this was going to present some kind of a problem to the warrior.

They were quickly across the compound, seeing the candlelight shining through the light curtains Amaran had hung over the front windows of her little residence. Xena's boots crunched loudly in the bed of gravel and shells Eponin had laid to announce the arrival of any visitors, the bard's lighter step almost masked by the sound of the warrior's purposeful stride.

Eponin knew Xena would be turning up there at some point in the evening, as soon as she realised Shayna was not asleep in the Queen's quarters. Amaran and Eponin had been expecting her, and at the first sound of the warrior's unmistakable footsteps on the path, the Amazon Royal guard was on her feet and opening the leather covering they used as a door. Xena immediately stepped through with Gabrielle right behind her, but neither of the Amazons expected the expressionless face they were presented with.

"Where is she?" Xena asked flatly.

Amaran moved to one side and pointed to the brightly colored woollen blanket hanging over the door frame leading into her daughter's room. Xena took three long strides and carefully lifted the hanging, shielding the occupants of the room from the candlelight with her body as she did so. She stood for several heartbeats looking at the two children, sleeping curled tightly around each other, feeling Gabrielle standing by her side as she gazed down on them.

The bard was concerned Xena was simply going to sweep the child into her arms, taking her back to the palace and the set of rooms they shared whenever they were in the village. She glanced over and saw that the look on the warrior's face had softened a little and the glint of tears could just be seen reflecting the last of the moonlight coming from the open window. A hesitant hand eased its way into her own and she squeezed it gently, supporting the warrior in whatever decision she was about to make.

"I think I might just leave her here tonight, if that's all right with you," Xena said, turning from the doorway, dropping the woollen blanket. "I don't want to wake her if she has gotten herself so comfortable."

Eponin indicated a chair for Xena to sit in and answered, as she poured some port into a large mug. "She'll be fine here tonight, Xena. Lias might get upset if she woke and found Shayna gone." Handing the mug to the warrior, she lifted a questioning eyebrow at the bard standing at her back, one hand resting on a slumped shoulder. The Amazon was not surprised when Gabrielle shook her head at the offer of port.

"Missed you at evemeal, My Queen," Amaran said, a little shyly. Even though she considered this woman her friend, Gabrielle even standing with her at her joining to Eponin, she had never broken herself of the habit of calling the bard Queen. It had simply been too well-trained into her when she began as a Royal guard. The blonde had accepted it eventually, but that didn't stop the eye-rolling she did every time Amaran acknowledged the bard's royal status.

As usual, Gabrielle's answer was accompanied with an eye-roll to the ceiling. "Xena and I were talking. Guess we just lost track of the time." She shrugged her shoulders a little.

"Happens sometimes," Eponin said into the mug raised to her lips, before taking a long swallow of the dark liquid. She no longer drank the potent Amazon wines, but the odd mug of port now and then did her no harm at all.

Xena stared into her own mug trying to find the courage she needed. Looking up with bleak eyes, she said, "Can I ask something of you both?"

The two women across from her nodded. After Xena's hasty departure from the training grounds earlier that day and the Queen's absence from the palace, they assumed the discussion they'd been having was about what to do with the wild youngster. They both hoped the travellers would decide to stay in the village but if not, then they were willing to offer themselves as guard-mothers to Shayna. Eponin was reasonably sure Xena would decide to leave the child in the village so she could finish the task she had set for herself some three cycles before. Amaran, a womb-mother herself, was certain the warrior couldn't leave her own heart-daughter behind and would stay.

Xena stared down into her mug again before raising her head and looking at the two Amazons seated across from her. In one part of her mind, she knew she would always remember the gentle, caring expressions these two women carried, already knowing what Xena was going to ask. "Would you care for Shayna until we," the warrior paused for a moment, glancing at the bard over her shoulder, "until I can settle down?"

"She'll always be welcome here, as will you and our Queen," Amaran said, briefly touching one of Xena's hands. "Are you sure this is what you want, Xena?" she asked, dropping her head a little, empathising with the heart-ache she knew the other woman must be feeling.

"It's not what I want, Amaran, but it is the best thing for her. I still have a lot to do out there and it just isn't safe for a child to be with me while I do it," the warrior explained honestly, the pain in her eyes so obvious Eponin had to fight so as not to start crying herself. "It's bad enough I keep putting Gabrielle in danger," Xena said.

"My choice," the bard commented, her hand squeezing the shoulder it rested on.

Xena reached up and lay a tender hand over the fingers she could feel offering the bard's support and her love. "Doesn't mean I like it, but I have learned not to argue with a bard. I never win anymore." Xena managed a watery smile at her life-mate before turning back to the Amazons again. "We'll try to come by the village as often as we can, maybe stay a while sometimes, but Shayna would be safer here than just about anywhere I might be. It's going to be a long time before people forget my warlord days."

"We'll keep her safe, Xena," Amaran promised, making it clear she would protect Xena and Gabrielle's child with her life, if necessary. "Lias has been after me for cycles about having a sister. Now she can have that, and a friend at the same time. They already get along wonderfully. Lias might make it easier for Shayna to accept your leaving too," the Royal guard said.

Seeing the expression on Eponin's face, Xena fixed a steely eye on the Amazon, the warlord showing herself for a moment, "I don't want her pushed into being a warrior. She has to decide for herself what her path will be."

"Told you this morning, Xena. She may have already done that. You didn't see her on the practise grounds with the rest of the pack this afternoon. Never seen a child take so quickly to training. Show her something once and she just seems to have it down. Xena, you'll be proud of her one day. She's going to make a fine warrior, maybe even better than you," Eponin grinned at the other woman.

"Then let's hope she never has to use the skills," Xena replied, tipping her mug and pouring the rest of the port down her suddenly aching throat.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Xena opened her eyes slowly, listening to the first sleepy bird calls drifting over the windowsill. The sun was yet to send its first golden beams lancing over the mountains to the east, but pearly first-lights filtered through the gauzy curtains and gave everything in the room a glorious sheen. The dark warrior loved this time of the morning, before all the people and creatures woke for the day, cluttering up the near-silence with their noise and presence. It was a perfect time for her to think and examine those aspects of herself she still felt uncomfortable with. It was her time to learn about herself, safe in the encircling arms of the bard.

Gabrielle lay draped over the other woman, one knee pressed between her legs as it was every morning. Xena twitched the muscles of her thighs, only then realising just how sore her center was after making love again the night before. It had not been the savage, animalistic, almost primal love-making of yesterday afternoon, but it served the same purpose. Xena just wanted to forget the pain and heart-ache she was feeling and simply be wrapped in the tender care of someone who loved her, no matter what. She ran her eye along the bard's bare back and mentally kicked herself for not rubbing the arnica into the vivid bruises she had left on her lover the day before. She's really going to feel those this morning, Xena thought to herself. I'm amazed she puts up with me when I am like that. Why doesn't she just say no to me?

The warrior snorted quietly. Even if Gabrielle did try saying no, the warlord buried in her soul would not listen. If the bard did not give herself willingly, Xena knew she would simply take what she needed. It was something the bard knew too, but she still continued to take those increasingly rare journeys into Xena's darkness. Shielded by Xena's deep love for the gentle bard, the worst Gabrielle ever received in her encounters with the old warlord part of the warrior's soul was a few nasty bruises and once a black eye. Xena had spent several seven-days after that had healed trying to make up for her brutality. The bard merely saw it as the risk she took in getting to know the deepest and darkest part of the woman she loved.

The realisation of the true depths of Gabrielle's love for Xena had come slowly and at times painfully to the tall woman. Whenever the bard encountered the warlord in their love-making, she faced her down with courage and gentle understanding. It strengthened the younger woman and helped heal, a little at a time, the still bleeding wounds Xena carried inside herself. The warlord surfaced less often now as the darkness slowly receded and the warrior's trust in her partner's love, bravery and tenderness had grown. A few cycles of Gabrielle's nurturing love were not going to overcome a lifetime of evil, but Xena was gradually getting the sense of light back in her soul, making each eruption of the darkness easier for the warrior, and the bard, to deal with.

They were still to talk about what had happened yesterday afternoon in that mossy clearing, but Xena knew they would eventually. As surely as night followed day, Gabrielle would chase after a deeper understanding of the warlord, helping Xena accept she would never be rid of that part of her soul but she could learn to control it and use it for good.

Xena sighed, mentally readying herself for what might be a painful conversation. Kissing the fiery-blonde top of Gabrielle's head, she thought about rising and getting on with the day itself. Her sharp ears caught the sound of the door slowly opening and near silent bare feet padding in the direction of their bed-chamber. Glancing side-ways, Xena spotted Shayna as soon as she rounded the corner, a look of delight on the child's face at finding her mother awake.

Shayna quickly tip-toed over to the side of the pallet, not wanting to wake the still sleeping bard. "Morning, Mama," she whispered. "Shayna get in you and Aabriel?"

"Sure. I don't think Gabrielle will mind. You don't take up much room," Xena replied, a smile on her face. Constant exposure to language again was improving the youngster's speech in leaps and bounds, but she still dropped words and letters indiscriminately, especially when she said the bard's name. Tossing back a corner of the blankets, the warrior invited the child to crawl into the bed next to her.

Shayna nudged up against the warrior's ribs, the bard's hand and arm automatically lifting to cover the child. The warrior couldn't help being delighted at the girl's acceptance of Gabrielle holding her, however loosely. It was quite a step forward from the first days when she wouldn't let the blonde near her unless Xena stood right at her side. If the bard were awake, she'd probably be equally delighted too. Maybe now would be a good time to see if Shayna can explain the fear she had of Gabrielle when they'd first met, Xena thought as she looked down on the little scrap of humanity lying next to her.

"Why were you afraid of Gabrielle before, Shayna?" Xena asked gently, not really expecting a sensible answer from the child. She was completely surprised when she got one.

The girl's hand moved towards the red-blonde hair fanned across one of Xena's naked breasts where the bard had snuggled into her shoulder. She didn't quite touch it, but it was clear she found it fascinating. "Head on fire," she said.

It took Xena a moment to understand what the child meant, but once she called up the mental image Shayna had probably seen that first night, it made a strange kind of sense to her. Lit by the last glow from the dying coals, the same light reflecting off the dark water behind her, Gabrielle rising from her hiding place in the rushes beside the stream where they had camped, it probably did look like her head was on fire to a child who probably hadn't seen one up close in quite some time. Xena couldn't help chuckling at the image in her mind. "Still afraid now?" she asked.

"Not so much. But face sometimes turns same as hair," the child observed. "Sure no fire?"

The image of the bard's face flaming redly at various times got the warrior chuckling again. "Oh. A fire burns in her, all right, but it's not one to be afraid of. It helps make her brave and strong," the warrior explained. "You have it too."

"Oo?" Shayna said wonderingly. "Where? Brave like Mama?" Her agile mind leaped from one question to the next.

Xena rubbed her callused hand up and down the child's back. "Yes, as brave as me," the warrior answered softly. "The fire is inside, where you can't see but it is there, I promise you."

Shayna smiled to herself, liking the idea of a fire inside she couldn't see but made her as brave as her Mama. She even had red hair like Aabriel, so Mama must be telling the truth about Shayna having that hidden fire as well.

"Did you enjoy staying with Lias and her mothers last night?" Xena asked, edging into what she already knew was going to be a traumatic conversation with the young girl, not to mention herself.

"Uh huh. But Amaran make Shayna eat green stuff. Yuk," the child pulling a face at the remembered taste.

The warrior didn't know what the 'green stuff' was but it had to be something universally hated by children everywhere. She could just imagine what it might be from some of her own food dislikes as a child, and anything green had featured high on that particular list. "Gotta eat your green stuff, Shayna, if you want to grow as big and strong as Amaran." Xena actually startled herself. By the gods, I sound exactly like Mother when she tried to get us to eat something good for us, she thought.

"Don't want to be big strong like Amaran. Want to be big strong like Mama," the girl stated, glaring into the warrior's blue eyes.

Xena could almost hear the words 'and that's final' following the child's statement. "Did they try to take your knife from you yesterday?" she asked.

"No. Eponin say, okay with Mama, okay with her. Shayna keep knife. Need it to eat anyway," Shayna giggled quietly. "Eponin say Shayna careful with knife cause everyone not know how pointy they are. Never to give to other girls in pack, ever. Make Shayna promise. Shayna promise."

The warrior sighed to herself. She knew the Amazon custom of keeping edged weapons away from the youngsters until they had been through their Pleasures of Womanhood ceremony. At least that wasn't going to be a problem for the child. Realising she was just putting off the inevitable, Xena finally decided it was time to tell Shayna of her decision to place her into the care of the Amazons until the warrior felt she could settle down.

"Shayna, you know Gabrielle and I travel a lot, don't you?" she asked, waiting until the child had nodded before continuing. Drawing the girl closer, hugging her tightly with one arm, she said, "It's very dangerous out on the road and we can't take," Xena stopped for a moment, already seeing tears filling the youngster's eyes as she realised what was coming. "Shayna, Gabrielle and I love you very much but we can't take you with us when we travel." There, she had said it. Xena waited for the emotional explosion she knew was coming. It didn't matter to her which of them burst into tears first.

Shayna's bottom lip began to quiver as it dawned on her she was losing her mother once more. "Why?" she asked pitifully, her voice ragged with the tears she was barely holding at bay. "Shayna good. 'Member everything Mama showed. Shayna be better, promise. Please don't leave again." The tears overflowed and the child hid her face in the warrior's shoulder.

Xena dropped her head, nuzzling into the short red hair of the child. "You have been good, but it's not safe out there for you. I know you remember all the lessons you were taught." She felt the bard starting to stir at her side, the voices finally waking her from sleep. "Shayna, I did some very bad things a long time ago and I have to make them right. I can't take you with me when I do that, but I will come back, I promise."

Gabrielle woke to hear Xena trying to explain her decision to the child tucked against her side weeping strongly. The warrior was crying almost as hard and the bard tightened her grip around both of them, offering her support. She chose to remain silent for now. This was Xena's choice, and it was up to her to help the child understand and accept it. Later, she would talk with Shayna, easing some of the separation pain if she could. She could hear the muffled words coming from the girl, and her own gentle heart was being wrenched in sympathy for the child.

Shayna felt as though her world was ending all over again. She kept repeating between sobbing gasps for air, "No, don't go. Stay. Please stay. Don't go."

There was little Xena could do for Shayna at that moment other than to keep reassuring the child she would return and that she did love her. Eventually, the child cried herself to sleep, the warrior continuing to weep over her head for another candlemark.

Chapter Twenty-Four

The tall warrior stood leaning against the window frame of the common room, staring blankly out into the forest surrounding the village. Shayna still slept in the bed-chamber, and she felt that was probably the best thing for the young girl right now. Besides, she had barely gotten herself back under some kind of control. She didn't want to lose it again so soon. "I thought making the choice was hard enough, Gabrielle. I never realised telling her was going to be so much worse," she said, turning slightly so she could see the bard sitting at the table.

"All choices have consequences. You told me that a long time ago," the bard replied mildly.

Xena snorted. "Yea, but I was thinking of choices like picking up a sword or something. I wasn't really thinking of choices like this," she said.

"Still applies, doesn't it?"

"Guess it does," Xena answered.

Gabrielle stood and walked over to where Xena had been standing for the past candlemark. Wrapping her arms around the other woman's waist, she continued. "Back then, you weren't very into your feelings, were you, but a lot of what you said still makes sense when it comes to these kinds of life choices."

Turning, Xena drew the bard closer, resting her cheek against the top of Gabrielle's head. "It's just moments like these that make me think the consequences have a price which is a little too high," she observed quietly. "I never intended to end up as Shayna's heart-mother or for you to have to deal with a child suddenly taking up all my time. Don't think I haven't noticed you struggling with that."

The bard blushed silently, not realising the warrior had seen all the little signs of her jealousy. She had worked hard to try to understand how much the child needed the other woman, but she had grown used to having Xena all to herself most of the time. At least she could be grateful she had never taken it out on the child herself. Gabrielle found she was pleased to discover that level of maturity in herself.

"But after tomorrow morning, well, it will be winter Solstice before we can get back here again. Do you think we might be able to stay a few days then?" Xena asked.

"If we can. Choice is yours, after all. Who decides when and where we go anyway?" the bard answered cheekily.

Xena looked down into the blue-green eyes of her lover. "Me," she smiled. "How in Tartarus do you put up with me sometimes?" She still found it incredible how patient the bard was with her most of the time. Oh, they had their fights and disagreements; Gabrielle's temper could be the match of her hair color at times, but somehow the bard understood the glue that held them together and knew exactly what to say to make things right. And Xena was learning too. Their togetherness was becoming, more and more, a two-way thing.

"Don't know. Guess I must be madly in love with this worn-out old ex-warlord, I suppose," Gabrielle replied, squeezing her arms tightly around the other woman's leather encased ribs.

"That just earned you a kiss," the warrior said, lowering her face towards the bard, who was already meeting her halfway.

A brief knock at the door stopped the kiss, but neither woman made any move to step away from the embrace of the other. "Come in," Xena called out evenly, quickly kissing the bard again before whoever it was could walk through the door.

Eponin strode through the open door, already twitching with the excitement for the battle to come. Right on her heels followed Amaran, with Lias shyly bringing up the rear. "Thought we might take Shayna over to the hut. Get her settled in, stuff like that," Amaran said. "I know what you legendary warrior types can be like the night before setting off into battle."

Xena scowled at the Royal guard for a moment until she realised the woman was actually joking with her.

Amaran looked the warrior up and down coolly. "Who said I was talking about you, Xena, oh fabulous Warrior Princess? The biggest legend we have around here goes under the name of Her Majesty."

Gabrielle stood spluttering for several heartbeats, until she too saw what the guard was attempting to do. This was going to be hard enough on Xena as it was. Amaran was simply trying to make it a little easier. Getting her blush under control, the bard nodded, acknowledging the sensitivity of the woman in dealing with the warrior and her heart-daughter.

"She'll probably sleep for another candlemark or so," Xena said tightly. "She was pretty cried out when she dozed off."

"We'll do our best for her, Xena. I can promise you that," the Royal guard said as she stepped from the common room headed for the bed-chamber, Lias trailing along behind a little uncertainly. She soon passed back, carrying the limp form of the still sleeping child gently in her arms, Xena's eyes following Shayna until she was out of the room, their footsteps fading in the distance.

Eponin gave the warrior a few moments to collect herself before launching into the plans and discussions for the battle they knew would take place on the other side of the swamp.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Artalus stared dismally at the broad expanse of swamp ahead of them. The scouts had already told him it was far too large to go around unless they wanted to spend the next couple of seven-days travelling. He had briefly considered it but soon realised the Amazons would probably know of their presence in the area long before they could get close enough to actually capture any of them. Even the trek here had been a less than profitable experience. Word of the slave army's advance had spread ahead of them faster than the fully loaded men and wagons could travel, meaning there were few people wandering around openly. Those villagers they had stumbled across were either too old, too sick or simply too disabled to be of any real use to the slave second as profitable material. The rest had taken flight and were now safely hidden in any one of a number of valleys and caves on both sides of the army's line of advance.

He had managed to get the men this far on the threat of Viper's continued presence in the camp, but as no one had really laid eyes on him since the Amazons had escaped, it was getting harder and harder to keep up the dangerous charade he was playing. Removing the heads of a couple of the healers, especially the one with the big mouth, had intimidated the rest into silence. He had also been less than impressed with the fact it had taken them three days to spot the Assassin's beetles crawling about among the man's blankets. Admittedly, they were tiny, but there must have been a dozen of them between the covers with Viper. Considering the number of times they had moved him to do various things, surely one of them should have noticed a great deal sooner. So he removed the head of a third healer for that.

The only surviving healer, the old man, had been incredibly vague about Viper eventually recovering from the beetle's bite. The slave leader was alive, and that was all the healer could say with any certainty. Right now, Viper was propped up in bed with no more wit about him than a child. Artal as having a hard time just getting the near mindless man to keep his clothes on. Hoping the man would ultimately recover, the second decided to pretend Viper was still quite ill but capable of giving orders which Artalus then passed on to the rest of the men. Artalus had grown more and more desperate as each day passed and now was totally obsessed with fulfilling Viper's last orders – capture as many women as they could find on the Amazon lands. If nothing else, it kept the minds of the men busy thinking about the dinars they could make from selling the forest women, and not on trying to take over the leadership themselves.

Thinking of the Amazons briefly, he wondered yet again at the story handed to him by the survivors of the guard party. A beautiful, dark-haired, blue eyed warrior woman dropping from the trees, indeed. It was laughable to say the least, in his own mind anyway. Most likely, the women had found some way of escaping the cage they were in and had simply taken their revenge. The survivors probably didn't want him knowing they had slipped up in some way. Knowing the men, they must have opened the cage intending to rape the young women and gotten more than they had bargained on.

But a single warrior, and a woman, at that. Appearing from the treetops like some shade. Unbelievable. The story they had told of her amazing speed and her incredible ability with the dazzling blade was the sort of tale he paid bards to tell. And then there was the part about a small girl-child with flashing jade green eyes, weaving her way through the men, hamstringing them as she passed. Artalus had ordered the survivors staked for telling him such crazy nonsense, but they had still been insisting it was the truth even as the last wagon had pulled away. He snorted to himself. Women were only good for one thing, and fighting wasn't it.

The tall scout leader, one of the three who had stood in Viper's tent that first morning, not quite able to believe the damage done to their leader, came splashing back out of the dark, murky waters of the swamp. "Artalus, we're never going to get the oxen through this. The bottom seems to be nothing but stinking mud. I think we should try to find a local to show us the path through," he said, attempting to shake the black, clinging mess from his boots.

"There are no locals, not for leagues. Anyone who could have possibly shown us the way heard about the advance and is now long gone. We're just going to have to do this ourselves," the second snarled at the tall man next to him. Artalus couldn't believe the noxious odor coming from the mud coating the other man's boots. Something told him crossing this swamp was not going to be a pleasant experience for any of them.

"How are we going to get the all wagons across, then, if the oxen just sink into the muck?" the man asked.

"Forget the beasts," he snapped. "The men can pull the wagons. They should float on top of the water okay," Artalus replied.

The tall man looked the second up and down before speaking again. "Let me tell you something about this lot, Artalus. It'll take six men to drag each of those wagons, and I can tell you now, if you say 'pull', four will push and the other two will say 'pardon?' That is, if you can convince them to hitch themselves up like farm animals in the first place. With some of these men, I'm surprised they know which end of the sword is sharp."

Artalus pushed his hand through his unruly hair savagely for the hundredth time that morning. "By the gods, man. How have they managed to stay alive this long, if they are that bad?"

"Because Viper kept us out of any battles and just concentrated on captures," the scout explained as though the second was a particularly stupid child. He looked suspiciously at the other man for several heartbeats. "You sure this is what he has ordered? We don't usually just uproot the entire camp and move like this. He usually does things a lot different."

"Yes, I am sure this is what he ordered. We don't know how many of them blasted Amazons there are on the other side, and we might need every man we have to capture them alive. That other lot escaped, thanks to the incompetence of horny guards, so they have probably alerted the rest we are coming by now," the second said patiently. He stood waiting for the scout to question the order again, in which case there would be one less scout in the camp.

Sensing he had pushed the slave second as far as he safely could for the moment, the tall man nodded. "I'll see about getting the men hitched to the wagons, then. The sooner we're across this swamp, the happier everyone will be."

Artalus sighed with exaggerated relief as he watched the tall scout walk away, wondering just how much further he was willing to go in the name of loyalty, and dinars.

It was a thought that frequently crossed his mind over the next few days. He was sure the Amazons had chosen to live on the other side of the swamp because it was acting as such a perfect barrier, stopping anyone from getting to them. It was almost like the place had been cursed by some god, another thought he kept to himself. There was enough fear and superstition going around as it was, after word of Viper's injuries had gotten out. It did no good whatsoever explaining that part of it was because of the Assassin's beetles. Everyone was sure that Artemis was still watching them closely and that maybe trying to capture the Amazons was not such a brilliant idea after all.

The forward scouts had passed the word back earlier that morning it might take another day, possibly two, to get completely across the swamp, not something the second had enjoyed hearing. As it was, they were losing men at a terrible rate due to sink-holes, quicksand and deep mud pockets. That was not to mention the sheer numbers who were simply drowning in the water because they didn't know how to swim and didn't have enough sense to keep one hand on a floating wagonbed at all times.

Little tracts of stable land appeared out of the muck and water now and then, but they were never dry and always cold, often shifting under the weight of all the men who tried to camp on them. It had been a miserable three days so far, and the prospect of two more shortened worn tempers even further. The fights for a less than sopping wet place to sleep at night were getting savage indeed, taking yet another toll on the number of men who might make it across.

To add to Artalus's troubles, there had also been a lot of grumbling over the one truly dry person in the army. Artalus had loaded Viper onto the healer's covered wagon with the instructions no one, other than the old healer and himself, were to see the man. The rest of the men were getting unhappier about that with every passing day. More than anything, the second prayed to see the solid ground on the other side of the swamp as soon as possible.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Eponin strode quietly up to the tall warrior as she sat sharpening her sword, staring distractedly into the flames of a small fire. "Where's Gabrielle?" she asked, sitting by Xena's side.

Peering through the darkness at the various campsites spread around the clearing, she spotted the red-blonde hair of her lover seated with several of the forest women nearby. From the rapt expressions of their faces, it was clear the bard was spinning some tale to her engrossed audience. Nodding her head in Gabrielle's direction, a soft light chasing the dark shadows from her eyes for a moment, she said, "Doing what she does best, talk."

"Guess it is better to keep their minds occupied until that slaver army shows up. Always did hate the waiting-for-it-to-start part of a battle," Eponin said. "The scouts reckon it will be nooning tomorrow before that lot find their way out of the swamp."

The Amazons, along with Xena and Gabrielle, had made much better time getting to the forest than the slaver army simply because they didn't have fully loaded wagons and countless camp followers to worry about. The women had simply set a moderate ground eating pace and run. Arriving in the area Eponin had pointed out on the slaver's map, they had hidden look-outs all along the edge of the swamp, waiting for the first sign of the army struggling its way from the murky water and clinging mud.

"They started out with about four hundred men, dozens of large wagons, oxen, camp women, healers and all the other bits and pieces a large army needs. My guess is they will be lucky to get to this side with half that number intact," Xena observed. She sat remembering how she moved her own army about, back in the days when she actually had one.

Every time they moved, it was done in stages. First scouts, to spy out the land and find the best tracks for the few wagons she used. Then some two-thirds of the fighting army itself would follow, sacking any villages they passed along the way. The wagons, healers, armourers, smiths and anyone else who travelled with them came after that, picking up any loot and tending to the injured soldiers. The other third of her army acted as guards for the wagons and cleaned up any last pockets of resistance they might encounter. Her army had been able to move surprisingly swiftly from place to place, the wagons and camp followers catching up each night. Trying to move the entire lot in one hit would have been insane, slowing everyone to the speed of the slowest wagon.

Xena snorted to herself. Probably why it took so long to get them to the swamp in the first place, she thought. They knew the slavers were advancing after coming across several small groups of villagers who had calmly moved out of the way ahead to the army and would move back again once they had passed. The Amazons had pointed out several excellent camp sites to the villagers where they could wait until the slavers had moved out of the area. That had earned them the gratitude of the temporarily displaced people, opening the possibility of future discussions, and maybe even trade, between themselves and the Amazon Nation. The tall warrior had been quite surprised at just how much the diplomat Eponin had become.

"Wouldn't matter if they all got across. We've got one hundred and seventy odd fully trained warriors as well as that group of fifty trainees. They'll be great for mopping up afterwards. Get them blooded before we send them off for their Challenges cycle. I'm glad we decided to join their training session today. What did you think of the looks on their faces before we got started?" the Amazon asked.

"Serious, weren't they?" Xena commented, a smile appearing on her lips. "Think we both surprised them."

Both women took a moment to chuckle together at the sober expressions they had seen on the young warrior's faces as they had worked out against each other. It was understandable they were a bit nervous, having never been in a battle of any kind before. So, Xena and Eponin had faced up together, turning their own practice session into something coming close to bardic comedy. They had indulged in some pure silliness with their weapons, bouncing around behind the other, smacking backsides with the flat of their blades, blowing insolent kisses, Xena teasing the Amazon at being too slow and Eponin taunting back the tall woman was getting too old. It eased the tension among the young women as they watched the Warrior Princess actually playing with Eponin. Admittedly, it was a deadly sort of game, but what did they expect from warriors.

The sharpening stone had stilled against Xena's sword as her uncanny hearing picked up the sound of someone racing through the trees. It had to be a friend, or the sentries would not have let them pass. The familiar slight form of a forest scout came dashing headlong into the clearing, her eyes sweeping rapidly in all directions seeking out one particular person. Spotting the dark hair and piercing blue eyes of the tall warrior, she belted over to Xena, skidding to a halt in front of the two seated women.

Bending over, hands on her knees, she fought to get enough air into her lungs to gasp out her message. "Xena," she panted. "Shayna left the village. Followed you here. Lost her tracks as she took to the trees."

Eponin quickly passed a full waterskin to Jadaxious as she started walking in tight circles letting the overworked muscles in her legs cool slowly.

Xena waited, a slightly stunned expression on her face, as the little scout's breathing calmed enough to explain more fully. She couldn't believe the child had slipped away like that. Xena had spent some time the night before they left explaining why Shayna had to stay with the Amazons. She seemed fine when the warrior had finally taken herself off to go to bed and had even waved them goodbye the next morning, Xena keeping a tight hold of her emotions as she had ridden away. Thinking about it now, the child had seemed a little too calm then and was probably planning on coming after her the whole time.

Jadax looked exhausted, having run non-stop for two solid days to get to the Amazon war party. Whether the child was ahead of her or behind she had no idea, but Shayna had gotten a whole night's start on everyone in the village, sneaking off in the darkness. It had taken several of the warriors and scouts some time to find the small girl's tracks in the forest, but they lost them again as she climbed into the trees overhead. The forest scout hadn't bothered trying to find them again once she had reached open ground; she simply ran like the wind to get to Xena and let her know what had happened. The child could be nearby, for all she knew.

The warrior starting swearing creatively once Jadaxious had explained everything she knew. Eponin took a moment to file away some of the more vehement curses should she ever find herself needing them in the future, though she didn't think some of them were anatomically possible.

"Gabrielle. Grab those trainees and get them searching. She can't be too far away," Xena ordered quickly. The bard had walked over to stand by the warrior's side as soon as Jadax had appeared in the clearing. She could see the way Xena's hands had fisted together but couldn't be sure if it was in anger or in fear. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

Eponin was already rounding up any available warrior to search the woods as well. It looked like it was going to be a long night for everyone.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Xena sat on the flat of a stump near the main fire, Gabrielle reclining between her spread knees, relaxing against it as the warrior slowly braided the bard's hair so it wouldn't get in her eyes the next day when she fought. Eponin had convinced the anxious warrior, after a loud argument, to stay in the clearing near the fire so Shayna could easily see her if the youngster was willing to break from the cover of the undergrowth.

The warrior had spent some time sharpening her weapons until she knew to scrape the stone over them any more would simply be uselessly wearing away the metal. Her armour was polished until it shone brightly in the firelight, and there wasn't a loose stitch to be found anywhere on her leathers. She had even taken the time to gently sand away the few rough patches she could find on the bard's staff where her hands would normally be. Having run out of things to do, Gabrielle had asked the other woman to braid her hair in an effort to stop the tall warrior from pacing back and forth in front of the fire.

Every so often, an Amazon would report back to them, letting Xena know they had found no sign of the child in the forest and were moving the search to another area. Several of the trainees, along with a handful of the trained warriors, started backtracking the paths they had travelled on, hoping to find some trace of the youngster having passed that way. With so many Amazons moving into the forest originally, some had taken the high paths and others the low. Shayna could easily be on any one of them now, so they all had to be checked.

"Jadaxious looks exhausted," Gabrielle commented, glancing over at the worn face of the little forest scout sound asleep on Eponin's bedroll.

"She did amazingly well in getting to us as quickly as she did. I'm surprised she found us at all, though," Xena replied, tying off the end of the braid with a bit of raw-hide string.

The bard laughed lightly for a moment. "I think she could track a mouse over bare stone sometimes. It wasn't like we tried to hide our prints, at least until we got a little closer to this clearing, anyway. Besides, she probably smelled the wood smoke when she got close enough to us."

Xena nodded in agreement. Jadaxious might have been the tiniest Amazon scout she had ever seen, but she could run like the very wind itself and knew her way around the forest as though she was part of the living, breathing earth. If she hadn't been so worn out from her run, the dark-haired warrior was sure the little forest Amazon would be out searching along with everyone else.

"I still can't believe Shayna took to the trees, though. By the gods, just where did she learn to do that?" the bard asked, wonder at that feat firmly etched onto her face.

The warrior couldn't keep the small look of pride flickering through her eyes. "Probably picked it up with the children's pack," Xena answered, hands finally settling quietly on the blonde's shoulders.

"But she was only with them for a few days. Surely she didn't learn that fast?"

"Like Eponin told us, show her something once and she has it down. Shayna's just at that age when everything comes easily, unlike slow, old bodies like you and me," Xena grinned. The warrior couldn't help remembering trying to teach the bard how to move through the tree branches the way the other Amazons did. Gabrielle had been so terrified of falling at first, Xena had been forced to tie a rope around her middle to catch her if she misplaced her feet somehow. The bard had picked up the trick in the end, but it had been a long, slow and occasionally very painful experience for both of them.

Swinging her head around, so she could see the fire-lit profile of the woman above her, Gabrielle asked gently, "You knew she was going to follow us, didn't you?"

"No, Gabrielle. I was sure I had explained everything to her so she understood," Xena replied. "I mean, she seemed to accept the fact we can't take her with us on the road and that we would be back as often as we could."

There was something in the tone of the warrior's voice alerting the bard that perhaps Xena wasn't quite so sure about the child's acceptance of their leaving. "Xena, look at me. Remember this nosy bard? The one person who probably knows you better than anyone else alive?"

The warrior tried to keep her gaze fixed on the fire in front of them but her own love for the gentle bard compelled her to look into those blue-green eyes.

"Shayna followed us because you were still hesitating over the decision to leave her with Amaran and Eponin. Kids can sense that kind of hesitation. She probably figures if she hangs around long enough, you'll let her stay," Gabrielle said quietly.

"Wonder where she got that idea?" Xena asked, a soft light filling her eyes as she looked down on the stubborn and persistent bard she had fallen in love with.

Gabrielle kissed the knee closest to her before continuing. "You'd love to find a reason to let her stay with us, wouldn't you?" she asked.

Closing her eyes, Xena nodded. "I can't lie to myself, anymore than I could lie to you, Gabrielle. If there was some safe way for Shayna to be with us, I'd think of it." Opening her eyes again, she looked down at the blonde sitting between her knees. "But there is no safe way, so as soon as we find her again, I simply have to hand her over to Eponin. She can take Shayna back to the village when this is over."

"Hurts, though, doesn't it?"

Xena wrapped her arms around the other woman's shoulders, dropping her head until her mouth was level with the bard's ear. Whispering quietly, as though to admit to the pain aloud would somehow give her enemies a weapon to use against her, she said, "Yes, it hurts, but it is the best thing I can do for her."

Gabrielle felt the first tear drop softly into her bare shoulder. Lifting her hands, she hugged the warrior's arms around her. "It's all right, Xena. I'm here. We'll get through this together, somehow."

The warrior gave in to the heart-ache and wept silently for a long time afterwards, the gentle hands of her bard keeping her safe and secure as she grieved. It was a grieving of which Xena was not sure she would ever see the end, it seemed to run so deeply through her.

Close by in the darkness, a pair of flashing jade green eyes watched from a hidden hollow at the base of a large tree. Covered by the debris from last cycle's season of falling leaves, the child had taken refuge almost in plain sight. She had arrived at the clearing shortly after Jadaxious had gasped out her message. Moving through the woods with all the silence of a hunted animal, the child had crept closer and closer to the campsite, looking for the now familiar features of the woman she thought of as her mother. Remaining undetected as she had scurried through the trees had been quite easy for her, having done it countless times in the past when she had hidden from travellers she stumbled upon over the cycles. Tucking herself further into the piled leaves, she prepared herself for sleep, knowing her mother was near by.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Eponin and Gabrielle squatted together by the fire, drinking a warming mug of tea, watching the dawn light slowly bringing the colours of the forest alive around them. The last party of trainee warriors had returned long after moonset with no word on the wild forest child. Xena had stalked off into the dark woods, remaining alone for the rest of the night. The bard tried not to worry too much, but the warrior's obvious anxiety had rubbed off on her a little, and the bard had not slept well as a result.

"Do you think she'll show herself?" Gabrielle asked, taking a piece of flatbread from the bag being passed around.

"If she is anywhere near us, sooner or later, she will have to come out of hiding, if only to glue herself to Xena's side again," Eponin replied. "I'm just about willing to bet Shayna is watching us right now. Probably knows she has done the wrong thing too. Kids are good at that, for some reason."

"Something you learned from Amaran's daughter, I suppose," Gabrielle observed, a tiny smile easing the worry lines etching themselves into her face.

"Only about a hundred times over, is all," the Amazon laughed back. Sensing movement on the edge of the clearing, she spotted a tall, dark-haired figure striding into the camp. "Seems like Xena's finally had enough of wandering the forest. Doesn't look like she got a lot of sleep last night, judging from those deep shadows I can see under her eyes from here."

"Probably spent the rest of the night searching for Shayna herself. Go easy on her, Eponin. This isn't a walk in the Elysian Fields for her," Gabrielle said a little testily as she stood up, moving off in the direction of the taller woman.

Eponin allowed an injured 'Who? Me?' expression to cross her face before the bard turned away. The Amazon warrior let the other woman's mood pass without comment. She knew from experience Gabrielle was not a morning person, and tied to her lack of sleep, Eponin was surprised the bard hadn't snapped her head off completely.

"You all right, Xena?" the bard asked as she drew level with the other woman. She could see the dark circles under the warrior's eyes and the faint redness that said she had been crying yet again.

"Yea, I'm fine. Little tired, maybe. I couldn't find her, Gabrielle," she said, her voice a little ragged. "Must have looked everywhere. How can she have managed to disappear like that?"

"Here, drink this," the bard said, handing over her tea mug. "Eponin thinks she might be really close to the camp and we just keep overlooking her."

"Thanks," the other woman said, taking a deep swallow of the herbal tea. Xena dropped one arm across the shoulders of the blonde, letting Eponin's words filter through her tired mind. She had spent most of the night simply worrying and not really thinking, covering as many of the paths and tracks as she could find. Some kind of warrior you are, she snorted silently to herself. I've out-witted warlords, kings and giants in the past, surely I can do the same with one small child. Okay, time to start using this brain someone gave me and see if I can't figure this out logically.

"Hmmmm, close by. Like maybe, almost in plain sight, perhaps?" she wondered aloud.

Gabrielle caught on to what the other woman was contemplating fairly quickly, having done this sort of thinking-out-loud routine with the warrior many times before. Adding her thoughts to those of the blue eyed woman, she said, "If I was a small child, used to running wild in the woods like some forest creature and hiding from anyone I came across, just where would I hide myself?"

"In the last place they would expect to find me. Right under their very noses," Xena continued. She lifted her arm off Gabrielle and began to slowly turn on the spot, scanning the very edge of the clearing for anything the child might use as a hidey hole. In several places, the undergrowth was quite thick but possibly not enough for someone, even a small youngster, wanting to stay hidden from one hundred and seventy fully trained Amazon warriors and fifty curious-about-everything trainees. The tree tops were, more or less, out of the question as the sentries had been using those most of the night as they patrolled the area where they were camped. Xena spotted two hollow logs lying on the edge of the clearing, several of the Amazons using one as a backrest. Possible sites for a child to hide. And a partially concealed opening at the bottom of a large tree just back from the open space of the glade.

Pointing to the logs first, Gabrielle and Xena approached each one, peering in from opposite ends. The first, being used as a backrest, was completely empty, save a few vacated spider-webs. The second contained a sleeping porcupine who didn't even twitch a whisker when the two women looked in from the open ends of the log. That just left the opening at the bottom of the tree to investigate.

Xena and Gabrielle approached the opening as silently as possible, Eponin wandering closer, intrigued with the odd movements of the pair. The bard used her staff to push the prickly bushes to one side as Xena squatted down, shuffling forward a little, to peer inside the tree. The warrior turned her head, smiling up at the other woman. "I do believe we have found the home of a sleeping, red-headed village escapee," she whispered happily.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Xena and Gabrielle stood together just under the edge of the tree-line. If they moved suddenly, they would be spotted, but standing still they were hardly noticeable. Hidden all around them, in the trees and in the dark undergrowth, were the rest of the Amazons, and a little further back the trainees. Shortly after they had found Shayna, now in the care of the young warriors until the battle was over, Xena had handed her over to Eponin, who in turn had placed her with the mopping up party with the instructions to keep her safe during the fight. Xena had taken the child aside and spoken with her sternly for some time before sending Shayna to Eponin. The child was very subdued afterwards but had gone along with the Amazon with surprising willingness.

One of the look-outs had returned to the camp to inform everyone she had seen the first sign of the slaver's army, the advance scouting party, struggling their way through the muck and mud. That had been three candlemarks earlier and the two travellers could now see the main bulk of the army as they dragged the wagons across the water towards the drier land.

"How many made it?" Gabrielle asked quietly, her eyes roving over what was left of the mud-splattered and fatigued army.

"Two hundred, maybe two hundred and fifty. 'Bout what I thought," Xena replied, quickly estimating the numbers of actual fighters she could see. There were probably another seventy or so people with them, but most appeared to be various camp followers and would most likely not be part of the fight unless someone directly threatened them. The trainees could round most of them up without too much trouble.

"I can't believe anyone was insane enough to try to get that many people through the swamp," the bard observed as the first of the army slowly pulled itself onto the less water-logged earth on the blurred boundary of the morass.

"Sometimes dinars speak louder than common sense, but we've seen that too many times to count, haven't we?" the warrior replied, looking over at the woman by her side. She knew Gabrielle never could understand that kind of greedy sickness, but Xena did, having suffered from the fever herself at one time in her life. Sometimes, it had only been the thought of the gold and dinars at the end of a journey which made the trip tolerable at all.

"I could almost feel sorry for this lot," the blonde said, as Xena raised a quizzical eyebrow. "If it wasn't for the fact they are nothing but slavers and scum."

The warrior pointed her chin slightly at several of the men as they collapsed onto the ground exhausted. "Not all of them, Gabrielle. Some may not have been able to find any other kind of work, and most probably have families to support. And what about the women with them? Are they scum too because circumstances forced them into a life of selling their bodies?"

The bard thought deeply for several heartbeats, watching as people dragged their filthy bodies from the bog. "You're probably right," she said. "Hey! When did you get so smart at seeing the good in people? I thought that was my job."

"Had me a great teacher," Xena smiled. "If I can decide to change, maybe they can too." Placing a gentle hand on the other woman's shoulder, she slowly moved them back until they were completely hidden from the view of the slave army. "They will probably set up camp now that they are out of the swamp. We'll give them a chance to get settled before we show ourselves."

"Got an idea?" Gabrielle asked wickedly. The warrior's tactics so far had been frighteningly effective and the bard was curious to see what she would do next.

"I just want to avoid an all-out battle, if possible. It's not like the Amazons are my own private army, and I don't want to see any of them getting hurt unnecessarily," Xena replied, moving along the tree-line towards a small rise near the water.

She briefly spoke with Eponin, explaining what everyone was to do if the slavers decided to fight it out instead of showing some sense. Though the Amazons were slightly out-numbered, they were fresh and had not spent days pulling over-loaded wagons though leagues of filth and fever-ridden marshland. Xena quickly pointed out where the various groups of forest women were to enter from and in what order they were to appear. Glancing through the trees, the warrior could see the two healers they had brought with them were completely set up and ready to deal with any injuries the slavers might inflict on the Amazons. She fervently hoped their services would not be needed by the end of the day. Indicating to the bard to stay close to her side, she carefully made her way to the flanking side of the army.

Artalus leaned against the side of a wagon, staring down sightlessly at his mud-caked boots and legs, unaware he and the rest of the army were being watched from hidden positions less than five hundred paces away. Never had he been so tired in his life, and there were still the Amazons to deal with. Part of him hoped it would be a full day, at least, before they got close enough to even think about them. He had lost almost half of Viper's army to the Tartarus-damned swamp, something the slave leader would be very displeased about, if he had the wit to understand, that was. Drownings, quicksand, strange fevers and fights among the men had seriously thinned their ranks. He had also lost over half the camp followers, but he didn't concern himself overly much with them. Most were survivors anyway, somehow always managing to land on their feet. If he hadn't been so obsessed with capturing the forest women, he would have been tempted to simply leave them be and go after easier pickings.

The tall scout leader appeared at his side, looking just as filthy and worn as the second felt himself. "Get the men settled. We'll camp here and rest for a day before moving any further," Artalus said, wearily. "Make sure everyone has a hot meal in them, too. And for the love of the gods, don't let anyone drink that blasted water." He pointed back at the mire, already sure someone wouldn't get the message, as always.

The tall scout nodded and turned away, somehow finding the energy to shout orders around the camp. Artalus sighed to himself. Regardless of being told repeatedly not to drink the swamp water, nearly everyone had at some point during the last five days. Most of the time, it had been from slipping under unexpectedly, but several of the men had deliberately drunk the slimy liquid, thinking they would be safe for some reason. Those who had purposely slaked their thirsts from the waters of the bog had died painfully from some flux in bowels. Artalus shuddered. It had looked to be a very unpleasant way to die. For those who had gotten the water into them by accident, the worst they had suffered was painful stomach cramps and some vomiting. He had managed to avoid it himself by rationing out the liquid in his waterskin, but it was a close thing. One more day and everyone would have been forced into drinking from the morass.

Pushing himself off the cart, he tried to find a little energy to walk over and climb into the healer's wagon to see how Viper was doing. In many ways, he liked this Viper much more than the cruel and savage slaver he had been following for cycles. The slave leader may have lost his mind to the Assassin's beetles but there was now a real child-like gentleness about him Artalus found he enjoyed. No matter how desperate he was to have the old Viper back, a candlemark spent simply playing with this man-child was enough to relax him and ease many of the worries from his mind. It brought out the softer side of the second, and for the first time in his life he saw it as something he might just want to hang on to.

Chapter Thirty

The two travellers squatted in the dense undergrowth with several Amazons. Immediately behind them were another twenty or so, ready to move as soon as the command was given. From their vantage point, they could look down the edge of the swamp on their right, the tree-line on their left and the army spread out between the two. There weren't a lot of trees on the bog's wide 'beach,' and those that stood were twisted and diseased-looking from having their roots deeply embedded in the muck. Some four hundred paces from the mire's boundary, the forest quickly thickened into a healthier and more substantial growth. Just to the right of their position was a small rise, a hillock of hard, dry mud that would give the camp a good view of the warrior when she finally chose her moment.

"Xena? I can understand your stepping out there alone at first. You're usual 'surrender or die' routine. Right?" Gabrielle asked, in a whisper.

The warrior nodded, carefully watching to see how many sentries were being placed and just what state they were in. From the look of it, they were in no better shape than anyone else she could see.

"So, why are we coming from the end of the beach and not closer to the main camp? A more frontal kind of approach?" the bard asked. "I know you usually don't explain this sort of stuff to me, but I can generally see what you are doing. This time I can't."

Xena pulled her attention back to the questions the bard was asking, thinking carefully of the easiest way to explain it. Pointing to the edge of the dank swamp, she said, "They have just spent five days in that quagmire, and if we come out of the woods using a frontal assault, we back them straight into it. It's the last place most of them will want to go, so they'll fight all the harder to avoid it." Holding her hand flat against her chest and pushing it away slowly, she explained further, "I want to sort of nudge them down the beach, forcing them together. Trying to fight in such close quarters will be that much harder for them but easier for us. See," she said, pointing to several of the men. "Nothing but long-swords. The Amazon warriors use short-swords and bows. We'll have the room to move they don't."

Gabrielle nodded in understanding. She knew Xena preferred a long-sword because of her height, but she was so amazingly skilled with her weapon of choice she could have used it in just about any amount of space, however small. Then, of course, there was her chakram which had the reach, and usually better accuracy, than any bow-man could have ever hoped for.

"They won't move backwards into the water, and with each group of Amazon warriors coming out of the forest one after the other, the slavers won't want to go into the trees because they will be afraid of what they might find there. And then, right at the other end of the beach, when they are all nicely clumped together, we have a large group of warriors to attack them on the flanking side, hitting them on two fronts, if they last that long," Xena said, pointing to an area of forest right at the other end of the beach.

Now the bard could see what Xena had planned, it looked relatively simple, but she knew from other battles that most plans could go awry for any number of reasons. Gabrielle found herself hoping this would not be one of those times. The group they were hiding with would be the first to enter the fight and once they had moved the men down the beach a little, the next group would pop out of the undergrowth, right at their feet, forcing them to retreat further again. And so on, and so on, until they reached the large group at the other end.

Xena looked over to the bard squatted beside her, quickly leaning over to kiss her on the side of the face. "Gabrielle, don't try to throw yourself into the thick of it, please," Xena said with quiet intensity. "Stay behind the line of fighters and pick off anyone who might try to stab one of us in the back."

The bard grinned in reply. "You know me. Always protecting your back. As far as I'm concerned, you're the warrior and I'm just a simple bard."

"You stopped being 'just a simple bard' a long time ago, Gabrielle. Takes a lot for anyone to beat you with that staff nowadays," Xena said quickly, rising to her feet and heading for the hillock before the blonde had a chance to say anything.

"Well, I'll be damned," the bard muttered to herself. "I didn't think she'd even noticed."

Xena took the couple of paces needed to reach the hillock, stepping up onto it easily. Then she simply waited for someone in the camp to notice her. It didn't take long.

A woman dragging a bucket of clean water to a small fire looked over and saw the tall warrior standing patiently on the rise, her highly shined armour sending off brilliant flashes of sunlight as she breathed. A soft breeze blew the raven hair off her face, and the camp-woman was almost pinned to the spot by an ice-cold blue gaze. Standing with her sword sheathed and her hands relaxed by her sides, Xena looked as beautiful and as deadly as any warrior legend the woman had ever heard. Dropping the bucket, she ran screaming back towards the main encampment.

Within moments, a small knot of men appeared, their swords drawn, edging forward uncertainly. Xena waited until they were close enough so she didn't have to shout her words at them. Dropping her rich voice to its most menacing intensity, a little smile teasing its way across her lips, she said, "I'll give you one chance. Surrender immediately, or I start feeding all of you to the harpies in Tartarus, one tiny piece at a time."

For several heartbeats, there was a stand-off, the men not quite sure how to deal with the woman standing completely unafraid on the hillock and Xena already knowing what their answer was going to be. Some of the men were ready to swear it was Artemis poised on the little hill, preparing to wreak her vengeance on them for even thinking about capturing the Amazons. One man stepped forward, raising his sword in front of him. "I don't know who you are, bitch, but the only one going to Tartarus is you," he snarled.

He started to run forward but barely got four paces when Xena's hand flicked out and her chakram flew from her fingers. With unerring accuracy, it sliced through the man's throat before banking steeply in the sky, returning to her outstretched hand once more. "Guess I got my answer," she said to no one in particular. Drawing her sword, the signal to the warriors still hidden there was about to be some serious bloodshed, she bounced down the rise and into combat. Behind the warrior, twenty-five or more Amazons suddenly broke cover, roaring in to join her.

The first group of Amazons slowly forced the men back step by step until they were almost level with the second group. They jumped from the bushes, spreading themselves quickly along the line of advance. More men from the camp were running forward, but as Xena had planned, there was little room for them to swing their long-swords. By the time several more bands had backed the men up to the main part of the camp, the beach was littered with the dead and dying.

Xena felt completely in her element, her blood singing with the fire of battle, her blade becoming an extension of her power and her body. She was almost laughing with joy as she kicked yet another dead man from the end of her sword. Bloodlust rose up in the warrior, speaking seductively to her, her heart and soul answering the call without hesitation. Feeling as though she could never be stopped, she waded further into the fight, moving slightly in advance of the line behind her.

Even reaching the haphazardly laid out wagons did little to slow the forward movement of the Amazons, many of the exhausted slavers having trouble finding the strength to continue fighting. Some had already turned from the battle, running down the beach and onto the swords of the trainees who were waiting for them. Pale-faced, they grimly set about the task they had been set, taking the life of another human being for the first time.

Behind them, in the trees, a small child struggled against the restraining hands of two young warriors, desperate to join the battle and fight by her mother's side. She suddenly bit down on the hand of one, wriggled from the grasp of the other and dashed off through the line of trainees, headed for the heart of the conflict.

Artalus had heard the battle long before it reached the main part of the camp. Popping his head out of the healer's wagon, he watched as a tall, dark-haired, blue eyed warrior woman led the fight from the front. For one brief moment, he couldn't believe the story told to him by the survivors of the Amazon escape was actually true. But he couldn't deny the evidence right in front of his eyes. There really was a beautiful woman warrior, and it took him a bare heartbeat to realise she could fight better than any man he had ever seen before.

He felt himself being torn in two totally different directions. Part of him said he should be up with the rest of the army fighting the Amazon warriors, but another part, a quiet voice he was having trouble ignoring, was saying he had to protect the man he had followed for most of his adult life. Artalus tried to talk himself out of such a suicidal choice. The most important thing should be the saving of his own worthless hide. Viper was completely mind-shattered and of no use to anyone; the second would be better off letting the Amazons simply kill the man. Glancing back at the slave leader still propped up in bed, he felt his heart making the decision for him. He would stay, even if that meant giving up his own life. Convinced he was about to die, Artalus pulled the sword from its sheath by his side and stood waiting on the steps of the wagon.

Xena recognised the man standing on the wagon's steps as the same one who had led Eponin back to the cage after her meeting with the slave leader. The same man who had dragged a healer from his bed in the middle of the night. She guessed, correctly, he had to be the second in charge of the army. Judging from where he was, she assumed it was the healer's wagon and the leader must still be inside, incapable of defending himself. Bloodlust had her firmly in its grip, and she fought her way towards the wagon and the man standing on the steps. If she could kill the leader, like a snake with its head removed, the main body of the army would wither and die. She bounded up the few steps to the wagon-bed, her sword connecting solidly against Artalus's.

Artalus backed up, ducking into the wagon itself, the warrior woman following him in. He could see the blazing light of uncontrolled bloodlust in her eyes, knowing he had no chance at all against her but he felt he had to try to protect the man-child lying on the pallet.

Shayna ducked around a loaded cart, taking a moment to hamstring yet another man as he ran from the conflict. The man had fallen writhing to the ground, grasping at the open gash at the back of his thigh, the blood seeping through his fingers. The child had felt no pity at all as she quickly drew her knife across his throat. It was what she had been taught to do, and so long as she did as she remembered, her mother might let her stay with her after all. Shayna spotted the advancing figure of her mother as she stepped into a wagon. Figuring that was where she wanted to be, she scrambled up the short flight of steps and into the healer's wagon behind Xena.

The warrior stood with her sword-tip just crossing the blade of the second. She could feel the fire of battle burning along her veins and through her body, blinding her to the pain of the cuts and minor gashes she had gotten in combat against the slaver's men. The smell of death was everywhere, clinging to her leathers, soaking its way into her skin. She revelled in the familiar odour, something she had not allowed herself to do for the past three cycles. The lust to kill flowed through her with a sensual power so like sex Xena knew she would probably orgasm at the moment her blade slid into the body of the man in front of her.

A noise behind her had Xena spinning on the spot, only her trained and honed reflexes saving the child from a painless death. The blade stopped a hairsbreadth from the side of Shayna's neck, the youngster never flinching, her trust in Xena so complete. The warrior could feel her mind scrabbling to regain control again, now the spell of the bloodlust had been temporarily broken. Keeping one eye on man in front of her, she questioned the child. "Shayna, you were supposed to stay in the forest where it was safe. What are you doing here?"

"Mama fight. Shayna fight," the child grinned up at the tall warrior.

"I think you and I need to have a really long talk the first chance we get," Xena replied, turning back to the second, who hadn't moved a muscle.

With the haze of bloodlust lifted from her mind, she was finally able to take in the details of the wagon, and the man lying on the bed. Xena saw the leader would never again take an army of slavers into the countryside. In fact, the man might be lucky to live at all, if left to his own devices. He sat propped up in the bed, naked but covered with a light blanket. On his lap were some crudely carved blocks, the type she knew children often played with. Looking into the eyes of the second, she saw in them something she recognised, having seen it in her own eyes every time she looked into the mirrored surface of a pond.

"I am going to give you a choice," she said without fanfare. "You can either fight with me now, knowing I will probably kill you and he," flicking her eyes at Viper as he watched everything with childish interest, "will most likely not survive another moon out here. Or you can lay down the sword forever and take care of him. The choice is yours."

Artalus licked his lips. Letting his eyes drop to the man on the bed, he didn't have to think long. Artalus had followed Viper for most of his life, doing whatever the man had asked of him and more. The past couple of seven-days had allowed him to see a part of himself he might get to like, like very much. And the gentle, child-like mind now living inside the body of a man he loved like a brother helped bring that out in him. Carefully placing his sword on a bench beside him, he dropped his hand on Viper's broad shoulder. "The Amazons won't kill us?" he asked.

"No. I'll ask them to get you both safely to the other side of the forest. There is a village about four days further along, next to a river. Introduce yourself to the village elders. Tell them Xena sent you. They'll see you get settled and find some honest work. By the way, I hope you like sheep," she replied.

"They'll help me?" he asked incredulously, not believing his luck. "You'll do that for me?" Artalus could hardly believe it was possible to finally give away his life as a slaver and actually settle down in a place where he wasn't feared or reviled.

"That particular village owes me. I think this is a good way to collect, don't you?" the warrior said, a genuine smile lifting the corners of her mouth. "But if I hear of you going back to your slaver ways, I swear, I'll come after you and rip your heart out with my bare hands," she snarled. Xena's face softened again, her own hand dropping onto the youngster's shoulder by her side. Her eyes shifted from the child standing next to her, to the man lying on the bed and back again before she continued. "We all need the chance to make the right choices in life. This is simply yours. You won't get another, so make the most of it."

"Xena!" Gabrielle's familiar voice called from the door. "You all right?"

In the time it had taken for Xena to give Artalus his choices, the battle had raged past the healer's wagon and was all but over. Gabrielle brought up the rear with some of the trainees, attending to the wounded and making sure any men still left alive were bound tightly. They would probably be handed over to the nearest magistrate for judgment. The bard had seen Xena enter the wagon and then not come back out again. Concerned for the other woman, she had gotten there as soon as she could. Aside from some minor injuries the warrior appeared okay, until the bard had looked into her eyes. Bubbling just beneath the surface was the bloodlust Gabrielle had seen in the warrior's eyes many times before. Only this time, it had not been released in battle.

"I'll meet you back at the campsite then. I'm sure you could do with a long bath," the bard said, the sensual undertones in her voice telling the warrior the other woman had read her correctly again and a long, exhausting session was already being planned in the agile mind of the blonde. Well, Xena hoped it would be long and exhausting, anyway.

Chapter Thirty-One

Xena lay stretched out on her bedroll, Gabrielle on top of her like she was some kind of muscular pallet. The smile on the bard's face was so broad and self-satisfied, the warrior was sure her jaw would crack off at any moment. In the short space of time it had taken Xena to organise a small party of Amazons to escort Artalus and Viper safely through the forest, the blonde had managed to perform a minor miracle. Gabrielle had strapped their bedrolls together, gathered some flatbread, cheese, olives and a wineskin from somewhere and was waiting patiently for the warrior to finish up her few post-battle chores. They had walked together for half a candlemark, getting far enough away from the Amazon campsite to be completely out of earshot, coming across a tiny clearing beside a shallow stream.

It hadn't been as deep as the warrior would have liked, but it served its purpose by allowing the bard to scrub the blood and the stench of death from Xena's body. Her leathers were still airing on a low branch on the edge of the little glade. It would probably be morning before they were fit to wear again, not that she saw them moving anywhere until first light, at least. She also didn't see them moving until dawn because both women now had several bruises Xena didn't want to have to explain to Gabrielle's sister Amazons. Admittedly, some had been garnered during the battle but others, well, others they had done themselves. Thankfully, most were in inconspicuous places, easily covered by their clothing.

Xena couldn't help smiling herself. She had gotten to see a whole new side of her bard she never knew was there before. Gabrielle may have faced down the warlord in the past, but she had never been presented with Xena's bloodlust, the warrior usually managing to ease the fire in her veins during battle. It had been a love making experience she was not going to forget any time soon. Somehow, the little bard had fed on the lust coursing through Xena's body and returned it as pure, mind-blowing passion, pouring it through the other woman's center until she was certain she would explode across the sky. And of course, Xena had returned the favour until Gabrielle couldn't even moan out her pleasure any longer, just shuddering violently as each release tore through her body. They were both going to ache in the morning after that, but the warrior just didn't care anymore.

"I wonder how you got to know me so well," Xena mumbled aloud to herself, her arms tightening briefly around the woman lying comfortably on top of her.

"Huh?" the bard muttered, lifting her head from the pillow of Xena's naked breasts. "Wad ya say?"

"Oh, I was just wondering how you got to know me as well as you do," the warrior replied.

"I'm a bard. We're very observant most of the time."

"Did you keep track of how many times we¼" Xena trailed off.

"I lost count about the fifth time, but I will say I do like this bloodlust of yours when it comes home to my bedroll and isn't wasted in some battle," the bard answered wickedly.

Xena grunted at the other woman, then blushed deeply. "I'll see what I can do in the future," she muttered a little self-consciously.

"You just do that," Gabrielle said teasingly, kissing the end of the warrior's chin. "I kind of like you when you're that out of control," she paused for a heartbeat. "In bed."

The blonde reached over for the wineskin, taking several deep swallows before handing it to Xena. "Where's Shayna? I've been expecting her to pop out of the bushes at any moment," the shorter woman said, glancing about the undergrowth surrounding the tiny glade.

"She's with Eponin. Made her promise to stay put until we get back tomorrow," Xena answered, wiping a drop of wine from her chin, before placing the skin back on the ground beside them.

"Bribed her, you mean," Gabrielle stated. She knew how the mind of the warrior worked, most of the time, and she was sure the only promising going on was the warrior's promise to the child.

The flush suddenly appearing on Xena's face let the bard know she had hit the target dead on. "What did you bribe her with? A new knife? Lessons with the sword? The curious want to know here," she smiled

"My presence for most of the day tomorrow. I'm hoping I can get her to understand why I want her to live with the Amazons and not out on the road with us," Xena said.

Gabrielle sighed melodramatically, the back of one hand against her forehead. "Guess I'll just have to make do with the company of my sister Amazons, I suppose. Oh, I am a poorly done by lover and bard," she said, trying to stop herself from giggling.

"Poorly done by, my behind," Xena said, long fingers reaching in the direction of some very ticklish ribs.

The bard quickly rolled away, coming to rest a Xena's arm's length from the warrior. She had made the mistake once before of underestimating just how far the other woman could reach, when she wanted to, and wasn't going to make the same mistake again. Besides, Xena had the maddening tendency of continuing to tickle her until Gabrielle almost wet herself with laughter. The frantic, wild-eyed dash into the bushes after something like that was never a good look as far as the bard was concerned. She had some semblance of dignity to maintain, after all.

Turning on her side, Xena lifted one arm, inviting the bard back again. "Promise. I won't tickle you, so long as you don't do the oh-woe-is-me act anymore," she said, smiling. Gabrielle crawled up against the warm skin of the other woman, sighing with pleasure. "Seriously though. The Amazons won't be moving on for three or four days. Not until some of the warriors have had a chance to heal a little."

The heads of both women turned automatically towards the large clearing where the Amazons were camped. Most of the injuries had been fairly minor, well, by warrior standards anyway. But several of the forest women would be returning to the village on stretchers. At least they were alive, and the two travellers were grateful for that much. There had been no deaths among the Amazons, but it was a close thing.

"So we'll have a few days to get Shayna used to the idea of living with them?" Gabrielle asked, something in her heart telling her they would not have quite that much time.

"No," Xena said simply, her gaze firmly locked on the bushes around them. "We're leaving at dawn, day after tomorrow. I don't want her getting the idea we're going to hang around. And she might, if we stay until the Amazons are ready to return to the village."

"You think she'll follow us again?"

Xena thought for a moment. "Not this time. I'll make sure of it. She's old enough to understand my reasons," she said.

"You not going to hurt¼" the bard trailed off, uncertain of how far she could safely go. She might understand many things about the warrior, but this was new ground, and she felt a little shaky underfoot.

"No. I won't hurt her, Gabrielle. But I will make it very clear I want her in the village and not with us. That's going to be painful enough for her to accept," Xena replied, looking into the blue-green eyes of her lover and life-mate. "But we'll be back as often as we can. I'll make that clear to her as well."

Gabrielle could see the pain and heartache still written in broad strokes through those impossibly blue eyes, but she could also see the determination to do what was right by the child, regardless of the cost to herself. This was the Xena the bard had grown to know and love so dearly. Wrapping her arms around the tall warrior, she held her close, offering all the love and support she could find in her very big heart.

Chapter Thirty-Two

The bard watched Xena disappearing into the woods, Shayna already dancing ahead of her. Trying not to worry about the possible emotional state the tall woman would be in by the time they got back to the campsite, she turned her attention to the wounded Amazons lying grouped together in a makeshift hospital. She had volunteered to help keep them occupied for a while so no one would try getting up before the healers thought they were ready. Thinking for a moment, she began to recite, "I sing a song of Xena; Warrior Princess. A woman who stepped from the dark path of destruction to become an honourable warrior." The Amazons listened attentively. The bard did not tell this story often, but today it just felt right.

"Slow down, Shayna. You're moving too fast for me to keep up," Xena said. She wasn't really having trouble keeping up at all, but she did want the youngster to be a bit more careful as they wandered through the trees. One never knew what could be lurking in the bushes sometimes.

They had already spent most of the morning simply playing together, Shayna showing the tall warrior some of the things she had learned in the short space of time she had been with the children's pack back at the village. Xena had soon joined her in the tree branches, their laughter echoing through the forest around them, playing a kind of tag game popular with the Amazon youngsters, though the child was much better. She was able to climb out onto limbs too slight to hold the warrior's greater weight. At times, she was sure the girl was standing on nothing more than a twig before bouncing into the next tree.

Having exhausted themselves in the branches, they had swum together in a small pond, washing the sweat and tree bark from their bodies. Xena had caught several small fish for their nooning, Shayna fascinated with the warrior's unorthodox technique. She also watched carefully as the woman had quickly built a small, hot fire to cook their meal. Shayna had come to like campfires because they always reminded her of the fire her Mama said burned in her. She was determined never to be without one again, so she watched everything the warrior did, hoping to catch the trick of making sparks with a flint.

After their nooning, they had wandered through the forest, heading for an outcropping of rocks where they would have a good view of the surrounding countryside. Shayna's boundless childhood energy soon had her bouncing ahead of the warrior, and Xena had to pick up her pace a little to stay abreast the youngster, not a hard thing for her, really, with legs as long and powerful as hers. Clambering up the rocks had turned into a race to see who could get to the top first. Shayna won by a mere hand-span, but only because Xena secretly let her. The child had danced around the top of the rocks gleefully, elated at beating her mother.

They had finally settled quietly together, shaded by an overhang, the child seated between Xena's outspread knees, the warrior's muscular arms wrapped comfortingly about her slight body. The tall woman pointed out features they could see, explaining how water always dropped to the lowest point on the land and naming the various trees, describing what they were good for. She pointed to some of the birds wheeling in the clear blue sky, telling the child how they could often show you were to find water fit to drink or berries you could safely eat. They had watched silently as several small deer wandered through the woods near the bottom of the rocks. Xena whispered in the child's ear as they passed some of the secrets of hunting them, which parts were good to make the best jerky from and how tendons and sinews could be used to sew up clothes or wounds.

This was how the child remembered spending countless days with her mother, before she had slipped beneath the water and disappeared so long ago. Her mother told her or showed her all the things she would need to know if Shayna wanted to survive in the forest. They were lessons the child had used over and over during the long cycles she had been alone. She didn't understand why her mother had left her standing distraught by the side of the stream that stormy night, other than she must have been so naughty her mother couldn't bear to have the child near anymore. Now, Shayna thought it must have been some kind of test, like so many others her mother had played with her, only this one had lasted a great deal longer.

And now her Mama wanted to leave her alone again. It wasn't as alone as before, true. Shayna liked the village, with women who took care of her and other girls to play with, but her mother wasn't going to be there, and that meant Shayna didn't want to stay. She needed to understand why her mother simply didn't settle in the village with everyone else. The other girls had told her how Aabriel was the Queen and the Queen should live in the village, but as long as her mother remained on the road, then Aabriel would too and many of the girls were not sure that was right somehow. Shayna had even grown a little fond of the woman with the fiery red-blonde hair, listening to her tell exciting stories about what her mother had done during the cycles they had been separated. Thinking about it, the child was sure she might even get to love the little bard-Queen because it was clear how much her mother adored the other woman, from all the little touches and glances they shared and the way her mother slept with Aabriel protected in her strong arms each night.

"Mama?" Shayna asked shyly. "Why you and Aabriel no live in village with everyone? Isn't Aabriel Queen? Lias say Queen should live in village all time." In her child-like mind, Shayna had connected Gabrielle's living in the village to her mother's presence there as well. If the bard stayed, then Xena would too.

Xena laughed quietly, kissing the top of Shayna's rapidly growing out red hair. "Yes, Gabrielle is the Queen of the Amazon Nation, but she has chosen to travel with me," she explained.

"Why?" the child asked.

The warrior had to stop and think about that for a bit. She didn't really understand why the bard still travelled with the ex-warlord, knowing how hard she was to be around occasionally, especially when her own memories were recking havoc on her heart and soul. "I think, because she loves me enough to endure the bad things I sometimes do," she said quietly.

"Mama bad?" the child questioned, not believing it. "Bad like bad men?" It was the only point of reference Shayna had, the descriptions of the bad men her mother had told her about long ago, and some of the things she had seen herself as well.

Xena knew better than to try to lie to the child. Even if she simply temporised, the youngster would pick it up. She sighed deeply. "I was worse, Shayna. I used to do a lot of very bad things and hurt a lot of people. But one day I decided to be good again. That's why I am on the road all the time, making up for all the bad I did. Can you understand that?"

Shayna's mind grappled to get a grip on the idea of her mother doing bad things and now having to make up for them. "Like Shayna give Lias pie for making Lias eat Shayna's green stuff?" she offered.

Xena laughed. "You're a smart one, aren't you? But yes, kind of like that, only much bigger," she said, opening her hands widely in front of the child's face.

"Mama good all time now?" Shayna asked.

Xena knew she had to be truthful here so the child would understand. "No, Shayna. I try, but sometimes, well, " the warrior sighed deeply again. "Sometimes it is hard. I'm so used to doing things my own way, never questioning it. Now and then I slip and do something that hurts another person." Most often Gabrielle, she finished the thought.

"Like Shayna coming here instead of staying with Amaran and Lias like Mama say," The child asked, guilt sounding clearly in her voice. "I hurt Mama coming here?"

Strong arms embraced the youngster powerfully. "No, you didn't hurt me by following us, but you did worry me," she said. Thinking for a moment, she continued, "And I guess that is a kind of hurt too."

The warrior and the child sat together, each thinking their own thoughts and drawing comfort from the closeness of the other. Shayna was starting to see why Xena wanted her to remain with the Amazons, but she still wanted to understand the reasoning behind her staying at the village while Xena was on the road.

"Shayna hurt Mama if Shayna on road with Mama and Aabriel?" she asked very quietly.

Kissing the top of the girl's head, Xena tried to explain herself. "It's not that I don't want you with us," she said, watching the light of hope fill the child's jade green eyes. "But I would worry about you all the time. There are a lot of bad men who want to hurt me and the easiest way of doing that would be to hurt you. Do you see that?"

"Mama worry about Aabriel too the same way? If Aabriel stay, why not Shayna?"

"You're as stubborn as the bard, aren't you? Okay, lets see if I can explain this for you," Xena smiled. "I do worry about Gabrielle -- all the time, in fact -- but she is a woman grown and can defend herself with her staff. You saw her fighting yesterday during the battle. I'm sure no one could get near her."

Shayna nodded. She had seen the bard fighting, awe-struck with the deadly grace of such a simple weapon. It had been totally different to watching her fight a handful of thugs on the side of the road. She just seemed to work in natural tandem with whoever had been around her at the time, protecting the fighter's back, yet managing to defend herself very effectively.

"I still worry about her, afraid she will be hurt by someone who really only wants to hurt me. But I know I can leave her alone somewhere and no one can really harm her. That makes it easier for me. You're just not big enough yet to be left alone while I do something else," Xena continued.

The child thought about the explanation before speaking again. "Mama need Shayna to be a woman grown before Shayna stay with her?" she asked, using the same expression as the warrior.

"Yes," the tall woman said, feeling the child was reaching the point were she would stay in the village and not try to follow them again. "And the safest place for you to grow up is with the Amazons. They can take good care of you and teach you all kinds of things I may not have time to show you if we were on the road. I get pretty busy there sometimes. I've even neglected Gabrielle now and then," she said a little ruefully, mentally promising not to let that happen any more.

Shayna nodded her head as though finally making a decision. "Shayna stay with Amaran and Eponin and Lias. Grow up big like Mama. Learn fight like Mama. Then travel on road with Mama and Aabriel," she stated.

"You'll probably just do that too," Xena said gently, hugging the girl close to her chest. "But I promise, Gabrielle and I will come to the village as often as we can and stay for a few days when we have time. And I give you my word of honour as a warrior, we will both be there for every winter Solstice, no matter what else is going on."

The child smiled happily. She didn't understand what this honour thing was, but that kind of promise seemed to mean a great deal to the warrior, which probably meant it had more weight.

"Ummm, what Solstice, Mama?" Shayna queried.

Laughing aloud, Xena began to explain what winter Solstice was all about, using the same stories she had heard Gabrielle tell many, many groups of youngsters in the past.

Chapter Thirty-Three

An explosion of stars lit the sky over the meadow where the two travellers were camped for the night. The pale light they cast dimmed by the fire the women lay beside. The warrior had been unusually quiet for the past few days and that was going some, considering she was not very talkative at the best of times. The bard let the other woman grieve silently, knowing that when the moment was right she would talk. Gabrielle would simply tuck herself close to the tall warrior each night as they slept, ignoring the soundless tears falling from those blue eyes, yet offering as much support as Xena would accept from her.

"You've been very patient with me, Gabrielle. Thank you," Xena said unexpectedly, gentle fingers brushing the side of the bard's face.

"It was easy, really. You just needed a little time. I can give you that much," the blonde replied, tightening her arms about Xena's leather-clad body. "Feeling a bit better now?" she asked, concerned.

"A bit. Leaving her with the Amazons was hard, but I know it is the best thing for her. And we will be back. They have Harvest Festival coming up next season. We might stop by for a couple of days, if we're in the area," Xena said.

The bard started to giggle, burying her face into the other woman's leathers until she had brought herself back under control again. Lifting her head, looking into the slightly bemused expression on the warrior's face, she chuckled, "If we're in the area, she says. Oh Xena, don't give me that. You and I both know not only we will be in the area but it might be a really messy death to anyone who tries to keep us from getting there in time."

"Gods, I didn't think I was quite that transparent," the warrior grumped.

"Read you like a scroll, Xena of Amphipolis. Read you like a scroll," Gabrielle replied, tapping Xena's chest with each word.

The two women snuggled quietly together for a time, the bard occasionally giggling to herself, much to the warrior's chagrin.

"You know, if we stay on this road for another day, instead of turning off, we could pay a visit to the Centaurs. Just for a day or two," Xena said innocently into the near-silence.

"You're being transparent again, Xena," Gabrielle laughed aloud. "Look, if you want to see Solon, just say so. I do understand, you know. I mean, Xena: Warrior Princess, destroyer of nations, has become Xena: Mother of Two, creator of unusual families." Gabrielle rolled over to enjoy a good hearty belly laugh at the look on the tall woman's face.

Eventually, the laughter subsided into chuckles and then into silence. Gabrielle propped herself up on one elbow, looking down on the woman she loved. "You're feeling a bit guilty, aren't you? Why?" she asked.

Xena turned her head, letting her gaze rest on the loving eyes of the bard. "Yea, I'm feeling guilty. Why? I'm not really sure," she evaded.

"Might it have something to do with you not feeling like you're being the sort of mother you could be to those two youngsters?" Gabrielle asked.

"More like, I am not being the sort of mother I know I should be. By the gods, Solon doesn't even know I AM his mother." The warrior replied, thumping her fist into the bedroll beside her.

The bard lay a gentle hand on the cheek of the warrior, feeling the other woman turn a fraction to nestle into her cupped palm. "You helped me understand why he couldn't know just yet. When the time is right and he will be safe, you'll tell him. I know you will. In the meantime, he might as well get used to seeing you, well, seeing us, actually, a bit more often than he has."

The warrior raised a quizzical eyebrow at the other woman.

"Well, you're not going to tell me we are travelling all the way to see Shayna and then NOT go that little bit extra to visit Solon, are you? Cause if you are, I'd never believe it anyway," Gabrielle stated confidently.

Sweeping the blonde into her powerful arms, Xena asked, "And since when did I come with a scroll of instructions, eh? You're getting a bit too good at knowing what's on my mind lately. Come on, bard, give. What's your secret?"

Gabrielle laughed helplessly, adapting herself to the warrior's quick mood changes, something she had gotten very, very good at over the cycles. "Practise, oh great and mighty Warrior Princess. Lots and lots and lots of mind-blowing, sometimes exasperating, usually impossible, always rewarding practise. You were so unbelievably scary all that first cycle, it was either get to understand you or go crazy."

"Surely I wasn't that bad?" Xena asked, trying to put a hurt expression on her face. It must have succeeded, because the bard immediately relented.

"Well, you were kinda frightening, being so silent and everything. After all, you had been the baddest thing to ever walk into a tavern. Usually still are, most of the time," Gabrielle said quietly.

Xena smiled at the mental image of her coming innocently into some tavern and the way people quickly moved to avoid her. Yea, that still felt good, even though she knew it shouldn't.

"But seeing Solon that time did help me understand you, though."

That brought Xena back into the here and now in a hurry. "How did seeing him help you understand me?"

"I understood that back when you left him with the Centaurs, you weren't ready to be a mother. It was more than simply wanting to keep him safe from your enemies. You just plain weren't ready for that kind of responsibility. To have someone, anyone, that close to your soul," the bard explained. "Now, you are but you have to put it off for a little while because you have a promise to keep. A promise you made to yourself to make good on the wrongs you did." She paused. "Xena, I know you well enough to realise, regardless of how much you love Solon and Shayna, even me, you are going to keep that promise no matter what."

"When did you get to be so damned wise, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, drawing the other woman down into a soul-searing and passionate kiss.

"Don't know. Guess it musta grew on me," mumbled the bard as soft lips wiped all concept of time and place from her mind and insistent hands tugged impatiently at her clothing.

Chapter Thirty-Four

A young Amazon warrior, maybe twenty and five or twenty and six summers old, with flaming red hair and flashing, jade green eyes slowly shook her head, bringing herself back into the present. She stood to stretch out muscles made tight from sitting still in one place for so long. Walking back and forth in front of the grave, she remembered little things, occasionally dashing a tear from her cheek. The sound of movement behind her had the young woman quickly spinning to see who was coming. She relaxed as she recognised a familiar figure dropping from the trees.

"I found them, Shayna," her companion called, holding out two objects for the other woman to see. "Just where you said they would be, too. How'd you know they were there?"

Shayna smiled, as though imparting a great secret. "Remember that really awful bard we listened to a couple of seven-days back, Lias? I talked with him later and he told me he'd seen them with his own eyes," she answered.

"You and your bards. I think we have listened to every story-teller for a thousand leagues around the Nation, sometimes," Lias laughed. "And how many ales did it take to get the story out of him?"

The red-haired warrior blushed the colour of a ruddy summer's sunset before answering. "Only six, but he got this idea that he might get lucky with me, if you know what I mean," she said finally. She watched as her companion dissolved into helpless laughter, Shayna trying not to look embarrassed.

"I have no idea what you mean at all. You probably didn't do a THING to foster the impression either," Lias said when she could draw enough air into her lungs to speak. "Another one of those tricks your mother taught you, I suppose. How to tease men, gather information and escape, without having to break any of their bones. Sweet Artemis, I wish I had been around for that one." The warrior bent over in uncontrollable laughter again, this time not stopping until there were tears rolling freely down her cheeks.

"Oh, stop it, will you, Lias. She taught all of us a lot of stuff when she and Gabrielle came to visit," Shayna snorted. "Just give 'em here, if you can stop giggling long enough," she said a little grumpily.

"I'm sorry, Shayna. I just can't help teasing you sometimes. You always take the bait," Lias replied, starting to hand over the two objects she had almost removed someone's head to get. "The elder wasn't too happy about giving these to me; they're almost sacred relics now, you know, but when I told them who they were for, he relented."

"Don't suppose the drawn sword would have had anything to do with his sudden desire to be rid of them?" the other woman teased back, her grumps easing at the look of surprise on Lias's face.

Once the warrior had stopped spluttering; Shayna was closer to the truth than Lias was willing to admit, she handed over the first of the two objects with great reverence. Shayna carefully took the staff in her hands, examining it. The white leather sleeve on one end was a little charred and covered with soot, the wood darkened with sweat where Gabrielle's hands had held it for so many cycles, but the red-head was sure this was the weapon belonging to the woman she saw as her guard-mother.

"I never saw anyone, aside from Mother, that is, who was more deadly with one of these than Gabrielle," Shayna said. "She could do things with it that just made the hair stand up on the back of your neck sometimes. Still hard to believe she got her first lessons from Eponin, though," thinking of the aging woman back at the Amazon village.

"Better believe it, Shayna. My guard-mother can still give you a run for your dinars, don't ever doubt that," Lias replied quietly.

Shayna smiled gently, remembering the staff lessons Gabrielle had given her. Things she still used even now. "You know, in all the cycles they spent on the road, she never took a life. Not once. I still find that pretty amazing. Yea, she was something special."

Passing the staff back to the other woman, she held out her hand for the weapons she had really wanted to find, Xena's sword and chakram. Lias juggled the staff against her side, so she could use both hands to give the red-head the sword. It just seemed more fitting that way. The chakram, patches of rust eating into the metal, had been firmly tied to the sheath of the weapon so it wouldn't be lost. Shayna carefully drew the blade from its leather sheath, noting the tiny bits of charcoal still lodged between the swirls of the armour-work. Xena's finely wrought sword was rusting from lack of care, its razor-sharp edge long gone, but the green eyed warrior knew this weapon like she knew her mother. With tear-filled eyes, she looked up at the other woman. "Did you find out what happened?" she asked.

"That's what took me so long. Everyone wanted to tell me their bit of the story and I had to listen to all of them to make sure I got everything," Lias replied. "Seems the little orphanage they run down at the village went up in flames one night, maybe three seasons ago now."

"Mmmm, happens sometimes. Candle, perhaps?" Shayna queried.

The other woman nodded before continuing. "Xena and Gabrielle came out of nowhere. Or at least, that is how the villagers tell it anyway. My guess is they were camped really close by, maybe at that stream we stopped at last night."

"Probably. It's the sort of place Mother liked to stop. The kind of place I like to stop at too," Shayna said sadly.

"Anyway, the two of them just ran inside the burning building, not thinking about the danger for a heartbeat, and started tossing the kids through the door into the arms of the villagers waiting outside. The elder told me they were shouting at them to come out because the roof was about to give way. Well, Xena just wouldn't hear of it until the last kid was safe, so she simply stood up and braced the roof with her hands. Gabrielle just kept tossing kids out until she couldn't find any more. Guess she must have got them all because no one said anything about any of the kids not making it."

In her mind's eye, the red-head could see it herself. Flames leaping grotesquely in all directions against the night sky, villagers shouting and screaming in fear and confusion, Gabrielle scurrying through the blinding smoke looking for survivors, and her mother standing like a determined statue, holding that roof up until everyone was safely outside.

"Do you want me to go on?" Lias asked compassionately. Hearing all the different impressions of the villagers had been hard enough for Lias to listen to, but to hear the whole thing, and knowing it was her own mother, must have been tearing the other woman to pieces.

Shayna nodded. She needed to know what happened that night.

"When the last kid was safe, Xena started shouting at Gabrielle to get out of the building. You know how stubborn the Queen could be sometimes. Must have known as well as Xena that the roof was going to collapse at any moment. Instead of leaving, she walked up to Xena's side and just wrapped her arms around her waist like they had all the time in the world to simply stand there. Then the roof just fell in on them." Lias stopped, unable to continue.

"Finish it, Lias. Please," Shayna asked, her voice strangled with the tears she knew she would not shed until she felt able to bear the pain of both her mothers passing.

The other woman took a deep breath, wiping the tears from her face before ending the story the villagers had told her. "The elder said it was quick. They probably didn't feel a thing. When they finally dug them out, the beam over Xena's head, the one she used to hold the roof up, had broken both their necks as it came down. They were hardly burned at all. One of the villagers told me when they did find their bodies, Xena was all wrapped around Gabrielle like she was trying to protect her or something."

Silently thanking Artemis for the quickness of their deaths, Shayna spoke softly, "That would be Mother all over. She was forever trying to protect Gabrielle from all kinds of things, even the sniffles." The warrior smiled the tiniest bit, remembering all the times Xena had tried doing that.

"No one in the village knew where to send the bodies afterwards. I guess they didn't really believe Gabrielle was the Amazon Queen. So they brought them up here and buried them together, still wrapped in each others arms they way they had died. They just didn't have the heart to even try breaking them apart."

"Gabrielle used to complain all the time about that. Never did think she looked like the rest of us," Shayna said. "But I'm glad they buried them together. If they couldn't have an Amazon funeral fire, then that would have been their next choice." The red-head slid the sword back into the sheath she still held in one hand and turned towards the grave. Standing next to it, she felt Lias move up beside her, one hand resting on her back.

"Do you ever wonder if, well, you know, if Xena made the best decision leaving you with us?" Lias asked a little uncertainly.

"No. It wasn't the best decision," Shayna stated flatly.

"SHAYNA!" Lias said, shocked at the other woman's reply. "They were always visiting for festivals and stuff. And I know they alway turned up for your rite of passage ceremonies. Your Pleasures of Womanhood ceremony and when you were ready to go out for your Challenges cycle. They never once missed a winter Solstice. After you came back from your Challenge, Xena even let you travel with them for a while. How can you say it wasn't the best decision after all that?"

"Because it wasn't the best one. The best decision would have been for all of us to be together at the village, with Gabrielle as our Queen and Mother and I as her family. It would have been the best decision because that is what everyone else felt she should to do. Didn't make it right though," Shayna looked at the woman standing by her side. "I know Mother had a hard time making that decision because she still had a promise to keep," she said.

"So, instead of doing what was best, what everyone simply expected her to do, she did what was right. She found the courage to listen to her heart and decided to keep me safe, see that I got a good education, surrounded by people who loved and cared about me and she made as much time for me as she possibly could and still managed to keep that promise to herself. I think another five or six cycles, she might have even come home and finally settled down with us. But this way, she died knowing she had done the right thing. I don't think she ever regretted making her decision the way she did. And I know she never wondered how things might have been if she has just gone ahead and made the best decision either."

"I guess when you explain it like that, it makes sense. You're not angry about it, are you?" Lias asked.

"No, I got over being angry a long time ago when I finally figured out the difference between best decisions and right decisions. I just hope I always have the courage to listen to my heart and make the right decisions. Somehow, I think that's what made Mother such a great warrior. She always made the right decisions, no matter what it might have cost her personally," Shayna said quietly, the pride she felt for the warrior giving her voice a richness reminiscent of the woman she called Mother.

The Amazon warrior with jade green eyes lay the staff and sheathed sword with the chakram tied to it on the pile of stones covering the grave. She paused to brush her hand over the carefully carved words on the headstone before reaching for something in her belt-pouch. Placing her little offering on top of the weapons, she tried to turn away.

"Is that what I think it is, Shayna?" Lias asked, pointing to the object the young Amazon had laid on the grave.

"Yea, it's a flint," she replied.

"Ummmm, mind telling me why you put a flint, of all things, on your mothers grave?"

"A long time ago, Mother told me I had a fire burning inside me, just like the one inside Gabrielle. So, I thought I would leave a flint here to let her know that I still remember those words," the warrior answered.

"Anything else you remember?"

"Yea. Gabrielle said life on the road has a rhythm to it, just like a heartbeat. Once you start walking to that rhythm, you just can't seem to stop," Shayna answered, a slow smile easing away the sadness in her eyes.

"Is that a hint?" Lias prodded.

"Yep. We've got a long way to go before we get home again and the sooner we are started, the sooner we are there."

As they walked back towards the trees, Lias asked one last question. "Do you think they both made it to the Elysian Fields?"

Shayna couldn't help laughing. "Not only do I think they made it there, I am willing to bet dinars Mother is probably running the place by now."

Two young Amazon warriors took to the trees at the edge of the clearing, all sight of them soon lost in the dense branches. On the grave, where a staff, a sword, a chakram and a flint now lay, a soft golden glow hovered briefly over them before settling against the stones. When the glow had finally faded away, the weapons and the flint were gone. A warm, gentle breeze, sounding for all the world like a woman sighing, moved through the clearing, the leaves rustling for a moment and then becoming still.


In a sunlit clearing, hidden deep in the center of an unnamed stretch of forest, far from the usual tracks and paths other travellers might have taken, rested the piled stones of a single large grave. The headstone was mostly rough-hewn, though someone had taken special care to smooth the one side where an inscription had been engraved by the hand of some master stone-smith. There was no name or date of passing carved into the stone, just some simple words.

If a lone traveller were to stumble upon this place and allow themselves to rest in the peaceful tranquillity of the dappled glade, they might just hear the happy laughter of two women echoing through the trees. One, light and carefree, reflecting their purity of soul, causing the heart of the traveller to bubble with joy, though they had never met. The other, lush and rich, filled with all the experiences that life can bring, the traveller perhaps saddened they could not pose their questions to such a wise soul.

If the traveller were to sit quietly for a time, their mind empty of troubling thoughts, and the light slanted through the leaves just right, they might even see two bright shadows dancing around the tree trunks, skipping gaily through the branches overhead, chasing and catching and chasing again. Two golden shades playing together as two people may have played in life.

Even if the traveller was not to hear the gentle laughter, nor see the bright shadows in the glade, the simple words carved into the headstone would tell them everything they needed to know about the grave's occupants, if only they thought about it for long enough.

Simple words, carved with care and love, expressing the lives of two women who cared more for others than they did themselves. Who fought for what was right, no matter the personal cost to their own hearts and souls. Who had died as they had lived, together.

Simple words.


The End.