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Foreign Influences
by Oversoul

Standard disclaimers and warnings apply for alt. fanfic
Violence abounds

Chapter Two

Xena could hear the sound of someone stirring the fire pit.  She opened her eyes and saw Raven crouching by the pit as she fed kindling into the almost dead embers. With a movement of her head, she let Raven know she was awake.

"Sorry, friend, but it's time to eat... you know... food? The other things we all need besides love to survive."

"Gabrielle doesn't wake as easily as I do, so you won't bother her," Xena said quietly. She could feel the bard's arm around her waist as Gabrielle lay curled up behind.

The kindling flared and Raven scurried to fan the flames with her hand. When she was sure of the fire, she set two logs onto the flames.

"This is my job," she explained, "The team doesn't begin the day until I signal it by starting the fire."

"They disappeared pretty fast last night," Xena observed.

"Mmm, well, when you've lived with the same six women all your life you learn to respect each other's need for privacy both social and private."

Raven grinned broadly at Xena, and indicated the bard sleeping behind her.

"Thank you," Xena mouthed the words so that Raven could see them but Gabrielle couldn't hear if by chance she was awake.

"You're welcome," Raven acknowledged.

"I still owe you one, though," Xena warned. She smiled gratefully at the woman from Nippon.

"The sun's been up for a while, and they will want to roast the boar they found in the pit trap last night."

"Now, the smell of food might wake Gabrielle up, but after last night, I think a chariot could run through here and she'd still be sleeping."

Raven looked thoughtful for a moment, "then why don't you join me for a swim?"

Xena knew she would have to bathe soon. She was covered in Gabrielle's and her own juices and sweat. That was fine last night, but it wasn't going to be very romantic as the sun's heat warmed her.

"Lead the way," she said as she began to extract herself from the bard's embrace. She noticed Raven scamper off... must be that privacy thing, Xena figured.

Gabrielle had Xena's leg pinned under hers from behind and she had to carefully avoid jarring the bard's foot. As she crouched beside Gabrielle with the blanket drawn back, she was surprised to see the few small reddish and purple marks they had made on each other. Xena couldn't remember that ever happening with anyone else, ever.

She used one of their blankets and wrapped herself in it before she covered Gabrielle again and leaned in to kiss her lightly on the lips. To her surprise and delight, the bard wasn't as asleep as she thought she was, and Gabrielle's arm went around Xena's neck to hold her there. Gabrielle kissed her passionately with soft, sucking kisses several times before she released her hold.

"We're going swimming... want to come?" Xena asked, somewhat dazed by the impassioned bard's kisses.

"Unh unh. I just want to dream it one more time," she moaned softly as she settled back to sleep.

Xena gazed at Gabrielle's peaceful face. She could feel her desire for this woman begin to consume her again and she quickly kissed her on the cheek before she stood up and walked away from her to find her personal grooming supplies.

The spring emptied into a large grotto and the water was heated by rocks that lay exposed above the surface in the shallows. Xena and Raven found a large flat rock that was barely above the surface and lounged on it like two basking turtles.

Xena lay dozing on her back, her arms pillowing her head as the sun warmed her face. To Xena's surprise, Raven lay comfortably on her stomach, exposing her scared back to the sun.

"I heard Gabrielle call you 'warrior princess' yesterday.
What does that mean?"

Xena half laughed. "It was what my army called me. It doesn't feel very flattering now, but it was fitting when I *was* a warlord."

"When did you stop?"

Xena turned her head to meet Raven's eyes. "About two and a bit years ago. The god of war even offered me my own godhood if I would fight for him, but I don't feel that way anymore."

"What changed that you stopped?" Raven frowned curiously.

Xena smiled, "Hercules, the son of the king of gods, helped me find my way. I was trying to kill him at the time."

"Who is this god of war... and this king of gods?"

Xena shook her head. "When you say their names, it attracts their attention, and the god of war is one person whose interference in my life I can do without."

"But you mention Hercules?" Raven was getting puzzled by the politics.

"I *want* to see Hercules and Iolus, his friend. They are friends to Gabrielle and me, and Hercules and I were once lovers."

"The son of a king?"

"Born to a mortal woman and hated by his step-mother."

"Gods," Raven snorted, "I have no use for them."

"They aren't all bothersome, Raven. A few have been true friends to Gabrielle and me."

"Mmmm, I can smell the roasting boar," Raven noted.

Xena flipped over and rested her head on her arms. "What are you and your team going to do now?"

"I want to stay in Greece. The others may go back to India... we lived there for two years and learned so much there.

The rest of the team wants to move on, but I've always been more
independent and curious."

"So, you and your lover want to make a life here."



"Katrina... I hope I'm saying that right. It's the name Gabrielle gave to my lover. And yes, we would like to stay, but it will be so hard breaking away from the others if they want to go. I've done all I can to help them and now Katrina and I have to do something to help ourselves. I can't run anymore."

"A separation doesn't have to be forever... maybe a few months... and you could meet up again."

Raven was thinking, her eyes studying Xena for a moment.

"Can they do it on their own? They don't even have names, Xena."

"Give them ten minutes with Gabrielle and they'll have names," Xena chuckled hard.

Xena marveled at this woman. Her good heart showed itself plainly, and Xena felt lacking in her own manners.

"If you like, Gabrielle and I can help you get acquainted with this country and it's people. We could spend, say, two months together while we help you adjust to this country... get to know the laws... our customs... our gods. Greece isn't perfect... we have warlords and corrupt kings... slavers... But we also have good people, and I think you might like it seeing as you can handle a sword."

"Okay, okay!" Raven conceded with a smile. She reached a hand over to Xena and the warrior gripped her hand back. They smiled at each other, the bond of friendship being sealed.

And then, slowly, awkwardly, Ravens smile faded and she looked into her reflection in the water.

Xena waited.

"That allied warlord that my Lord visited?"

Xena squeezed Raven's hand. "I know, Raven."

"I couldn't help it," Raven cried. "He would be the one coming after me, to avenge his son's death. I killed everyone, Xena. It was just me... none of them."

"What about your Lord's son?"

"I killed him just before we left for the south part of the island. I didn't just kill him, Xena, I tortured him. And my heart became a dark place while it was happening, and it frightened me when I regained my senses and saw what I had done."

Xena held on to Raven's hand while she cried.

"What do I do? How much evil does it take to do something like that?"

"Evil?" Xena admonished. "It takes no evil, Raven... just grief."

"Grief? Grief is a weakness..."

"...and a powerful motivator. It *made* me a warlord. I wasn't evil, but in my grief of losing everything I loved I killed anyone in my path whether they crossed me or not. Gabrielle has convinced me that I was not and am not evil, and if I hope to keep my sanity... I'm going to have to trust her on this. And you're going to have to trust ME! By the gods, if Gabrielle could only hear me now."
"But I do hear you," Gabrielle whispered lowly. She and Katrina waited out of sight for the private conversation to end. Both women looked at each other knowingly and with sorrow.

"Let's put on a good show," Gabrielle said. Katrina nodded and smiled weakly at her.

"Owww," the bard yelled, punctuating her expression of 'pain' with one of her favorite Sumarian curses. She held on to Katrina for support as she hobbled the rest of the way to the bank of the grotto.

"Are you okay?" Xena called up to her.

The water was at least a ten foot drop from where they stood. Gabrielle felt herself sway slightly from the height.

"Can you meet me over to the left at the bank? I can't jump

Katrina half carried Gabrielle down to the bank until Xena was there to take over. She released the bard, discarded her wrap and dove in to meet up with Raven.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, gazed in unabashed admiration at the wet and naked warrior standing in front of her. A sly, knowing smile crossed her lips as Xena held her hand out. Gabrielle looked at the hand and then the rest of Xena.

"What's wrong?" Xena asked, a little confused.

"Can't I *look* ?" the bard teased.

Xena raised an eye brow. "Sure, if you take off that blanket."

Gabrielle impudently discarded the blanket and winked at Xena. A deep red flush colored Xena's cheeks and she shook her head.

"Gabrielle, don't do this to me now," she admonished as she swept the bard up in her arms. She walked into the water, trying to be careful with what she was doing but Gabrielle was kissing her neck and nibbling on her earlobe.

"I can drive you crazy, can't I?" the bard giggled, enjoying her empowerment. "Just one look and..."

Xena dropped low in the chilly water, dunking the chatty bard up to her neck as she rested in Xena's arms. Her eyes widened and she gasped for breath a few times.

"You were saying?" Xena asked.

"By the gods! That's... refreshing... isn't it?" Gabrielle shuddered and whooped with a burst of laughter. She dipped her head back, wetting her hair as Xena spun them both in a slow, languid circle. Xena kissed the exposed throat, sucking and licking the pale flesh.

"Mmmm, I'm going to have to get used to this a bit... you acting like a lover instead of just a friend."

Xena laughed deep in her throat. "You're not safe from me, my Amazon Princess."

"No? What makes you think you're safe from me? It works both ways, you know."

Their limbs slid against each other, the flesh feeling smooth and silky in the water. Xena let her hand wander under the water, stroking the bard's slippery flesh. She felt Gabrielle begin to surrender.

"Xena? Not now," she protested weakly.

Xena kissed her lips, shutting out the protests. Gabrielle groaned and pushed Xena's head back.

"Why do I get the feeling you want something?"

Xena drew back sheepishly, "how do you feel about Katrina and Raven traveling with us for about two months?"

Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "YOU want traveling companions?"

Xena nodded.

"What can I say? I've never seen you like this with anyone, Xena. Of coarse they're welcome. This is so... different... from you."

Xena kissed the bard, "I'm happy, Gabrielle. I'm... I don't know how to explain it."

"You don't have to," the bard said softly. "Being in love does tend to change people."

"I've always been in love with you, Gabrielle. I guess I changed then, when I first met you, but as for Raven, I can't explain her."

Gabrielle shifted her eyes away for a moment and sighed. "Kindred souls, maybe? I heard you talking just before I yelled. I didn't want to embarrass her."

The warrior cast her blue eyes in Raven's direction. She reflected back on her own feelings when she had killed everyone she could connected with the attack on Amphipolis and her brother's death.

Gabrielle recognized the far away look in Xena's eyes... those blue eyes, full of a hauntedness of their own.

"Let's go tell them," Gabrielle urged, trying to break the spell.
Gabrielle lay on her back on the rock with her head dangling slightly over the edge in the water. Xena had finished washing her hair for her and was now combing the tangles out it.

"Not all of them are like Katrina and me," Raven explained. "There is only one other couple... the other two women will probably find men to be with."

Raven floated on her belly as she clung to the rock near Gabrielle's head. She watched the ritual being performed on the red-gold hair with intensity. Xena glanced at her and laughed.

"Would you like to do this?"

Raven grinned and nodded. She accepted the wooden comb from Xena and shyly let the bard's hair flow between her fingers. This was the first time she had touched hair so magically colored, and her eyes danced as she ran the comb through the long tresses.

"Katrina, come here and see," Raven called out. A moment later, Katrina paddled around the corner of the rock. Raven held the comb out for her to take a turn. Katrina didn't need a second invitation to touch the red-gold hair.

"When will you tell them?" Xena asked as she hoisted herself up onto the rock. She looked at the bard and noticed she was just basking in all the attention her hair was getting her.

"After the meal. It's up to them as to who takes the boat and who goes where. We need more supplies before we go anywhere. That means selling those goblets we used last night."

"You can do that in town," Gabrielle murmured dreamily. Her hands were folded across her belly and she looked like she was having a hard time of it trying to stay awake. She looked like a goddess to Xena.... perfectly beautiful and immortal. Xena gazed at her in admiration before the bard's hungry belly broke the spell by rumbling loudly.

It was time to get out of the water.

Katrina had examined and rebound Gabrielle's foot after the meal of roasted boar and wild onions. With a full belly and her foot supported, Gabrielle sat on a rock with Xena between her knees. Her hands worked expertly, braiding the long dark locks in such a way that if Xena should have to fight, the main mass of her hair would more or less stay out of the way.

Both women kept glancing over to the clearing where Raven had gathered her team around her as she spoke to them. One woman had her head bent to her chin and it was clear that she was crying.

Xena picked up a small stone and tossed it aimlessly back and forth in her hands.

"Don't worry, warrior-mine," the bard re-assured her as she tipped the warrior's head back into her lap so that she could meet her eyes. "I spent my whole life only knowing my family and village until you came along. The separation from them was painful, but worth it. I survived."

"Yes, but you had a choice about leaving... these women were forced into it."

"True," Gabrielle conceded, "but they're educated and experienced. They have all the skills to survive... I didn't. I learned those skills from you everyday."

"Sometimes... sometimes I wonder if I really know what I'm doing, Gabrielle. I feel like I'm being tested everyday... and I might not pass a test and it could mean our lives... your life."

"Stop it, Xena. Not every turn in the road has a death trap and you know it. Most of the time there is something wonderful and beautiful in every day for us whether it be a magical sunset, or the stars covering us as we sleep at night."

Xena paused and the bard knew what was coming.

"I can't help it, Gabrielle. It's just the way I am."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "Well, then, do you mind if I choose to point out all the other wonderful things to you as we go along? You might even enjoy them."

Xena smiled, "you already do that... and I do enjoy them."

"Unh huh," Gabrielle imitated the warrior, "well, then, next time... show it?"
For the mid-day meal, only Katrina and Raven would be there to share the camp with Xena and Gabrielle. After heartfelt goodbyes, the four members of Raven's team gathered up their supplies and headed to the shore. Each traveler carried with them a lock of red-gold hair and an identity as their most prized possessions.

Gabrielle sat on Argo as Xena held the reins. The four women watched the little white sail become minute and disappear into the eastern horizon.

"I just want them to be safe. It's my fault they're here." Raven's face was stony as she starred out to sea. She didn't even flinch when Xena rested a re-assuring hand on her shoulder.

"They made it this far... they'll be fine."

"Where are they going?" Gabrielle asked.

"India," Raven said seriously. And then, "they need rice to make more wine."

All four women laughed as the tension was mercifully relieved. Raven bent down and kneeled in the sand close to the surf, her back straight and her face held to the sun. After a few moments of silence she got to her feet and looked a little sheepishly at Katrina.

"Haven't done that in a long time, have I?"

Katrina held out her hand to Raven and the two of them turned and began their walk back to camp. Xena held Argo in place as the couple left. I'm pretty good at this privacy thing too, Xena thought.

"Would you like to go for a ride on Argo?" Gabrielle asked as the couple departed. Xena looked up at Gabrielle and smiled.


"No... but we need to kill some time for a bit," Xena grinned.

"Ahh, well, any ideas?"

Gabrielle's head rested on Xena's chest as they lay in the tall grass. Argo was still doing slow circles around them as she passed her time by eating.
"It's been a while... we should get back to camp," Xena murmured as she lazily ran her fingers along the bard's shoulder and down her arm.

Gabrielle peeled her face from Xena's sweaty skin and looked at her softly reposed face. "Your sword isn't going anywhere, Warrior Princess. I... on the other hand... don't think Argo is finished eating."

Xena couldn't help but laugh. "Argo is going to be the best fed warhorse anyone's ever seen, I think."

"I hope so! We've got two years to make up for."

"Gabrielle, as appealing as that sounds, we have traveling to do."

"I know," the bard conceded unwillingly. "Athens is the closest city... four days away. There's smaller villages."

"Smaller villages might not appreciate the value of those goblets the way Athens might," Xena mused.

"Xena, let's try a village first if it's dinars and a horse they need. I can't walk, and my foot hurts every time it gets jolted and that includes making love. There's nothing pressing to make us..."

Xena cover the bard's lips with her finger. "Ssshhuuussshh, little bard. If your foot hurts that much then we'll have to do as little as possible to aggravated the injury."

"You gotta be joking, right? Please say you're joking, 'cause if you're serious I'll start *running* to Athens right now."

Xena finally smiled, unable to hold a serious face any longer. "I don't think I could stop loving you if I tried, Gabrielle. I do think I could live with you setting the traveling pace starting day after tomorrow, though."

"Great, just great!" Gabrielle said. "The Warrior Princess with a sense of humor now! I'm not used to this. How am I suppose to get use to this?"

"Hey, *I'm* not use to it. It's all Raven fault."

Gabrielle kissed Xena's chest. "What is it about her that you're just totally different with her than anyone else?"

"Her openness. She didn't and hasn't hidden anything from me from the moment we met. Anything I want to know, she'll tell me."

"Then, I'm glad. Anyone who can gain *your* confidence must
be a true friend."

"Mmmm, well, I think this 'true friend' might need some help if this warlord wants revenge."

Gabrielle frowned. "But would he be *that* persistent? It's been four years, Xena."

Xena finally looked at Gabrielle. "I don't know what sort of codes these people have, exactly. Their drive for revenge might be boundless."

The bard met her lover's piercing blue eyes. "NOW you're scaring me, Xena."

"Don't be frightened, just be aware. Raven knows how to survive this... she knows the methods of her enemies."

Gabrielle nodded slightly and returned her head to Xena's chest. "I guess it's no different than knowing how Callisto operated in order to stay one step ahead."

The bard could feel Xena becoming antsy about being idle while she had questions for Raven forming in her head. Gabrielle sighed and slowly raised herself to a sitting position. She certainly didn't *feel* like returning to camp just right now, but Xena was becoming restless right before her eyes.

"Go, Xena," Gabrielle sighed.


"You want to go, so go! It's all right... really."

For a long moment, Xena curiously studied her lover, and then she smiled like she had just discovered some secret.

"As soon as Argo has finished eating, Gabrielle. There's plenty of time."

Katrina was mostly done preparing the evening meal when Gabrielle and Xena returned. She had scavenged some onions and herbs from the banks of the grotto and threw them into the stewpot along with some vegetables that the other women had left for them from the main supplies. She greeted the returning women with a smile and a wave of her hand before she picked up all the emptied waterskins and strung them on a pole.

"I can do that, Katrina," Xena hurried to take the pole from her after she had lowered Gabrielle to the ground. "I need to take a quick bath, anyways."

"I can handle Argo," Gabrielle called after the departing warrior. "I feel a little useless right now, but this I can do, I think."

Gabrielle leaned her back against the tree that Argo was tied to and began to unbuckle the bridle. As she was sliding the bit from the horses mouth, Katrina came up alongside the warhorse and began to remove the saddle.

"Thank you," the bard smiled as she stood awkwardly with the bridle in her hand. Katrina acknowledged her with a nod and then took the saddle to the large rock near the fire and laid it out with the blanket.

"You know about horses?" Gabrielle asked as Katrina returned to Argo.

Nod, yes. With her hands, she described wheels.

"And chariots? Oh." Gabrielle struggled to stand away from the tree but she had slid too far down to upright herself on one leg. "I'm stuck, and I don't have my staff to use as a crutch..."

Without a further word, Katrina took the bard's arm and pulled her upright with too much momentum for Gabrielle to stop herself from falling forward. Gabrielle began to cry out, but with one smooth motion Katrina ducked under her and let her fall across her back. Staying hunched over, Katrina carried the bard to the campfire.

Gabrielle was laughing heartily as she was released to stand on her own. "At least you're not as tall as Argo. Thank you."

She handed the bridle to Katrina and sat down on a blanket. "I don't have much endurance for travel right now, Katrina, but we sorta planned to leave after tomorrow and head to Athens so that you two can sell the goblets. Do you mind staying one more day until my foot heals a bit more?"

Katrina returned to the bard and sat beside her. She touched her face like a mother would a daughter and the expression on her face was a relief to Gabrielle.

"Good, 'cause I don't like to ride horses, and the less time I spend on Argo, the better I'll feel."

"Yes, heights make me dizzy."

"Athens's is four days away."

For the next few minutes, the bard answered all of Katrina's questions, and she had a lot of them. Xena returned with the waterskins filled and deposited them in a heap near the fire.

"Want to have a bath?" Xena asked as she propped the pole against the rock.

"Sure. Help me up. Now turn around and crouch down."

Gabrielle climbed onto Xena's back and held on as the warrior stood up.

"Now, this is the way to travel," the bard chortled as Xena began to climb the hill to the grotto entrance.

"Don't get use to it," Xena grunted as she put her head down and struggled uphill with the double load.

"Where's Raven?" Gabrielle asked as they reached the crest.

"In the water."

"How long has she been there?"

"Quite a while. Apparently, bathing is a social thing for them in the East, just like us and the Romans. It's a good thing I'm comfortable being naked around them because if you wear anything in the water, it's not socially acceptable."

Xena worked her way down to the grotto's shoreline and set the bard down.

"There's about twenty minutes before the sun goes down, so I'll go back to camp and you can come back with Raven?"

"No, wait. I'm only going to bathe and then I want out. I'm not going to swim around in this chilly water before the sun goes down."

Xena waited while the bard cleaned herself, and while she sat, Raven finally came out of the water. She dried herself off and slipped on a tunic similar to the type Xena and Gabrielle were wearing.

"You work some things out while you were floating around?" Xena asked the shivering woman.

"I think so... I hope I did."

"Good, now maybe you can start with a clear conscious."

Xena grabbed a blanket and rose to meet Gabrielle as she came into the shore. This time, Raven waited and the three of them began the climb up the incline, Gabrielle riding on Xena's back.

"What's that? Who's talking at the camp?" Gabrielle said just as they crested the hill. They stood at the top looking down into the camp.

"By the gods!" Xena flinched, almost throwing the bard off her back in her excitement. She was ready to take off down the hill into the camp but Raven held her back with a firm hand.

Xena and Gabrielle watched in fascination.

Five men with swords and clubs had set upon Katrina and the fray had seemingly just begun. One man lay on the ground and was slowly getting to his knees.

"Let her handle this for herself, Xena. She feels taken care of enough because she can't talk, but this she can do."

"Aren't you afraid she'll get hurt?"

Raven crossed her arms and looked at the action with some amusement and very little apprehension.

"Hurt? There's only five of them and they are so poorly armed."

"She doesn't even have a sword... just that pole," Gabrielle hissed at Raven.

"That's more than she needs."

Katrina, using the pole, attacked the man coming at her head on. She held it like a staff and with lightening quick blows she knocked his helmet off and broke his knee. She kicked out behind her at just the right moment and connected with another thug's groin with her sweeping bare foot.

"I'll wager he'll never reproduce again," Raven noted.

Katrina continued her terrifying barefoot dance with the pole, using it for leverage. She broke another man's jaw with a roundhouse style kick to his face and the women could hear the bone crack all the way up the hill.

The last two men had the swords. Unable to get a clear shot in at her body, they tried to divide her attention. Unfrazzled by any of their swordplay, Katrina dropped the pole and opened herself up to the man on her left. He charged at her but she stepped away from his set path of attack and he received a nose-breaking elbow to the face as she casually removed the sword from his grip, broke his wrist, and faced the last man, all with one smooth, sweeping motion.

"Okay, you freak, just you and me!" he shouted at her.

Xena looked beside her and noticed that Raven burned visibly at her lover being called a freak.

Groin Man, or the man with no groin, crawled pathetically towards Katrina from behind. He was determined to get some sort of revenge even though he could barely crawl as he groaned and clutched himself.

He couldn't possible believe his presence behind her was a secret? Gabrielle frowned. Even in the fading daylight, she could see the growing red stain on the man's breeches that indicated that he should be more concerned about bleeding to death than continuing the battle. The bard wanted to look away but found that she just couldn't.

Katrina toyed with the man facing her. She deeked him out and had him swinging repeatedly at her as she just seemed to be missed being slashed. In frustration, he swung hard and wide with the sword so that the momentum of his arm caused it to cross in front of his body. Katrina popped him one in the mouth and shattered his teeth and then she gripped his sword arm in both hands. He released the sword as she pressed her fingers into his wrist. Katrina pulled the arm over her shoulder, twisting and dislocating it with a sickening crunch as she spun around and flipped him over her back so that he landed on Groin Man.

It was over.

Gabrielle sat huddled in the crook of Katrina's arm as they waited for Xena and Raven to return. She shivered uncontrollably as she replayed the deadly barefoot dance in her mind. She could still hear jaws break and see the blood fly. That wasn't just a fight to disarm and discourage... no... it was lightening fast and intentional.

"I'm sorry, Katrina, really," Gabrielle said through chattering teeth. "But seeing people maimed is a little un-nerving. It's not your problem... it's mine."

Katrina kissed the bard on her temple as she tightened her arm around her. She was deeply troubled that she had upset the bard and was trying to calm her down to where she at least stopped shaking.

By the time Xena and Raven returned from dumping the men far from camp, Gabrielle had fallen into an exhausted sleep, her head resting in Katrina's lap. Katrina was asleep as she leaned back against the rock, the fire having burned low and the kettle of food sitting to the side so that dinner hadn't turned into a burnt offering.

Xena glanced at Raven and stood close to talk to her. "Do you think we should just leave them?"

Raven shrugged and smiled. "For now, I guess. We can eat and wake them up in a while before we start tracking. Katrina usually doesn't sleep this soundly."

"I'm awake," Gabrielle mumbled, her eyes still closed. She sat up and pulled her blanket up over her shoulders. Xena crouched beside her for a hug, her arms cradling the bard with more tenderness than Xena thought she was ever capable of showing to anyone.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, Xena. It just upset me a little."

"A little?"

"Well, a lot."

Xena kissed the bard on the forehead. "If it's any consolation, the men were slave hunters for some bastard by the name of Tethian."

"They could talk?" the bard asked, a little sarcastic humor finding its' way through.

"They threatened."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You are going back out, aren't you?"

Xena nodded. "We'll give them some time to get back to the camp and then we'll follow them. There's no telling how many people might be in Tethian's possession, not to mention his hired swords. But I doubt they'll be telling anyone they got whipped by one woman, and if they retaliate it won't be until there is light."

    The bard looked into the night sky for a moment. There were no clouds and the moon was full. It *was* a beautiful night despite the chill in the air.

    "Will I be left by myself?" Gabrielle asked as she still gazed up at the stars.

    Xena hugged her tightly. "Are you frightened?"

    The bard shuddered up and down her spine. "A little. I can't defend myself and I feel helpless."

    The warrior noticed Katrina waving a hand at her. She indicated she would stay with Gabrielle.
    "It seems Katrina is volunteering to stay with you. We're going to eat and then leave. I don't know how long we'll be."

    The meal was silent except for Argo snorting over by her tree. Raven finished eating first and excused herself to prepared herself. She dressed herself in black leggings and a black shirt that covered her arms and her neck almost up to her ears. She finished off with a hood that covered her face except for a slit wide enough to ensure that she had unhindered vision, and a pair of black leather gloves with the fingers removed.

    Katrina finished her meal and went to Raven's side. Xena watched them embrace for several moments and then separated. Once they were apart, Katrina helped Raven strap on her two, light, thin swords which she wore on her back, and a dagger and a belt.

    Attached to the belt were two small leather pouches. She wore
absolutely no armor.

    "Will this be a problem to you if I dress and armor myself
as usual?" Xena asked.

    "Not at all. It's worked for you so far, so why should you change?"

    Raven sat back down at the fire and pulled the hooded mask up off her face and wore it as a cap. "We must not change our styles to ccommodate each other too much. I've never fought with you, and I admit, Katrina would be my first choice to be at my back because I don't know what's up with Tethian and his men, but the agenda that Katrina and I would follow wouldn't allow for much questioning later."

    Gabrielle shuddered audibly. "Don't mind me... I'm just a staff wielding bard."

    "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Raven said in a very serious tone. "But our style is for defense as well. The best defense, for us, is to disable our opponents so they don't continue to attack when we are fighting solo. Katrina could have killed all five men in less time than she took to fight them the way she did."

    "Less time? It barely lasted half a minute," the bard shook her head in amazement.

    "We weren't trained to fight, Gabrielle, we were trained to kill because that was the whole purpose of our existence. Nippon is just a small collection of islands with fisherman and farmers. The land is the most important commodity there, and the landowners will do whatever it takes to keep their territory and that means killing their opponents before they get killed themselves. The alliances are unstable, which is the kindest thing I can say about how they are formed and maintained. The landowners hired assassins from the mainland to take care of the opposition until they began to send us to the mainland for training, and we were trained to operate in the same style that these assassins were
hired for. There are even some schools on the island, now. I don't LIKE killing, Gabrielle but sometimes my instinctual training wins out and I behave according to what I've been taught."

    Katrina laid a calming hand on Raven's arm.

    Raven paused in her diatribe, realizing this wasn't the gentlest of ways to explain things, but it was direct.

    "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I shouldn't have..."

    "No, no! I'm sorry." the bard insisted. "I seemed to have forgotten what you said last night about falling in love and how it affected your willingness to kill on command."

    Raven laughed despite the somberness of the topic. "Katrina IS much better at restraint than I am. But then, she's a healer, and what she knows how to heal on the human body, she also knows how to hurt... effectively. She's the disarmer and disabler... not me. And she's bigger and stronger with larger muscles. We're a small race and me going against someone of say, Xena's stature, would exhaust me if I didn't take her down quickly."

    "You think you can take Xena?" Gabrielle smiled.

    Xena didn't like this. Neither did Katrina.

    "I have to put the rest of my armor on," Xena said nervously. She glanced back and forth between Raven and Gabrielle. They were having a friendly stare-down.

    "Have fun you two." She arched an eyebrow and withdrew to where her armor hung from a tree. She laid it out and selected her leather shoulder plates from the pile and began to put them on. She felt gentle hands behind her fit the plates into place and begin to buckle them into place.

    "Thank you, Katrina," Xena said softly. She could still hear Raven and Gabrielle going at it at the campfire. "Why are they doing that?"

    Katrina turned Xena around to face her.

    "Gabrielle's afraid I might get hurt... And she's worried... This is her way of making me?  *herself* feel better about me leaving with Raven tonight."

    Xena looked over at the campfire. "Thanks, Katrina."

    Katrina smiled and left Xena. She went to Raven and interrupted the verbal contest by taking Raven's hand and tugging on it for her to follow. After a moment, they both left and Xena kneeled down facing Gabrielle.

    They were both silent for a moment, just looking at each other and then Xena picked up the bard's hand and kissed her fingers.

    "I'll be okay, Gabrielle. I'll be careful."

    Gabrielle pressed her palm against Xena's cheek and smiled weakly. "I know you will. But I just spent the last 24 hours being with you the way it should have always been, making love with you, holding you... If I was in fear of losing you before last night, I'm even more so now."

    "Goddess knows, Gabrielle, I feel the same way about you."

    Xena swept the bard into her arms, pulling her as close as her armor and weapons would let her.

    "I love you, Xena. Come back to me."

    "Count on it." Xena drew her finger softly over the bard's trembling lips, parting them slightly before she kissed her. The heat of Gabrielle's lips drew her in and she kissed her deeply.

    For a brief moment Xena forgot everything around her, where she was going, and that Raven was waiting for her. Lost in the bard's kiss and embrace, she felt safe and nothing else mattered.

    "You better go," Gabrielle whispered as she drew back slowly. The warmth of Xena's lips was within inches and Gabrielle returned to them desperately one last time. With that one last kiss Gabrielle felt calmed and at peace.

    "Now... you better go before this turns into something else," the bard smiled at her warrior.

    Xena arose and stepped back from the bard. She looked around and saw Raven waiting with Katrina just outside the circle of the firelight.

    The two warriors found their way quickly to where they had deposited the five men. Blood covered the grasses and soil in the area and lead north west towards a small range of worn down mountains. Xena set the pace and Raven followed the gruesome trail along its' coarse until it veered towards a cul-du-sac nestled into the foothills.

    Xena slowed her pace, her eyes straining in the dark at the confusion on the ground. She knelt down and studied the trail.

    "They were met here," she whispered to her companion. "We're probably within shouting distance of their perimeter."

    Raven squatted beside Xena and looked closely at the different types of boot prints. "Some of these prints are pretty deep as they arrived, even before they started to carry their wounded friends. These are big men, Xena."

    "If they are as big as you think they are, we could use their size against them."

    "I'll remember that, friend."

    They had worked out a series of hand signals that they practiced on their way to the drop off point and now switched to using them instead of talking.

    Following the trail, they added their footprints to the others and ducked low as they crept along. They hadn't gone far when they came across a body tossed to the side of the trail. Both women examined the discarded corpse and saw that it was the man that Katrina had kicked in the groin. He had bled to death, his companions probably too revolted by the injury to want to help him by stopping the bleeding of the torn genitals.

    Xena motioned for them to continue on using either side of the trail. The trees that the trail wound through were getting bigger, which meant that they could successfully climb them for cover and not shake them and cause their branches and leaves to rattle.

    Another five hundred feet later, they came upon the first campsite. Both women knew that they might have even passed a few single man camps hidden in the trees, but this one was spread out in a clearing of twenty feet by thirty feet and several men occupied it, by the sounds of it. The fire was fairly big, indicating the size of the area.

    Xena and Raven split up but remained about ten feet from each other, close enough to see each others' signals. Even though neither woman could see the men or their numbers, they could tell by the boisterous voices that there were several.

    They advanced until they could see directly into the camp, both women laying on the ground. Their separate paths through the trees had brought them together and they lay side by side as they got their first horrifying look into the camp.

    Ten men were engaged in various activities around the fire. Two men were seated near the fire, sharpening their swords. Six sat together on the ground, drinking and gambling. One man was just looking at the others gamble, swaying unsteadily as he seemed to be waiting. The six men were divvying up a payoff and the onlooker changed his interest to an area to the left.

    Xena's eyes widened at the sight.

    A young woman was laying on the ground. Her mouth was gagged
and her hands were tied together above her head... she was tethered to a tree by a length of leather. She could be left there, unattended, on her leash, but at the moment, she was attended by a man who was raping her.

    "Hey, Traxis, hurry up will ya! You've been at that way too long! She'll be dead before I get her again."

    "It never stopped you before," one of the men sharpening his sword observed with distaste.

    Xena could hear the change in Raven's breathing and she looked to her companion with alarm. All that was visible was Raven's eyes behind the hood, but if her face indicated half of what her eyes did, Xena knew Raven was feeling murderous, just as murderous as she was feeling herself.

    Raven turned her eyes to Xena.

    Xena nodded.

    They drew their swords as they got to their feet. No one noticed in the gambling group. One man sharpening his sword looked up, but before he could fathom the circumstances, Raven had crossed the distance and sliced his head open from the top down. She spun and plunged her sword into the viscera of the second sword sharpener as he got to his feet. With the sword impaling him, she dropped the point low using her body weight,
spilling his vitals into his own hands.

    Xena was right behind her. She jump kicked the swaying drunk  as she flew through the air. There was a satisfying snap as her boot made contact with the man's neck, not his head.

    Xena regained her footing and prepared to face the six men who were scrambling to their feet and searching for their swords.

    "Leave one of them alive," she shouted to Raven over the rising din of desperate men.

    "Pick one... make it fast!"

    Xena was being circled by four of the six gamblers. The other two and the rapist were centering in on Raven. Xena noted that one of the men wore an armband indicating authority.

    "Armband," was all she got out before she was swung at by the man wearing the band as he came at her. She sword butted him with the hilt and knocked him back a few steps.

    Raven swung low and the man jumped, but she let the momentum swing her around again and her sword met his feet on the way back down. He fell to the ground, too shocked to scream. The last of Raven's gamblers snarled in rage. He threw a dagger at Raven and she easily knocked it aside but the unarmed rapist picked it up.

    Two men came at once towards Xena. She braced herself and front flipped over their heads, landing behind them. As they turned to face her she had time to ready her chakram. She rolled to her left just as the man with the armband took a swing at her from behind. From her knees she released the chakram towards the two men she had jumped. It startled the first man as it seemed to bounce off his face and hit the next in the throat. His blood sprayed out into the face of the third gambler. The armband man stopped moving, watching in horrid fascination as his buddy's cheek and nose peel away from his skull. The other buddy fell
to the ground as his heart continued to make a fountain with his blood.

    The last of Xena's gambler attackers was wiping the spray of blood from his face and never saw her breast dagger until it entered his heart. He was still in shock as she pulled it from his chest and returned it to it's sheathe.

    "Don't move and you can live," Xena snarled as she turned her sword in the direction of the man with the armband. His answer was to throw his sword at her feet.

    Raven tore her hood and mask off to reveal a grimace that resembled and evil grin. It was just enough to shock her two opponents and she took the opening. She chose the rapist first, knocking his weaponed hand to the side with her hand. Her sword came up from below and took his hand off cleanly at the wrist.

    Using his body as a shield, she felt her last opponent impale his comrade. The lithe little warrior ducked away from the weight of the
dead man and turned to face the swordsman. She could judge that
he was no amateur with the weapon, and he was big... over six feet.

    They circled each other slowly in the firelight while Xena held her man prisoner at sword point.

    "Just so you know... if she dies, you die. I'm not fighting the both of you," Xena warned him coldly.

    "You're Xena, aren't you?"

    Xena frowned at the man. "How do you know me?"

    "My father was in your army, you squealing harpy! You sent him to his death on a impossible battlefield."

    "Then, he died like a soldier," she said evenly, her ice blue eyes piercing into his heart. "Not one more word."

    The huge swordsman had Raven with her back to the fire. He lunged at her from above, bringing his sword down to hack her in two but she raised her sword and met his on the down swing. Metal clanged loudly as she bent at the knees to absorb the blow, her arms stretched up, her sword holding his above her head. They pushed their swords against each other until their arms began to vibrate from the pressures. Metal blade scraped slowly against metal blade, screaming piercingly as sparks erupted and showered around them. Raven's strength was giving out but her balance kept her even with her opponent, keeping his sword at bay.

    The blades slid along slowly as Raven dropped to her left knee. Both hilts were almost touching then, the blades coming closer and closer to the top of her head, and Raven just wanted to end the terrible ache in her arms. Her opponent's face dripped sweat as he struggled for breath... he could feel her weakening.

    Just as he thought he had won the struggle, Raven turned slightly on her knee and narrowed his target field. The hilts touched and his body had bent over enough for her to change the direction of her force and his sword slid to his left, his body falling forward too forcefully for him to stop himself from falling into the firepit. Raven helped him along by bringing her right leg up and over his head landing her blow to the back of his shoulders.

    The swordsman held onto his sword as he rolled through the burning logs and came up on his feet. Flames licked at his greasy hair and he took a second to pat it out with his hand. The minute his hand came off the two-handed sword, Raven was upon him. He tried to bring the heavy sword across his body to meet her but he was just too slow. She leapt across the fire and came down on his sword arm, her free hand going for his face. She plunged a finger in each of his eyes and her thumb into his nose, pushing the cartilage back into his skull. Her grip was firm, and as his final act of self preservation, he tried to pull back to his left. Raven snapped her hand to the side in the opposite direction and the man's neck broke.

    "Xena!" Raven called out as she let the dead man fall. She knew that Xena would be watching her prisoner and not the battle.

    "You okay?" Xena called over her shoulder.

    "Yes," Raven gasped as she hugged her aching arms close to her own body for relief of the cramping in her shoulders and back. The pain was unbearable and she knew if there was just one more opponent, she might very well be dead.

    She tried to stay standing, but spasms knocked her to the ground. Raven crawled through the dirt and filth of the campsite to where the woman lay tied to the tree.

    "On your knees," Xena ordered her prisoner.

    He began to protest and then thought better of it. She hit him with her sword hilt in such a way as to knock him unconscious.

    The minute he was down Xena joined Raven's side. Raven was unable to use her uncooperative muscles yet and fumbled with the dagger at her waist. Xena pushed her back a bit from hovering over the woman and froze.

    This couldn't be real... this is not happening, Xena screamed in her mind. The warrior understood the inhumanities of what armies could do to each other, but when they turned their attention onto the young and innocent, those inhumanities were seldom revealed in ALL their truth because the victims died and there were few left alive to tell their story.

    The 'woman' was barely a girl, and she was pregnant. Xena figured she was maybe fifteen or sixteen... it was hard to tell because her features were so distorted with pure terror. Her eyes bulged from her face and even under the gag, Xena could see her lips drawn back in a distorted grimace. She barely looked human.

    Using her breast dagger she cut the gag and the leather strips as Raven looked on. The second the gag was removed the girl screamed weakly and clutched at her breasts with vicious taloned nails. Xena grabbed for her wrists and held them tightly, but the mad have a special strength of their own and Xena had to struggle to keep the girl from ripping her flesh any further.

    "Merciful gods, help me!" Xena prayed as she pinned the girls' arms at the elbows.

    Raven leaned in close and touched her fingers to points on the girl's neck and shoulder. To Xena's relief, the girl stopped struggling but remained awake, her head and body twitching like a dying animal.

    Xena ceased to struggle as well. She remained on all fours, hovering close to the madness, feeling it caress her own senses like a drug induced sleep. Beside her, Raven sat with her knees hugged to her chest, rocking back and forth as she whimpered pitifully to herself.

    At last, with the adrenaline subsiding, Xena sat back to access the situation. It was grim, and her mind had very little room to comprehend what had just happened here. Both of them were covered in blood, and Raven had not recovered enough to have the sense to wipe the gore from her clothes or hands. The coppery smell of blood filled the warriors nostrils like it had never done before as she sat in silence amongst the dead, the dying and the mad. She was sure madness had her as well, just as it appeared to have Raven in it's grip. The long morning and afternoon she had spent in Gabrielle's arms... making love... listening to Argo munch on grass... did that ecstasy ever exits? was that part of the madness she was feeling?

    Oh, Gabrielle, I need you. I need you to hold me and make me feel safe despite this horror. I want to hear your voice as you try to tell me all the good things about life, and that love is...

    "Will I do?"

    Now Xena was sure that she was mad. She put her bloody hands to her ears as her gaze drifted to the girl.

    "Will I do, Xena?" came the voice again, and with relief, Xena knew it was not the girl.

    "Yes!" Xena cried as her tears streaked down through the blood on her face.
    Raven looked over when she heard Xena's voice. She didn't move an inch as an owl flew from the trees and transformed into a woman. She knelt beside the warrior and took her into her arms, blood and all.

    "Some of those women in Tethian's camp are Athenian, Xena... taken from the plains of Attica, but Athenian just the same."

    "How many men? How many women, Athe..." Xena was silenced by a pointed finger.

    "But, I know who you are."

    "Yes, but your friend is new here." the goddess reasoned.

    Xena sighed. "She knows about you, because I told her. You must think her pretty stupid if you don't think she knows. She just saw you as an OWL!"

    Athena gripped Xena by both arms. "I favor you and Gabrielle, so I'll tell you this Warrior Princess: take Raven and go back to camp NOW. Go back to your lovers. Leave the prisoner and the girl to me. Just go."

    Their eyes met steadily as Xena pondered the wisdom of this.

    "I AM the Goddess of Wisdom, my friend, and if you trust me, you will go... now. I will meet up with you."

    Xena nodded. It was hard for her to take orders, especially right now when she felt like everything was out of her control.     But she did trust her.

    "C'mon, Raven," Xena called to her friend.

    Raven cast her hollow eyes to the ground. As Xena gathered up her weapons, Athena took the time to study the little Asian firecat. What a marvelous woman, she thought, a champion.

    Xena ushered Raven along, afraid she might kill the prisoner if she stayed too much longer. The two women began a slow jog back down the path away from the mountains and the cul-du-sac of horrors.